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What Sadie Saw

Michelle Kaseler is a software engineer by trade, but can be whatever she wants to be when she reads and writes. She enjoys funky shoes, hot sauces, and long runs. Her short fiction has been published by Flame Tree, NewMyths.com, and Allegory. Stop by story cobbler.com if you'd like to learn more.

From the cavernous walk-in closet, I survey the master bedroom of a person I've never met. Seven-year-old Sadie Jenkins sits by my side, but neither of us are really there.
Sadie's mom was murdered in her bed last week, and when patrol officers arrived on the scene, they found Sadie on the floor of the closet sucking her thumb. Fresh out of leads, we need to know if Sadie saw something--anything--but she's blocked it out.
The Eyewitness Recall Simulator is a virtual reality program that inserts a witness's memories into the scene in real-time, and anything we capture is admissible in court. As a newly promoted detective, I'd been eager to try the ERS, but what if reliving the crime breaks Sadie?
The captain assured me he had faith in my "woman's touch."
"I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't the last resort," he'd said. "Nice government scientist lady, a mom to boot, getting offed in her own house is chum for those sharks in the press, and we're out of suspects."
Both the bitter co-worker who'd lost out on a promotion and soon-to-be-ex-husband had alibis. Everyone else seemed to like her. No forced entry, nothing missing from the house. This seemed personal--or professional.
The simulation recreated everything about the day Cora Jenkins was killed, from the gray skies and gusting winds to the lavender candle flickering on the dresser. I hoped it would be enough to unlock Sadie's memories.
"Do you hide in her closet a lot?" I ask.
"Sometimes." Sadie twists her dark ponytail. "I like to play dress-up. Mama was napping, so I snuck in. I can be very quiet."
"Can you show me what you wore?"
She dons a black cashmere V-neck and steps into a pair of red sateen pumps.
"Beautiful!" I clap.
"Shhh," she whispers. "Mama will wake up."
I glance at the bed. Cora Jenkins is in it now. Good. Sadie's remembering.
"She won't wake up. She can't. She's not really there."
"Like a holo?" Sadie asks.
"Yes. And anyone else who comes into the room isn't really there either, so don't be scared."
Thunder booms outside. Sadie teeters and falls to the floor.
"I don't like storms either." I crouch by her side. "And I'll tell you a secret. I have a hard time balancing in heels, too."
"It's not the thunder." Her voice quivers. "The man's coming. He came right after the thunder."
I need to keep her calm. "Do you like dolls? Or race cars? I liked Hot Wheels when I was growing up. Watching high-speed car chases made me want to be a cop."
"I like cars."
"What's your favorite?"
"A Porsche like Mama's, but pink." She looks at my hands. "Like your nail polish."
A die-cast Porsche appears before us. Bless the techs running the simulation.
"Ooh." Sadie beams as she pushes it across the thick, cream-colored carpet.
Crisis averted. I exhale slowly. "What happened next?"
"Mama mumbled something. I thought she was waking up, so I hid behind a coat." Sadie's hand trembles. "When I looked out again, I saw a man."
"Keep moving your car. Back and forth, back and forth."
A figure in black appears next to the bed--six feet tall, built like a quarterback--but his face is as plain as a party balloon.
I smile at Sadie. "You're doing so well, honey. Concentrate on the car."
The Porsche's wheels dig grooves into the carpet.
Her breathing normalizes, so I push. "Did he have something in his hand?"
"Yes." Her voice shakes as features flicker across his face. "At first I thought he was putting a necklace on her, but then her neck turned red."
"Don't look out there, Sadie. Look at me. At me."
Her moist, round eyes latch onto mine.
"You're a brave girl," I say and steal a glance into the bedroom. The intruder comes into focus: sharp nose, strong jaw, cool blue eyes. Colin Payne. A long-suspected hitman, there was never enough evidence to put him away.
As he garrotes Cora Jenkins, my arms tighten like I'm the one pulling the wire. Sadie squeezes her eyes shut.
I lay a hand on hers. It feels like such a feeble gesture. "You did great," I say over and over again.
Her skin cools and her body stiffens.
"Sadie?" I shake her gently, but she doesn't respond. Did I push too hard?
She pixelates along with the rest of the room. Moments later, I'm back at the precinct, strapped to a reclining chair and groggy as hell.
"Got it," the ERS tech says.
Two other officers are there. Sadie is not.
"I knew we'd get him eventually," the woman says.
The man turns to me. "You'll be going away for a long time."
"Me?" I say. My voice is deep. A man's voice. I look down and see thick fingers with hairy knuckles and nails without a hint of polish.
"It takes a few minutes to reorient when you've gone through virtual as someone else," the female officer says. "Even for someone like you, Payne."
"I'm Payne?"
The male officer chuckles. "Your special-ops training served you well. Simply putting you in the simulator didn't work, so we got creative. First, we made you think you were Sadie, but all you did was blubber on the closet floor. Now creating that female cop persona to coddle the child"--he nods at the woman--"that was Officer Caffrey's stroke of genius."
Officer Caffrey takes a mock bow, then grows serious. "Now if you tell us who hired you, we might be able to keep you off death row."
Memories flood back.
A man in an alley handed me a picture of Cora.
"Twenty-five G's," I said.
He pressed an envelope into my hand. "Cheaper than lawyers and alimony."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 9th, 2021


Author Comments

This story was created for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. They give you a genre, location, and object, and you have 48 hours to write a story of 1000 words or less. I was assigned science fiction, bedroom, and toy car. I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to write a virtual reality story that involved a crime.

The contest version had an additional twist where the main character was a spy and the murder victim was a scientist working on biological weapons. I received some feedback that the reveal was too out of the blue and that it was a lot to cram into a flash piece. Rather than turn it into a much longer story, I decided to simplify the ending.

- Michelle M Kaseler
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