There is a case that I can’t let go. The one that I couldn’t solve. The murderer that murdered me.
I’m telling you this so you don’t feel cheated. If you don’t like stories where the main character doesn’t make it out, go to your local library and check out Harry Potter or something. Except, he does die in that novel, then comes back. I’m not that lucky. No magical save for me. Now that we have that nasty bit of information out of the way, let me walk you through it.
I was staring at eight pictures of eight different victims.
“Mind if ask you some questions about the case?”
I turned and almost spat at the man to get out. He wore a faded black suit and a blue tie. His shoes were black loafers.
“Detective Torres will be happy to tell you what to do with your questions.”
He laughed. “Come on Detective. Questions can’t hurt anyone.”
I returned my attention to the board. The victims had all been killed within in the last seventeen weeks. One death every two weeks. If the pattern held, someone was going to die late tonight or early tomorrow morning.
I couldn’t figure out a way to stop it. “I don’t have time for the FBI’s politicking.”
“If you let us help you with the case maybe we can catch this guy.” It was a question phrase like a demand.
I flicked my eyes in his direction then back to the board. The victims were as different from each other as a cannon blast was to a Bang Snap firework. Nothing connected them together.
Except the way they died.
Wallets open, nothing missing. A handwritten note that read “Your Membership has been revoked.” A poison I can’t pronounce in their blood streams. Nasty stuff that. It paralyzed the victims, locking them up, until their lucks stop inhaling. Death by asphyxiation.
I wondered if the killer was in the room with them. If the last person they saw was their murderer. If he spoke to them, if the last thing they heard was his cold hard voice. If he had explained why he had chosen them.
“If you want to talk to someone about that, Detective Torres will be coming back shortly.” I didn’t look at him.
He moved in front of me cutting off my view of the board. He held out a card. “I think you’re too smart to be a cop. If you want something bigger give me a call and I’ll see what I can do.”
I took the card without looking away from his face. “Thanks. Now could you get out of my way. I’m trying to save lives.”
His grin was stupid. “If you really want to make an impact you could.”
“Didn’t I already toss you out of here once?” Detective Torres voice was pitched low, it was a threat.
The FBI agent smiled at Torres. “I was just having some words with your partner.”
Torres grunted. “You’ve had your words. Now get out.”
I didn’t turn as the FBI agent passed me but, I tossed his card on the table behind me.
The note was the interesting bit to me, the handwriting on the note anyway. Calligraphy. Or the most elaborate cursive that I have ever seen. All curves and loops. It was the kind of writing you expect to see on a wedding invitation, not left on dead bodies.
Detective Torres said something to the FBI agent that I didn’t catch. They left together.
I leaned on the conference room table, chewed on my nails, and tried to force my brain to see something I hadn’t seen before. Something that would connect the murder victims together.
They varied in ages from, Mrs. Sarah Hughes – a retired nurse – in her seventies, to sixteen-year-old Callum Garcia – a High School Student – studying to take an entrance exam for Harvard and West Point.
None of the victims lived in the same areas, no two of them worked in the same field, and race didn’t seem to be the deciding factor. We had the researchers – down on four – dig into their Facebook, twitter, and Instagram profiles to see if they connect that way. To find us some mutual friends or something. No luck.
We were looking for the world’s most careful serial killer. Whatever his preference for his victims was, I couldn’t figure it out.
I reached my hand back for my coffee.
“Detective!” Captain Jenkins shouted from the door. His voice soft as a screeching crow.
I jerked and knocked over my cup. Delicious warm black bean juice spilled over the table. Soaked up by lose paperwork, case files, requisition forms and a book I had checked out from the library about poisons –the department doesn’t have money to spend on books – or so I was told. I cursed and snatched the closest computer and my now wet cell phone.
Computer safe and phone rescued I looked up at Captain Joseph Jenkins. His friends called him Joe. I called him Sir.
He was a balding man who tried to hide it with a comb over. He was wearing the same suit that he had been wearing two days ago. When this case had started, he looked ten years younger than he did now; Long hours behind a desk, lack of sleep and exercise, pour on the stress, and add in the unhealthy amounts of takeout we had been pounding down over the past weeks. A person tends to gain weight under those circumstances.
“Tell me you have something new.” His tone was sharp.
I had to resist the urge to make a wise crack and shook my head. “No sir.”
His frown lines deepened. “Where is Torres?”
I didn’t think it was possible, but he frowned deeper. “I expect updates.”
He wasn’t upset with me, deep down I knew that, he was getting phone calls from everyone that had a phone: the press, the brass above him – who were getting calls from the governor – the FBI hovering around the office like the fly that won’t leave you alone when you’re trying to eat outside.
Everyone demanding the case be turned over to them. But, the first murder had happened in our district, so it was our case. The case getting taken away from us wouldn’t look good for his promotion potential, it was probably threatening his career.
I had to hold back a sigh by clenching my jaw together. I gave him a tight nod and was careful to control my tone. “You’ll know as soon as I do.”
He nodded and left. His shoulders hunched, his pace quick.
Anna, the civilian secretary, came in carrying a roll of paper towels, her eyes soft, her face understanding. “Let me help.”
I nodded and together we cleaned the spilled coffee. She promised to return with new copies of the paperwork that had been ruined. As she left, she passed Detective Torres as he came in.
Detective Torres was the lead detective on the case. He preferred cool colored shirts, I think he liked the way they made his jaw line, and eyes stand out.
He shook his head at the table. “Any miracles happen while I was gone?”
I sighed, turned back to the victim board and leaned against the table. He came up to the table next to me and copied me by leaning on the table. After a minute he crossed his arms over his chest. Together we stared at the same information we had been staring at for seventeen weeks.
“We missed something,” I said crossing my arms. “We must have missed something.”
Neither of us said anything. Anna came in with fresh paperwork and more coffee, then left.
I think, out of boredom or desperation, he made a call. “I want to talk to Mrs. Hill again.”
I frowned at that. We had quested her three times already. “What for?”
He grabbed his coat from off the chair. “To do something other than stare at this board. Like we haven’t memorized every word from every report.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think it will do any good.”
His smile was warm, it didn’t touch his eyes. “That’s why I’m the lead detective.”
Two hours later, we pulled up outside Mrs. Hill’s house.
It was a small house, maintained with the love and affection that only a happily married couple can give. The kind of attention that turns a house into a home. The kind that makes you feel different when you walk in, like everything that happened outside the walls didn’t matter. All that mattered was that you were safe and together.
My partner rang the doorbell. Mrs. Hill opened the door enough to look out. In the brief moment the door was open I could see that her eyes were red, her face splotchy with all the crying that she had been doing.
“Mrs. Hill, we have a few more questions we would like to ask you. May we come in?” Detective Torres asked.
She closed the door. I could hear the chain being slid through the locking plate. The door opened. “Come in.” Her voice was raspy and soft.
She was wearing grey sweats, a long-sleeved gray sweater three sizes too big for her and her hair was in a bun over her head.
She led us to their den, it was dimly lit, the curtains drawn tightly closed. They had three bookcases in here, each shelf packed with novels. On the coffee table there was a box of chocolates, one bite taken out of each one, three empty glasses, and a bowl of milk. She cleared the coffee table with an apology about the mess, mumbling something under her breath about polite visitors calling first.
“Coffee?” She called out from the kitchen.
“Thank you, but no ma’am.” Torres answered, his tone professional.
The pictures on the walls were showed a happy family. A mother, a father, and two little girls. The positioning of the photos served as a timeline, I traced it with my eyes. From marriage, to the birth of the twin girls, the first day home, the first winter, the first steps, the first spring, the first baby tooth to come out, the first day of school.
I was glad when Mrs. Hill came in so I wouldn’t have to look anymore. To follow the timeline to where the happiness ends. The cup in her hands was steaming. I regretted leaving mine in the car. It would’ve been crass to bring it in.
Mrs. Hill sat down, my partner and I followed suit.
I counted eight cubes of sugar she dropped into her coffee. She stirred, took a sip then set the cup down. “Did you find the man that did this to my family?” There was a tremor in her voice. “The man that took my husband, the man that took my children’s father?”
My throat tightened and I glanced at Torres.
“No ma’am we haven’t caught him yet.”
Her glare took us both in. “I don’t see why you are here. In my house, on my couch, when the man who killed my husband is still—” she turned her face away. “out there—” she wiped her hand across her face, “free.”
I winced and rubbed the back of my neck as a tingling swept up the back of my neck and across my face. The tingling turned to a burning that made my neck, face and ears feel hot. I wanted to get up and leave, to let the woman mourn in peace. Instead I counted with a deliberate slowness to ten in my head, filling my lungs to control my reactions.
“We would like you to walk us through what you remember from the day you found your husband.” Torres kept his voice neutral and detached. He was good at this, talking to victims without getting emotionally involved. I couldn’t do that. I felt for her, for her loss, her pain.
She turned to look at us with tears still on her face and in her eyes. She shook her head and stiffened. “I wasn’t the one that found him.” Her voice was cold. Colder than trying to run naked through a blizzard at night. “The girls did. After we got back from our church camping trip.” She motioned to the house. “I sent them to be with their grandparents for a while.” She stood up, her back straight. “Get out of my house and don’t come back here until you have found the man that did this to my husband.”
I swallowed and stood, my legs felt weak and my skin felt like there were bugs crawling up my arms. I wanted to offer my condolences. To swear to her that we would find this bastard. “Mrs. Hill, we understand—”
She brought her hand up and then back down in a cutting motion. “No.” She looked me right in the eyes.
My eyes started to feel hot and sweat rolled down my ribs.
“How could you understand anything I’m going through. How could you understand what it’s like to lose your best friend and not even be allowed to bury him?”
My partner stood and tapped my arm. “Thank you for your time, ma’am.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a card, offering it to her. “If you remember anything out of the ordinary or if you need anything. Please call.”
She stared at his hand. Swallowed. “I found an AA chip.” The room got quiet; I was sure Torres could hear my heart beat quickening. Two of the other victims attended AA meetings.
Torres pulled his little notebook. “Do you know where he went to his meetings.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t even know he had a problem. He told me he was bowling with his friends on Thursday nights.” She turned her back to us. “But when I called around, none of them knew anything about Thursday night bowling.”
Torres wrote notes in his book and snapped it shut. “Thank you for the information.”
“You should leave.”
Torres put his card on the table.
I drove back to the office while Torres talked to Anna, he was telling her to look up all the AA meetings in the area that met on Thursdays. Every single one in the city.
He hung up the phone but kept it in his hand.
“I’m not sure if I can do this job.” The words coming out of my mouth caught me by surprise. But, they were true.
For an awkward three minutes Torres didn’t say anything. He was careful not to respond. “When you came on, I told you to make and maintain a binder. Did you do it?”
I kept my eyes on the road. Watched the traffic. The people walking by. Children on the sidewalks. “Yeah.”
“I want you to go and read through it.” He paused for an appropriately dramatic moment. “Then we can have this conversation again.” We didn’t speak the rest of the ride.
Back at my desk I pulled out a black one-inch binder and set it on my desk. Around me the station buzzed with chatter, the zick zick of the printer, phones ringing. The vent right above my desk blew freezing air chilled in the artic circle then piped into the office.
I opened the black folder and read the first article. It was about the successful arrest of a suspected child murderer. I had been on that case, they let me make the arrest. It went on to talk about how grateful the family was, how safe the community felt knowing that he was behind bars.
The next article told the story of sixteen-year-old Martin Hays. It touched gently on the gruesome details of his rape and murder. I had helped with that case.
I turned the page and read the next article. It laid out the details of the Michelle Adams home invasion, and the evidential apprehension of her murderer. I had helped with that case too.
With each page I turned I felt my muscles tightening with the desire to do something. I got a fluttery feeling in my chest, like squirrels fighting over the last nut of the season. Snapping the binder closed, I pushed my chair back and stood.
I walked into the conference room. They had pulled the corkboard from the small office and brought it in. Pinned up was a map of the city, locations marked with red pins. I guessed those were the AA meetings happening tonight. The room was full of uniformed officers and Detectives. The boss was there, he was in the middle of a speech. He cut off when I walked in. “Glad you could make it Detective. Next time be on time.”
I nodded. “Will do.”
“As I was saying,” he pointed to the timeline that we had pinned up on the wall, “we expect the killer to strike either tonight or tomorrow.” He looked over at Torres. “Torres will hand out assignments.”
Torres read off a clip board assigning officers and detectives to the locations that Anna had marked. His quick and efficient manner was infectious. Officers moved with bounce in their steps. Eager to catch this guy.
Soon enough, we were the only two left in the room.
“What about us?”
He nodded to the door and I closed it.
“You decide what you want?”
I nodded. “I’m a cop. I’ll always be a cop. I want to catch this guy.”
He grinned. I could see the exhaustion behind his eyes. “Good.” He closed the distance and put his hand on my shoulder. “We are going to Saint Wood’s Church of the Cross. It’s the closest meeting location to Mr. Hill’s home.”
On the way-out, Anna caught my arm. I motioned for Torres to keep going. Her smile was flirtations. “I hope you don’t mind, I returned that library book for you.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Anna that was very thoughtful.” I bit my lip and rubbed the back of my neck. I had been meaning to ask her out for months but had talked myself out of it every time. I’m a coward when it comes to dating – so sue me. “Maybe after this investigation.” I turned and coughed into my shirt. “Maybe we could go get a drink or something?”
Her cheeks flushed red. “I would like that.”
Fifteen minutes later we entered Saint Wood’s Church of the Cross. It was not at all what I expected from the outside. The outside was made of old stone and bricks. It was like a small cathedral hidden in the depths of a city. Every cliché Catholic church I had ever seen in the movies.
The inside was… let’s just say… not as nice as you would have thought. The carpet was worn so far down that I could almost see the concrete beneath, it smelled like stale burned coffee, depression, and unforgivable sins. The yellowed paint on the walls was peeling off in thin ribbons. There were no benches, no rows of padded chairs. What they did have was stacked chairs lining the walls. Uncomfortable looking chairs.
In the middle of the room there were about twenty chairs in rows, about ten of them had people in them. Every single person turned to look at us as we walked in.
A Priest stood at the pulpit, he smiled. “Please come in.” And motioned us to sit.
Torres and I did so.
The meeting passed too quickly. Torres watched the crowd, watching for anything suspicious. Secretly I hoped someone would get up and try to run for the door. That would have made our job easy. On a whim I got up and introduced myself, talked about my battle with alcohol and how hard it was to not slip up.
After the meeting the members of AA stood around the square table they used for coffee and donuts as they chatted. I joined them and started making small talk. I was approached by no less than five men offering to be my mentor. My response was always the same. I would have to think about it and get back to them. I lost track of Torres.
After the AA members left. Torres and I approached the Priest. He smiled. I could see sweat on the side of his face. “I don’t think I have ever seen either of you before. My name is Father Obreht.”
Torres smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Detective Torres, and this is my partner. We would like to ask you some questions.”
Father Obreht was able to identify three of the victims. He also told us that none of them had come in at least six months.
Torres smiled and thanked him for his time, gave him a card and asked him to call if he remembered anything strange.
When we were back in the car and driving down the road Torres spoke his mind. “It has to be someone in that room.”
I nodded. “Yeah. But who?”
Back in the conference room with reports from all the other officers spread out in front of us we started sorting the useful from the less than useful.
I woke up with Torres shaking my shoulder. “I want you to go home and get a good night’s sleep.”
“What? I was just resting my eyes. I can keep—”
“You haven’t had a real night’s sleep in over four days.” His eyes and face were empathetic. “Go home, get some sleep for both of us. Be here by nine at the latest.”
I felt my jaw tighten. “You haven’t had a real night’s sleep in six days.”
He glared. “Just go get some—” he cut off his sharp and biting tone. “You can leave on your own or I can have some uniforms take you home.”
I pulled up to my house an hour later. Torres was right. I almost had to pull over to catch some sleep. My eye lids were so heavy that I could hear them with every blink.
I almost broke the key off in my door when the top lock wouldn’t release the key. I had to wiggle it free. I kept meaning to replace that thing with a new one. But who has the time for that?
I came in the house, locked the door behind me, dropped my keys, wallet, and sidearm on the coffee table. I glanced at my bedroom, decided against it and went for the bottle of deep red wine. The wine was something I would never tell anyone at the department. I would never hear the end of it.
I sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, taking slow and shallow sips. It dried my mouth and burned my throat as it went down. It was amazing. Leaning back I let the glass resting on my knee, my left hand holding it in place. A game show came on that was a cross between hang man and guess the price.
I didn’t pay attention to it. My mind was on the case, and Anna. I didn’t notice that my lips had gone numb as I drank. I didn’t realize I was slowly losing the feeling in my arms and legs. Not until the glass slipped from my fingers and splashed on the couch. I cringed at that.
It would stain.
When I tried to reach for the cup… that’s when I realized something was terribly wrong. I knew what was coming. Still I had to fight, had to try. If I could get to my phone, one foot away, I could call for help. Or my gun, I could try to defend myself.
My heart started beating faster as adrenaline pumped through my blood. Still my arms wouldn’t respond, my legs wouldn’t even wiggle. They may as well have been someone else’s arms. I could hear someone at the back door. My chest began to feel heavy as the poison reached my lungs. Soon I would stop breathing.
The back door opened.
The back door closed and locked.
I fought harder. I just had to move. To get up. Do something. Wiggle my fingers.
I could hear footsteps coming down the hall; whoever it was knew the layout of my house.
She stepped into my vision. Her hair was done in a bun. She was wearing those grandma glasses, the ones that have the string around them, so they stay on your neck. She had on this shawl thing. It was both stylish and boring. Plain brown skirt and shoes. On one shoulder she had a large, ugly, brown purse. She was wearing latex gloves.
I tried to speak but my mouth wouldn’t work.
She smiled at me as she reached into her bag and withdrew the book Anna had returned to the library.
“Do you see what you have done to this poor book?” She opened it and held it up so I could see. It was still wet with the coffee I had spilled.
“This isn’t the first time that you have returned a book in poor condition.” She grabbed my wallet off the table and opened it, pulled out the contents. She went through my cards. And drew one out. Then put everything back.
It was getting harder to breath; I could feel my body struggling for each breath.
She held up the card she had taken.
My library card.
My eyes were watering from the amount of time that they had been open. I couldn’t remember the last time I had blinked.
She put my wallet on my lap. Reached into her purse and withdrew a note. I knew what it would say. “Your membership has been revoked.”
Torres would think it was someone at the AA meeting, all signs would point to that.
I would never get that drink with Anna.
The world started to go black. I tried to push myself away from the couch. I felt myself breathe out and I didn’t inhale again.
That’s it. That’s the last thing I remember.
I did warn you that it wasn’t going to end well.