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Neon Signs

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It’s Christmas in Manhattan, and the newspapers broadcast the latest atrocity of the city’s most relished killer amidst black and white clipart of mistletoe.  How does this murderer who ravages our city streets warrant such a position of comfortable prominence, cocooned among the cheer of the season?  Santa’s list and Rudolph’s nose leave something wanting in the hearts of the public—something that is seduced by the tragic horror of serial crime.  Why not a little blood spatter on our white Christmas?

I close my eyes momentarily to tune out the keyboard typing in my head. I will remember those opening lines later when I have the full story. For now, a worn pair of neon pink Skechers lies haphazardly before me in the midst of dusty red stains on the concrete floor of the factory basement.  Squatting down, I place the shoes next to each other properly.  Now someone might have just stepped out of them.

“Stop tampering with the evidence!”  A latex blue finger obstructs my vision.  The gloved detective keeps his stern eyes on me, but motions to a stout uniform slouching in the corner.  “Get him out of here. Now.”

The stout uniform abruptly expands in height, before appearing at my side and returning to its habitual meekness.  “You’d best come with me, Mr. Rogers.”  A cold hand presses under my elbow, begging me to rise.  I sense the timidity in the officer’s grasp and bide my time as the tall, dark-haired detective becomes distracted by the officers and medics fumbling with the body bag.  As I rise to my feet, my lungs fill with musty air.  I can almost smell the killer.  The body was still warm when the police got here.  If they had come moments sooner, they would have caught him at the scene of the crime.

At my side, the stout officer Benson is growing antsy.  I lean down to his level, the wool collar of my coat rubbing against my chin.  “If you show me the murder weapon, I won’t tell the detective you let me in.”

Benson’s round face tenses, but his darting eyes still don’t meet mine as he almost imperceptibly inclines his head to the left.  My glance follows his cue to a metal table in the corner just behind the stairs that cascade from the dank ceiling to the basement floor.  Various evidence bags form a tempting display that interrupts the formerly pristine coat of chalky dust on the table’s surface.

“All right, all right, already!”  I speak loudly, feigning an attempt to shake off the officer’s grasp.  “I’m gone. Just get your grubby hands off!”

The suspicious detective and several of his comrades look up at me briefly.  As I make a show of turning to the exit in a huff, they turn back to their work, shaking their heads.

I make a broad sweep in my path to the stairs, pausing ever so briefly to snap three pictures of the evidence bags before slipping my phone into my coat pocket.  One of the bags sits askew of the others, and I nudge it with my fingertip to align it correctly.

“Merry Christmas!” I call over my shoulder.  I can’t keep myself from smiling as I mount the rickety wooden stairs to the first floor.

My trek back to the office is a cold, slushy affair.  The wet pavement in downtown Manhattan is slick, and the cold wind hits me in short bursts as it rushes between the gaps in the bustling crowd.  One taxi ride later, the air in the elevator is as frigid as the outdoors, as two of my fellow reporters watch my cheerful face with suspicion.  We covet the good stories, especially with the competitive atmosphere of Christmas.  Any amount of animation in a fellow reporter you meet on the elevator is not usually due to the season’s cheer.  I try to ignore their suspicious glances while I brush the fluffy white specks off of the brown dampness of my hair.

My foot is over the threshold of the elevator before the metal doors have fully opened.  I hear Steve muttering to Harrison as they enter the floor behind me, the elevator bell dinging as the doors close.  A tingling sensation pricks my ears as I hear my name in Steve’s low tones, but I purposefully zone out his voice. He’s just jealous my luck has changed.

As I negotiate the maze of cubicles on the fourth floor and round the corner to my desk, Hank’s head pops over the white particle-board that separates his workspace from mine, his red hair adding a pop of color to the black and white perfection of my cubicle.

I lean over my desk and click on my computer screen, my leather bag still slung over my shoulder.  “Stop standing on your desk, Hank.  Sherry’s a Grinch enough this week without having to write you up for inappropriate behavior again.”

“No worries Kent, I bought myself a step stool.  Genius move—don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”

My eyes leave the computer screen and travel up the length of white divider to see Hank’s ginger-stubbled chin nestled comfortably on his hands, his arms resting on the top of our divider.

“Great, so now you’ll be able to spy on me at your convenience, and without any repercussions.”  My words drip with annoyance, but a grin spreads across my face.

“Precisely, my good man.”  Hank, as always, is unperturbed by any concern that he might be bothering me.  “But, enough of the small talk. What did you get?”

My eyes roam the cubicled horizon before swinging my bag off my shoulder and giving Hank a wink.  “I got a tour of the latest crime scene, and snapshots of the evidence to boot.”

I hang my bag on its hook, making sure it lies straight against the wall, before sitting in front of my desk and grabbing one of the three pencils lying in a perfect row beside my keyboard.

In my peripheral vision, I can tell Hank is still staring at me.  My adrenaline is rushing too fast to be bothered by his attention.  Twiddling the pencil in my fingers, I swivel around in my chair.

“How did you manage that?”  Hank is looking at me in concern.

My head inclines to the left, while I observe the curious expression on his face.  “I got lucky.  They’ve been trying to keep the crime scenes hush-hush.  Something about scaring people away from their Christmas shopping and ruining the holiday economy boost for our poor Manhattan retailers.”

Hank doesn’t seem to appreciate my sarcasm.  “You might want to be careful, Kent. Some of the guys are starting to talk.”

His negative response steals some of the thunder from my victory, and I smirk in annoyance.

“I’m just saying, that’s the third break in a row that you’ve had following this case.”

“So?  Just because I’m not usually the successful one here, doesn’t mean my turn hasn’t been coming.  This is finally my big break, Hank!”

“Maybe so,” Hank looks dubious.  “Just take care you don’t lose too much in this big break of yours.”

“Meaning?”

Hank’s arms come down from the top of the cubicle, and he looks interested in retreating to his desk.  “You care a lot about this case, man, and it’s given you a lot of big breaks, but there’s been talk around the office.  People are wondering how your luck has changed so drastically.  This case has become your life, man, and people are wondering if you have a connection with the killer.  Some of them have even joked that you’re the one dropping the bodies.  I’m just watching your back.  Anyway, I need to get back to work.”

Hank’s face drops out of view.  I drum my fingers on the top of my desk before standing up and pushing my chair back under my desk, centering it neatly.  Turning to the map of Manhattan hanging from the same wall Hank’s face has just vacated, my eyes trace the string that connects the dots representative of our serial killer’s crime scenes.  Each victim in a different location—seemingly at random, but all female.

I pull out my phone and flip through the last three pictures again.  The three objects are typical of every murder—the killer’s signature.  He always leaves a knife in the victim’s stomach, a cloth baby doll in the victim’s arms, and a framed picture of a random family, usually cut from a newspaper.  The knife is always untraceable—stolen from a person or shop wholly unrelated to the crime a few weeks before the murder.  The baby doll always wears a pink dress with a lace fringe, and by the time the police discover the body, the doll’s dress is soaked with the blood streaming from the victim’s stomach.  The glass of the picture frame is always cracked, as if dropped on the floor beside the body after the murder.

My brain kicks into gear.  I’m no detective—but I’m determined.  The case seems to follow me, bodies dropping where I will stumble over them shortly after yellow tape surrounds the scene.  I have to admit, it’s almost as if the killer wants me to get a good story.  I physically shake myself to purge the thought.  This is not personal.  My luck has finally changed.  I will be the one to find this killer, or I will be the first reporter on the scene when the police find him.  This will be my first front page story.  This will make my career.

I flip one picture too far and find the smiling face of Pearl, my girlfriend of nearly a year.  Her straight, blond hair frames her face perfectly, as usual, but even in this frozen image, her large, blue eyes seem to be reproaching me.  I haven’t seen her much lately.  I hate admitting this to myself.  I’ll make it up to her soon.  Once this case is over.  Once I have my story.  This case has kept me at the office and out on the city streets.  I don’t like Pearl to come into downtown Manhattan.  Her apartment is in the suburbs, where no killings have been reported, and I like her to stay there.  Hank tells me I’m overbearing, but my job and my girlfriend are the two good things in my life.  While I’m preoccupied with the one, I need to know the other is secure.

Pearl’s face is replaced by Officer Benson’s number and a repetitious ringtone.

“This is Rogers.”

“Rogers, this is Benson,” the timid officer’s voice always sounds more confident on the phone when he doesn’t have to face me.  “I have a lead for you, but this is the last favor I owe you. After this we’re even.”

I ignore his insistent tone.  He will be just as easy to manipulate in the future.  I repress a flicker of guilt at the thought.  “What do you have?”

“The link.  They’ve found the link between the victims.”

I wait breathlessly as he pauses.

“They’re all tied to the foster system.  We think the killer has some sort of beef with the system—foster mothers, daughters, and female child services workers in particular, since the M.O. hasn’t varied from women.  Most of them have been involved in or victims of abuse in the foster system.”

It really is Christmas.  “Thanks, Benson. Is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all.  And I mean it.  This is the last time I give you anything.”

“We’ll see about that, Benson.”

I set my phone down and end the call.  Well this adds an interesting twist to the case.  I sit back, slowly digesting the information.  Hank’s red head pops back up above the divider, but I ignore his gaze.

My mind instinctively analyzes the familiar—anything I know of the foster system that might be of use to me.  Pearl used to be in the foster system.  Yet another reason to keep her off the city streets.  I straighten in my chair.  Unless….

Hank clears his throat.  “Who was that?”

I glare at him.  “Mind your own business, Hank.”  My words are too sharp.  Hank might be a busybody, but he’s the nicest one I know.  “Sorry, Hank. I’ll explain later.”

He shrugs his shoulders and watches as I pack a few things into my bag and swing it back over my shoulder.  “I’ll catch you later, Hank.”

Guilt and doubt cloud my mind as I retrace my steps toward the elevator.  How can I justify using Pearl in this way?  Baiting the killer might be a brilliant plan, but dangling my girlfriend in front of him surely can’t be the only option.

As I walk past Steve’s cubicle, I hear the muted click of wheels on carpet as a chair rolls back from his desk.  I try to ignore his dark, prying eyes, as Steve cranes his neck around his partition, but his voice stops me as I pass.

“Leaving so soon?”

I stop reluctantly.

“I thought you just got here,” Steve continues.  His dark hair needs a comb, and the wrinkles in his dress shirt accentuate his consistently sloppy appearance and careless demeanor.

I force a smile, taking in the cynical curiosity in his sharp eyes.  Hank might be right about the suspicion floating around the office.  Steve has his bad days, but I’ve never seen him look at me with such a malicious knowingness, as if he knows some dark secret about my soul.   The doubt fogging my brain begins to clear as a growing apprehension sharpens my focus.

“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Steve,” I try to sound casual.  “You’ve already made your reputation as a top-notch reporter.  Just allow me some room to build my own.”

I wink at him as I leave, pretending that his suspicious looks haven’t gotten to me.  If I appear uneasy, I’ll only add to the rumors.  Suddenly, the importance of finding the killer increases.

I barely catch the 8:00 bus in the direction of Pearl’s neighborhood.  My mind rolls over my plan repeatedly.  This is not a good plan, but it is my only plan, and I can’t seem to shake it.  Pearl is the perfect target.  She’s in the right age range, she’s been in the foster system, and she isn’t scared of anything.  Even so, I try not to imagine the look on her face when I ask her to pose as bait for the killer—the killer I’ve been protecting her from by keeping her out of Manhattan this whole time.

I check my phone.  Pearl hasn’t been taking my calls.  She told me earlier that she had plans with a friend today.  I had lectured her about not going into the city, and she simply smiled and promised that she wouldn’t be in any danger.

Many people wonder why a beautiful girl like Pearl puts up with a workaholic guy like me.  I love Pearl, but she has quirks of her own that people don’t know about.  I pretend it doesn’t bother me that I never get to meet the friends she talks about.  She says that they’re friends from her former days in the foster system, and she doesn’t like to bring them into her new life by introducing them to me.  She also doesn’t like me coming to her place.  I’ve only been there a couple times.  We mostly spend time at my apartment.

I tell myself this is fine—that she is entitled to her privacy after her tragic childhood experiences.  But after a year of dating, I figure she should trust me more.

Something like this shouldn’t be said in a text, but I finally resort to it.  I pull out my phone and begin typing.  Need to see you now.  I’m heading to your place because it’s closer.  Please come ASAP.  Major break in the case.  I need your help.

I ignore the warning flags going off in my brain.  This is not a good idea.  I press the send button and shove the phone back into my pocket as the bus stops.  The walk from the bus stop to Pearl’s apartment only takes a few minutes, but by the time I reach her door, I have turned up my collar and shoved my hands into my coat pockets.

Pearl’s apartment has never seemed very homey to me from the couple of times she’s allowed me to step inside briefly, but then again, she hasn’t had much experience with good home situations, so maybe she avoids her own place on purpose.  Orphaned as a baby, Pearl’s first foster home was idyllic.  Her foster mother was an attorney, like Pearl, and her foster father was a reporter, like me. She likes to tell me that our relationship is an echo of her only happy family experience.  Her first foster parents were going to adopt her, until the mother was brutally murdered in the basement of her own law office.  In his grief, Pearl’s foster father relinquished custody of Pearl, and Pearl found herself in a string of abusive foster homes.  To this day, Pearl contends that the murderer of her first foster mother effectively killed any chance she had at a happy home.  Memories of her mother’s murder still plague her dreams, though she says her dreams are clouded with the confusion of childhood’s understanding.  I begin to second-guess myself.  What kind of man am I to ask her to enter a situation that is bound to make her relive the horrors of her childhood?  Probably no better than the foster father that abandoned her in his selfish grief.

Pearl isn’t home, and she still hasn’t responded to my text.  I pace back and forth in her bare living room as my calls repeatedly go to her voicemail.  I toss my phone on the couch and run my fingers through my hair.  A nervous jitter has taken control of my fingers and limbs.  Pearl fits into my plan like a piece into a puzzle, but for some reason the perfection bothers me.  I like perfect.  It’s what drives me in my career.  I gather a story link by link until I can display the finished product perfectly.  That’s what makes me a bad reporter.  I have a hard time releasing a story until it is perfect—every element accounted for.  That seldom happens.  Yet, for some reason, this feels different.  Everything fits, but my mind can’t handle that.  Why can’t I handle the perfect story?  I feel like I have all the pieces, but the finished picture is still blurry, like I’m trying not to see it.

The corner of my eye latches onto Pearl’s bedroom door, which is cracked open.  I can’t stand open doors.  It’s what I like about Pearl.  She keeps everything closed, perfectly sealed.  No imperfections.  No loose ends.

In irritation, I cross to the bedroom door with the intent of flinging it shut.  My eyes take in the room, and my hands forget to shut the door.  A long shelf lines the far wall, holding a perfect line of slumped dolls with humorless smiles stitched into their cloth faces.  Their lidless eyes stare straight at me, and I trace the yellow yarn of their hair down to the bright pink of their dresses.  My eyes pause, briefly captivated by the delicate lace fringes.

Claustrophobia sets in as visions of suspicious officers and reporters cloud my vision.  Their murmured accusations and darting glances seem almost painfully humorous.  I am not the killer.  I’m not even a good reporter.  I’m just the pawn.  My eyes turn from the shelf to the corner, where newspapers and scissors clutter the desk.  On her bed lies a glittering row of knives, with a gap in the middle, as though one is missing.

I hear the jiggle of keys at the front door. Pearl is home.