It was a rainy Monday morning. I drove to work early to avoid the regular traffic-doubly chaotic on account of the downpour. My windshield wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep up with the constant barrage of droplets.
I was in an unusually bad mood. Today I was supposed to report to my superior, describing the progress my team had made on our current case. But as hard as I tried, I couldn't come up with a single appealing way to explain that we'd gotten absolutely nowhere.
Mike, my boyfriend, who also happened to be my primary work partner, had assured me it would be fine. But he wasn't the one who had to deliver the bad news.
I pulled into the parking lot and killed the engine, listening to the monotonous drum of the rain. I leaned back in my seat and sighed. Tension…pressure…worry…there was too much of it. I had to let it out. The case was a stickler if I'd ever seen one. Worse, it was a very important stickler. The government had lit a fire under our tails to solve it fast. They wanted it closed and they wanted it now!
But today I faced a more immediate threat…my boss…Mr. Gerton. Unfortunately, the rain blocked my view of his office window, stringing my already taught nerves to the breaking point. On sunny days, I could look through that window and see Mr. Gerton sitting at his desk, doing whatever important bossish stuff he did. Based on his posture, the color of his tie and suit, the speed of his typing, etc., I was able to judge his mood. It usually wasn't hard; there was only one emotion he commonly displayed. Impatience. But you wouldn't believe how many variations of impatience there are; Mr. Gerton was close friends with all of them. Knowing which particular brand of annoyance he had selected for the day, allowed me to adjust my actions and words in his presence so I could remain on his good side. It was a useful skill, because, once you got on his black list, you usually didn't last long.
Today this was especially important. Today was also the day the stupid rain had to come and block my view. "No cheating!" it seemed to accuse as it splashed onto my windshield. I growled under my breath. Well, putting it off wouldn't do any good; better to get it over with.
I stepped out into the wet world, water sloshing as I marched stoically across the drowned parking lot. I shouldered my way through the glass double doors to the detective agency and strode inside.
Being a government establishment, the building was tidy and business-like. Gray carpet. White walls. Ugly florescent lights. The whole picture. The receptionists sat in their own little cubicles and minded their own business. They ignored me, and I ignored them. It was their general policy to pretend no one existed until the person in question stepped inside their portioned off section of gray carpet. Then, unable to ignore the intruder, the receptionist would grudgingly grant the person entrance to their own personal tiny kingdom (a.k.a. their cubicle). I detested the receptionists and avoided them whenever possible. When contact was necessary, I went on crusade, crushing their pathetic empires and establishing myself as the new ruler. In other words, I let them know who was in charge… So the loathing was mutual.
But today, as usual, I marched past without a second glance, turning down a side hallway to Mr. Gerton's office. The corridor had the same cold feel as the room of receptionists. White walls. Gray carpet. It was all the same. In front of my boss's door, I paused to straighten my purple silk blouse, which had gotten all crinkled under my rain jacket, before raising my fist and rapping sharply three times.
"Come in," a low growl responded. I entered cautiously, closing the door behind me. It shut with a click of finality that would've made me wince had I possessed less self control.
Quickly, I made an assessment of the situation. Gray tie. Black suit. Furious typing. Stiff posture. Today my boss was in a no-nonsense mood.
"Sit down," he ordered without looking up. I looked around, but there were no chairs in the room besides the one which he himself occupied. Did he want me to sit on the carpet? Criss-cross-applesauce like a little kid?
"I'd prefer to stand, sir, if that's all right."
"Go ahead," he muttered, glancing down at a sheet of paper as his fingers fired away rapidly at the keyboard. After a line or two he glanced up and noticed me waiting, like he'd hoped I'd just disappear or something. He sighed and pushed the laptop and the paper aside, folding his hands on top of his desk and leaning back in his chair. "Talk," he commanded.
I decided to go for short and straight forward, it seemed to fit today's style of impatience.
"Detective Hartman and I have made no progress, sir," I stated flatly, looking him straight in the eye. Mr. Gerton raised an eyebrow.
"I see," he said quietly. But I suppose he didn't really because the comment was quickly followed by a question. "No progress at all?"
He exhaled, long and loud.
"I am really sorry to hear that, and not just for your sake. Federal has been at my neck over this damn case ever since it was presented to us. They are not going to be happy to hear that we still have nothing." He paused. "You're sure we don't have anything? Anything at all?"
"Nothing they don't already know," I said. "His name is Dale…Matthew Dale. But it's not his real name. It's just like a logo that he uses to tag his kills. Other than that, no, sir, we have absolutely nothing."
Mr. Gerton sighed, rubbing his temples with his thumb and forefinger. He looked old and tired. I was suddenly very glad that I had my job and not his. But I reconsidered that, remembering that I probably wasn't going to have this job much longer if I didn't solve the case.
"I'll give you another month," he said finally. "I think I can hold federal off for that much longer. But if you don't make any progress in that time, they're going to get rid of both of us, so you and Hartman better find something fast." He looked at me pointedly. Then, turning back to his computer he muttered, "You can go."
I did. The report had gone better than I'd anticipated and I was momentarily relieved. But the threat of unemployment had not been sidestepped, only postponed. One month…one month before this whole thing came crashing down on my head. But what could I do? Dale was an expert killer. He left no clues at his murder sites, just the fake name…Matthew Dale. And the name was a dead end. The victims were dead ends, too-no one could even tell whether they were male or female by the time he was done with them! Everything was neatly wrapped up and packaged with no holes for me to pry open or squeeze through. Dale was a professional; he was experienced. I, on the other hand, was fairly new. When I'd first been appointed as head of the case, I couldn't believe my luck at getting such an important assignment after just four months on the job. Of course, Mike was there to help, but I was in charge. Now I understood that it wasn't a blessing at all; in fact, it was a curse. Every detective who'd had the case before me was out on the streets now, looking for a new job. The government had no patience when it came to Dale. If a detective couldn't satisfy their demands, then they clearly weren't worthy of working at the agency. When they'd given me the case, these points had been excluded from the overview.
I pushed open my office door, surprised to find Mike already there. But I shouldn't have been shocked, of course he was there. He was always there when I needed him. Calmly, he looked me up and down.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
I fell back into my desk chair and looked at him. If I knew Mike, then the question was only for formality's sake; he'd already guessed my response.
"So so," I shrugged noncommittally. Mike nodded. "He's not really happy," I continued. "Federal's been giving him a tough time, but he says he can grant us another month." Mike nodded again. This was all to be expected. "But," I added the catch. "That's it. After the month's up we're all goners…even Mr. Gerton-or so he implied."
There was a pause in which we both were silent, considering the predicament. But I knew thinking about the mess would only make it worse. We had to get moving…less thinking, more doing.
"What in the world are we going to do?" I asked, gazing beseechingly at Mike, praying he had an answer. His mouth twisted into a little frown as he worked out a reply.
"Well," he said quietly. "The results from forensics should be coming in soon… a day or two maybe? Until then we have no new information to work with, so we'll have to go over what we've already got and hope to uncover something we missed." He shrugged. "So, tell me again, what exactly do we know."
"Very little," I sighed. "We know he goes by the name Matthew Dale, and that he's murdered fifteen people since the case opened five months ago. We also are aware that Matthew Dale is not his real name, because, just to be sure, we tracked down all seventeen Matthew Dales who currently reside in the USA and none of them seemed likely to be the killer."
"Why?" Mike pressed. I rolled my eyes. I hated it when Mike got all shrink. He thought going over everything this way helped me catalogue it in my brain. Personally, I doubted it did me much good. But it seemed to help him, so I played along.
"Nine of them are minors," I responded. "So we decided to ignore them. Out of the remaining eight, one is physically incapable, seeing as they spend all day counting buttons in an elderly home-God that was a creepy interview." I crinkled my nose, remembering the ten very awkward minutes I'd spent talking to the old man who hadn't seemed to notice I even existed. I'd asked question after question and all he did was sort the buttons-first by color, then by size, and finally by number of holes.
"Renn?" Mike interrupted my thoughts. "Let's stay on track. What about the other seven?" I shook my head, trying to clear away the image of the old guy and his buttons.
"They all checked out," I said. "Each had alibis for at least five of the incidents, which, of course, we verified."
"So what does all this tell us?" Mike asked.
"It tells us that the whole thing was a waste of our precious time," I responded, angrily.
"Not true," Mike protested. "We learned that the guy's real name isn't Matthew Dale. Or," he added, "that he's not a citizen of the United States." But I shook my head.
"We checked flight records too. No Matthew Dale-other than the ones we've already confirmed aren't our man-has flown in or out of this country in the past five years."
"So Matthew Dale is a fake name."
"Yes," I agreed. "But that doesn't get us anywhere." As I'd said, it was wrapped and packaged…no holes. Dale, whoever he was, had sent us in a circle, which, as circles have a tendency to do, only brought us back to its beginning. "Anyone in this whole country could call himself Matthew Dale," I continued. "He could be a woman for all we know!"
Mike frowned. "We really are stuck, aren't we?"
I nodded, rubbing my eyes with the palms of my hands. "Let's go over the evidence from the crime scenes again," I sighed in resignation.