April 13, 2012

9:36 a.m.

"Looks bad, doesn't it?"

Bad, the Detective decided, was not the most accurate word one could use to describe the situation. It was a gruesome, sickening scene. Definitely nightmare fuel material; and worse yet, it was the third time this month. But, looking at everything from where he stood at the edge of the pavement, it seemed "bad" was still the most accurate word one could use to sum everything up. It would do.

"Yeah," he agreed, nodding solemnly. "It's bad."

He stepped under bright yellow caution tape and made his way through the swamp of curious and horrified people before him, tilting his faded fedora over his face to shield his eyes from the blinding morning sun. Beside him, Officer Liam Rhodgar shouted out orders to the security stationed around the street corner to direct a particularly affected woman away from the crime scene. The Detective had to shove his way into the throng; polite words just wouldn't work during times of crisis. Eventually, he came to a stop just before the tips of his shoes touched dried blood.

The man at his feet, judging by the identification found on his person, was one Isaiah Hartness, forty-three years old, unemployed and habitual chain smoker. Five years of trailing murderers had hardened him to an extent, and the last month had somewhat prepared him, but the Detective still had to force himself to swallow down rancid bile as he knelt by the remains.

"Assault by a sharp object, presumably a knife, singular slash across the throat," he trailed a gloved finger along the ragged edges of open flesh, "then down into the sternum. A really sharp knife, I'm guessing, or maybe a surgical tool. It was done with one blow."

Officer Rhodgar stood opposite him and grimaced at the corpse, absently rubbing the scar that stretched horizontally across his face. "If it's the same as the other two, then—"

"Yes." The Detective stood, quickly snapping a picture on his camera. "Whoever did this carved out his lungs and most of his digestive tract, just like the others."

He could see a bloody print shaped like a stomach smeared near Hartness' feet, and he swallowed again.

Rhodgar examined the gaping hole that was once the man's chest. "It's just plain twisted, you know? Three people now, all in the same way, no obvious connections except the way they were murdered. Whoever this person is, they have a really nasty streak. I'll sleep better when we catch him."

"Or her," the Detective added. "And there is one thing they have in common. Although it looks like it came straight out of something inspired by Edgar Allen Poe."

Rhodgar nodded, and his frown deepened.

There were two previous cases identical to this one—the first being of a university student; the second, a businesswoman—in which the killer hacked open their victim and laid out their innards in a gory display, almost like an implication of 'see what I can do, you can't catch me.' However, there was one especially disturbing act performed by the assailant that had yet to reach the media, and, if the Detective and his team had anything to do with it, never would.

The killer stole the victims' heart.

Most of the other vital organs were shredded to pieces, with whatever whole and intact parts strewn along the ground; but the heart was always cut with care, and quick and precise strokes lined the open hole where each victim's still beating heart would normally lie. There were no fingerprints on the incisions that the authorities could detect. There were no fingerprints, or any forms of DNA for that matter, anywhere. It left them at a loss.

And this was the third time this month.

"You there! Trench coat!"

The Detective straightened and instinctively palmed his hat back as a flushed, bulldog-faced man charged at him and Rhodgar, bellowing at the confused policemen, "What are you doing, you dunces, cover up the body! We don't need civilians looking at this, what's taking so long? Call in forensics, criminologists, whoever you can find! Move it! I'm in charge now!" He came to a halt mere inches before barreling right into Rhodgar, and now that he was within range, his barking dropped to a seething growl. "Who the hell do you people think you are?"

The Detective and Rhodgar shared a perplexed look before the Detective answered, "We're from the 33rd precinct, we're here to investigate." Rhodgar raised an eyebrow and flipped out his badge. "And you are…?"

"Chief Dawson, 27th precinct. I was told, by the powers that be, that my men were in charge of this investigation and that no other squads would be called in," Dawson said, eyes growing narrower and narrower as his cheeks darkened in anger, "so that doesn't explain why you are here."

"Well, you see," Rhodgar started smoothly, but Dawson interrupted him. "Look, Patchy, I'm askin' this Asian-looking beanpole the questions, not you. Shut it!"

Rhodgar's hand flew up to his eye patch, and the Detective could see hate growing on his face. Shrugging in apology, he turned to Dawson and swept off his hat in what he hoped looked like some sort of a salute. "Chief Dawson, I can't really say much for my colleague, but I am under a contract by the head of the department of safety that I must take part in every major investigation that happens within this city's limits. Apparently I'm the best they could ask for, and in order to take care of myself, I've taken up the job offered for the past five years. Maybe you've heard of me?"

He watched as Dawson clenched a beefy fist in recognition. "Oh yeah, I've heard of you. 'Detective Anonymous', you call yourself? Ha. What a load of bull. Trying to pull the whole mysterious act and can't even do it right. How old are you, boy?"

"Twenty-five this spring, sir."

"And how long have you been in this business?"

"Five years, ever since I first signed that contract."

The short, slightly heavyset man rumbled up to him and hissed pungent breath in his face. "Well, get out of mine. To hell with your contract. These murders are under my jurisdiction and my responsibility. Go back to school like a good kid, now, go on."

He glanced at Rhodgar, who was glaring at Dawson's back like he could somehow shoot him down with acid, then back to the furious man before him. There was nothing he could do.

"Call in your boys, Liam," he said finally, giving a slight bow to Dawson and walking back the way he came. "Looks like we just got kicked out."

Dawson had to be making a smug face at him, he was sure, but he found he could care less as he crossed the yellow tape once more and stepped past the lessening crowd of bystanders into the sweltering day. He was actually a bit relieved; this was one case he wasn't sure he actually wanted to continue. The fact that Hartness' murder happened three blocks away from his apartment hit a little too close to home.

Rhodgar caught up to him and fumed. "I hate that man, you know? Thinks he's so much better just because he's one-upped us on age. We have experience. Lots of experience. Probably more than he would ever get to see in his life, and definitely worse. I don't like handing this case over to him, Anon."

The Detective's shoulders slumped as he replied, "You think I want to?" and scuffed at the ground with his shoe. "I don't either. But we have no choice, Liam. If he says the higher ups put him in charge, then most likely we aren't meant to participate in this at all."

Rhodgar's eyebrows furrowed. "But…"

"No buts. Let's just go back to the station and tell the guys that we're out. But I still want them to run tests on what information we already have. And try to find someone to get Hartness' autopsy report from the 27th tomorrow, would you?"

"I got it. But what about you, Detective?"

"I'm not a part of this investigation."

"Not even for your contract?"

"No. It doesn't feel right. I just…if I can help it, I'd rather our guys be out there searching, but since we aren't, I'm glad. I don't want anything to do with it. Third time this month, Liam. Third."

The Detective looked over his shoulder just as Hartness was being zipped up in a body bag, with his last, ghastly grin still stretched across his face.

_/\_/\_

April 13, 2012

8:55 p.m.

Second torrid night in a row. The Detective could feel each and every bead of sweat clinging to his brow as he trudged along the open street. He mentally berated himself for wearing his trench coat into the obscure bar he frequented; the place had been a stifling mess, and even several shots of Smirnoff on the rocks did little to break the waves of heat that permeated the night scene. So with his drink finished, and a rather clingy couple threatening to push him off his stool, he decided to simply leave and head home.

There were almost no people out on the street. After this morning's drama, it was little wonder. He normally wouldn't mind the quiet. However, "normal" seemed to be the key word here; and thus far? There was no normal to be found.

A flash caught his eye, and he stopped to stare at his reflection in a department store window.

Christ, the Detective thought. I look like crap.

His face was deathly pale, almost transparent-like, and there were bags under his eyes. His dark hair looked even scruffier than it usually did, hanging limply across his forehead and along the right side of his face, where it clung to sticky skin. Even his coat, draped haphazardly on his arm, seemed to droop exhaustedly. Normally people complimented him on his supposedly handsome Oriental features, but tonight…

I look like someone forced me to watch children's shows nonstop with my eyes taped open. No wonder I didn't hook up with anyone.

Of course, he reasoned while forcing himself to move forward and pick up the pace of his ambling about, his current appearance was not the only reason why he didn't get a girl tonight, or any other night. Because along with the trading of pleasantries and phone numbers, there was always one part of the exchange that he could never answer, not without strange looks and awkward shifts of conversation:

What is your name?

Anonymous, he would say, and every girl would eventually walk away.

What made him feel even worse, past the domains of discomfort and chagrin, was that that really was all he could say.

Five years ago, Liam Rhodgar had found him crouched against the back wall of a local Walmart, peering at a hole in the junction between the next building over and a section of broken asphalt. After being asked what he was looking at, he had pointed at the hole and said quietly, "Ten bucks says there's a body in there."

Fifteen minutes of frantic digging unearthed the decayed corpse of a politician who had gone missing eight weeks earlier.

They had brought him in the station immediately after. He was questioned, properly interrogated, the works; strangely enough, when they asked, What is your name? and he had replied, I don't know, no one had pushed. After all was said and done, Department of Safety head Chief Fleming gave him an offer. You've got some kind of talent, he had said, you're meant to play this game. Work with me and my men, and we'll provide you with home, food, whatever care you need. He had nothing better to do than agree. When they finally asked him what name he wished to go by, he had gone quiet. It seemed to last forever. And in the end, in a voice that felt different, but probably wasn't different at all, he had answered—

Anonymous. Because as far as I know, that's all I have been and all I am ever going to be.

The Detective came to a stop at a lamppost with a dying flame. Wiping his face with the cuff of his sleeve, he tossed his coat from one arm to another, stretching his free arm and grimacing as he felt his elbow pop. Good God, but it was hot. April was being a terrible month this year.

It took him a moment to realize that he was in front of his apartment complex, and that four floors above, his living room light was on.

For all that I complain about my life, all strangeness and wrongness included, he thought, scaling the stairs with a sudden, tipsy burst of energy, I can at least say that there is someone who seems to care. Temporarily.

With a turn to the left and the twist of a knob, he stepped across the threshold and announced, "I'm home!"

In the living room, a quiet voice sang out, "Welcome back! You're just in time, I finished some soup for you. I didn't make anything heavy, since I thought you would be tired."

After hanging his coat on the hook attached to the door and kicking off his shoes, he weaved to the end of the short, darkened hallway and came into the lamplight. "You are a saint, Jorda. What would I do without you?"

In the corner behind the grandfather clock, a person jumped lightly from a stepping-stool propped against the wall and crossed the floor with the flick of a duster and a fluttering smile. "I don't really know, to be honest."

Jorda was a complete mystery. Jorda was also his live-in housekeeper. He was no stranger to unusual situations, but theirs had to take the cake; one of them was an inspector without an name, and the other was a…a…

"So Jorda," he began, backing towards the couch as the smaller person floated to his kitchen to put the duster away, "Will you give me a real answer tonight?"

Jorda glided back into the room with a large bowl of chicken noodle soup balanced on a tray. "To what question?"

"Any. How old are you, exactly? If you're underage, so help me…and just tell me, are you a boy or a girl?"

Jorda smiled, and, setting the tray on the coffee table behind him, said, "Neither."

Last week he was forced to refer to Jorda as a male. The week before that was female. It seemed this week would be girl pronouns again.

This was a cycle going into its second month.

Christ. I'm supposedly the best detective in the area, I can sniff out a murderer wherever I am, yet I can't figure out the gender of this purposefully baffling fairy-person. Why did I even consider letting you stay here, you confusing poof?

He collapsed on the couch, feet sliding on the carpeted floor and under the table, and closed his eyes. Wooziness was starting to creep into his senses; it was something he was well acquainted with, so he didn't bother doing anything about it. But then there was gentle shaking, and Jorda was saying softly, "You were drinking again, weren't you, Luca? I told you you shouldn't. I'm just your housekeeper, I don't know if I can play nurse as well, and alcohol really is bad for you…"

There was one word in that sentence that, he realized, set Jorda apart from everyone else.

We barely know each other. You don't know me, I definitely don't know you, and there is nothing to keep us attached…I should be, more than anything, 'Anonymous' to you.

But you gave me a name.

'Luca.'

He opened his eyes and sat up. Jorda leaned against the couch arm, long hair tumbling down her back and shining blue-black in the lamplight. Violet eyes—so strange, he didn't know of any human with violet eyes—regarded him quietly, slowly loosing the innocent lightheartedness they had held seconds before. He knew what she wanted to ask.

"…There was another murder. Like the other two."

"I saw that on the news. But it's worse than that, isn't it, Luca?"

He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "The man's heart was cut out. All three. Exactly the same. I just don't get it, I've looked at the evidence and it doesn't make sense. Three people, none of whom have any connections whatsoever. What could their hearts do for someone? It doesn't make sense."

Through his splayed fingers, he could see the bowl of soup faintly steaming. He reached for the spoon set carefully beside it and ladled some into his mouth. Jorda tilted her head, watching him as he gulped it down. It was good. "I'm not in charge of Hartness' investigation. I don't have to do anything for it now, and I'm glad. This is one case I don't want anything to do with."

"Why?"

"Because I have no leads, and I don't know who the next target could be. No matter what people think…Three times. I'm not a miracle worker."

Jorda slid onto the couch beside him. She was several feet away, her voice muffled by the hair that hung over her eyes, but he could hear her clearly.

"Then that's all the more reason for you to do something, Luca. There are people out there hurting. They lost people precious to them, and they have no clue why. And…I don't know very much about humanity, but I know that most of the people in this city will only see those who died as gory dead bodies on the evening news. Soon they won't even be seen as people anymore. They'll end up nameless, like you…"

He jerked involuntarily, then looked at her. Her eyes seemed distantly empty.

"Or completely without an identity, like me."

They stayed that way, but only for a brief while. When she blinked, her eyes were just as bright and determined as before. "So please, continue the investigation. If not for your sake, then for mine. And if not for mine, then for the families who want their loved ones remembered—not as signs of the horror someone out there is creating, but as the individuals they once were."

The Detective glanced down at his bowl of soup. He didn't really know what to say.

"…That was a nice speech there, Jorda."

Jorda smiled happily. "Thank you! I'm still pretty bad at expressing myself, but I think I did a good job there. Do you think I did a good job, Luca?"

"That's what I said, isn't it?" He pushed the soup away. "Your soup is delicious, but I have some researching I have to do. So…"

"Of course." She gathered up the tray and bowl and stole to the kitchen. Just as he heard her stop at the sink, he called out.

"And Jorda?"

"Yes?"

He didn't feel so woozy anymore. With barely a wobble, he stood up and strode down the hallway and fished a folder of documents out of the left pocket of his coat. While he did so, he spoke.

"From here on out, you are not allowed to leave this apartment unless I'm with you. Anytime you want to go anywhere—anywhere at all—tell me, so I can accompany you to wherever you need to go. You barely know how to call a cab, and you have a terrible sense at recognizing bad people—"

"—I'm getting better at that, you know—"

"—So I'm going to keep you near me at all times. If you want to continue living here, you have to follow these rules. Got it?"

Jorda stuck her head out the kitchen; the smile she gave him seemed to lighten up the entire apartment. "Mmmhm. Thank you, Luca."

Thank you. Stranger and stranger things. He cleared his throat and stuffed the folder under his arm, going back past the living room to where their conjoined rooms lay. "I…yeah. Just clean up, please. I'm off to bed. Turn the light off when you're done."

He turned the doorknob to his bedroom. Dawson be damned; Luca or no Luca, he was known amongst the crime scene as Detective Anonymous, the best of the best. And he was going to use that name to find some much needed answers.

The Detective stepped into his cool, silent room and closed the door behind him.

_/\_/\_

A stray paper had escaped from the file Luca was carrying, and it had drifted to the middle of the hallway where it lay slightly crumpled. Socked feet padded to it, then stopped, so that a slim hand could stretch down and pluck it off the floor. It was held up to the light, and the headline words were read aloud.

" 'Case #433, The Heartbreak Murders.' I like the name. It fits. After all, the human heart is such an interesting thing, both in the physical and the emotional form…"

Jorda opened her mouth, like taking in a deep breath—

"So of course, breaking it in the worst possible way would be the best way to garner attention."

—but she was not the one speaking.

"But I wonder, are you really breaking them at all?"

Jorda's hand fell to the lamp, and with a gentle twist, plunged the apartment into darkness.