Something about the image was wrong. It took me a moment to discern the cause.
I had just risen from an undisturbed slumber, and now faced my kitchen. The house was one single room, with different areas characterised by their divergent purposes, but still involved in the open-plan atmosphere. I liked to keep it simple. My bed was guarded only by a pair of solid, wooden shutters, nestled in the right corner. To the left, a lone sofa stood sentry before my TV, both overlooking the expansive, uninhabited hills visible through sliding glass doors, which formed a fourth wall. Directly opposite, my front door opened straight into the kitchen. Little seemed to be extra-ordinary.
Except, as I finally gathered, squatting beneath my letterbox, was a sparkling, white envelope. Which was unusual.
To the best of my knowledge, no soul on earth had directions to my address. It was a deliberate mystery I had painstakingly cultivated, even involving orchestrating the construction of my house off-site, completing the final transportation and assembly myself. I never met friends or acquaintances in private, save for their abodes, and omitted my address when signing up for anything. My IP address was scrambled and rerouted through Ukraine, back into the UK, appearing from ‘Nohome Farm’. A clever touch of irony. You know, like ‘no home’. Clever. Officially, I lived somewhere in the outskirts of London. I knew I had never been followed home.
This was the first letter I had ever received. Was it exciting? Partially, though perplexing. I paused, whilst anticipating all of the potential dangers. The outside could have been laced with poison. Could the inside have sealed a toxic gas? I only had one sure method of determining the contents.
Using cutlery I promised I’d wash later, I opened the envelope, holding it with a fork and slicing through the top with a knife, exposing the innards to be wrenched out. Which only served to compound the mystery. A single slip of paper fell out.
‘Oomb nv qziws rn jq zeoknn tzb sqhr qphtqldnt. d gmqd ynt kfbzg tfb pbl xpxd ra’.
Which was interesting, and vastly confusing. I mean, fundamentally, it made precisely no sense. Had I been feeling optimistic, I might have described it as cryptic. Instead, I was more inclined to believe it an unnecessary waste of time. Evidently, someone or something had committed meticulously to tracking me down, only to deliver complete nonsensical gibberish. Yes, they had my attention, but not my understanding. Yet.
Regardless, currently lacking the patience to deal with this correspondence, I left the letter on my kitchen table, and continued my waking routine, which I followed to the verge of doctrine. I had discovered that rigorously adhering to these steps was the most effective way to deliver myself into the morning. Once, I had hated early rises. Now, they made me feel powerful.
With the natural light of day still to appear, gloomy mist swirled over the neighbouring fields, shrouding my residence in a literal veil of mystery, which I had believed impenetrable. Now, I turned on my coffee machine and ordered a full cup. It began flashing, to indicate its warming up. The race was on.
My house was nestled above a small cluster of trees, entrenched into the side of a steep hill approximately two hundred yards away. The view was fantastic, though I was forced to ignore it. I burst through the glass door and darted towards the trees in a full sprint. The frosty ground shredded the last remnants of sleep from my limbs. I slipped at one stage, bruising my hip but improving my time, hurtling downward across the bitter earth. Reaching the first layer of woodland, I grabbed one tree, swung myself around and began the challenging physical exertion of reclimbing the hill.
My earlier fall was understandable. The past week had gifted us torrential rains, leaving the hill a virtual mudslide, almost impossible to surmount, held only by ice. I bounded on all fours like some deranged beast, with single-minded fixation upon the target. Where I failed to secure my grip, the ground punished me by liquifying, abandoning my flailing limbs in short drops. It was arduous work, and found me caked in dense, soggy mud. But I reached my house. On the patio, I stripped entirely, casting aside my soiled uniform, just as the wind seemed to berate my foolishness, scolding me through a cruel gust and performing no favours to my shrinking anatomy.
The cold was my temple of serenity. I was pure steel crashing through this barren wasteland, the thunder in command of a storm, the devil’s steed with the wind cracking at my heels.
I had, however, lost against my coffee maker. To both my despondence and delight – though the morning walk had been slower than usual, the prepared coffee was bitter and hot.
Showering, I arranged my plans. It was to be an exhilarating day, the product of months of dedicated commitment, which represented a significant chunk of time to me. Typically, I resolved my projects in weeks, if not days, before greedily pursing my next challenge. But, of course, my phone rang.
“Always.” Following my affirmation, the police chief continued,
“I’ve got a present for you today. Plus, you might be able to help us out.”
“Uh huh, no. I’m going to the shelter today. It’s the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the one I’ve been on about for the past six months.”
“I can convince you. Let me confess, that this leans more towards ‘you helping’ than ‘you getting a present’. I think we need you.”
“It’ll have to be a pretty incredible present.”
“It’s a case. A murder, last night. Should be open and shut – we’ve got footage from the incident.” He dangled an infuriating pause, waiting for me to pounce. Unfortunately, he knew my curiosity. With a sigh, I relinquished my plans.
“Yep, I knew you’d like this. He’s dead.”
“The murder victim?”
“No, the murderer.”
Which was the second element of intrigue to grace my morning. This one left me with another call to make. One I’d somehow always suspected I’d be making, even as the first groundwork for construction began. My business partner and best friend, faithful as ever, answered on the first ring.
“Hey, Vance, I’m just leaving. Getting ready to see you in about thirty?”
“Listen, man, I’m so sorry. I literally just got a call from the chief, and they need me over there. I’m heading to the station instead. Just, make sure everything goes smoothly. Take all the credit, it was more you than me anyway.”
“Cut the faux-gracious bollocks dude. I was planning on taking full credit anyway, but it seems sincere now you’ve decided to abandon us. Enjoy your little puzzle, Sherlock.”
“Yeah, I’m sure I will. Sorry, Matt. Catch up tonight?”
“Sure thing. We’ll have fun without you. I’ll call later with the deets. See ya.”
Upon hanging up, I noticed an address had been texted to me by the chief. Presumably referencing last night’s crime scene, so I navigated there before the station. I had been acting as an unofficial consultant to the detective unit for a couple of years, but still loved the thrill of each solve. In that time, I discovered justice was messy, and unnatural. They did their best, but the police always failed to recognise the intricacies of human beings, their organic nature. So often, it required the more refined touch of an outsider. Unlike them, I possessed no monetary incentive, which I always believed afforded me far greater objectivity. My motivation was only ever restoring fairness to the world. Alternately, my part-time colleagues maintained a more complex relationship with those they once promised to help.
The only negative to my living in isolation, which I had long-since accepted, was the additional distance I was forced to drive to reach any civilisation. On long weekends, it was a blessing. Rarely did I ever regret the decision, and today proved no exception. Time for quiet reflection. Immediately upon reaching London, heaps of congestion were poured over the roads in layers thicker than the tarmac even in the outskirts. Obediently following directions, I pulled away from the throbbing veins, into a smaller network of capillaries of streets, which wound past quiet and desolate houses, eventually bursting into the view of an enormous police cordon.
An entire road was hidden behind tape, leaving nervous residents huddled at their front windows. A typically bleak street, with little distinctive character, sheltering a couple of sign-less, shuttered shops, and a huddled pack of apartment blocks. An aimless gaggle of passers-by mingled with understated enthusiasm at the edge of the scene, still hoping for some interesting reveal to justify their loitering outside on a cold morning.
I nodded to the officer as he lifted the tape for me. I ducked in a smooth motion, barely breaking stride, confident the action centred around an alleyway. It was unlikely the loose cluster of officers and forensics were gathered to enjoy the heavy stench of urine, or the garishly crude graffiti adorning the walls. The alleyway itself as a dead-end, leading only to large bins, through which a pair of the unluckiest were rummaging, with little enjoyment or success, it seemed. Shards of broken glass littered the floor, intermingled with other debris, and a dried stain of dark red. The body was gone, the only reason any onlooker might wait, but I guessed they had yet to be told. With a buzz of haste-less importance, various samples were being collected.
My arrival did not go unnoticed. Just ahead, an officer was tapped on the shoulder, swivelled round, and embarked towards me with interest.
“Well, well, well. Vance Howler, in the flesh.”
“Thomas Fairfax. Truly a pleasure as always,” I responded, grasping his outstretched hand in a generous shake. He laughed, as I guided him forwards, and patted his back firmly.
“You’ve received the pleasure of guiding me through today’s rather unique mystery, I’ve been informed.” From what I’d gathered, that might have been truthful, even in my unofficial capacity. I always appreciated Fairfax’s honesty.
“Apparently, none of you boys were up to the task. So yes. Am I taking you back to the station?”
“Only if you’d be so kind. My partner was called away, leaving me somewhat stranded you see.”
“No worries. I’m parked just over there, to your left”. I kept my hand high on his back, until we were within touching distance, before releasing him, and confirming, “Here we go.” He was a fantastic detective, with a genius rivalling almost my own. A career spanning multiple decades, he was one of the few men I truly admired and felt wholly relaxed alongside. Months away from retiring, here he was, pounding the streets with customary vigour and youth. It might have seemed strange that I was escorting him in my private vehicle. It was owed to his only weakness, and the unit’s worst kept secret. Almost a year ago to the day, he’d woken up completely blind.
“Thanks for driving.” We played the same game every time, when it was just the two of us. Though he’d confided in me, his unit was supposedly clueless.
“My car’s nicer than yours. We couldn’t afford to get you insured,” I pretended.
“No insurance in the world could cover me,” and he knew I was smiling.
“I’m actually glad you’re here. Something interesting happened to me earlier.”
“More so than a zombie murderer on our hands?”
“Kind of, yeah. I got a letter.”
“Baffling. You still reside at 61 Richmond Avenue?”
“Again, not even remotely close.” Obviously, my secrecy extended to authority.
“What did it say?”
I recited the letter – its letters – in their original order, identifying where each space came. For a short while, he gave no response, which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Fairfax loved regaling any listener with tales of his ‘reckless, misspent youth’, working for his local paper’s puzzle section. Before our modern technology was even a glint in the devil’s eye, he had generated countless anagrams and codes entirely from the depths of his mind.
As he battled through the various possibilities of encryption, I preferred to switch my attention to the case. The prospect had been appealing. Certainly, it was convincing enough to discard my latest little passion project in its greatest hour of triumph. But something else would come along, as it always did. It was left in capable hands, at least. As was my unsolicited mail, I hoped. He was lost in thought, so we drove in amicable silence.
“Leave it with me,” he remarked, when exiting the car. Something undetectable must have emanated from the station. He never waited for me to cut the engine. Instinctively, our arrival spoke to him, propelling him before I’d completely stopped. I was sure it was merely for the sake of the fragile pretence he had concocted, not being one compelled to prove himself. He was simply so averse to pity, that he couldn’t stand the notion of any doubting his capacity as a detective. So, officially, no one in the station knew he was blind. I mean, how could he be, after all his bounding about?
Together, we headed upstairs into the office. The crime scene itself had yielded little out of the ordinary, so I was genuinely eager to view the CCTV footage. I’d noticed the camera above the first of the shops, covering the whole street with a wide lens. The chief was delighted, as ever, at my arrival, and quickly directed me towards a chair, with the footage pre-loaded. I was silently exalted at drawing a small crowd, all of them keen for my opinion. It was immensely gratifying to be needed so desperately. I did have a lot of wisdom to impart.
As promised, I was given perfect seats to the most interesting show in the house. The chief guided me through it, with relatively few interjections. Our routine was well-rehearsed by this stage, and I appreciated the respectful faith in the value of my time.
Close to 1 am on the screen, the silent street received its first visitor. A figure with their back turned to the camera, striding confidently and purposefully, their black, hooded jacket braced against the cold. Black trainers melted into black jeans. Pretty sensible attire, especially to commit a crime. Not that I would ever advocate for that. But good thinking here, at least. The footage was skipped forward two hours, until another, considerably more cautious figure materialised. Nothing had moved in between. Though this second character appeared to glance about occasionally, it was impossible to accurately track his movements. He clung to the dark walls. The only light spilled into view of the camera came from the mouth of the alleyway. Eventually, the second figure, pausing for a minute, turned into it, and was consumed by the ominous blackness. An eerie silence descended upon the office. Breath was drawn, and held. Untold horrors were unfolding just barely out of sight. We waited, the looming shadow of murder extending over the crowd and infecting the rest of the floor. I couldn’t request the footage be accelerated. It was clear, they wanted me to gauge in a very real sense, exactly how long did these two spend together, alone in an alleyway.
What was the nature of their relationship? What was the purpose of their meet? Of these two, who would re-emerge?
I had my suspicions, of course, but no confirmation. I was still utterly transfixed by this deserted street. The soundless cacophony blasted at full volume. I was uncomfortably conscious of my chest, rising and falling, trying to stifle the cost of my own breathing. Suddenly, the spell was broken. A figure emerged, and stared straight at me.
Noticing the camera, they were frozen momentarily, before quickly walking away. It had been the first man to arrive, who departed now with that same, confident stride. His face was crystal clear, illuminated brightly by the street-light. It could not have been a better shot, save for a professional photographer managing the arrangement.
“I see what you mean about open and shut. Tell me about these two guys.” That was as conclusive as it got. Short a confession, it was perfect.
“Exactly, right? Okay, our victim,” the chief passed a folder into my hands, containing a picture of one Ben Moore. The nervous arrival. Married, with two young children. Average height, average build, employment listed as ‘Civil servant’. I didn’t want to do poor dearly-departed Ben a disservice, but he was everything I desired to avoid. Indistinguishable from a block of marble.
“An everyman type. What’s he doing in a suspicious meet in an alleyway at night? That’s one big question. Our suspect, alternatively, is considerably more interesting,” which was a colossal understatement.
He had evidently lived a frenetic, criminal life, ending in an explosive gun fight the previous week. He was now listed as deceased, which raised a couple of interesting questions. John Carter, with confirmed connections to several drug and arms smuggling rings, had been discovered riddled with bullet holes. The immediate suspicion was an outbreak of rival gang hostilities, with the added twist of betrayal, indicated by the proximity of one shot into Carter’s head. It appeared someone trusted to get close enough had inflicted the fatal wound. Or not.
Here seemed to be irrefutable proof Carter was, in fact, still alive. Evidently, the individuals gathered around me had latched onto the theory of a major conspiracy, of Carter’s death being faked to grant him anonymity. His file even mentioned a dispute, where the family had requested the body be embalmed, though it was inadvertently cremated. Destroying the evidence. Transforming him into a ghost. Which had apparently only lasted a week before he stupidly showed his face.
“He had been on our radar. An entrepreneurial type, he was diversifying his portfolio into money lending just before his very timely demise,” came the chief’s impartial verdict.
“And now you’re thinking this Moore character stumbled onto hard times and looked to the streets for a solution. But our friend Carter proved not to be the knight in shining armour, when he failed on a payment, luring him into an alleyway to kill him as punishment,” I didn’t hate their logic. Much of it made a reasonable degree of sense.
“The working theory at present, yes.”
“But murder, whilst sending a message, does nothing to recover the money Carter was presumably owed.”
“Which is why we’re turning out attention to Mrs. Moore. What if the husband was the message? His wife gets a loan, can’t pay, they off her husband.”
“Very interesting conjecture, but I’m afraid I have to shatter these illusions. Regrettably, this case has nothing to do with the veritable John Carter, so your foundation is faulty.”
“John Carter might have been an accomplished criminal in life, but his abilities lasted no longer than that. The man in this footage is, in all likelihood, still very much alive, and not the person you see. I was at the scene earlier today – notice the graffiti on the wall,” I motioned towards the hideous pattern scrawled onto the wall in yellow spray paint, “It finished almost perfectly above my eye-line. That’s a comfortable six feet, six-one above the ground. Now John Carter was an impressive specimen, I’ll give him that. But our footage does not show this six-five behemoth towering over the graffiti line.”
They began to notice the obvious problem. The angle was awkward, but still conclusive. Despite the face closely resembling that of our dearly-departed new acquaintance, the figure on the screen came only halfway up the wall, barely scratching where the paint would have been.
“Interesting, you figure, what, five-seven, five-eight?”
“Well, let’s compare with Ben Moore. This report lists him as a pretty typical five-nine, from the coroner. Push the tape forwards, see where he lines up on the wall. Like a children’s growth chart.”
Surely as I’d predicted, Moore seemed to match the first figure’s height almost exactly. Given the deliberate, powerful stride, Carter couldn’t have been squatting, or slouching. It was a different man.
“Okay, Howler, but whose face is this?”
“We checked. No family, unless an even more evil doppelganger has been out there all along”
“The body was cremated against the family’s wishes, right, all the evidence destroyed? Think about this. Have you ever seen Silence of the Lambs? If you had access to a criminal face mask, that would be a pretty good way of hiding yourself. Notice how they freeze, only for a moment. They see the camera, they think they’ve been caught. Except, they suddenly remember: not their face. Carter’s face could have been skinned.” Another, lengthy pause flooded the room.
I understood the consternation. It wasn’t exactly a topical reference. For even the most hardened officers, it was unpleasant. But my conviction was unaltered by the attitudes ensconcing me. Working with this group, I was adjusted to the cocktail of bemusement, doubt, and mocking which characterised the majority of our interactions. Clearly, no one believed me.
That was alright. I fancied myself more as a maverick force of lone justice than a team player.
“Compromise? You guys look into Moore, and Carter, let me take Fairfax to the morgue where Carter was transferred. I’ve got the address of the larger hospital. Give me a couple of questions, just let me scratch this mental itch.”
Our usual, working arrangement. They brought me in out of desperation, and quickly regretted that decision. Until, of course, I single-handedly saved the day, and their reputations, passing them credit for my creative intellectualism.
Fairfax was grateful to be called away from his desk. He generally found reviewing footage and working from a screen less than useful, opting to roam the streets with me. Plus, on this occasion, he was bursting with quietly consuming energy as I collected him, but waited until we reached the car.
“I would say we’ve two mysteries occupying our palms here. The first, perchance the most direct, pertains to the matter of the message. Assuming it is decryptable, which I’m almost beginning to doubt. Obviously, being too short for a frequency analysis, I started by reversing it through a Base64 programme, which yielded nothing relevant. Given that the message is entirely letters, I feel the code must involve some variety of alphabetic shift, but not to any immediately apparent order. Inverting each letter did nothing. Are you quite certain there was no addendum, no attached keyword from which to draw inspiration?”
“Sadly not. You have as much as I do, which I’ll admit is limited. The second mystery is how it arrived at all?” The importance of today’s case had entirely escaped him.
“Yes,” he trailed off, side-stepping whichever inconvenient topic he knew would inevitably need to be faced. Before plunging in head-first. “I hope you’re not overlooking the obvious. Even we have yet to be graced with the location of your humble abode. You like your privacy – most celebrities do. But we are forced to confront a problem, here. Someone took extreme pains to identify your dwelling. That level of commitment is not for nothing.”
“You’re suggesting I’m in danger?”
“Please at least admit it’s worthy of consideration?”
“No, I’ll concede that much.” It wasn’t a difficult position to retreat from. Certainly, my first thoughts had been of nefarious intent, of malicious poisonings, of a carefully laid entrapment. I couldn’t escape the sensation that something was different. Being this fastidious, eliminating me would have proved simple. They could have aimed at my front door and hit me as I departed this morning. Or on my morning run. Or broken in last night.
It didn’t feel like a threat, though there was no guarantee of the letter’s contents. Regardless, they remained to be decoded.
With another twenty minutes to our journey, we passed the time through other, engaging but vacuous conversation, first covering recent sporting developments, before fruitlessly debating ongoing political quandaries. He would no doubt have been stunned to learn of the de facto political influence I wielded, but I possessed it precisely because of my ability to withhold important information when appropriate. We never settled upon the same stance, no matter the issue. I thought him a jaded, indoctrinated fool with a ruthless desire to propagate an authoritarian line of rugged individualism. He believed me a hopelessly naïve dreamer crippled by hypocrisy. It never left the car, however. Seconds after scorning the obliviousness of youth, he lightly took my elbow towards the hospital.
We were neither of us a faithful reflection of our ideals. Our arguments were little more than pretentious, high-minded posturing. Never as important as business.
We entered through the hospital’s automatic doors and stepped towards the reception. Upon exposing his badge, the receptionist was initially terrified of Fairfax. It was apparently by her faulty administration that the lovely John Carter had been incinerated, not preserved, and she feared her imminent arrest. By strict legality, a case could have been forged for extreme assault. We assuaged her terror, in exchange for rapid cooperation instead.
She quickly drew up a list of every staff member with regular access to the morgue, complete with a biographical profile accompanying each thumbnail headshot, printing a copy for us, and sending one to the station. Very comprehensive, with her job at risk.
Despite this, Fairfax’s dissatisfaction was palpable. Frowning, his tongue parting his lips and his fingernails scratching the back of his neck, his tone remained perfectly genial.
“Just for my own completion, how exactly did Mr Carter’s regrettable cremation come about? You said the forms were addressed with your name?”
“Yes, but, I told my boss, I honestly can’t remember doing it. I’d just finished a triple, I must have been so exhausted I made a mistake. I’m really so sorry. That’s what I told the family. I’m really so sorry.” A panicked tremor re-entered her throat, but Fairfax dismissed it with a friendly wave of his hand.
Given all the attention that one detail had attracted, you’d be forgiven for assuming it played a crucial role in the overall mystery. All it really did was prevent us from ruling out Carter as a suspect.
The information in my hand was considerably more useful. The involvement of Carter added a certain flair of originality to proceedings, but the case would be solved by examining connections between Moore, and anyone with access to Carter’s body. Somebody hated Moore, this inoffensive lump of flour, with such a passion, they had crossed several lines of human decency in order to commit a murder in the disguise of a deceased man. Perusing the list of morgue-access staff was a high priority.
Back in the car, Fairfax was obviously taken by this fresh lead. He filled our entire journey with various theories, some fantastical and implausible, most, to some degree unlikely, but that was his proven method of success. Quickly element all scenarios, until inspiration strikes.
I excused myself from him after finding the station, for I was already settled upon going home. Between that morning’s crime scene, the stuffy crowd of officers, and Fairfax’s bizarre insistence on searching for Carter’s body in the morgue itself, my jacket was beginning to smell faintly of death. Not a fragrance I enjoyed, the pungency of which was already seeping into my upholstery. The long, and isolated journey typically proved a brilliant solace, enabling me to reflect on events and theories. Today, however, I was stuck on the unsolvable. A mysterious code giving nothing away. A puzzle so difficult as to be completely pointless. It would have been better blank.
Had the letter been blank, I would have instantly assumed the message invisible to the human eye. I made a mental note to check the letter under ultra-violet light, and above a flame when I got back. Perhaps that was the secret to the code.
Until then, my eyes flicked all about the empty roads and tracks that were my daily commute. It would, as I already knew, have been impossible for any observer to track me unnoticed, even had my attention waned. Additionally, the glove box of my car contained a device capable of blocking any signal emitted within a five-meter radius, barring any remote tracking device from functioning effectively. These were the extents of my efforts to hide, yet someone had still surmounted them. For what?
After arriving, my phone rang the second I stepped inside the house, away from my signal blocker.
“Hey Vance, how’s puzzle solving going?”
“Hey, Matt. It’s a spicy one. Still sorry I missed the grand opening. How was it?”
“You’ll be very relieved. As the foreman was doing a final check, he stood on a loose nail. I mean, he’s fine, but it went through his toe. He’s in hospital now. Apparently never got a tetanus shot either”
“Yikes, that’s awful.”
“Ha! Knew you’d love it. Just wanted to give you the good news.”
“Thanks man,” I hung up, already undressed, and stepped into the shower for the second time that day. He understood me well.
Trust me, I had recommended building a homeless shelter as our next project when solely absorbed by good feeling towards my fellow man. No single person is less deserving of basic human rights than the next, unless, I suppose, the significance of their crimes can prove a complete lack of empathy. It was the right thing to do. I was happy that some good would have arisen from today, and it was unfortunate it would be postponed whilst an additional safety check was conducted. But I had committed myself to that good. The positivity was a direct offshoot from my labour. Was it so selfish to want to experience that final good? Did I not deserve to cut the ribbon?
I dressed into an outfit resembling my first attempt from that morning – black jeans, and a navy-blue T-shirt under a light grey jacket. I kept my fashion simple. Plus, I didn’t want anyone suggesting I’d grown precious over getting my hands dirty, hence wanting to obscure my having changed. Hopefully, the detectives would observe no difference. Before leaving again, I had two points to attend to.
I could find no extra detail on the letter, neither under examination over a flame, nor under ultra-violet light. All I had was that which met the eye. For my second commitment, I loaded up security footage from outside my house on high playback speed, reviewing it with frequent glances as I prepared a sandwich. Nothing. All night. Concerned, I checked footage from the inside. Apparently, nothing again. Until, at approximately 4 am, it just appeared. I stopped and rewound. Nothing, at 4.02 am. Thirty seconds later, a white object was sitting on the floor. I switched back to the view outside my house, moving it to 4.01 am. Still nothing. All the way until 4.03 am. Which was impossible. My tapes hadn’t been doctored; my cameras hadn’t been interfered with. But it seemed a ghost had delivered me a letter. My phone rang again.
“Done some digging on the vic. Turns out Moore was active in the community – tennis membership, part of the PTA at his kids’ school. Current reckoning is he might have made some enemies. Jones and Thompson are looking into the tennis, I thought you could grab Fairfax and hit the PTA.”
“But I mean it. Picking up Fairfax, that is. Don’t go rogue on us again”
“No problem. I’ll… hold on, I’ve got to go. See you in a sec.”
Seething pulses of adrenaline throbbed from my stomach to my cheeks. My hearing was consumed by churning waves of raw, hot blood. I felt my heart pounding. For only a crucial second, I froze, before spinning about wildly, electric with panic. My thinking transcended into another plane of vicious alertness. I was ready for battle. I ducked, darting to each corner of the room, before finding myself back at the front door. Slowly, I slumped into a sit, and allowed the fear to drain through my toes.
Nothing had felt amiss. There was no intruder, no object misplaced. Except, I had noticed something new. Something undoubtably new, since that morning. I couldn’t believe how unobservant I had been since returning home. Gazing through the wall of glass at the end of my room, overlooking the rolling hills, my mind grappled with one thought only, which seized my body in terror.
The back of my door had been scratched. Well, perhaps not scratched, exactly. A neat, intricate pattern had been delicately and deliberately carved. A perfect spiral.
It was no longer just a letter delivered from outside. Someone had been into my home, violated its intimate sanctity. My final retreat, an oasis in this desert-world of cruel sterility. It was abuse. I had been disrobed, denying my consent. Neutered, I wanted to curl into an impotent ball, to simply outlast the day.
But I scorned that weakness. It wasn’t me. I resolved to find this perpetrator. What transpired next depended upon my emotional control.
My initial objective was still solving the little alleyway incident. I disliked loose-ends, and preferred to settle the easily settled before tackling larger issues. I had been texted the head of Moore’s school’s PTA’s name: Janice Buckingham, which sounded about as fancy as I was sure she’d pretend to be. For the first time ever, I contemplated locking my front door, but knew it would be futile.
It was a long and silent drive. Normally, I selected from a host of downloaded music, but was now in the mood for none of it. The downside of my signal-blocker was disabling my own radio.
It did provide valuable time for reflection. The facts, in a perverse sense, were beginning to arrange themselves into a clearer picture of a wider whole. Moore was not killed by Carter, a thread the police were still diverting pointless time towards pulling. Moore had, instead, been killed by a living individual so driven by desire for his removal, they had desecrated a human to serve as a mask. Perhaps, somewhere in their psyche, that distinguished them from the act of murder. By the extension of that logic, I suppose Carter, or rather the idea of Carter, did kill him. Whatever their reasoning, this manipulator was meticulous, beyond acquiring a unique and horrifying disguise. They had lurked in that alleyway for two hours, taking a further ten minutes with Moore’s body. It spoke to a dedicated, cunning mind. Thus, I was eager to discern from Janice if Moore had incited any disputes with any doctors, several of whom had children attending the same school.
Much as I hoped to reserve any prejudice before meeting Janice, several assumptions had been formulated. Without knowing the specifics of what her role entailed, she was evidently incredibly successful at it. For one, we were meeting in her office, at the school. Which I didn’t realise was a thing. The parking space next to mine, occupied by a polished Range Rover, had also been reserved by a plaque exhibiting her name. Upon the approach to her office, I realised it was bigger than the Headmasters’. Well played, Ms. Buckingham.
She greeted me with a flourish, before strutting back behind her impressive desk. I liked her a lot. She struck a gorgeous figure.
“Welcome to our school, Detective Howler,” in silky tones that unfurled in languid rolls, patiently powerful, like a cat stretching after a period of reclining. I didn’t correct her.
“Truly, I’m honoured to be here. It’s remarkably charming.”
“Well, we do try our best, after all. So, what exactly is it I can assist with?”
“Thanks, I appreciate getting straight to it. Are you familiar with a Ben Moore?”
“Oh yes, he’s simply wonderful! A fantastic member of our PTA family here. I regret I’m not so personally familiar with him as I might be, but he’s really great.”
“In what capacity does he serve?”
“I suppose the best way to answer that is with the capacity in which we all serve. Which is to say, none, really. It’s a largely ornamental group.”
“Yet, here you are, in your own office?” She leaned forwards with a smile that drew the soul from my lips.
“Oh, my dear Vance. You truly have no idea. But we aren’t discussing me, now are we? You want to know more about our mutual friend? Well, Ben and Mary make a simply darling couple, and little Marigold and Daisy represent model little angels. Of course, we’d all prefer if Ben could be comfortable as himself, but I suppose the girls have profited from a consistent, female touch. I hear he’s something of a tennis player, too. Not very good, but enthusiastic.”
“I’m sorry, what do you mean, ‘comfortable’? Are you suggesting Moore’s –” Cutting me off, she glanced furtively about and leaned in close. A waft of some exotic perfume tickled my nose, as my heart involuntarily fluttered.
“Yes, yes, Ben’s a homosexual.” She actually mouthed the last word, with exaggerated motion in the cheeks.
“Right, okay. Are you sure?”
“Oh, of course. Pretty Vance, information is everything here. Besides, I think everyone notices how Ben and Anthony fawn over one another. Always pairing with each other on little projects, it’s so cute. Is that why you’re here?”
“No. Why would we care about that? Janice, I’m here regarding some unfortunate news. Ben Moore was found murdered last night, and we’re hoping to uncover information about his life.”
“Oh gosh. Well that really is such a shame. Poor Ben. Poor Mary and the girls. Poor Anthony,” she winked, sending my stomach floating on tiny, winged creatures. How someone could be so disgusting, yet so delectable, I did not know. “I suppose it’s almost hardly surprising. You must know, what those types can get up to.”
“I don’t, but I’m confident I don’t need to hear from you. In fact, this is all enough to part ways. Thanks for your time.”
“Of course, Detective Howler.” She uncoiled from behind the desk, extending a supple hand towards mine. As I gratefully clutched her soft skin in a polite grip, I felt her left-hand snake into my rear pocket and deposit something. I kept my smile curt, nodded, and departed.
Once outside, I noticed a missed call from the chief, and elected to return his interest. After a momentary pause on his end, I heard his permanently frustrated bark.
“You at the school?”
“Yep, I just met with one Janice Buckingham. Lots of interesting information.”
“Really? Nice job. Except, if you’re over there now, why am I looking at Fairfax across the office?”
“It’s a liability. We can’t have you doing this again.”
“Hopefully, I can redeem myself. Plus, this situation required a certain subtlety, and some charm. If Fairfax had tagged along, Janice would have spent the interview choking on his musk.”
“What do you have for us?”
“Our friend, Mr. Moore? Turns out he’s not quite the picture of a nuclear family we once envisaged. According to Janice, he’s either gay, or swings both ways. And isn’t timid about flaunting it. Might’ve been entertaining an affair at the time of his death with an ‘Anthony’ from the PTA.”
“That lines up with the whispers from the tennis club. Jones and Thompson spoke to the chairman, and they’ve brought in Moore’s regular doubles partner. Rumour has those two fooling around after their matches too. Tell me more about Anthony?”
“First name’s actually all I grabbed.”
“I could pull it up.” Slowing down to gather the information, he continued after a beat with “Here, the full PTA board. At the head, we have Anne J. Buckingham, and, right, I’m seeing her picture. She needed to be charmed, did she?”
“I worked some magic.”
“I’m sure. Then, we have an Anthony Miller. Also quite the looker. Rich school’s PTA boards are the place to be.”
“Good to bear in mind. Anything else?”
“Not that I’m getting from the list of board members. No Miller registered to either the tennis club or the hospital. We’ll check in with him after our interviews here. But, you should know, our autopsy came back roughly an hour ago. The ten minutes Moore spent in the alleyway were not pleasant. He was stabbed over forty times, a combination of chest and neck. Our Carter-impersonator was angry. Grab Fairfax – the two of you can hit the hospital, talk to the coroner personally.”
He had generated a reasonable plan of action. I was certainly content. Fairfax could likely shed further light on the purpose of vandalising my door, too, which would be useful.
There was, however, a tingling sensation dancing on the fringes of my brain. An elusive thought playing in the shadows. I could feel the general sentiment, but not yet clarify in words exactly what it was. An abstract notion of truth. With each, gentle probe, it gave more ground, peering into my wondrous conscious of sentience, before scuttling back into the infuriatingly inaccessible depths. Dancing with this unwilling partner, we crept warily, straining to glimpse one another, as I became convinced it was the answer. It was impossible. My own mind was withholding, refusing to relinquish the treasures I so desperately yearned for.
I thought instead of the vivacious Janice Buckingham. A much more vivid fantasy. Information, or gossip, was her trade. She must yield it masterfully. The school’s headmaster was most likely terrified of her, exhilarating though she was. The chief had neglected to notice, but she also seemed to have adopted her middle name when meeting me. Janice was more suitable than ‘Anne’. She had surely earnt the riches before her.
Just like that, everything slotted into place. Like a marble maze, the ball teetering interminably along the diameter of the hole before mercifully plunging into place. I had my answer. I turned the car around.
Visiting the station would have to wait, as would Fairfax. I was confident he would understand after this matter was resolved. He was both contractually and morally obliged to codes of law. I was a force unto only myself. The police could wait.
I instead drove back to the hospital, where business was unfinished. The same receptionist greeted me, this time after directing an elderly gentleman towards the lifts. She was as wondrously friendly as our previous encounter, despite my now being badge-less. I reassured her, once again, my visit did not concern the accidental cremation.
“Well, I guess it sort of does. But with no bearing on you, don’t worry. In fact, all I need from you is one answer – do you know an Anthony Miller?”
Which she very conveniently did. Thanking her, I opted for the stairs, climbing towards the ranks of doctor’s offices, and identified my target. Dr. Zara Biswas. She was alone.
“Hello, Dr. Biswas. Do you mind if I come in?”
“Of course. I’m just finishing some notes, and my next patient will be here in fifteen minutes, but… sorry, what can I help you with?” If any single word could describe her, it would be ‘efficient’. Itself apt, and I’m sure she’d approve. Every mannerism was concise, considered, mitigating unnecessary movement and propelling conversation on a direct path to the important contents. Not one for the scenic route. She would hate me.
“Yes, I’m actually an informal consultant working in conjunction with the police. I’m Vance,” to which her eyes narrowed, only imperceptibly, but she returned my nod and replied,
“Zara, your husband is Anthony Miller, yes?”
“That’s right. I preferred to keep my own last name.”
“Unsurprising. Anthony Miller isn’t the one who studied medicine, so why credit his name as such?”
“I’m glad you agree.”
“Of course. Biswas is a lovely name. I suppose you’re also familiar with a Ben Moore? He worked with your husband until recently.” She couldn’t help but smile, a brief tickle at the corners, before her gaze turned serious, as she reconsidered the implications.
“Until recently? Was he fired?” I appreciated the effort, at least.
“Sadly, a little more serious than that. Earlier this morning, Ben Moore was found dead. Your disguise worked, amazingly. Most of the police can’t shake the assumption that John Carter’s involved somehow. It helps that his body disappeared, thanks to you ordering his cremation and blaming it on an overworked receptionist.”
“We’re all overworked.” Her expression barely changed, as she simply shrugged. Everyone reacts differently.
“But not everyone’s husband is cheating on them. Which is problematic, especially when you live in a world of talk and rumours and one-up-manship. When small slices of gossip can tumble entire families into turmoil. I mean, I can trace the trajectory. Your husband confessed a salacious affair. Or not, perhaps you uncovered it. He took few precautions. Regardless, it threatened everything you stood for, your children, your career, your marriage, your reputation. To silence it required but two things.”
“Clearly, Mr. Vance, you were never cast the leading role in your school plays. It’s a fascinating monologue, but I need you out in five minutes. And you must have no evidence besides this circumstantial theory, otherwise the real police would be here. Please finish up.”
Rude, but I could hardly blame her. But who doesn’t love an Agatha Christie-style unravelling of the villain’s plan, delivered to their face. Admittedly, I was standing behind her, one foot perched on a table, thrusting my leg into a right-angle, gazing over the city-scape with a deliberately poignant stare. It created a more intense atmosphere. The situation called for dramatization. I thought she’d enjoy it. Perhaps that was insensitive.
“You’re completely right. Allow me to conduct myself more seriously. I’m here, not the police, because they don’t know this yet. They’re circling Moore. Assuming your husband gives them nothing, you’ll fade into the background of Ben’s vague acquaintances. You were very clever. You left no evidence at the scene, wore an almost fool-proof disguise – didn’t check Carter’s height, but hopefully this was your first murder, so I’ll make allowances. I have nothing. But, secretly, I don’t think you want that.”
“Please, indulge me. It’s turning into an entertaining break.”
“Everything was surgically organised, right down to the final confrontation. The location, the hour, the aforementioned disguise. Even the weapon – not discarded, in all likelihood grimly returned to a kitchen drawer. Washed, I do hope. The alleyway was appropriately secluded for your purposes. Except, then you lost it. You stabbed a man forty times in the chest. Above anything else, that’s tiring. That’s passionate, boiling, all-consuming rage talking.
“This was all calculated, until you stared at the man who threatened to ruin your family. It tore all rationality apart. What I’m saying is, you glimpsed, for a second, the possibility of that rupture in your life. And it drove you crazy. Just imagine, now, if you woke up, and Anthony was gone. Perhaps, that’s what you’d feared. Except, he’s not in another man’s bed. He’s on the cold floor of a dirty alleyway, ripped apart and murdered.” I let that image settle on her desk, before I continued, “Ben never deserved to die. He wasn’t perfect, I know. But nothing he did was worthy of dying for. Now, he leaves a family in disarray, incomplete. Two girls have to wake each morning without a father, and Mary to a hole in her heart.”
“That’s a wonderful speech. Very moving. But what are you suggesting? If I confess, it doesn’t close that wound. All it does is tear my family apart. That’s what I needed to avoid.”
“How many more patients are scheduled today?”
“I’m here for another hour with appointments.”
“Make sure you don’t let them down. Does Anthony pick up the kids from school?”
“No, they go to after-school clubs, and I get them on my way back.”
“Wait, seriously? But he’s unemployed? Doesn’t matter. Don’t let anyone else down. People do depend on you. But, now, that includes people who might be saved by the truth. As you said, I’ve got nothing. Ultimately, to his family, the memory of this man is up to you.”
Then I walked out, leaving her to a crisis of conscience. I really didn’t believe it was my call, who’s family remained intact, who’s crumbled. Was the truth even preferable to mystery?
For a block of marble, Moore had lived quite the adventurous life. I still wasn’t exactly envious, and I certainly didn’t respect him more, but he’d utilised his time, at least. I liked to think he’d had fun. Fatally, however, he’d allowed himself into an obvious trap. Somehow, I had to avoid the same happening to me. For which, I had a plan.
I drove back to the station. With Janice’s number in my back pocket, it wouldn’t be difficult to convince the chief I’d been pre-occupied at the school, unable to visit the hospital until now. But I wouldn’t be going back. Flimsy cover, given the severity of the case, but my options were limited. All I needed was Fairfax.
He was still confined to his desk when I arrived, occasionally shuffling papers, but was otherwise lost in thought. Before I could reach him, I was intercepted.
I smiled, returning “Always.”
“Where have you been? It’s been hours?”
“I’m not surprised you missed me. I make for charming company, it seems,” reaching back, I retrieved my treasure, and placed the slip of paper in the chief’s chest pocket. Giving him a slight pat in self-congratulations, I walked past. He would be wildly jealous. I arrived at my friend’s desk.
“Yes, my esteemed colleague and friend, that is me.”
“That’s a relief. I have an interesting development to report.”
“Oh, pray tell.”
“Whilst I was grabbing lunch, I noticed something scrawled into my door. It looked like a swirl, or a spiral.”
“You had an intruder? Was anything missing?”
“Strangely enough, no. I can only imagine whoever is playing this game has a grander ulterior motive. Plus, I’m not the easiest mark for a simple robbery.”
“I suppose that’s true. This spiral, was it irregular, or neat? Have you ever witnessed a Fibonacci curve?”
“I’m glad you mentioned that, actually. That would be exactly what it looked like.”
“Success, we can surely proceed with this knowledge. Halt, a clue. It simply must be related to the letter.”
“Exactly. You mentioned that, in decoding the message, you experimented with some alphabetic shifts earlier, but nothing seemed to work. It seemed too complicated. What if, instead of one rule governing the shifts, they were determined by a more complex sequence? Each letter transitioned according to the next Fibonacci number?”
“Of course, I considered only a basic deviance in shifts. To experiment more broadly would have been impossible. But armed as we are, it should become easy. Well, the principle will be easy, but each shift will become exponentially more difficult.”
“Something tells me that deliberate design was part of a theme which will become apparent.”
“So, my friend, you’ve merely confirmed pre-existing knowledge. Surely you’ve solved it – what does the message say?”
“Oh. I haven’t decrypted it yet. You’re better at maths than me and I couldn’t be bothered.”
“Howler, this villain most likely intends to kill you, which failed to elicit your interest? That’s confoundingly lazy.”
“Yep. Or I’ve decided to live dangerously. Either way, I’m heading home, because I can tell you one thing. It appears my arch-nemesis has finally emerged. It’s taken a while. He’s confusing, derivative, and overly-complicated. He could well be scary.
“Let’s hope he stays interesting.”
Thanks for reading! Vance Howler returns in ‘Harmless Escapism: Charitable Endeavours‘, continuing to tackle his mysterious nemesis whilst embroiled in an explosive, new challenge. I regularly post a mixture of short stories, travel posts, and contemporary commentaries, so stay tuned!
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