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It’s been seven days. It may not seem like it to Mason, the bags of his eyes deeper, his five o’clock shadow, unkempt. He’s been sitting in this jail cell, sleepless, deep in thought.

Who the fuck framed him?

The case was assigned to him that same night; Ron was there, investigating it with him. It was just going to be another case he’d finish--but now he’s found himself at the center of it.

Eric was so convinced it was him; after all, he was the one who slapped on the bracelets. As if he’s been waiting to do this since their first day.

“Don’t disgrace yourself any further, Mason,” he’d say, talking to him through the bars when he visited. “You’ve got a reputation to uphold. Finish this early and save your name. Just confess.”

But it wasn’t him.

He’d ask Ron to continue the investigation for him, hoping to find the truth in closing it. But Ron had matched the bullet cases on the scene to the bullets in the handgun found in his desk, nearly an hour after he was arrested. It was perfect. Too fucking perfect.

Mason buries his face in his palms. He takes an exasperated breath.

Suddenly, the weight of the jail cell comes crashing down on him.

A cop, for 14 years. In nearly two days, those years dissolved to nothing.

He’s traded his uniform for this orange jumpsuit and white slip-ons. Something he didn’t think to do all his life as an officer sworn to the law.

At least it was comfy.

He drops onto his lone bed, rests his head on the pillow.

He lets out another sigh and closes his eyes.

――――

“Mason, I just… don’t know how else you can get out of this.”

Ron has made it his habit to visit him and update what’s been happening with the investigation. It seemed like it was getting worse each time he visited.

“When was the last time you visited that strip club?”

Mason’s skin is pale. His eyes were more sunken. “I--I think it was a year ago…”

“Around April? May?”

“Y-yeah,” Mason replies, scratching the back of his head. It was a memory he didn’t want to remember. “I think…” The two let the room’s silence overtake them for a moment. Ron was the only visitor today.

“You think--”

Mason slams the table with his cuffed hand. “Fuck…” he starts, in a near mutter. “Fuck… FUCK!” The correctional officer guarding the door starts approaching them; Ron shakes his head to ward him off.

“Did you…” Mason’s trembling voice starts, trying his best to relax, “Did you check my phone? Did you find anything?”

Ron pauses for a second. “Yeah. Your--your location services weren't on.” He sighs and puts his hands on the table. “Mason, I couldn’t find your location that night. And this… ‘Ari’. I couldn’t find any texts from her.”

Mason sinks into his seat, attempting to fold his arms, but his cuffed hands prevent him. He continues to breathe in anguish.

“Mason, I can keep investigating the case, but the evidence will just keep point--”

“Go to the bar. Ask the bartender that night--ask--” Mason tries to remember the bartender… but his intoxicated memories prevent him from making any details that could help.

He scrunches his eyes closed, nearly screams but holds back.

He curls up his fist and starts slamming his head with it. Ron leaps from his seat and grabs his arm.

“Mason…”

――――

Day 14. Two weeks away from his court date.

Ron stopped visiting, just as Mason requested him to do. Eric had no reason to. There was nobody left.

Mason tries to make sense of this case from this jail cell, but his sleep-deprived mind prevents him from coming to a rational conclusion.

“Visitor,” a gruff voice from outside his cell shouts. Mason’s head turns up. It must be Eric again...

“Mason.”

It wasn’t Eric. It’s his captain. The last fucking person he wanted to see.

“How… how are you--doing?”

Even if he was trying to sympathize, Nathan still looked smug. That’s how Mason’s always seen him. “Look… I know it hasn’t been easy for you in there...”

“Fuck you,” Mason says in a murmur.

“... and I was wond--what?”

Mason felt too heavy to leave his bed, so he gave him a glare instead. “I said ‘fuck you’, Captain.”

Nathan pauses for a second, dumbfounded. He looks around, trying to see who else is hearing this.

“... what the FUCK did you just say to me?”

Mason shoots up from his seat and nearly tackles the bars standing between them. “Fuck you, captain!”

Nathan’s eyes grow big--almost comically, just as how Mason always views him. “REMEMBER YOUR FUCKING RANK, SHITBIRD!”

Mason’s fury is undeniable. “I WOULDN’T BE HERE BECAUSE OF YOU!” He’s been wanting to do this for nearly ten years now.

“FUCK YOU, MASON!” Nathan angrily retorts. “I HAD IT JUST ABOUT TO HERE WITH YOUR BULLSHIT-- ALWAYS STRUTTING IN MY FUCKING DISTRICT LIKE SOME ASSHOLE--”

A shouting match erupts in this hall. The guard watches on, unable to choose who to stop.

“YOU AND YOUR PIECE-OF-SHIT CLEARANCE RATE--YOUR--YOUR FUCKING CURLY FUCKING HAIR--HOW MUCH GEL DO YOU USE IN THE MORNING, ANYWAY?!”

Mason silences for a second and starts to shake his head. “You don’t know shit, cap,” he says, in between his captain’s shouts.

“WALKIN’ AROUND LIKE--LIKE YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME! YOU AND FUCKING DE LA CRUZ… I RUN THE DISTRICT, MASON! NOT YOU AND HIM!”

Mason shakes his head once more. He walks away, sits back down on his bed.

He’ll save it for court.

“YOU’RE NOTHING, MASON! YOU’VE ALWAYS B--BEEN INSUBORDINATE--” Nathan starts to muddle his words. “--FUCKING--FUCKER--” He starts to tremble like a ten-year-old, breathing angrily while at it. “FUCK YOU, SHITBIRD!” he shouts, a bit higher-pitched than before.

Nathan stomps away from the cell, nearly bumping the guard. “Fuck away from me!” he cries--his clumsy leg nearly trips over the guard’s own, but he saves it with a stumble.

Soon, the cell reverts back to its somber state.

“What district?” the guard suddenly asks, slightly loud, taking his place back.

Mason, silent the whole time, looks up. “Western,” he simply says.

“Heh.” The guard finally lets out his long-awaited scoff. “I heard of that dude.”

――――

His fault.

The only thing Mason looked forward to was the court date. Five days away. The last week’s gone by so quickly.

He’d given up on what his future held. All he could think about were the last details he could get from that day, and Ron’s visitations...

He’d think about the girl who was wrapped up in this. If she could’ve had a life, so long as her murderer didn’t use her to set him up.

He was responsible for her death.

He pissed off somebody. Even though he was just doing his job. Even though most of his cases were civil investigations…

He was just doing his job.

And yet this girl’s blood was in his hands.

Yeah. He’ll tell himself this when he inevitably gets sentenced to life in County. Yeah…

“Visitor.” The familiar gruff voice awakens him from his purgatory state. It was late… who the hell could it be now?

“Look, Nathan…” Mason starts, exasperated. “I don’t give a fuck what you--”

“Mason Wylie.”

Mason squints his eyes, his vision still a tad hazy.

“Fancy seeing you on the other side.”

A smile--the most genuine smile he could muster in a long time--appears in Mason’s face.

The absolute last person he’d expect. “Mark. What--what are you--”

A man, dark and curly hair, bifocals, scarf wrapped around his neck, stands outside the bar. “I never thought I’d see this. Mason Wylie, great cop of Western, behind the very fortress he’d use to place his aggressors. For it was his duty...”

He was glad to at least see a familiar face before his inevitable life sentence. “Yeah, well…” He pinches the chest of his jumpsuit and promptly lets go. “It ain’t bad, all things considered.” And it’s Mark Essie, of all people.

The two pause to share a moment of nostalgia. Mason hasn’t seen this man in five years; he nearly forgot about him. “How’s… how’s the company, by the way?” The last he’d heard of Mark, he was working on building his publishing company. You can thank his five successful novels for that type of confidence.

Mark takes a second to reply, deep into his own memories. “What? Oh. It… it’s doing well. Some hiccups here and there...” For once, Mason is starting to look normal; there’s now a lingering smile in his face as he listens on.

“I just… oh, you know, made five million last year.” Mason’s smile turns into a subtle, impressed smirk. “I actually just came from my Indiana branch. Third branch of Blacktower. Middle schools and libraries adore me, Mason--”

“Holy shit, man,” Mason replies in approval.

“We can talk about it over some beer if you want. Got a lot to catch up on...” Mark motions to follow him. “C’mon.” Just as he vanishes from sight, Mason’s expression falters to a humble smile.

“You forgetting I’m locked up, Marky?” he shouts, as he leans against the bars and even slips his arms outside of it; something out of character for a man like him.

“Oh… right.” Mark reappears back into Mason’s view. “I bailed you out, bucko.”

Again, a smile grows in Mason’s face. “... what?”

“So… a couple brewskis at Bergman’s? Twenty minutes? Mmm… you’re gonna need a minute to taste your freedom, then you’d wanna go back to your house… maybe we should make it...”

Mark’s voice drowns out in Mason’s mind. This is all too damn fast…

He was forgetting something. Something he tucked away weeks ago from his mind.

That he’s innocent. That he’s been set up.

Five days until his hearing. Five days to find a motive for his prosecution. Five days to create a case file, gather evidence, see how deep this goes, who did this to--

Before he could even finish his thought, the bars of his cell rings and slides open.

――――

The two old friends find themselves at the bar of their choosing; Bergman’s. It’s a shit bar by their standards: the place smelled like a dishwasher sink, the beer was lukewarm, and the theme couldn’t decide between taxidermied animals and Scottish pride. But this is the bar where they met. Plus, the chandeliers tucked its ugliness in poor lighting.

Mason and Mark sit at the counter, making up two out of seven patrons that night. Nobody cared that Mason looked like he just came from his house; he was wearing the same shirt and pajamas he was arrested in, after all.

“I knew something was amiss with your arrest, Mason. The first time I heard it…” Mark started the conversation with why he sprung him out of his cell. “You’re more a cop than many of them are! The talent’s there. I’m sure they could see it in your trophies alone… all those awards you got...”

Mason’s haggard appearance somehow resurfaced, despite being a free man for thirty minutes. He’s got quite a bit of sleep to catch up on.

“Have you thought about who put you there? Anyone you wronged, every possible person in your past and present...”

He wanted to tell Mark that it’s Nathan, but one shouting match wasn’t enough. Mason’s box of cases rules him out; it honestly could’ve been anyone. He accepted that while he was in his cell.

Now it’s just a matter of finding who did it in a couple of days.

“I’m tired, Mark. Tired of all of this.” Mason gives his bottle a defeated sip. Mark takes a sip with him.

“Mason… I know I shouldn’t be doubting you right now. But please tell me truthfully.” The two take a pause.“Did you kill that girl?”

Mason faces him briefly, then turns away. “I’m not a degenerate. I’m a cop.” He takes a long drink. “That girl didn’t deserve to die. But it’s done. All because of me.” Mason takes another swig, his bottle becoming lighter. “Someone wants me out of that department and the lengths they’d go are inhumane.”

The two take a silent pause. Mason finally finishes his bottle—his demeanor changes to a more serious one as he straightens up in his seat. He missed this.

“What… are you getting out of this anyway, Mark?” Before he answers, Mark motions the bartender for another bottle. He takes another drink.

“I trust you completely, Mason.” He silences and pats Mason’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it weren’t for you.”

Mason’s expression changes for the better.

“We met in this very bar that night. Ten years ago.” Arguably, this place looked better back then.

“We both had too much to drink. You wanted to punch my face because I was being a buzzkill—I couldn’t stop promoting my second novel. Your inebriated ass told me ‘books are for nerds.’ You booed me off; I wanted to punch you, too, and I didn’t even know you were a cop!

“We were gonna go to another bar. To sober up. Start our fight, you said. I drove ahead. You left a little later...”

Mason starts to scoff. 20 minutes later.

Mark swerved to the side of the road and hit a tree. He kept his foot on the gas and burned off his tires. He could’ve suffocated from the smoke if the concussion didn’t get him first…

“... then you pulled my ass out of that car, tried your absolute best to get me to the hospital because dialing 911 would lead to you anyway…”

“And I had to lie my ass off that night, talking to the nurse. Shouldn’t’ve started with ‘I’m a cop’...”

The two chuckle heartily. That was still an unbelievable night.

“If it weren’t for you, Mr. Wylie, Kris would be fatherless. Blacktower Publishing would cease to exist…” Mason takes his new bottle and gives him a toast.

“I… I was destined to get you out of that cell,” Mark continues. “The world’s not rid of you yet, Mason.”

Mason chuckles again. “Hey, fuck work. Let’s just celebrate the here and now.” Mason offers his bottle for another toast.

“I’ll drink to that,” Mason says with a clink of his bottle. The two take a long drink.

“How much was the bail, anyway?” Mason shut all of that out the day he got arrested. He continues to drink.

“Oh, just… a hundred grand. No big deal.”

Mason coughs and nearly spits his drink out.

――――

The night ended hazily. Mason wakes up, finds himself at the couch of his living room. A sharp pain enters his head as he assumes a seated position, but he does not wince; only sits in silent pain. He’s used to this feeling; in fact, he missed it.

He scans for a clock in his living room and finds it to be 30 to 4 in the afternoon. He finds Mark, sleeping in an uncomfortable position on the recliner to his left. Looks like he’s found a blanket to use, too. He scoffs.

They’d have already wasted half a day, but that was fine; Mason just got home from three days of inconsistent sleep, in a miserable old jail cell that wasn’t his, for two and a half weeks. He’d blame himself and prepare for the worst: living out the rest of his days in County for a murder he didn’t commit.

Despite feeling fatigued, aching all over, a ringing headache never leaving his head, Mason is at the top of the world.

He takes a bated breath, stands up, and nearly stumbles from the even-sharper pain. He walks over to his kitchen, burying his face with a palm. He turns his coffee machine on, and notices his… kitchen, trashed. The shelves with papers and other knick-knacks were scattered on his floor as if violently yanked out. First good reason to punch Eric as hard as he can whenever they meet again. He eyes his cereal cabinet, opens it, and reaches in the back, feeling and grabbing a bottle of whiskey.

“Get up,” Mason says, lightly kicking the sleeping Mark in the shin, a cup of his wonderful brew in hand. Mark shuffles but keeps his eyes closed. Mason tries again by gently slapping his cheek for however long it would take to wake him.

“Huh--” Mark wakes up, a tad bit startled; he calms down when he looks at Mason. “The hell happened last night…”


Mason wishes he’d keep up better. “Time to go to work.”

――――

Mason thought he’d find himself alone in this, but Mark had a second reason to spring him out of jail.

“There’s obviously something unusual about this,” Mark told him, as Mason drove him to his office. “And in there somewhere is a story. I want to help in any way I can.” Mark should’ve just worked in the police force since he’s never had a partner as eager as he was at that moment.

Mason’s already on a time crunch, already three weeks behind. He was sure he’d lost every single ally in his district, maybe except for Ron. He’d take Mark over his sheer will to finish this.

And even then? Mason doesn’t want to think about how much the odds are stacked against him. He’d be trying to expose whom he suspects is his very own captain… honestly, the only person he could think to start with right now.

He assigned Mark to tail Nathan as best as he could after his shift was over. When he dropped him off, Mark would have had only 45 minutes left to catch Nathan leaving the building.

Mason, on the other hand, wants to handle the riskier leads, starting with the 16-year-old girl’s place of work, then the very station he worked in.

Now alone, Mason awaits in his car. Silver Gale’s would start becoming busier in three hours, by his estimate, so he still has time to come in without the poor lighting.

Before he leaves his car, he phones Ron. To his surprise, he picks up. “Ron.”

“Mason?”

“I’ve been bailed out. I’m gonna need your help. I only have three days before my court date to fix this.”

“W-what are you talking about--”

“The girl who died.” Mason knows how much he’s putting Ron at risk. He’ll find out soon how much he’ll take. “What can you tell me about her?”

A few exasperated breaths. “Mason… her name--her name’s Annabelle Tate.” He’s in this with him now; no turning back. “She’s--she’s 16 but they faked her age so she could work at the club. S--started out as a waitress at first. Developed a drug habit. Mason--we couldn’t find any history between her and you.” Mason is silent the whole time, already pondering his next steps.

“Eric’s heading the investigation. He’ll be in court to testify against you. They’ve found more evidence on the scene. Your hair, some prints--it was all there.”

Mason can’t help but shout in anger right now, but he maintains composure. “Thank you.”

“Mason… before you go there. Drop by the station, while the shift change is going on. I’ll let you in the back. You’re--you’re gonna need to see something before you keep going.”

――――

Calm and collected.

Mark took every precaution to prepare--wear all black, bring a notepad, find binoculars to carry… but that made him feel creepy.

Mark has successfully tailed Mason’s captain--Nathan Snapes--starting with his home first. The man didn’t actually live far from his office building; he was able to afford a room in the apartments only six blocks away.

He could not make any significant details from where he parked his car, but nonetheless it looked like Nathan was going to have a busy night when he left his apartment. He was… wearing an orange hawaiian shirt, shuffling for something in his breast pocket while he held his aviators on the other hand. It was 45 degrees out, and Nathan looked like he was going to the beach.

Nathan successfully pulls out a cigarette but drops his car keys. When he goes to reach for it, he drops his aviators.

This goes on for nearly ten minutes.

――――

There were always fewer people during a shift change at the station. Right away, Mason was able to meet Ron in the back parking lot.

“It’s… nice to see you outside of that cell, ” Ron commented, as they made their way toward the surveillance room. Ron didn’t waste time, sensing even Mason’s urgency.

“We had a fire alarm not long after you left. Look at this.” Ron shows Mason the hallway camera footage where his office door is visible. In full view, Mason sees Nathan, entering the very door, slipping on rubber gloves…

――――

Nathan started off his night at the tropical-themed bar only a few blocks away from his apartment. Explains the shirt…

Already, Mark could feel a bit of dullness; a man like Nathan is absolutely easy to tail. Now he’s starting to wonder if he’s even worth it.

――――

“This is the farthest I can go, Mason.”

Ron sits with Mason in his car. Mason still couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I can’t help you after this. Eric’s already on my ass; he keeps pushing me to finish the murder case we opened up.”

How can he take his own captain out? What kind of case did he need to open up? What evidence did he need to gather?

“You’ve done all you could, Ron.” Mason puts away his thoughts for a second and offers a hand to him.

Ron smiles--some brightness in this dark moment--and shakes Mason’s hand firmly. “I hope you find your answers.”

――――

Mark pushed his luck, leaving his car to enter the bar. Binoculars wouldn’t have worked anyway because there were no visible windows to see him through. Plus… it still felt creepy.

It looked as if Nathan was meeting a few friends--nothing unusual… wait, he’s seen those folks before. They have occupied the counter near the dance floor, Nathan shaking hands with a few after-hours suits.

He’d only see him in passing, but that’s definitely city planner Ray Figueroa. The other two he couldn’t seem to ID…--

Nathan nearly catches Mark’s eyes, but he looks away in time. At the corner of his eye, Mark notices Nathan glance at the cellphone in his pocket. He drops his aviators while at it.

――――

Peak hours. Mason should’ve gone inside before it became packed.

He found himself back at the strip club; he didn’t mean to stand out, but it couldn’t be helped with the way he looked at the staff, eager to talk to somebody.

Feeling a strong need for a drink, he goes for the bar.

“Whiskey, neat,” he starts right away. The bartender returns with the drink, but she hesitantly holds it back from him. Not long, he notices her staring past him.

“What’re you doing here?”

Mason turns around slowly and finds a woman with a resentful glare. Unlike the others, she wore a robe, her hair in the middle of being styled.

“Look, I--I’m just here for a drink…” He starts to feel the whole room shift their attention to him, as he earns more glares from the patrons for taking away this fine young woman from her job.

“Get the hell outta here.”

“I just--I just want some answers for--” He hesitates to say the girl’s name.

――――

Mark gambled to leave the bar right away and return to his car. He thought he’d spend the whole investigation safely inside… but it looked like he wasn’t, so long as this Nathan fellow’s night went on.

It didn’t take long for Nathan to actually leave the place; Mark was ready to wait here for as long as it took.

He noticed that he didn’t leave with anyone else.

――――

“They gave me a picture to look out for you.”

“Who?”

“Your cop friends.”

Her name was “Flamingo”. She was towering, almost the same height as Mason. She’d convince him to go with her, away from the commotion he created. It seems he’s become well-known in this establishment while he was locked up...

Mason walks with Flamingo to the lounge, past the powder rooms. They’d find themselves alone in a gloomy closet with its own vanity table. “This was where Anna stayed.”

And soon, a sinking feeling weighs Mason down. “Why… why’d you take me here?”

Flamingo pauses. “I know that girl. Practically raised her.” She sits at the lone chair of this now-empty room. “She never mentioned you, and this is the first time I’ve seen you.” A tear glistens in her cheek, shining the pink glitters that cover it.

“It couldn’t have been you, Mason. The man she’s been seein’ wasn’t as tall as you.”

――――

An adult arcade. Seriously, Nathan.

Mark has found himself trailing a boy-man’s night out and it’s only getting more ridiculous by the moment.

Mark has already broken the “two-car gap” rule, among other things. He should feel proud, successfully tailing a police captain all night, but frankly he felt more insulted...

He even parked only an aisle away from Nathan’s car. Looks like he’ll need to leave the car again…

Once Nathan vanishes out of view, Mark prepares to follow him inside. He exits his car, notepad and cellphone in hand--

Just after Mark closes the door of his car, a black bag is pulled over his head.

Mark shuffles in panic, but hands stronger than his willpower detain him easily. He feels himself, dragged in the concrete, hands zip-tied, his location growing ever-distant...

There was nothing but darkness after that.

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