I arrived back at my office close to one in the morning, parking down the road a hundred yards as a way of being cautious. My paranoia was still at its maximum level, questioning even the benign and harmless. Shutting off the car, I sat and watched. The neighborhood was dark and lifeless. Everyone was sleeping.
Cars lined both sides of the streets. No one parked in garages anymore as they were all full of supplies to take care of the yard, workbenches, hobby instruments, and toys for both kids and adults. Some of the vehicles looked familiar while others completely unknown. Also pretty typical. Cars have become disposable, traded in on an ever-increasing frequency.
From my location, I had a view of both my office as well as the house up the hill. Both were completely dark. My dad had never seen much of a need to leave lights on when you left the house as they simply weren’t a deterrent to an actual thief. Even with timers, a determined burglar wouldn’t be inhibited by something as simple as a light.
Sitting in the car for another couple of minutes, I was as confident as I was ever going to be there were no immediate threats. I opened the door getting out of Jane’s car, closed it quietly and headed to the main office door leaving my bag in the trunk. When I was about ten feet from the main office door, the floodlights snapped on bathing the entire area near the door in harsh bright white light, nearly blinding me.
I spastically flinched, dropping to my knee looking all around me for the new threat. All was quiet. Nothing had changed other than it was as bright as a full sunny day now. It slowly dawned on my tired mind there was no danger at all. I had simply forgotten about the newly installed security lights driven by a sensitive motion detector. For the first time in the past twenty-four hours, I actually laughed. My own actions were usually a prime source of laughter for myself and others.
Walking up to the office shaking my head to no one in particular, I got out my keys, unlocked the door and walked inside. All was quiet. Nothing out of place. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths trying to let the stress of the past few days drain off of me. I then heard a combination of a creek and a groan from the other room on the first floor. It wasn’t a normal house settling or the furnace starting kind of noise. Someone was moving. I wasn’t alone.
This was my office. My domain. Flight was simply not an option this time, my brain and body instantly choosing to fight. All of the lights were off in the office but the floodlights outside were providing plenty of light to see. I made a quick inventory of the equipment in the front office, determining if anything could be used as a weapon. The only real option was a camera tripod leaning against the front desk from a birding photo shoot a few weeks ago. Procrastination of putting equipment away finally paid off.
I quietly grabbed the tripod, planning to use it at as club. It was heavy in my hands. As I slowly worked my way over the doorway to the back room of the office, the floodlights turned off plunging the office back into darkness. I froze where I was, a few feet from the door, unsure of what to do next. Neither my dad nor my college photography classes taught me the correct method for storming a darkened room searching for a deadly intruder. My decision for a fight was seriously being debated.
As I was debating my next move, I heard someone quietly call out from the other room.
“Alex? Is that you?” It was Jane. For some reason, she was in the dark office during the middle of the night.
“Dammit, Jane,” I yelled out to her. “What in the world are you doing here?” I reached over and switched on the lights in the front office. Jane did the same from the other room. In the back, Jane was leaning up against my main desk, her hand resting on the top of her chest.
“You scared the shit out of me. What are you doing coming to the office this late?
“You first,” I told her. “Why are you here in the middle of the night?”
“You mentioned numerous time how important reviewing all of the paperwork is to what’s happening. I decided to work late to get a good head start on completing it all. The break-in also had me very concerned. You never showed up at here or the house, so I figured you were at Kelsey’s. I chose to sleep on your couch for the night and pick it up early in the morning. By the time I made the decision to sleep here, it was rather late and I didn’t want to contact you, hoping you were having a relaxing night.”
“My night was anything but calm.” I sat down on the couch after moving the blanket Jane must have been using while sleeping. The burden of the past few days weighed heavily down on me. I looked up at Jane directly in her eyes not wanting to talk. She stared back, silently knowing whatever I was going to say was not good news. We held each other’s gaze for a few moments until I got my voice.
“Neil’s dead,” It was all I could think to say. A very blunt and abrupt way to tell her someone she knew and worked with was gone.
Her hand shot up to her mouth. Tears instantly started streaming down her round cheeks. She was shocked. “What happened?” she asked weakly. “Another murder?”
“I went to his house tonight to try and get some answers on why the paper fired me and if the column was simply a ruse to get direct access to police crime scenes. He said he had no prior knowledge of my work with the police, but I am beginning to seriously doubt what he told me was the truth. Anyway, when I got there I found him murdered in his back room. There was blood everywhere. It was horrible. He hadn’t been dead long but he was gone. No one could survive those wounds.”
“That is awful. I don’t know what to say.” Jane was crying. “What are you doing here at the office? You look awful and should be getting some sleep. To be honest, I am amazed you aren’t still at the crime scene or down at the precinct giving a statement. Three murders with a direct link to you. It’s a complete surprise to me you aren’t being interviewed for more information.”
I knew this was coming. The truth. What really happened. I had nothing directly to do with Neil’s death, but I wasn’t looking forward to telling Jane the details. Or anyone else for that matter. Disturbing the scene of a recent murder, covering my tracks and fleeing the house without calling the police was not something I was inherently proud of. She deserved the truth, though.
Over the next fifteen minutes, I told Jane exactly what happened, leaving out no detail I thought was important. She was more than just an employee. A true friend. Frequent confidant. Someone who I had trusted during some very depressing times. She listened intently, asking no questions as I relayed the story. Her face was impassible, without a hint of emotion. I was concerned about her impressions and thoughts, not wanting to disappoint her.
After I had finished, she immediately asked, “So what’s next?” No judgment. No criticism. Simple acceptance and belief I had done what was necessary. The trust between us was a two-way street.
“The three murders have to be related in some unknown way to me. I have been racking my brain for a connection but I have not been able to come up with anything that makes any damn sense. Like you, the break-in has me concerned but for a wildly different reason. My life was busy but completely uneventful since my dad and Hannah were killed. Monotonously boring and routine. Then in the span of a few days, three people around me are brutally murdered, I am fired from the best opportunity I have had in my professional career, and my office is broken in to with nothing taken other than some petty cash we had lying around. There is absolutely no way the break-in event is unrelated. I believe in coincidences but the robbery and vandalism have to be on purpose. So, for now, we are ruling out anything left to chance.”
Jane thought for a minute. “I see your point. So what are you thinking?”
“I had originally thought there were two possibilities for the break-in. First, it was a simple normal robbery. Whoever broke in wanted something here in the office. An object of monetary value. They left tens of thousands of dollars of camera and computer equipment. They would have to have been the worst thieves in the world. Again, no coincidences.
“So the other possibility is information. Which makes a bit of sense seeing all of our contracts and billing paperwork was all rummaged through and thrown over the floor. But you told me before, you didn’t think there was anything missing and it appeared to just be someone making a mess. A distraction or sleight of hand making us look one way, instead of where we should be. Did the work you completed since we last talked change your mind at all?”
“Not even a little bit,” Jane said, shaking her head from side to side emphatically. “If nothing else, I am fairly convinced whoever did it was just making a mess and not looking for information. Nothing is missing and none of the files left in the cabinets were touched at all.”
“Fairly certain?” I asked, giving her a slight smirk attempting to lighten the heavy mood.
“You know me. Hedging my bets until proven correct. If I had to pick a motivation, it would be just making a mess and not actually looking for information. So what are you thinking then?”
“What other possibilities are there? We assumed the break-in was a robbery as most people would instinctively. No one was here so it rules out any direct potential harm to those who work here.” I paused for a moment letting her completely understand what was not being said. With these murders happening, we both could be in danger. She nodded back, letting me know she was ready for more.
“If they didn’t break in for a robbery or to harm anyone, what else is there?”
“I have no idea,” Jane responded quite confused. At least I wasn’t the only one.
“Neither do I and that is what is bugging me. The only path forward I can think of doing is reexamining the entire office. We were both so distracted by the paperwork. As a result, we could have easily missed something. Blinded by the distraction. Hence, the reason why I am here this late. The hope of a quick nap was a factor as well. I could really use one.” I stood up and walked over the small refrigerator grabbing a bottle of water and downing half of it.
Jane appeared to be thinking. She looked over at me and asked, “Is that Neil’s blood on your clothes?”
I looked down at the left sleeve of my shirt. Covering it with my hand, I nodded and walked over to the bathroom where I could clean up and get a change of clothes. Looking at myself in the mirror, my face appeared to have aged a dozen years in the past few days. The stubble on my chin and face didn’t help. I stripped off my clothes and started washing up scrubbing the blood, sweat, and grime off my hands and body. Getting dressed, Jane knocked delicately on the door.
“Good idea on searching the office. I am just going to get a few things out of my car. Where are the keys?”
Cracking the door open and standing behind it, I flipped the keys to her adding, “Give me a few minutes. Thanks for all of your help.”
“No problem,” she said, adding an over exaggerated wink. Leave it to Jane being able to make a wink sarcastic.
I finished getting dressed in all new clothes and shoes I kept for emergencies. Nothing in my wildest of dreams could have prepared me for this, but I was glad there were spares ready for me. The dirty clothes were simply thrown in the corner to be dealt with at a later date.
The best way to search the office was systematically, instead of wandering around aimlessly. From the front to the back and the first floor to the second. Whoever broke in did it from the front door, so it was as good as place as any to start. I stood by the door waiting for Jane to come back so we could do this together.
Right then, I heard a blood-curdling scream coming from the street.