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Mystery Crime Fiction

It’s a strange thing to be asked to investigate a killing when you’ve never investigated anything before. Where to start? Search the scene? Talk to family? Neither of these were viable options. Darren Cohen washed up onto the river bank, carried by winding, rushing water, potentially coming to rest miles from the scene. As for family, he had none. I was his only employee. He said he came to Cliffton five years ago to build a new life after the war. A skilled mechanic in the military was an asset to a small town that had just begun to expand, to stretch out its limbs to the places nearby.

The man had no enemies. He was helpful. Quiet. Kept to himself. Who would kill a man like that? That is what I was tasked with finding out. I guess that in such a small town, I was the obvious choice. Though I’d only been in town a short while, people knew that I had a fascination with criminal justice, with why criminals do what they do. They figured that the job that I took under Darren was temporary, and that I would soon move on to police work or some sort of investigative occupation.

Well, that started far earlier than expected. I stared down at what was left of Darren. It wasn’t him anymore. That’s for sure. His skin was pale, his eyes dull. The coursing of the river pushed him gently up onto the bank, lapped at his ragged, soaked clothing.

There was no doubt as to the how. Anyone could tell that the knife wound in his neck had done it. This wasn’t a passionless crime. 

“They asked you to investigate?” Molly asked. She was shocked, frightened. She rested her hand over our unborn child, as if he had heard too and was just as surprised.

I nodded.

She was quiet for a moment, eyes probing me. “And…you’re going to do it?”

I studied the walls, eyes gliding over pictures and things we picked out together, the evidence of the life we had built. A life I was proud of, that I had worked hard for. Darren never had that. “What choice do I have?” I said, and shrugged.

Molly took a breath, let it out. “Where will you even start?”

“I think I know.”

Sure enough, there was an empty spot on the wall, amongst the sharp steel.

“I didn’t kill him. It may have been my tool that done it, but I honestly don’t know how,” said Bruce from behind the counter. He was calm, sure of himself. Sure of his innocence. He moved about, cleaning, working, doing the normal things that he always did around the butcher shop whenever I came in. He wasn’t standing still and listening intently to see how much I knew. He wasn’t busying himself so that he didn’t have to look me in the eye. He stopped for a moment, waved a hand toward the knife rack. “I’m the only one that touches them. I make sure of that.”

“When did you notice that it was missing?”

“Closing. Yesterday.”

I nodded, took note of it. “And who was in here yesterday?”

“Clara, Jeff…” he counted on his thick fingers. “Your wife, Molly, of course…Jim, Nate, Heather and her kids. What are their names? I don’t even remember.”

I smirked. “I doubt any of the kids put a hole in Darren.”

If Bruce was offended by how casual I was, he didn’t show it. “Honestly, it was a busy day. I pull the knives I need throughout the morning, and I don’t often set them back on the rack until the end of the day. It could have happened…let’s see…probably any time after one thirty. But seriously, why steal my knives? Folks have knives at home, don’t they? Pull one out of the drawer, buy one at the store. I mean, I haven’t really thought about this or anything…” he cleared his throat. “But it just seems like…well, overkill.”

I nodded. “But Darren was ex-military. Remember that.”

“Yeah, there’s no way a steak knife is taking him out, I s’pose.”

Darren’s shop was clean. Well, sort of. There were lazy stacks of tires, tools laying about, parts spilling out of crates. What did appearances matter? He was the only mechanic around, and it was just me and him. But there was no sort of mess that would suggest a murder, nothing belying a fight or a struggle.

Janet and her grocery store was my next stop. I eased my way in, bell jingling on the door. She was sweeping, about to close up for the evening. She paused, then turned and gave me a serious look, one that was on the verge of tears. “I heard that they asked you to investigate,” she said. She blew her nose. “It was me who suggested it first. You’ve told me that you know so much about crime. And you were closer to Darren than anyone. It just makes sense.” She said it with a little sense of pride. Janet liked to feel like she knew something.

She set her broom aside and put her hands on her hips. “I wish I could be helpful to you. Oh, I really wish I could. But I really don’t know much.”

I gave her a smile. “Anything helps.”

“Let me see,” she said, trying to recreate the last night. “I noticed the lights still on in Darren’s shop as I was closing. That’s nothing out of the ordinary.” She sniffed. “I know he stays late a lot. Who wouldn’t when you don’t have a family to go home to?”

“Did you hear anything unusual?” I asked.

“No, just the usual banging around that he usually did. Today I’m finding that I actually miss it,” she said, struggling to get the last few words out. She found her voice again. “Please, please find out who did this. I’ve lived in this town for what’s now going on thirty years, and I’ve never had a time where I felt unsafe. Where I felt like there are people watching me or someone is waiting in the dark that means me harm. Until now.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

At my last destination for the day, the light was still on. Maybe he expected me. The old man’s collie barked incessantly, tied up in the yard. Bark! Bark! I dreaded this one, but I had to go. This was the closest house to the river, and the one with the clearest view. I raised my stained hands and knocked on the door reluctantly. Mr. Howard never has liked me much.

“Coming,” I heard him rasp. He swung the door open wide. His chest was bare. His hands were empty. He squinted at me. “I have nothing to hide,” he said, but he didn’t invite me inside. That was to be expected. I don’t think I ever did anything to cause him to dislike me, but it was always there, like a snake coiled in its hole.

“I know what you want. Get on with it.”

“Did you see anything-”

“No.”

I nodded, turned to leave.

“I heard something,” he grumbled. My heart pounded. I turned back to him, trying to keep my nerves under control.

“What?” Is all I could say.

“Darren’s truck. Clear as day. Heading up past the falls.”

“Alone?”

“I told you I heard it. I didn’t see him,” Mr. Howard growled. “Maybe you need to listen a little better.”

I ignored that. “So, do you have any theories?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that your job?”

I shrugged. “Did you hear anything after? Anyone sneaking up after him?”

“Nothing,” he said. “And I would know. Racer would have heard ‘em.” He pointed at the collie in the yard, still yipping its head off.

His voice got quieter. “No, I think that someone went up there with ‘im. Or gutted him and brought him up there in his own truck, more like.” My heart fluttered now, not like it had in a long time. He narrowed his eyes. “Who would be able to get at his keys ‘cept you?”

“You think I killed him? The man who gave me a job?”

“Just sayin’,” he said, still meeting my eye.

I hadn’t needed to scare anyone for years. But I was tall. And I towered over mean old Mr. Howard and outweighed him by fifty pounds. I leered down at him, gritted my teeth. “Darren kept his keys on him. Around his neck, all the time. Anyone as observant as you should know that.”

That did it. Suddenly, like a breath of wind, the fight in him was gone. He shrunk down and mustered up one more response. “Well if you pay so much attention, how come you weren’t there to help him when the coward stabbed him, eh?” He grabbed the doorknob. “Get off my property.”

The door creaked as it swung, punctuated with a slam. “Gladly,” I said.

Molly slumped into the chair with a sigh when I got home.

“We’re going to be ok,” I said, sitting down across from her, looking her in the eyes.

“I hope so,” she said. “We have a baby on the way now. And you have a good job. Finally. I don’t want to move again.”

“I can take over the shop now. We won’t have to move,” I said. “Ever again.”

Darren said it casually, like he was asking about the weather. The thing I had been waiting for. The thing I dreaded. “I found out why you’re here, Jason. If that really is your real name,” he said to me.

I stood up, gripped the wrench that I was holding in my fist.

“I know now why you had no driver’s license, no social security card. At first I just shrugged it off. I know what it’s like for a man to need a job, and I know what it’s like to want to start fresh. I get it.” Now he looked at me with sorrow. “What I don’t get…Well, I can understand why you didn’t want to tell me.”

The muscles in my shoulders tensed. I readied myself to run.

He worked his jaw around, chewed his words before he spat them out. The engine in front of him was laid bare, no longer relevant. “And now I know why you know so much about crime.” He paused to let that hang in the air. I breathed it in like a noxious fume.

“I found out in the strangest way. You remember a few weeks ago? When my dad died and I had to leave the shop for a little while? I had to help my family clean out his stuff. And he had saved every single newspaper that had been delivered to him in the last several years. It’s crazy that I even came across it. But, then again, your face was all over the papers for…” he shook his head. “Months? Maybe even a year?”

I was running through my options, gripping the wrench so hard it hurt. And doing what I had been doing for years: looking for exits.

He took in a breath. “Does Molly know you’re a murderer, Jason?”

So there it was. I had been waiting for so long to hear those words. To have someone put the pieces together. It was almost a relief. I knew it would happen at some point, I just didn’t know when.

“Tell you what,” he said. “You’ve been a good worker. Heck, you ran the shop for me while I was gone. You’ve never done me wrong, that I know of. So I’ll cut you a deal.”

I didn’t answer. I just stood and listened to this man attempt to decide my fate. I could picture him now in uniform, deciding what to do with a prisoner. And I hated him for it.

“We can’t have you around here. There are good people here. Kids. People who would be frightened to hear that they’ve been living so close to a killer for months. So I’ll give you one day. Twenty-four hours. If you’re not gone by then, I’m reporting you. I know we’re all the way out here, that it would take the cops forever to reach you. But if I were you, I’d take the best head start you can get.”

I had weighed my options, and I already knew that I wasn’t going to do that. I promised Molly that we were moving on, that I wouldn’t uproot our lives again. That the past was in the past. I promised.

“We’re safe, Molly. We’re ok. No one knows. Turns out Bruce never suspected that a pregnant woman would take his knife. Janet didn’t see or hear anything. Mr. Howard doesn’t know for sure, and he wouldn’t do anything even if he did. I cleaned up the shop, Molly. It’s like it didn’t even happen. Like he just disappeared.”

Tears ran down Molly’s cheeks. “But he didn’t disappear, Jason. He didn’t.”

I walked over to her, pushed the hair out of her face. “Don’t worry about it, baby. If anything, it’s Darren’s own fault. Should have kept his mouth shut.”

BANG BANG BANG! I jumped. So did Molly. Loud knocks on the door.

It was Janet’s voice. “I’m sorry to bother you, Jason,” she said from behind the door, holding back a sob. “I was just wondering if you found out anything about Darren. It would make me feel much safer to know who did this.”

It’s a strange thing to be charged with the investigation of a crime that I committed.

January 22, 2022 22:34

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2 comments

S. Thomson
18:35 Jan 30, 2022

Great story! You clearly have a talent for the noir mystery genre. If I had one suggestion to give, I would have liked to hear more description of the different locations, to give the story more texture. Thank you for sharing!

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Jen Thompson
17:18 Jan 29, 2022

Great story!!!!! I wanted it to keep going!

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