camera obscura


NEWS ABOUT A MISSING OBSTETRICIAN spreads as fast as rumors of tummy tucks and rhinoplasties, making this Tuesday morning at the South Highland Women’s Center a hectic one. Phones are ringing, the reception window is crowded with expectant mothers exempt from line etiquette, office staff are at wits’ end and at the helm back by the file stacks is Elaine. Behind the crowd and agitating paranoias is Detective Steve Alvarez with his badge suspended on a stainless steel dog tag chain around his neck. Elaine took notice of him when he walked in but has been ignoring him since. The receptionist is finally off the phone and amidst the cacophony of questions Alvarez’s distinct voice cuts through to the receptionist and quells the noise in the waiting room.

“Detective Alvarez, Highland PD. I need to speak with Elaine Southwick.”

Elaine is pulling files, blending into the business of the Center, speaking into a headset to a calling patient. Doctor Akhim walks through and hands her a number of files. She looks at the detective and the receptionist spins around, “Elaine?”

“Would you hold for a moment please?” she says to her caller. She mutes her headset and approaches the window. All eyes are on this inevitable exchange, all ears amplifying in the silence of the office. “Can I help you?”

“Is there a place we could talk?” he says.

“Not today,” Elaine says back with a tone that speaks to the ridiculousness of Alvarez’s ignorance to her predicament.

“We can talk now or I can come back in an hour. Now will be much more pleasant,” he says.

If anything trumps an assertive, stressed office manager, it’s a badge. “Take care of these, please,” she says as she hands off the files to one of the office’s clerks. Elaine leaves the business area and appears at the patient door, opening it enough for Alvarez to see her. “Come on back.” Every waiting patient is at full attention, every employee of the South Highland Women’s Center feigning busy.

The place they can talk is Doctor Gray Reagan’s office. It’s a physician’s feng shui with hardwood and leather punctuated by trophy vacation photos. Elaine leans back on the doctor’s desk and Alvarez realizes that waiting to be asked to have a seat is a waste of time, so he gets right to it.

“How long have you worked for the South Highland Women’s Center?”

“Fifteen, sixteen years,” she answers.

“Where do you think he is?”

The detective knows. Elaine knows he knows. Any comeback to this is futile.

“I don’t know,” she says.

It’s a line of questioning no different than any other investigative inquiry. The chance for confession is broached, everyone in the room knows full well nothing happens on the first turn, kind of like the first pull on the lawn mower in Spring. Steve looks around the office at the credentials on the wall. “Did you know they have a neighborhood watch in Silverado?” he says as his eyes find the eight-by-ten of Reagan’s sail boat. “Did you know that they take that civic duty very seriously?”

The repetitive stem. It’s expected that this happens in threes, another question beginning with did you know but the detective takes her attention with a declarative sentence instead that puts him into a position of getting answers to the really important questions yet to be framed. “There are at least three little old ladies who tell me they saw your car parked around the corner from the Reagan home the day he disappeared.”

Elaine says nothing.

“The car they described is in the parking garage of this facility, a red Toyota Camry. The tags on it are registered to you.” He has made the rounds of Reagan’s office and is now in Elaine’s personal space. “Three ladies. We don’t ever get corroborating witnesses like that.”

Elaine is trapped against Gray’s desk. Any counter move to Alvarez’s would be awkward, incriminating, so she holds her ground in proximity to the detective’s morning coffee breath.

“I was waiting for him but he never showed,” is her confession.

“And you don’t know where he is.”

“I don’t know where he is,” which is the truth. She has no idea.

“Is there anyone else, perhaps a patient, who might want to make Doctor Reagan disappear?”

She is relieved in his framing this question, exempting her again from lying to him.

“Not one.” she answers. “There are hundreds.”

This is what the detective was looking for.

“And where would we start on a list of hundreds?”

SPARSE MORNING LIGHT reaches the back cinderblock wall of the storage unit that contains Doctor Gray Reagan. He sits in the adirondack now turned one hundred eighty degrees to the back wall where small crude swatches of duct tape adhere rows of documents from the files Ian was reading the night before to the cinder blocks. It’s an unusual decor complemented by an odd blurry projection on the upper left of the wall that has riveted Gray’s attention.

The small circle of light is in color with a pattern of red blurred squares framed with tan borders on a blue base. Gray watches it closely, instead of examining the documents it illuminates, an unintended circumstance of the three-eighths hole drilled into the rolling door. He has looked at it so long that his eyes have exposed only for its illumination letting everything else go to shadow. He stares at it so long that when he closes his eyes the circle of light has burned into his optic nerves. When he blinks quickly he can actually see the negative of the image with green squares on a red base with a dark blue frame.

Inside the Fort Knox business office a computer printer knocks out a report on green-bar paper being tractor fed past the zipping printer head. When it stops it is ripped at its perforation by the one who initiated the printing, a bimonthly ritual performed by one of three Fort Knox employees, not counting the manager. He’s a dirty thirty, wearing a green superhero t-shirt and jeans, appropriate attire to walk the alleys of Fort Knox and check the list of current and past due tenants against what few vacancies exist in the inventory.

Outside along the rows of units that separates Fort Knox from the Corby Car Wash, the lock-checking man has a big clipboard, a pencil behind his ear as he totes behind him a black milk jug crate bungeed to a small dolly used to haul large luggage. In the crate are silver hockey puck locks. The man starts at 400, checks the list, checks the lock, and moves on to 402. The odds are on the east side of the alley, the ones that back up to the car wash lot. He will make the mistake, though, a time or two, in not skipping the odds, making him have to go back and erase his marks on three or four checked units and carefully remit his number-two pencil slashes in the correct places on the green-bar report. He comes across his first sixty-day out, unit 410. He checks the lock on the slide mechanism, reaches into the crate for one of his own, draws out a set of keys tethered to his belt with a retracting holder, isolates the proper key, unlocks the puck and attaches it in the empty slot of the bolt mechanism, securing the unit’s contents until the owner makes good on their bill. The lock-checking man does this with such aplomb it is instantly obvious why he is the right man for the job, his ignorance of the purpose of green-bar notwithstanding. He is accompanied by the ambient noise from the car wash, busy this Tuesday morning with constant ramping bursts of drying fans and pressurized spraying and alarms sparked by vehicle position sensors.

Gray stays fixed on the circle of light in front and up to the left of him. It has no border, it just feathers out to nothing. There is no definable aspect ratio to it. Once he is certain it is a circle it either changes or his own eyes create the illusion that it is not. The movement that he’s seeing this instant within the light is not illusion. He blinks away anything that might lend itself to be one and watches as a figure moves through the frame, though the more he concentrates on it the harder it is to see. It suddenly makes sense to him, camera obscura, a phenomenon of light when passing through a small hole into a dark room falling onto a surface perpendicular to the light creates an inverted image of the illuminated objects outside. Ian’s peephole is close to the right diameter and distance to the back wall to inadvertently create a crude camera obscura, a tiny upside down window to the world outside of Gray’s prison. And there was someone walking through it. Gray screams inside his taped and broken mouth.

The lock-checking man attaches another puck to the unit of a delinquent renter, 434, and were the drying fans of the automated car wash silenced along with the high pressure nozzles and the earphones from his MP3 player he uses to drown out all the noise, he might have heard Gray’s screaming.

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