A to Z 2017: THE MESSAGE

A small crowd had gathered nearby with phones in hand, recording anything and everything, hoping to get lucky and go viral. It would only be a matter of time before the crews from competing media outlets showed up and the real circus could begin.

Detective Reyes waited just inside the yellow tape blocking a six-by-eight foot segment in front of the small corner market. He knew people always felt the urge to disobey the instructions on the tape, especially kids. He was one of them once. Before he eventually was awarded the "Key to the Kingdom", so to speak. Before learning what lay beyond the tape. Things that could never be unseen. Now he was forced to cross over to the other side, the thrill of the unknown now absent.

Three squad cars, a firetruck, and an ambulance crowded the street intersection in front of him. The dispatched firefighters and paramedics were all currently on standby, being there was no longer an immediate threat. The paramedics were waiting to remove a body from the scene he had explicitly demanded remained untouched until he arrived and had a chance to look it over. The pair stood next to their truck, looking bored and unsure of what to do with themselves. He imagined they were irritated because he was there, but had yet to go inside, while his partner went to grab some coffee.

Calm down boys, the body isn't going anywhere soon. He forced a smile and a brief wave to the duo, watching through his shades as they ignored returning the favor. Reyes was unfazed by the rudeness and casually turned his gaze upwards to the clear morning sky. Barely ten o'clock and the sun was already beginning to beat down. The standard button-down shirt tucked into his jeans may prove to be too hot, let alone the leather jacket he had on.

Finally he caught a glimpse of Detective Dow popping out of a local coffee shop, a cup in each hand. He was hoping the caffeine would fight the headache he felt coming on. Reyes was aware that sleep deprivation was the likely culprit, but it was kind of like drinking alcohol to treat a hangover.

He offered a genuine smile to his partner, who was dressed similar, but instead of jeans she was wearing casual business pants and was sans a jacket — obviously she had paid more attention to the forecast. The sunglasses were definitely an influence from working with him, or so he told himself. She smiled her pearly whites back at him, ducking under the tape he lifted for her and spinning to greet him with his beverage, which he promptly relieved her of.

"Ladies first." She silently took the offer.

He glanced back over at the paramedics who were still standing around idly, watching from afar. To them it probably looked as though he had his female partner under his thumb, obeying his every beck and whim, but it was just her turn to get coffee. Reyes knew they didn't know that, though, and he tilted his head so he was looking just over the bridge of his sunglasses and winked, not caring if they could see it or not.

"Are you coming?"

He turned and followed Dow through the barred glass door, entering the cluttered, windowless convenience store. The door slammed behind them, but he noted the lack of it latching shut. The tiny establishment reeked of smoke and burnt flesh, even though it had been aired out before they had shown up. What wonders would the "Key to the Kingdom" expose him to this time.

Both he and Dow removed their sunglasses, she folded her pair and placed them in her shirt pocket, while he hooked his pair through his belt. The stench compounded the claustrophobic element, making it feel like you were suffocating.

His partner lead the way down a center aisle lined with various grocery goods. To the left were a handful of coolers full of frozen meals and sodas. To the right another aisle lined with a random assortment of magazines, snacks, and other sealed baked products. The row eventually opened up into a small clearing in front of a counter with a register and decorated with trinkets and useless accessories. Behind the counter was a case full of an array of cigarettes.

To the immediate left of the counter was a door leading into a small office, which he assumed had a bathroom attached to it. What grabbed the detective's attention, though, was that just in front of the office, along the back wall of the store, a makeshift door stood wide open. Two police officers emerged from the opening and squeezed past them, making their way back to the front of the market.

Reyes saw that his partner had her hand lifted up under her nose to block the putrid aroma, and while it had gotten stronger, he wasn't as sensitive. The two detectives slipped through the narrow doorway and entered a cramped, dimly lit room, about a third of the size of the main business space. The walls stretching to the far end of the chamber housed rows of computer servers with flashing lights, which stopped at a desk that took up the entire back wall. On and mounted above the desk were computer screens of all shapes and sizes.

The rest of the room was empty, aside from two more police officers standing around a grotesquely charred body propped front and center in the middle of the floor, melded to what was left of a chair. Crispy delight. The source of all that refreshing goodness they were forced to breathe in. The body was a twisted mess of burnt flesh, muscle, and hair. Red and black from head to toe. A statue of macabre chiseled in the final stages of death, capturing the moment when the victim had stopped writhing.

One officer shared a few words with the other, leading the latter to wedge past the detectives with a polite nod as he exited the room. "Morning, detectives, I'm Officer Brent Graves." The introduction came without an offer of a handshake, but that was understandable given the situation. He knew there was no disrespect meant. Being clean-shaven, the shaggy brown hair and matching puppy-dog-eyes gave the officer a babyish appearance.

"Detective Reyes," he returned, "and Detective Dow. Homicide Unit," he continued, once noticing his partner was unable to speak. He put up a finger to indicate to the officer that he wanted a moment and addressed Dow. "You okay? You don't have to be here, I can handle this for us b..." She, once again, silently took the offer. When she was gone, Reyes spread his arms open and shrugged. "Looks like I'm flying solo on this one."

"I completely understand. It's not something everyone can stomach."

"Give me the lowdown." Reyes moved closer to the body.

"The victim is male, age unknown. The property owner is also the sole employee, Edward Tiller. Age forty-seven, Caucasian male and hasn't answered at his place of residence."

"Which is?"

Brent crooked a finger upwards. "Lives above the shop. Just waiting for proper channels to enter. So as of now we are working under the belief that this may be Mr. Tiller. A couple of neighborhood kids happened upon the scene first, swore the door was already jimmied, and kids being kids..."

"They needed that thrill," the detective finished for him.

He was offered a nod of agreement. "They were brought down to the station for questioning and statements, regardless. And you'd think the cause of death would be obvious, but," Officer Graves pointed.

Something was jutting out the body's chest, almost camouflaged. "Is that a knife?"

"Yep, and the cause of death."

"It couldn't have been inserted postmortem? Someone taking sick pleasure after the fact?"

"That may have been plausible, but he was originally covered in some kind of fire-retardant fabric, a canvas or something. It's already been removed and sent to a lab for analysis. Despite the quality of the material it was still almost completely charred, the victim was doused in gasoline, so I doubt we'll be able to pull anything useful from it," Officer Graves explained. "You can see the trail where the killer started the fire from the hidden doorway."

He could make out what had been the thin line of gasoline leading to the dead man. "That's confusing. So the perp didn't want his victim to suffer, or couldn't contain his urges, but still decided to add insult to injury. Likes to be up close and personal, yet watch from afar. Seems like one bi-polar son-of-a-bitch." Reyes was at a loss. "Naturally, the fire would remove any prints from the body and knife, but why cover the victim in attempts to contain the fire?" He spread his arms wide. "Why not just burn the whole place down? Why risk having your prints left anywhere?"

"The forensics team was able to lift a few fingerprints, so hopefully something will match the database for both the victim and his killer."

"And what the fuck is this place?" Reyes talked over the officer.

"Well, there's something you need to see. It may explain why the killer went to such lengths to control the fire." Officer Graves turned to face the wall of monitors. The varying screen sizes gave an appearance of a misshapen jigsaw puzzle, pieces that didn't line up forced into place. "When dusting for fingerprints, a tech started fucking around with a black light, certain he would find evidence of this being some kind of... kill room." The irony wasn't lost to either of them. "And well, he found something alright."

"What's that?"

Officer Graves walked over to the desk in front of the monitors and picked up a black light that must have been left behind from the previous units. "Turn off the light, the switch is behind you next to the door."

Reyes did as asked and the room became darker. A faint light creeping through the entryway and sporadic flashes from the servers allowed for enough visibility for the detective to cross back over to where he once stood.

"It's basically invisible in the shitty lighting, but there's a very, very thin layer of clear film attached to and covering the screens." The officer clicked on the device, moving it slowly in the air in front of the monitors. "It's blood."

Scrawled across the wall of screens, a message appeared. It was jagged and smeared, but legible.

"Time to play with someone your own size," Reyes read out loud.

"Indeed."

"What the fuck does that mean? This was obviously personal and extremely passion-driven, but who the hell is the message for? Is there another gang war sparking up in the city?"

Graves sighed and almost seemed to shiver. "There's more." The officer motioned for him to come to the desk. As he did so, Graves turned on one of the computer screens lining it.

Suddenly images began flashing across the screen. Horrific images of beatings, brutality, and all other means of torture and abuse. Blood sprayed, souls screamed. More that couldn't be unseen, once having crossed the yellow line. He gave a silent prayer and thanked whoever was up in the Heavens listening for sparing his partner this view of unbridled evil.

It quickly became very evident to Detective Reyes as to what the message meant.

Thanks for reading! What did you think about the piece? Any constructive criticism is welcomed!