Chapter Eighteen

Swanson toiled over a spherical puzzle. Every time he turned it, its glimmering surface confused him, and he wondered if he had turned it at all. For all the brainwork he had conceptually done, which included referencing atlases, antiquated maps, and childhood experience, he had done more turning and staring at the puzzle than actual solving, with the exceptions where cheese-slices of the spherical puzzle fell out. He placed them back in, performed maintenance on its axis, and did more turning. Eventually, he grew bored with it, and looked around him. The desert stretched far and long into the horizon. Birds that circled overhead drew straying shadows all over the dirt, and the sound of buzzing buzzed and continuing buzzing until he snapped awake. He felt around, but Jennifer wasn't in bed. He wasn't in bed, either. He was on a couch. He felt his head, and saw that his hand was bandaged. He realized his phone was ringing. He answered it.

"So, you're finally awake," Lauren said.

The sound of her voice caught him by surprise, as if it were his first time to hear it. "Yeah," he said. "Did I throw up anywhere?"

"No," she lied. "I bought some food for you. It's in the fridge."

He didn't say anything.

"Corbett also needs to speak to you," she said.

"About what," he asked.

"Maria," she said.

"Thanks. I'll be in the office soon."

"There's no need. It'll take days to process everything anyway. I just sent in a report to Willis. He bounced it back and said it was fine. Marco, Corbett, and I called most of the suspects this morning, going off the list you've made. They're expected to trickle in within the week. I don't mind the stragglers. It means I get to visit them personally and introduce them to Eric."

He smiled. "I'm tired," he finally said.

"I can tell," she said. "See you later, and if I don't catch you at home, see you in the office tomorrow."

Swanson was going to say something, but she hung up.

He dialed Corbett, and had a long and involved talk with him. He didn't remember his visit to the Corbett residence that afternoon, only impressions of it, serendipitous, something like déjà vu. Corbett had introduced Maria as Martha, and it took a short while to adjust. Maria was no longer beautiful, but she was now real, and she looked like he could actually have a conversation with her. He remembered the few times he had tried before her supposed death. She had cringed at his jokes and shied away from him. But now, even as he insulted her, she laughed and, in turn, poked fun at Corbett. They both poked fun at Corbett.

"Are you guys unofficial? If so, I wouldn't mind asking Martha out," Swanson said.

Corbett frowned. He held Martha close and marked his territory with a kiss on the cheek.

Swanson should have been pissed that Corbett stowed her away for this long, but from what she explained, she didn't really remember anything substantial to the case, and what she remembered was in pieces that she couldn't really identify what was fact and what was fancy.

Swanson decided that when the time came, he would have her come in and make an arrest for him. A man who had just woken up from a coma to the ghost of someone he murdered would wonder if he was still living in a nightmare, and that's exactly how Swanson wanted Jim Stevens to feel.

Weeks passed, and Swanson waited for that opportunity.

In that span of time, he had done more questioning than he had ever done before, unveiling a whole network. Sometimes, he would pass by the window of the "interro-room," as he called it, and would find Lauren in there, pacing around the suspect or slamming down a folder full of papers on the desk. "Easy, kiddo," he'd whisper, and head back to his desk to make more phone calls.

Swanson prowled around the hospital Jim and Hank slept at like a jaguar. He would check in every week to see how things were doing. They didn't look like they wanted to wake up. Swanson had gotten a call from Jennifer, and he was pretty reasonable. All she had to do was "get the hell out of his house." She said she was sorry, and cried, and he said she deserved an award for her performance, and regretted that he couldn't think of something more creative and scathing. He forked up some spinach and listened for a while longer before he cut her off. He gave her two weeks to vacate, or he would press charges. Swanson had waited for her new boyfriend to press charges, but he never did. Swanson sold off his house, and lived with Bill for a while longer while he figured out what to do.

Luckily, while the Bellhouse case was funneling slowly into the courtroom and the Lebaron-Corbett case was unraveling, a new case of theft and murder cropped up. It was almost out of Las Vegas' jurisdiction, but because the family lived in Las Vegas, he had his chance to get his hands on it. It was simpler and didn't involve too many people, and he absorbed himself with the details.

He didn't know he would get his satisfaction and arrest both Jim Stevens and Hank Openshaw for another six years, and by then, he would be Captain Swanson of the Las Vegas Police Department's homicide division. It would be on the same day he got an invitation in the mail from "Leon and Martha Maria Corbett" to attend their wedding in Barcelona. It would be the best day of his career, where he could make an arrest and book a flight to Europe at the same time. For now, he would have to be Detective Matt Swanson with a chip on his shoulder, and things would steadily progress into the bitterest part of winter where children were often left to die by their parents and people killed each other because of a hard form of cabin fever. The winter was the worst time, and his only comfort was that one of the men who had abducted Lebaron and Maria had killed himself in his mother's house.

He gladly patrolled with Corbett, and talked about the good old days ("Remember when I threw up on your shoe?" "I never open a trunk anymore without making sure anyone around me is at least two feet away."). They were both a little disappointed that they didn't make any arrests, though they did hand off a few speeding tickets and had to tell some guy not to pee on a wall. Lauren had gotten lucky on hers. When Corbett slowed the car in traffic, she jumped out and bolted after a man in a flannel jacket. "Freeze!" she yelled. He almost got run over by cars at a crossing, and in the middle of the street, she pounced on him, and wrestled him into his handcuffs. She rattled off his rights, and shoved him toward the police car. He called her a bitch over and over again. Corbett radioed in, and he, Lauren, Martha, and Swanson had a good steak dinner afterward. Lauren talked about her days with the N.Y. police force.

"It must be a nightmare to be surrounded by those guys," Martha said.

"They weren't all bad. There were a few good ones, you know, guys who didn't snort lines off bar countertops or take cash from anybody," Lauren said. "There's even a little bit of that here, I've noticed, but I'm not surprised. It's Las Vegas."

Swanson got into an argument with her over it, and it was the first time that the other three saw how justice-happy he really was. As the night progressed and he had a little more to drink, he talked about how, as a child, he and his brother had been walking home, and these other kids stole their mother's camera right out of his brother's hands and beat him.

"Did you go after them?" Martha asked.

"No," he said. "But I arrested one of them in my first year as a cop. He didn't remember me."

"What did you arrest him for?" Lauren asked.

"Petty theft at Wal-Mart," Swanson said.

Corbett almost smiled.

The height of the winter season was upon Corbett and Martha. Martha spent a lot of time sighing at home while he was out. The house was too big for her taste, now that she finally noticed. She found herself wandering through it as if it were an abandoned castle, which wasn't the way she ought to feel in her own home. Well, it wasn't really hers, but it practically was since she spent so much time in it. She took a turn outside sometimes, tried to plant things in the garden but didn't have enough patience to tend to it, drove her scooter to the Shade Tree and volunteered most of her day doing some accounting for Colleen. She even thought one night of getting Corbett not to use a condom. Maybe a child would make the boredom go away. She then felt guilty that she had even thought of the idea, and then she would go through the next day more vigorously and bravely. In the end, the boredom returned, even with all of her visits to Ellen's home, or even her weekends with Lauren, Swanson, and his friends. She didn't see enough of Corbett, and the nights were inhospitably cold while he was away.

"I want to move out," she said one night. She turned off the stove. Her cooking was still a work in progress, but at least Corbett could eat it without smiling to himself. Smiling during eating, as she learned, was his way of coping with her bad-tasting recipes.

He put down his fork. He stared.

"This isn't some weird game I'm playing to fool you into sex," Martha said.

"Sometimes I can't tell," Corbett said.

"I know," she said, "and it's my fault. Being at home without you around is annoying and sad. I want to move out. I want to date."

"Other people?" he said, his eyebrows raised.

"Them, too. I'm always scared you're going to get sick of me."

Corbett tugged at his hair, which he hadn't cut since the summer. The longer it grew, the younger he looked.

"I'm not asking you to reassure me. This is just what I want," Martha said.

"Are you sure?" Corbett said. "If so, I won't stop you."

She gaped. "Are you telling me you're not even going to put up a fight?"

He scratched his jaw. "You're going to come back to me," he said factually, and stood up. He started washing his plate.

Martha continued to gape. Just to show him she meant serious business, she packed all her things that evening, took her scooter to Detective Kat's house, and complained about what a jackass Corbett was. Detective Kat laughed and said it was probably a trend in Las Vegas male cops. Martha cried about it a lot, and after she was done doing that, she motivated herself to find places to live, because Kat's lifestyle drove her crazy. Kat was bringing home a new guy every single night, and the sex was loud and obnoxious. And then there was that tension-filled thing between her and Swanson that they refused to capitalize on for whatever reason, which was also obnoxious. Every time he visited, she could feel it fill up the room like a large invisible, expanding sponge. "Hi," he'd say. "Hi," Lauren would say. Cue the staring. Martha was sick of that B.S.

She phoned Tina who was just ready to finish up her lease (she had also went to work for a new hotel that "wasn't built on the dead bodies of others"), and they moved in together closer to Las Vegas. Martha decided to try her luck again and approach the Lytie Firm. They were under completely new management now. She happily brought Tina home the news of her employment. They celebrated by gambling and getting smashed together. Christmas passed without a word from Corbett. Martha turned in bed every night. "Jackass," she'd mumble. She would even wake up Tina if she was hurting really bad on a particular night, and she would tell Tina new stories about Corbett from their days while she was still Maria, some tidbits from their dating and marriage days, how he spotted her again in the fourteenth floor elevator of the Etoile, how they went through her old accounts, and pieced together "that whole mystery thing."

Tina was the kind of person who believed everything anyone ever said, and whenever Paquita would visit and interject with suspicious questions, Tina would roll her eyes and say, "Who cares about that? What happened next?"

In the end, all the women in Martha's life, from Ellen to Lauren to Tina and Paquita, asked her, "When?"

Martha refused. She would ask Lauren about how Corbett was doing, to which she would respond, "Eerily fine."

Martha resumed her dating life, colorless and repetitive. She missed spontaneous sex, and roleplaying, and pretend-fighting, and the intent in his every word and smile. "Jackass!" she'd yell, and turn in bed. Sometimes, she'd do this, even as a man lay beside her.

On a nice, breezy February, she received a call.

"It must be hard not to think of me," he said.

"Unfortunately for your ego, I don't," she spat into the receiver. She hung up, then bit her fingers and waited for him to call back, but he didn't for the rest of the day. She turned in bed and cried. Tina was at work. She invited someone over, and spent the night in a forgettable fashion.

He called the next day. "I'm debating on what I should eat for lunch. Grilled chicken or steak?"

"Why don't you shove your foot in your mouth and eat that?" she spat, and hung up.

He called the next day. "Swanson said he wouldn't mind dating you, as long as you would pay for your half of the date," he said.

"I'd gladly oblige. He's taller and more rugged than you are anyway." Hang up.

This continued on for three more months.

On a quiet and rainy Saturday, her phone rang. She put down the papers she was looking at. "What," she said.

"The weather's nice, isn't it?" he asked.

"I hate cold rain," she said.

The doorbell rang.

"I don't have time to talk to you. My boyfriend's probably here already."

"That's too bad," he said.

She hung up on him and got the door.

Corbett rushed in and grabbed her by the face. He kissed her against the back of her couch. She pulled away and slapped him in the face.

He laughed, and grabbed her by the waist, and kissed her hard enough to melt her over the couch.

He pulled away. "You have a boyfriend," he said with disbelief.

"Let's not talk about that right now," she said, and tried to kiss him again.

He lifted a finger.

She waited. "What is it," she said.

He turned on a heel, and left.

A whole month went by and she didn't hear from him.

She grew upset and charged into his office while he was working. Everyone stopped what they were doing.

"Wait for it. She's going to pull a Jennifer," Marco whispered.

Swanson laughed.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Leon Corbett?" Martha spat.

Corbett stood up from his desk, shoving his hands into his pockets.

Lauren hid her smile behind the fan of papers in her hand.

"You think this is some funny game?" Martha asked.

"I was under the impression it was, and that I was winning," he said factually.

Swanson guffawed.

"You are so twisted," she said.

"I'm surprised it took you this long to figure it out. I work in homicide, Martha," he said.

Everyone in the office laughed.

She looked at everyone. They stopped laughing.

"You know what? Forget you," she said.

"You'll try," he called after her as she stormed out of the office.

"You really are cruel," Swanson said.

"Either that, or you're a sentimentalist," Corbett said, sitting down again. He went back to work even as everyone talked around him.

Lauren shook her head.

Swanson couldn't get over it. "How long are you planning on doing this to her?" he said.

"There's only one thing I remember about my mom, and it was her pot roast. She said that the longer she left it on the stove, the more tender it got," Corbett said. "It tasted best if it was on the stove the whole day."

"That's deep, Corbett," Swanson said, guffawing.

"What? I don't know what you mean. I was just talking about pot roast," Corbett said. He picked up the phone and dialed.

Swanson swiveled in his chair and looked at Lauren. "Long hair turns guys into complete assholes, doesn't it?"

"If that were true, your hair would be down to your ankles," she said.

Everyone went back to work, and for weeks on end, Corbett had his fun with Martha. He put her on speaker and talked to her, and everyone gathered around to listen to the retort of the day. Swanson praised her creativity on multiple occasions.

A year after, Swanson opened the door and allowed Lauren into his semi-new apartment, which was directly below hers ("Too bad the ceiling isn't made of glass."). All his friends greeted her as Kitty.

"Hey, Kitty, sit your ass down by me," Bill said.

Two of Swanson's friends instantly left the table, laughing. They had gotten cleaned out by her yesterday and the day before that.

"Congratulations on winning your divorce settlement," Lauren said.

"What can I say? I'm a pro at this divorce stuff," he said, and dealt out cards.

She shook her head, and popped open a beer. She would never know the full situation or the circumstances behind their divorce, as Swanson never said a word about it. She happily sided with Jennifer. Swanson was a better detective than he was a husband, he had admitted. It was just Fate.

One by one, guys left his apartment, patting Swanson on the back and congratulating him. One of his friends even joked that they should make a club.

"It would be a thinly disguised excuse for misogyny," Bill said. "Count me in only if Kitty's president."

They laughed, and Bill bowed out with the last person.

Lauren helped Swanson clean up. She was getting ready to heft a trash bag out the door.

"Don't worry, I've got it," he said, and took it from her.

"I could do it," she insisted.

"This isn't a contest. I've got it," he said.

"Then let me do it," she said.

He ran a hand down her arm. She accidentally dropped the bag. He picked it up, smiled, and hefted it out of the apartment.

While he was gone, Lauren lightly tapped her head with the heel of her palm.

When he returned, he closed the door behind him, washed his hands in the kitchen sink, sat down, and flicked on the television. Lauren plucked up a chip she found under the table, and returned it to the poker kit. She then sat down next to him and watched the movie. He laughed in a way where it was evident that he was genuinely amused, and it was a nice sound. He placed his arm around her, as he always did, and Lauren felt comfortable. He saw her to her apartment after the movie. In the morning, they played a game of tennis, flavored with the usual insults. They ate lunch together, and Swanson started complaining about how Corbett wasn't around anymore.

"He was the best damn guy in the force," he said.

"You're going to go on about that again? Why don't you just visit him?"

"He's all the way out there. I don't have time for that," Swanson moped.

Corbett had broken in Martha after a year of games. They had also taken up a moderately-sized condominium, with an office to accommodate his new job as a private investigator. Business was good, but he never admitted it. The confident, smug, loving smile he greeted Lauren and Swanson with on his visits said it all. Sometimes Swanson called him up to do some "dirty work" for him and Lauren, to which Corbett gladly obliged. Lauren believed sometimes that Swanson was finding things for Corbett to do just so he could see him.

The few times Lauren went out to visit them on Martha's request, she noticed they were like a couple of teenagers. While Corbett wrote in his office, Martha wrapped her arms around his neck from behind, and he read off new information. They were in a world all their own, in such a pretty place in Arizona, too, close to the Grand Canyon. They had almost gotten a place inside the Canyon itself, Martha said, because one family was moving out, but it was too big for them. Lauren wondered if birds in a cage that were in Love could stand to be as close as Corbett and Martha wanted to be. Then again, maybe birds didn't love, maybe they only conceded. It took a special kind of patience to love someone after death. It was something Lauren couldn't really wrap her head around. In the end, she chocked it up to random fire offs in the brain that solved cases, brought people together and split them apart, and implanted that evil seed of possibility that always kept Lauren up at night, wondering, guessing, and hoping.

"Isn't it romantic though?" she said with a sigh. "I wish someone would treat me the way he treats her."

"Well, all you have to do is ask," Swanson said casually as he ate.

Lauren looked up at him. "Matt, would you treat me the way Corbett treats Martha?"

"No," Swanson said, forked up his last piece of steak, and paid for lunch.