By Roger Leatherwood
Detective Briggs found him, of all places, in Ohio.
It wasn't that he was looking for him. It had been, after all, 25 years, and the trail had grown cold long ago. The case had been adopted by Detective Briggs along with a backlog of several dozen others. He'd been the fifth detective that had it in the back of his Unsolved file and he devoted the exact same attention to it the previous four detectives had. That is, none.
But due to a couple dead-end tips a month ago, a missed connection the week after that, a hunch and a set of mug shots accidentally given to the wrong suspect just last week, Detective Briggs had gotten a preliminary ID he didn't expect, put two and two together, gotten five, and gone to Ohio. He lucked into the arrest.
He parked the unmarked car at the curb on Elm Street, in front of the white picket fence that surrounded the well-manicured lawn of the stucco one-storey. The mailbox said The Williams. Detective Briggs, along with Fowler who was also in plain clothes, walked up the walk and Fowler petted the German shepherd that sat stoically on the porch.
Inside, when the doorbell rang, the 56-year-old man, who was known as Bill Williams, put down his Fortune and got up, calling to his wife in the kitchen, who was just putting the finishing touches on the pot roast dinner.
"I got it, honey."
Bill went to the door and opened it, and smiled at Detective Briggs. He didn't know who he was yet. Tiger, the German shepherd, took the opportunity of the opened door to sneak in and investigate the smell.
Detective Briggs smiled back. "Hello. I'm sorry to bother you at dinnertime..." and then he smelled the scent of pot roast wafting out. "That smells good."
"Yeah," Bill Williams said. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm looking for Frank Zillian." And here Detective Briggs paused. He wanted to give the name a chance to sink in. "Frank?"
Bill Williams didn't say anything for a moment. His wife came out from the kitchen to see who was there.
"Yeah," Bill Williams said with a resigned voice. "That's me. I mean, it was." But he didn't ask how they found him. Not yet.
Detective Briggs reached for his badge and took a breath; this had been a lot easier than he'd thought it would be. "You're under arrest, Mr. Zillian."
* * *
"Holy fuck," the captain said later, in his office two floors above police processing. "I don't believe it. We covered Ohio!"
The captain threw the report down, more mad at himself than at Detective Briggs.
"Relax, Hal," Briggs said to his boss. "He wasn't there the entire 25 years. He apparently moved there 7 years ago — at least that's when they bought the house. And the guy's good. He's been living under other identities for a long time, and kept an awfully low profile. It was just luck I found him."
"Well, I guess," the captain said. "You're gonna get the indictment from the justice department without any problems, I hope. It's been 25 years, after all, they didn't purge the case from the system or anything, did they?"
Briggs assured him. "No. There's no statute of limitations on federal cases. And this guy fucked with the IRS records. The suits are still trying to figure out exactly what he did wrong so they can charge him and make it stick but they'll get to the bottom of it. We got him, Hal. It took a while but this time he's in the clutches of the Fed. He ain't going to slip away from us this time."
The captain cheered up a little at this. The case had been in the back of his folder 10 years before and an unsolved case broken, especially this late, on his watch, could only make him look good to his superiors.
"Has he confessed yet?"
"Sort of. The deposition is later today and he seems cooperative. He doesn't really seem to think he did anything terribly wrong. But if that's the case, why'd he elude us for so long?"
Briggs punctuated this with a shrug. The captain nodded to himself, agreeing. "And I'd like to know how."
Over the next couple days Detective Steve Briggs unraveled the mystery of the sudden disappearance of Frank Zillian, 25 years ago.
* * *
Frank Zillian, previously known as Bill Williams, was a model prisoner. He was old now. He cooperated fully with all investigators, answered all questions, sat quietly in the holding cell for the better part of a week before he made bail, which was arranged by the member of the defense, two days after he was transported to Washington DC because there was no one else that cared enough. No one came to visit Frank Zillian. His family, the ones still alive, had written him off long ago, and wouldn't have believed he'd resurfaced, even had he wanted them to. He didn't.
Frank Zillian had worked for the IRS in the '80s and early '90s, analyzing past-due accounts and matching income statements with income tax returns. He'd gotten very good at tracking down delinquent filers and even better at ferreting out forgotten interest statements, hidden bank accounts, unreported capital gains, silently rolled-over options, and other evidence of executed financial instruments that so many taxpayers often forgot to report, either through absent-mindedness or through design. Frank Zillian had learned how to extract the most subtle, elusive, and seemingly inconsequential information out of the complex system and affiliate it to the name that should take responsibility — financial responsibility — and that was one thing the IRS couldn't let anyone get away with not owning up to. In the process Frank had learned the system inside out, and come to understand how it worked, where its flaws were, and finally how someone might beat it.
"My wife left me," Frank told Detective Briggs, as he signed the papers at the front desk, securing his release.
"Yeah. Been together nine years. She just couldn't believe I was someone else. She said she felt like she'd been living with a stranger all these years."
They walked out of the jail and down the street towards the bail bondman who had signed the $50,000 bond.
"You were Bill Williams for nine years, Frank," Detective Briggs said conversationally. "How many identities did you have before that?"
"I was Bill Williams the whole time. I created that identity specially. One was enough."
Detective Briggs nodded. Should have been easier to track him down if he'd assumed just one fake name — twenty-five years ago.
"I needed something common. Something absolutely invisible. Most people think that Smith — or Jones, or something else — is a more common name. It's Williams. William Williams. Ridiculous. Why would anyone call their kids that? But with Bill, I knew I was in good company. People named Bill Williams are never causing trouble. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because of their name — are they boring because they sound boring? Learned behavior? I knew how hard it'd be to track that name properly, too, especially if I didn't do anything wrong. So — I didn't."
They crossed the street towards the bail bondsman's office, which was stuck in the front corner of what used to be an antique shop or something and had been turned into a Thai food-to-go joint. There were bars on the windows as if someone might actually want to get in.
Out of nowhere, a car raced past riding the gutter and almost hit them; the driver flipped them off, steering with his elbow. Frank and Detective Briggs couldn't make out the obscenities it looked the driver was mouthing behind the plate glass of his rolled-up window.
"Jesus. It's worse than ever," Frank said.
"What? The traffic?"
Frank stepped on the curb and said, "Shit." He was right. He'd just stepped in a pile of it, recently deposited by someone's dog and by the looks of it, the creature must have been huge.
"How do you live in this city?" Frank asked. He didn't expect an answer. Briggs gave him one anyway.
"It's a living. My life's centered here."
"This isn't a living," Frank answered angrily. "That's why I disappeared in the first place, detective. What's your name? I mean, your first name."
"Steve," Briggs said.
"Steve. Good. Look. The IRS is all over me trying to figure out exactly how much money I embezzled from accounts before I split. They figure I was in charge of delinquent accounts, had access to bank statements, secret codes to brokers and whatnot, where financial transactions took place all electronically, and easy enough to steal. And no paper trail if you know how to erase the clues properly."
Briggs nodded. He'd been briefed on this but it wasn't his specialty. And Frank Zillian hadn't copped to any of it.
"They don't get it, Steve! I didn't steal their money, just because all the accounts I worked on still have reporting problems, and the owners insist, swear on their mothers' graves, they didn't take the money, it's not going to them; someone else was having it wired to some invisible shell account, implicating me, of course."
"I don't do that. I'm not that kind of person."
He stopped, waiting for Briggs to agree, to tell him he believed him. Briggs wanted to.
"They why'd you drop out, Frank? Disappear?"
Frank looked up and down the street as if he was collecting his thoughts. He looked at the intersection at the end of the block, and winced as someone ran a red light, honking as he raced through as if the blaring rude warning gave him a right to do so.
Frank shook his head.
"Tell me something, Steve. Haven't you ever felt..." his voice lowered a bit, to a whisper, "...like this life wasn't worth living?"
The smell of dogshit tickled Briggs's nose. He rubbed it irritatedly. Frank scraped the side of his shoe on the edge of the curb, waiting for an answer.
"This life. No, Frank. This is the only life I got and I've made the most of it."
"This—" He stopped and started again. "You're a cop, Steve. I hope you don't mind if I call you Steve. You must have seen an incredible array of things. Crazy shit. People who've done wrong. Probably a lot of people who made mistakes, sure, but also people who just don't give a fuck. Mean people. People who'd jus' as soon walk past you than help another person in need. People who think only of themselves — selfish and so bull-headed they won't listen to the other side of an argument. Or start one just to hear themselves win."
Steve Briggs thought back to all the things he'd seen in his 16-year career. The abandoned babies, the panicked lovers who had killed their mates in passion, standing just inside the open door after the police had been called, with a knife in their hand dripping blood, and a terrified, confused look on their face and only able to mouth one question. Why'? He thought of the broken windows, the crashed cars, the violated apartments, ransacked sometimes with nothing missing, the only mark left by the perpetrators a puddle of urine on the upholstery or a sticky trail of cum on a piece of lingerie draped lewdly over the bedspread.
Steve Briggs had been witness to a lot. He answered, "I've seen my share, Frank."
"Understand where I was twenty-five years ago," Frank continued. "Tracking down tax delinquents — cheaters and liars. And the war — the Gulf war, one after another — the news was getting uglier every month. There were demonstrations, like that worked since the 1960s? — kids, civil rights, all that civil disobedience. And the drugs, passed around irresponsibly like it was the answer. It was an angry time, Steve.
"I became sick. Physically sick every day when I went out. It was stress, not just of working too much, which I was, but of living. The world was going to hell and it became a trial to be out every day, hear the news every morning about banks collapsing, walk down the street and see headlines in the newspaper machines, see people disrespect and hurt each other, people get rich with corruption and greed, kids killed because they had long hair, everyone of any color being called 'nigger' or worse. That kid who got dragged behind a car. And on top of that, all the rude people who bumped into you on the street and didn't even say they were sorry."
He took a breath.
"I'd just gotten married the year before, and while my son was being born some riot in Florida started. Some black kid got pulled over by a white cop and suddenly on the TV there were people breaking windows. Those people were so angry, so desperate and felt so helpless, so much victims of the system they knew they couldn't change, they began burning down everything they could. They were burning down their own towns. Killing their own neighbors."
Steve said nothing, but now he was thinking of more recent riots, and all the rioting and looting that continued to take place for reasons greater and lesser than that. Things weren't that much different.
"Things were changing then, Steve. People accept violence was a way to solve their problems. There was no tolerance for others, no attempt to understand or try to come to a compromise. During the Jakarta demonstrations, in 1998 you may remember, when the government came in and tried to take over the country without a vote. First the students were stopping trains and traffic, then the police came in to try to restore order. Demonstrators outside the Consultive Assembly got too loud and violent. I was watching it on TV that evening while my wife — my first wife — came home from the office with the unmistakable smell of sex on her. She had done violence to our relationship and she did it for that very reason. To do violence. My son was playing in the front hall, and when she walked in, we got into a fight right there in front of him, while this huge fight five-thousand miles away raged away on the television, and my son, my four-year-old, son, walked outside and wandered into the yard..."
He paused he gathered up his composure, trying to remember, a particularly painful memory.
Finally he said, "The driver slowed, he realized what he'd done, but he never stopped. And it was that moment I decided I no longer wanted to do it anymore. I wanted to turn in my membership card in humanity.
"Not that I'd ever consider suicide. I didn't intend to steal any money, either. I just arranged to leave, and used their computers do to it. I had the ability and the understanding of the system to disappear effectively."
"Was Ohio any better, Frank?"
"I went to Florida first. Because it was supposed to be beautiful. That was where I'd originally set up my fake Bill Williams. But it wasn't. It was still all selfish and rude. And I couldn't get away from the news. I couldn't get away from the real world."
"Ohio came later."
"Ohio was quiet. In Ohio everyone has a family, and a house. In Ohio you can go about your life, and avoid the masses of people you see in city life. You can choose what you listen to because in Ohio you're in a little box, isolated, away from the grand parade of intolerant governments, too many people in too limited a space. So I was on the outside, without any responsibility, except that which I took on, later as Bill Williams. Honest taxpayer."
"And it took twenty-five years to find this honest man. Living a good life. Not being hurt by... by people."
"I'm sorry, Frank," Steve said. "If what you say is true, the most you can be charged with...I'm not a lawyer or anything, but illegal use of government files might be all. If you get off easy, a couple years, maybe. I don't know. I'm not the expert, so don't quote me. What about your wife now?"
"No. That's over. We'll sell the house. She's going to start over. Like I did, I guess." He laughed but it was thin. He looked up at the graffiti on the side of an abstract metal sculpture in the mall next to the jail: gang tags on the dirty chrome incomprehensible to him. He stopped smiling.
"No respect for property." He pointed towards the intersection, filled with a handful of cars trying to turn in front of other cars ignoring the rules of right-of-way.
"People don't signal anymore, either."
"We've been out here 20 minutes and I'll be damned if I've seen a single car signal before they turned, just to let everyone else know what to expect. What happened to common courtesy, Steve? Jesus."
Steve looked at the cars passing them and at the two intersections at either end of the block, at Patrick Henry and at Franklin Avenues, fully expecting to see at least one car with its signal on so he could prove, just for a moment, that Frank Zillian's cynical attitude of the world need not be so as bleak and unredeemable.
Steve couldn't spot a single blinking taillight however. Cars turned, blissfully ignorant of the need to telegraph their intentions to the others sharing the road.
"Hmm," he finally said. "I didn't really notice it had gotten that bad."
They went inside the building and sat on broken chairs on a worn carpet, waiting for the black couple ahead of them to finish, who talked so loud to each other even the TV bolted to the ceiling was drowned out.
A sign behind the desk said "Exactly what part of NO don't you understand?"
"Hey, Frank," Detective Briggs finally said.
"When I picked you up, and asked for Frank Zillian you said 'That's me' immediately. You didn't even try to deny it."
Frank smiled a little, and glanced around the office. He noted the files stacked up on top of the filing cabinets, either waiting to be re-filed or waiting to have new files to be created for them.
"I'd been twenty-five years, Steve. Bill Williams was comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. I guess that Frank Zillian never really disappeared. I guess he needed to come out and face it again."
Steve Briggs nodded because he understood that. He looked outside, past the bars.
Across the street, a homeless man sat against the jail and had an old coffee cup on the sidewalk beside him. He rocked back and forth silently.
Approximately fifteen minutes later, after three lawyers, five cops and fourteen visitors to the jail had crossed the street and passed him by, all of whom had failed to drop even one penny in his cup, Frank Zillian had signed the last of the papers and was now free, on $50,000 bond, to go reclaim a piece of his life.
Frank and Detective Briggs walked out into the midday sun and they shook hands.
"Thanks for listening, Steve," Frank said.
"Thanks for talking, Frank. People do become jaded. But you did the right thing. I mean, by giving up."
"I didn't give up, Steve," Frank corrected him. "You found me." And Frank Zillian walked away, down the block into the world he'd managed to escape 25 years before, but that never quite left him behind.
The arraignment would be in a week and the trial date would be set soon after that. He was back in the system, under his given name, and this time the system wouldn't lose sight of him.
* * *
That night Detective Briggs sat up late in bed. He'd turned off his phone and his pager. He didn't want his sleep broken.
Sleep came with difficulty. When he finally did drift into unconsciousness his dreams were fitful. He dreamed of Florida, and Ohio, and other places he'd never visited before. Places that had very little specific details in his dream.
They were places he had no idea what they looked like.
Roger Leatherwood’s work has appeared in Thirteen Myna Birds, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, HorrorSleazeTrash, Liquid Imagination and others.
Copyright © 2015 Roger Leatherwood. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!