Chapter 6: The Investigation
The 3rd day of the eighth month.
Seron opened his eyes at the same time as usual.
The weather was just as great as it had been the previous day. It was a lovely morning.
Seron immediately stepped out onto the balcony.
There was no one in the garden.
All he saw were the flowers in bloom.
Seron got ready and went downstairs.
“Ah, you’re up early.”
There he was greeted by Mr. Ruf.
Mr. Ruf was sitting in a chair, his expression stiff. There was a blanket over his lap and a shotgun next to him.
“Good morning, Mr. Ruf. Thank you for everything. I slept very well last night.”
“Thank you for being so kind, Seron. And you’re very welcome. Mr. Kurtz is keeping an eye on the back garden, and Ms. Litner was ordered to get some rest earlier in the morning.”
“What about the police?”
“They finished their on-site investigation, cleaned up the road, and took the body away.”
“Did they find out anything else?”
“Apparently the boy was actually stabbed quite a ways away. The killer stabbed him, then hauled him over by car and dropped him by the road nearby. Who would do something so awful to someone so young? I don’t know the family in person, but apparently the boy’s father has a farm out west. They say the boy was always a delinquent, which is why he must have been walking around alone after dark.”
“What about reporters?”
“The police ‘misreported’ the location of the discovery. Some local reporters went over about 200 meters east down the road to get some photographs.”
“I see. I suppose ‘misinformation’ has its uses sometimes.” Seron said sarcastically. Mr. Ruf agreed.
“Are you feeling all right, Seron? It must have been a rude shock for you, when you’re supposed to be here on vacation. Perhaps we could speak to Miss Jenny and find you all different lodgings.”
Seron thought for a moment. “Jenny is the president, so I’ll leave it to her.”
“Of course. But I wager she’ll refuse to leave.”
“Ahaha. So you knew.”
“Mr. Ruf. I want to ask you something. I just need your opinion, without taking anything else into account.”
“Do the local delinquents seem like the type to commit murder?”
“No. Not at all.”
* * *
By breakfast time, the five remaining members emerged and sat down in the dining room to sate their hunger.
They were all dressed similarly to the previous day save for Meg, who was wearing long pants and a jacket.
Surprisingly, everyone said that they had gotten a good night’s sleep.
“Looks like Mr. Kurtz and Ms. Litner will be happy.” Larry remarked.
They said their prayers and dug in.
At first, the newspaper club ate in silence. But there was no avoiding the elephant in the room. Larry spoke first.
“I tuned in to the news in my room this morning. Confederation Radio didn’t say a thing about the case.”
“I highly doubt a small incident in a countryside town will make the national news.” Nick said. “And the case two days ago, naturally, is being kept under wraps.”
“Jenny, I wanted to discuss something with you.” Seron said. He asked Jenny about finding different lodgings as Mr. Ruf had suggested, but Jenny did not think twice about replying,
Seron had expected that answer.
“Why do we have to move for some serial killer?”
“It’s seriously a bother.” Natalia nodded.
“But if one in ten thousand, a bad thing were really to happen…” Meg trailed off nervously.
“We can’t set aside the possibility.” Seron said.
“Pardon?” Meg replied in distress, but Seron continued.
“Let’s suppose there really is a serial killer going after the local delinquents. Then he’s bound to strike again soon. I’m sure he will.”
Jenny agreed. “And if the police keep suspecting the delinquents, they won’t even look for the serial killer.”
“Then there’s the other delinquent teams.” Natalia said. “The group that lost a member might assume the other groups killed him and get revenge.”
“That’s terrible. I don’t think they’d be that stupid, though.” Larry remarked.
“I do wonder. People prove themselves capable of great atrocities when placed under pressure—”
“Excuse me, everyone.” Mrs. Ruf said, entering the dining room. All eyes were on her. “Pardon me for interrupting. We have a guest here asking for you, Miss Jenny. He says he needs to speak to you right away.”
Jenny furrowed her brow. “Who?”
Before Mrs. Ruf could answer, Seron realized who it was.
“Let him in, Jenny.”
Jenny was quick to realize as well.
“Ah! I see. Please let him in, Auntie.”
Once Mrs. Ruf was gone, the others asked Jenny and Seron who it was.
But before they could answer, a set of footsteps began running down the hall.
“This is bad, Jenfie! You gotta help us!” The boy cried, rushing into the dining room. The others had their answer.
Jenny first offered tea to Neil, who was still gasping for breath.
Neil downed the cool tea without even taking a seat and thought about what to say first. Then,
“The Wolves’ second-in-command just got stabbed to death last night! And right in this area!”
“We know. And?” Jenny urged him.
“…You know? Okay. So everyone’s out for blood.” Neil said between half-sobs.
“Could you elaborate for us, Neil?” Asked Seron. “How did you find out about the murder?”
“I went into town this morning to get the newspaper, and a bunch of guys talked to me one after another… And they’re all big shots, too. They never even used to look at me.”
“It’s because you’re not in any of the groups, Neil. The Wolves and Hunters lost their members to murder and a mysterious accident, so they would obviously want to know what the other groups are up to. And the Jackals and Government are desperate to tell them that they didn’t do anything. I’m guessing that the boys all said they’d let you join if you helped them out?” Seron conjectured. Neil’s jaw dropped.
“Y-y-you know everything! Are you a mind-reader or something?”
“No, I’m not. Anyway, you kept your promise with Jenny and came straight over here instead of joining any of the groups. I’m proud of you.”
Jenny nodded. “True, true. Good job, Neil. So Jackals and Government are saying they didn’t do anything, right?”
“Yeah! They didn’t kill anyone, I’m sure of it! But the adults and the police are suspecting them because they did some pretty bad stuff before. What do we do now? What can we do?” Neil fretted, his small size all the more prominent now that he was panicking.
Seron and Jenny fell into silence.
Larry and the others waited, knowing that Seron and Jenny were in deep thought.
“Please! You gotta help us!” Neil cried, the only one moving in the dining room.
Seron replied first. “There’s not much we can do.”
Neil looked like he was about to burst into tears.
Then Seron added, “But we’ll do everything we can do.”
A smile rose to Neil’s face. Jenny chimed in.
“Sure. We’ll try what we can.”
“So what exactly are we gonna do, Seron?” Asked Larry.
“First, we’ll meet members from all the groups and tell them about the serial killer, and instruct them to halt all activities so they can avoid suspicion. What do you think, Jenny?”
“Dunno. We’re not locals, so all we can do is hope they believe us.”
No sooner had Jenny finished did Meg raise her voice.
“And we must tell that, ‘please do not go around the town at night at all’!”
Natalia agreed. “Yeah. Tell ‘em to stay home like good kids.”
“That sounds like a feasible plan. What next?” Asked Nick.
“I’m still wondering if we should talk to the police one more time. There’s not much else we can do right now.”
“Then it’s settled—we’re going into town. I’ll have Mr. Kurtz get the car ready.” Jenny said.
Meg seemed worried. “Did Mr. Kurtz not sleep last evening?”
“He can last two or three days without sleep.”
“I understand. Then…” Meg trailed off.
“This is going to throw us completely off-schedule as far as the camp’s concerned. Are you okay with that, Jenny?”
“I exercise my right as the president to give us a special exemption.”
* * *
After breakfast, they got ready to leave.
“Wait, we’re all going? The girls should stay behind—” Larry began. But Natalia cut him off.
“Not like the chief’s gonna stay even if you made her. And I’m coming too. So you want us to leave Megmica all by herself here?”
Jenny slung her camera bag over her shoulder.
Once they were ready to go, Jenny summoned Kurtz and Litner and told them about their plans for the day.
Neither Kurtz nor Litner seemed to be particularly thrilled. But—
Neil was on the verge of tears.
“This is an order.”
And Jenny was being as stubborn as a bull. They had no choice but to follow orders.
“Miss Jenny, we will agree only on the condition that you allow us to closely accompany you.”
Kurtz and Litner would each drive a convertible, as only the limousine could fit all eight of them at once.
Neil insisted on taking his bicycle, but Seron convinced him to join the others on the convertible.
“Larry, you take the motorcycle. You’ll be in charge of delivering messages if anything happens.”
Larry picked up his helmet and goggles as Seron instructed. He refused to take Natalia along this time, but grabbed a spare helmet just in case.
The two convertibles and the motorcycle left the villa and drove onto the street.
Seron was riding shotgun. As the car passed the gate and made a left turn, he spotted Meg in the car ahead bowing her head at the now-clean spot where the boy had died.
Seron also observed a moment of silence.
On the way to town, Nick asked Seron a question from the back.
“Will we be assisting in solving this mystery and catching the culprit again?”
Seron thought for a moment before responding. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh? Why might that be?”
“Because if our guess is right, we’re up against a serial killer. That’s not someone we can take on.”
“I suppose so, but we have Mr. Kurtz and Ms. Litner with us.”
Litner broke her silence.
“I’m afraid we are firmly opposed to exposing Miss Jenny to danger.” She said quickly.
Neil, sitting beside Nick, shrank apologetically.
“I’m not willing to take that risk either, Nick.” Seron said, looking straight ahead. “No offense, but sometimes you can get a little too hot-headed about things.”
“I see. My apologies.” Nick replied with a smile.
Litner frowned, glancing at Nick through the rear-view mirror.
* * *
The two convertibles and the motorcycle stopped in front of the restaurant at the center of town, where the group had eaten the previous day.
Kurtz and Litner parked on the roadside (which was not illegal) and scanned the area as the newspaper club and Neil walked through the town.
Though there had been a murder the day before, the air was fresh and crisp. There were few people or cars on the road because it was still during work hours.
Neil first led the group to a hardware store a short distance from the village center.
The store was part of a small residential building. Frying pans and pots hung from the ceiling. Litner stood guard outside, and the others entered the store. The tiny store quickly became crowded.
Because the hardware store did not sell products that people used every day, there were no other customers. Neil walked further into the store, to the person the group was there to see.
A tall boy about 18 years of age sat at the counter, clearly annoyed. Perhaps he had been forced to watch the store while he was on summer break. The boy noticed Neil.
“Hey there, kid. Find out anything?”
But he soon spotted the people coming up behind Neil—six teenagers who were clearly outsiders, and an imposing bodyguard.
“Wh-what the?” He squawked. “Who are these people, Neil?!”
“Calm down, second-in-command of the Jackals.” Jenny said. The boy’s reaction to being calmed down and identified by a clearly younger, smaller girl was predictable.
“D-don’t make me laugh!”
“We’re just here to talk to you.” Seron said calmly from behind Jenny.
“Get outta here! What—”
“We were witnesses last night.”
“Wh-what? What’d you see?”
Seron did his best to remain calm as he replied,
“We saw someone die of numerous stab wounds before our eyes, losing all hope and desperately begging for help as he breathed his last.”
The boy was silent.
“We just want to talk to you.”
Fortunately, no other customers showed up. Seron explained to the boy as much has he could about the things that had happened so far.
He told the boy that the car crash might have been a murder. That if the same person were behind all three of the deaths, the killer would doubtless come after members of the other groups.
And that the delinquent groups would be suspected by the police until the serial killer was caught.
In other words, the delinquent groups would either be treated as murderers, be targeted by the killer, or both for the foreseeable future.
“Damn it… why’d this have to happen? We didn’t do anything wrong. We just wanted to mess around and have fun. Nobody wants to murder anyone here.” The boy agonized, his head in his hands.
“There’s no way these guys are behind this.” Larry whispered to Nick, Natalia, and Meg as he watched the older boy.
“Indeed.” “Yeah.” Nick and Natalia agreed.
“Yes.” Meg also nodded.
Seron then gave the boy several warnings.
That he should spread these warnings to the others as quickly as possible; that the group should avoid gathering as much as possible in order to avert suspicion; that they should avoid going out at night, whether alone or with the others; and that they should ignore members of other groups as much as possible.
“Got that? Please don’t do anything rash.” Jenny said. “You’re the ones in most danger here.”
“All right. I got it. Thanks a lot—I’ll make sure to tell the others, too.” The boy nodded. Jenny smiled.
They left the hardware store.
“Now we’ll go to the butcher shop. That’s where the leader of the Hunters works. It’s a bit of a walk, but it’s the closest place from here.”
Neil led everyone past the town hall and into an alley. Three-story buildings lined the alley, and stone tiles paved the ground underneath.
“The local police station’s nearby.” Jenny whispered to Seron. “Are we going?”
“After we’ve met all the groups.” He replied.
The group of nine passed the Ercho Village police station, where only one police officer stood on guard, and emerged from the alley—
“H-hey! What are you kids doing here?”
A man walked out of the police station and raised his voice.
The newspaper club turned.
“Huh?” “Oh?” Hm?” “What?” “Ah…” “No way!”
Almost in unison, the six students gasped.
A man in his late twenties walked down the stairs in front of the station. His short brown hair was slicked back, and he wore a navy suit with a tie.
“Wh-what are you doing here?” Asked Jenny.
“That’s my line.” Replied Hartnett of the Confederation Police.
* * *
“Ah, a newspaper club camp. Must be nice to be young.”
Seron and the others decided to put off the visit to the butcher shop and headed to Huckanee Memorial Park with Hartnett.
They sat in a circle on the grass as though they were there on a picnic, to make sure passersby could not listen in.
Jenny introduced Hartnett to the bodyguards, who could hardly believe the coincidence. Jenny told them that she would explain the details later, and sent Neil away with Kurtz and Litner.
Once Kurtz and the others were sitting on a bench far enough that they would not be overheard, the discussion began in earnest.
“What are you doing in this little town, Mr. Hartnett?” Jenny asked.
“For work.” Hartnett replied. “Though I can’t tell you all the details. I’m surprised we ran into each other like this. Small world, huh?” Hartnett mused.
“Do you know about the serial murders taking place in this village?” Seron asked gravely.
Seron gave Hartnett a quick explanation about the things that had happened recently. Hartnett listened carefully.
“That’s the first I’ve heard. No, I mean it. I could tell the police here were investigating something, but I didn’t want to poke my nose in. And I know what you’re thinking; but I’m not here to investigate the recent killings.”
Seron gave Hartnett a quizzical look. Nick spoke.
“If memory serves, Mr. Hartnett, members of the Confederation Police are mandated to work in pairs for all investigations. The rule was set in place 24 years ago after a lone investigator was murdered by drug dealers.”
“Hmph. Of all the obscure trivia… Yes, Nicholas. You’re correct.”
“Then would your partner happen to be invisible?”
“We could really use an invisible officer on the force. Even better if it’s a woman.”
“Then have you come all this way alone?”
“Then I suppose you’re not in a rush to solve this case of yours. What brings you to this village?”
“Let’s not quietly lead me into questions I might not want to answer.” Hartnett chuckled wryly, but he quickly noticed the newspaper club’s curious gazes.
“Heh…” He sighed. “All right. I’ll tell you. But let’s be clear here. This has nothing to do with what you’re investigating right now. I can’t cooperate with you. And I hope I don’t need to remind you that this is all top-secret.”
“Of course.” Seron replied on everyone’s behalf.
Hartnett looked around once more to check that no one was listening.
“I’m after a wanted serial killer.”
The newspaper club was taken aback. Hartnett smiled.
“See? Totally different case.”
“A serial killer? Could you give us more details?” Asked Seron.
“Yeah. A freelance assassin. He was a professional killer who was hired by the Capital District mafia about 20 years ago. He’s killed at least 14 people in Roxche alone—he used guns, knives, poison, bombs, you name it. And yet he was skilled enough to evade arrest. We didn’t even know about him until the mafia boss was arrested 15 years ago and he made a deal with us. The Confederation Police put out a warrant for him and tried to track him down, but we never managed to. Since we don’t have a statute of limitations, we’ll be chasing him down forever.”
“And you’ve come alone to this village to find such a terrible criminal? I’m not sure I see the reasoning.”
“I agree. But once we get a tip, we’re obligated to check the info to see if it’s accurate.”
“So you received some information about the killer?”
“Yeah. Mundane stuff—someone saying they saw the guy in town. Someone tipped us off anonymously last night, saying the killer lives here. We don’t usually pay a lot of attention to calls like that, but—”
“The police had no choice, considering the infamy of this man?”
“Yeah. I was the lucky bastard who got the job. Why they didn’t send a local I’ll never understand. I drove all the way here last night and I am exhausted. I stopped at a rest area for a bit, but that wasn’t much help.”
“I see. What did the local police say?”
“I showed them the warrant and asked for cooperation, but they said they didn’t have any info about the guy. Obviously, he must have gotten plastic surgery.”
“Of course.” Seron nodded.
“Th-that must be it, then!” Larry cut in. “That wanted man! The killer! Maybe he’s behind the deaths here? If he’s really a pro, he could have killed them without even blinking!” He raved.
“Oh!” Meg exclaimed.
But the others did not react.
“But for what?” Hartnett said plainly.
“Pardon me?” Larry froze. Hartnett repeated himself.
“Why would a wanted man kill three teenagers in a village like this?”
“Huh? …You’re right. I see.”
Realizing that he could not answer the question, Larry hung his head and shrank. Meg also nodded.
“He’s been on the run for 15 years, and he’s guaranteed the death penalty if he’s ever caught. And this man’s a professional who’s only killed for work. There’s no way he’d suddenly switch to something this trivial. —Not saying that the deaths themselves are trivial, of course.”
The newspaper club fell into thought.
“Anyway, I’ll have a look around town and see if I can get some eyewitness accounts. Then I can finally make the long, long drive back to the capital. I wonder if there’s an inn around here I can get some sleep at.”
“Pardon? You will not help with us after?” Meg pleaded, but Hartnett shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but the Confederation Police doesn’t have jurisdiction over this case. It’s up to Daurade’s own police force. It’s just like how Roxchean police have no right to investigate cases in Sou Be-Il.”
“I understand this. But…”
Meg trailed off sadly. Seron glanced at her before looking back to Hartnett.
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Hartnett.”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry about it.”
“If it’s all right with you, why not stay the night at Jenny’s relatives’ villa with us?”
Seron then asked Jenny for permission.
“Well, sure. It’s not like you’re a stranger. We can give you free room and board. Consider it my exercising my civic duty.” Jenny nodded.
Hartnett thought for a moment. Then he looked up.
“I get it. You’re going to use me for all I’m worth, am I right? Since I won’t have anything to do once I get information about my serial killer.”
“Yes.” Seron said bluntly. Hartnett chuckled.
“I’ll think about it. Give me the villa’s contact info.”
Jenny wrote out the villa’s phone number and address in her notepad and tore out the page for Hartnett.
“Then I’ll see you guys around. I’m not too worried about you since you have bodyguards, but don’t go rushing into trouble.”
Hartnett said goodbye to the newspaper club, nodded at the bodyguards, and left the park.
Natalia spoke up. “Adults have it rough, eh?”
“I do understand them, but it is a bit cold.” Meg still seemed a little angry.
“There’s not much we can do about that, I’m afraid.” Nick said.
Larry dusted himself off and rose to his feet. “Well? What now, Seron?”
“Let’s go meet the other groups.”
“All right.” Larry agreed easily.
“Actually, about your suggestion earlier—” Seron said, looking up.
“Huh? Oh, about Mr. Hartnett’s guy being our culprit? You’re right. It was a pretty stupid idea. The guy doesn’t have any reason to kill local delinquents.” Larry chuckled. But Seron did not.
“—In other words, give this killer a motive and he just might be the man we’re looking for.”
“I guess so.” Larry muttered blankly. But Seron said no more and rose to his feet.
“Let’s go meet the Hunters.”
* * *
When the entered the butcher shop, they were greeted by the middle-aged shopkeeper.
“Uncle and Auntie are regulars here. Last night’s meat was from here, too.” Jenny whispered, and then told the man that they were not there to shop.
The shopkeeper gave them a quizzical look. Jenny asked if the boy they were looking for was there.
“He’s in the back, yes. Has he done something to offend you?” The shopkeeper asked worriedly, but Nick smiled.
“Not at all, sir. Neil here simply made your son mad once because he broke a promise. Neil came to our villa and said that he wanted to apologize, but did not have the courage to do so alone. So we’ve come to lend him our support. May we have a moment of your son’s time?”
The shopkeeper nodded and went into the back. Natalia seemed impressed.
“Lying right through your teeth. Not bad at all, Nicholas Browning.”
“Deception can be a tool of sorts. And is this not precisely the type of emergency that demands such extreme measures?”
“Sure. Good going, Nick.” Jenny said.
That was when a large boy in his late teens emerged from the back. He did not even try to hide his surprise at seeing the group.
The newspaper club brought the leader of the Hunters outside and once again explained the situation.
They had Kurtz and Litner keep their distance for the time being to make sure the discussion did not involve adults in any way.
At first the boy was furious with Neil for not carrying out his request and lying to bring him out, but when he heard that his friends might have actually been murdered, and that their group might be suspected for the previous night’s murder, he went silent.
“All right. I’ll keep the boys in line for now. I promise. Thanks for the warning.”
The boy responded almost exactly as the Jackals’ second-in-command had done.
“Thank you for your time.” Seron said, turning—
“Wait!” The boy stopped him.
“What is it?”
“I… I thought the guys just got themselves into a stupid accident. That there was nothing we could do about it. But if you’re right, and they got killed by somebody… they’re not gonna rest in peace.”
“If the cops aren’t looking, and if they’re just suspecting us… I’m counting on you guys to find the killer.”
“…We can’t guarantee anything, but we will do our best. So—”
“I know. I’ll keep our gang outta trouble.”