The End of the Case

Submitted into Contest #185 in response to: Set all or part of your story in a jam-packed storage unit.... view prompt

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Crime Fiction Mystery

Howard’s pen scratched the paper as he wrote. It was the only sound in the room, apart from his own occasional breath. He didn’t even have a clock, because knowing the time caused him to rush, and you just couldn’t rush this important work. Even after nearly thirty years, he still took the same amount of care with his paperwork as he had done the first time he had sat down to fill it out, thinking through every paragraph with meticulous thought.

He flipped the page over without making a sound and continued writing. The desk Howard sat at was impeccably tidy. It held only the essentials for his job; a spare pen, a lamp, blank paper, and a box. The box itself was nothing special. It was two feet long, a foot wide and a foot tall, large enough to hold the important items in his cases. Every case was assigned a box which, by the end, would hold everything from it. He kept together every item and all relevant paperwork, filed away in a specific box on a specific shelf, the details of which were kept in a small notebook that never left Howard’s person. He didn’t need the notebook to tell him where each box was and who it belonged to, but writing it down was part of his process, and his process never changed.

Unknown minutes slipped by as Howard continued to write, slowly filling page after page. He included every detail, exactly as they had happened, so that if anyone read the notes, nothing would be left to the imagination. It had been a tough case. The girl it had involved had been a young runaway, Ellen Rosso, whose parents had been desperate to find her. They had searched the streets, held television appeals, and offered all kinds of rewards for information on her whereabouts. He had seen all of it. It was just how he did things. He always watched the lengths people would go to in order to help find their missing loved one. He wrote it all down each time, their actions just as important to him as his own. 

At last he finished the report and put the pen down on the desk, neatly lined up next to the spare one. Howard reached down, opened a drawer, and pulled out a plastic wallet, which he put the completed paperwork into. Satisfaction filled him as he slipped it in, knowing he was almost done. Tomorrow there would be a fresh case to think about and this one would be filed away. It was rare that he opened one of the boxes after everything was finished, so this was probably the last time he would actively sit and reflect on this case. 

Howard took a last glance at what he had written. Then, he signed and dated the report, and stood up with a long stretch and a sigh. By now he guessed it must be some time in the early hours of the morning. His wife would long since have gone to bed. She was used to him working unsociable hours, and she was also used to him working away a lot. It suited them just fine and meant that he could stay at work finishing cases like this one before she even knew he was back in town. It meant they didn’t have to discuss why he would rather be here than at home.

Howard leant forwards and opened the box on his desk at last. On top of the contents lay a picture of the young girl, Ellen Rosso. She was fifteen, the same age Howard’s own daughter, Hailey, had been when she had gone missing. He didn’t need a psychologist to explain to him why he did what he did. He had figured that out a long time ago, and he knew it all linked back to Hailey’s disappearance. Her’s was the first report he had ever written, the first case he had ever put together, the building block for all those to follow. The only difference between her case and those he worked on now was the box. He didn’t have Hailey’s box because his wife kept it in the form of her perfectly preserved bedroom. He hated it. They had never found their daughter, so now he watched other parents desperately attempting to succeed where he had failed. 

He had travelled across the country for Ellen Rosso. Studied her social media, kept watch over her neighbourhood. He knew her friends, her favourite places, her habits. He knew her. But it hadn’t brought Hailey back to him. It never did. He still looked for her everywhere he went. He suspected he would continue to do so until the day he died. 

Howard put the picture down on the desk and stared at it for a few more seconds before clipping it to the front of the report. Then he turned his attention to the rest of the box’s contents. Ellen’s skull sat on top, her empty eye sockets staring at him almost reproachfully. He took it out and examined it.

“Is this what you look like, Hailey? Or are you out there, living your life somewhere?”

But surely, if she was, she would have made contact during the thirty years since her disappearance. If she was still alive, someone would have realised by now. Howard would never accept her as dead, would never take her off the missing persons lists. Just as Ellen Rosso would likely never be taken off the very same lists. No parent wanted to face their child’s death, so they would cling to whatever hope they could find to keep them alive until they either came home or their remains were found. Ellen Rosso’s remains would never be found.

Howard put the skull back in the box on top of the rest of the bones and tucked the report and the attached photo alongside it. Then he turned to the shelving units behind him. He had bought as many shelves as would fit into one large storage unit, and most of them were full. On almost every shelf was a neat line of boxes, each filled just as Ellen Rosso’s was. Howard walked to the end of a shelf and tucked her box alongside the others. It was a perfect fit, just as he had intended it to be. There wasn’t a lot of room left for more boxes now. Perhaps it was worth rearranging to see if he could fit more in. But no, he had the unit just as he liked it. He would worry about that another day. He pulled out his notebook and made his last notes as to the location of the box, then turned and walked away.

Howard rolled up the shutter and turned off the desk lamp. The corridor outside was dimly lit, but empty. Twenty-four hour access storage units really were a wonderful thing. He took one last look back before closing the shutter and locking it. Howard smiled to himself as he walked away down the corridor lined with more shutters and wondered whether it was time to rent a second one. After all, there would be plenty more cases in the future.

February 17, 2023 21:53

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