I had been hunting him for years. Always the same, I get within a hair’s breadth and he would slip through my fingers. I didn’t even know what he looked like really, only that cheeky grin as he disappeared. All my friends had said that I was taking this too far. Now they were gone.
I knew it was an obsession. Hell I knew it probably wasn’t healthy or whatever else my mother had said, but I needed him, his mystery, like I needed air. I had even gone so far as to have a pin-board with blurry pictures and red strings connecting seemingly unrelated dots.
Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I had lost my mind like Captain Ahab chasing after my white whale, but I hadn’t become a private investigator to ignore a truth presented in front of me.
He was a vigilante. Some even went so far as to call him a hero, but I knew what happened to men who thought they were above the law. Men who thought it didn’t apply to them or that they could do it better. It had been my single goal over the past five years to turn him into the police. To do my duty as an upholder of justice and all that.
Now my moment had come. The moment when my whale was within reach of my spear, all I had to do was strike.
I riffled through the first aid kit my mother had gotten me as an apartment warming gift. I’d never opened it before and everything came spilling out around me as an explosion of Band-Aids and gauze. I picked it up and threw it into the bathroom sink. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. There was blood on my face. I felt a moment of panic and tried to wipe it away only to smear it more.
I grabbed the largest gauze pad the kit had to offer and came back into my kitchen/living/bedroom.
He was lain out on my couch, shivering even though I’d thrown a blanket over him. I pushed it aside now as I ripped open the gauze pad and pressed it to the gaping hole in his side. He gasped, his hand darting out suddenly to wrap around my wrist. I looked at him and our eyes met. I saw the recognition melt his resistance as he let go of my arm. The mask was gone now as was half his shirt. Now the man of mystery had a face. He was an average looking guy, someone who you wouldn’t recognize if you walked by a hundred times. I’d cut his shirt away when he’d collapsed on my floor and begged me not to call the police or take him to a hospital.
I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, but my dad used to say that all men knew what it took to kill someone and to save him. Maybe he was a bit crazy too. So I didn’t call the police or stuff him into my two door coupe and drive him to the nearest hospital, instead I let him bleed on my couch as I pressed a gauze pad to his scared stomach. This obviously wasn’t his first time getting stabbed.
I was a P.I. I took pictures of wives cheating on their husbands, and husbands cheating on their wives. I found lost dogs and stolen purses. I did not administer medical attention to strangers in my apartment in the middle of the night.
This was my guy. The one my friends deserted me for, the one my mom tried to stage an intervention for. This was the man I knew everything and nothing about. Was it pride that kept me from turning him in? Did I just want to savor this moment of I-told-you-so glory?
“Why did you come here?” I finally asked him when the bleeding slowed and my heart stopped pounding a million miles an hour.
His eyes regarded me kindly, like he could read the war behind my irises. “I came here because you are the only person I know I can count on.” His voice was familiar after years of taunting and I felt the old resentment building in my gut.
“That's not fair. I have been chasing you for five years…I have made it my personal mission to turn you over to the police.” I snapped back and he laughed. The bleeding started again and I pressed harder.
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“This isn’t funny. Nothing here is funny, I am a private investigator it is my duty to uphold the law.”
“No, it was your duty to uphold the law when you were a police officer. Now you just catch people doing morally questionable things.” His words cut into me, slicing through everything I had told myself in these last years as if the lies I’d so carefully built were made of glass.
“I wouldn’t have lost my job if it wasn’t for you.” I growled.
“We both know that isn’t true. I have always admired your dedication, but I have seen it start to destroy you.” His eyes were sad and the more I looked into them, the more I felt like I knew him from somewhere else.
“How could you know that? How do you know me?” I questioned sharply searching his face for anything I could use against him, anything that would give me a clue.
He was silent for a while, “Do you know why I started to wear a mask?”
I just shook my head, “You thought your justice was the right kind.”
A small mirthless smile twitched onto his lips, “When I was young man, my mother was robbed at gunpoint. She saw their faces and the police knew exactly who they were, but there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest them. I’d been away at the academy…I had never felt so helpless. I wasn’t even the one who had been robbed, but someone had put a gun in my mother’s face and I hadn’t been there to stop it.”
“You couldn’t have done anything if you weren’t there.” I pointed out. His hands clenched into fists besides me.
“That’s the point isn’t it? I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there to protect the one person who had done the same for me my whole life. She was a fearless woman, now she hides in her house and pretends she isn’t scared of her own shadow.” His voice turned bitter. “Where is your justice in that? An innocent woman is locked in her own home prisoner of fear while men who take pleasure is terror are free to do the same to others.”
“And what about what you do now, isn’t that the same thing? You terrorize people too.” I accused and his body tensed under mine.
“Only those who deserve it,” his voice rumbled low in his throat.
“How do you know? What give you the right to judge someone else in an instant!” my voice rose and grew thick. I was stronger than him, he was not the one in control here. I was in control here.
“I’m sorry about your father.” He said finally and I shoved him as I stood up. He flinched as I screamed.
“You don’t get to talk about him.” I paced to the window, clenching and unclenching my fists as I resisted the urge to hit something. Something laying on my couch.
“He was a conman. He swindled a lot of people…innocent people, out of a lot of money. You know what he did was wrong.”
I flung myself back down upon his chest, my hands were still clenched, but I didn’t hit him. “You didn’t have to kill him.”
Pain crossed his face as I sat back on my heels my rage draining away instantly.
“That was an accident.”
“An accident.” I repeated, “An accident you ran away from.”
“I cannot help people if I am in jail.” He said, willing me to believe it.
“You can’t hurt people either.” I muttered and something in his eyes broke.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe you were right all along and that I have become just like the men I wanted to hurt. Maybe I have become the monster you see me as.”
“I don’t think you are a monster.” I blurted suddenly, unsure as to why I said that. “You shouldn’t have come here.” My voice dropped to a whisper.
“I came here because I know your kind of justice is the right kind. I owe you a life, so I give you mine. You get to decided what you are going to do next.”
“The police would give you a trial. You would have fair shot.” I told him. His eyes just searched my face. I could tell he didn’t believe me. Hell, I didn’t know any more if I believed me.
I stood up slowly this time and walked to the kitchen counter where my phone was plugged in for the night. My hands shook as I picked it up and the screen lit up. I heard him sigh and settle deeper into my couch.
My finger paused hovering over the last number. All I had to do was press the screen. I looked over my pin board. On it were faces of strangers he had hurt and strangers he had helped. The newspapers called him a hero, a modern day Robin Hood. The protector of the small people who no longer believed in the justice of the law.
What did I believe in?
My pursuit of justice… my justice was full of people who let me fall. Here he was at my mercy.
Justice and mercy weren’t the same thing. They didn’t always agree. My finger shook as I hovered over the phone’s screen. Justice was blind, mercy saw your tears.
What did I believe in?