Not again. Dear God, not again.
Cooper Dahlsing woke up standing somewhere in the desert, surrounded by cool night air. He didn’t know where, exactly. Hopefully not far from home. It was dark, but not pitch black. The light of a gibbous moon offered some illumination. No wristwatch, no cell phone. From the position of the moon, he guessed it was two or three in the morning.
As his eyes adjusted, he recognized he was on a trail he often took for his hikes. He wasn’t miles from home, fortunately. He stood for a minute, getting his bearings. Moonbeams were highlighting the metal on an object to his left. The old abandoned television set the. He blew out a relieved breath. He knew where he was and began the trek home.
Cooper thought–had hoped against hope–it had stopped for good. He should have known he would never be freed from the constant threat of occasional night adventures that were better described as night terrors. Nightmares he was actually, physically, a part of. Ones he woke up in, wondering how in the hell he had gotten there when the last thing he remembered was falling asleep in his own bed.
He began experiencing episodes of somnambulism–sleepwalking–during graduate school. After several frustrating years seeking medical answers, he found a neurologist who diagnosed him with a rare form of epilepsy. The problem was they never landed on the right medication cocktail Cooper was able to tolerate.
Cooper woke up in an assortment of places. One time he was staring into a dark shop window at one in the morning. His car was parked and running behind him. Another time he was in a bar having a beer with some guys. Strangers who all seemed to know him. Still another, he was out walking a ways from home in below zero weather, clad only in pajamas and slippers.
But the worst was the morning he awoke with blood on his pajamas. It appeared he had wiped bloody hands on them. From the news on the television, he learned a woman had been killed by a hit and run driver and left to die on the side of the road. Terror weakened him. He wondered if he was the driver. There had been other unsolved hit and runs, but it was the first time he suspected he may be the culprit, the one responsible. There was no dent in his car, but would there be one if the hard bumper hit a soft target?
Cooper’s unconscious nighttime activities increased after that. He was even more afraid to fall asleep. He sold his car so he couldn’t drive in his sleep. His confidence, and work as a college professor, suffered. Exhaustion became his normal state. He considered hiring a night attendant, but who was completely trustworthy?
He contemplated taking his life.
Instead, while searching for a home in a warmer climate, he found an ad for one in Rubicon Valley. He felt it was a wise choice to move to Rubicon Valley. It could get cold at night, but he wouldn’t get frostbite, or freeze to death. And without a car, he couldn’t run anyone over.
Cooper reached his street in record time. He noticed the lights on in a neighbor’s house, surprised anyone was still up at that hour. But people kept different schedules. Movement caught his eyes as he passed the old man Franklin’s house. A curtain moved back over the window. Why would Franklin be looking outside in the middle of the night? Was there more happening in Rubicon Ranch than Cooper knew about?
Cooper’s door was unlocked, thankfully, since he had no keys with him. He stopped by the kitchen and downed a glass of water, then headed to his bedroom. Funny, his bed was made. Then he remembered: he had fallen asleep on the couch watching television. Television, he thought as he pulled back the covers and climbed beneath them. One reason his young friend Riley–his only real friend in the neighborhood–stopped by at four in the afternoon whenever she could to watch “Little House on the Prairie.” She said her parents didn’t like television, but didn’t mind if she watched at other people’s houses. Cooper didn’t really believe her, but what harm was there, allowing her to watch a family-friendly show here and there?
Television. Riley. Anything wrong with that?
The ringing door bell woke Cooper and he glanced at the clock. Eleven a.m. He never slept in that late, even when he was up in his sleep, meandering around. He must have been wandering for hours the night before for that to happen.
A second ring prompted him to hit the ground running. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would be at his door. Riley should be in school at that time of day. And she used the backdoor, anyhow.
When he opened the door, he stared for at least ten seconds, taking her in, trying to assess who she was and why she was there. Her uniform, badge, and sidearm on her right hip gave him the answer to his first question. Her coffee colored eyes caught his gray eyes and held them captive.
“You’re Cooper Dahlsing?” she asked in an official tone. What did her voice sound like when she was off-duty?
“I’m Lieutenant Frio from the Rojo Duro County Sheriff’s Department. May I come in? I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Was this about the rash of home invasions? Did nosy neighbor Franklin report him wandering around at night, moving him to the top of the suspect list?
“Yes, sorry, please come in.”
He pushed the door open wide and the lieutenant stepped in before he could step back. They were so close her face was slightly fuzzy to his forty-five year old eyes. But not too blurry to notice her pupils dilated before she blinked. Cooper backed away and Frio walked past him into the living room.
Cooper looked around. He doubted another adult had been in his house since he moved there three months before. Was it passable? He had stacks of books on two end tables and an open one on the coffee table. It was a college text on genetics he had co-authored some years back. Studying Riley’s physical characteristics and mannerisms, after seeing her parents, had stirred some questions about the scientific facts.
The couch and chairs were clear of debris. “Have a seat. Please.” Cooper waved his hand in the direction of the furniture.
Frio lowered her slender body onto the edge of a chair and pulled a memo pad and pen from a back pocket. “Late night?” she asked, eyeing his pajama bottoms and tee shirt. Cooper realized it was obvious he had climbed out of bed minutes before.
He shrugged. “I have a flexible schedule.”
“You have a driver’s license?”
Where was this going? “Yes, but it’s from Wisconsin. I haven’t applied here. I’m not sure if I will.”
“I prefer to walk.”
“I just need it to confirm your identity.”
“I see. I’ll get it.”
Cooper disappeared into another room and returned a minute later.
Lieutenant Frio had her hand on top of the open book on the coffee table. She partially closed it to read the front cover. She looked at Cooper, smirked, and read aloud, “The Fundamentals of Genetics by Cooper A. Dahlsing, Ph.D. and Raymond Beatty Davis, M.D.” Frio reopened the book. “The coffee table book everyone should have?”
Cooper half-smiled, a little uncomfortable under Frio’s visual scrutiny. What did she see? A female friend once described him as “disarming, not classically handsome, but very good-looking. And way too young to have silver hair.” Is that what Frio saw? The longer she stared, the more aware he was that his pajama bottoms hung loosely on his lean frame, and his shirt hugged the muscles of his chest and arms. Did he fit her image of a science book author?
Frio took the license and jotted the information on her memo pad. He read as she wrote, 510, 170, gray eyes, silver hair, 45 years old.
Cooper had been polite and patient long enough. “So what is this about?”
Lieutenant Frio handed him his license and captured his eyes once again. Cooper forgot for a moment she was an officer at his house on some sort of official business. In another life he would ask her on a date. Correction, if he was in another person’s life he would ask her out. With his health issues, he would never get seriously involved with a woman.
“My department is looking into a matter involving a young girl. Riley—”
“You know her?”
“She’s the little girl from a few houses down. Did something happen–”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
The last time? “I saw her riding her bike yesterday afternoon.” Sometime after she left his house, when Little House was over.
“How well did you know her, or what her activities were?”
“I can’t say I knew her well.” Because that was our secret and I won’t say. “Why? Is she all right?”
“Sadly, she’s dead. We’re investigating it as a homicide.”
Cooper’s mouth dropped. Icicles formed in his blood. “Someone murdered her? How did that happen? Where . . .”
“This is an open investigation, so I am not at liberty to give details. Suffice it to say her body was found in the desert, early today.”
Cooper looked down and noticed his hands for the first time that morning. There was sand imbedded underneath his fingernails. “The desert?”
“That’s all I can say.”
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered and continued to stare at his hands. Were they the hands of a murderer?