Chapter 5: The Murder
An entire morning of exercise, a delicious meal, and a breezy afternoon.
All the pieces for a good afternoon nap were in place. Seron and four of the others returned to their own rooms and slept until just before five.
“Get up, guys! It’s 10 to five! Up! Up! We don’t have a bugle so I’m shouting until you get up! Get up! Get up!”
Larry’s voice resounded from the gardens, waking Seron.
Rubbing his eyes, Seron went to the balcony. He saw Larry in the garden in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, wiping down the motorcycle with a pail of water beside him.
“Hey, buddy! Sleep well?”
“Yeah. Are you still cleaning the motorcycle? You’ll start eroding it if you’re not careful.”
“Nah, I took her for a spin while you guys were asleep. I just got back a little while ago. It was nice and smooth without that extra weight on my back.”
“Well, sorry for being so big and heavy.” Natalia said sarcastically from overhead.
The barbecue preparations began on schedule, with the newspaper club helping out.
Everyone changed into their gym uniforms because their clothes might get dirty and smelly. Natalia had done up her hair.
Mr. and Mrs. Ruf had gotten all the meat and vegetables. All that was left to do was prepare the ingredients and start cooking.
“Looks like we’re up, girls.”
“Yes, it does.”
“I guess it’s nice to help out sometimes.”
Natalia, Meg, and Jenny helped out at the island counter in the large kitchen, washing, chopping, and skewering vegetables and grinding apples for the barbecue sauce.
“Er… how am I supposed to cut this thing?” Jenny wondered.
“Don’t sweat the details, chief. If they don’t like it, they won’t eat it.” Natalia said.
“Hmm… I will make my left hand into the cat’s paw…” Meg struggled with the knife.
The girls weren’t particularly skilled in the kitchen. Mrs. Ruf had to guide them through every process, correct their mistakes, and fret over their misadventures.
“Could you get the other end, Seron?”
“I shall bring the charcoal, then.”
Larry, Seron, and Nick were moving the cylindrical barbecue grill onto the stone patio in the garden.
The grill was large, sturdy, and heavy with metal legs. The boys placed it in a wide-open area, and also arranged the charcoal box, the chairs, and tables.
Larry put some charcoal into the grill. Then he crumpled up some newspaper and put it under the tray, and pressed the ignition. The newspaper caught fire, and soon the charcoal was heated.
The rest would not be difficult. Seron and Larry headed to the kitchen and let Nick take over.
Preparations were still underway in the kitchen, but Mrs. Ruf was the only one who seemed to know what she was doing.
“This is why I hate onions.” Jenny sniffled. “Although I like eating them.”
“Here, let me help.” Seron said. He washed his hands and put on an apron.
“Looks good on you. Natalia chuckled, skewering the beef.
“It very much suits you.” Meg cheered, skewering the vegetables.
Seron let himself be heavily distracted by the sight of Meg in an apron, and glanced at a bowl filled with uncooked vegetables and ice water.
“These onions are for the salad, correct? Should I julienne them and place them in the water?”
“That would be perfect. Just three more, please.” Mrs. Ruf replied. Seron picked up a peeled onion.
First, he cut off the top and the root and chopped the onion vertically in half. Then he placed one half flat against the cutting board and curled his left hand together like a cat’s paw—
Rhythmically and mechanically, almost fast enough to leave behind afterimages of the knife, Seron julienned the onion into equal-sized slices. About halfway through he turned the onion around and started from the other side.
One onion, then two, then three later—
Completely oblivious to the bewildered stares of the newspaper club girls, Seron put the julienned onions into the bowl of ice water.
“I’m finished. Is there anything else I could help with?”
The moment he put down his knife—
“What the heck are you?!” “It is amazing, Seron!” “Marry me right now!”
Three sets of voices cried out in unison, making it difficult to tell what they were saying.
“Hey, one at a time! And FYI, Seron’s a really good cook.” Larry said.
Seron stood frozen, overwhelmed by Meg’s compliment.
* * *
It was finally dinnertime.
The sun was still above the horizon, tinting the sky a light orange. Everyone was gathered around the garden table.
When Larry put on an apron over his gym uniform, Natalia was quick to comment,
“That looks heinous!”
“Hey, you didn’t say that about Seron!”
“Don’t put yourself on his level.”
“Dammit, Lia… you’re getting all the burnt pieces.”
Larry expertly grilled the beef skewers. He cooked them until they were heated through and through, then sprinkled salt and pepper on them.
“This is really good.” Seron said.
“It’s really quite delightful.” “It is very delicious.”
Nick and Meg agreed.
When Jenny took her first bite, she grimaced. Natalia noticed in the midst of downing skewer after skewer.
“What’s up, chief? Something stink?”
“No… the opposite. I don’t believe it… this is perfectly cooked and salted!”
“Tell him yourself.”
“Tch. Hey, Larry! Gimme another one!”
“Okay! And have some veggies, too! Seriously!”
Meanwhile, Mr. Ruf, Kurtz, and Litner—
“Would the two of you care for something to drink? We have some excellent wine in the cellar if you’d like.”
“Not while we’re on duty, thank you.” “Not on the job, thank you.”
“I see. That’s too bad.”
—they drank coffee instead of wine.
The frenzy that was dinner was coming to a close. Everyone was starting on dessert—Mrs. Ruf’s homemade vanilla ice cream—when Natalia asked an unexpected question.
“Mrs. Ruf, did Jenny have long hair before?”
“Hey, that’s ancient history!” Jenny snapped, but Natalia continued.
“Do you have any photographs from then? I’m actually studying to be a hair stylist.”
“Aw, be a sport, chief. Mrs. Ruf?”
“Of course. Just one moment.” Mrs. Ruf replied, getting to her feet.
“No! It’s okay, Auntie! You don’t have to show them!”
“But you were the most adorable little girl, Miss Jenny. That photo is my treasure. There’s no harm in showing your friends.”
Quickly, Mrs. Ruf disappeared inside.
“Tch.” Jenny pouted.
“I am a little in anticipation.”
“Indeed. I may as well use it as a reference for my own hair.”
Soon, Mrs. Ruf returned—to the excitement of Meg and Nick, and the disinterest of Seron and Larry. In her hand was a wooden picture frame.
When she placed the frame on the table, the newspaper club—sans Jenny—huddled around.
In the frame was a color photograph featuring three subjects. The two adults on either side were Mr. and Mrs. Ruf, looking the same as they did now. From their thick sweaters it was apparent that the photo was not from the summer.
And standing between them was a skinny girl—
“Wait… this is you, chief?” Natalia gaped, looking back and forth from the photo to Jenny, who was wolfing down her ice cream.
“Yes.” Mrs. Ruf nodded. “This is from three years ago, when Miss Jenny was 12 years old. This is the only photo we have of her from then. I wouldn’t exchange this photograph for the world.”
Natalia stared again. “No way… you’re adorable.”
In the middle of the photo stood a small rich girl.
A brown duffle coat was wrapped around her skinny frame, and her waist-length red hair was decorated with ribbons. A bright smile adorned her face.
“Y-you were cute! You were like a doll, Jenny!” “My goodness… what a shock.” Meg and Nick commented.
“Yeah. It definitely is.” Seron nodded. For a time, everyone was silent.
Jenny, swallowing a heaping spoonful of ice cream, turned to Larry—who had not yet said a word.
“If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.”
Larry’s blue eyes went back and forth from the present-day Jenny to the 12-year-old Jenny.
“Jenny… this is—”
“What about it?”
“Now this is what I call news photography!” He laughed. Jenny shot him a scathing look.
“If I ever become president, I’m going to have you executed!”
* * *
Everyone had finished their ice cream and the warm tea that was served right afterwards.
The sky was still ablaze with the light of dusk, but it was already almost eight in the evening.
The newspaper club and Mr. and Mrs. Ruf began to clean up, putting away the leftovers and used utensils.
“Can we skip the lecture tonight, chief? I’m getting drowsy.” Natalia said.
“All right.” Jenny replied. “You can go after we finish cleaning up. We’ll start again tomorrow—”
“Quiet!” Kurtz hissed out of the blue, cutting her off.
The newspaper club and the Ruf couple turned, surprised. Kurtz’s gaze was fixed on the door as he stood with his back to the others.
Several seconds passed in silence. Litner went up to him.
“What’s going on?”
“I heard a suspicious voice outside. Something like a moan. Stay here.”
Kurtz crossed the garden alone and headed for the gates.
“What’s happening?” Asked Jenny. Litner repeated what Kurtz had said and turned to the Ruf couple.
“Was anyone scheduled to visit today?”
“No. But I assume it must have been a local drunk, or an escaped animal. It happens sometimes around here.” Mr. Ruf said, staying calm out of consideration for the students.
But then came Kurtz’s voice—
“Call an ambulance now! And the police!”
Larry and Litner were the first to react.
“Let’s go, Seron!” Larry cried. “You stay with the others, Nick!”
“Miss Jenny!” Litner said, stepping forward. “Everyone, let’s get inside!”
Seron put down the plates he was stacking and quickly went after Larry. Litner gently pushed the girls towards the villa.
Being a fast runner, Larry made it to the front gates first.
“Mr. Kurtz! What’s going on?”
Seron arrived several seconds later.
Kurtz was squatting outside the slightly-ajar gate, right at the boundary between the road and the villa premises.
“This.” He replied tersely, looking at Larry and Seron.
Before Kurtz, across the pavement and the dirt, lay a person.
Larry and Seron cried out in unison.
The person was a young man, likely in his late teens. He was dressed similarly to the other locals—a pair of jeans and a checkered shirt.
He was covered in blood.
Kurtz rose to his feet and cast a watchful look over the area.
At the same time, he unbuttoned his suit so he could easily reach his belt, where he concealed a holstered gun.
He finished scanning the area and made sure that no one was around. Then he looked back at the boy on the ground.
“Wh-what happened here? What’s going on, Mr. Kurtz?” Larry asked again.
“I’m not sure. He was lying here when I arrived. I didn’t see anyone else.”
“Is he still breathing?” Asked Seron.
Kurtz squatted again and placed his index finger on the boy’s neck, then over his mouth.
“Yes, but…” He trailed off gravely.
The boy’s breathing was so shallow it was hard to tell by sight if he was still alive. His eyes were closed, his face was deathly pale, and his head was completely unscathed—but his shirt and pants were soaked in blood. Blood was pooling on the pavement. The air reeked.
“Hey! Hey! Can you hear me?” Kurtz yelled into the boy’s ear. The boy trembled slightly, looking almost like a corpse.
“—s-stabbed… it hurts…”
“Who did this to you?”
“Don’t know… behind…”
The boy had barely enough strength to continue.
“Get a hold of yourself, young man! There’s a doctor on the way!” Kurtz said, then looked at Larry and Seron.
Then he shook his head. Larry and Seron quickly understood that the boy was beyond saving.
That was when Seron suddenly spoke.
“Hey, which group are you in?! Wolves? Jackals? Hunters? Government?”
Kurtz gave Seron a quizzical look. Larry understood what Seron was getting at.
“W-wolves… help me… don’t wanna die…”
Those were the boy’s last words.
Kurtz pulled open the boy’s shirt as he went silent.
There were multiple stab wounds all over his torso. His bleeding had almost stopped. Kurtz sighed.
Instead of attempting CPR, he checked the boy’s pulse and opened one of his eyes to check his pupils.
“Dead.” He finally said.
“Man… I’d heard about it, but it really does feel awful watching someone die right in front of you.” Larry said stiffly.
“I was hoping I’d never have to see someone die. I wish we could have saved him.” Seron admitted. He closed his eyes.
“Yeah. But it’s too late now. The dead can’t come back to life.” Larry said, observing a brief moment of silence. Then he looked up. “Seron, look at the road.”
There was a trail of blood left on the pavement. It started at the front gates and went east, disappearing into the distance.
“Strange. Why didn’t the killer finish him off on the spot, if he had time to inflict so many wounds?” Seron wondered.
Kurtz turned. “I’m going to have to ask you to get inside. We’ll have to shut the gates. Could you tell Litner and Mr. Ruf what happened here? We won’t be needing a doctor. Please have them call the police immediately.”
“Right. We’ll leave this to you, Mr. Kurtz.” Larry replied, taking Seron back through the front gates. After closing the gates behind them, they ran for the villa.
“This isn’t good. What’ll we tell the others?” Larry asked as they ran.
Seron replied. “Everything. But we shouldn’t show them.”
When they returned to the villa, Seron and Larry found everyone gathered in the entrance hall. Natalia and Meg were sitting on the sofa.
“What happened out there? Explain!” Jenny demanded, but Seron went instead to Litner and Mr. Ruf to quietly explain the situation. Mr. Ruf ran towards the telephone again.
Only then did Seron turn to the rest of the newspaper club.
“Someone died just outside the gates.”
“What?” “Pardon me?” “Why?” “Huh?”
“He was probably a local teenager. I think he was stabbed multiple times someplace else before he managed to walk all the way here. Just before he died, he said he was one of the Wolves.”
Jenny understood the situation the moment Seron mentioned the delinquent group.
“Ugh. I see. So it happened again.”
“Wh-wh-what does its happening mean, Jenny?” Meg asked, trembling. Seron was the one who replied.
“It means Larry was right again. Yesterday’s car accident wasn’t an accident—this is a serial murder case.”
* * *
The sun finally set, and the orange sky quickly turned a light shade of blue. The police arrived just as darkness began setting on the grounds.
Three patrol cars with sirens and headlights ablaze, and one ambulance.
Larry and Seron saw the sirens stop in front of the villa.
“Let’s check it out.” “Yeah.”
“I’m coming too. I have to cover this story.” Jenny said, but—
“You should stay here, Jenny.” “Stay here.” “Please stay here, Miss Jenny.”
Seron, Larry, and Litner made no exceptions.
Natalia and Meg were still sitting side-by-side on the sofa. Natalia piped up.
“You wanna take pictures of a corpse, chief? Never took you for the type.”
“This is for journalism! There’s never been a murder at Ercho Village before!”
“But wouldn’t things blow up too much if you posted a piece about this on the campus walls? For get it. ‘Sides, Mr. Kurtz and Ms. Litner would never let you.”
“…All right. Fine.”
Extremely conscious of Litner’s gaze on her back, Jenny waved her hands and gave in.
Larry and Seron headed outside.
Kurtz was still at the gates. The police stood around the body—six uniformed officers and one portly middle-aged man in a brown suit.
The uniformed men were searching the vicinity of the corpse with powerful flashlights in hand. One of them was giving constant reports to someone over the radio.
The middle-aged man, who was speaking to Kurtz, noticed Larry and Seron. “Hm?”
“They heard the boy’s last words as well.” Kurtz explained. Larry and Seron went up to the man. Kurtz introduced them to him.
“This is Detective Hadley from the Ercho Village police station. Detective, this is Larry Hepburn and Seron Maxwell. They are classmates of my principal.”
Hadley, Seron, and Larry exchanged brief greetings.
Hadley was pudgy and balding. He had a round face and carried himself good-naturedly, repeatedly and constantly bowing his head apologetically.
“I’m terribly sorry this had to happen on your vacation, young sirs. It’s such a relief you weren’t hurt. Such a relief. Please don’t think too badly of our village for this.” He said without even being prompted.
He was not even trying to conceal his obsequious attitude. Larry cringed.
“More importantly, detective. We have something to tell you.”
“Yes, young sir?”
“Just before he passed away, the boy said he was one of the Wolves.”
“I suppose it’s not surprising. A delinquent group, eh? I suspected as much the moment I saw the body. Any information you could provide would be a great help, young sir.” Hadley said, glancing at the body.
Larry looked at the body as well. A young police officer placed pieces of numbered paper on the body and took photos. Larry’s eyes narrowed slightly each time the flash went off.
Seron continued. “Do you know about last night’s car accident as well, Detective Hadley?”
“Hm? Ah, yes. Of course. Such an unusual accident. We don’t get many of those around here.”
“I heard the two victims were from the Hunters.”
“Hm? Indeed they were. You’re quite well informed, young sir.”
“That makes three delinquent deaths over the course of two days. Could it really be a coincidence?”
“Wh-what might you be suggesting?” Hadley asked, furrowing his brow. Seron got to the point.
“Don’t you think there’s a possibility that last night’s accident was actually a murder as well?”
Hadley fell silent. The flash went off again, casting light on his troubled face.
Finally, he scratched the back of his head.
“Hm… I wonder. Then I suppose this would be a serial murder case. That would be most unfortunate. What to do…?”
Clearly he had absolutely no confidence.
“I’m not certain how, but last night’s victims were murdered. And perhaps a member of the Hunters came to that same conclusion and attacked this person in retaliation.” Seron hypothesized.
“Hmm… I suppose that is a possibility, but I wonder…” Hadley trailed off. “I do suppose we’ll take that into account, young sir. Thank you for your assistance, and I apologize again for this horrid inconvenience. If you would convey my apologies to those inside as well.”
“Of course.” Seron replied. “I hope you’ll find the culprit soon.”
“We will do our utmost to bring him to justice. For this boy’s sake, if nothing else.”
Seron nodded and turned, gesturing to Larry.
But Seron suddenly stopped and turned back. He addressed Hadley matter-of-factly.
“Are you the one in charge of the investigation, Detective Hadley? If anything happens, should we come to you?”
Hadley nodded firmly. “Yes. I am the one in charge of this case, so please contact me if anything happens.”
“Let’s go back, Larry.”
Once again, Seron and Larry stepped back inside where Litner and the others were waiting. Jenny immediately demanded an explanation.
Seron gave her a full and detailed explanation.
“Right. I think I get all that.” Jenny said.
“Did the detective have to be such a suck-up, though?” Natalia wondered.
Nick replied. “No one would be happy to have a murder take place in the town where their villa is, Nat. Especially the rich and powerful.”
“It must be unhappy.” Meg nodded. “I understand their feelings.”
“Yeah. Sheesh.” Jenny agreed.
“I wonder if the detective’s gonna get anything done.” Larry remarked, furrowing his brow. But Seron shook his head.
“He might not look it, but Detective Hadley’s surprisingly clever.”
“Why d’you think that?” Asked Larry. All eyes were on Seron.
“At the end, he said that he was the one in charge of this case, right?”
“That means that he must be from the homicide division.”
At that point, Jenny and Litner understood.
“I get it…” “I see.”
Seron continued. “There wouldn’t be a homicide division at the local station of a town that’s never had a murder case before.”
“But Detective Hadley rushed over as soon as we reported this case. That must mean—”
“I get it! He must have been called last night from the nearest police station that had a homicide division! He was lying through his teeth the whole time!” Larry exclaimed both angrily and excitedly.
Natalia and the others finally nodded as well.
“Then they will question this case.” Meg said. Seron nodded.
“Yeah. The police don’t see last night’s crash as a simple accident, either.”
“Then what about the officer who talked to me today?” Larry wondered.
“He was either lying, or giving a subjective opinion. In any case, we know the police are on last night’s case too. Officially they’re pushing the accident angle, since it doesn’t cause as much panic as a murder.”
“I see. So they’re trying to save face for the village. If nothing else, it makes me feel better to know that they’re investigating.”
“But what bothers me is the direction they might take the investigation in.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who do you think the police will suspect first?”
Nick was the one to respond. “Clearly, the members of the rival gangs.”
“Exactly. But from what we heard from Neil, the gangs don’t seem like they’d go that far. Even now I’m not convinced they’re involved except as victims.”
Nick agreed. “The gangs in the Capital District could be capable, perhaps, but…”
“Yeah… and these guys aren’t even real gangs.” Jenny agreed. “The kids here are just plain old delinquents. It doesn’t exclude them completely, but it’s not likely.”
“Yeah. The possibility isn’t zero, but it still bothers me what might happen. I hope the police don’t take this in the wrong direction…”
The conversation ended on a heavy note. No one had anything to say. That was when Mrs. Ruf returned.
“Everyone, let’s leave the rest to Mr. Kurtz and get some rest. I’ll finish cleaning up. And don’t worry; we’ll keep this villa safe.”
“I’ll keep watch overnight tonight.” Litner said.
The adults’ words were final; there was nothing left to say. The newspaper club prepared to return to their rooms.
“Er… Natalia?” Meg said tentatively.
“May I sleep in your room for tonight?”
“Thank you. For some reason I am feeling scary.”
“No worries. If you’re really freaked out, why don’t we get one of our big strong men to sleep over too?” Natalia joked with a straight face.
“I’m saving myself for marriage, I’m afraid.” Nick replied first.
“No.” Larry declared, unamused. Natalia turned her sights on him.
“You too, Larry? Aww… we used to sleep in the same bed all the time when we were little. Still remember how adorable you were when you said stuff like ‘I’m cold, Lia. Stop pulling on my blanket’—”
“Somebody punch that memory out of me right now.”
“You’re no fun, Larry. And you, Seron? What do you say?” Natalia turned to Seron. He was frozen.
“Huh? Wha? Hm? Wait? What? I—”
He was on the verge of a total breakdown. Larry came to the rescue.
“Whoa! Still focused on the case, buddy? Once you get your thoughts rolling, you can’t hear anything people say, huh. That’s enough. Let’s all get to bed.”
Meg and Natalia went to Natalia’s room, and everyone else went to their own rooms and made sure to lock their doors and windows.
Meanwhile in the Capital District, a woman was taking a phone call.
“Confederation Police. Yes? Oh… yes? Er… what do you mean by that? …Yes. Yes. …Yes. W-wait! How did you—”
The woman in black Confederation Police uniform looked down at the notes she had scrawled during the second half of the conversation. She was in disbelief.
She picked up the receiver she had hung up, and made an internal call.
<This is Hartnett.>
“You wouldn’t believe the tip we just got.”