October 1st, 2010
The clouds gathered into shelves of grey marshmallows that looked as sickly and bloated as the headless corpse that was propped up in the alley behind the local sports bar in Bethlehem, Ohio. The bar was located on a short landing strip of street in the center of town surrounded by residential buildings that resembled crooked teeth jetting out of a diseased set of gums and was aptly named ‘Brutus’ after both its owner and the college mascot who was a dancing nut. The owner of Brutus’ never danced a day in his life nor was he all that nuts about dancing. Not that it mattered now. He had bigger things to worry about. The shadowy figure of a man knelt down in front of the headless corpse, his vinyl poncho sounding like crunching potato chips as he did so. From under the bloody blue poncho, he pulled out a chess piece and gently placed it on the gaping wound that once had a head attached to it. As he began to rise, he noticed a name tag still pinned to the headless corpse’s shirt. BRUTUS it read. The rain began to pat the man’s head with a patronizing rhythm then progressed to an antagonistic tap as the sky’s floodgates burst forth a torrential downpour and diluted the arterial spatters of blood on the man’s poncho into long purple streaks. He plucked off the name tag, sticking it in his pocket as he picked up a canvas bag Rorschach blotted with the corpse’s blood. The bag contained Brutus’ head and the man carrying the bag never knew that Brutus never danced a day in his life nor was all that nuts about dancing. A flash of lightning popped off and before the thunder rolled, the man had disappeared with Brutus’ head.
October 1st, 2010
The LED light on Detective Cillian Smoke’s cell phone flashed, momentarily followed by the electronic wail of the ringer. The phone flashed again, followed by another wail. Cillian Smoke, or Smoke as most people liked to call him even though he preferred Cillian, snatched the phone from his bedside table with the speed and precision of a striking snake. He had not been asleep though his mind and body craved it. He was finishing up a report for a previous case when the call came in. Without looking at the phone, Smoke flipped it open.
“Detective Smoke,” Smoke said in his deep, lulling voice.
“You always answer your phone like that?” A raspy voice on the other end asked.
“Not always. But who else would call at four in the morning besides work?”
“I guess that’s why you’re a detective.”
The voice on the other end was Captain Bill Hitchcock of the Bethlehem City Police Department. Bethlehem, in all technicalities, was not a city. Based on its population and zoned areas, legally, it was considered a township, however the town folk (or city folk if you lived in the town) took to calling Bethlehem a city due to its religious connotation. No one has ever corrected this oversight for fear of stirring up a holy wrath. Or so the local folklore goes. Travelers from other cities have a phrase they use for places like Bethlehem: ‘Blink-of-an-eye town.’ The theory was that if the traveler blinked while driving through, they would miss the town completely. A lot of things seemed to blink and miss Bethlehem including reliable internet services, cell phone towers, and almost anything developed in the past 20 years. For that reason, the BCPD was often times referred to as the ‘Before Christ Police Department’ because of the ancient equipment they still had in use; even though the equipment was, functionality wise, more useful than the ever popular iPhone when within the city limits. Or town limits depending on the person’s outlook on population and zoning versus unholy wraths.
“We’ve got a problem,” Captain Hitchcock said with the static hiss of bad reception. “Need you down at Brutus’ bar…..fucking….a turtle with no head….with a chess piece….”
“Captain, you’re breaking up,” Smoke interjected. “Bad reception. All I caught is you’re fucking a turtle with no head with a chess piece at Brutus’ bar.”
“…that’s right…hello? Hello? Damn…”
A polite notifying beep indicated that Smoke’s received call had been lost. He always joked that if there was a virtual lost and found box for lost calls, it would be filled with calls made from cell phones in Bethlehem, Ohio.
Smoke’s phone rang again after he was already outside of his apartment and walking toward his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria cruiser.
“I’m on my way,” Smoke said as he answered the call while climbing into the car.
“Oh, you got all that?” Captain Hitchcock’s ruffled feathered voice asked. “Damn cell phones, I hate these things. When are they going to make this technology more reliable?”
“If you were in a city, you wouldn’t have reception problems.”
“What are you scratchin’ at Smoke? We are in a city.”
Captain Bill Hitchcock earned the title of ‘local bad boy’ at age five for being the youngest boy in Bethlehem to spend a night in the slammer after assaulting a clerk at the local grocer with multiple cans of creamed corn. The clerk had asked little Bill what his favorite game was to which little Bill delightfully responded, “WAR!” and without warning lobbed several unopened creamed corn grenades from a fortified position behind a stack of paper towels. The clerk ended up with a minor concussion and a couple of bruises. The police were called on account of little Bill’s father being the sheriff at the time. As a punishment and a lesson, he was made to stay in a jail cell overnight so he would be painfully aware of what happens to bad boys that play war with cans of creamed corn. The news of his incarceration was made public and an article ran in the Bethlehem Globe with the headline: WILD BILL HITCHCOCK RIDES AGAIN!
After a night in jail, little Bill Hitchcock was done having war as his favorite game and upgraded to cops and robbers which, to this day, he has not stopped playing. When Captain Hitchcock first told that story to Smoke three years ago, Smoke was confused as to why it was so funny. “Aw, come on, you know, Wild Bill Hitchcock? The outlaw from the Wild West?” he said expectantly.
“I’ve heard of Wild Bill Hickok but he was a lawman and a gambler,” Smoke responded then realized the humorous part was not in the story itself but the fact that for nearly 60 years Captain Bill Hitchcock of the Bethlehem City Police Department has been misinformed.
Smoke lived on the outskirts of Bethlehem which was less than five minutes away from his intended destination. Next month, it would be four years since he moved to the small city town and left the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was recruited into the F.B.I. straight out of college and was a lucrative field agent by the time he was 22. At 28, the agency considered his investigative intuitions to be an invaluable service to both his country and fellow man…at least, that’s what his honorary plaque said. On his 30th birthday, May 26th, 2006 to be precise, Cillian Smoke decided he was done with the bureau. Smoke was six foot and some change with orange hair, algae green eyes, and as slender as a pod of beans. With his hair and his build, he was a walking sore thumb that was forever made to stick out in a crowd which is why he never did any undercover work for the bureau. Not that he wanted to. Smoke was perfectly content analyzing the aftermath of a situation, piecing together possible scenarios, and finding the bad guy(s). What he was not content with was the partner his superiors assigned to him six months before he decided to quit and who, as it happened, was part of the reason Smoke decided to do so.
Smoke pulled up in front of Brutus’ bar and shut off the Crown Vic’s engine. A stream of yellow and black police ticker tape lightly fluttered from somewhere out of the darkness of the alley situated on the right side of Brutus’. As he got out and walked over to the mouth of the darkened alley, Smoke noticed several more pieces of yellow and black police tape littering the cracked cobblestone alleyway. “Follow the yellow and black brick road,” he mumbled to himself and did just that as he waved at the officer stationed at the front of the alley. Beyond the ticker tape was a swarm of frantic flashlights buzzing around what Smoke already knew was a dead body. It was in the timid way the BCPD forensics team was moving around the crime scene that suggested something horrible had happened and the pungent aroma of evacuated bowels drove the nail home, so to speak. The BCPD was used to handling corpses; drug overdoses, gun shots, hit and runs, old age, but something was different about this one. The officers looked equally confused and frightened which was a perfect mixture to breed panic. Smoke spotted Captain Hitchcock among the buzzing swarm of flashlights right as one of the forensics technicians switched on two halogen floodlights, bathing the scene in a marigold color comparable only to the sun and vitamin enriched urine. Smoke stopped short of Captain Hitchcock and stared at the unorthodox victim in wonderment.
“He aint gonna be whistling Dixie,” Captain Hitchcock said as he noticed Smoke standing there. “That’s for damn sure.”
“Mm,” Smoke grunted as he moved closer to the body and knelt down in front of it. The chess piece sat there, amidst a host of coagulated blood, skin, and bone fragments, watching Smoke with a stone gaze as the piece itself was roughly hand-carved from a virgin white stone. The base of the piece was stained with blood; Small veins of red seeped and crawled upward into the virgin white territory of the piece, making it look even more menacing. He took a pair of gloves and an evidence baggie from a nearby kit then scratched a small indent into the side of the piece as he bagged it. “Alabaster,” he said as he handed the baggie up to Captain Hitchcock.
“Hot damn,” Captain Hitchcock said then chuckled and nudged Smoke while jiggling the evidence baggie, “brings a whole new meaning to giving/getting head. What do you think? Calling card? This is the knight, right? So, what, this guy thinks he’s some sort of vigilante knight or something?”
“Maybe,” Smoke said as he thought briefly, “but I would say, if that were the case, he would have chosen the black knight from the chessboard instead of the white.”
“A dark knight signifies vigilantism, the ability and willingness to do something for the supposed ‘greater good’ no matter what the cost. Didn’t you ever watch Batman?” Smoke replied.
“Well, hell yes, I watched Batman,” Captain Hitchcock said with a wild look in his eye. “But I don’t remember him cutting off people’s heads.”
Smoke was pushing and prodding around the neck wound while listening to Captain Hitchcock ramble and responded with a series of “Uh-huh’s and Mm-Hm’s”
“This has the signs of being more personal,” he began. “Aside from the obvious condition of the victim’s body, he also has several fingernails that have been pulled out,” Smoke pointed to the corpse’s left hand which had mutilated fingertips where there used to be fingernails. “Have we identified him yet?”
“Still waiting on a positive ID,” Captain Hitchcock said. “The killer saw fit to take all forms of identification out of the victim’s wallet but left the money. At least we can rule out robbery.”
“Not necessarily,” Smoke said. “There is always identity theft. Has anyone found the head?”
“Not yet. Still looking.”
“This is not a one hit wonder, so to speak, you know that right?” Smoke gravely told Captain Hitchcock.
“I was afraid you’d say that. If that’s the case I’m going to have no choice but to get your old friends involved.”
“I was afraid you’d say THAT,” Smoke said as he shook his head. “Unless you need me for something else, I’m going to head over to the station and draw up some preliminary paperwork. If the bureau gets involved, it’s best to have a long paper trail in case they try to lose something.”
“Fair enough,” Captain Hitchcock replied as he watched Smoke turn to leave. “Oh, what about this?” he said as he waved the evidence baggie with the chess piece in Smoke’s direction.
“It looks like it could have been carved by the killer and I don’t think the calling card is meant to be read as ‘the white knight.’” Smoke said over his shoulder.
“’And behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him.’ Revelation 6:8” Smoke replied with a funny little grin then followed the yellow and black ticker tape brick road back out of the darkened alley and into an even darker world.
Smoke spent the next few hours in his office typing up notes on his preliminary observations of the crime scene; Brain storming as people liked to call it. He had to wonder, only briefly, if his brain storming had caused the storm outside to reappear. It was early morning by now and the rest of the station began to slowly filter and eventually pour in like someone had pressed the brew button on a cosmic coffee pot with humans as the coffee grounds. Smoke never acquired a taste for coffee. He preferred Coke; the cola, not the drug. His office had a recycling bin that was full of coke cans, six of which were pitched in within the past two hours.
It had been 43 hours since Smoke had closed his eyes longer than the time it took to rub them in order to keep himself awake. As he rubbed his eyes vigorously, for the 156th time by his count, a violent knock rattled the plate glass in his office door and caused him to poke his left eye a little too hard with his thumb and bring unwarranted tears.
“Come in,” he said weakly.
Captain Hitchcock’s bald head poked through the door, looking like it had been freshly polished given its sheen and reflective prowess. Captain Hitchcock did not like people to know that he polished his head which is why everyone knew. No one ever said anything about it out of respect for the man’s privacy and fear for their jobs but they all chuckled about it around the donut table. Captain Hitchcock, for being 65 years old, was by no means an ugly man but he was not exactly material for a geriatric model either. ‘Handsome’ was the word that most people used to describe him. It was probably the grey, well-groomed mustache that earned him that title. He had a nose straight from Rome and a chin that could win a duel with Jay Leno’s chin if the prospect ever arose. His eyes were paper bag brown and his eyelids drooped so heavily that half the time it looked like he was asleep on his feet.
“We need to talk,” he said to Smoke as he sat in the rolling computer chair beside Smoke’s desk. “Are you crying? What happened? Did someone die? That was a little joke for you, to cheer you up. Seriously though, why are you crying?”
“I poked my eye,” Smoke replied as he wiped away the last of his tears. “Probably because you banged on my door like you were the police.”
“I thought so too,” Smoke said with a quick smile. “What do we need to talk about?”
“We got an ID on that body,” Captain Hitchcock said as he opened Smoke’s small refrigerator and grabbed a coke. “You mind?”
“You’re going to turn yourself into a diabetic, you keep drinking these the way you do,” Captain Hitchcock pulled the tab on the top of the can, releasing the carbonation with a quick ‘fsssed’ sound then pulled the tab completely off and threw it in the trash. “So I know which one is mine,” he said pointing to the top of his can. “Anyway, the victim’s name was Brutus.”
“The dancing nut?” Smoke asked playfully.
“Ha! I wish. I hate that damn nut. No, this was a one, Brutus Ackerman.” Captain Hitchcock said as he slapped a manila folder down on Smoke’s desk. “He owned Brutus’ bar, conveniently enough, and was no stranger to the inside of our lovely prison’s walls. Four counts of assault, three domestic disputes, firearm possession, drug trafficking, and a partridge in a pear tree.”
“In other words he probably has a few enemies,”
“More than likely. I’ve met the guy a couple of times before. Can’t say I knew him but didn’t much care for him either. Nonetheless, I don’t think he deserved decapitation. But hey, at least he died doing what he loved, right?”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Smoke said as he flipped through the folder. “He could have hated his job.”