True Crime Society
“Welcome to our virtual meeting for the Houston chapter of the True Crime Society. It’s Tuesday night live!” Elizabeth smiled at the screen, and stacks of electronic boxes filled with people, smiled back. So far, twenty-seven people had joined.
“We’ll just wait a few minutes before we get started to make sure any stragglers have a chance to get signed in. How’s everybody been this week?”
A woman in a bright yellow shirt began mouthing words, but there was no sound.
“Susan, you’re muted, hon.”
Susan squinted at her screen for a moment. “Can you hear me now?”
“I just wanted to let everybody know that I’m spending my lunch hour walking in the park. It’s like a mini vacation, you know, to get out of the house and just have a change of scenery. And guess what? I’ve lost five pounds!”
Other members clapped, and there were responses of “Way to go!” “Good for you!”
“Oh, oh, oh!” A young woman with a green China doll haircut and bee sting lips waved her hand. “My uncle got out of the hospital. Nobody thought he was going to make it.”
“Oh, that’s excellent news, Leslie.” Elizabeth smiled and nodded.
A name appeared in the waiting room. Alex Ridgeway. That’s the guy that signed up yesterday afternoon. She clicked the button and admitted him to the call.
A woman with long dark hair appeared in a new box.
Oops! Guess it’s an Alexandra, not an Alexander. “Welcome, Alex. This is our newest member. She joined online yesterday after watching the video on our Insta. Thank you, Patricia, for making that.”
Patricia grinned. “I had a blast doing it.”
Elizabeth shifted her microphone. “Alex, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself, then we’ll get started with our speaker.” Is that barbeque sauce on your cheek? You should always do a mirror check before you turn the camera on.
A faint yowl and a thump came from somewhere. Alex looked over her shoulder, then turned back to face the camera. “The cat’s knocked something over. I was just really curious about the group, so I thought I’d log in and check it out. Killers are fascinating. So, yeah…here I am.”
Alex looked over her shoulder again, then reached up and adjusted her webcam so that it was focused more on her chin and decolletage.
Elizabeth cringed. Can she not see her feed? “Alright, then. Without further ado, I’d like to welcome Agent Samuel Berkowitz of the FBI. He’s with the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, and he specializes in counter-terrorism. His latest book, Free Radical, is about how people get lured into violent organizations, and how to get them back out again. Alright, Sam, take it away.”
“Good evening. I’d like to thank Elizabeth DeSalvo for that great introduction – she made me sound really good. Hope I don’t disappoint. We’re all here together tonight due to the miracle of the internet. Amazing thing, the World Wide Web. Don’t you all agree?”
The people who had their cameras on nodded.
“Now, despite its many charms, the web has a dark side. You don’t know who’s really lurking on the other side of your screen.”
The bang of a slamming door made everyone jump.
Elizabeth broke in, “I’m just going to put everyone on mute. Sorry. I should have done that earlier.”
She glanced at Alex, who was watching something over her shoulder.
“Now, as I was saying,” Agent Berkowitz started.
A young, sandy-haired man appeared in the hallway over Alex’s shoulder. Elizabeth sighed with relief. At least there was someone there with her. Elizabeth had been getting concerned, as the new member had seemed very distracted by noises going on behind her.
Alex swiveled completely around to face the man. He charged at her, rage distorting his face. She just sat there, arms in front as if she were holding something in her lap.
Elizabeth fumbled for her mouse. It took her three tries to click the “Unmute All” button.
“Alex! Alex, run!”
She stood up just as the man reached her. The webcam got knocked over, and there was only a view of a laptop keyboard.
The crack of a gunshot ripped through Elizabeth’s headphones, followed closely by a guttural scream. Oh. My. God. “Alex! Alex!”
Her rectangle disappeared as her connection dropped.
“Elizabeth!” Berkowitz shouted. “Call 9-1-1. Do it now.”
She almost dropped her phone twice, her hands were shaking so badly.
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
The phone connected to the computer by Bluetooth, causing an echo as the conversation played out over the video conference.
“She’s been shot.” Elizabeth’s voice was so high and thin she didn’t recognize herself.
“Who’s been shot?”
“A-a-alex. We were on a virtual meeting. This man just walked in and shot her. We all saw it.”
“What’s the address ma’am?”
“I. I don’t know. It’s all virtual. She was new…”
“Do you have a membership database?” Berkowitz asked.
“Yes. Of course! Aileen? Are you still-”
“I’m here! Hold on a sec…” Her fingers tapped furiously on the keyboard. “Got it! Alex Ridgeway, 2001 Green River Road, #1130.”
Elizabeth repeated it to the dispatcher.
“Thank you, ma’am. Emergency services are on the way. Are you able to see the victim?”
“No. She disconnected.”
“I see. Can you describe what happened?”
Elizabeth told her what she’d seen. The little red circle in the upper right of her screen caught her eye. “The whole thing is recorded! It was for a webinar, but…”
“Excellent. I need your contact information. A detective may stop by later this evening.”
Elizabeth looked at the wastebasket near her feet. She thought she might vomit. But she managed to give the 9-1-1 operator her details.
Some of the True Crime Society members had signed off, but most were still on. Including Agent Berkowitz. This was the closest most of them had been to a true crime. Elizabeth just wanted to crawl into bed and hide under her covers.
“Okay, then,” Agent Berkowitz said. “I think we’d better save this talk for another time. Is everyone okay?”
Elizabeth could see his eyes scanning the screen full of pale faces. She wasn’t so sure she could answer ‘yes’ to his question.
“It’s normal to be shaken up,” Berkowitz said, looking at each individual frame. “Your body has a strong reaction to violence, because, well, you could be next. If your hands are shaking, you feel nausea, and your breathing is shallow, that’s the adrenalin that flooded through your body when the flight-or-fight reaction kicked in. It’ll pass as the excess adrenalin leaves your system, but it can’t hurt to talk to someone about it – seeing violence first-hand like that can affect the witness almost as much as the victim.”
“Thank you, Agent Berkowitz. I will, um, contact you later in the week.”
“Certainly. When you give the police everyone’s contact information, make sure they know I’m an FBI agent. I’m more than happy to assist with the case, if they would like.”
“I’ll do that.”
Berkowitz dropped off the call.
“Alright, everybody. Stay safe. Go hug your loved ones. We’ll reconvene next week. Good night.”
Elizabeth shut down the call, then got up to make herself a cup of hot tea. She sat on her couch, covered with an afghan, sipping the hot drink and staring out the sliding glass door to the back yard.
It didn’t help. It took another four hours for her to finally feel like she was winding down. She’d just stood up to get ready for bed when the doorbell rang. Elizabeth padded softly on bare feet to peer through the peephole. Two dark-haired men in suits stood there.
“Who is it?”
“Police, ma’am. Detectives Lucas and Rader.”
“Hold your ID up to the peephole.” She was half expecting them, but she was still spooked at the thought of strangers at her door.
They held them up, but between the dim porch light and the fish-eye distortion, Elizabeth couldn’t tell if they were real or fake. But neither looked like the killer. “What do you want?”
“We just need to ask you some questions about the Alex Ridgeway incident.”
They must be real if they know the details. Elizabeth flung open the door. “Come in, come in.”
She led them to the living room. “Can I offer you anything to drink?”
The one that she thought was Rader said, “No, thank you.”
“So, how can I help you?”
“The dispatcher said you might have a recording of the incident,” Lucas replied.
“Yes.” Elizabeth moved to the desk in the far corner and woke the laptop. Once she found the recording of the virtual meeting, she clicked on it and said, “I don’t want to watch this again. I’ll go in the kitchen and get myself some water.”
Rader nodded, his eyes softening. “Yes ma’am. I think that’s a great idea.”
When Elizabeth heard the gunshot, she drank most of the water and had to refill her glass.
“Ma’am?” Detective Lucas called. “Could you send this to me?”
Elizabeth came back into the living room. “Of course. Do you have a card with your email on it?”
“Yes.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a fancy metal business card case. Mother of pearl gleamed on the inside as he opened it.
Elizabeth sat back down at her computer. “I’ll load it up to the cloud, then send you a link. I think it’s too big to email.”
“If you could get a list of all the attendees and their contact information, that’d be helpful.”
“Already downloaded.” She started to upload the video.
“So you’ve never actually met Alex Ridgeway, is that correct?” Lucas asked.
“Yes, that’s correct. Is Alex okay?” Elizabeth suspected she already knew the answer.
Detective Rader shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m sorry. If it’s any comfort, the cat will be okay, though.”
“Ridgeway’s cat. Yes. It came through the surgery just fine.”
Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth. “What happened to it?”
“The intruder stabbed it, but lucky for the cat, missed any vital organs.”
“How awful. As I said before, I didn’t really know Alex, but she seemed nice.”
The detectives looked at each other. Lucas pulled out his cell phone and scrolled around on it for a moment. He showed her a photo of a young man. Sandy blond hair. Blue eyes.
Elizabeth leaned back. “That’s the killer.”
Detective Lucas shook his head. “No, ma’am. That’s Alex Ridgeway.”