Jason Foux has once again proven his magnanimity by allowing me to post the 2nd Jericho Mills case file! Enjoy a break from my shambles!
We're still working on the collaboration stories but may not make the April deadline. Getting our work schedules to coincide with our writing schedules is proving to be trickier than I imagined but you will get them.
I had just finished cleaning my revolver when I heard a knock at my door. Only two kinds of people knock on doors in my building, Detective Adrian Crane and hookers who are making their rounds, trying to earn a few extra bucks turning tricks. If I had money I would have wished for the latter, but being broke I was hoping for it to be Crane. He brings me the cases that are too tough to solve. I have a knack for sniffing out things that resemble leads, even if I can’t testify to how, exactly, I do the sniffing. It’s something like remote viewing, my mind connecting dots I shouldn’t be able to see and forming pictures that help to solve the case. Usually I’m too drunk to know they’re leads, so Crane works them out for me. Alright, I’m always too drunk, but who’s keeping track?
After shouting for the visitor to come in, Crane stepped through the door. He took one look at me sitting behind my desk, inspecting my gun and drinking scotch and decided it was time to start hassling me.
“Why do you still own a revolver?” He asked.
“Because Russian Roulette is dangerous with an automatic,” I replied, snapping the chamber shut. I placed the pistol aside and took another swallow of scotch. “Do you have a case?”
“Not really,” Crane said. “I came to check on you.”
Oh, it was one of those visits.
“I’m right where you left me,” I said. “I could use some groceries, though.”
“I thought you weren’t one for charity,” Crane responded.
I shook my head. “I’m not one for giving charity.”
“Did you already burn through the money from the last case?” He asked.
“Hell if I know,” I said. “I might have set fire to it. People do weird shit when they’re drunk and I definitely might have been.”
Crane glanced around my sparsely furnished apartment, didn’t see a clean spot to sit, and then straightened up to stand at attention.
“I talked to the Chief,” Crane began. “He’ll take you back as soon as you’re sober.”
“Then I guess I won’t be going back,” I replied. “Besides, I’m no good sober.”
“If there’s a case that requires your talents, you can do it off the clock,” Crane added.
“How did you convince Chuck to accept that?” I was interested to hear what Crane had told the Chief of Police about by reasons for getting drunk.
“I told him that on tough cases you get drunk and it helps you achieve a higher level of abstract thinking which allows you to find the significance in the slightest details that we often overlook.”
My jaw dropped, or maybe I left my mouth open because I was getting a good buzz. Either way, I was shocked. I might have been convinced by that. Crane was sharper than I gave him credit for, that much was certain. “I’ve had enough of homicide for one lifetime.” It was a lie, but he didn’t know that. The idea of returning to homicide did hold some appeal, mostly because it would allow me to vent some frustration on the kinds of people who most deserve it. Also, yanking the worst examples of humanity off the streets makes me feel as if I’ve paid for some of my own past sins.
“Robbery,” he replied without a second’s delay.
“Robbery!” I yelled, indignant at the thought. “I’ve collared more murderers than any other dick on the force and he wants to stick me in robbery? He can kiss my ass.”
“Then you’ll take homicide?” He asked, and suddenly I realized what he had done. I was buzzed and not thinking straight and Crane had caused me to slip up. I had fallen for his little trick and done as much as admitted that I was interested, but only if the terms were right. Damn my drinking.
“You took advantage of a drunk!” I yelled. “He never said I had to work robbery, did he?”
Crane smirked and shook his head. “I’ll see you later, Jericho.” With that, he left. He hadn’t come to get me back to work. He had come to make me admit to myself that I wanted to go back. Son of a bitch had won this round.
I sat there for a bit, wondering what I would do about my employment situation when I heard a knock at the door. I guessed Crane wanted to give me a chance to break even.
“You know it’s open,” I shouted and the door opened. I poured myself another glass of scotch and glanced up. Either Crane had suddenly had a sex change operation and became a very solemn hottie, or I had a client. Both were equally unlikely.
Waves of black hair covered the left half of her face, more brushing lightly at her shoulders as she stepped into my unkempt apartment. I think the dress was blue, or green, or whatever. I was seeing all the shifting curves that gave it structure. She had a small, pointed nose and a slender face with pronounced cheeks. She was beautiful the way a model or actress is beautiful the first time you see her and don’t yet know her name.
“I’m Mrs. Nelson,” she spoke softly. She was very deliberate in her words and her steps. She moved closer to the desk and I do believe it was the first time a person was able to make me forget about my drink. “Are you Mr. Milburn?”
“Call me Mills,” I replied and cleared my throat. “I’m Jericho Mills.”
“You’re a detective?” She asked.
“Not any more. I’m a consultant, but if you need something, I might be able to provide a service, if the money’s right.”
“My husband was murdered,” she said, and I could tell that the words stung her.
“A homicide detective just left. You passed him in the hall,” I said. “I can call him.”
She shook her head, the curtain of hair protecting that one side but the gesture exposed the weariness of this woman. It had flashed in that one eye I could see like a burglar peeking through the bushes. “The cops won’t investigate the case. They ruled it a suicide.”
I hated these. Some guy finds out his wife is sleeping with her boss and he offs himself, then she wants a clear conscience so she hires a private dick to find evidence that it wasn’t a suicide. She didn’t want to find out what happened, she wanted me to tell her what didn’t happen. She wants to feel at ease with what she did and wants me to provide a reason.
“Who were you screwing?” I asked.
“What?” She asked, honestly confused by the question. That reaction confused me. She should have immediately feigned offense in an attempt to put me on the defensive and deflect the accusation. Something here wasn’t right.
“You want me to tell you that it’s not your fault, so must have a reason to think it is. Was it your boss or his friend?”
“You son of a bitch,” she said calmly and turned to leave. The pain registered in her face and it caught me off guard.
“Stop,” I said, expecting her to ignore me, but she didn’t. Her hand was on the door, but she stopped. “Why do you think it wasn’t a suicide?”
She stood motionless for a solid fifteen seconds. I know that doesn’t sound like a long time, but stare at a motionless woman waiting for her to either curse you or answer your question for fifteen seconds and tell me it doesn’t feel like an eternity. Then she turned but never took her gaze off the carpet.
“He had no reason to,” she said slowly. “He was happy. We were happy. Financially we were fine. Then I found him in the kitchen and he was gone.”
The words were so soft, barely audible, yet spoken so clearly I caught every syllable. It was like she’d approached the topic obliquely and spoken around the event instead of about it, as if mentioning the exact state of his body would reopen some recently scabbed wound.
I waited in case there was more, but she wasn’t offering anything. “How did it happen?” I knew this would be the toughest question. There might be details that could help but I’d need to peel away that scab. Either that or I just wanted to hurt her. Sometimes I’m more of a bastard than I intend to be and don’t realize it until it’s too late.
Another pause. “He used a kitchen knife on his arms.” Her voice quaked.
That was odd. Adult men rarely die of slit wrists. That’s a common method for teens, but adult males typically opt for guns or car exhaust. Perhaps there was something fishy about the guy’s death. Also, she plainly stated that he did it to himself.
“So why do you think it wasn’t a suicide? Was there evidence of something else?”
Mrs. Nelson didn’t speak. Instead, she reached inside her purse and removed and envelope and dropped it on my desk. I removed the newspaper clipping and read it over. A Greg Thatcher had committed suicide in a very similar fashion as Nelson’s husband.
“Who was this guy?” Two people in the world kill themselves in the same way didn’t mean that they were murdered. Lots of people die lots of ways all the time.
“I met his widow in a support group for suicide survivors,” she replied. “He died a week after my husband.”
“People hide things from their spouses all the time. It’s what marriages are for. Slitting wrists is an uncommon method of completion for adult males, but it does happen. There’s no connection other than the fact that you don’t know the reason or won’t accept the reason.” I looked up at her and returned the envelope. “There’s no case. I’m sorry for you loss, but you need to get over the fact that your late husband did something stupid. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can work shit out for yourself.”
I could have given her the whole bit about suicide being the terminal result of a mental illness, but I’m sure her support group had covered that ground a dozen times before she ever dug my name out of the phone book. Besides, if she had someone to hate it would make the loss easier to swallow.
“They told me you were a bastard,” she said as she walked to the door.
“Who was that?”
“Everyone,” she replied. “The man in the hall.” She opened the door to leave.
“They’re right,” I said just before she slammed the door.
I remembered my drink. And the recently cleaned pistol.
When I woke up, my face hurt. The carpet did not make a comfortable pillow and I made a mental note to keep a pillow near my desk in case I got tired while working. Then I realized I was lying to myself again so I changed the mental note to read ‘in case I pass out while drinking’. I realized it still wasn’t accurate, so I grabbed a scrap of paper from my desk and wrote, “leave a pillow near the desk because I always pass out here.” Satisfied with the revision, I glanced around and decided that the lights were too bright and mounted low on the wall. After a moment’s consideration, I then decided that I didn’t have lights on the wall and the blinds needed to be closed.
After closing the blinds I sat back down at my desk. From that vantage point, I could see two things on my floor near the door. One was a newspaper. The other was an envelope. I walked or staggered over there, and grabbed them both. I didn’t subscribe to the paper and if I did, it would be placed in my mailbox downstairs. And since I didn’t have a slot on my door, that meant that someone had opened the door while I was passed out and tossed the newspaper and envelope inside.
I dropped them both on my desk and looked around for my bottle. There was something important to be considered and I needed a bit of clarity. I needed a little hair of the dog, and that meant that my Scottish terrier was on call.
I found the bottle of scotch and poured a little in the glass. Since I drink alcohol, which is a cleaning agent, I don’t have to wash my glasses. After a sip or two or perhaps most of the glass, I opened the envelope. Inside was a Louisiana Purchase card. It was the debit card version of food stamps. I couldn’t buy alcohol with it, but I could get some decent food in the apartment without spending my booze money. Thanks Crane.
I tried to slip the card into my pocket, but my underwear doesn’t have pockets, so I tossed it on my desk. Then I moved on to the newspaper. I turned through the pages, looking for something interesting. If it wasn’t circled, it would be something easy to spot. That’s how these things worked, or so I hoped. People slipping messages under the door was entirely new to me and I was mostly going off what I’d seen in movies. Please let this be like a work of bad fiction. I really didn’t want to read an entire newspaper.
Luckily, it was like a movie.
There was an article about a local man who had killed himself. It wasn’t a wrist chopping, but a gunshot. There was no evidence of foul play, which meant that someone of Crane’s caliber wouldn’t have even been called in to look at the scene. Below the article, a phone number was written in a woman’s handwriting. I knew it belonged to Mrs. Nelson.
Something was definitely going on, but I didn’t know what. Three people with no obvious reasons for suicide had killed themselves in the span of just a few weeks. Sure, whenever you asked the family of a suicide if they noticed anything worrying they always deny seeing any warning signs or motives. But three in two weeks was strange.
I didn’t know where to go, but I knew where to start. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single drink. I pressed the bottle to my lips and took a long swig. If there was something wrong with the picture, I could find out quick. Perhaps there was some connection. Maybe all three guys got into some trouble with some bookie and couldn’t settle their debts so they dropped themselves to protect their families. It was a stretch, but stranger shit has happened. Hell, I could see the future if I drank hard enough, so yeah. Stranger shit.
Maybe there was nothing there, but if there was and I could find it, I could write Mrs. Nelson a bill. And if someone else was responsible, I could send another one to Crane and the Chief of Police. I’d never been able to double bill a case, it was always either personal shit or it was consulting for Crane. Never both. Since I would soon be seeing double, why not get paid double?
I took another swig and looked for my notebook. I cleared my desk of everything except the necessities, and gulped down another mouthful of scotch. I would be there soon. Getting back to drunk never took me long because I never strayed too far away.
Closing my eyes, I thought about the three men and imagined some thin line connecting them. It was the line I needed, not the men. I didn’t care about them. I wanted their connection, that common thread that linked them. I focused on that line, keeping them in focus and let the inebriation slip in.
Normally when I do this, the world fades away in the same manner every blackout drunk experiences. Sometime later I come to and there are clues of a sort scribbled onto my notepad. This session didn’t go down like that.
My senses began to dull and the sound of traffic and obnoxious neighbors became distant and muffled noises. My head felt like it was under water. I wasn’t aware of my breath or the desk or chair. Physically it’s like I didn’t exist.
My mind slipped out and connected with all those loose brain waves that are projected from each person’s head. Unaware, they relayed signals and I sifted through them until I found what I was looking for. That little thread was there and I could feel it. My hand was moving and I was suddenly aware of that. I had never felt my hand move like that and the sensation scared me a little. The scribbling always happened while I was under. While I was disconnected fully. My head started to hurt and my arm was itching. The information was coming through like electricity and I needed to see it. This Viewing was different. Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
A burning flash exploded behind my eyes and I snapped from the trance and jerked away from the desk, screaming as I fell backward from my chair. My eyes stung from the dry, hot pain like I’d stood before a blast furnace for too long and refused to blink. It felt like pepper spray. It felt like fiberglass insulate. And it felt like someone was kicking me in the head from the inside.
I hit the floor, gasping. Something had to give, but the pain and throbbing and pounding and burning persisted. For the first time in a long while I feared I was going to die, wished for it. Yearned for it and rejected it at the same time. After a second or a minute or an hour the fire and explosive pounding subsided. I’m not sure if I was still drunk, but at that moment I had the worst hangover of my life, and I’m somewhat of an authority on the subject. Not only did I feel like I had downed every bottle in the liquor aisle, but I’d also been beaten with each of them in turn.
I lay there a while, unmoving, and tried desperately to regain my senses. No. That’s a lie. I lay there unmoving and din’t try anything. Instead zoned out the way you do when you have a migraine and things like sound and light and even thought can cause pain. I existed on the stained carpet. Nothing more.
Finally, my breathing returned to normal and the draining assault relented. Exhausted I rose to my hands and knees and crawled to the bathroom to vomit. There I discovered my pants, and after cleaning myself up and putting on some clothes I returned to my desk to look over the results of the Viewing.
There was a drawing in the center of the page. It was a rough circle with seven smaller circles inside, like the chambers of a revolver. Each of the seven smaller circles had some kind of symbol or rune in them. It was just a scribble on a sheet of paper, but something about it set me off. I was afraid of it and I didn’t want to look at it any longer.
I turned the notebook over and picked up the phone and made two calls. The first was to Mrs. Nelson. I told her that I was taking the case and wanted her to come over immediately to discuss the terms. She agreed and informed me that she was turning her car around and would arrive in within the next fifteen minutes. The second call was to Crane. I told him that I needed to speak with him. He understood that it was urgent and I told him to come over in two hours.
With a beautiful woman on her way to my apartment, I felt it best to put on something that resembled clean clothes and wash the rest of the vomit off my chin. That usually impresses them. I composed myself as best I could and when she knocked, I was a little closer to sober and ready to discuss business.
“What made you reconsider?” She asked as soon as she entered. Her expression was a little more lively, but still had that hard-set determination.
“There were connections,” I replied.
“The first two were more connected than the third,” she said.
I nodded in agreement. “It’s not the manner of death,” I replied. “There are minor details that just don’t fit. I don’t want to discuss them yet, not until I know more and you have given me a retainer.”
She forced half a smile. “How much?”
“Five thousand,” I replied. It seemed like a good, round number. “That will cover my time and expenses while I investigate the circumstances. If I am able to prove that an outside agent is responsible for the death of your late husband and discover the identity, you will pay another ten thousand.”
She nodded her acceptance. “And if you cannot?”
“I’ll return half of the retainer and give you any information I have regarding the case.”
“How do I know you aren’t trying to con me? You could say the case is going nowhere and still get to keep half the retainer and I’ll be right where I’m at now. I don’t like it.”
She was right and we both knew it. “There’s a detective by the name of Adrian Crane. He’s in charge of homicide. Give him a call. Ask him if he’ll vouch for me.”
Mrs. Nelson didn’t hesitate. She flipped open her phone and dialed 9-1-1. The Sheriff’s office number always routed the calls through the 9-1-1 Emergency operators, which was a waste of their time, but it’s how things ran around here.
“I need to speak to a homicide detective,” she began. “I need to speak with Adrian Crane directly. It’s urgent.”
I sat back and waited. Crane knew I had a case and if someone called asking about my credibility, he’d tell them I was a sloppy drunk and a worthless one at that, but he’d also tell them that I got results. A few minutes later she hung up the phone.
“You’ll take a two thousand dollar retainer and we’ll settle up for five.”
I shrugged. “Deal.”
“I’ll go to the bank as soon as I leave here,” she said quietly.
“I’ll get started this afternoon,” I said, already eager for my next drink.
“Thank you,” and she was gone.
It was an hour and a half later when Crane arrived. He again went through the motions of looking for a clean spot to sit, and finding none, he remained standing.
“You have a serial killer on your hands,” I blurted. There was no other way to put it.
“The only open homicide we have is a month old and it’s a robbery gone bad. It would be Landry’s case if it weren’t for that one bullet.”
“They’re labeled wrong,” I replied. “The coroner wrote them off as suicides. All three of them. They were killed.”
Crane wrinkled his brow. “Who are you talking about?”
I gave him a quick briefing of the three recently deceased men, but he seemed uninterested.
“Two guys slit their wrists, one shoots himself. There’s no connection between them and you’re saying that it’s foul play. If they didn’t slit their own wrists, who did?”
I smiled. “I never said they didn’t slit their wrists. I said someone else was responsible. They were forced by an outside agent.”
“Ah,” he replied, shaking his head. “So they killed themselves, but they were influenced, somehow, by a serial killer.”
Instead of answering, I simply stared at him.
“You’re serious about this?”
“Are you drunk?”
I almost nodded, since that was my default state, but caught myself. “Actually I’m about seventy percent sober right now.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I’m the one feeling sober.”
He looked exasperated, which almost made me smile. “About the suicides,” he corrected me. “How can you be sure about the suicides?”
“I had reason to believe that there might have been something more to the three than suicide, so I hit the bottle and did my thing.”
“You and I have never seen a killer like this before,” I said, and at that moment I didn’t know just how true that statement was, but I would soon find out.
“Is that why you chose the word ‘agent’ instead of ‘person’?” Crane had a look on his lined face at that moment, almost as if he understood just how strange the world actually was. But he couldn’t know that. He had never glimpsed it, not directly. Not like I had.
I cast a glance through the open bathroom door at my reflection in the mirror above the lavatory. Maybe it was just the dim lighting in my apartment, but I looked like a shadow in that reflection, a specter peering out from that mirror.
“There are things in this world you and I can’t comprehend.” I wasn’t sure if I was speaking to Crane or my duplicate in the bathroom.
“Like your gift?”
“Yeah,” I replied, pulling my gaze away from the mirror.
Crane considered my words carefully and paced around a bit. “I’ll pull the files and see what I can find out. Since there was no sign of struggle or reason to believe foul play was involved, there won’t be much information to go on, but maybe we can find a lead.”
“There’s going to be another one soon enough, so we can pick up the search there.”
Crane sighed. He knew I was right and he didn’t like that one bit. He turned to leave, then paused. “You seem a bit different,” he said.
“You’re not your usual, sarcastic self,” he said.
I wasn’t. I hadn’t ripped into him at all during the visit. “It’s because I’m scared shitless right now,” I said.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Crane replied before leaving.
I walked across the room and pulled the bathroom door closed. There was enough darkness in the world right then without looking at my reflection.
The fourth person died that afternoon. The pace was picking up. A middle-aged man was found in his garage off Bilbo Street, which was about a mile from my shit-hole apartment. The man was hanging by his neck in the garage, dangling from a string of Christmas lights. It wasn’t even fall yet. Damn decorations go up earlier and earlier every year.
His wife had returned from work and when the garage door went up, there he was. And there he stayed. Crane and I walked through the garage, looking for anything that might resemble a clue. The man’s purple face was bloated and his tongue hung out of his head. Crane had instructed the rest of the cops to not set foot inside that garage until he arrived. Forensics wasn’t even allowed in yet.
There was nothing peculiar about the scene, other than the dead guy dangling from the rafters, and certainly nothing to make one believe that this was anything other than a simple suicide. Crane was combing the garage for anything that might point us in the right direction. I went for the dead man’s wife, who wasn’t nearly as hot as Mrs. Nelson. She was outside with a female officer who was trying to comfort her. I asked her two simple questions and the answers were just what I figured they’d be. Yes, her husband had a handgun and yes, it was in the dresser by his side of the bed.
I found it there, a .357 revolver, loaded with five shots. The chamber that was lined up with the barrel was empty. Quite a few folks do that in case the gun is dropped. It prevents a misfire since there’s no bullet for the hammer to strike. If the hammer is pulled back, the cylinder rotates and a loaded chamber is then lined up with the barrel. It’s a sort of safety.
I pulled out one of the bullets and examined it. Hollow points. I tossed it back in the drawer and returned to the garage.
“What did you find?” Crane asked.
I stared at the corpse for a minute. “A revolver loaded with hollow points in the dresser. The bullets looked old, but they should still fire. Would have made a hell of a lot more sense to go out with a bang than kick around up there for however long it took for the blood to stop flowing.”
Crane shook his head. “Are you saying you think this is not a suicide because it was planned out?”
“No,” I replied. “It wasn’t planned. If he had planned it, he would have used the gun. Or pills. Or jumped off the bridge.” I looked around the mostly empty garage and at the dangling body, slowly twisting at the end of its green strand of lights. The cord had been doubled over, then doubled again to hold his weight. “He decided to kill himself right here and the only thing available was a string of lights.”
“How exactly does that mean that someone else was responsible?”
“If I knew how he was influencing these people, he’d be locked up right now,” I said. But that was a lie. Something strange and dark was at work here, at least as terrible as my gift, I knew that in my bones. And if I ever found the thing responsible I didn’t intend to have it arrested. Things like that shouldn’t share our world.
Crane and I questioned the neighbors. Well, he questioned the neighbors and I paced around thinking. He asked if they had seen anything out of the ordinary, like strangers in the neighborhood or serial killers stringing up people with Christmas lights, or whatever the hell he asked them. They apparently hadn’t and after several hours of looking for clues, we were left with nothing. Crane agreed with me that it didn’t feel like a suicide, but there was no evidence pointing to foul play. If there hadn’t been a rash of such incidents, it would have been written off as another suicide.
I wanted to go back to my apartment, which was right down the road, and get drunk. I hadn’t had a drink all day and my idle mind was turning to events past, memories I wanted to leave behind and forget, but I couldn’t. If I started drinking, I’d have the urge to start looking, to View, and I wasn’t sure if I could take that kind of pain again. That last time had felt like a hell of a lot of kicks to the brain and I wasn’t sure I’d recovered. Knowing what caused that interference was paramount, and using my gift before the discovery of that knowledge could be lethal.
I spent an hour combing the house for anything that resembled the strange, circular design I’d seen during my Viewing, but came out empty handed. Crane dropped me off back at the square, red brick building that was my apartment. We were no closer to solving the case than when I’d first called him. All we knew was that people were committing suicide for no apparent reason.
The front door to the building was left open for anyone who wanted to loot the place to walk on in, but in that neighborhood, most people knew better. Inside, I strolled up the steep stairs to the second floor landing. At the end of the hall, I looked left at my door and read the note that was taped there. The handwriting was round and flowing, obviously female. Mrs. Nelson wanted me to call her with an update.
My guess was that she had purchased herself a police scanner and was aware of the most recent death and wanted to know if it was related to the case.
After fixing a tall glass of ice and scotch, without any ice, I dialed the number to Mrs. Nelson’s cell phone. She picked up on the second ring and immediately asked what I thought she would ask. I dodged her questions about the latest suicide and told her that I was looking at several leads, a lie of course, but hopefully she didn’t know that. I’ve become pretty good over the years at lying to clients and pride myself on my abilities in that area of my profession. It’s not easy to give a client a sense of progress without implying that the case is solvable, to get them to continue funding the investigation without giving them hope.
That’s what being a private investigator is all about. Clients aren’t necessarily looking for answers or the truth. They’re looking for the answers they already know and they want the investigators to provide supporting evidence. If the evidence isn’t there, neither is the paycheck. So you have to bullshit them, and luckily I talk shit as much as I drink. Perhaps I should run for office. Making people feel good about losing money and getting nothing in return is what being an American president is all about.
By the time my discussion with Mrs. Nelson was finished, the glass of scotch was almost empty. I must have talked for at least five minutes.
I added a splash to the glass and sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch. I didn’t want to think about the case while I was drinking because I knew I’d end up in another Viewing session, but since I was still sober, I was trying to avoid thinking about the past. It seemed like my life was defined by those two things, work and the past, drunk and sober, life and death.
The scotch tasted terrible and I had no desire to drink it. I never did, not really. I drank out of necessity, because it allowed me to skip that period between awake and asleep where memories live. But since I couldn’t use my gift now I did something I hadn’t done in years. I set down my glass.
As with any day that I spent sober, darkness found me while staring at a half-empty glass of alcohol, thinking about a car wreck and how quickly life can change a person and how a death can change a life. I remembered why I kept a bottle of scotch handy and why I never gave my glass a chance to dry out. I moved to my desk, removed my pistol, and stared at it. And while I stared, I thought about the past and all I had done and tried to decide what I deserved. I flipped the cylinder open and looked at the brass bullet casings. I didn’t keep a chamber empty for safety. Snapping the cylinder closed I stared at the gun and tried to decide if it was finally time to pay my debt. To do penance for my sins.
When daylight leaked through the window, the glass was still half-empty and I had a bruise on the side of my head roughly the diameter of a gun barrel. I needed the case to end so I could drink again.
I spent the next day sleeping. I couldn’t stand to be drunk or sober, so I’d keep myself out of the world until the world demanded my presence again. It didn’t take long.
The phone rang the following night, waking me, and not surprisingly, it was Detective Crane. Still groggy, I listened as he informed me that another victim had been found. I was still half asleep when he gave me the details, but apparently there were two people. A guy and his live-in girlfriend had both killed themselves while driving home. After swerving off the road into a tree, the man was killed. She survived the crash, so she used a shard of glass from the passenger-side window to finish the job and sliced her own throat from ear to ear. Had it not been for that detail, the incident would have been blamed on the man falling asleep at the wheel.
We now had six victims of suicide and no leads.
Oscar Douglas, Crane’s new partner, a tall, baby-faced man with a cab driver’s hat and a 70’s mustache, picked me up around eleven o’clock. He had pasty skin and puffy cheeks and grew the ’stache just to deter people from forming the opinion that he still lived with his mom and read comic books. Instead it caused me to form the opinion that he still lived with his mom and was into kiddie porn and TV dinners. A lot TV dinners.
He tried awkwardly to strike up conversations, but luckily I’m great at sleeping through short car rides and ignoring that which bothers me.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the scene. The car, or what was left of it, was a dark green sedan wrapped around a pine tree. The driver, or what was left of him, was a bloody mess and was wrapped around the steering wheel. The sides and rear of the vehicle showed no signs of damage, so foul play could easily be ruled out. He had clearly steered off the road himself and was not forced by another vehicle.
I hated scenes like this. My chest hurt, ribs cracked and my arms were torn from the broken glass but they still worked. They could still grasp and lift and hold. I looked down and saw…
Crane’s voice shook me from the memory and I swallowed against the lump in my throat. I ignored Crane and moved around the right side of the car.
On the passenger side, the girlfriend who was a dark-haired, chinless girl with narrow features, was still clutching the shard of glass which had done her in. At only the first glance it was plainly evident that she had inflicted the wound herself. It would have been impossible for the wreck to have caused such damage unless a boomerang of broken glass had found its way into the vehicle and was flying around at the time of impact. But I suppose stranger things have happened.
“Great,” I started, catching Crane’s attention as he continued his examination of the scene, though I think he was secretly watching me. “Now they’re pairing up. Pretty soon we’ll have a hundred people all drinking Kool-Aid.”
“You know you’re a heartless bastard,” he replied while looking at from the corpses.
“Can’t do what I do any other way.”
“Once upon a time you did,” he remarked. He then proceeded to tell me what he already knew about the two dead kids. He’d given the beat cops that broke the news to their parents a couple of questions to ask if the parents felt up to it. They’d been living together for several months and there were no arguments that anyone could recall that were of any consequence. They were getting along with their parents, or at least their parents said so. Then again, they always do. Everything seemed kosher, at least for now, but I already knew it would. None of the other victims had motive and these two would be no different if they were connected. Someone else had made the choice for them to commit suicide. They didn’t need a reason because the murderer already had one.
“I don’t get it,” Crane began. “The others were at home where someone could have been there to kill them. These two were alone in the car. No one could have gotten to them unless they did it before they started driving.”
I nodded in agreement. “Then they would have done the deed then, with whatever they had handy, just like all the others.”
“So why the long drive?”
That’s when it all fell into place. That’s when it finally clicked.
“What do people always do while they’re driving?” I asked.
Crane’s eyes lit up and I knew that he understood. There was a way for them to be influenced by an outsider while they were alone in the car, because we’re never alone. In today’s world, we’re all connected. Always. Crane looked around on the floorboard and near the driver’s feet he found what connected them.
With a gloved hand, the detective picked up the cell phone and checked the incoming calls. He wrote down one number which was the only recent call that didn’t have a contact attached to it. All the other calls were from numbers saved in the phone. He checked the time, but it was from nearly an hour before the accident.
“Look at that,” I said, pointing to the screen. “That call was unanswered. Check the voicemail.”
Crane pulled up that list and we saw just what I expected. One voicemail was stored on the phone and it belonged to that single local number with no contact name. Crane clicked the voicemail and leaned back against the car. He tapped his note pad, indicating the phone number he had written down. Finally, we had a lead.
When the message began to play, Crane’s expression changed to a look of confusion, then repulsion. I watched as the mumbling voice on the other end continued and Crane set his gaze on some distant, unseen object and scowled. He began grinding his teeth and his fist clenched until his knuckles turned white. I moved closer but he was too fast for me. In an instant he had his gun in hand and the barrel was pressed against the side of his head.
My hand went out, grabbing the gun, and as he pulled the trigger my little finger slid into place and was crushed by the hammer, preventing the gun from firing. Pain shot through my hand, and Crane was still in his trance. I seized the phone with my other hand and pried it from his grip, flinging it aside where it bounced off the roof of the green sedan and landed near one of the officers who had responded to the call. With all my might, I drove my knee into his crotch, doubling him over beside the car. The gun tumbled from his grip and slid into the wet ditch. Crane put both his hands to his head and screamed, curling into a ball, whimpering as cops and one paramedic came rushing to his side.
I didn’t have to ask him to know what he was going through. I’d felt that same sensation during my last viewing session. A hundred feet were trying to kick their way out of his skull and the only thing he could do was experience it and wait for it to be over. Oscar and the other officers pulled us apart, confused, and I assured them that he was alright. And a minute later he was, mostly. Tears streaked his reddened face.
The phone had slid into the water and was no longer working. Crane and I were the only two who knew the phone number from which the murderous call originated. I helped him to his feet and told the other officers that I’d take him home. I told them that Crane and I would pick up the investigation in the morning. And they believed me.
Back at my apartment, I fixed Crane a drink and he reluctantly told me about his experience. A voice, or rather, voices, began mumbling as soon as the message began. He said it sounded like a man and a child both speaking the same non-words almost in unison. After a few seconds, the voices aligned, but still didn’t make any sense, at least not audibly. While the message went on, he began seeing the things in his life that he was ashamed of, all at once. The worst things he’d ever done, and seen, and experienced. He didn’t elaborate, but it was obvious by his tone the recollection shook him. The images and emotions flooded his mind and filled him with hatred for who he was. His will had been broken and he had only one desire, to kill himself as punishment for all he had done.
“How do you feel now?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” He replied with a question. I hate that.
“Do you still feel that suicide was the right choice?” I could tell the question stung him, but eventually he answered.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “I think so,” he said and paused. “I’d never seen all the horror I was capable of, not all at once, not clearly. I guess I didn’t know who I really was and when that voice showed me, I realized what I needed to do.”
“So every terrible thing you’ve ever done in your life came to you at once and you broke?”
“Yeah,” he repeated.
I shook my head. “Get some sleep,” I told him, motioning to the couch. He had enough scotch in his gut to get him to settle down, and once he was asleep, he wouldn’t be up for a while. It would give me time to work, to do my thing, without interference.
Part of me felt bad for Adrian Crane. He’d stared into his own soul and found himself unworthy. I think most people would if they were forced to take an actual look.
After spending several hours skimming through the phone book, I found the listing I was looking for. The message left on the phone that had killed two people and almost a third had originated from a house on the south end of town off of McNeese Street. I was vaguely familiar with the area and knew that I could case the joint in the morning.
I wasn’t sure what I would find there, or if I would have to take drastic measures, so I emptied the bullets from my gun and carefully wiped down each one, erasing my fingerprints from the brass casings before sliding them back into the cylinder. Once that was finished, I wiped down the gun itself until it was clean. Keeping it wrapped in the cloth, I slipped it back into the desk. It’s better to be safe than incarcerated.
In the morning, I asked Crane if he could drop me off someplace where I could grab breakfast. When he asked where I wanted to eat, I told him McDonald’s. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I knew he’d pay for the meal and the fast food joint was less than a mile from the house where the call came from. With the pistol tucked in my pants and concealed by my shirt, we drove away and Crane dropped me off with five bucks on his way to work. He said he was going to request the phone records for several of the other suicides and I told him it was a good idea.
Once he was out of the parking lot, I ordered my food to go, and took off walking. I made it down Ryan Street in less than ten minutes and turned right on McNeese Street. When I passed a garbage can that was waiting for trash pickup, I tossed my wrapper in and discarded my drink in the next one. I wiped as much grease off my fingers as possible and checked for the latex gloves that had been tucked into my back pocket. They were still there.
I took a side road and within a few minutes I was standing in front of a brown brick house with white shutters. A casual glance around later, I was sure that everyone in the neighborhood was at work. I strolled up the driveway, donning my gloves, and tested the front door. It was locked. I walked around to the side of the garage and checked a window. Concealed by the hedges on the side of the house, I smashed the window and entered. Since the garage door was down, the door leading to the house might be unlocked. I tested it and found it so.
Inside I found a typical, suburban home. The kitchen had a brown, tile floor with an island adorned with a bowl of fake fruit. I looked around a bit before movement caught my eye. Standing in the hallway that led to the bedrooms was a kid. He was about thirteen years of age, give or take, and skinny. His hair was a mess, as if he had just shambled out of bed, and his wild eyes stared at me with a ferocity I’ve never seen. There was a sinister way about him that I can’t describe. Nothing about his appearance was menacing, but his presence in that hallway was somehow unwholesome, like a turd on a wedding cake.
“Where is it?” I asked, thinking of the strange, circular object I had seen in my Viewing session.
His mouth dropped open, as if in surprise and his lips never moved but a voice spoke nonetheless. No, not a voice, but voices. The voices that came out were not his own and they did not answer my question. Just as Crane had described, a man’s voice and a child’s came at once, mumbling incoherently and almost in unison. It pierced my brain, boring deep into my subconscious. A dry burning sensation I knew all too well blossomed behind my eyes. Without thinking, I reached into my pants and retrieved the pistol. I felt it happening to me, my arm reacting to some alien command. Slowly, as the voices aligned, I thumbed back the hammer and raised the weapon. Death was on its way.
All the dreadful and terrible things I’d ever done in my life came rushing back, the memories inviting pain and shame like rhythmic tidal waves lapping against my soul. I stared into the hollow eyes of that child, at the nothingness behind them, and with the knowledge of all my sins, I made the decision.
“I go through this every night that I’m sober,” I said as I blew his small head apart. I’d seen and felt all he had to deliver and come out unscathed time and time again. There was nothing he could do that I hadn’t already experienced before. Though the pain was more intense, I was accustomed to it. Nights of sobriety had inoculated me against suicidal urges grown from self-loathing.
Inside the brick home, the gunshot was amplified, but I knew the sound wouldn’t travel far outside the walls. If any neighbors were inside their respective homes, they wouldn’t hear the shot and if they did, it wouldn’t sound like a gun to them.
I checked the gun over and satisfied that there were no prints, I dropped it on the floor. It would be better for the weapon to be found there than to be found in my possession. I strolled down the hall and checked inside the first open door and found it to be the boy’s room. On the wall and on his desk were several pencil color drawings that matched the one I had made. Whatever that round object was, he had seen it also. With my gloved hands, I rummaged through the drawers of his desk and dresser, but found nothing. I checked a little box on top of the dresser, but still came up empty-handed. Finally, I looked beneath his mattress and found it.
The medallion was roughly four inches in diameter and made of some kind of black stone. There were seven circles of equal size on the front, with one in the center and six more around the edges. Each had a strange curvilinear design carved within. If the symbols meant anything, I didn’t know what.
Like the boy, the medallion’s very presence seemed obscene and menacing.
I wrapped it in the cloth that had carried my pistol and slipped it inside a Crown Royal bag I’d brought for just this occasion, careful to not thought the obscene medallion directly. Then I went straight for the master bedroom. I found the jewelry box and snatched it up. There was some money in a tray by the night-stand that went into my pocket. I was sure to make a mess of the room before leaving. The killing had to look like a robbery gone bad, not an execution.
With my job done, I checked out the broken window before slipping out into the yard. I peeked around the bushes and when I knew the coast was clear, I casually walked back to the road and made my way along the sidewalk back to McNeese Street. Once there, I was just another person walking through the city. I pocketed the jewelry and tossed the box into a dumpster. With that done, I removed my latex gloves.
Just before Ryan Street, I ducked below the bridge of a small drainage canal. I used my lighter to melt the gloves and left them a smoldering puddle on the concrete.
There was no evidence that I had been there and the detective who would head up the investigation of the murder would never name me as a suspect, regardless of what he knew.
The following day, Crane stopped by my apartment with a plastic evidence bag in hand and a sour look on his face.
“You’re welcome,” I said as he came through the door.
“I’m not sure I even want to know,” he replied.
“He wasn’t a kid anymore,” I said plainly. “Whoever he was, he wasn’t that person anymore. He was something else.”
“And that was the only way?” Crane barked.
I nodded my head. “He tried to kill me, just like all those other people. Just like you,” I looked in his direction. “He was a murderer and I defended myself. It’s that simple, but regular people wouldn’t understand. They couldn’t understand.”
Crane sighed. He knew I was right and I think he knew what I was going to do when he dropped me off at McDonald’s the previous morning. He knew he couldn’t do it, so he removed himself from the situation long enough for me to make the hard decisions.
“The case is still open,” he began. “The case to find the person who robbed that house and killed the kid.”
“Any suspects?” I asked, and Crane shook his head.
“I have a feeling that this one will get away.”
“What’s in the bag?”
Crane glanced down at the evidence bag, then reached inside and removed my pistol. “It’s the murder weapon,” he replied. “Do you want to hear something funny about this gun?”
I shrugged my reply.
“When I ran the serial number it came back as a weapon that was used in a cop shooting several years ago. It was in our evidence room back when you were working homicide with me. It disappeared after the trial.”
Crane tossed the gun onto my desk.
“That is strange,” I commented, placing the pistol back into my desk. It’s good to have a weapon that can’t be traced back to me.
Crane turned to leave and paused at the door. “Those drawings on the kid’s wall,” he began, and a chill shot up my spine. “What were those?”
“It’s whatever caused all of this,” I replied. “It’s whatever changed him into what he became. It’s what made him do what he did. That thing, that object, wore his skin like a costume and used him to murder.”
“Did you get rid of it?” He asked reluctantly.
“I will,” I replied and Crane turned back to me. “I will,” I said with more conviction.
After Crane left, I got on the phone with Mrs. Nelson and instructed her to come to my apartment. I didn’t really want to have a discussion with her on the matter, but since there was no way Crane or I could convince the Chief of Police that a thirteen year old convinced half a dozen people to kill themselves, I wasn’t getting paid, so I needed to hit her up for some money.
When she came in, I was about the most sober I’d been in months, which didn’t help my mood one bit.
“It’s over,” I said.
“The case?” She asked, and I nodded. “What did you find out?”
After a deep sigh, I began. “I can’t give you hard evidence to support my claim, but I can assure you that the case is solved. In the coming weeks, you’ll notice that no more random suicides are plaguing the area. If you want to know more, you must promise me that you will not try to investigate the matter further.”
“How much will you tell me?”
“As much as I can, but not as much as you’ll want to know,” I replied sharply.
“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.
“You husband and several others in the city were influenced by an external stimulus to commit suicide. He wasn’t chosen for any reason that I can tell. More than likely, your husband was chosen at random, much like the other victims. It wasn’t personal. The one responsible has been stopped. That’s all I can say.”
“That’s not good enough,” she replied.
“It’s what you asked for,” I countered. “You wanted to know if your husband’s hand was forced, and it was. You wanted to know if someone else was responsible for his death, someone else was. You wanted to know if his death was connected to the deaths of those other two victims whose names you pointed out in the newspaper, and it was. If someone else was responsible, you wanted them stopped, and they have been. I’ve done everything you asked, I just can’t tell you any more specifics or names.”
Her eyes narrowed into slits. “That boy who was murdered in that robbery yesterday, did this have anything to do with him?”
I shook my head. “He was neither one of the victims, nor the culprit. I don’t even know what to call the one responsible for this.”
“You’re lying,” she said.
“No, Mrs. Nelson,” I replied with a smile. “For the first time since I met you, I’m not telling you any lies.” And I wasn’t. The boy didn’t do those things, that object did. He was just a puppet, but I couldn’t tell her that without connecting myself to the boy’s murder. “You don’t have to pay me the other five thousand dollars that we agreed upon when I took the case but since I did all you asked for, I will be keeping the retainer.”
She scowled at me for a moment, then her face softened. Without a word, she turned around and walked to the door.
“Mrs. Nelson,” I spoke up, catching her before she turned the knob. “You feel like a part of yourself died along with your husband, like someone scooped out an organ and tossed it aside. You’ll learn to live with that hole in you. I’m sorry for your loss.”
She paused at the door, not moving or speaking or breathing. After a moment, she turned the knob and stepped into the hallway.
“Thank you,” she mumbled and was gone.
Just before the bank closed, I walked through the doors and approached the manager. I told him I needed access to my safe deposit box and showed him my license. My rent and phone bill were usually paid late, but this one expense was always paid in advance. It was paid up for the next several years. He escorted me into the room and pulled the box. After placing it on a shelf in one of the small cubicles, he pulled the curtain closed and left me to my task.
I unlocked the box and opened the lid. From my pocket I pulled forth the medallion, still wrapped in a purple Crown Royal bag. I placed it gently inside the box, beside four other wads of cloth of various sizes and shapes. I closed the box, locked it, and removed my key. I returned it to the manager and watched him replace it in the rack.
I’m not sure what that thing is or how it works. I’m afraid to know. I don’t think mankind was meant to know. And if I only do one good thing in my entire life, it’ll be to keep that and the rest of the contents of my box out of circulation.
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!