His Unfortunate Apprentice

'She was a real beauty,' he thought as he meticulously wiped his blade clean. He had much more success with this one; having two people working instead of one really made a difference. Much more efficient. They were really going to have to talk about his affinity for the color red. But that was for a later date, he had better things to do. Ah, but he loved to reflect on his own brilliance. The blade, now silver and shining once again, reflected a macabre image of his face back at him. He smirked before carefully setting it aside in its box on the middle of the workbench before turning his attention to the leather bound journal on the shelf above. The pen was tucked safely into the latch of the journal, exactly where he'd left it. He opened it to the first clean page he came to, somewhere near the middle, and began to write the details of his day; every last one a perfect recollection. His pen worked feverishly, aching for permanence, so that he could relive each blissful moment as many times as he wished.

Detective Trace Netter, Private Investigator, walked in from the quiet streets of his small city in Pennsylvania and sat down at his faux-wooden desk for the early morning paper shuffle. He filed the stack of cases looming at the edge of his mess into haphazard categories, ranking them by general levels of importance, as he sipped his bitter third rate coffee. The lone case file he left within his scrutinizing gaze had been taking up most of his attention for the better part of a year. There were ten bodies so far, one per month, always young, always blonde, and always beautiful. Each one was covered in several small knife wounds, their deaths attributed to exsanguination from three major stab wounds in the abdomen. Despite the fact that each body had been found in a field outside of town, in the middle of nowhere, they still had no solid leads. The only definitive characteristic was that the directionality of each wound indicated the murderer was left handed. Detective Netter, long since retired from the force but never from the job, was asked by the local police to consult. He took the file to look over, but refused at first. He was trying for lower profile cases, work that wouldn't add to his growing list of nightmares. That was several months ago. Upon the discovery of the tenth body, Netter changed his mind, knowing his conscience wouldn't allow him to continue any longer. So here he sat, pouring once again over the case that haunted him.

The bell above his office door echoed shrilly as it allowed entrance to the office's only other regular visitor. Netter called him junior on slow days when they had nothing to do but swap stories and eat their weight in pie from the diner next door, but on days like this, when his mind was occupied with a case, he referenced him only by his surname, Moss. Moss was young but confident. Netter recognized in him a willingness to learn and a God-given talent for investigation. He walked in with a slight swagger to his stride, one born from youth and molded in the responsibilities of his job. He brushed a subconscious hand through his cropped black hair and flicked his bright blue eyes up to his boss, smirking all the while.

"You still lookin' over that case, Netter? There hasn't been any headway made in the last couple of months, so I seriously doubt that you'll find the answer in that file," Moss said lightly.

"Well, Moss, it ain't like this case is gonna go cold anytime soon. I'm always hoping to find something new," Netter responded in his gravelly voice without looking up from the file.

Daniel Moss just shook his head, used to his boss's surly demeanor this early in the morning. He walked over to the old TV they had shoved into a corner and turned it on, giving it a smack when the picture came up reeling and fuzzy. Once corrected, he turned it immediately to the early morning news. The breaking news report caught his attention and he cranked up the volume.

"Hey Netter, they're talkin' about you."

This case, so far involving 10 young women from our area, may be on the brink of seeing some progress. Retired officer turned Private Investigator, Detective Trace Netter, who many of you may know from his involvement in the Dravenstadt kidnapping and Milton murder cases, has been asked by the local police department to work with them to ensure its closure. No comment has yet come from Detective Netter or his office, but we here in our fair city can rest assured that with him on the case, the end may very well be in sight. And now we'll go to Sonny D'Angelo for a look at this week's weather.

He turned off the television, almost regretting having it on in the first place. So, good old Detective Netter has been put on the case. He stood for a moment, seething in his anger. This was not what he wanted. This would ruin everything. He threw the nearest thing to him, a tumbler still holding last night's whiskey. It busted against the wall and shattered into diamond-like shards, scattering across the worn hard wood floors, the barest hint of a whimper emitting from the house's other occupant. He stared at the remains of the glass and a smile formed. Perhaps things could be turned back into his favor after all and maybe he could have some fun along the way.

It was 11:00 at night and Detective Netter was finally leaving his office, officially giving up on the case for the day, when his cell phone rang. He fumbled with it for a moment, always struggling with the workings of his flip phone, before answering, "Netter."

"We've got another one. But there's something different. You really need to get out here and see this," the officer's voice cut off without so much as a goodbye. This one was definitely going to be different.

Netter arrived at the crime scene to carefully organized hustle and bustle. He was approached immediately by the officer that had called him. He was carrying an evidence bag containing a piece of paper.

"You're never gonna believe this," the officer said as he handed the bag to the Detective.

Netter pulled out his reading glasses from within his coat pocket, he was needing them more and more these days, along with a small flashlight. He shook the bag once to straighten the paper out and began to read:

Detective Netter,

Please help. I know if anyone can stop him, it's you. I've been forced to do his work these last 11 months. Every blonde body you found, that was his work. He's brilliant and he's evaded capture so far, you know he's good. Please stop him before he kills again. It could end up being me next time.

Until then, I remain,

Miles, His Unfortunate Apprentice

"He's calling me out," Netter said, his voice calm, hardly betraying the shivers of anxiety that raced along his spine. He wasn't prepared for something like this, for the responsibility he now had to shoulder. Now it's up to him to solve the case, because anything else would be unacceptable. "You find anything else?"

The officer grimly shook his head. "Nope. As clean as ever. The letter was in her hand, probably placed there not long after she died. The ME places time of death around 12 hours ago."

Netter nodded along, half listening; his mind still focused on the letter. He gave the evidence bag back to the officer. "The second that gets dusted and analyzed, can you make sure it gets sent to me? I can even have my junior, Moss, pick it up."

"Sure thing, Detective. It shouldn't take the techs too long with it; I'll make sure they get to it first thing tomorrow morning. Moss can pick it up the day after that." The officer seemed eager to want to please the Detective; apparently his reputation preceded him.

Two days later, Netter sat again at his desk, scrutinizing the letter that he knew would change things. When Moss got back that morning with the letter, he had some extra information to go along with it. They'd found a couple fingerprints on it. Netter waited on pins and needles to hear if they'd found a match yet. Moss also told him, with a smirk, that someone on the force accidentally let it slip to the press that they'd found a letter addressed to Netter. They were, of course, having a field day with it. Knowing that, they decided to keep the TV off for the afternoon. He examined every inch of the paper; from its light off-white color to the nearly unintelligible scrawl. Some letters were slightly slanted toward the right. Netter figured it was because the writer, Miles he reminded himself, wrote it under stress. One can hardly afford to be neat and tidy when pleading for help.

The bell above the door chimed and Moss walked in carrying lunch for the both of them. "Just like the case file. You're gonna mess with that letter so much, the ink's gonna wear off." He placed the bags he'd been carrying on the desk and sat down in the chair across from Netter. "So, you actually think this is a legitimate lead?" Netter glanced up at him, his eyebrow raised in question, silently urging the junior investigator to continue. "I mean, for all we know, this could be a copy cat or something. He's never left anything behind before, why start now? What's changed?"

Netter had been giving that very question a considerable amount of thought all day. But hearing it come from someone else, he suddenly formed a conclusion, as if it'd just been waiting in his mind all this time for this specific moment.

"I did. I was the change. They put me on the case, so he felt like he had someone he could reach out to. I don't think I've ever known anyone named Miles, so I can't think of how he knows me, but somehow he does. And he's begging me to help him; I can't just ignore that, kid."

Apparently, he could ignore it for a little while, because he heard nothing from the cops for the next couple days. It shouldn't have taken them longer than a day to identify the print, and even if they didn't, they were supposed to call him. Fed up with waiting, Netter took the initiative and called them first. Ironically, the officer that answered was the same one that he had talked to at the scene. Without waiting for much of a greeting, Netter dove right in.

"You got an ID for those fingerprints yet?"

There was a beat of silence on the other end. "Yeah, we had that info a while ago. It wasn't a match in our criminal database, but they did find a DNA match out of evidence. It's from a kidnapping case from a couple years ago. Kid's name is Miles Richter; he'd be about 18 now. Didn't anyone call you about this?" The officer's voice was laced with confusion.

Netter sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. The lack of communication from that precinct never ceased to amaze him.

"No, no one called me. Thanks for the information, I'll look him up." Netter hung up without another word. It didn't matter what the cops were doing on this case at this point, he was going to take charge of his own investigation. Maybe then something would actually get done.

He reached underneath the desk to turn on the power to his computer. The tower was too big to leave on top. He got up to grab a cup of coffee as he listened to the ancient machine groan and click as it slowly came to life. Moss had insisted as soon as he started working there that Netter transfer all of his files to digital copies. ("They're much easier to search that way, boss, trust me.") He'd also made sure to have access to the police's files, all of them already updated digitally. Any search he performed would gather information from both sources. Given that he was a retiree from the force, and that their force was a little on the small side, the precinct was all too happy to give him complete access to their files; they worked closely together most of the time anyway. He typed in the name he was given, Miles Richter, and waited. In a few minutes, long enough for Netter's coffee to cool to a more tolerable level, the files were up. Netter quickly scanned through, looking for anything familiar. The photo at the top of the page was of a boy about 15 years old, with long brown hair that flaired out around ear level. The eyes that looked back at him were such a dark shade of brown that they were almost black. Suddenly, something caught his attention in the personal information.

Family: Mother: Jane Shields Richter (Deceased at age 58, natural causes) Father: Thomas Richter (Deceased at age 44, natural causes)

Maternal Uncle: Paul Shields

Notes: Mother died just after kidnapping, suspected heart failure. No autopsy ordered.

Netter knew the uncle from somewhere, Paul Shields; it sounded so familiar. His name was colored blue and underlined, meaning it was a link to another page in the database. He clicked on it and realized exactly where he knew the name from.

He was a suspect in the Dravenstadt kidnapping seven years ago, when Netter was still on the force. In fact, it was Netter's last major case before retiring. His gut told him that Shields was the culprit, but they had no solid evidence against him. The girl, Amelia Dravenstadt, ended up escaping but couldn't describe her captor; he wore a mask. Netter skimmed through the file until he came across Amelia's statement:

I'm not exactly sure where he took me, it was some rundown warehouse on the edge of town. He had me tied up against a chair, but the back of it was broken and I was able to slip the rope off of it while he was out of the room. I untied myself as quickly as I could, I could hear him coming back. He'd left a bag on a table nearby and I decided to search it for some kind of weapon. I was lucky, I found a huge knife. I grabbed it just as soon as he walked in. He tried to take it from me, but I was able to barely hold onto it, scratched my hands a few times in the process. He must've been old or sick or something, because I was able to push him back and stab him with the knife. I don't know what happened to him after that. I ran out of there as fast as I could and never looked back.

It was perfect. Amelia Dravenstadt fit the current victim profile, young, pretty, and blonde. Netter scrolled back up to the personal information they had on Paul Shields. He lived in an old house a few miles outside of town. A fitting place to take girls back to, no neighbors and plenty of space. This had to be their killer. Netter called Moss over from where he'd been lounging on the couch and reading through some of their other cases they'd been ignoring. He told him his theory, backing it up with every piece of information he'd just uncovered.

"That sounds like your guy, boss. But one question: this Miles kid, it's his nephew right? Why would he kidnap him? That really puts him at risk for being caught, don't you think?"

Netter gave that some thought before he snapped his fingers together, coming to an answer.

"Amelia Dravenstadt. She stabbed the guy and we never found a body. Maybe he's dealing with that injury and can't do as much as he used to, so he recruited his young, healthy nephew as an apprentice. I mean, he's the only family the kid's got left. Maybe he felt obligated to help him out or something. This is him, Moss. All the evidence points to him."

Netter jotted down the address to Shields's house, 120 Cherry Lane, and slipped the paper in his pocket.

"I'm going to check him out, get a feel for him. I'll be back later."

Without giving Moss a chance to respond, Netter grabbed his handcuffs and gun from his desk, threw his jacket on, and bolted out the door. He was quick for a man his age. He was just making his way out of town when his phone rang. He pulled to the side of the road to answer it; he wasn't quite adept at fiddling with the phone and driving at the same time. "Netter," he answered, his voice clipped in irritation.

"Detective, we just got a phone call for a disturbance at 120 Cherry Lane, the kid calling said his name was Miles and that you should get over there quick. The line cut off after that, but I think I heard a scream. We're sending units out there now, you better get going."

Netter cursed and then flew into action. "I'm already on my way." He hung up the phone and tossed it into the passenger seat before throwing his beige Crown Victoria in drive and peeling out of the bits of gravel that littered the roadside.

His tires skidded to a stop just outside the old house. It was less of a house and more like a Victorian mansion. It was beautiful once, but years of neglect had ravaged it. Netter jumped out of his car, gun already drawn and ready in front of him. He stalked to the front door, panic gripping him when he realized it was open slightly. He walked silently to the room to his right and put his back against the wall outside of it.

He heard a voice, "No! Please! Don't shoot!"

Netter couldn't wait for the police, he had to act immediately. He spun around the door frame and pointed his gun into what he quickly identified as the living room. A dated threadbare couch lined one paneled wall. Two equally threadbare arm chairs sat on either side of a wooden and glass coffee table.

"Drop the gun Mr. Shields!" He called to the gray haired man.

He seemed entirely too feeble to hold anyone at gunpoint. The revolver was shaking in his right hand as it pointed toward the cowering teen on the wooden floor. His hands were thrown behind him in an effort to crawl backwards as fast as he could. Paul Shields took his eyes, shining with fear, from the boy and looked at the gun held steadily in Netter's hand. He appeared to consider something before he slowly crouched to place the gun on the floor.

"Alright, now interlock your fingers behind your head and turn around," Netter said as he cautiously walked towards him, not lowering his gun until he complied.

He picked up the revolver and made sure the hammer was down before dropping it in his pocket and placing his own gun back in its holster. He quickly cuffed Shields and then sat him on the nearby couch to await the police.

Minutes later, the police barged in, guns drawn, only to discover that they didn't need them. They led both Shields and the boy, whom Netter had made sure to identify as Miles, out to separate waiting cruisers to be taken back to the precinct. Netter decided to follow. He had a niggling feeling that there was something missing in this case. The arrest seemed a little too easy. A few officers were left behind to await the crime scene techs, but the rest created a long parade of black and white cars the entire way back to town.

He sat in their little interrogation room, waiting to speak, waiting to manipulate them. They were simpletons, easily swayed. Especially with his age, he could convince them of anything. It was only a matter of time before they released him, of that he was confident. The Detective followed his every bread crumb, just as he predicted. Now all he had to do was wait for them to come to him. He could be patient.

Netter sat at a random desk in the precinct, pouring over a journal they'd discovered in the basement of the house. The lower level had been used as a makeshift torture room. They found the long knife he'd used on the girls as well as a leather bound journal that turned out to be a perfect confession of every crime, and even some plans for future ones. Netter shivered at the thought. He was still flipping through it when officers left the two interrogation rooms, each holding a signed piece of paper.

"Hey Netter! We've got a signed confession from the old man, and a witness statement from the kid. You wanna look 'em over?"

Netter took the offered pages and attempted to read them without his glasses; he'd left them at the office. He pulled them away from his face and started reading. He skimmed through Miles's statement first. He noted several important things, one of which that Miles insisted that he was never allowed in the basement when his uncle was with a girl. It was his job to help get them and then dispose of them, never to play with them. 'Why would he use the word play?' Netter wondered before turning to Shields's statement. He began reading and then stopped. He slammed the pages down on the desk, side by side, and then flipped the journal open to a random page. The handwriting. The slant. A left-handed writer.

Netter pulled out the letter they'd found a few days ago, the one that Miles had written. He just had to be sure. The paper was starting to wear from the many times Netter had held it and read it, but the torn edge from where it was ripped out was still pristine. He flipped through the journal until he found a missing page, the edges torn and perfectly matching the paper he gripped in his hand. The handwriting, though not an exact match, was still slanted on some letters, the same way as the journal. "He tried to alter his writing."

"Sir?"

"When he wrote the letter, he tried to change his handwriting so it wouldn't match, but look; some of these letters are still slanted to the right, just like they would be if he was left-handed."

Netter stood up and turned towards the room holding Miles. "You two, go back to the old man, tell him that you know everything, see if you can get something else out of him. I'm going to see what I can get out of our other little friend."

In he walked, carrying a file, the famous Detective Netter. He sneered inwardly at the name. He was a buffoon just like the rest of them. He saw it in his eyes back at the house. He pitied Miles, felt sorry for the life he was living with his horrible uncle. 'This will be cake,' he thought.

"Hey there, Miles. Sorry we didn't get much of a chance to talk earlier. I figured you wanted some time to yourself, you know, to start coming to terms with everything. Given the circumstances that you were under, we're not going to be charging you. You've been through quite the ordeal, and your Uncle gave you no real choice in the matter."

Miles made a show of meekly nodding and keeping his eyes downcast. He had to play the innocent victim if he ever expected to get out of that building.

Netter shifted in his chair and flipped open the file he'd brought with him. He held it out of Miles's sight, much to his irritation, but he worked not to show it. Being overly curious would only make him suspicious. "It's awful, the things that man did. Stabbing someone is a terrible thing, but to stab someone twice, as well as torturing them, seems a little too much to me."

He couldn't help himself, his ego demanded it. "Three times. They were stabbed three times."

Miles realized his mistake the second Netter looked up. "Right, three. And how exactly would you know that? Your statement says that you never knew what exactly he did in the basement, which means that he never shared that knowledge to you."

Miles shifted his gaze. "I-I saw it on the news. He liked to turn it on when any stories about his work came on."

"No," he drew out the word, lilting it at the end, emphasizing the level of his doubt. "The exact number was never released to the press. Any more lies you wanna try?"

Miles's eyes widened in panic for a moment before he schooled his expression to a mask of cold indifference. His voice even changed; it was haughty and sneering. "Looks like you got me, Detective."

He leaned back in his chair, trying to appear relaxed.

"Though I don't see how you're going to prove it. Not with his signed confession and my kidnapping ordeal. You see," he leaned forward, placing his hand on his chest, "I was traumatized."

Netter stifled a small laugh. "Oh no, kid. You see, we have your little journal here, and we matched the handwriting you gave us with your statement, along with that letter you sent. And as for that signed confession? I'm sure that will be thrown right out. There are cops in there right now getting the real confession out of your dear uncle. Here's what I think. I think you wanted him to get caught."

Miles still tried to play innocent, though he could feel his last threads of hope ebbing away. "Of course I did Detective, he's a terrible man."

"I have no doubt about that, but I'm of the opinion that you are much worse than he is. I think you wanted him caught so we would stop with the investigation, thinking we'd caught the culprit and saved the innocent child. Tell me, where were you planning on going after this, Miles?"

Miles crossed his arms and turned his head, he wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of knowing he was right. But that was fine, he still had an ace up his sleeve. "It's over, Miles. You're done."

The two officers sat across from the old man, his gnarled fingers gripped around a cheap coffee mug. They both had small notebooks open, ready to take notes on Paul Shields's story. He took a sip of the coffee and grimaced at the taste before speaking.

"Miles Richter is my only nephew. He was the son of my sister, Jane. She and her husband Thomas had given up hope on ever having kids. Jane was 43 when she found out she was pregnant. They were overjoyed, of course. But a month before he was due, Thomas had a heart attack. He died immediately, leaving my sister alone to raise the boy. We were never close, so I didn't meet him until he was about ten years old, when I was in his house, telling everything I'd done. I was the one that kidnapped the Rochester girl. She stabbed me and escaped. I couldn't go to a hospital, they'd report the injury. So I went to my sister. She was an excellent seamstress, you know. She'd never sewn a wound before, but she did beautifully. I found myself telling her everything. I had no idea that the boy was just outside the room, listening in. I stayed there for a couple days to gain my strength back before leaving, none the wiser to what that boy heard."

Paul took a moment to catch his breath, his age catching up to him. "Because I knew so little of my sister, I didn't honestly know how her relationship with Miles was. When he was 15, he sought me out. He told me that his mother treated him terribly and he begged me to take him in. I had no idea of what really happened, not until much later. The news first reported Miles's kidnapping, they never actually questioned me about it. Not a day later, and they reported my sister's death. Like everyone else, I figured the shock of losing her son had killed her. But of course that didn't really make sense if she treated him so badly. In one of his little fits of bragging, Miles told me that he'd poisoned her favorite tea. The boy is disturbed. There's a word for it…sociopath I believe. He has no remorse for anything. I know, I'm not one to talk, but it's never been my intent to kill anyone. Miles…he just kills for fun."

"Mr. Shields, can you tell us your involvement with the murders of these ten young women? Given your age and state of health, I'd wager that you didn't do a lot of the heavy lifting," one of the officers said as he flipped a page in his notebook.

"It was unfortunately my idea at first, to start kidnapping again. I figured with the boy's help, we wouldn't get caught. I honestly didn't know it would grow so big. It was never my plan to kill them. That was him. Though I suppose I should commend him for his brilliance.

"He parked our truck in secluded areas, just off the busy streets. He opened my door and left me there so he could find a victim. He lured them back to the truck with the story that I'd complained of chest pains and we didn't have a phone to call anyone. He brought her back to the truck. He said that he couldn't check for my pulse because his hands were shaking and he asked her to do it. Just as she leaned in, I took my chloroform soaked rag and shoved it in her face. She was out in seconds, lying across me.

"Miles jumped in the driver's side and dragged her body the rest of the way in and we were gone in a matter of minutes. No one on the streets knew a thing had happened. Once we got back to the house, everything was different. He got her out and tied her up in the basement and then forced me out. I realized what he was doing when I saw the news report a while later. I didn't stop him because part of me actually hoped that he would include me. It's pathetic for an old man, but it's true."

The officers shared mutual looks of disbelief and disgust. This man could blame Miles's murderous streak on his nature, but they knew growing up with a man like Paul Shields didn't help him in the slightest. The officers walked out of the room, eager to hear what Netter had gathered from the little budding psychopath.

Miles couldn't stop himself from throwing out one final taunt. "Detective Netter," he called as he was being led away. He had no idea just what he was dealing with.

The Detective turned from where he stood with the other officers and took a couple steps towards Miles.

"You know, it's a real pity that you didn't get involved with this case sooner. Maybe you could have saved a few lives."

"I'm saving them now…by throwing you in jail."

Miles laughed. "You think that will save them? There will always be more like me. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if there was someone out there right now, sinking his knife into some poor innocent girl." The officers gripping his arms forced him to turn away, but his cold laughter echoed off the walls as they led him out. No, they wouldn't see it until it was too late. His ace in the hole. His apprentice.

He wiped the crimson stain from the edge of the blade, relishing in the brilliant splash of color. His master had always preferred blondes, just like his master's wretched uncle, must've been a family thing. But him, no, he liked a little more spice. He liked the redheads. They always had a little more fight and he loved the color red. Miles taught him a lot in the short time they worked together; his uncle never the wiser, he wasn't allowed in the basement, didn't know there was another way in and out of it. Miles ended up teaching him even more when he was sent to jail. He wouldn't taunt the police; he never liked to brag anyway. And he definitely wouldn't involve anyone else. He wasn't really one to share.