Smoke and Mirrors by Guest Author Alex Knight

Alex Knight

Linda logged off of the Internet, turned the computer off and quickly set the ironing board up in the middle of the living room. Her husband would be home any minute now and he would think that she had spent most of the day doing the laundry and ironing. Little did he know she was using the wash and fold service down the street and had been for several months. In fact, she had been using them ever since she became addicted to the online chat rooms.

The first time she stumbled into a chat room had been by accident but she had stayed to listen to the conversations and soon became a regular in that room. Her sister Bonnie, an addicted chatter, had warned Linda not to use her real name and so she picked Jasmine as her online name.

She was amazed at how many rooms existed and how many people were chatting in the middle of the workday. By the fifth day of chatting Linda was hooked. As soon as Mike left for work she would log on and see who was already in the different rooms. The flirtations and jokes would start and then so did the whispering. She felt alive. Men wanted her and women envied her.

Hour after hour her fingers would fly over the keyboard as she laughed, kissed and loved her way through the day. The first time she got truly carried away and knew it was when she had heard Mike’s key in the door and realized how long she had been online. She quickly shut down the computer without even logging off and flung herself on the sofa. Pleading a headache, she asked him to order a pizza for dinner since she had not been well enough to prepare anything. She felt dreadful lying to him like that but knew she had to. From that day on she set a travel alarm to go off thirty minutes before Mike was due home and placed it on top of the monitor. She would not be caught off guard again.

So began her decline mentally and physically. When Mike had to go out of town on business, Linda stayed on the computer from the minute she got up until two or three in the morning. Then it would start all over again. She would get up, shower and sit at the keyboard in her bath towel. A quick coffee and she was back for more chat. The toaster popping up was a rude interruption but she did have to eat and toast crumbs on the keyboard could be blasted away with compressed air when there was too many of them. The apartment began to look dreadful and so did Linda. Who had time for housework when there were men to captivate? She was eating and sleeping poorly and could think of nothing except chatting. It became her reason for getting up. Anything that took Linda away from the keyboard was a thing to be scorned. She knew she was losing her grip on reality but she was having too much fun.

Linda created different profiles for herself. Sometimes she would go into the chat room as more than one person at the same time. She loved it all, the excitement and glamour that was missing from her own life was right there on her computer screen. With a few keystrokes she could be tall or short, a redhead or a blonde, young or old. Depending on her mood, she would pretend to be a dancer, a secretary on disability leave, or a stay at home mom looking for some online loving. There were times when she didn’t even know who she was anymore. Bonnie’s fear for her sister increased whenever Linda recounted her adventures, but she didn’t know what she could do except pray.

Linda hired a maid service to come in once a week. She picked up the laundry on the way home from the grocery store, along with dinner from a drive-thru. When she was having too much fun online, she would get a delivery service to pick up the laundry and she would order in Chinese food so that she didn’t even have to leave the chat room until Mike came home. If he was tired and went to bed early, which he often did, she would be able to sneak on the computer and chat for another hour or two without him knowing.

All of her chat friends thought Jasmine was single and that she owned her own consulting business. Well if people actually believed anyone on the Internet, that’s what they thought. Linda learned quite early that everything on the Internet was smoke and mirrors and she was becoming quite clever at finding out who was lying and who wasn’t. More than once she had tripped someone up by asking a simple question or two. Those people quickly disappeared never to return to her room. That’s how she began to think of it, ‘her room.’ She was hosting it several hours a day and could quickly toss out anyone she didn’t like, not that that happened very often. Besides, how could she be so moral regarding the actions of others when she was juggling several different identities, simultaneous online affairs and a husband at the same time? She knew it was boredom and depression that drove her to chat and the more she was drawn into it, the worse her condition became. If only she had a real life romance. The love in her marriage had been long gone and both Linda and Mike knew it; they merely went through the motions.

Bonnie kept warning her sister to be careful but Linda insisted that she knew what she was doing. Then Linda made the mistake of falling for Ryan, a new man in the chat room. He charmed her in a way that none of the others had and was quite persistent. Best of all he lived in the same city as she did. The thought occurred to Linda that there was a possibility that they could become real life lovers and not just cyber pals. Ryan was very determined and she finally gave him her cell phone number. After a couple of phone conversations Linda agreed to meet him for an evening of fun. Linda scheduled their rendezvous to coincide with Mike’s next business trip.

If Mike phoned while she was out she would claim to have been shopping, down in the laundry room or, if it was late in the evening, finally sound asleep with the aid of her sleeping pills. She was glad she had caller I.D. installed on the phone, now she would know what time Mike called and how often so she could be fully prepared with her alibis.

Linda told Ryan she would arrange for the motel. It made her feel safe knowing she would be there ahead of time, no walking into an unexpected surprise that way. Placing scented candles around the room and putting a romantic CD on, the mood had been set. All she needed now was Ryan. The phone rang. Oh great, she thought, after all this he’s not coming.

“Baby, sorry I got hung up in traffic, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

“Okay hurry, I’m waiting for you.”

Freshening up for the third time, Linda glanced at her reflection in the mirror and struck a pose. She felt glamorous. Ryan’s knock on the door startled her; he was here. No chickening out now.

Stepping inside, Ryan quickly pulled Linda to him and kissed her passionately. He hadn’t expected to be as drawn to her as he was, or feel the way he did. He decided he might just as well have some fun before he did what he had come there to do. They made love several times and with a hunger she had never experienced before. Promising she would do whatever was necessary to keep this man in her life, an exhausted Linda struggled to keep her eyes open.

She felt Ryan stirring again and began to think this man was insatiable. Barely opening her eyes she questioned, “Again?”

“Sorry Linda, I truly am.” The expression on his face terrified her more than his voice did.

* * *

When Mike returned home from his business trip he found the apartment dark and silent. The message light on the phone was flashing. Turning on the dining room light he quickly checked the messages, only his own were there still waiting to be heard.

He went down to the lobby and checked the mailbox, it was full of junk mail and a few bills; apparently Linda hadn’t picked up the mail in a couple of days. Calling Bonnie, he asked her if she knew where Linda was. At first she insisted that she hadn’t a clue but after hearing that her sister was missing, she broke down and told him about Ryan. Bonnie was crying, she had warned her sister to be careful, why couldn’t Linda have listened?

After talking with Bonnie, Mike called the police to report his wife missing and his suspicion of foul play. He could tell by the officer’s tone that the police thought Linda was merely a dissatisfied wife who had finally run off with the first man who came along. Mike refused to believe his wife would just leave him like that without a note or taking any of her clothes. As far as he could tell nothing was missing.

Mike got the first phone call in the middle of the night. There was a Jane Doe at the morgue, could he come down and make identify the body? He said he would be there straight away. Looking at the bloodied and mutilated body Mike felt sickened.

“No, that isn’t her.”

“Sorry to have dragged you down here for nothing. We’ll be in touch.” With that the officer escorted Mike back to the exit.

Where was Linda and why hadn’t the police found her yet? Mike went through the motions at the office the next day until his boss ordered him to go home.

“Look Mike, you aren’t doing us or yourself any good here. Go home and wait for Linda. You’ll hear from her soon. Let us know when you do.”

“Thanks Keith. You’re probably right and I am exhausted. I’ll call when I hear from her.”

Mike went back to the apartment and opened a cold one. He put his feet up on the coffee table and hummed softly to himself. If Linda was so intent on playing her little online romance games she deserved what happened to her. He smiled when he remembered her sitting at the computer sound asleep. He saw her nickname on the screen while some jerk in the chat room was trying to whisper to her. As computer savvy as Linda had been, she didn’t know enough to clear the computer’s history file or to delete the temporary Internet files, thus leaving a clear record of where she had been spending her time.

Even without that, it was easy for Mike to use the friend finder feature to track his wife down. Once he had, he had even chatted with her from the office under his own chat nickname, but he had been smart enough to remove the evidence. Mike had played his part very cleverly and had covered all his bases. Now it was just a matter of appearing properly grieved and shocked when her body was discovered. He would never be suspected since he was hosting several sales seminars out of town when an Internet stalker viciously murdered his wife. Once the dust settled he would pick up a cool half a million in insurance and be free to seek comfort in the arms of another. The ringing interrupted his thoughts.

“I’m sorry to ask you to go through this again, but we have another Jane Doe that matches Linda’s description. Can you meet me down at the morgue again?”

“I just need to throw on some clothes and I’ll be right there.” Gawd, Mike thought, don’t they ever get bodies brought to the morgue during the daytime?

He arrived looking disheveled and tired, knowing that was how he was supposed to look. As the sheet was drawn back from Linda’s face, Mike began to sob.

“That’s her, how did she die?” More tears and shaking to the point of collapse, Mike grabbed at the wall for support and hoped he wasn’t overdoing it.

“The autopsy will tell us precisely how she died, but it looks like your wife was murdered.”

“Noooo…that son of a… I’ll kill him.” Mike’s voice broke and he sobbed again.

“Mr. Roberts, this is a matter for the police. Let us do our jobs. We’ll find this man Ryan or whoever is responsible for doing this to your wife.”

After a few more questions at the police station, Mike was driven home. The lieutenant was obviously worried about Mike’s state of mind and ability to drive safely.

The phone rang again shortly after his arrival home.

“Did you see my handiwork?”

“Yes, but I was beginning to wonder why it had taken the police so long to find her?”

“Your wife paid in advance for three nights. When she failed to check out, housekeeping found her. Now, about the rest of the money?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll meet you tomorrow in the park at noon, as agreed.”

“It would be a big mistake on your part if you didn’t show up.”

* * *

Mike fidgeted on the park bench feeling very exposed. He wished Ryan or whatever his name really was, would hurry and get here so he could get this over with.

Ryan walked by Mike twice before sitting down beside him.

“You bring the money?”

“Yes, it’s all right here.”

“Do you want to know how I did it? How I killed your wife?”

“No, not really. Well yes…I guess maybe I do, after all I am paying you for it. Did you actually make love to her or did you just kill her? Did she die happy?”

“No Mike, she didn’t die happy. Linda isn’t dead.”

“What do you mean? I saw her body in the morgue.”

“Yes, you saw Linda all right but she wasn’t dead. Michael Roberts you are under the arrest for conspiracy to commit murder. You have the right to remain silent…”

Mike was no longer listening; he was looking across the street to where Linda stood watching him. She wasn’t dead and he was being arrested. What had gone wrong? Ryan was a cop? After he acknowledged that he understood his rights, had been handcuffed and placed in a squad car Mike continue to watch Linda. She was smiling at him.

That night Linda had poured a couple of drinks and she and Detective Ryan Phillips sat on the balcony discussing the upcoming trial.

“Linda, it’s imperative that no one know we actually made love that night, do you understand that?”

“Of course I do, Ryan. We’ve already gone over this. You came in, told me you were a cop and that my husband wanted to kill me and had hired you over the Internet. I won’t slip up, I promise.”

“Okay honey. As soon as the trial is over, we’ll start seeing each other openly and get married as soon as the divorce is final. And Linda, one more thing…”

“Yes Ryan?”

“Call the phone company first thing in the morning and cancel the Internet connection. You’re going offline.”