Cha. 7--------------------------------------------------

I couldn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it, but I went through the facts in my head hundreds of times and it always led to the same conclusion. All along the guy I was after was right under my nose. And just like that, all the stress and anxiety that had left me for the past few days had come back at the worse possible moment.

Mike, you know you have to turn her in now right?

I can't. I just can't turn my friend over to the police.

But if you do nothing, you die. Don't you get it? You aren't getting out of here alive unless you do something.

I know, I know! I couldn't come up with a plan. It's not like I could just walk out of the warehouse. That would raise suspicion from her. Even if I thought up something, could I pull it off? I wasn't clever. And she would see right through any plan I could think of.

I wouldn't get anywhere being the "nervous, afraid of confrontation" Mike that was afraid to defend himself against the police when charged with murder. I had to become the confidant, calm, cool and collected person that stood up to the Chief and figured out who the killer was.

What would the Prince of Persia do? He wouldn't shy away from conflict. He wouldn't show fear in the face of danger, even if the odds weren't in his favor. He wouldn't over-think every decision he had to make. He'd rely on his instincts, and he wouldn't be afraid of failure. I had to become like him if I had a shot at making it out of here.

I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be that person.

I run at breakneck speed down the dirt ridden streets away from my pursuers. Not thinking, just reacting. Cart, left. Fruit stand, right. Wall, avoid. I can't afford to waste my stamina looking back, but the sounds of their boots hitting the ground had long sense faded away. I had the advantage on the run as I wasn't as weighted down by armor and weapons as they were. I was lighter, quicker, and more agile.

I take this time to maneuver to the top of the building; it takes almost no effort for me. Now I'm able to run from rooftop to rooftop, giving me a better view of my surroundings. I must have lost them by now. Now I just need to look for a chance to strike. On the ground to my left: a guard, alone.

Don't think, just react.

I jump from my perch on the rooftop and make quick work of him with my blade.

CLANG! CLANG! The sound of… metal? A decoy. It was a trap. I'm suddenly surrounded by guards. They've cut off my every path. I was out manned. But as I ran towards the army with my sword drawn and a smile on my face, I knew that there was one thing I had over them.

I was without fear.

"Mike?" Jess called out from across the room, breaking me out of my stupor. I had a plan, but I needed time, needed to stall. I needed to keep the conversation going until the moment was right. It was time to make my final move.

I took a deep breath. No fear.

"Yes?" I finally responded.

"You were silent for a while, you stopped pacing."

"It's the case. It has me thinking in circles." I slowly made my way to her side of the room, positioning myself so that I was facing the windows and the entrance to the staircase.

"Maybe I need to rethink this. Let's look at the evidence again." I told her, still pacing in a circle in front of her, "The three bullets. Anything we can figure out from them?"

"Nothing I can think of." She replied.

"Why three? Why not one? At that range he couldn't have been worried about missing."

"Maybe there's a revenge factor? We are talking about the guy that framed you. Or maybe he wanted to be sure he was heard so that the cops would come. It could be for a number of reasons."

I paced around in my small circle again, like I was thinking. But I already knew everything I was going to say. I knew every action I would need to take. The pieces were already in place, and now all that was left was for my last act to play out.

"The gun then?" I asked, meaning my gun obviously. The gun that was taken from my suitcase, used to shoot Briggs and then carelessly left at the scene.

"He found your gun in the room and shot Briggs with it. It's as simple as that." She answered.

"But did he know I had the gun before he brought Briggs to the room?" I asked.

"Maybe, maybe not."

"If he didn't know about the gun, what did he plan on using to kill Briggs?" I wondered, I already knew the answer. I had all the facts now.

"Maybe he brought his own gun just in case he was wrong about you having one. Maybe he planned on using a knife. We'll never know." She replied. Two pieces of evidence and there were still no conclusions to be drawn apparently. Don't worry Jess, I saved the good evidence for last.

"What about the crime scene itself, my hotel room?" I asked.

"He found out where you were staying, it couldn't have been that difficult given what he's been capable of these past few days." She answered immediately.

"Why the hotel room though?"

"It was the best way to connect you to the murderer. Without the connection we wouldn't have uncovered the motive."

"He could've planted fingerprints or evidence of some kind to lead the cops in my direction. The hotel room crime scene turned out to help prove my innocence." I stated matter-of-factly.

"Yeah, that was a lucky break."

"I think it was more than just a lucky break. I think that the killer was rushed. Had he had more time, he would've done a much better job at making his frame attempt stick. He could've chosen a better place, perhaps gathered more evidence suggesting that I was the killer. It makes sense too, there weren't that many people that knew I would be coming to Houston, even in Chicago. Only my boss and a few coworkers knew."

I was only saying what I had already been thinking about earlier. This was the first time I had voiced this theory to anyone. Although I would say at this point that it was more than just a theory.

"Do you have their names? I'll get the Chief to look into that angle." She spoke with a hint of nervousness in her voice.

"Maybe if they flew to Houston at the same time the murder took place, but otherwise it's unlikely." I continued, "Anything I miss?"

I actually forgot to mention one small detail about the murder. One last piece I had yet to analyze out loud. I had stalled as much as I could, only one thing left to do now.

"I can't think of anything actually." She replied, "You know, there was something I wanted to tell—"

"The victim." I interrupted, dropping the bomb I had been holding back for so long.

"The victim?" She asked, confused.

"Briggs, the man that was killed." I had long since stopped pacing at this point. My feet were planted to the ground, steady arms at my side, body filled to the brim with confidence.

"It would've been easy enough to find the right guy to kill the same way we did."

"But Taylor just had to put both of our names into a database search to find that article. The killer didn't have that luxury. It would've taken longer for him to come across that information" I paused for emphasis, "unless of course he already knew about Briggs. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'she knew'."

Checkmate.

"You think I killed him?" She asked incredulously, "We've seen the killer before. I was there, you were there. It can't be me."

That fact kept me from the truth for the longest time. It took me until just a few minutes ago to put this whole thing together.

"He was your accomplice. I don't know where you met him. But considering you're a detective, I would imagine you don't have to look far to find someone with a shady history that owes you a favor.

"And he didn't have to be technologically savvy. He just had to be trustworthy, because with two people, you were able to pull off all of the moves the past few days that had us looking in the wrong direction this whole time.

"The night of the murder, he tailed me from the college to the hotel, where you were waiting to kill Briggs at just the right time. When I walked up to my room, he was already waiting across the street to introduce himself to me via phone.

"Then the next day when we tried to get him to give up information with our carefully planned trap, he conveniently was able to step into it and walk away unscathed while leaving that security photo from the convenient store that led us to believe he was technologically gifted.

"I couldn't figure out why he would so willingly give us that information. But I realized soon that you wanted a way to be able to explain how he knew about the trap and how he was able to time killing Briggs right as I arrived at the hotel."

After that long speech, I should've felt winded, but the adrenaline kept me alert and focused.

"This is madness. You've got a huge conspiracy theory with no proof of anything being true." She said after a long silence.

"You gave me the proof. That security photo will prove everything. I still remember every detail. Facing the window, with a few shelves in view, and then in the distance your car with me inside. How much do you want to bet that if the cops go to that gas station, they will find that that security camera doesn't exist?"

I knew that camera angle didn't exist with certainty. The position it was in, what was it securing? It was at a bad angle to protect any of the items of the store. Usually those cameras are in the corners or at the ends of the isle. It was too far away from the gas pumps to offer any protection there. Those cameras were always outside. She had taken that photo with her cell phone camera.

She made a mistake. Had she gone outside and taken a picture where the real security cameras were, then maybe we never would've caught the mistake. But then of course, she would be drawing attention to herself outside.

"We've known each other how long? Twenty-five years now?" She asked, the expression on her face much softer now, "I always got the feeling that if I hadn't needed an extra guy for kickball, we might have never met."

The truth usually comes out when someone finds themselves backed into a corner with nowhere to go. I had won and she had lost. I had figured out who, what and how, but I didn't know why.

"I don't regret our experiences. We had a lot of fun growing up; through middle school, and then high school." She continued.

"Then we graduated and you took off for Chicago." she continued, "And I lost my best friend."

Her expression had turned from a look of confidence she had when she was trying to convince me she was innocent to a look of vulnerability and pain. I didn't understand. People left for college all the time. Friends say goodbye and go their separate ways. Sometimes they catch up during class reunions or send each other emails every so often. Some never see their high school friends again. Why was she so hurt by me leaving Houston so long ago? Unless… maybe she had feelings for me all those years ago but never worked up the nerve to talk about it, just like me.

This was all my fault. My best friend needed me and I abandoned her. I destroyed our friendship, and for what? So I wouldn't have to connect with another person? I'd always lived my life fearing that the people that I had trusted would one day turn against me. I never let anyone get to that point where they could hurt me. I pushed people away. Now they were pushing back.

"It was a fortunate coincidence that I saw the flyer for your presentation. I was responding to a call at the college, just routine stuff. And that's when I put this plan together. So it didn't work the way I planned, but it sure worked out in the end didn't it?"

It all worked out in the end? What did that mean?

"This is where you meet your tragic end. The story in tomorrow's paper will be that the killer had lured you here and shot you. Then, I lost him in the pursuit." She said as she took her gun out, the look in her eyes turning cold in an instant. She was going to kill me.

Say something!

I couldn't think of anything to say.

Just say something, anything! You are going to die, Mike!

But my body was locked in place and my mouth wouldn't move. Part of it was that I was scared. The fear, stress and anxiety that I had been holding back for the past twenty minutes had all come flooding back at once. But there was another part of me that wanted her to shoot me. There was a part of me that wanted to die.

"I'm not going to lose you a second time."

My life was about to end, and the only thing I could think about was how much I had messed everything up. I couldn't move. My eyes began to blur, the headlights visible from the window all starting to mesh together, blotting out the darker details of the cars themselves. My heart began beating faster as the panic in my mind started to rise. And then—

"Hands where I can see them Monroe." Someone yelled. Was it me? I don't remember thinking those words. Perhaps my subconscious mind was trying to make one last effort to avoid death. But then again, why would I say these words? I forced my eyes to focus, just enough to make out the figure of Chief Taylor with his gun pointed at Jessica.

"H-h-how did you know we were here?" Jessica asked, shocked at the fact that Taylor had found us.

"I had help." Taylor said, looking in my direction. I pulled my shirt up just above my belt to reveal the two way radio that the private detective had given me. A piece of chewed gum kept the talk switch on.

The police had heard everything. I turned the radio on as soon as I had made the connection that Jessica was the killer, hoping to stall for enough time so that someone could make it here and stop her from killing me. Taylor made it to the warehouse faster than I thought anyone would.

"It's over, drop the weapon." Taylor demanded. Jessica still held her gun in a vice-like grip with both hands with the barrel pointed at the floor. I wasn't completely sure how she would react when backed into a corner like this.

The Jess I once knew was strong-willed, confidant, and determined. She would have just handed the gun to the chief calmly, knowing there was no good move to be made. However, the Jess I saw moments ago was vulnerable and defeated.

She glanced over at the chief, and then at me. Then, flashing that familiar smile that I had come to know over the course of my life, she pulled a move that I don't think any of us had seen coming.

"It's not over." She said, quickly raising her gun back at me in the blink of an eye.

"No!" I yelled, my voice echoing through out the warehouse.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Three gunshots fired.

I looked back at the scene once again to find Jessica's body collapsed on the floor Taylor's gun was pointed at the spot she once was standing in, the light from the window illuminating the smoke coming out of the barrel. He wore a somber expression on his face. He didn't want to have to do what he did, but it was instinct.

"Now it's over." He said to no one in particular as he put his gun back in its holster.

It always starts out innocently enough. You are just trying to explain your side of the story. Most arguments stem from a lack of understanding. You'll try and understand his side of the argument while explaining yours. Both parties are calm and can discuss things like adults. But then… something happens. Somewhere along the way it turns ugly. And your best friend tries to kill you and winds up dead herself.

I was sitting on the curb next to Chief Taylor's car, crying into my shirt after witnessing Jessica's life end. I had made a huge mistake. What if I had talked to her about how I felt before going to college? Or what if I had kept in touch with her over the phone so she would know I still thought about her? Of course, none of this would ever have happened because of the type of person I am.

I'm so afraid of losing someone that I run away from the people that are closest to me. I can't talk to these people about my fears because they will just assure me that it will never happen. Yeah, we all know that is a lie. For once in my life I wished I was like everyone else. Ignorantly moving forward with their relationships without thinking of how badly it could end for them. But I know I'll never be able to change.

"You okay, Mike?" I looked over and saw Taylor standing a few yards away by his car. I didn't say anything, just nodded. I didn't think I could form a sentence yet without breaking out into fit of tears.

"We all have been affected by this, Mike. I knew Jessica for a few years myself. Most of the detectives in our unit knew her for much longer than that. Now, I'm not going to pretend to know how you feel, but you aren't alone in this."

I kept looking at the small puddle between my feet. Trying not to think about what just happened. I could go for a few seconds at a time, but I would always keep going back to the same thing: Jessica was dead and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

"I actually came to talk to you for a reason. This probably isn't the best time to bring this up, but I don't know how long until you are heading back to Chicago." He said, cutting to the chase, "Mike, I would like to offer you a job."

Was I hearing things correctly? A job? But why me?

"You d-don't… want me." I muttered at the ground, trying to keep from completely breaking down again.

"You underestimate yourself. You solved this case, not us." He pointed out, "The trap you tried to catch him with was your idea. Even though it didn't work, you were able to use the information to form a few theories that made sense.

"The stunt you pulled in the warehouse was ingenious. As soon as I could hear you speaking through the radio I knew something was up. I'm sure you were counting on us figuring it out, and that's what led us here. You were lucky I wasn't that far away at the time."

Maybe I had figured out the killer, but the man that was calm, cool and collected in that warehouse wasn't me. I would never be able to do that again. I saw the look on Jess's face. She died thinking I hated her.

"Now, you wouldn't officially be a detective. You would just be a consultant to our department. It basically just means you won't have any police authority. Although, I have a feeling that you won't mind." He said with a knowing grin.

I could see how my gaming expertise might be useful in the world of crime solving. Maybe I don't know much about fingerprints and DNA and how criminals work, but once you break it all down its just one big logic puzzle. Pieces have to fit together, and there are layers upon layers of information being thrown out. I had been doing this sort of thing for years. Not only had I been playing games for that long, I had made them myself as well.

But real life was a completely different animal than the gaming world. In video games you never dealt with people, even online. You dealt with a set of moves, a mindset. There were no emotions in games. That wasn't true in the real world. You had to deal with coworkers, bosses, politics, the suspects, the victim's friends and family, witnesses, judges, lawyers… that situation just wouldn't work for me.

But you aren't afraid of it not working out, are you?

What do you mean?

If it doesn't work out, you just go back to your old job no problem. No, what you are afraid of is that it will work out. That you will learn to work with these people, trust them, respect them, look up to them, and perhaps even care about them. Then one day you lose one of them and you are back here on this curb crying into your shirt.

Maybe that is true. So what? Are you saying I should just leave myself open to be hurt again?

You need a friend. Chief Taylor is reaching out to you. Just like Jess did all those years ago at the neighborhood park. You aren't exactly the most sociable person in the world. You don't make friends, they find you. If you pass up this job opportunity, how long will it be before the next guy reaches out to you? You might end up spending the rest of your life alone.

And that's a bad thing why? I had a good life before I came here. I had a job, my own apartment downtown. I had hobbies, I had fun. I was happy—

You weren't happy, you were safe.

This was an opportunity for me to change. Maybe not completely change, but make that first step. Could I pull it off?

There was only one way to find out.

"I accept."

Hey readers, I'm glad you (hopefully) enjoyed my first major short story. As of today (11-02-09), I have the "sequel" outlined out, as well as a basic idea for a third story. However, I do go to school fulltime and have other hobbies, so there is no telling when I'll actually finish it. This first one took a few months itself. But your words of encouragement might help. Also, criticism will help as well. Tell me what you liked and didn't like.