"You’ve got twenty minutes left of making yourself look like a total idiot.” Patty warns as she licks oﬀ the sugary residue of a jelly doughnut from her fingertips with more focus and precision than she would ever be inclined to award to her new ‘partner-in-crime’. “If you ask me, I’d spare one of ‘em and think twice about what you’re about to do.”
“Relax.” Natalia Greenstone’s reflective green eyes trace the outline of the rear view mirror, “it makes sense. You’ve been on this guy’s track for months. He clearly has a preference for neighborhoods in which to kill. The pattern of the killings isn’t physical, it’s psychological.” Natalia retorts, fixing the red ringlets exploding from her ponytail, ensuring her oﬃcer hat remains fastened.
“Yeah, yeah. The killer’s going after whomever’s the happiest. It’s not like you haven’t said that already.” Patty glances at her in disapproval. “Maybe this time chief ’ll finally learn not to trust fresh meat so easily.” She murmurs to the new donut in her hand.
“I heard that.” Natalia smirks, “but don’t worry, I’m used to it. Don’t you think I had to push against all kinds of doubt to get where I am today? You’d have to do a little more than that if you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“No fresh meat is worth going to jail for.” Patty keeps her tone firm, but she is slowly losing grip. And patience. Natalia turns to face the mirror again, angling it to frame Patty.
“So, how do I look?” she beams, batting her eyelashes.
“You’re a cop going on an investigation, not a hoe looking for a hook-up. I ain’t your wing woman.” Natalia’s cheeks redden slightly, not because she is embarrassed, but because of how little she knows compared to how much she knows she has to expect.
Her entire life was built meticulously around this very moment. Centuries of weeding through candidates, applicants, passion, and potential could not prepare America’s criminology industry enough for the hurricane named Natalia Greenstone. It’s rare to be born with your career path coursing through your blood. Her first words were “Hands up!” Her father’s handcuﬀs were her favorite chew toy. Something about their shape and the sleek, cold, metallic texture provided hysterical amounts of catharsis for her budding teeth. Natalia Greenstone was destined to become a cop. And not just any cop, a national hero.
And today, the very moment the clasp in the car’s door hinge slides open with a pop, Natalia Greenstone will be taking one of the most defining steps towards meeting her fate. Natalia has been collecting validation for her gift from an early age. Her perfect school record, her incredibly quick mind, and her nosy nature stuck by her side as she joined her father on missions.
But she knew those were baby steps. She grew tired of them; grew hungry. It was validation for solving a real crime that she salivated after. All it took was getting her foot in the door, and the ambition to compete with the immortals. Natalia’s overconfidence leeched oﬀ of the frustration others had for it. She won over the chief oﬃcer with her thought-provoking theory about San Diego’s ‘Thief of Smiles’. The dream case was all hers.
On the other hand, Patty, her designated partner, remained stiﬀ with the belief that letting a young graduate handle a case with such a high degree of gravity was just the chief oﬃcer being ‘cute’ and ‘progressive’. She didn’t hesitate one second to let Natalia know.
“You really think that’s the next target? They don’t exactly look like they’d be the happiest.” Patty sighs, and finally looks through Natalia’s window. Patty had been driving blindly per Natalia’s instructions as a token of her unwilling implication with the ridiculous solution Natalia devised. The driveway they are situated in front of belongs to a well-structured suburban, composed solely of rectangles and triangles, attempting to ooze timelessness in design, but the duck green accents and cobblestone decor make it look like a fashionable fishing warehouse more than anything else.
“Please. They’ve got a large suburban home in the quietest neighborhood San Diego could ever oﬀer. They must be going to bed pretty darn satisfied.” Natalia reassures herself. It took hours and hours of painstaking profiling to track down the next target of the ‘Smile-Thief ’ killings. The department has never solved a case using a psychological pattern as opposed to a physical one. To call it a risk would be putting it mildly.
The step Natalia is about to take will dictate the rest of her career as a cop. One wrong move and it will be over; no one will take her seriously anymore and her failure will be the only badge she’ll hold onto. She could forget all about the strenuous uphill battle of climbing her way to the top of the police industry’s ladder. As much as she hates to admit it, Patty’s matured doubts about the situation are starting to take their toll.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Patty dips her sarcasm in something more gentle, perhaps akin to the addictive sugar on the doughnuts she religiously relished, “it’s not like you’re gonna find anything. No one tells you this, but you always fail your first case.” Natalia furrows her eyebrows in protest but Patty cuts her oﬀ before she can comment, “That’s fifteen, Greenstone.” She taps her watch thrice to exaggerate the rate to which time is passing. Natalia gives her a curt nod along with a deep breath, wrapping her fingers around the door handle. She feels the floor beneath her boots shift slightly as she climbs out of the car. The bottom of her stomach sinks into a deepening pit.
She scripted this scenario so obsessively inside her brain, that what used to be a figment of her imagination now stood right in front of her. It feels both real and surreal at the same time. The car window slides down and makes her jump. “Don’t forget your gloves!” Patty sticks out a box of latex gloves through the window, from which Natalia tentatively selects a pair. “Bah, it’s not like you’re gonna find anything.” She hears Patty scoﬀ as the window whirrs back up.
It is sickening, she thinks to herself, that the victim of the next killing could be living here. She has passed the house many times but never paid this much attention to it before. Her ample alertness enables her to notice the mundane, and she is lucky that it is mundanity that fascinates her the most.
She presses the round doorbell firmly, helping the doorbell’s echo with three confident knocks. “Mister Bouldery, I’m oﬃcer Greenstone. I come on behalf of the San Diego police department. You have been suspected of being a possible target for the next crime and I would li---” the door has been unlocked the whole time. It creaks open in front of her.
For a split second, she stands frozen on the ‘welcome’ mat, taking in the living room carefully, as the door swings inside like a curtain. She glances back at the car briefly, then makes sure she steps inside with her right foot first for good luck. “Mister Bouldery…?” she asks the empty house again. Natalia chuckles to herself at how easily she has stumbled into the classic horror movie cliche. There clearly isn’t any sign of anyone setting foot in the living room or the open-plan kitchen. It is far too orderly and pristine to even bother searching for fingerprints. Natalia knows the ‘Smile-Thief ’ is not a fan of neatness.
Wiggling her fingers into her sandy-feeling gloves, she extracts the flashlight from her utility belt. Holding its stem menacingly in her fist, she switches it on, and gives the large, windowed terrace door a glance, to check if perhaps Mr. Bouldrey might be in his garden. Nothing. The sound of something closing interrupts Natalia’s ears from adjusting to the suspenseful buzz of the unexpected silence. She squints, her head snapping in the direction of the noise, hoping to intercept the source. It comes from upstairs. Someone is clearly present in the house. “Mister Bouldery, I’m coming to find you upstairs.” she announces, using her flashlight to illuminate the carpeted steps. Of course, she knows about the visibly-placed light switch, but to her it is all about playing the part.
The upstairs hallway acts as a balcony, with small wooden columns as the protective ledge, following the curved banister of the staircase. It is perfect for keeping a cautious eye on both scenes- above and below. She sighs in relief after seeing light spilling out of the doorway of one of the rooms in the non-winding hallway. She clicks oﬀ her flashlight and approaches the open door.
The light leads her to Mr. Bouldery’s study: a chaotic, glass-topped desk full of paperwork (leaving no room for a screen), paired with an uncomfortably-designer chair and a pleasantly-detailed, color-blocking accent wall in front of it. Despite the contrast in cleanliness on the ground floor, this room feels equally vacant. She feels the base of the metallic lamp. It is hot, signifying Bouldery’s possible irresponsibility. But what catches Natalia Greenstone’s attention is Bouldery’s choice of red highlighter ink.
She picks up a discarded paper with increasing intrigue creasing into her forehead. The ink is scattered, but it isn’t a smeared streak. Rather a constellation of blots, with additional small droplets that crown each of them. Blood. She lets the paper flutter down to the desk and it rustles into the others once her eyes track the tacit source of the stains. The unlocked door, the study being the only room left lit, and the blots of ‘ink’. They were all meant to be found. They are meant to be followed. Like a smugly set-up tick list, with everything the sorry oﬃcer sent to do a home search would be looking for. She is too late.
“Shit.” Natalia’s breath began to show early signs of panic. She feels its weight draw her posture towards the floor, as she pivots on her toes and makes her way around the room, at least visually. The silence returns with the stale ringing in her ears. It isn’t clear whether she can hear anything else over her heartbeat. “What the…” deciding to use her logic, she goes back to the source of the blood drops on the desk and follows them to the blackened stains on the carpet, trailing towards the wooden cabinet built into the back wall of the room. The door handle is wedged shut with a machete knife. Uneasily, Natalia removes it from the door with her fingertips, disgust dancing on the tip of her tongue.
The door of the cabinet slams open into the wall and Mr. Bouldery collapses into her, knocking her to the floor. It takes a second for her to process what is happening; not much longer, as corpses tend to smell pungently. She squirms from underneath the dead weight as fast as she can, realizing that the knife that was once holding the door is now wedged into the corpse’s chest. To her surprise, he is still bleeding.
Natalia feels the need to back up into the wall for support. Suspense boils everything inside her into limp, limp noodles. The corpse is headless. Well, half its head is there, anyway. The remains of his brains got mushed by the rough blasting job Bouldery’s skull underwent, into a red paste into the carpet. Natalia isn’t sure what is left of the face, and for once isn’t curious to find out. His corpse lies there, the blue button-down shirt ripped and remixed by the other ten stab wounds.
She has never been so close to anything this freshly lifeless before. Sure, she had her fair share of studying what to expect at a crime scene, and the occasional field trip to the morgue, but everything is a lot less gorier when it exists in a controlled environment. There were many details left out, like the way you could almost taste the metallic flavor of the blood-spill in the air, or how heavy the buttery corpses become.
Natalia silences her palpitation-induced breathing with a deeper breath. Her toes pivot to the desk again, unable to cancel the question popping up in her mind about why there is blood on the desk, when the murdered victim was nowhere near it. Damn professional tick. She approaches the desk again, regretfully.
The only concealing object she finds is an obsidian square jar for writing utensils. Bouldery was a writer of some kind. Only a creative type could cause such a mess. She picks up the jar, wincing preemptively at what could be hidden there, spilling its contents onto the desk. Alongside pens and pencils, erasers and shavings, two glistening, wet, red grapes with anorexic slugs for stems rolled, no, crawled, leaving a trail of more red highlighter ink. His eyeballs. Natalia gags, her body spasming forward in an attempt to hold back everything she has ever consumed in her entire life from joining the bloodbath. Cupping her bloody, gloved hand over her mouth didn’t help. The noise of scampering feet however, did.
She fights through her pulsing instinct and feels around her utility belt for her gun. Cocking a bullet into place as quietly as possible, she points it to the ground and listens for the noise again. It gets louder and…faster? It is certainly coming from the hallway again. Unsure whether it is ethical to leave Bouldery’s corpse there without awarding it any mourning, she leaves the study with guilt, switching oﬀ the lamp. The noise comes from the door in front of her, but it gets, yet again, overpowered by her heartbeats.
The murderer must not have found the chance to escape before Natalia arrived. This is her shot to redeem herself for re-stabbing the corpse and leaving it behind. More so, the path to the career-springboard she is looking for. Natalia knows she solved the case, but never even fathomed catching the killer herself. She leans against the door with her back, resting her elbow on the handle, ready to barge in and shoot. She double checks the bullets in her gun. The killer must have become aware of her presence, because the scampering noise stops.
“One….two….” she counts under her breath, “three!” she pushes into the room, slamming the door open and firing a bullet in the direction of the noise. The murderer lets out a high pitched cry and collapses. Natalia’s reflective eyes turn into ponds. Spinning erratically and irrationally into a rabid circle of death is not the murderer, but a pug. She shot Bouldery’s dog. Anxious to devise her next step, Natalia tries to ignore how everything inside that house is either set up to become damaged or to literally damage her. Biting down on the inside of her cheek, she realizes her only option is the one she wants to avoid the most. She has to tell Patty.
“Everyone fails their first case,” Patty’s wise words echo in her mind again, “you’re just keener than everyone else to do so.” Only her mind stops at the word ‘fail’. The one thing Natalia can’t handle. No one could blame her for it either, since it’s impossible to handle what you’re not used to feeling. She looks at her gun, then at her reflection in the vanity. Taking the easy way out would wipe the twenty three years she spent carving herself into the ideal of the perfect cop clean. She isn’t a coward, just in a lot of pain. Is the pain worth it? She decides finally to wait for Patty’s reaction. Maybe she is overreacting and it is the kind of honest mistake she had to get used to making. The uneasiness vibrates through her feet as she walks down the steps. Just then, the front door creaks open. Whether it is out of reflex, self-defense, or fear, Natalia fires another bullet which barely misses Patty’s head.
“Hey, what the fuck, Greenstone!”
“Oh my...shit I’m so sorry!” Natalia drops the gun, running up to her partner, “I thought you were-”
“You could have killed me! Are you out of your mind?” Patty explodes, grabbing Natalia’s shoulders, “Seriously, are you insane? Your fifteen minutes were up and I had to come get you because you were probably wasting time analyzing the position and curvature of a hair you found on some counter or whatever bullshit makes you believe you’re solving a case. And then I hear a gunshot. For the shortest damn second, I thought to myself: hell, maybe the chief was right about this. But you are just busy bein’ a trigger happy dumbass!” Instead of enunciating her words with hand gestures, Patty shakes them into Natalia. Her eyes then narrow on Natalia’s pale complexion and extraordinarily-dilated pupils in her translucent green eyes. “Hey.” she says more firmly, holding her shoulders stiﬄy, “what happened? Did you find something…?”
“He’s dead…” Natalia replies blankly, “Bouldery is dead, his head is...his eyes….” she stutters, trying to express herself in as few words and gestures as possible in order to keep the fresh memory as far away from her sight as possible.
“Holy shit.” Patty lets go of Natalia and presses a thumb to her lips in thought, shaking her head, “it’s just a fucking crime scene, calm the hell down.” she spits at Natalia in anger at the lack of rhythm in her hyperventilation.
“I shot the dog…”
“You did what?”
“I...I came inside the house, the door was unlocked, and I heard a noise...no one was home, I thought it was him, I thought it was the Smile Thie-”
“So you just shoot at everything that moves?” Patty raises an eyebrow, then rips the gun out of Natalia’s shaky hand. It didn’t take much eﬀort, as she was incredibly willing to let go of it. “Look, Greenstone, you have to be psychologically stable to become a cop. You can’t just go about things like that. Y’just can’t. Did you murder Jonathan Bouldery?”
“W-what? No, I ju-”
“I asked, did you murder Jonathan Bouldery?” Patty’s words were icicles, and Natalia could only envision how the further consequences of her failure will feel. She couldn’t take her mind oﬀ of the impaled corpse and the slippery eyeballs.
“He...fell on the machete. Ten wounds…” Natalia manages to mutter.
“Machete?” It was Greek to her how Patty manages to remain calm in a situation of hell. But then again, she is the one with the doubt being fulfilled. It must’ve been satisfying. “In the thirty years I’ve been a part of this police department, I’ve never heard of a machete knife coming with the utility belt. Could it be,” Patty smirks smugly at Natalia’s defeat, turning her around as she did so, and gathering her wrists to a center point on her back, “that you couldn’t handle being wrong about this target, and therefore made him a target?” she scoﬀs in annoyance, “Hell, you thought killing someone was gonna be pleasant? Easy?” the icicles falling from Patty’s voice melt and freeze around Natalia’s wrists, locking them immobile. “I honestly couldn’t be more thankful you did this. Chief needed a kick in the ass to stop letting damn ‘promising’ fresh meats stick their noses in cases they can’t even pronounce. But the Natalia Greenstone, so desperate to succeed that she murders?” she laughs sarcastically, “now that’s somethin’ you don’t see everyday.”
“I didn’t murder Jonathan Bouldery.” Natalia hiccups. The bloodbath stained her brain with trauma, paralyzing her from protesting any further. She would have stuck up for herself. She isn’t a coward. She didn’t shoot herself, she just happened to shoot the dog. “You can rub my failure in as much as it makes you happy, but you’ll see what it’s like when the evidence works against you.”
“Shut up and start walking, before I pop one in your head.” Patty commands, giving her a nudge forward through her reconstructed center of gravity, now found in the handcuﬀs. Natalia Greenstone is not used to failure. It fascinates her that she was only two incorrect triggers away from it, this whole time.