Part 2 of Karma
Taking in one last exhale, Colebourne dropped the cigarette butt and began a process which he termed “The Art of Cigarette Butt Crushing” should one day it was turned into a book. He had crushed it flatly on the ground and was beaming to himself when he spotted the familiar figure of Cerney from afar. Always looking smart with his black coat, black tie and short raven hair (fashionably) crudely swept back no matter the time of the day, the man was a textbook example of the classic trope “Tall, Dark, and Handsome”, Colebourne thought with envious amusement. The man must have gone to bed wearing his trademark outfit, slept immobile through the night like a vampire, then woken up and gone straight to work. Trust Colebourne, he had seen it. Running a hand through his messy bed hair, he waved his colleague with the other. “Morning, cher.”
“Must I remind you that littering is a serious offense of the law?” said Cerney in his particular sarcastic tone as his eyes swept over the cigarette butts around Colebourne’s feet. “It’s a rare sight to see you’re up before 8 o’clock. What’s the matter?”
“Remember that missing person report of Thomas Gregory a few days ago?”
He waited patiently for his colleague to check his notes, which would take about five minutes if he was lucky. Note-making was Cerney’s unshakable habit. It helped his job a great deal; however, the downside of it was that the detective found it hard to search for a particular piece in a swamp of information.
Colebourne was lucky today. “Found the car here but not the chap. The guys are on their way.”
Cerney took out his phone and notebook from his coat pocket and began circling the black Mercedes, taking both pictures and notes while he did. “Who discovered it?” he asked without looking up from his yellow pages.
“You are speaking to him right now,” replied Colebourne as he lit another cigarette. “I was enjoying my jogging when I spotted this expensive baby alone in the woods, her owner nowhere. Recognized her number plate. Called you first since you live near here and then the guys.”
Cerney arched one five dark eyebrow, an astonishing feat Colebourne forever wondered how he was able to achieve. “You? Doing morning exercise?”
“And yoga, too. Is that a serious offense of the law too, Sheriff?” Colebourne snorted.
“No, it’s a serious offense of nature.”
Colebourne gave him an indignant look, which the other detective promptly ignored in favor of examining the exterior of the car.
“You have any gloves?”
Cerney reached into his coat pocket and took out two pairs of latex gloves. He tossed Colebourne a pair.
“You know, cher, sometimes I have to wonder if your pocket is Doraemon’s pocket. It seems to have everything,” said Colebourne as he put on the gloves.
“I can guarantee you there’s never cigarette in there. You’re sure you don’t want to wait for the guys?”
“It’ll take half a morning for them to drag their asses here. Besides, if you thought we should wait, why would you have these?”
“In case you ask.”
“Vincent’s guys are either clumsy newbies or experienced idiots,” Colebourne remarked. “Remember how they messed up the Designer Boutique massacre? One, both you and I did pretty well in forensics back in the day. Two, this is gonna be our case so we’d better not let them mess up.”
“Who said that? You can sniff it, Detective Jagdhund?”
“Yes, yes, I can sniff it, and I trust my nose. It’s telling me this case is no ordinary – another to pile up on our desk.”
He tried opening the door and found it unlocked. “Look how careless our chap was.”
“He didn’t bother to take the key,” Cerney said, his eyes doing a scan of the interior of the car. He motioned Colebourne to step aside so he could take some photos.
“Aren’t we just lucky this baby hasn’t been spirited away? A thief doesn’t even have to steal.”
“Neat inside, key left, safety belt done – now that’s odd, don’t you think?”
Eyebrows furrowing, Cerney jotted down the description on his notes. He had photographed the scene; nevertheless, he was the type that fancied the classic note taking: while his hands worked, his brain had time to process the information.
“Yeah,” agreed Colebourne, who spotted a Styrofoam cup on the cup holder. Confident that his colleague had recorded its original position, the detective took it to his nose. “Starbucks’ Cappuccino, three days old,” Colebourne said, taking a long inhale. “That fits the time of the report, doesn’t it? So our chap probably bought it on the way but didn’t finish it. Then he left the car or was abducted by–”
“With enough consideration to buckle the safety belt,” Cerney interrupted him. “I can’t imagine why someone had to do it.”
“Maybe he suffers some sort of OCD, that is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He’s obsessed with doing something even though it’s superfluous or inexplicable to others.”
“Like you have to crush every cigarette butt with your foot?”
Colebourne made a face. “Yeah, something like that.”
He checked the safety belt, and found it tight, sturdy. Then he noticed something. “Cher, hand me your phone.”
Light flashed and the snapping sound of the iPhone was heard.
“Got something tucked in the safety belt.” Colebourne stretched out his palm.
“Looks like a link in a chain to me,” Cerney held the small, ring-like object between his thumb and index finger. The metal surface was gleaming under sunlight. “Huhm, silver?”
“Looks like someone has deliberately tucked it in the safety belt.”
Cerney carefully put the new found piece of evidence in a small plastic bag. “You mean, a signature?”
“It could belong to our chap, of course,” Colebourne said, shrugging. “Anyway I have a hunch it’s something significant. Let’s hear what Vincent have anything to say about this. I–”
“Vincent says you two should wait for him to do his job instead of stealing it from him,” a third male voice cut in, followed by the crunching noises of dry leaves under Italian shoes, which immediately attracted Colebourne and Cerney’s attention. “He still has a mouth to feed, you know.”
“Well then he should know ‘The early bird catches the worms’ and should have tried to drag his ass here earlier,” barked Colebourne.
The third voice was a man with gray short hair. On first look you might mistake him for a middle-aged man who aged quite gracefully; on closer look he was only in his late twenties to early thirties: his face was smooth and handsome in an unconventional manner, with his sloe eyes and his thin lips that always seemed to be smiling while in fact he was not. A case of bad blood that resulted in premature gray hair, one would say.
“Excuse you, he had to gather half the department and drive through a hellish traffic to get here,” the man snarled. “He could do with some sympathy from his colleagues, you know.”
“Our sympathy is expressed by doing half the job for you, Vincent,” Cerney said.
“And I should thank you, right.”
The sarcastic tone elicited no response from Cerney while Colebourne huffed and turned his attention to the car, his arms hugging his body.
“Thomas Gregory’s car was left here, unlocked and the key lodged in place. No obvious sights of struggle. There’s some liquid in the Styrofoam cup, which, according to our Jagdhund’s nose, is three-day-old Cappuccino. We also found this tucked in the safety belt.”
After briefing Vincent on the situation, he handed his colleague the ring-like object in the plastic container, which the latter took and held under the sunlight for examination.
“You took photos as usual?” His question was directed to Cerney. Nonetheless, it was the other detective of the pair that answered, “Yeah, have them here if you want to compare later. Gotta get back to the station to report. Baby’s here in all yours.”
He flung his arm around Cerney’s shoulders and walked away. Vincent’s Northern voice directing the forensic team to check the car and the surroundings was heard behind.
“By the way, Vincent,” Colebourne called, “all those crushed red Marlboro cigarette butts were mine. Got a crave for nicotine while waiting for you guys.”
Colebourne opened the door to his dear old Impala and flopped down on the driver’s seat. He tipped his head back, reclined in the seat and let out a long exhale, his breath coming out a puff of white fog.
“You’re alright?” asked the other man in the car, who was no one else than Colebourne’s life-long partner, Cerney.
“No I’m not,” replied the detective in an exasperated tone. He ran a hand through his matted ashen blond hair, messaging his scalp. “Those guys at the missing person department are stringent jerks. Not until I got a written, signed permission from those above to handle this case did they reluctantly share the information with us. I mean, what the fuck, man, they’re basically having two similar cases piled up on their desks with no shred of light on the culprit whatsoever – this Thomas Gregory and Aaron Benjamin Tylers before him – and yet they’re afraid we’re gonna steal their fruits!”
Cerney listened to his partner’s complaint with attentive silence. He handed Colebourne a carton box once the man was done.
“I bought dinner while waiting for you. Chicken masala, your usual.”
The spicy aroma filling the space once the box was open seemed to have a calming effect on the agitated detective. His breath became even and he took the chopsticks Cerney offered, eagerly digging in his favorite dish. “Thanks cher,” he muttered while chewing, “you’re the best.”
Cerney opened his own box of sushi and began consuming his ready-made dinner. The two shared a moment of comfort silence as each digested their food.
“Anything news from Vincent yet?” Colebourne asked, his left hand in the wheel while his right was holding a cigarette.
“He said it was some kind of very strange material he hasn’t seen before. He needs to send it up for some tests.”
Colebourne’s eyebrows knitted in the rusty-gold dome light. “It’s not metal?” he asked incredulously.
“That’s not the only strange thing. I dug into the old documents and also found Thomas Gregory’s not the first case of missing: there was Aaron Benjamin Tylers like you said and several throughout the decades –”
“Some dating back to just after World War II,” Cerney continued in his modulated voice – too accustomed was he to his partner’s cutting him in the middle of a speech. “And who knows how many before. All men, all inexplicable disappearances, no clues and thus all left to dust away in Section D… or became urban legends.”
“Let me guess, no bodies found?”
“Not a hair. So these cases remain missing instead homicides. And in some, there were reports of a ring-like object found.”
Colebourne’s eyes lit up. “Like the thing we found?”
“That’s why Vincent needs to make some contacts to see if he can get a look at them.”
“The reports on Tylers’ case to this say nothing of such an object,” Colebourne recalled, fingers rubbing his stubbly chin. “Seems to me these guys haven’t looked carefully enough. The chap’s car was returned to his family and their house is about 25 miles north of my place. Fancy a drop by?”
Cerney stared at him with all the pity a kind-hearted man could gather for a mentally deformed escaped patient. Then his ice-blue eyes fell ever slightly on the glowing numbers on the digital watch.
“… first thing tomorrow,” Colebourne hastily added. Swear to God, of all the manners of staring Cerney had invented to use on him over the decades, this was the most powerful hit; it truly made him feel like the unfortunate creature Cerney saw him as – whatever it was, it couldn’t be anything remotely good. “You can stay the night at my place. Saves travel time,” he blurted, trying for something, anything that could break Cerney’s stare.
“I need to bathe,” declared Cerney. Was that a triumphant note in his tone – Colebourne was sure it was.
“You can wear my clothes,” Colebourne insisted, and before any sarcastic comments came out of his partner’s lips, he explained, “Contrary to any misbelief you guys might have, I happen to be a cleanliness freak. I keep my flat clean, and my clothes cleaner.”
“I don’t have my toothbrush and towel.”
“I have some spares.”
“I don’t have any condoms.”
“I have some… Wait! WHAT??!”
Cerney only laughed. “Why the surprise, cher?” He was mimicking Colebourne’s recently-picked up French accent. “I’ve already bought you dinner.”
Without any effort, Colebourne put on display his most shocked face, which only served to elicit more laughter from Cerney.
“Don’t make that face, cher. It’s not our first time.”
“You have the most monstrous sense of humor, Rhys Allayer William Cerney.”
Cerney chuckled. “So the plan is I’m going to stay at your flat and we’ll pay the Tylers a visit?” He asked, his accent back to his original Cockney.
“And the Gregorys too, if there’s…”
Colebourne didn’t have a chance to finish his sentence due to his shock to spot a figure standing in front of the road. He reacted in milliseconds, steering the wheel sharply and dodging the figure in a hair’s breadth. This was not without a consequence though: due to the abrupt change in momentum and the speed at which he had been going, his Impala collided right into a huge tree trunk.
Whit no small thanks to safety belts and air bags, both of them were relatively uninjured.
They came to themselves almost immediately and leapt out of the car and onto the road. There they found the mysterious figure they had almost hit, lying on the side a few feet away from the streetlight. Fog circled around her body like smoke.
“Miss, are you alright?” Colebourne gently lifted her body while Cerney promptly checked for her vital signs. Her skin felt cold to the touch but her pulse was strong, her chest heaving under her thin, tattered dress. It must have been white before; now it was so dirtied with all sorts of stains that it hardly retained the original color. He did not fail to notice the many scratches, cuts and bruises littered on her exposed skin. She was skinny, her clavicles seemingly piercing through her skin. Cerney could even see the shape of her ribcage under her clothes. It disturbed him deeply to think about what she had suffered to reach this state: wandering on an empty road in the late chilling autumn night with her feet bare and her only piece of clothing torn. He reached for his phone and dial 911 while Colebourne took off his coat to drape over her.
“Darn!” muttered the normally mild-mannered man as he failed the third time to make a call. The signal bar on his screen generally disappeared.
His loud curse might have roused the unfortunate girl, for she stirred in Colebourne’s arms and opened her eyes with sluggishness. Her eyes were wide, dazed, with the blacks almost swallowing the whites.
“Miss, are you hurt?” Colebourne asked. Relief was present in his voice.
Her black eyes traveled from the two men and she shook her head wildly, her frame trembling. Whimpers came from her mouth instead of words. Her reactions further cemented their suspicion that something very ugly must have happened to her.
“It’s alright, Miss, we’re cops. You’re fine, no one can hurt you now. Tell us what happened.” Colebourne tried his best to soothe her, which produced little success.
“She’s in shock,” Cerney commented. “And I can’t make a goddamned call!”
“Calm down, you’re scaring her!” Colebourne chided. “Miss, we’ll take you to the hospital, OK? You’ll be safe there. Can you walk?”
Since she couldn’t give a comprehensive respond, Cerney ended up carrying her to the car.
They laid her down on the backseats and Colebourne forced his old Impala to max speed to the nearest hospital, bypassing each and every red light on their way. The girl remained mute the whole journey, only letting out soft whimpers from time to time, without which they were afraid she might have died right in their car.
By the time they had had her safely under the doctors’ care and completed the necessary paperwork, it was a few hours before dawn for a quick, exhausted sleep… right on the benches outside the patient rooms.
“What do you mean?” demanded Colebourne, his voice jarred by his exhaustion and lack of sleep.
They were woken up by the nurse who questioned them their reason for being here, only to learn that the girl they had taken to the hospital some hours ago had disappeared, or in the nurse’s words: “There’s no such patient admitted here last night.”
“We took her here, around 12,” Cerney patiently explained though he was not any less worn-out than his partner. “Asian-looking, young, wounded and malnourished. She was wearing a tattered white dress. Please check again.”
“I’ve checked twice, sirs,” replied the nurse, trying for patience. If there was one thing she did not want to encounter first thing in the morning, it was dealing with delusional, persistent cops. “If you can tell me her name than I can check again.”
“We couldn’t ask for her name that night. But there’s no way a girl in such condition could have gone anywhere in the night!”
“Well, sirs, if you don’t believe me then you can go see for yourselves. Surely you remember her room?”
Exasperated, Colebourne grabbed his partner’s arm and the two of them went to the girl’s room at the end of the corridor. That they still remembered well.
There were around three patients in the room, none of whom was the poor girl they had found on the road. Spotting a familiar face that had been here last night, when she had been carried in, Colebourne went to ask him. To their shock, the man firmly denied having seen such a person.
The two detectives left the hospital in utmost confusion and a ton of unanswered questions. There was no reason whatsoever for everyone here to simultaneously lie to them. They couldn’t have been hallucinating the whole event, could they?
“I didn’t do drugs last night, did I?” asked Cerney as he took his seat next to Colebourne’s.
“I’m not sure about myself but I can swear on my life that you don’t do drugs.” Colebourne lodged the key in and started the engine. “But I wish we did, man, the whole thing was too spooky to be true. You know the tale about the ‘vanishing hitchhiker’? I think we got our own limited-edition version of it.”
For once Cerney did not reply with any sarcasm. His gaze was wandering aimlessly around the dashboard when he spotted something sparkling next to the takeaway carton boxes they had not found the time to clear up, and reached out for it. His tired ice-blue eyes behind the glasses lit up.
“I suppose these aren’t yours?” Cerney held out his palm, on which rested two sparkling ring-like objects that were very similar to the piece they had found in Thomas Gregory’s car.
“I’m 100% certain they aren’t mine,” denied Colebourne. “This can’t get any spookier, can it?”
Cerney nodded. “Well, I guess we could pay Vincent an early morning visit.”
After spending most of the night in his office going through all sorts of reports about that strange ring object, Vincent was not particularly pleased to be woken so early in the morning by the two detectives whose middle names were synonymous with ‘trouble’ and ‘odd’ and sometimes ‘overwork’. But soon as Cerney shown him why they had come find him, his endless naggings immediately ceased.
When the forensic doctor asked about their origins, Colebourne spilled the tale of the vanishing girl to him. For once in their long years of acquaintance, Vincent did not laugh at the blond detective.
“Here,” Vincent called, handing Cerney a laptop, which the latter took and carefully placed on his table. “The guys’ve done breaking the password. Hope you guys can find something in it. Good luck.”
It had been months since Aaron Benjamin Tylers’ case and little progress had been made. Vincent had been able to confirm that the objects found in Gregory and Tylers’ cars were the same as what the two detectives had ‘received’ (they had concluded these objects must have something to do with the mysterious vanishing girl though how and why they had not figured out); still, that was all they had got. So it proved that the culprit was the same and she/he had left a link in a chain as some sort of signature. Still, that was nowhere enough to answer the heap of questions to which they had to find answers. Where the victims had gone? Had they died or were they kept somewhere? How were the victims related? What were the culprit’s motives? Colebourne and Cerney had met a dead end for a long time and they were almost desperate, and then here came a new one: Jaime Ramirez, student of an honored exchange program. His friends last saw him enter his room, retiring early on a Friday night. The next day the model student had missed the lecture and when his friends came to check on him, they found the room empty. A few days later, since he did not come back, the police were called and Vincent had another uncanny piece to examine while Colebourne and Cerney had another case to add to the pile on their desk.
“For once Vincent’s team did something quick,” said Colebourne as he placed a cup of coffee on Cerney’s desk. “Enough cream and sugar for a diabetic future, as usual.”
Cerney took a sip of his extra-sweet coffee, his pale blue eyes not leaving the laptop screen for one moment while his hand clicking the mouse with neck-breaking speed. “Anything on your side?”
“Yeah,” Colebourne replied, scratching his mess of ashen blond hair. “The cameras on the corridor showed nothing, so there’s only one way for the boy to get out of that room, except it’s on the eighteenth floor and he’d be a half-wit to try climbing out of the window.”
“So he just magically vanished?”
“So he just magically vanished,” Colebourne echoed. “Man, this boy’s dirty: look at all the porn he has!”
Cerney nodded in agreement. He was checking the Recycle Bin, where there existed a plethora of “Hookers in chains”, “Hot girl alone”, “My juicy pussy” or “Hot times with sexy gynecologist”. “Not quite the exemplary boy as his friends thought, isn’t he?” Cerney commented, clicking the mouse to restore them all.
Colebourne stared at him in disbelief. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna watch them all!”
“Not ‘me’, us. It’s not every day we get paid to watch porn, right?”
He held up a lean finger, effectively halting Colebourne’s coming protest. “Don’t give me the crap that you haven’t watched once in your thirty years.”
“Like you haven’t!” Colebourne blurted, the tips of his ears coloring.
“Every night,” Cerney nonchalantly replied, to Colebourne’s shock. “We shall proceed with this file, which is named ‘Jaime’.”
“Wait for me to get some popcorn and we’ll enjoy the boy’s home-made treat!”
Soon as the file was played, the smiles were wiped off Colebourne and Cerney’s faces. While they did expect to see some sort of white noise, shaky camera-ed film featuring Ramirez’s more private life, it was something else entirely. The main character was Heather Jaime Ramirez but he was not doing anything besides sleeping soundly on his bed in his dorm room – that they could tell by the laptop (the same they were examining at the moment) on the desk by the closed window and the ubiquitous furniture in the room. The light from the bed lamp was sufficient enough and the sound was surprisingly clear that they could hear Ramirez’s light snoring and even the buzzing from the air conditioner. Nevertheless, they were utterly shocked to see he was not alone: standing in the middle of the room was a figure with long black hair wearing a tattered, dirtied white dress. The face was hidden from the angle of the camera (which was another baffling revelation considering how the cops had searched the tiny room high and low), but there was no mistaken they had met her before, on a deserted road in a foggy night.
The clock’s hands on the wall pointed at 12:30.
They both held their breath and watched her stalk closer and closer until she was standing right next to him. She put a scrawny hand on his shoulder, gently as a butterfly’s flapping its delicate wings. They dared not blink, fearing they might miss something crucial. His form faded – like a photograph being developed in reverse – and it took no more than a few minutes for him to completely vanish. Just disappeared, simple as that. The bed and the blanket were there; so were all the wrinkles on the bed sheet, indicating someone had been sleeping on it. Only the person named Jaime Ramirez ceased to exist.
Slowly she turned her head, facing the camera’s angle. Her face was crystal-clear, a normal face, neither too beautiful nor ugly, bland, easily forgettable. The only thing remarkable about it was her eyes, if you could call those ‘eyes’ at all – it seemed someone had darkness stuffed in her sockets so that her whites were non-existent, only blackness prevailed in there.
Those ‘eyes’ were looking straight at Colebourne and Cerney, and they felt acutely for the first time just what it meant for their blood to ‘run cold’ in their veins.
She smiled the way a sharp knife carved into flesh, and put a finger to her lips. On her other hands was a long chain which linked together an endless line of men. The men were all naked and bound, with their wrists chained to the one before them and their ankles to the one behind. Despite bad lighting, Colebourne and Cerney were able to spot the faces of Thomas Gregory and Aaron Benjamin Tylers near the end of this human centipede, crumpled in agony caused by the obvious cuts on their flesh. They could not believe what they were seeing but they knew, inexplicably, that nothing was unreal. And they had a feeling that the empty spot behind Aaron Benjamin Tylers would soon be filled.
The mysterious girl broke a link free from her chain and laid it on the bed counter. She graced the two detectives with another eerie smile – as though she could have seen through the screen to look at them – before she, too, quickly faded and vanished, her ‘creatures’ taken with her. The video clip reached its few last seconds, darkening until the laptop screen was all black.
“The hell just happened?” Cerney was the first to find his voice.
“The fuck I know,” Colebourne answered. “By the look of it, we have just witnessed how it happened…”
“And solved the missing cases, yes,” Cerney continued for him. “Who’s going to write the report, you or me?”
“How about we let this video clip speak for us?”
Colebourne moved the mouse around, and found that the video clip had disappeared. Wiped out without a trace left.
Like Thomas Gregory, Aaron Benjamin Tylers, Jaime Ramirez and numerous victims before them.
Like the mysterious girl.
“Oh, fuck me,” Colebourne muttered a curse.
Note: I didn’t have a particular image for neither Colebourne nor Cerney when I first wrote them in Culprit. I have love for them and have always wanted to bring them back, even briefly. While I wrote this, a thought came to me: which actor would share the physical features of Colebourne and Cerney, and then I came up with these two: Joseph Morgan as Colebourne and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cerney. No shipping these actors, please.