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The Persistence of Illusion
About the Author: Bond Elam has written and published science fiction for the past ten years. This is his first mystery publication. He currently lives and writes in southwest Ohio.

Many years later, as he gazed into the muzzle of Professor Garrison’s pistol, Detective Harry Sturgis was to remember the hot summer afternoon his father had first taken him to the beach. Harry had been standing waist-deep in the surf, watching his mother mediated an argument between his two older sisters over a brown bottle of suntan lotion. Nearby, his father lounged under a striped red and yellow beach umbrella, reading the morning paper. A portly man with a pale white belly that swelled out over the elastic waist of his purple bathing trunks, he had just turned a page, his eyes lifting over the top of the paper as a large wave washed over Harry from behind. For an instant, the world seemed to disappear in a swirl of translucent green water and glittering bits of sand. Then the water washed away as suddenly as it had risen, and Harry again found himself looking at the beach. In the instant that the wave passed, the sun had broken through the clouds, bathing the sand, the striped umbrella, even his sisters’ blue and green one-piece bathing suits, in an intensity of color so bright that Harry felt as though the world itself had changed—as though reality had somehow shifted, leaving him on a different beach, under a different sky.

In the years that followed, this same sense of dislocation, of events unexpectedly reorienting themselves as reality washed over him, returned on more than one occasion, becoming a component of Harry’s perception of the world around him. As a result, his murder, though unexpected, did not come as a complete surprise.

The events leading to Harry’s death had begun on the rainy December morning his boss, Lt. Naomi Johansson, dropped one of her old case files on the center of Harry’s desk. Harry hadn’t know it was her case at the time, but he’d sensed things wouldn’t be going his way the moment he saw her emerge from her glass-walled office with the dog-eared file folder under her arm. He’d considered ducking out to the men’s room, or possibly hiding in the evidence locker, but by then she’d already spotted him and was headed across the squad room in his direction.

With her thick shoulders and square jaw, Lt. Johansson reminded him of a lady bulldog—not unattractive in a husky sort of way, but tenacious. Once she caught your scent, there was no escape.

“Harry,” she said with a too-bright smile as she brought herself to a halt directly in front of his desk. “You’re looking a bit peaked this morning.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” he insisted, his mouth caught somewhere between a grimace and a smile. “Couldn’t feel better.” He avoided looking at the folder, as if in not looking he could make it go away.

“No, I think you need some air,” she said. “A little exercise will do you good.”

Beyond her, the rain slanted down in sheets, rattling the squad-room windows—which was only to be expected on the one day Harry had forgotten his raincoat.

“I don’t know, Lieutenant. I got a lot of paper work here.” He gestured toward the dozen or so case files scattered across his desk.

The lieutenant scowled. “No, Harry, what you’ve got here is a mess. What you need is to get out and clear your head. I’m thinking a run over to the university is just the ticket.”

Harry stifled a moan. He still had dreams about the university—nightmares in which he suddenly realized he’d forgotten to attend some obscure class and now they wanted his diploma back. In truth, he would have been happy to give it to them—if they’d also agreed to take back the loans he was still paying off after nearly fourteen years.

“This Professor Garrison says he found a note related to one of our old cases,” the lieutenant said. “I need you to go take a look at it, see if there’s anything we need to follow up on. It’s all right here in the file.” Holding the file folder at shoulder height, she let it drop atop the other case files on Harry’s desk, where it landed with an unceremonious plop.

Harry turned up the near corner of the folder, peering at the contents like a poker player examining his hole card. “Hey,” he said, looking up at her, “this case is twenty-five years old.”

Lt. Johansson shrugged. “Garrison knows people. His people called our people, and our people called me. It’s what we call the chain of command. Think of it as a chance to polish your investigatory skills.”

The lieutenant was halfway back to her office on the far side of the squad room when Harry noticed the signature on the case summary. “But this was your case,” he called after her. “You worked it.”

This story appears in our APR2019 Issue
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