The firemen entered the office, and stopped dead in their tracks. When the alarm had gone off for “B.B.Corporations” headquarters sometime around midnight, they had thought it would be a smoking paper bin, or, worst case, a cable fire. They certainly had not expected the CEO sitting in his huge black chair, motionless, but engulfed in blazing flame. The rest of his office was creepily normal, seemingly undisturbed, it’s usual tidy and spotless self. The glass and chrome just reflected the flames, the picture of his burning body. The soot had not yet settled. You could hardly hear the fire, because the stereo was still playing. Beethoven. They noted that. For a moment, nothing moved but the flames. Then, all hell broke lose.
When they had extinguished the flames with a fire blanket, as to not destroy more evidence than necessary, and the crime scene team was done, the coroner was able to explain why it had looked like a case of spontaneous human combustion: he had been strangled before he was set on fire. Strangled from behind. With a wire.
When I saw the pictures the next morning, something about that poked my memory. As ridiculously spectacular as that scene was, there was something all too familiar about it. Something recent. So I went to try and get the case assigned. As I had expected, my boss wasn’t too happy with the thought of a rookie like me being on the most spectacular murder case we’d ever had. But it was the summer holidays, we were severely understaffed, and swamped with party-rapes and brawls and some tourists that had fallen off a cliff, which turned out to not have been entirely accidental. And then there had been that unidentified dead bum.The one I was assigned to, the one this here reminded me of. So I placed the file firmly on my boss’ desk, and she decided to at least hear me out. I explained the similarities. The wire from behind. The body set on fire, and left in plain sight. Or at least in what must have seemed so to the killer – in the case of the bum it had taken a few hours before it was found, enough time for the fire to run it’s course and destroy most of the evidence. “Wasn’t there a note in that case?” Lena asked. “Well, there was a message. It was smeared on to a wall of one of the building shell’s on the site where he was found. With petrol, and set on fire, too. So it left soot stains that were somewhat readable. “relax. you’re probably dead.” That’s why we thought it might have been youth violence – that they thought of it as some kind of sick prank.” She nodded. “Yes, but look at this. The techs have gone through Mr. CEO’s computer, and there was that e-mail they found. He got it at 5pm, the day that he died.” I stared at her laptop-screen. The e-mail was from “firstname.lastname@example.org” and it read: “Relax. You’re probably dead.”
As had to be expected, the Feds took that one out off our hands almost immediately. The CEO of “B.B.Corporations” had been a rather rich and well-connected man. Plus, well. You know. Markings of a psychopath, and all that jazz. The case, I mean. Not to say the CEO didn’t. Anyway, the Feds asked to have a local cop assigned to them, to help them find their way around. Thanks to my talk with the boss, that lucky loser happened to be me.
Unfortunately, the e-mail address was a total dead end. Throwaway-Account if I ever saw one, just the one e-mail on it, sent from a busy open coffeebar-wifi downtown. It was sent from an android-phone. Prepaid. Which narrowed down the list of suspects to about half of the cities population over the age of ten. Assuming the killer was actually from the city. But this much was rather safe to assume, because he had killed here twice, and nowhere else. At least not with the same M.O.
Working with the feds isn’t nearly as glamorous as you might think. On the other hand, they’re not as arrogant as they’re on TV either. At least agents Cameron and Grather weren’t. After we had talked to all the employees at B.B.s office – the ones that weren’t on holiday – we spent most of our time in a rather small office, going through B.B. corp’s archives. Remote access is a beautiful thing. Still, there were times I almost wished they had sent me for coffee more than my turn. But at last, sometime on the afternoon of the third day, agent Cameron said “You know what? If we, just for a moment, disregard the other murder, and the probability that our killer must be a raving madman, I might have an idea why he was set on fire. It looks like a rather large portion of the real estate B.B. develops, are purchased after the houses that used to be there burned down, and the owners found themselves inadequately insured. They must have insiders in a few big insurance companies to tip them off – the properties weren’t auctioned off, it never came to that. B.B. bought them directly, shortly after the fires, while the owners were probably still in a bit of a shock. If a former homeowner found out they were taken advantage of in their first distress, and could have gotten way more on a free bidding, they might get pretty mad.” Agent Grather and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. “Even more so if they found out that B.B. somehow “helped” with those fires.”
It was a good theory, but we needed proof. Lucky for us, once we knew what to look for, it got easier. We cross referenced the names of people who had gotten money from B.B. with any files of home-wrecking fires. And found several that fit the shoe. Some were, indeed, insurance caseworkers. Some had even rejected desperate homeowner’s claims for very sketchy reasons. But a surprisingly high number appeared elsewhere in those same files – resident tenants for example. No doubt – B.B. had adapted a more active approach to development, and was clearing out desired plots as soon as they got word that a building was underinsured. This also explained why no one had ever died in any of those fires.
So, suddenly we had gone from “no motive” to “all too many suspects”. And were just as stuck as ever. Until we remembered that we had a second victim. We just had to find out who he was. “Burned beyond all recognition, huh?” agent Grather muttered. “Seriously? Wouldn’t that take an incinerator, or at least a very long, hot fire?” I shrugged. “Dunno. His face was all done for, that’s all I know. I don’t think they tried anything fancy – it was just a bum, after all. Big chance of finding out who he was… but, if it wasn’t a bum…well. I know they had teeth, and checked them against missing persons. No match. So, whoever he was, he wasn’t missed.”
So the feds’ crime lab had another go at our dead bum, and, to our not so great surprise, the first thing they found out was that he was no way a bum. Wrong kinda underpants, they said. I mean, basically, underpants at all. But his had obviously been of the fancy kind as well. Yet, still no match to anyone missing. So we were not really any wiser at all. “Why don’t we cross-check the names in the files with the residents of the area where the first victim was found? I know it’s a long shot, but hey – we have nothing to lose but time. And it’s not like his panties were french or something. Missed or not, he must’ve been somebody.” It was a long shot. But after the third round of extending the search area we got a couple results. Sadly, a series of short telephone calls showed them all to be very much alive still. We went home for the day.
Next morning, I found Grather at his desk when I came in, all excited, and greeting me with a cheerful: “We’re total idiots, you know?” I just looked blank and sipped my coffee. My brain doesn’t work without coffee. “The building site where he was found. B.B. is in the small print. It’s one of their’s! So I’ve been checking former owners, why they sold, and what became of them.” I grunted my approval. “Most of them just sold on their own accord, and got rather decent prices, considering the buildings were somewhat on the rundown side. But it all started off with a fire – one of the corner houses burned right down to the ground. It was landmarked, too, so they could never have started the project if it hadn’t burned. And, what do you know? Even better for them, it just happened to be completely uninsured. The owners somehow seemed to have forgotten to re-insure it after one of the units got sold.” “How many parties involved?” Cameron asked excitedly. “Just two. A family in the main unit, and the newcomer, a foreigner, in the secondary unit under the roof.” “Any casualties?” “No, no one was home, as usual. But there seems to be a certain inequality in what the parties got for their share of the plot. The owners of the main unit got a better price per square meter than the foreigner did. I wonder why she sold so far under market price.” I shrugged. “Well, she was a foreigner. Probably unsure about the customs, and how to go about negotiating a deal. No family at hand to help and advice, no network, probably no connections to speak of. Didn’t exactly have a crap load of options – just wanted to get it over with and go home.” Cameron nodded. “If that is where she went. Did you find out anything about her whereabouts these days?” “Nope. Drops right out of the system after the fire and the sale.” “And the family from the main unit?” “Well, they didn’t get exactly rich either. They live in Exeter Terrace now.” “Let’s go talk to them. Find out what happened there, and why they weren’t insured.”
The lady opening the door was about 70, so she didn’t exactly fit the profile. We asked about Thomas and Agnes Brown, and she smirked. “Agnes is in the backyard, I think. Come in, sit down, I’ll check and fetch her. Thomas, on the other hand, you’ll sure as hell not find in my house ever again.”
Agnes turned out to be a fragile blonde with sad puppy eyes. “I don’t know nothing about the fire, or the sale. Was always Tom who did all that stuff, ya know? All I know is, it ruined my marriage, it did.” “How so, Ma’am?” “Well, we like never really got over the shock, see? Were gone for the weekend, at our cabin by the lake that we had. Tom was joining us later because of a meeting in the city. Couple hours after he got home we got the call about the fire. Worst time ever, ‘specially when we found out we weren’t insured. Couldn’t bloody believe it. See, I was sure I’d heard him talking to the new guy under the roof, and he said he’d taken care of it, and not to worry. But then when I asked him ’bout that, he said I’d misheard, and what he really said was that he would take care of it. And then he just forgot about it. – Never forgot or forgave me the question, tho. Accused me of blaming him for the loss of our house. Heck, acted as if I’d accused him of setting the bloody house on fire in the first place, more like. Had to sell the cabin to get around, sold the plot as soon as we got the chance, and moved in here with my Mom. Didn’t take long before Tom moved out.” “Where does he live now?” “Oh, he did well enough, after a while. Lives down the coast, on Harper’s Pier. Took back his bachelor name. – When we first married he took my name, so all the kids would have the same. But he never really liked it, so he’s “Thomas Urban” again, now.” “You never actually suspected him of setting the fire?” She shrugged. “Why should he? We lost everything.” “Do you have any idea what became of your neighbor?” “No. Didn’t really know him, he’d just moved in.” “He? On the file it says the owner’s name was Andrea Parretti?” “Yep. Spanish or something, yaknow? Odd names, those people.” “Okay. Was there anything else odd about him, maybe?” “Well, no, not really. Except maybe that he was kinda jumpy about the whole buying a flat-thing. I guess it was his first own condo. Put all his savings in it, I heard, and a huge mortgage, too. So when it burned, all his accounts got locked down at once. I heard he didn’t even have a bed to sleep in at night anymore.” She shook her head. “Poor chap. As hard as it hit us, I’m sure he had it a hundred times worse.”
When we reached the address Agnes Brown had given us, we were in for quite a surprise. Yes, his former wife had said that he did well. And Harper’s Pier was a rather good part of town. But that here wasn’t just “doing well”. That here was one fancy mansion. Lacking in terms of security, though. One could walk right inside through the open french doors to the terrace. The ones with the cut out hole in the glass. Yet, it didn’t look like a burglary had taken place. There was no sign of any kind of struggle until we reached the bedroom. And even there wasn’t much to see. The bed was somewhat ruffled, and there was blood on the pillow. We called in the crime scene team, and left with no doubt that the teeth of our “bum” would match Thomas Urban’s dental records.
“You think she killed him?” Grather asked on the way back. “The wife? Not rather the neighbor?” “Both had huge motive…” “Yes, but the wife’s tiny. I can’t really see her dragging his body to the car, driving him out there, unload the body, drag it through the fence with no trace left, and set it on fire. And all of that fast enough that no one noticed. Plus, we can’t even be sure she put one and one together in the first place. And the neighbor – well, we know practically nothing about him yet. We’ll need to find out a lot more about that guy. Like, who he was, and where he went, for a start.”
Establishing that Tomas Urban had, under his “new” name, indeed gotten a very comfortable sum from B.B. turned out to be the easy part. Finding traces of his unlucky neighbor started out much harder. We began at his last address before he had bought the condo. But none of the current tenants of the block he’d lived in seemed to know anything about him. Most hadn’t even been there long enough to ever have met him. And the landlord had only ever spoken to him twice, over the phone. He did know where Parretti had been working, though. And with finally a bit of luck on our side, when we got in touch with his employer, we were able to get a copy of his CV and picture. And something resembling a description: not very tall, thin, dark. No lead on where he might have turned to. He had never come back to work after the fire. “If the police hadn’t been so absolutely sure that there was no one in that house when it burned, I would have sworn he must’ve died in it. He wasn’t the kind to just go off and leave his responsibilities.” “ Do you know if he had any friends here? Anyone he got along with well at work?” “He basically got along with everyone, in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Like most well-integrated foreigners do, you know, keeping themselves a bit under the radar most of the time. But yeah, I’d bet that Mike knows a lot more about him. I doubt he knows what happened to him, though. I asked him once if he knew, you know, friendly-like, not boss-like. But he got so upset I didn’t anymore. I think they were rather close, you know?” “O.k., we’ll talk to Mike.” “Right, do that. But he’s on holiday now. Until next week.” Cameron sighed. Of course he was. “Do you know if Parretti was involved with any women?” “Ha, I highly doubt that. He was, well, not the sort. Rather a pretty boy, see? Like, I mean, he probably wouldn’t fancy women.” Now Cameron seemed rather peeved. “You’re saying he’s gay?” “Well, I don’t know about that. None of my business. It just seemed rather, well, possible. And he did get along with Mike very well.”
Our next step was to check with B.B. Motive this and motive that, someone still needed to have physically done in the CEO in his own office. Without raising an alarm, all the way until the flames set off the fire detector. What we learned was that, once more, reality failed to live up to TV. The greedy mastermind of the evil corporation had by no means anything like a paranoid security system installed. Nothing like in James Bond at all. There was an alarm system for the building, but that would have been disabled if anyone was working late. In this case the CEO himself. There was a keycard system to the entrance of the upper-management floor, but that was disconnected whenever someone expected visitors, and the receptionist had left. And the last time that happened had been the day the CEO died – he had had a meeting with some out-of-town business partners. They had left around 10pm. After that, the door should have been locked, while he prepared the papers they were to sign the next morning. The entrance to the building and the reception area were covered by CCTV. But nothing unexpected could be seen that night. The receptionist left at 5 without setting the alarm, the CEO appeared a few minutes before 6 to disconnect the locking system. Later the guests arrived in twos and threes, and went into the elevator. Then nothing at all happened until they all come down again at 10.07pm. The CEO reconnected the locking system, and went back up to his office. And then nothing. Until the firemen could be seen entering, following the blinking lights on their handhelds to find the fire. “Dammit” Cameron muttered “where the hell is our killer? How did he get in, or for that matter, out again?” At least the last part was explainable: there was a back door. It was locked, but since it was a fire escape one could always open it from the inside. That would trigger a fire alarm, but well – there had been a fire alarm already. ”Maybe the murderer got in the same way? Maybe someone let him in?” Grather suggested. We considered that for a bit, but it didn’t seem to make any sense – the door only was a secret way out after the fire alarm went off, not before. And anyway, who would have opened the door? Where did that person come from to begin with? “Oh my – I know. I think I know how he did it!” Cameron began back-playing the CCTV-tape, to before the receptionist left. “Is the receptionist on holiday? She needs to look at the footage with us. And tell her to bring her laptop, we have to compare everyone who came in during the whole damned day to her appointment notes, and if they actually were with the people they seemed to be with.” “You mean…?” “Yep. Come with a group of people while it’s busy, and lots of people around, employees and guests. If you act confident enough, nobody will question who you are. Hide somewhere in the building, a toilet, storeroom, whatever. Wait till the CEO disables the locks. Move to the management floor unseen, hide there until everyone leaves. Hide in his office until he comes back. And then kill him while he sits there with his back to you, feeling save as can be.” “Wouldn’t you have to be a ninja to pull that off?” “No, just very coldblooded and patient. He even turned up the music rather high when he got back, so he wouldn’t have heard anything. And there is a mirror cabinet behind the CEO’s desk, remember? It not only holds office stuff, and a minibar, it also has a suit compartment. He needed to be immaculately dressed, always, so he needed a place for spare clothes, just in case. A rather thin person could easily fit in there, and wait till he was seated and absorbed in his paperwork again.” “Okay… but we don’t need the receptionist to begin with. We can just check for someone going in who doesn’t come out.”
And they were right. A rather darkish, medium hight, under medium weight person came with a group of businessmen around noon, and that person didn’t seem to leave the building later. The receptionist was needed after all, to confirm it wasn’t an employee who could have left by some other way during the day. She had no idea who it was, tho. She had just thought it was a secretary or something. She could not even remember if it was a man or a woman. Just someone in the background, someone of no importance.
One could not really identify anyone from the footage either. It didn’t seem to look much like the picture we had of our suspect. “That’s just the hair” Grather said. “That could easily be a wig, though.” Cameron looked doubtful. “Dunno. The way it moves doesn’t really look like a man to me, to be honest.” “Doesn’t look like a woman either, tho. More like a cat, if you ask me.” “True. Or like a ninja. But seriously, I guess it’s someone who’s had special training of some sort. Army special forces, police, or maybe even bodyguard, even if the stature is not typical for one. Pity one can’t see the face.” Grather shrugged. “His boss said he was not very manly in appearance. And we know nothing of his past. Maybe he was trained in some foreign special forces. That would also explain that he managed to avoid getting his face caught on camera without it looking suspicious.” “Would army training not make him appear more manly?” I dared to chime in. “Not necessarily” Grather laughed, “it depends very much on the perception of the onlooker, and their prejudices. People who have gone through special training often are in very good shape, but not necessarily bulky, they move controlled and rather elegant, and they often keep a bit under the radar – those habits die hard. They also tend to give more attention to their body than your average Joe – that’s what it takes to keep it in fighting condition, after all. But to someone already thinking that all men with pretty faces must be gay, all of that would just confirm what they already suspected.”
Well, for now there was nothing to do about it but go home, enjoy the weekend, and hope there wouldn’t turn up another body, to get in the way of our pretty theory. We were lucky that way, and come monday we went to speak to Mike. He had been notified by his boss, and was expecting us. “I don’t know how I can help you.” was the first thing he said, “I haven’t seen Andrea since the fire.” “So, he didn’t come to you when he had nowhere to go anymore? “No.” Mike looked genuinely sad. “That’s the worst part of it. I thought he knew he could have turned up at my place with less of a reason, and I’d have taken him in no questions asked. He would’ve had to sleep on the couch, of course, we only have a small apartment. But who cares? – I just assumed he was with his girlfriend, or I’d have tried harder to get in touch with him when I heard about it.” “His girlfriend? Your boss seemed to be under the impression that you two…?” Mike looked surprised, then laughed out loud. “Did he? Really? Oh yeah, I guess he would. But I thought he knew I’m happily married. Not that that necessarily means… but heh. Anyway. No, no such thing. He was rather fond of the ladies. And he did have a girlfriend, but that wasn’t known by many. I think she’s married, or something. I know her name is Sandra, and she works downtown. I saw her at lunch once, she came by to talk to him while we were at the coffee place together.” “You know where she works?” He did.
It turned out not to be quite that easy. Of course. Nothing ever is. She had quit her job a while ago. And moved. Not all that far, just to another part of town. Still, it took us a day or so to track her down. Valuable time, considering Parretti was on the run. Could have been in the wind for several days already. We finally found her in a rundown place downtown, right over the diner she now worked at. I wondered why – after her last job, that wasn’t much better than cleaning toilets. Heck, it probably included cleaning the toilets. Something must’ve had her running, burning all her bridges. Something must’ve scared the shit outta her. So when we were sitting at that grubby diner table, it just came outta my mouth without warning: “What the heck happened to you?”, before anyone else even could say anything more than their names. Surprisingly, she smiled. “That is a rather odd question, don’t you think? Considering you haven’t even told me what you want from me yet?” Blushing, I was just more sure that she fit into that place like a unicorn in a duckpond. Cameron explained how we thought she might help us. “Well,” she said “to come back to your first question first: Andrea happened to me. After all that happened with him, you could say that I “lost it” for a while. I could not help him after the fire, you see. I was married – technically, I still am – and I just… didn’t dare. I probably should have tried anyway, I had talked about leaving my husband for a while. But then it came all so suddenly, and I just… couldn’t. Not there and then. Not like this – we’d have had no place to go, no money to speak of. I wish I had been bolder. I would have had my job, and he would have had his. There would have been the problem of the mortgage for my old place, mine and my husband’s, and I would have lost all my friends, being the evil one… you know how it is. That was what I was thinking about. As if that mattered in the long run. And in the end, well, you see how it ended. Since I could not keep it together, all that happened anyway, just minus me having my job. And minus Andrea, of course.” She looked about to cry, so I quickly shot her the next question: “Have you seen him after? Or heard from him?” She shook her head. “Not since he wrote to me that he was leaving. Leaving the country. That was right after the fire. I mean, right after he had asked me to help him, and I declined. A couple days later I got the letter saying he had sold his part of the plot, and was leaving for good, and good riddance to me.” Now she was crying. “And that was when I lost it. But it was too late, of course. I just broke apart after that, and my whole life with me.” “Do you still have that letter, by any chance?” Cameron interrupted her sobbing. “No, of course not. I burned it, afraid my husband might see it, in those first hours, when I still thought I could just pretend nothing had happened. We had a fireplace over there, you know? So i burned it, somehow hoping to send it the way all things connected with Andrea went, and just burn the whole story right out of my life. It didn’t work, of course. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate, I kept messing up everywhere, and in the end I lost my job and my husband found out about the whole thing. But by then, it didn’t even feel like that mattered all that much anymore. – Actually, in a way, I feel a lot better now. At least I don’t have to pretend anymore.” Cameron and Grather had been listening, without writing much down. Now Grather asked in his calmest sensible-voice: “Listen, Sandra, I know it must be hurtful, but can you once more walk us through how things happened, after the fire?” She swallowed hard. “I can try.” “Okay. Take your time. It’s just – you seem to be the only one who even saw him after, if you actually saw him. So we’ve had a hard time reconstructing events. Where was he when the house burned down?” “He was with me. At a hotel. We could still afford such silliness back then, you know? And I didn’t want anyone to see us who might have known either of us. Too dangerous.” “How did he learn about the fire?” “They called him on his mobile.” “And that’s when he asked for help?” “No, of course not. He didn’t know he needed it yet. And we weren’t that serious. Of course he was shocked, and worried, and sad. But he was sure it was insured properly, and bad as it was, he’d make it through o.k. He just stayed at the hotel for the night. It was only the next day he learned that the house hadn’t been insured.” “Who told him?” She looked puzzled. “I… really don’t know. Maybe the bank called him? Or the insurance company? Or maybe his neighbor. He never said. I only know he talked about it with his neighbor at some point, but that was probably later.” “Okay. What else do you know of what happened later?” “He came to me on the second day after the fire. He showed up at my workplace, at lunchtime. I wasn’t all too happy about that, with all my nosy colleagues around, but didn’t complain, because he clearly was distressed. He told me about the insurance, and that a company had contacted him about his part of the plot. I was surprised about everything happening so fast, as was he, and he said he was going to call them about it.” “Who’s “they”?” “Some company. I can’t remember the name – but it’s gotta be the one you were talking about earlier, right? Since they were the ones who bought it?” Grather’s face was unreadable. “So they bought it directly, themselves?” “Well, as I said, I can’t be sure.” “Okay. What did you do next?” She blushed. “I ran away. Took some days off from work, and went to the coast. Told my husband I needed a little time to myself, stayed at a small hotel, without telling anyone else where I was. Andrea had already asked me for help, you see? He knew the sale of the plot would not possibly be enough for him to pay off his debts. And I could not say yes, but I felt so terribly bad about it. Then, after I had gotten back, I got the letter. He had sold his plot really cheaply. He was so very disappointed – in me, but also in everything else, the whole country, so to say. He wrote that everyone was just awful and cynical and cold as stone, and he just wanted to go home where people were real. – I do understand him. I know I behaved shamefully, but it wasn’t only me. You know what that neighbor said to him, when they talked about the insurance he had promised to renew, but didn’t? When Andrea was shocked, and speechless, and completely ruined? He said “Relax, you could be dead.” As if that was somehow making things better. And the company who bought the plot wasn’t any better either. Rich as fuck, fancy offices and big cars and money oozing out of every leather seat, but screwing over every poor sod they can get their claws into. That’s how he described it in the letter, I mean. Andrea knew he was taken advantage off, he was anything but stupid. He simply just didn’t care anymore. So, he wrote, he was leaving. For good.” “Well, it doesn’t really look like he did, tho.” Grather remarked. “Do you have any idea where he was staying in the meantime? Between your meeting and the letter, at least?” Sandra shook her head slowly, while still thinking about it. “I never knew any of his friends, really. We weren’t serious, remember? I met one of them once, a colleague. His name was Mike, I think?” Cameron nodded, then shook her head. “Right name, wrong guy. We talked to him, he hasn’t heard of Andrea since the fire.” Sandra shrugged. “Well, then I really don’t know. But maybe he still had contacts from his time in the army?” “He was in the army?” Grather asked interested. “Well, not our army, but the italian one, back then. I mean, I’m just guessing here, but maybe he made friends when he was in Iraq 20 years ago? Something convinced him to come here in the first place, after all.” “Okay, I guess you need to tell us a bit more about him in general. How did you two meet? What kind of person is he, and what else do you know about his past?” “We met at the Gym…” she answered, blushing a little. “Totally cliché, but that’s how it was. He helped me with some exercises, we got to talk, we met again by chance, then we went for coffee. I really like him, you know, it wasn’t just a “thing” with him. He’s a fantastic person, smart, kind and a true cosmopolitan.” “Well, he’s from Europe…” “Yes, but it wasn’t just that. He has not only lived several places, you also got the feeling that he really had gotten to know them. There’s a difference there. He wasn’t just fitting in wherever he went, he also was himself while he did.” Grather looked a bit puzzled, but Cameron just nodded. “I know what you mean. I got a friend like that – she’s not like a social chameleon, she just manages to really see people and places, so she can interact very well, without pretending.” Sandra just nodded. “So, Parretti worked out a lot?” Grather took up an earlier point. “Oh, yes, of course.” “Of course?” She smiled. “He was in the italian special forces, and he liked to keep in shape, as much as possible while holding a full time office job. So he did a lot of stuff in his free time – crossfit, running, some weights, and military Krav Maga. He also went hiking, swimming, diving… you name it. It was fun to be with him, never a dull moment. He’d think of the craziest stunts, and he could always pull them off.” “Knight in shining armor, hmm?” Grather muttered. I shot him a surprised sideways look. He didn’t seem to notice. “Well, I think that’s all for now.” Cameron rose to leave, and we followed. Sandra stood up as well, picking up her tray. In turning, Grather added: “Well, you take care, okay? And if you think of anything else, or need any assistance, give me a call, right?” This time he noticed my glance. Once we were outside, he started to explain: “Did you notice how she kept tucking at her sleeves? And how her hair was brushed down the side of her head, almost covering her eye? I bet she’s hiding bruises.” Cameron nodded. “Yes, I noticed that, too. She’s definitely hiding something, and probably in some sort of trouble.” As if living in that dump wasn’t enough to trouble anyone, let alone someone like her… but I didn’t say that out loud. Grather shook his head anyway. “Abusive husband. And very ashamed of it, still. So she kept skipping over the why she didn’t leave him earlier, why she was so afraid to do so. Even if it seems he proved her right to be afraid, and she barely got out in the end.” Cameron looked a bit doubtful, but didn’t say anything. I found it hard to believe myself. Rookie as i might be to the homicide team, I wasn’t exactly made a police officer yesterday. I’ve had my share of battered wives. Sandra didn’t seem to fit that role. She seemed too confident, too little self-conscious for that. Carried her head too high, wasn’t afraid to cry, even her self-blame was unapologetic, if you get my drift. And what she told of her husband didn’t seem to fit either. But I didn’t say so. I mean, I got it. I liked her, too. No wonder Grather was looking for an excuse for her. Hard to think of her as someone who had totally let down her husband and her lover, for no good reason. And anyway – what did it matter to us. So I kept my mouth shut.
Sandra had given us enough new information to go on with. Not only had she confirmed Cameron’s suspicion about our suspect having undergone special training. She also had told us much about the timeline after the fire. So we knew way better where to look for further proof. We got the date he sold his share from B.B. records easily enough. And lucky us, the CCTV-material went back far enough. “Can you imagine, just a couple years ago, when they still used tape?” Grather laughed while we reviewed it. We wouldn’t have stood a chance. But now we don’t even have to go through the whole day, we can just skip to the time of his appointment. “Is that even legal?” I muttered, “I mean, keeping the stuff for weeks and months?” Grather looked at me as if I had said a bad word. I guess I had. Anyway, we found what we needed. Again, there was no way to make out the face, but stature and movements fit. Hair was slightly different, but, as Grather had said earlier, that could have been a wig. Or a haircut, for that matter.
It was enough for Cameron and Grather to close the case. Now, they decided, it was just a matter of finding the guy. We knew that would not be easy, with the head-start he had. And his training and connections and all. But, one more thing that the movies might not tell you: that wasn’t our problem. They just sent out an international warrant, and that’s it. Case closed. Go have a drink. No need to worry if he’ll actually be caught – we done our job, it’s not personal. And anyway, not likely he’ll go after anyone else anytime soon. Appropriate amounts of mutual praise and respect were exchanged. Grather and Cameron left the next day. I drove them to the airport. It wasn’t till after that I felt something still nagging at me. It was hard to put my finger on it. Maybe it was the catlike movements. I’ve never really liked cats. Bloody sneaky killers. I don’t trust em. I do respect em, tho. They’re bloody, sneaky, elegant killers, after all. And so charming when they feel like it. – Maybe it was because people aren’t supposed to just disappear. Not in this day and age. Or maybe it was that the receptionist, who’s face was visible on CCTV. She never even raised an eyebrow when Andrea Parretti came in the first time – did she really expect a man? Well, maybe she did. Maybe she had been the one taking his call earlier that week. Anyway, I should go see the people we had interviewed. Tell them the case was closed.
I didn’t find Sandra at home or at the diner. I found her at the gym. She was working out with weights. I decided to join her for a while – I was off duty anyway. And I could do with a workout. She was still nice to talk to, and we even did some sparring. She was in great shape. And quick on her feet, too. Moved like a cat, actually. When we went to hit the showers, she said: “I’m going into the sauna for a bit. Would you like to come? I know you’re not a member here, but I can smuggle you in.” Sure, why not. Under the shower, I could not help notice the bruises on her forearms. Some on her shins, too. And a few around the shoulders. I knew those bruises – same I get from close combat training. I could not help but say: “You know, Grather thought you were a battered wife.” She laughed out loud, and threw me her shampoo. “And I thought I hid my bruises so well. But it’s mostly a reflex by now. People ask the weirdest questions when you turn up green and blue.” I just nodded. I know the feeling. “Did you ever think he might come after you?” “My husband? No, certainly not. I’ve been training for quite a long time now, it had nothing to do with preparing for a getaway.” I shook my head. “I was thinking Parretti.” She looked taken aback, and it took a moment before she found an answer. “No, I never feared Andrea might come after me. I know him too well for that. Even if I had not taken him for a revenge-murderer either… but still. I was just being a coward. Not throwing your current life away because someone asks you to is not the same thing as cold-bloodedly ruining someone for your own gain.”
We went into the sauna. And there and then, I just wanted to forget about it. About my suspicion. I mean, did it even matter? But I’m a cop. Even when I’m off duty. “It was you, wasn’t it?” I asked abruptly. Sandra hardly turned her head from where she was lying above me. “It was me what?” she asked lazily. “Oh,comeon. You can tell me now. Case is closed, and all.” She laughed softly. “Yes, I guess I could” she said slowly, “even if it was a trap and the case not really closed at all. I mean, we’re naked in a sauna, and I just saw you wash your hair. I don’t really see how you could still be wearing a wire. But then I’m not really up to date on that technology, I guess… and anyway, there’s nothing to tell. I don’t even really know how you got that idea. – Not that I’m hurt or anything, I guess it would have been rather heroic of me, in an old-fashioned sort of way…” “I got the idea because the person on CCTV looks way more like you than, umm…” I realized I actually couldn’t know how Parretti might look on video. “…than a man.” I finished, somewhat defiant. “Because I’m sure you didn’t even meet here, but at Krav Maga training.” She grinned and nodded. “Right. So?” “And because you were not as long at the shore as you said.” “Ah” she said “but, as far as I can recall, I never specified how many days I spent at the coast. And even if I did, and was slightly off – my mind was in a turmoil at the time, my memory might not be all clear.” “You don’t seem to be distressed now…” I muttered. “Actually, you seem way less sad today than when we came to interview you.” “Oh, I see. Yes, I guess I’m one hell of an actress. Either that, or it’s just that you made me realize that it wasn’t really my fault. He didn’t leave because of me. He disappeared into the shadows to be able to take his revenge, and he just wanted to keep me out of it.” “Anyway, you had enough time. When you came back. Plus, you didn’t go there to forget him. Or for him not to find you. You had been there with him before. That doesn’t make any sense.” “You’re right there, it didn’t make a lot of sense, did it? Or maybe I was hoping he’d find me, and we could talk in peace. Anyway, as I said, I wasn’t exactly thinking clearly.” “Either that, or you went there, hoping to find him. But you were too late. He’d already offed himself. Went into the water, or whatever. But you found his stuff. And his phone. So you became Andrea Parretti for a while. To make the deal on the plot. Of course the money went straight to the banks, but that wasn’t what you wanted anyway. You wanted to find out what happened. Who was behind it. To find the time, you separated from your husband. Got a new place, new job. So no one would notice you. And you managed. Managed all too well, I gotta say. It’s kinda scary.” She finally turned her head, just to smile down at me. It didn’t make it any less scary. Sweat dripped off my nose. The heat didn’t seem to affect her at all. “I have to admit, that is a bloody good story, worthy of an old, nordic saga. But even if it was true in any way, I doubt you could ever prove it… if he actually somehow went into the sea up there, you’d never find his body. It’s not a coincidence swimming on those shores is considered a crazy stunt. If you’re not careful, it’ll pull you right out into the open ocean. And if you’re dead it most definitely will. So, what other proof could you possibly find – forensic evidence? Even if there was any, which I doubt very much, it would have been transferred by Andrea. If you find a cat hair on a murder site, you don’t assume the cat did it, do you? Plus, you just told me the Feds have closed the case. Who are you to reopen it, just to send them on a wild goose-chase? If I were you, frankly, I wouldn’t want to try.” I felt slightly sick. Maybe it was the heat. But she was right, of course. “You know what?” she added, matter-of-factly, “I’ll help you out here.” She was looking at the ceiling. “I’ll give you an alternative. Maybe you’re right on one point, maybe you should have been looking for a woman. But not because it was me, or anyone else. Maybe Andrea Parretti is one of those people who can change from male to female at will. Who have the face for both, and can change appearance, voice, movement, even the way they look at people, if they deem that necessary. There are quite a few of those around, most just don’t practice it much. Those who do are totally fascinating. – And that’s why they’ll never find her, looking for a man. And would not find him either if they were looking for a woman.” She turned her head to smile at me again. My head swam. “I’m getting kinda dizzy.” I said. “I gotta get outta here. Way out of my comfort zone, sorry.” I got up to leave the sauna. “Yes”, she said, and now she looked almost disappointed. “yes, I guess you are.”