V Dead Ends

Kolith

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A flash of light illuminated the lifeless body of Lewis lying on the floor of his apartment, a pool of long dried blood beneath his face. The angle of his head prevented exposure of the gun shot wound to the back side part of his skull. Crime scene personnel shuffled around behind her, examining the room for clues, snapping more pictures, bagging anything considered evidence, while she just stood there, staring at the macabre sight.

She felt numb. She knew this could happen, everyone in law enforcement did. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence in a place like Markov. But this was the first time it happened to her. And so out of the blue. And for it to happen in his own apartment? What was Lewis doing?

Kelly felt a presence beside her, though she was too lost in her thoughts to notice him approach.

“There’s nothing that words can say,” Chief Langden said. “Only that the son of a bitch who did this is going to rot for it.”

“Yeah,” was all she could manage to say. An automatic response.

“Do you need to take some time off?” he asked.

That shook her from her trance. “No, sir. I want to find who did this. I want to be involved in this every step of the way.”

“If you think you’re up to it,” Chief Langden said. “I know what this is like. Just... make sure cooler heads prevail. These sorts of assignments with partners can be tricky, emotionally.”

She almost laughed at that. She hadn’t felt an emotion since she set eyes on Lewis’ corpse. But she understood what he meant. She gave a slight nod of her head to indicate that.

“I’m heading back to the office,” Kelly said. “I’m going to go over some of our recent cases. Maybe there’s something in there that will tip me off to what happened while I wait for the evidence.”

Chief Langden nodded. “All right. I know this advice always falls on deaf ears, but... take care of yourself.”

Kelly couldn’t rip her gaze from Lewis’ vacant expression, his pale skin, the thin smear of blood on his teeth.

She looked at her chief for the first time, gave a nod, and walked stiffly out of the apartment.
 

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Kelly pushed back from her desk, her wheeled office chair rolling across the ground. She reached out and grabbed her mug of coffee, taking a sip. She winced. Cold.

Sighing, she dropped the mug back onto the desk and ran her hands over her face. Her computer screen displayed windows and windows of open folders filled with case reports, investigations, and evidence. Physical manila folders were strewn over her desk, dishevelled and buried under paper copies with notations made in pen.

Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Through the countless police reports filed by Lewis, either by himself or with her, nothing stood out. A few robberies here, a few car jackings there, a suspected arson attempt or two, but nothing that would implicate anyone in his murder. None of it reached those depths – killing a police officer in Markov in his own apartment was something only a truly desperate person or a professional assassin would do, but there was simply no motive she could identify.

Maybe she just needed a rest. It had been a while since she slept. Hearing your partner of eight years was murdered had a way of keeping you alert. Kelly’s stomach grumbled. When was the last time she ate?

She looked around the open plan office. Huge windowed walls let a lot of natural light into the station. The room was huge, housing most of the detectives and beat cops for the district. The tiny desk dividers meant there wasn’t much room for privacy, but in a dynamic environment like law enforcement, collaboration mattered and hiding behind cubicle walls or closed-off offices would hinder that process.

In her dazed introspection, she spotted Chief Langden lumbering over to her, a steaming mug of coffee in hand. Langden was built tall and solid. He didn’t work out much, but he naturally possessed a great deal of muscle and heft. Kelly thought she heard he was quite fit back in the days when he was a detective, before he took over the chief role for the district, so maybe it was some residual fitness from those days – she had seen the man put away a box of donuts with ease, and on the regular. He shouldn’t still look that buff.

The chief reached Kelly’s desk and put down the mug of joe, pushing her cooled mug out of the way of the coaster. “That coffee must be ice cold by now. Thought you might like a fresh one.”

“Thanks,” Kelly said. “I was just debating whether I stay awake or try to go home and get some sleep.”

“Which way are you leaning?” Langden asked.

Kelly picked up the new mug and sipped gratefully. She closed her eyes as she felt the warm coffee wind its way down her oesophagus. “Sleep doesn’t feel as good as this.”

Chief Langden smiled. “Maybe head out to a diner or something too, huh? Get something else in your stomach other than coffee.”

“Yeah, I think I will,” she said.

Langden glanced at the computer screen. “How’s your luck been?”

“Didn’t have any,” Kelly said, gulping another mouthful of coffee. She barely cared that it scalded her tongue. “Nothing in our past six months stands out at all.”

Langden shook his head. “I can’t make any sense of this. Maybe there’ll be something in the evidence.”

Kelly nodded, sipping again.

“Are you sure you want to head up this investigation?” Langden asked. “I have a newbie who could do with some exposure to something like this. Head in the clouds, thinks Markov’s such a great place, that people respect us. She needs a reality check of the risks our line of work has. But since this is your partner you’re investigating, maybe...”

“Fresh meat, huh?” Kelly said, speaking in her usual flippant way but completely divorced from the attitude that it would normally carry. No doubt if she was well rested and had proper time to process Lewis’ death, she would have turned down the suggestion. Instead, she felt empty. Apathetic.

“Sure. Couldn’t hurt to have another set of eyes on the case.”

“Good, because here she is.”

Chief Langden gestured to a lanky woman standing awkwardly near his office. She pointed to her chest, mouthing “me?”, and then strolled over.

“Kelly Taylor, this is Regina Green,” Langden said. “Passed the entrance exam last week sometime.”

Regina brushed her short black ponytail off her shoulders and reached out a hand. “Hi Kelly. I’m your new partner!”

Kelly shook her hand, locking eyes with Regina while she drank from her mug.

“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Langden said. “Maybe take her out to a diner.”

“Ooo, that’d be great!” Regina said. “We can get to know each other better! I know a great little place not far from here.”

Kelly put down her mug. Somehow, being around someone bursting with energy and positivity just made her feel worse.

“OK, let’s go eat.”
 

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Kelly yawned as she stared out the window of the diner and at the endless foot traffic that meandered past. So many people going about their mundane lives, never appreciating the work that she and her co-workers did, unable to understand the sacrifices her line of work demanded. How many officers died trying to protect all of those oblivious, ungrateful idiots?

The aroma of coffee roused Kelly from her thoughts as the waitress placed the mug on the table.

“That’s all you’re going to order?” Regina asked as a plate of syrup soaked waffles slid in front of her. “I thought Chief Langden wanted you to eat something?”

Kelly sipped from the mug. “So… what were we talking about?”

Regina raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t say ‘we’ have been talking.” She cut a wedge of pancake and pointed it at Kelly. “I’ve been talking, you’ve been checked out.”

“Oh,” Kelly said, her listless eyes drifting back to the window and the traffic choked street.

Regina sighed, putting her utensils down with a clatter. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ve never… lost anyone before. I can be a chatterbox and I shouldn’t be expecting that you would be… yeah. I’ll be quiet.”

“I said I would do this,” Kelly said to herself. She turned her attention back to Regina. “I’m… not going to apologise for acting like this. But I’ll try to do better.”

“I understand,” Regina said. “Do you want to talk or should I?”

“You go,” Kelly said. “I promise to listen this time.”

She meant it. She was wallowing in her sadness while this fresh new recruit was trying to reach out to her. She didn’t feel bad – there was no ‘right way’ to mourn a partner’s death – but Regina didn’t deserve to be treated like a leper either.

Besides, they needed as many passionate people on the force as possible. She didn’t need to scare away the few that chose this life.

“So you didn’t absorb anything from before?”

Kelly shrugged. “Afraid not.”

Regina shoved a section of pancake into her mouth and started speaking before she swallowed it. “OK, from the top then. I was saying how I joined. What made me want to dedicate myself to this.“

The heavy stuff straight away, huh? Well, she said she would listen. Maybe it would get her out of her head, to hear Regina’s story.

“Well, honestly there’s not much to it,” Regina said, grabbing the syrup bottle and squeezing more golden sauce onto the last quarter of her pancakes. The woman loved her syrup, apparently. “Both my mother and father helped protect Markov’s streets. I was always inspired by them. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do, really. So I joined, passed the tests, and here I am!”

“Huh,” Kelly said.

“What?”

“I don’t know, I just… assumed you had a sob story. But you’re just following the family footsteps.”

“Why? Because I can’t stop talking? You think it was to hide some tragic secret, so I didn’t have to think about it?”

Kelly smiled wanly and nodded.

Regina threw her head back and laughed, launching soggy pancake crumbs across the table. “The complete opposite!”

“Did your parents at least die on the job?” Kelly said, a cheeky smile on her face.

“Ha!” Regina said, pointing her fork at Kelly. “A dark sense of humour! I love it! No, they’re fine. Dad got shot a few times, loves to show off the wounds when we get together, but nothing that really affects him. Mum was the one who wished she got hit, actually. Dad tends to rub it in her face.”

“Your mum wanted to get shot?” Kelly asked.

“It’s a badge of honour in our family,” Regina said. “Sometimes Mum would try to get into the path of a bullet. Shoulder first, of course, but… she never got lucky before they retired.”

“Lucky, huh?” Kelly said, drinking from her mug. “Unreal.”

A surprising, unexpected admission by Regina, enough to make Kelly forget her troubles for a moment. Lewis would have gotten a chuckle out of that story.

“At the risk of turning the mood sour… what made you join this line of work?” Regina said.

Their shared laughter dulled the sharp heel turn Regina’s comment forced, but Kelly felt compelled to speak. “Nothing as honourable as your parents, unfortunately. I don’t remember my dad. Mum raised me alone, working three jobs… nothing out of the ordinary for Markov. While she was walking between jobs, she was robbed and… well, she was a proud woman, she fought back… it didn’t end well.”

“Oh,” Regina said. “I’m sorry. Guess I should’ve seen that coming, what with your first guess about my motivations and all.”

“It’s fine,” Kelly said. “But it spurred me onto seeking justice. They caught the guy but then he got out somehow. How a garden variety thug who needs to steal from an overworked single mother can slip out the jail cell bars and disappear into the ether is a mystery to me.”

It was that same drive that drew Kelly to silence once Lewis died. She wouldn’t let the case go unsolved, nor let the murderer off with a slap on the wrist. She wasn’t going to just throw the book at them – it was going to be an entire library.

Kelly’s mobile phone buzzed in her pocket. She took it out and unlocked the screen. A new message.

“Who is it?” Regina asked, finishing the last bite of her meal.

“Chief Langden.” Evidence is in. Finish up and come back to the office.

“What’s it say?”

Kelly stood from the booth. “Lunch time is over. Back to work.”
 

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Chief Langden stood by Kelly’s desk, thick arms folded over his broad chest. He wore a serious expression, though that meant little. Even in his most jovial and relaxed moments, he always looked like that. In no way was the man easy to read – probably why he was such a good detective, and why he got promoted.

“Kelly,” Langden said. “Hope you ate something.”

“Coffee did the trick,” Kelly said. “I’ll have a handful of mints or something.”

“She took a moment to relax, at least,” Regina said as she followed her in. “We broke the ice. I’m pretty sure I saw her smile.”

Langden bobbed his head. “Good. Got to let out some of the pressure before you explode. Considering what Kelly’s going through, that’s big.”

“All right, enough of the therapist session,” Kelly said, dropping into her chair. “Where’s the evidence?”

Langden tapped her monitor. A new folder had been added to her desktop. Gripping her mouse, Kelly double clicked it. A swathe of files appeared before her.

“You want to click through all of it or you just want to know the conclusion?” the chief said. He pointed at a specific file. “Open this one.”

Langden knew Kelly well. She didn’t need to comb through all of that data. That’s what the crime scene investigators and numerous specialists were paid to do. She opened the document and began reading, her lips moving silently as her eyes scanned the text.

“...yeah yeah, no forced entry, shot from behind, right, blood splatter goes there, OK... bullet casing matches a cheap gun that every criminal has, yep... wait! That’s it?”

Regina looked at her. “What’s it?”

Kelly pushed back from the desk on her wheeled chair. “There’s no evidence about who did it! Not a one!”

“That’s right,” Langden said. “This isn’t an obvious case.”

Kelly opened another folder full of crime scene photos. She loaded each one, scanning over them in detail, zooming in and out. “There must be something! How can someone invite themselves into a detective’s apartment and kill them without leaving any incriminating evidence?”

“That’s... a good question,” Regina said. “Professional hit, you think?”

Kelly scoffed, her eyes still glued to the screen. “For what reason? He’s a detective. We’ve done nothing worthy of getting whacked for a good six months, maybe even longer.”

“Did he put away someone who got released recently?” Regina asked.

“No,” Kelly said. “To the best of my research, no one was released at all, let alone one with a score to settle.”

This didn’t make any sense! How could Lewis get killed so easily? He wasn’t a novice. He was an experienced officer. There was no way he left the door unlocked so that a killer could slip in. The murderer entered with Lewis’ full knowledge. An informant, perhaps? Maybe someone gave them too much money to say no to an assassination attempt on a man not prepared for one? God knew there were enough desperate souls on the streets of Markov to give in to an offer if the price was right.

Even if her hunch was correct, that a middleman pulled the trigger, that still left the motive, and the person who contracted the hit in the first place. If she was right.

Kelly huffed and stood up from her chair, placing a thumb and forefinger on either temple and stared at the ground. She had to calm down. Her frustration ruined any chance at clear thinking, and every second the scumbag responsible for Lewis’ death was free was another second they could plan their escape from Markov. If they weren’t gone already.

“I know you wanted the answer presented to you with a neat little bow, but you know that isn’t always how things go,” Chief Langden said. “But you’re an excellent detective, Kelly. If anyone can solve this case, it’s you.”

“Yeah,” Regina chimed in. “I’ve known you all of two and a bit hours, but I can see your passion for this work. I bet you can work this out, no sweat!”

Ugh. Regina’s saccharine attitude left a bad taste in Kelly’s mouth. Wait till she’s had a few months on the streets. Upbeat people either quit or become as jaded as the rest of us.

Still, Kelly wasn’t about to throw in the towel because the murderer’s identity wasn’t obvious. If the first round of evidence didn’t point to anything, then maybe a second round would.

“I’m going back to Lewis’ apartment,” Kelly said. “Maybe the CSI team missed something there. Or maybe I’ll spot something that jogs a memory and might link with a piece of evidence already found but with no current context around it.”

“Yeah, that’s the spirit!” Regina said.

“Take Regina with you,” Chief Langden said. “It never hurts to have a second pair of eyes.”

Probably won’t help, either.

“All right, let’s go,” Kelly said, motioning to Regina. “I’m not resting until I find out who’s responsible.”
 

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Kelly strode down the hallway of the apartment complex, her head light. Her vision seemed too bright, her eyes blinking rapidly. She paused, leaning against the wall, free hand to her face. Her stomach rumbled in a way that made it hard to ignore as well, but she kept her focus on staying upright.

A hand grabbed her shoulder. “Are you alright, Kelly? Maybe you should’ve eaten something at the diner before.”

Kelly brushed Regina’s touch away. “I’m... fine. We’ll take a look in the apartment and then I’ll get something to eat, I promise.”

Fat lot of good that’ll do me when I haven’t slept in almost a day as well. Along with all of this stress.

“OK. Let’s keep going. If you think you’re OK to do it.”

They reached Lewis’ door. Crime Scene – Do Not Cross tape made a barricade over the door frame. Kelly slipped her hand past and twisted the door knob, ducking beneath the tape as the path became clear.

The room seemed to exude darkness despite it being early afternoon. Two tall windows let in the light of the city all around them, casting two rectangular boxes of dim illumination across Lewis’ dining table. Blood stained her partner’s wooden floorboards where he had collapsed, though his body had been taken long before. Although she knew the apartment was empty, something felt eerie about standing there in the relative dark, hoping to find the thread that unravelled the case.

Shouldn’t she be resting, trying to process Lewis’ loss, rather than doggedly pursuing an answer at all costs? No. Her body screamed for it, but Kelly wouldn’t relent until she had some form of lead. Whatever she might need physiologically, she knew she needed answers for her mind, lest it never stop turning.

Kelly heard a click and the ceiling light switched on. Regina stood by the door, surveying the crime scene for the first time.

“So... looks pretty untouched for the place where someone was murdered,” Regina said.

Kelly crouched down, investigating the floorboards. Scrapes and scuff marks festooned the wooden planks but it meant nothing outside of years of wear and tear. She winded her way through the small apartment, checking the bedroom and bathroom, though there were no signs that anything happened there. Still, she had to be thorough to find a new piece of evidence.

An hour of ransacking the apartment led to nothing, however.

“I really think we should take a break,” Regina said. “You need some downtime. If you don’t, you’ll burn out. You can’t work at maximum capacity without eating and sleeping. Not for long, anyway.”

Kelly collapsed onto the couch, taking a therapeutic breath. The spinning in her head slowed, bringing her a moment of comfort. She took out her phone and opened the evidence files for the case, scrolling through the images taken of the apartment.

Regina fell into another recliner, shaking her head. “At least you’re sitting down, I suppose.”

A picture of Lewis’ cold body came up. Kelly’s thumb froze. The image of her partner face down in his own blood drew her back to the moment when she physically stood over the same scene, and a tingle slithered down her spine.

Oh shit, Kelly thought. The reality of the situation is hitting me. No, I have to keep-

Her eyes settled upon Lewis’ outstretched arm, and her mind grabbed onto a new possibility, one her tired mind hadn’t considered up until this point.

She closed the photo and buried into the files of evidence.

“Come on, at least put the phone down,” Regina said. “Then close your eyes and take a deep breath.” Regina did so to demonstrate. “You’ll find that your brain will start working a lot bett-“

“I’ve got something,” Kelly said, eyes still plastered to her screen.

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. What is it?”

Kelly opened the image of Lewis’ body and pointed the phone screen at Regina. “Do you see Lewis’ hand? The right arm, stretched out to the side?”

“Yeah, what about it?” Regina asked.

“Oh right, you didn’t know Lewis,” Kelly said, bringing the phone back to her eyes. “Lewis never, and I mean never, went anywhere without his phone. Even if he wasn’t using it, he almost always held it in his right hand. It’s not there.”

“He could’ve put the phone down somewhere,” Regina said. “Even the most prolific phone users have to eat or shower sometimes.” She lowered her voice, looking at Kelly with narrow eyes, and said, “and even some cops I know, no matter how much they kick and scream against it.”

“Sure, that was what I thought at first too,” Kelly said, oblivious to the playful criticism. “But I looked through all the evidence. Every photo, every scrap of text written about the scene. There is no mention of his phone, none at all. If it was just left laying around, it would have been found. If he stuck it in his pocket, it would have been found.”

“So... you think his murder has something to do with his phone?” Regina asked.

“Something on it, I’m sure of it,” Kelly said. “Or the phone somehow got mixed up in the murder and became a vital piece of evidence. For the phone to be completely absent... for Lewis, that’s absurd.”

“But if it was for a case or something, shouldn’t it also be in a file?” Regina asked. “Or written down somewhere, saved to his computer?”

“I checked his computer, every square inch of it,” Kelly said. “No, there’s something specific about the phone, some data or DNA evidence or something.” She stood up quickly. “We have to find it.”

Regina jumped to her feet also. “But how? The CSI team swept the apartment, so did you... like you said, if it was here, it should have been found.”

“Then it mustn’t be in the apartment,” Kelly said, pacing back and forward. “The killer must have taken it with them.”

“And how does that help us?” Regina asked. “We don’t know who it is or where they went.”

Kelly clapped her hands, her eyes wide with realisation. “We don’t. But the service providers...”

Regina’s mouth fell agape as the same thought sprung into her mind. “They can ping phones! We can find out where it is, or at least where the signal stopped talking with the network!”

“Bingo,” Kelly said, smiling. “We know our next stop.”
 

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The car’s tyres locked up and the rubber screeched along the pavement. Kelly almost kicked the door open in her eagerness, crashing through the people on the sidewalk and running into the alleyway. Regina followed behind, ensuring the car was locked before walking over to her squad mate.

“You’re supposed to behave a little more... professionally,” Regina said, hands on hips. “I know you haven’t had the best time lately but just... slow down a little, yeah?”

Kelly was arm deep in the nearest garbage bin, rifling through the refuse. “Can you stop lecturing me on how to do a job you’ve been in for all of two minutes and actually help me?”

“If you took a moment to stop, you could just tip the bin over and look through what spills out, rather than stick your hands into it,” Regina said. “You don’t need to be an officer for two minutes to realise that.”

Kelly scowled, refusing to acknowledge the wisdom in the rookie’s words, but she pulled her limbs out of the trash and knocked over the bin. Food scraps, discarded cardboard containers and other miscellaneous refuse poured out into the alleyway. Kelly used the toe of her shoes to shift the rubbish around, looking for the phone.

“Nothing here,” Kelly said. She turned around and kicked over the next bin, scrutinising its stinking contents. Nothing in that one, either.

The cellular service provider of Lewis’ phone provided the last known location of the device – in essence, where it had last pinged a cell tower or satellite on the network. The time of that ping coincided within about an hour or so’s time of Lewis’ murder, leading Kelly to believe the device had been stolen with the express purpose of hiding critical evidence of his death.

There was a chance it wasn’t here at all. The bins were still full, so there was little chance that it had already been collected by the sanitation trucks, but this may have just been the random location that the murderer took out the phone’s battery. Or worse - destroyed it beyond repair before taking its remains with them.

But to her exhausted, sleep deprived mind, it was the only thread she still followed. Without it, what could she do? Give up? Let Lewis’ murderer get away with their heinous crime? She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.

Five minutes passed while Kelly overturned every garbage can in the alley, her bloodshot eyes maniacally dashing between pieces of rotten fruit and discarded plastic. Regina stood at the entrance to the alley, her arms folded, shaking her head.

“It’s not here,” Kelly finally admitted, collapsing on her knees, her head drooped. “The phone is gone. The one trail we had... has gone cold.”

Regina walked over to Kelly and crouched, placing a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not over yet, Kelly. We have to keep trying. They’ll be something else. Some other clue we can follow. I’m sure of it.”

“Like what?” Kelly said, her face hidden by her shoulder-length blonde hair cascading over her. “I’ve scoured all the evidence multiple times. There’s nothing in there.”

Regina shrugged. “We just keep trying. I’m sure you would think the same, if you weren’t so distraught. And tired.”

Kelly tried to steady her breathing, but it was difficult. “Maybe.”

“Look, I think we’ve earned some downtime,” Regina said. “Why don’t you go to sleep? It’ll help you a lot, I’m sure.”

Kelly shook her head. “No. I can’t sleep.”

“Well then... what about some leisure time? Is there something you like to do to relax? Unwind?”

Kelly raised her head. “Well, I haven’t looked at my phone for a while.”

“There you go! Maybe you can while away some time on that.”

Fishing around in her pocket, Kelly found her device and activated the screen. She tapped in her password but the screen read Password Incorrect. She tried a few more times, each attempt unsuccessful, until the device locked as a safety precaution.

“Shit!” she yelled. “I can’t even get into my-“

A thought like a lightning bolt struck Kelly. She stood up abruptly. “That’s it!”

What’s it?” Regina asked.

“The login!” Kelly said. “Security! Passwords! Protection!”

Regina cocked an eyebrow. “You’re rambling.”

“Don’t you see!?” Kelly said, grabbing Regina by the shoulders. “It’s been right in front of our faces all along!”

What?

“Maybe Lewis’ phone is gone. Maybe it’s destroyed or its data is wiped – whatever. That’s fine! But what else can a phone do with its data?”

Regina shrugged. “Can you just get to the point?”

“Backups!” Kelly said, raising her index finger to the sky. “We don’t need the phone – Lewis had his phone set up to automatically back up the data to the cloud! We log into his online account and we can access everything!”

Regina pursed her lips and nodded, eyes wide. “That’s... actually pretty insightful. Especially so for a grieving woman suffering sleep deprivation.”

“OK, so I just need a device to log in,” Kelly said. “I knew his logins and passwords, just in case something like this happened. Give me your phone. I’m locked out of mine. Damn it, why didn’t I think of this before?”

“Oh, uh... I don’t have a phone,” Regina said, raising her hands.

“What?”

“Yeah, I haven’t been issued one yet.”

“Then where’s your personal phone?”

“I didn’t bring it. I didn’t think I would need it, since I’m getting one for the job.”

Kelly grunted. “Fine. We’re going back to the precinct. I’ll login from my computer.” She dug out the car keys and threw them to Regina. “You’re driving. I’m resting in the back.”

Finally,” Regina said with a smile.

Kelly climbed into the back of the car, lying down over the back seats. The job wasn’t done yet, but she knew this would work. It was enough to let her mind spin down, enough to be satisfied for now. Before she knew it, she fell asleep.
 

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Kelly’s relentless determination bore fruit.

She slept a few hours, finally conceding to Regina that her body required it rather than it making a forceful suggestion. As soon as she stirred, she raced out of the car's backseat and into the precinct office, scrambling for her computer.

She logged into Lewis’ online cloud backups. Her partner had been tracking a sophisticated illegal weapons trade without telling anyone at the precinct, herself included. His cloud account was filled with addresses, contacts, inventories – a dizzying array of data.

Kelly couldn’t help but wonder why Lewis had kept it all such a secret. It didn’t look like he was involved in the weapons smuggling. The information was too exhaustive, too clinical, to be used in operations, or even as a bargaining chip should he be found out himself. Perhaps he didn’t have enough to make the arrest.

She stumbled upon the most recently saved document, titled ‘The first domino.’ All it held was an address of an apartment in a rundown complex. Though knowing Lewis, the document’s name held an important clue. The first domino… maybe whoever was at this apartment had the last piece of information he needed before his investigation could be considered air-tight.

Push this one, and it starts a chain reaction, until all the dominoes are face down.

“So…?” Chief Langden said, standing beside her chair with a mug of coffee in hand.

“This,” Kelly said, pointing at the screen. “This address. I know it. This is where we’ll find our answers. Whoever is here knows something. Whether they’re involved in this weapons ring or they’re the one that killed Lewis, they’ll keep this investigation going.”

Langden chuckled.

Kelly shot out of her seat. “Why are you laughing?”

The chief looked at her with amused adoration. “You just… never stop, do you? You set your mind to something, and even your own body’s limitations don’t slow you down. You are excellent at what you do, Kelly.”

Kelly blinked, puzzled. It was rare for the chief to offer such praise, especially out of the blue. “Uh… thanks.”

“Listen, you should make sure Regina goes with you on this,” Langden said. “You’ll need someone there with you. I’ll have some officers on standby in case things get hairy.”

Kelly raised her phone to her ear. “Already on it.”

---

Kelly and Regina reached the apartment.

Her heart was thumping. For some reason, this was the moment that the seriousness of the situation crashed into her. She had the strongest feeling that the person behind the door was Lewis’ murderer, though she had no way to prove that hunch.

She slipped her pistol out of its holster. Her fingers clenched the weapon so tightly that she had to shift her index finger from the trigger lest she fire it accidentally. What if the person inside confessed to killing Lewis? Just what was her end game here? Would she arrest them, or would she take them out?

The idea that she had to consider that stalled her for a moment as they stood either side of the door. Normally the action she had to take was obvious, but here it became murky. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation, or maybe the fact that it involved her murdered partner, but clear thinking eluded her.

Or did her exhaustion hone her mind like nothing else had ever done?

I’ll know what to do, Kelly thought. I always do the right thing.

Kelly banged on the door with the butt of her gun. “Markov police! Open up!”

They waited together for a tense moment, listening for any sound. No approaching footsteps. Kelly shouted again, but still no response. Regina nodded to her and kicked the door open in a single kick. For a lanky woman, she had a lot of strength in her legs.

They stormed into the apartment, weapons drawn.

The apartment was empty. A single lightbulb illuminated the centre of the room. A man sat tied to a chair, mouth gagged, but Kelly knew who it was.

Lewis.

Kelly felt her heart freeze for a moment, before it beat like a jackhammer as the realisation set in.

“Lewis!” Kelly cried, forgetting all of her training and rushing over to the bound man. She stuffed her gun in its holster and pulled the gag out of his mouth. “What happened to you?!”

“Kelly.”

Regina’s voice had a hard edge to it, unlike anytime she had spoken before.

Kelly turned. Regina holstered her pistol and stood with a confidence unusual for a new officer. A swell of unease rose in Kelly’s chest.

“Regina…” Kelly said. “What’s going on?”

The door clicked as if it was being locked, but no one stood near it.

“It’s time we came to the core of the matter,” Regina said. “Look back to Lewis.”

Kelly frowned and looked back. Lewis wasn’t in the seat anymore. Instead, a total stranger sat bound to the chair, his face bruised and scabbed, one of his eyes swollen to the point of closure. He slumped over, breathing but uninterested or incapable of understanding his circumstances.

“Who…what…” Kelly said, stepping back as if from a dangerous animal. Her mind swam in confusion. “Lewis was…”

“Just here?” Regina said. “Lewis is dead, Kelly. You saw his corpse losing heat on his dining room floor. How could he possibly be tied up here?”

Kelly looked back to the hostage. He hadn’t turned back into Lewis. Was… was she hallucinating? Was her grief causing her to see things?

Kelly glanced back at Regina. “I don’t under-“

Regina was gone. In her place stood a well built Caucasian male with slicked back hair, a white jacket and vest, immaculately pressed grey pants, and a deep purple tie. He placed his hands into his trouser pockets and tilted his head.

“OK, now I really don’t understand,” Kelly said, trying to tamper her fear swelling within.

She reached for her pistol.

“I wouldn’t,” the mystery man said. “We aren’t alone.”

He took a hand out of his pocket and clicked his fingers. Out of thin air, six heavily outfitted shock troopers materialised, surrounding her. They all pointed silenced rifles directly at her, their identities hidden by dark visors. Another click and they melded back into the shadows.

“There’s a whole lot of explaining that needs to be done before I’m even close to being on the same page,” Kelly said, pressing down her anxiety. If she was going to die here, she would do it without being addled by terror or confusion.

“I know,” the man said. He walked slowly around the edge of the room. “As you might have surmised, Regina wasn’t all that she seemed.”

“No,” Kelly said. “She certainly wasn’t. How did she get out of here so fast?”

“She never existed,” the man said, his form clinging to the shadows against the room. As he walked the length of the next wall, light from the bulb reaching him, his face had changed to look identical to Regina. “She was merely a façade.”

As the shock registered on Kelly’s face, the Regina illusion faded from the man.

“What the fuck…”

“While I have been introduced to you,” the man said, stepping behind the bound man, “you have yet to meet me. Hello, Kelly. I’m The Man of Nightmares.”
 

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Kelly almost laughed at the pompous title, if utter bewilderment hadn’t strangled her senses.

Regina had never existed. She was a disguise worn by this well dressed man. How did he do it? Holographic technology? Magic?

A memory broke through her mental haze. “The Man of… no, you’re an urban legend. You’re a myth! A tale to scare the criminal filth in Markov!”

“I assure you, while Regina was an illusion, I and my name are very real,” the man said. “Do you know why I have that title?”

“A way to intimidate,” Kelly said as she tried to will her heart rate to slow.

“In part,” the man said. “But also because I am capable of showing anyone the things that truly terrify them. They are their worst nightmares… except there is no waking world to escape into.”

Kelly swallowed but her throat was dry.

“Fear not,” he said, placing his hands on the back of the bound man’s chair. “I am not here to torment you. I am here to give you a choice.”

“In my experience, criminals aren’t fond of giving genuine choices,” Kelly said.

“You’ll find that I am not a run-of-the-mill criminal, Kelly,” the man said. He gestured behind her. “Please, take a seat.”

Kelly found a simple wooden chair had appeared behind her without explanation. She did as she was bidden. What choice did she have?

“This man you see before you,” The Man of Nightmares said, taking slow steps around the chair, “is – or was – a member of my organisation. Bottom rung, one of the many unfortunates who do the dirty work. Except he wasn’t happy with his position. Instead of doing his job, following orders, and moving weapons as directed, he thought he’d use the resources of my organisation to dabble in drug trafficking.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Kelly said.

The man nodded. “Whenever you please.”

“Why do you care if he was running guns or drugs?”

“I am many things,” the man said in a low, threatening voice, “but I am not a drug trafficker. And no one in my organisation is either.”

“It was through one of these unsavoury deals,” the man continued, “that this degenerate failed to cover his tracks. Your partner, Lewis, found that track and soon began to unravel the hard kept secrecy I and all of my diligent operatives insist on retaining.”

Kelly’s blood went cold. “You… you killed Lewis.”

The man shook his head ever so slightly. “No. This man did. The one before you.”

Kelly frowned. “What?”

“This fool – Denver, I think his name is – was afraid his drug dealing would reach his superior. Once he knew Lewis had began mining away at both our weapon trading and Denver’s drug pushing, he panicked. And he did the one thing that pea-brained, knee-jerk scumbags always do when they panic… they kill someone.”

“He did it?” Kelly said. “Then what – then why – why am I here? What am I doing here?”

“I didn’t know how much the police knew,” The Man of Nightmares said. “But killing an officer always invites trouble. So I invented a persona.”

Light seemed to dance over the man’s skin until he took on the appearance of Regina, including her voice. “I tagged along on the investigation, led by you, to see what you knew and to learn what you would discover. Your chief is on my payroll, so it was easy to get my foot in the door. Your relentless determination led you exactly to where I feared it would – the apartment of Denver. If you got to him before me, it could have been the beginning of the end for the weapons smuggling ring.”

“If Langden works for you, why did you show up in person to find this out? Couldn’t the chief just told you what happened? Couldn’t he have killed the case and left it there?”

“Of course,” the man said. “He helps me keep tabs on everything going on. But the murder of a law enforcement officer… let’s just say outside of the attention such a killing engenders, I prefer to investigate matters of this magnitude myself.”

“But if you’re who you say you are,” Kelly said, “why didn’t you just kill Denver yourself? If he was dead, there was no trail for me to follow.”

“Because I never miss an opportunity,” the man said as the illusion sloughed off him. “This is where the choice I mentioned earlier comes into play. Take your gun.”

Kelly slowly drew her pistol. “What makes you think I won’t just shoot you?”

The man’s face softened, as if hearing a child say something ignorant but understandable. “Then I was wrong about you. And your choice will be made.”

“So… what now?”

The man stepped to the side of his hostage. “This is the man who killed your partner in a brain-dead act of desperation to hide his tracks and protect himself. I have no use for those who would kill law enforcement in such a stupid and unplanned fashion. So I give you the choice. You can be the one who fires the bullet that kills him.”

“And if I choose not to shoot a bound and gagged man in cold blood?”

The man clicked his fingers and the cloaked operatives rematerialised.

Kelly took a sharp breath and held it, but fought past her reflexive instinct and spoke through it. “And how do I know these aren’t illusions?”

“While the word of a man who posed as your partner-in-training might be suspect, I can assure you any bullets that leave their guns will act precisely in the manner in which they are designed to.”

Kelly scowled. “You can’t be serious. You’re asking an officer to kill a defenceless man, based on your word that he was the murderer? And if I refuse, you’ll kill me?”

“I’ve watched you, Kelly,” the man said. “You aren’t preoccupied with following procedures if they get in the way of getting the job done. If you end him here, you will deliver justice to Lewis. If you take him into custody, he’ll just end up back on the street sooner or later.”

“So why ask me to shoot him?”

“If you do, you’ll prove to me that the glimmer of ambition and pragmatism I see in you was not a mirage… and you’ll be welcomed into my organisation.”

Kelly shook her head. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about me. I have backup ready to enter this room. All I have to do is radio them.”

“Oh yes, the backup that Chief Langden said he would prepare,” the man said. “That was never going to happen. Langden works for me, if you recall.”

Kelly remained silent. If this Denver was the murderer, The Man of Nightmares was right. Her own mother was killed by a piece of shit that got released and was never held to account. She wanted to change things from within, but this man held a twisted moral code that she thought she understood. That she resonated with. He didn’t need legal authority to mete out moral judgement. He didn’t work within a rigged framework designed to protect the wealthy and punish the poor.

“No, I don’t,” the man said. “My authority is absolute and overrides all others in Markov. And with people like you, we will ensure the streets are cleaned of filth.”

“You… read my mind,” Kelly said.

The man stared at her with soft but unwavering eyes.

“If you really mean what you say,” The Man of Nightmares said, “if you really care about stamping out common thugs and ensuring that the people of Markov can live their lives free from the harassment of degenerates and drug dealers… not to mention those who pull their strings to achieve their corrupt ends… you’ll prove that resolve now, and join with me to make that statement a reality.”

Lewis was dead, Chief Langden worked for this whispered myth, and Regina never existed. Death was the alternative. What did she really have to lose?

The Man of Nightmares strolled to the wall and retrieved a hitherto unnoticed briefcase. He brought it to Kelly and placed it on her lap. “To ensure that you understand I am sincere in my beliefs, watch this.”

Kelly undid the latches and opened the briefcase. Inside was a laptop, its screen paused on a video recording. She thought she recognised the room, though the monotone colour made it difficult to pinpoint.

“This is Lewis’ apartment,” the man said. “This is the footage from his in-home security system, the night of his murder.”

“There was no-“

“My technicians scrubbed the data. I didn’t need the police to see this scum’s face.”

Kelly hit the play button.

A man burst through Lewis’ door holding a pistol. “This isn’t how it’s goin’ down, man!”

Lewis sat at his dining room table, back to the door, chewing on a jaffle. “The only way you stay alive is if you co-operate with me, Denver. I’ll keep your name out of it when I file my report, just like I promised. No one in your organisation has to know it was you who ratted them out.”

Denver’s hand shook as Lewis spoke almost uninterested to the criminal. Still the officer didn’t turn around, drawing the conclusion that Denver wasn’t a threat.

“Or…” Denver said, “I can kill you. Then you can’t file no report, and my hands stay clean!”

Unmoved by the threat, Lewis spoke through a mouthful of food. “You won’t. Because if you do, everything will come crashing down on you, and you’ll be worse off than if-“

Denver lifted his arm and fired. A flash of light issued from his gun and Lewis collapsed on the floor, unmoving. Denver stared for a moment and then ran out of the apartment.

Kelly threw the briefcase from her lap, grabbed her pistol, and rushed to the bound man. She stuck the muzzle in Denver’s leg and pulled the trigger. Denver groaned, though with less enthusiasm than Kelly expected. Less than she wanted.

“He won’t feel that much,” the man said. “He was beaten within an inch of his life.”

Kelly drove the gun into Denver’s temple and fired.

“There,” she said, feeling a grim but welcoming sense of satisfaction. “Now he doesn’t feel anything.”
 

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Kelly watched the light in the elevator crawl from left to right, signalling their ascension. Two burly men in black suits and ties stood behind her on either side, their thick arms crossed over their chests. She breathed in and out noisily, finding difficulty in reining it in. Each time she held the breath a little longer, and released it a little slower, until it grew somewhat under her control.

She wasn’t sure she made the right decision. That decision – killing the criminal in cold blood who shot her partner – felt good at the time. Hell, it felt great. Perpetrators of crimes walked away scot free all the time, she had seen it over and over again. Whether they were lackeys for a shady captain of industry or the CEO of the organisation himself, charges were often far too lenient if they stuck at all. So many evil people inflicted pain and suffering on others who didn’t deserve it, and so many of them never felt the consequences.

Executing her own sense of justice made sense. Men like Denver only existed to make society worse and the system rarely held them to account – they knew them too well, and knew where the blind spots were, where they could squeeze through untouched. Knowing that worthless drug pusher had a slug in his head, put there by her own hand, felt right.

But in doing so, she threw away everything she had worked for. Although she knew her chief was another stooge of The Man of Nightmares, she really wanted to make change. Her mother’s senseless death couldn’t have been for nothing. Her goal was always to affect improvements from within. But... it seemed hopeless. How many years had she been an executor of those rules rather than one evaluating and readjusting them? How many more people would be cheated and wounded and killed while the gears ground slowly around?

But she was putting a lot of stock in what The Man of Nightmares had told her. Was he being honest about his desire to reform Markov or just having fun by making an officer betray their duty? The latter seemed petty and unworthy of a crime boss’ time, but she knew nothing of the man other than the – at least she thought – rumours of his existence.

Would he stick her right back in the precinct, working more closely with Chief Langden? Did she know too much, and no matter what he was about to say to her, she would wind up the same way as Lewis?

Kelly let out a loud breath as the elevator slowed, the light illuminating the final floor of the building. The doors opened at a regular speed, but somehow the moment stretched, as if time was dilating in her mind.

She stepped into a sprawling office. The room could have easily fit the entire precinct's office, but it was largely empty. Lavish carpet covered the floor, with a red silk rug running a pathway to the beautiful oak desk at the far end. A huge window replaced the wall behind the desk, stretching to the ceiling some fifteen feet above, permitting a view of Markov’s dimming sunset and all the clusters of buildings that bathed in it. Paintings of great worth and other historical items under glass protectors lined the walls either side of her as she walked down the silk rug path, the bodyguards pausing at the entrance to the elevator.

A highback leather chair faced the window as she reached the clean and otherwise barren desk. Through the glass she spied flying vehicles as blips in the distance. She tried to focus intently on the far-away details impossible for her eyes to decipher as a way to distract her mind from panicking.

“Kelly.”

The chair swivelled around. The Man of Nightmares looked at her with calm, as if he still watched the sunset.

Kelly nodded. She wasn’t sure how to address him.

“You may use my title,” he said, as if he somehow knew how she felt. It must have been all over her face.

“The Man of... it’s quite a mouthful,” Kelly said, surprising herself at her forthrightness. Her nerves were getting the best of her.

The Man of Nightmares lips barely upturned, but his eyes smiled. “It is. You can also call me Sir, if that is more comfortable.”

“All right... sir,” she said, her anxiety improving a little.

“You must be wondering why I invited you here,” he said, his arms on the chair’s armrests.

Kelly dry-swallowed. “Y-yes.”

The crime boss leaned forward, propping his elbows on the desk and clasping his hands. “I search out talent in every corner of Markov. An organisation such as mine does not function only with petty thugs and the otherwise impoverished with no other options. My goals are big, Kelly. Bigger than anyone knows.”

Kelly nodded.

“You showed me that you have an attitude that will fit perfectly in a recently created role,” he continued. “You see past hierarchies and rules and cut through the treacle to the core of your goals. You even risked your life to prove you are a woman of strong, steadfast morals and unwavering decisiveness.”

Praise, Kelly thought. I wasn’t expecting that.

“I won’t discuss specifics right now – there are still some details to be ironed out – but you will be leading a small but vital team that seek specifically to achieve a goal that is central to my organisation. If you bring that same mindset to this role as you did to finding Lewis’ killer, you will be richly rewarded. Both materially and spiritually.”

She had no idea what this central goal was, but this was beyond her expectations. The Man of Nightmares had been straight with her, then?

“Yes! Yes, absolutely, sir!” Kelly replied, a little too enthusiastically.

The man seemed more at ease. “Excellent. Your escorts will take you to your apartment, where you will collect your things. You have a new home now. You no longer work for Markov’s law enforcement division, and no one will be able to find you again. Someone will be in contact with you tomorrow about the next steps.”

Kelly didn’t expect her life to be totally upended – moving to a predesignated location, no more outside contacts – but she should have realised it. One way or another, Markov wouldn’t know her any longer.

“Thank you, sir,” Kelly said. “Oh, may I ask you a question that’s been niggling at me?”

The Man of Nightmares nodded. “Speak.”

“When we busted into Denver’s apartment, he was all tied up, but he looked like Lewis – your powers, I suppose. But can I ask... why did you do that? Why did you choose Lewis' appearance?”

The Man of Nightmares leaned back in his chair. “When a mind grapples with an impossibility, it stalls. You knew Lewis was dead. You saw his body. And yet you also saw him tied up in a stranger’s apartment, alive. This is a very effective psychological technique to rob the target of their composure, making it easier to act upon them. Don’t worry, you will be taught this and much more.”

“Huh,” Kelly said. It made sense someone with ‘Nightmares’ in their title knew how to screw with the mind. “Thank you, sir. I look forward to seeing you again.”

She walked back down the red silk carpet. A new life. A new purpose. One that would help Markov infinitely more than sitting behind a desk and following orders.
 
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