Wine And Gun (酒与枪) by 梦也梦也 (Chapter 37+ Translations) - Queen_Of_Hearts453 - 酒与枪 - 梦也梦也 | Wine and Gun (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: 37. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (1) ED Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 2: 38. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (2) ED Chapter Text Chapter 3: 39. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (3) ED Chapter Text Chapter 4: 40. Dance, Dance, My Doll (4) Chapter Text Chapter 5: 41. Dance, Dance, My Doll (5) Chapter Text Chapter 6: 42. Dance, Dance, My Doll (6) Chapter Text Chapter 7: 43. Dionysus in the Tombs (1) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 8: 44. Dionysus in the Tomb (2) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 9: 45. Dionysus in the Tomb (3) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 10: 46. Dionysus in the Tomb (4) Summary: Chapter Text Chapter 11: 47. Dionysus in the Tomb (5) Chapter Text Chapter 12: 48. Transcript of the Interrogation of Albariño Bacchus Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 13: 49. Talia's Evening Talk: An Interview with John Garcia Chapter Text Chapter 14: 50. Let it Snow (1) Chapter Text Chapter 15: 51. Let it Snow (2) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 16: 52. Let it Snow (3) Chapter Text Chapter 17: 53. Let it Snow (4) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 18: 54. Let it Snow (5) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19: 55. Let it Snow (6) Chapter Text Chapter 20: 56. Let it Snow (7) Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 21: 57. Burial of the Dead Chapter Text Chapter 22: 58. John Garcia's personal website: January 30th, 2017 Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 23: 59. The Altar of Isaac (1) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 24: 60. The Altar of Isaac (2) Chapter Text Chapter 25: 61. The Altar of Isaac (3) Chapter Text Chapter 26: 62. The Altar of Isaac (4) Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 27: 63. The Altar of Isaac (5) Chapter Text Chapter 28: 64. The Altar of Isaac (6) Chapter Text Chapter 29: 65. Diary of a hospital attendant, Annie Brooke: February 4th, 2017. Chapter Text Chapter 30: 66. The Manuscripts of Orion Hunter the Bounty Hunter Chapter Text Chapter 31: 67. The Fountain of Blood (1) Chapter Text Chapter 32: 68. The Fountain of Blood (2) Chapter Text Chapter 33: 69. The Fountain of Blood (3) Chapter Text Chapter 34: 70. The Fountain of Blood (4) Chapter Text Chapter 35: 71. The Fountain of Blood (5) Chapter Text Chapter 36: 72. The Fountain of Blood (6) Chapter Text Chapter 37: 73. The Fountain of Blood (7) Chapter Text Chapter 38: 74. The Fountain of Blood (8) Chapter Text Chapter 39: 75. The Fountain of Blood (9) Chapter Text References

Chapter 1: 37. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (1) ED

Notes:

Edit: After translating so many chapters, I just want to say they literally take me HOURS to edit idk how but before I started I thought maybe just one hour was enough, but no, the joke was on me because boom, three hours plus, take it or leave it. So I really hope you all enjoy this novel and show the author some love! Her full work is posted on this site as well! (Here's the link: https://archiveofourown.org/works/46871650/chapters/118066219)

(Also I promise my translation skills get better after the first few chapters, it's a little scuffed in the beginning sorry. Chapters with ED means I've proofread and fixed them)

Bolded 'you' means it was used formally

Chapter Text

In the middle of November, it started to snow in Westland.

Temperatures plummeted again and again, and the city, which already received lots of precipitation in the fall and winter, was thoroughly covered by snow that fell within the three days. As a result, traffic was backed up, shelters were filling up, and following the night sky that got darker and darker, earlier and earlier, the crime rates for armed robberies were picking up a few notches.

It was now a cold, Saturday morning, and Herstal was standing in the doorway of a small theater with a very shabby-looking facade. The snow had stopped, but the people outside could hardly escape the illusion of being frozen from the inside out; each person's breath was accompanied by a cloud of rising white air, the steps of the little theatre was frozen with layers of frost that was trampled on by passer-bys.

Herstal glanced impatiently at his watch: he was running a little late, and he blamed the terrible city traffic after the snow.

The dilapidated building in front of him, which he normally wouldn't even enter, was the root cause of why on such a lovely, overtime-free weekend, Herstal wasn't able to catch up on his sleep:

Because every Saturday morning, a meeting of Sexual Assault Trauma Anonymous meeting was held in this little theatre.

-- Then again, it should all be Olga's fault.

Herstal hadn't seen Albarino Bacchus in a while -- or rather, he hadn't gone to see the other man after that sudden epiphany. He didn't have paid vacations to take like the other man did, and even after that business with Johnny the Killer, he still had to go to work every day as usual. Olga still went to dinner with him when she could, and Albarino never showed up again.

‘Maybe serial killers are starting to hibernate too,’ Olga said briskly at one of their dinners, ‘he hasn't moved in a while since the Gardener put that skull on your desk.’

‘He last committed a crime at the end of September, logically speaking, he used to wait three or four months before he returned to a case.’ Herstal pointed out coldly that he saw absolutely nothing to celebrate in the Sunday Gardener's recent peace of mind -- besides, he understood perfectly well why things had turned out the way they had, given that Albarino was now living in the city, and downtown apartments were just too unsuitable for corpse disposal.

‘They're all constantly changing their patterns, and they've been committing crimes a lot more often lately’ Olga said with infinite tolerance.

Herstal coughed dryly and asked, ‘For what reason?’

‘For the Westland Pianist,’ Olga replied with a wink, ‘and for you-- anything is possible.’

For a profiler, a change in the serial killer's pattern and the accelerated frequency with which they committed their crimes might instead be a good thing: Herstal had seen too many cases, and the more cases a killer committed, the more mistakes they might make, and the more ambitious they became about themselves, the more reckless they became. Apparently, a number of serial killers had ended up getting caught because they made such a mistake.

Anyway, for all intents and purposes, the Westland Pianist would have to be quiet for a while, and the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit agent who'd left the city was interested in the previous sexual assault case. It was better that he didn't take any desperate risks at a time like this.

Besides, even taking away his part-time night job, it's clear that others had no intention of letting him off the hook either: his partner Holmes has recently taken on a big case to help exonerate a highly publicized movie star accused of murdering her husband, a case that's so popular with the media that if it is handled right, they would be able to stage a live version of ‘Chicago’, and of course the whole firm was so busy that everyone was on their feet; on the other hand...

On the other hand, right after this talk about the Sunday Gardener at dinner, Olga lobbied him for two hours just to get him to go to a psychological support group. Her argument was, ‘If you won't go to a psychiatrist about Johnny the Killer, at least join a support group.’

Herstal had just put down his fork at the time, and he subconsciously refused, ‘I-’

Then he suddenly realized that he didn't really have any excuse to make.

After all, what a grand statement Olga had made, and Herstal realized in despair that he simply couldn't refuse the offer if he wanted to play the part of a normal person. He'd better not let a keen profiler realize that Johnny the Killer hadn't left him with any psychological shadow at all.

And since he didn't want to be tortured by a psychiatrist for an hour at a time -- and he couldn't tell the psychiatrist anything anyway, unless he could say, ‘I was kidnapped by a serial killer because I was framed, but I stabbed the serial killer to death anyway’? -- Then a psychological support group seemed like the best option, and at least he'd get to sit in the back row without having to speak.

So Herstal hesitated for a few seconds while Olga looked at him with concern and anticipation, until Herstal sighed and gave in and said, ‘All right, all right, I'll think about it. Do you know of any mutual aid societies you can recommend?’

So now Herstal was really standing in the doorway of a mutual aid society.

Now this Sexual Assault Trauma Anonymous mutual aid society was recommended by Olga as well, and Herstal, who knew nothing about these gatherings, simply saved himself the trouble of going online and looking up various websites. Olga's original words were, ‘The founder of this support group is a friend of mine from my time in the Chicago Police Department, and the reputation of the support group is very good -- you can only attend meetings if you have a recommendation, so you never have to worry about the attendee list leaking or anything like that.’

So just like that, Herstal was about to fall into a despairing situation involving hand holding and reciting the Niebuhr prayer. He really didn't really know if he'd snort with laughter when everyone chanted something like, ‘Consider hardship as a path to peace, and accept this sinful world as the Lord Jesus did.’

So it's better to say this: Herstal has no interest in this mutual aid society, but was just going along with the motions. He was still thinking about the PowerPoint he'd have to give at next Monday's meeting when he pushed open the door to the small theatre. The dry creak of the hinges, like someone grinding their teeth in their sleep, quickly drew the attention of a ginger-haired lady.

‘Hello,’ the lady said, her voice soft and gentle as she approached and extended her hand to him, ‘I'm the person in charge of today's Mutual Aid meeting, areyouthe person that Ms. Molozer recommended...? ‘

Of course Olga didn't say his name, because this was an ‘anonymous’ mutual aid meeting, and it was up to him how he wanted to introduce himself.

So Herstal just had to answer ‘yes’ to the question and give the lady's soft fingertips a little shake, since whatever he did could be explained by psychological trauma. The lady guided him through the cramped corridors of the small theatre, introducing him to the Mutual Aid Society as she went along.

In fact, Olga had already told him most of the information: participants were not required to attend every meeting of the organization, they were basically free to come and go as they wished, and there was no problem with arriving late or leaving early, but only those who had been recommended could join the organization. The referral system guaranteed the secrecy of the mutual aid society, which, according to the ginger-haired woman, was the reason why their mutual aid society had many ‘sensitive identity’ members.

Herstal didn't know just how ‘sensitive’ these sensitive identities were, but it was clear that if a person was well known in his or her field, he or she probably wouldn't want others to know that they belonged to a Sexual Assault Support Group.

One more turn down the hallway and they were inside the small theatre. There were about twenty to thirty members of the Mutual Aid Society, all of whom were now sparsely seated in the first few rows of the small theatre's auditorium. There was a chair set up directly in front of the stage, where a girl who appeared to be fifteen or sixteen years of age was seated, recounting her experience in a red-eyed, whispered voice.

Generally speaking, Herstal didn't like to be late, but he had clearly missed the beginning of the meeting, obviously having misjudged the size of the traffic jam caused by the snow.

By the time Herstal was guided by the lady to take a seat in the corner of the fourth row of the auditorium, the girl had almost finished speaking. She wiped the corners of her eyes and wordlessly slid off the stool.

Herstal took the opportunity to observe the members of the Mutual Aid Society: he was sitting at the very back, so he could only see several rows of backs of heads right now, but even so, he could tell that there was still a preponderance of females within this Mutual Aid Society. Unsurprising, given the male-to-female ratio of victims in such cases.

So now he was faced with a myriad of heart breaking, true stories of sexual abuse -- a fact that made some parts of Herstal uncomfortable; perhaps, it was especially the part where he had to recount his ‘trauma’ in front of a group of emotionally delicate girls.

-- Some would question whether serial killers have a moral code, it didn't matter whether other people believed it or not, but Herstal himself had a moral code. In fact, he really, really despised sexual assault cases.

It may not be true that he was traumatized by the events of Johnny the Killer, but it was true that he was very disgusted by certain parts of the event. It was those parts that constantly reminded him that no one could ever truly leave their past behind, and that feeling of powerlessness was very unpleasant for him.

Because criminal psychologists are often right in their assumptions about what happened to serial killers during their childhoods: and that they were indeed trying to escape their haunted childhoods.

‘Well, thank you for sharing your story with us, Amy.’ At that very moment, the ginger-haired lady said in a soft voice while Herstal sat at the very back, reaching up and rubbing his brow, ‘So, who wants to share next?’

A man in the front row raised his hand, followed by a low scuffling of clothing and the sound of others sitting next to that man moving to make room for the speaker. A dozen seconds later, the new speaker deftly circled the stage and stood in front of the members of the Mutual Aid Society.

-- Or in other words: when Hestal saw the familiar face of Albarino Bacchus. His head was really starting to hurt.

Herstal stared at the other man for a few seconds: Albarino didn't look much different than he did half a month ago. It was impossible to see if those wounds had healed well under the fabric of his shirt, and the way the other man jumped onto the stage with a light hand didn't look like he was still suffering from pain.

The hair on the back of Albarino's head was still extraordinarily scraggly and messy, probably something to do with the portion of it that had been shaved off in order to close the wound. Herstal guessed that they had sprouted short stubble, he could almost mentally trace the feel of his fingers running through those hairs.

It was a long second, he wasn't sure if it could be categorized as a second, as Herstal stared intently at the stage. While no smirk tugged at the corners of Albarino's mouth, those sharp green eyes swept over Herstal with an intent look that was by no means impossible to mistaken.

Surely, surely, Albarino had noticed Herstal as soon as he entered.

And then Herstal realized, as an afterthought: that they were bound to end up in a situation like this, which he should have realized from the onset. Albarino would also obviously go to a mutual aid meeting, which he would use to maintain his image as a psychologically fragile normal person; the case of the Pianist was currently in the spotlight, and he mustn't show any abnormalities in front of so many police officers.

And he certainly wasn't going to see a psychiatrist; lying in front of a psychiatrist once a week was a tiring job, and a support group with no professional psychologists involved was certainly a good alternative.

Since both of them had been caught up in the not-so-real sexual assault case by mistake, it wasn't out of the question that they'd show up at a psychological support meeting. Not to mention the fact that they both knew Olga Molozer, and it would certainly make sense for them to attend a particular meeting through Olga's introduction.

-- But it was just as well that they ran into each other at the mutual aid meeting, Herstal never expected that this man would even take the initiative to speak on stage. Could it be that this psychopath wasn't just a psychopath, but also a person with a performing personality disorder?

It was a question that would probably never get a real answer without taking Albarino to a mental institution and sawing his brain apart. The man was now sitting in the chair that belonged to the speaker, hiding his exuberance in a subtle way.

Softly and slowly -- almost heartbreakingly -- he spoke, ‘Hello everyone, my name is Al.’

The rest of the Mutual, of course, replied in unison, ‘Hello, Al,’ and the sound rumbled under the dome of the small theater. This was a place where people were supposed to tell the truth, and in Albarino's own story, the line between truth and fantasy had blurred.

Another fact that Herstal knew in his heart was that it was possible for Albarino to actually be recognized by someone else. Albarino had been a suspect when the Bob Landon case occurred, and his pictures were all over the Internet at that time. Even if he'd only been vaguely brought up as a victim within the Pianist case, there were many who were convinced that Dr. Bacchus was the victim in that case, according to reports from the Westland Daily News.

Anyone who followed the news on a regular basis was likely to recognize Albarino, and this Anonymous Mutual Aid meeting wasn't really anonymous to Albarino at all; whereas Herstal didn't have this kind of trouble: the coverage of the victims in the Johnny the Killer case didn't even include photos or a real name, and no one knew that it had happened to him.

But as things stood, Albarino obviously didn't care.

‘About half a month ago,’ is how Albarino chooses to begin his account, deliberately keeping his voice low and muffled, ‘I was attacked by a criminal in the home I was in.’

This was not entirely true, for apparently he had stayed up all night waiting for that criminal to come through his door without even locking it.

Herstal's eyes scraped across his cheeks like knives, and instead of ducking his head to avoid the gaze of others like most traumatized people would do, Albarino's gaze paused on Herstal for an extraordinarily deep two seconds as he scanned the crowd.

Herstal remembered the look Albarino had given him after he'd entered that night, the other man sitting in an armchair by the fire, turned slightly, his chestnut-coloured curls gilded with a hazy golden halo by the fire. That richly suggestive smile on the corners of his mouth at that moment, and the fruity scent of white wine that filled the air.

That odd grape --

‘Are you sure you don't want a taste, Pianist?’

And at the moment the crowd held its breath; most victims in cases like this were attacked in dark alleys or during home invasions, but Albarino's story was a rarity.

He continued saying, ‘I was attacked because I'm a ...uh, you guys can interpret it like this: I'm a law enforcement officer, and a criminal I had a problem with attacked me just to get back at me.’

Herstal sneered: it wasn't just any ‘criminal with a problem’, because the ‘problem’ was mainly because Albarino had induced Johnny the Killer to kidnap the ‘criminal’, but it was a story that would be just too crazy to tell.

‘...The police officers didn't catch him, and I'm guessing he's still on the loose right now,’ Albarino said, and how in the world did he manage to mix in a lifelike choke in that sentence? ‘I don't understand why that criminal chose to treat me in -- in such -- ‘ There was a dubious pause here that could easily be construed as a grief-stricken pause. ‘...to treat me in such a way. There are times when I thought that he might as well have just have killed me, and then it would all end painlessly, but...’

Herstal still remembered the touch of his fingers closing around the other man's neck, so warm, so soft, he wanted to kill the other man, wanted to slit his neck and watch the blood gush out from beneath the scarred skin. Human desire was so shallow and blunt, and that unquenchable smile in Albarino's eyes would always rob such imagery of its original meaning.

It was a reminder that Herstal was still deep in his opponent's trap, and as such, there was no point in killing him. That could not be considered a victory in the true sense of the word, just a crude way for the loser to topple the board.

That being said, the process of violating him, of killing him, would almost lose its original beauty, and all would be nothing more than Albarino watching the butterfly struggling in the center of his spider's web.

And now, at this very moment, Albarino was vocally describing to the others the pain of his hypocrisy and his non-existent inner struggle. Albarino cared about what had happened to him, about his scars and about the fact that he was being displayed naked in front of all his co-workers, no more than he cared about a dewy-eyed lover. Those emotionless eyes, that delicate silver tongue, was weaving a lie that was enough to bring tears to the eyes of his audience.

He said, ‘He broke me -- it was as if a part of me had left me forever.’

Herstal wanted to laugh at this statement, he did not think that he could ever really take away a part of Albarino, especially not the part related to the ‘heart’; their discussion in the hospital about the Sunday Gardener's heart had ended in nothing, and they had not been able to prove that the organ in the literary sense really existed in Albarino's case.

Perhaps it was the slow, mournful sounds of Albarino's narration that somehow fuelled his madness, because next Herstal did something he shouldn't have -- he took a few seconds to go off on a tangent, lowering his head to pull out his cell phone, and sending a picture to Albarino.

Albarino's cell phone number had been changed after the last accident, because obviously the Pianist had taken a bunch of pictures of him on his own cell phone after he attacked him, and took that cell phone with him after staging the crime scene.

That old cell phone card of Albarino's hadn't been used since, and Hardy and the others certainly couldn't locate the Pianist through the signal from the card. They were all convinced that Albarino's cell phone must have been thrown into a sewer somewhere by the Pianist -- which it was, that phone was indeed now in the sewers -- but Herstal had made copies of the pictures in it before he threw it away.

It was a pretty crazy idea, and as he'd said, most serial killers lost to hubris, which was the main reason Herstal never collected mementos of the dead or returned to the scene of the crime. Logically, he shouldn't have kept those photos, because even the WLPD only had scans of the printouts he left at the scene. The only person who had the originals of those photos was the Westland Pianist, which is a logic so easily deducable that even a child could come to that conclusion.

Therefore, after he copied the photos, he still felt that it was inappropriate, and destroyed most of those files sporadically over the next few days, destroying them so thoroughly that even the police department's tech department could never recover the data.

But right now, he still had a photo on his cell phone that hadn't been printed out by the Westland Pianist and pasted onto the walls of the crime scene: the photo was of Albarino lying on the ground with his eyes closed tightly, his lips and skin without much colour, his hair loose, most of it piled up in a messy heap in front of his forehead.

That photo didn't capture any particularly private parts, unlike the insulting composition the Pianist had left on the scene; the bottom of the photo only captured Albarino's hipbone, and the focus was actually mostly on Albarino's face from above; the night time light accentuated the graceful curves of those exercise-yielded muscles, the rainy night's interlocking, splotched shadows, and the oil paint like blood that smeared across his skin.

Herstal hadn't ended up printing the picture when he was setting the scene, feeling that the composition seemed to reveal too much of his ego -- and he had a strange fear, a sense of pure, out-of-nowhere apprehension that told him that Olga would see what was going on. Though he didn't know exactly what it was, he felt that Olga would surely see through it.

Now he sent that picture to Albarino.

Less than two seconds later, everyone heard Albarino's cell phone vibrate.

The victim, who was sitting in the center of the stage, whispered an apology to the others, took out his phone and scanned it absently -- and then Herstal saw Albarino's eyes widen slightly, a somewhat unbelievable look, which wasn't exactly out of place on the other man's face, but was truly something to be cherished -- He said nothing, and showed no other unnecessary expression, but quickly put his cell phone back into the pocket of his jacket.

When he began to speak again, he was calm as if nothing had happened.

But that was clearly not the case.

Because Albarino stood up, deliberately injecting some traces of agitation into his body language. He spoke hesitantly to the group, ‘I'm having a hard time getting over this accident for another reason: because I know that the criminal doesn't want me to forget. That criminal will be a constant reminder of what happened to me, and for the rest of my life I will be with him.’

He paused and took a deep breath, the tone in which he said it bordering on sincerity, but it was nothing more than ‘bordering’.

‘He left some ... indelible marks. I've been running away from that reality, but ... that seems unfair, and I should face the final outcome.’ Albarino whispered, and he even bit his lower lip. Herstal saw teeth sinking into it, biting the soft, bloody flesh until it was white, ‘I wish I had enough courage, just to be able to -- assuming I can show --’

There was a hesitant pause from Albarino, and the others probably didn't expect him to do what he did, so there was a storm of astonished, little gasps as he did it.

Albarino was wearing a jacket over a soft pullover with a loose hem. After this disguised, lifelike, hesitant pause, he simply reached out a hand and grasped the hem of the shirt and lifted it up.

-- For the first time since the thirtieth of last month, Herstal saw the string of scars on Albarino's abdomen. The letters that those slashes hooked together had probably been unstitched for almost a week now, and were still dropsy and red. Thirteen cuts, an insulting term, neatly stitched yet still looking twisted, the new born delicate skin glistening in the light from the lack of texture.

Herstal would always remember the touch of the knife penetrating the skin, how the blood flowed along his fingers; that smile seemed to finally subside as Albarino's eyes lolled in excruciating pain, but remained stubbornly stationary.

‘That's what he left in me.’ Albarino whispered.

Chapter 2: 38. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (2) ED

Chapter Text

By the time Albarino sat back down in his seat, there were a number of eyes still glued to him. Herstal was familiar with stares like that -- shock, pity, the kind of empathy that the Westland Pianist lacked the most.

The ginger-haired lady who'd returned to the stage after he stepped down, also looked a little overwhelmed. It was clear that Albarino had never been up on the stage before, no matter how many times he'd attended such a meeting.

The lady was on stage asking the next person to come and share their story when Herstal's phone gave a low vibration, he unlocked the screen to see the latest message received pop up.

‘This photo's taken pretty nicely.’

-- Albarino said it like this.

Herstal sneered coldly internally: he'd always had some ridiculous fantasies, such as the idea that if Albarino was finally arrested one day, there would be a good chance that his mental problems could be used as a defence -- assuming that he got a good enough lawyer, he could be sentenced to a lifetime of ‘convalescence’ in a mental institution.

Herstal had seen too many murderers who had escaped the electric chair on the grounds of mental problems, and some of the particularly famous ones had even published their autobiographies while in prison or in hospital. If Albarino ever fell that far, he would have been sure to have his picture enlarged and printed on the covers of all the books, because he was a hell of an egomaniac like that.

While he was thinking about all this, the next narrator was already on the stage: a scrawny, dark-haired boy with a gaunt-looking face and deep shadows under his eyes.

He shuffled to the stage, his legs shifting uneasily as he sat on top of the stool. He whispered, ‘Hello everyone, my name is Billy.’

There was of course a scattering of ‘Hello, Billy’ greetings, and then the boy, who looked decidedly underage, began to tell his story.

Something about him caught Herstal's attention -- perhaps it was the extraordinarily thin legs wobbling in his empty pants, the greenish-purple shadows of fatigue beneath his eyes, or his hands: the clothes he was wearing were clearly not well-fitting, so that a sliver of his wrist was exposed at the cuff. Herstal had good eyesight, and the lights in the small theatre were bright enough to allow him to make out the scars that ran the length of the young man's wrists. Judging by their colours, they had been there for a long time.

As well as that -- and especially that -- the young man's face, which was clearly marked by several scars on his chin, still fresh and uneven from healing. Herstal believed that the shapes were of bite marks left behind after they had scarred.

‘Try cutting .’ Herstal could recall Albarino's voice, as calm as a deep pool, the night just after he had killed Bob Landon.

Something about the young man's qualities had caught Herstal's attention, and when he realized exactly what was catching his attention, he suddenly felt annoyed. The irritation came with a vengeance, similar to the moment when he'd finally stabbed the knife into Elliot Evans' throat, similar to the moment when he had choked Albarino until the other man had suffocated, similar to the moment when he had hung those two men in that little church in Kentucky.

He clenched his fists to quell this sudden agitation.

At such moments, Herstal tended to have mixed feelings: now that he knew what irritated him, he began to despise himself extraordinarily. Despising the fact that he was still fragile, stupidly still incapable of accepting certain truths; disdain for his own inability to control his anger, which was the enemy of mankind, especially when you're a serial killer -- where you're bound to make some big mistakes because you couldn't control your anger.

And still the young man continued to speak, his voice bitter but quiet, he was saying, ‘...But I think he's back again, the last few days I always feel like someone is following me when I go out, I'm even sure I saw him near the subway station. I always try to reassure myself that it's because I'm so uptight that I'm hallucinating, but --’

The young man, who apparently came to this support group often, made a passing reference to his previous encounter, but most people still understood him, probably because he had been up on the stage many times before.

Herstal listened for a moment, and quickly grasped the gist of the story: roughly, the young man had attended a boarding school on the other side of the city, and had been stalked and pestered by one of the teachers during his time there.

The teacher had called Billy out of his dormitory one night and attacked him, a part that Billy had glossed over, but Herstal deduced from a few words that Billy had not been victimized at that time because his shouting attracted the attention of the janitor -- but whether the bite marks on his body were from the teacher, or if Billy been intent on self-harming sometime after this incident, was hard to say.

Herstal actually thought the whole thing was pretty obvious.

In any case, since the assault hadn't materially occurred, or maybe something had happened during the courtroom defence that Billy hadn't mentioned -- Herstal, as an lawyer, was able to come up with four or five different scenarios -- if the teacher wasn't in jail now, he'd obviously have lost his job and presumably under a restraining order from the court not to be around Billy.

The young man was now sadly recounting his suspicions about being followed, and he seemed more inclined to believe that he had been nervous to the point of insanity. His voice trembled, and the unconsciously lengthened ending sounds were vaguely tinged with sobbing.

If one took a closer look at the gaunt-faced child, one might be able to deduce why the delinquent had chosen him: he was a little too skinny for his own good, but his face was actually very beautiful. It was reflective of those refined and delicate boys in classical paintings. Beautiful, with a pair of lake-like blue eyes.

‘I love you more than all the other children’

Herstal frowned.

‘Hey! Herstal!’

After they finally got past several other people sharing their experiences, sharing several psychology readings with the facilitator of the meeting, and finally literally holding hands and memorizing the Bunyip Prayer[1], the support group meeting was finally called to a close.

[1] A common prayer used by many psychological support groups, begins with ‘God, grant me the peace to accept what I cannot change.’

Herstal had really hoped to slip away as fast as possible, but that was obviously impossible now, he was caught up from behind by Albarino just as he was leaving for the door.

It was at this moment that he felt that prickling desire in his fingers again, making him want to stab that knife in his pocket into Albarino's chest just so he could keep him from continuing whatever he was going to say.

But he obviously couldn't, and Albarino, walking briskly behind him said, ‘You're in a bad mood.’

‘How so?’ Herstal asked rhetorically.

‘Reading your emotions is a delicate study; after all, there are so few expressions you are willing to show.’ Albarino said lazily, ‘But I believe I have become slightly more accomplished in the discipline.’

He had the nerve to say ‘reading people's emotions’, why on earth had they been reduced to discussing emotions with a psychopath?

Herstal snorted, not really wanting to cause trouble with him, only trying to get to the parking lot as fast as possible. Albarino was close behind him as he continued in that overly relaxed voice, ‘I guess it's not my problem, is it?’

Herstal jerked to a halt, almost causing Albarino, who didn't have enough time to brake, to crash into him. He turned back with a fiery glare and questioned, ‘Where the hell did you get the idea that it's not your problem?!’

Although Herstal always wore a stern face, intimidating many interns at the firm into trembling, he rarely ever really lost his temper. When losing your temper at work could result in a contempt of court charge, you were expected to be able to control your temper.

As it turns out, this restraint was almost ineffective in the presence of Albarino.

‘Let us recall,’ Albarino replied in a brisk tone, ‘that you came to my house to see me the day I was discharged from the hospital, and then we immediately had passionate sex; then the next thing I know you made some profound remarks about love, and immediately after that you left my house right away. No staying the night, not even a good night, and by the way, never contacted me again, just like all those dick-pulling, heartless scumbags do.’

Albarino's voice remained relaxed as he said those words, but he unnecessarily raised his voice a bit. He certainly wasn't the kind of guy to get upset over something like this, for God's sake, this little psycho was just trying to get the attention of the passersbys coming and going along the road.

-- He even looked a little happier when a group of passersbys turned their extraordinarily visceral gazes on Hestal.

With a headache, Herstal grabbed Albarino's elbow and whispered a warning, ‘Dr. Bacchus.’

‘Oh yes, and on that I'll keep my mouth shut forever, and I don't even have to swear on the Bible.’ Albarino blinked cheerfully, then suddenly lowered his voice, that smile disappearing from his face as quickly as sand seeping through a sieve. ‘I understand what you're concerned about: you're worried that if things go on like this, you won't be willing to kill me one day -- no, that description isn't accurate, because you obviously have the fortitude to kill anyone, right?’

He paused briefly, then rephrased, ‘You're worried that one day you'll actually feel sad when you kill me ... and that makes you feel like things are slipping out of your control, so you chose to disappear.’

Albarino could feel Herstal's fingers tighten slightly on his elbow. He leaned forward, his lips almost grazing Hestal's earlobe, and blew out the words with a sticky airy tone.

He said intimately, ‘Control freak.’

Herstal's fingers suddenly loosened.

‘How strange that is, Herstal.’ Albarino said in a conversational tone, grabbing Herstal's wrist in a backhanded grip and tugging him toward a nearby, sparsely populated alleyway. Herstal didn't really want to stand on the side of the road under everyone's gazes and so he had to follow in his footsteps.

Albarino continued as he walked, ‘The Westland Pianist doesn't exactly solve problems that way, does he? Because the best way to solve a problem is murder, and this serial killer realized that from the very beginning: I don't know if he killed the people who caused him harm or not, but he killed at least two people related to that incident. In the years that followed, he killed many more who could drag him back into the darkness of those memories from that year. Some criminal psychologists believe that the Pianist's killing spree was the result of his childhood trauma, that his madness drove him to commit the crime, and that by killing these sinful people, he would feel safe ... but I'm afraid I can't agree with that.’

He paused, and even as the two of them walked one behind the other, Herstal could hear the smile in his voice.

They had reached the shadows between the buildings, where the snow made the ground look especially white, making the shadows between the blinding reflections of the sun particularly dark. It was colder in the shadow where the sunlight couldn't reach, and it was in that cold that Albarino let go of his wrist and turned his head to look at him.

Those mint green eyes were nearly grey in the shadows, so cold, so sharp.

‘Why don't you kill me?’ He asked, almost in a murmur.

Herstal did not answer -- because the question seemed insane, but it hit the heart of everything. Albarino looked almost wolf-like in the shadows, some sort of exotic yet ferocious beast, his mouth still tugged in a sharp smile, using it to cut into the souls of others.

‘You know this well enough: I will do you harm, as those men did to you as well.’ Albarino sighed softly and tersely, ‘The Sunday Gardener is a born psychopath who is incapable of empathy or loving people. Since genetics restrict me from loving you as a human -- I am bound to make you hurt, and the moment my interest in you finally fizzles out, that's when it will all happen.’

--The moment when the flame goes out.

Novelists will write stories like this: if a person's line is ‘Why don't you kill me? I'm bound to hurt you,’ then it's usually a tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet style, where the protagonists can't be married because of their status, where a rose isn't called a rose, and so on and so forth.

But not Albarino, who said this almost provocatively, as if he were observing an animal he had never seen before, luring it with his bait and waiting with great curiosity for the moment when it would bite the bait. This curiosity bordered on cruelty, and was the source of Herstal's indecision.

‘Why don't you kill me?’ Albarino repeated, ‘Or did you really eat the apple with that forbidden pleasure?’

The next moment -- actually, Herstal hadn't really thought about what to do, but apparently he didn't have to think about it anymore -- the next moment Albarino shoved him violently against the dirty wall of the alley, the rough bricks pressing hard against his spine through his coat.

With one hand on his elbow and one on his shoulder, Albarino just held him there, not actually pushing too hard. Herstal knew that he could easily break free whenever he wanted to.

‘The pleasure is very intense, isn't it? Just like heroin’ Albarino whispered against his ear, his hot breath brushing moistly against his skin, ‘It's like doing something you know you're not supposed to: the first time you kill someone, the first time you write a letter to the police, the first time you make a big deal out of displaying the body in public -- we're all dancing on the tip of a knife, touching the edge of taboos that should never have been touched.’

‘Including you yourself.’ Herstarl whispered, sounding as if he was speaking through gritted teeth.

‘ -- Including myself, as far as you're concerned.’ Albarino replied tolerantly, his fingers moving upward, his fingertips swept across Herstal's chin, touching the stubble that was beginning to rise; Herstal tilted his head slightly to one side, but didn't push his hand away. ‘So think hard, Pianist, about what it is you seek in me, and whether that makes you feel as if you belong.’

He narrowed his eyes and slowly lifted Herstal's chin with his fingers, then leaned over to lick his neck.

-- There was a small, inconspicuous white scar on his neck, usually hard to see with his tie on. But today, he came to an anonymous support meeting, so for once, he uncharacteristically wasn't wearing a tie. Albarino nudged the tip of his nose over the loosened collars and then licked the old scar.

He could feel Herstal's entire body stiffen; the other man was obviously fighting his instincts with immense difficulty. But, as taut as he was, he remained motionless, even though Albarino was sure that the knife was resting right where he could touch it with one lift of his fingers.

‘You're not really mad because of my behaviour today, you're really not.’ Albarino buried his head in the nape of his neck and said vaguely, ‘You're angry because of that Billy boy -- you saw something in him, and that something ... triggered some unpleasant memories, didn't it ?’

‘That was a very impressive statement you made.’ Herstal said ambiguously, and Albarino suspected that he had hit the nail on the head.

As far as the Pianist was concerned, the thrill of staying in this game gave him as much pleasure as continuing his nightly part-time job -- it wasn't unusual to come to that conclusion. Albarino remembered the look in Herstal's eyes as he held the knife that night at his house. Imagining the kind of passion that could be generated by watching another homicidal maniac, who knew everything about him, succumb underneath him, Albarino could somewhat envision it -- though, the consequences of such an act was almost deadly.

For Hestal, he had clearly come to the conclusion that, ‘if I don't kill you now, one day I'll fall in love you,’ but he chose not to take any action, instead, he simply chose to disappear without a trace, it was very unusual.

That was precisely what made the ‘taboo’ so taboo.

Albarino's teeth scraped over his adam's apple, and he could hear Herstal's heart pounding loudly like a drum. His pulse throbbed under his lips like war, like life.

‘As I said, I have become slightly more accomplished in this discipline.’ Albarino replied quietly.

Chapter 3: 39. Dance, Dance, My Puppet (3) ED

Chapter Text

By the time Herstal reached the parking lot, he could still feel a lingering moistness at the back of his neck.

Albarino was still following him leisurely, because, according to the other man, ‘I'm going to the subway near the parking lot’. Herstal decided that if it turned out that the other man was lying, he might as well run him under the wheels of his car.

He let his tyrannical fantasies go on for a while, until he saw that there really was a subway station located at the intersection near the parking lot. Herstal reached his car that was parked at the edge of the parking lot, and Albarino was supposed to be heading in the direction of the subway station by now.

This was the way things were supposed to go: the two of them pretending to say courteous goodbyes, hiding their true thoughts under heartfelt smiles, and then immediately, wait for their next encounter at some point. They seemed like metal balls on the opposite sides of a Newtonian pendulum; the moment one fell the other was ejected, never to be parallel, a brief contact followed by a long lonely flight.

So of course, they had brief encounters and kisses, but never spent the night in each other's beds.

-- As it should have been, until things suddenly sped off in the other direction.

For a man suddenly emerged from the side of the parking lot and came sprinting towards them. It was a shaggy-haired, thirty-something looking male, he appeared non-threatening, but was clearly aiming for the two of them. Albarino noticed the other man as well, and it only took him two sideway glances in that direction before the other party was already rushing up beside them.

‘Hello Dr. Bacchus,’ the man didn't even bother to look at Herstal, rudely ignoring him. ‘I'm Ohard Scheiber, special correspondent for the 'Westland Daily News', could you please -- ‘

The special correspondent had a slightly European accent, and Herstal also noticed that on his right hand, which was cupping the recorder, his pinky finger was broken off at the base. The colour of the scar was striking, likely a wound made from within the past year or two.

‘Can't.’ Albarino replied firmly before the reporter could even finish his question.

There was only a slight pause from the other party, clearly not surprised by Albarino's answer. Schreiber was obviously not disappointed, only continuing to ask, ‘But Dr. Bacchus, you should know that many people on the internet now believe that you are the victim of that sexual assault case committed by the Westland Pianist some time ago...’

‘I understand what they think, but what does that have to do with me?’ Albarino asked rhetorically, ‘Although I wasn't involved in the solving of that case -- as you know, I was still on vacation due to the incident during the Landon case at the time -- I'm sorry, but in accordance with the WLPD's usual practice, I can't reveal too much information.’

‘Even if it affects your reputation?’ Schreiber asked.

‘I wonder why you think so, Mr. Reporter, that being considered a rape victim affects my reputation? Are we in an era where virgins are to be sacrificed to evil dragons?’ Albarino gave a light chuckle, still wearing that gentle façade that made it impossible to peek into his true thoughts, ‘I think this case affects the Pianist's reputation more than anything else -- this kind of case is too tasteless, even for a serial killer. ‘

Herstal swept Albarino a glance.

‘But didn’t you just come from an Anonymous Mutual Aid Society?’ Schreiber continued, his eyes glowing, ‘The manager of the little Theater told me that every Saturday the theater hosts a Sexual Assault Trauma Anonymous support group for --’

‘Okay, Mr. Schreiber.’ Herstal interrupted coldly, ‘Are you stalking Dr. Bacchus? That's already an alleged violation of one's right to privacy.’

The reporter, finally willing to spare Herstal a look, asked, ‘Andyouare?’

‘I'm his lawyer,’ Herstal replied simply, ‘Also please delete the recording, my client did not consent to this recording being made, and I don't suppose you would want to be sued for such a trivial matter -- Dr. Bacchus?’

Albarino glanced at Herstal with a hint of a hidden smile in his eyes. Then he replied lightly, ‘Let's go.’

Herstal looked at Albarino's expectant gaze and suddenly realized what the other man was hinting at, but there was no way for him to back out now: he could, of course, just get into his car and walk away like this and leave Albarino alone with this reporter, but then the other man would definitely follow Albarino all the way to the subway station. Although Albarino certainly will not disclose any key information to Schreiber, the action of ‘the lawyer leaving his client in place to deal with reporters’ seemed inappropriate.

Now the corners of Albarino's mouth joined in the formation of a smile, his eyes shining, looking like a river of stars, the very look that constantly reminded him that: you couldn't defeat a man like that.

Because he didn't care.

Herstal had no choice but to take out his car keys and drive. After the click of the lock, Albarino nodded his head toward the reporter before opening the passenger side door and getting in with a flourish. Herstal held back a curse and a headache and slid into the driver's seat.

The door slammed shut, the good soundproofing immediately cut off everything the reporter outside the car wanted to say, and didn't want to say; the reporter gazed at the dark tinted glass with some displeasure, obviously upset that he hadn't gotten any juicy information out of Albarino, but if he knew Albarino well enough, he would know that he certainly wouldn’t say anything useful.

Herstal started the car and drove out of the parking lot.

The reporter's silhouette grew further and further away. Albarino stared sideways at the rear-view mirror for a moment before suddenly saying, ‘In that case, let's go to lunch.’

Herstal wasn't too shocked by the words that came out of the other person's mouth; as soon as you allowed the other man to get a little bit closer to you -- no matter how forced the situation was -- he was pretty much stuck to you like candy.

But he didn't expect Albarino's next comment to be, ‘I know a restaurant that sells the best cheeseburgers I've ever had in my life -- I took Elliot Evans to that restaurant.’

And once again, Herstal began to consider the idea of throwing the other man down and driving over him in his car.

In the end, they ended up going to that family restaurant. Herstal himself didn't quite understand when he started to compromise, or maybe, when one was around Albarino Bacchus, they would compromise sooner or later. During this process, the one who first says, ‘I will fall in love with you in the future’, naturally loses the upper hand in the game.

Herstal refused to order the cheese burger that Albarino had so highly recommended. His lunch consisted of: a salad, bread, and soup; but Albarino's did not. He was playing with his cell phone rather rudely as he waited for his food to arrive, and when it was served, he even tried to steal the sundried tomatoes from Herstal's bowl of salad with a fork while he dealt with his burger.

-- It was hard to imagine how this man did it, a psychopath, a serial killer, smiling, moving with an ease that was so smooth it was comparable to a breeze. As if they hadn't threatened to take a life, as if the Sunday Gardener didn't have a convoluted plan in mind about how well the blue flowers would match up with Herstal's eyes, as if they were playing a romantic love game of some kind.

‘He'll report what you said.’ Herstal said.

Albarino was slicing his mountain-like burger, which Herstal eyed as having at least four layers of buns. He didn't know how he was somehow managing to get such clean cuts with a knife without even a hint of cheese or sauce getting squeezed out. Albarino answered calmly as he dissected his burger as if it was on an autopsy table, ‘Of course he will, but I've neither provided any critical information nor said anything particularly inappropriate, so Bart probably won't be offended.’

He set the knife down on his plate, slowly licking the bit of cheese off his fingers, glancing at Herstal, before suddenly smiling.

‘Or,’ he said with a flirtatious undertone, ‘do you really care that I said the Pianist had no taste?’

Herstal snorted contemptuously.

‘Herstal,’ said Albarino, his voice dropping a little, almost as if he meant it, ‘whatever you've done, you're still very different from those people in Kentucky who hurt you, you know.’

Herstal looked at the other man -- and Albarino just kept his head down and ate, making little to no noise when he chewed. Even with this kind of food, he didn't get any sauce nor residue anywhere, it was almost like some kind of magic.

There was still something about him that still persistently articulated to others that he came from a well brought up, wealthy family, and at some point this essence that unconsciously came out of him mixed with his very different, usual style, to paint an extremely strange picture.

‘Are we going to talk about this?’ Herstal asked rhetorically, ‘Is your next sentence going to be 'I volunteered'?’

‘It’s true that I have been very voluntary, especially the part about sleeping with you -- no matter what the activity ends up presenting to the public.’ Albarino replied with a smirk.

Herstal shook his head, ‘So I'm just going to have to interpret this statement you just made as you excusing my behaviour?’

‘That's not entirely accurate. I'm simply stating the fact that 'you are different.' We both know that making excuses is meaningless -- by universal values and the law, we are guilty, but we are not bound by those principles. Some people might say, 'The Pianist is an overly violent vigilante, but what he does is actually beneficial to society,' and we both understand that that’s a ridiculous lie.’

Albarino explained, using a fork to put a piece of hamburger meat into his mouth. He chewed the beef, but Herstal always suspected that to him, this meat and the kind he had handled -- the kind he had orchestrated -- were no different. He didn't eat his prey simply because it was meaningless to him, just as the Pianist killed criminals because he followed the footsteps of his own wicked desires, those crimes essentially held no meaning to him.

‘What makes you different from them is that you never succumbed to the lowest of desires. You presented yourself to my eyes in a form of beauty, and that is where the meaning is derived from -- and incidentally, you and I both know that the Pianist's case wasn't really 'rape '.’

‘So, you're saying that everything revolves around your perception?’ Herstal sneered.

‘Why not think of it this way? Didn't Protagoras[1] say that ‘Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not’?’ Albarino replied cheerfully.

[1] Ancient Greek philosopher. Since his related works have long been lost, his theories can only be seen in Plato's Theaetetus and Protagoras.

‘It would be too arrogant to think so.’ Hestar replied in a low voice.

Albarino simply smiled, ‘Indeed.’

They were silent for a brief moment, but the quiet was interrupted by the low vibrating buzz of Albarino's cell phone. Albarino casually pulled his phone out and absently unlocked it -- Herstal wondered if his phone passcode was still ‘0725’ -- Albarino glanced at the new message on the screen, then smiled slowly.

‘I have some friends at the WLPD,’ Albarino said lightly. Herstal had reason to believe that ‘friends’ actually meant ‘corrupt cops who can be bribed,’ and given Albarino's level of discretion, the one he'd contacted probably didn't even know who he really was. ‘He looked into that Billy incident for me -- the teacher who hurt him is called Anthony Sharp. After the incident, he lost his job and is still unemployed at home.’

Herstal looked sharply at the other man, ‘What are you trying to say?’

Albarino's fingertips rhythmically tapped the tabletop one at a time, a blur of white in the sunlight. He continued unhurriedly, ‘As for the journalist named Ohard Scheiber, he's actually quite famous. Just a quick Google search will bring up a lot of information about him -- you know the high-profile case from last year? The one that happened in a small northern European country called Hoxton?’

Herstal thought for a moment, ecalling the overwhelming global coverage from the second half of last year. ‘The country with the extremist who bombed a bunch of churches and kidnapped a cardinal?’

Albarino shrugged, apparently indicating that he was right, ‘Hoxton is a pretty nice country with beautiful scenery, I visited it once when I was on a trip around Europe. And the first church that he blew up -- an artistic masterpiece, supposedly designed by Robert de Luzarches [2] -- was destroyed in an instant.’

[2] French architect who designed the Bishop's Church of Amiens in France and the Bishop's Church of Cologne in Germany.

His voice sounded genuinely regretful, but there was always a strange smile on his face. Albarino paused for a moment and continued, ‘So you can imagine how highly publicized this case was. After it was resolved, the journalist who got the exclusive rights to the final report was the same Ohard Scheiber.’

‘That makes it sound as if he's outstanding, so why did he leave Europe?’ Herstal asked.

‘Who knows. Some say it’s because he was unscrupulous in digging up stories and messed with someone he shouldn't have.’ Albarino said slowly, smiling as he extended the pinky of his right hand and wiggled it, ‘Anyway, this reporter's got a terrible obsession with the things he wants to pursue -- things that he doesn't even know how dangerous they are himself. I think that's all you need to know.’

Herstal looked at him warily, ‘What exactly are you trying to say?’

‘What I'm trying to say is, which of these two people: the ex-middle school teacher with a corrupt moral character, or the famous but seemingly morally challenged journalist ...would you choose to hunt?’ Albarino asked, looking almost curious as he propped one hand on his chin.

‘Is that what you're ultimately after?’ Herstal replied coldly and stiffly, putting his fork back on his plate and losing his appetite completely. ‘To use me as a puppet on strings, to watch me make my kills, and then get a cheap thrill out of it?’

‘That's not my intention at all,’ Albarino seriously, his eyes losing their glint of amusem*nt, it was nothing more than a facade. ‘Herstal, our relationship isn't one of puppet and ventriloquist. I don't speak for you -- have you ever heard that fairy tale?’

His conversation had apparently taken another sudden and strange turn in the direction of Albarino.

‘A student who came to the house to teach the child her homework taught the little Amelie a nursery rhyme, 'Dance, dance, my puppet! Your steps must follow the rhythm'; the adults thought it was a silly song, but not little Amelie. She understood the fun of the song, and so did the student, for it was he who wrote it.’

His voice was low and slow, but this was no time for bedtime stories. Albarino's fingers slowly crept across the table, his fingertips pressing against Herstal's knuckles lightly.

‘-- This is the relationship between us.’ He whispered.

‘That's it?’ Herstal didn't hide his disdainful laugh. ‘Singing songs no one understands, making puppets dance to a rhythm they've set for themselves --’

‘It's never completely without understanding. Isn't the key point that someone else thinks the song is great too? The student taught little Amelie the song, and she understood and loved it, and her puppet danced to its melody. Isn't that what's most important?’

Albarino countered, his fingers gently sweeping over the skin of his knuckles, the same hand that had once hurt him when clenched into a fist.

‘Herstal, will you sing that song with me?’

Chapter 4: 40. Dance, Dance, My Doll (4)

Chapter Text

It was Wednesday night, and fine snowflakes were falling from the sky, tiny ice crystals that glistened under the canopy. Herstal and Albarino were sitting inside a rented car, god knows where the lawyer had found this kind of store where you could rent a car without having to register your license, but after all, this was Westland and it wasn't surprising to find people doing anything for a living here.

They'd been parked in the blind spot of the camera for a while now, a thin layer of snowflakes accumulated on the car's windshield, distorting the view out the window into strange shapes. It was a very old model SUV, and the heating system didn't work very well. Herstal had simply left the air conditioning on in order to keep the windows from fogging up; the car had only been stopped for a short while before Albariño began to feel his fingers freeze.

"How boring." He complained lazily.

"Since you invited me to 'sing that song together', it more or less means that you agreed to follow my steps when appropriate, unless I misunderstood you from the start." Herstal answered him in a harsh voice.

"And apparently your steps include being gradually frozen to death in a broken-down car," muttered Albariño, "I didn't think of that at first."

Herstal scrutinized him as if to make sure that he would actually freeze to death. Then he condescended to answer, "That's because that Anthony Sharp was living in one of the worst-policed neighborhoods in all of Westland after losing his job, I'm guessing you don't want the neighbors with double-barreled shotguns to storm the streets because you were making too much noise in this poorly sound-proofed slum--so yeah: You're going to have to stay here for some more time until I've concluded when and where it's best to strike -- until then, I hope you're not really fragile enough to freeze to death."

"If you had chosen to kill Leonard Schreiber, you wouldn't have ended up having to spy on your target in a neighborhood like this." Albarino sneered back.

"That reporter doesn't meet my standards, and if you hadn't insisted on seeing me do it, you could have killed Schreiber yourself." The mockery in Herstal's voice was over spilling.

Because obviously: the Westland Pianist killed like a cat playing slowly with its prey; he had to take his chosen one somewhere safe enough to slowly torture and dissect, which meant he had to take his victim alive, which was inevitably a struggle without fatally injuring the other.

Therefore, the Pianist had to pick his environment carefully when committing a crime, or at least make sure that even if he made some big noise, he could remain undetected. He was still in the stalking stage, until he determines his target's daily movements, only then would he finalise the decision on how to do it.

On the other hand, the Sunday Gardener was different, the Sunday Gardener killed people like going out shopping, the main reason why he killed those people was because he needed their corpses, so the whole process was fast and sharp, slitting their throats with a knife. Sometimes he would even intercept his victims directly in a deserted alleyway, attacking and killing them immediately; other times, there were other pedestrians passing just a few dozen meters away, and he would hide in the shadows along with the bloodied corpses bleeding at his feet, never being noticed.

So the current situation was like this; since Albarino had insisted that Herstal do it, and what Sharp did had obviously touched some hidden pain in Herstal's heart, the other man hadn't refused the offer. But that meant that they would need to make quite few preparations for this.

"And what's the point?" Now, Albarino asked frankly and rhetorically, "You're a lot more interesting than that reporter."

Herstal gave a deep sigh.

"What? Starting to regret why you agreed to finish this with me?" Albarino asked.

"I'm not regretting it, because it wouldn't have made much sense, I had expected that one day something like this would happen sooner or later." Herstal recounted calmly.

Albariño looked at him, doing his best to make the gaze seem like it was asking a question. But Herstal looked into the man's face, which was illuminated by the light from the car window, and only felt that the other man appeared complacent. Herstal still wanted to sigh, he gradually realized that the feeling he felt when he wanted to sigh seemed closer to a heartbroken owner who had come home to find his family's couch torn up by the dog, rather than the annoyance of not being able to rip the other man's throat out.

"You see," he replied, as if the answer he spoke could answer everything, "-- I still haven't killed you."

So that would happen sooner or later: whether it was the mad love he had long foreseen, or the shared hunt, or even -- the tragic, destructive end that finally burned everything to the ground -- everything would happen sooner or later. Herstal wondered if he would ever actually get down to killing the other man by now or not, or if he'd missed all his chances long ago and it was already too late.

(There were times when he would have to say to himself, just wait for one day, just wait a day, and he would have made his decision. But he did not.)

-- And Herstal spied an obscure dark smile at the corner of Albariño's mouth, so that answer really might have said it all.

It was at this moment that they saw Anthony Sharp -- the life teacher who had been fired from the school, a tall, thin, ginger-haired man--wrapping his coat around his body and walking out of the small apartment where he lived.

His strides were shaky and he looked like he'd been drinking. Through the windshield they saw the man get into a battered old Beetle parked on the side of the street, start the car, and drive slowly away. Herstal didn't start the car until the other man was about to drive to the end of the street and followed him at a distance.

Herstal was very busy with his work, so if he wanted to stalk the other party, he could only try to pick weekends and weekday nights, and with him allocating his time so intensively, Albariño really admired that the Pianist was able to maintain the frequency of working on a case for three or four months. In nearly half a month of previous stakeouts, they'd noticed that this Sharp rarely went out after losing his job -- except for getting drunk in the bar and collecting relief funds -- this was the first time he'd been out at this hour of the night after Herstal had observed the other man for so long.

"I actually know why you didn't pick that reporter." Albarino spoke up suddenly over the cacophony of motors, he was surprisingly able to put on an understanding tone, "It's not entirely because Leonard Schreiber is yet to commit a crime and hasn't meet the Pianist's criteria for choosing a victim -- you only had to look at him to know that he was going to make a big mistake someday.

"What really matters is that the mistakes Leonard Schreiber might make or has made don't arouse the impulse to wreak havoc within the Pianist's heart; you have no desire to inflict violence on him ...whereas that's not the case with Anthony Sharp, Herstal, you empathize with that Billy kid from the Anonymous, don't you? "

"In addition to being a forensic pathologist, you now also want to be a psychiatrist part-time?" Herstal asked in a sarcastic tone.

"You're avoiding the question." Albarino pointed out lazily.

"So what?" Hestar said coldly, he obviously didn't like the topic much -- not surprising, he reacted more violently to everything related to the tragedy that concerned his childhood. It was only when he talked about it that Albariño could easily tear off his sneering façade, which may be the reason why he was clinging onto this point.

That's what Albariño would have done, although he appeared so likeable in front of everyone, his true face was that: he never cared what harm he did to others, and those warm, understanding gestures were just a facade that he maintained in his inevitable social life, while his current unscrupulous state was his real side.

-- That there is precisely one person in the world who knows your heart so well, yet never cares about the damage that their words can do to your heart is the tragic part of reality.

By this time, the car had travelled through many streets, they were still following far behind Sharp's Beetle. The other party didn't seem to have noticed them, all was well, and it was this calmness that made the silence all the more unbearable.

Apparently, Albariño chose to continue.

"Running away from a problem says a lot about you, I'm guessing it doesn't just mean you don't want to remember the tragic past. You're not the type to ever move on from the past; it will haunt you with nightmares, but it won't stop you in your tracks, or you'd be nothing more than the person you are today." Albarino replies, "You empathize with Billy, but you don't like Billy, do you? You even loathe him; you loathe his weakness as much as you loathe yourself for being powerless over everything back then."

Herstal's lips tensed into a line, and Albariño was almost suspecting him to stop the car and punch him in the face --but he didn't, because he obviously wouldn't have stopped the car so hastily in the middle of stalking someone.

Since he didn't answer, Albariño just stared at him calmly, watching the side of the man's face sink into the hazy glow of the streetlights.

Herstal was handsome, but not the kind of handsome that exactly fit the popular mark; in such a dimly-lit environment, it would have appeared that his eye-sockets were too deep, the arches of his eyebrows a little too high, and his eyelids were all immersed in pitch-black shadows; this, together with the fact that he had slightly thinner lips, naturally gave him a cold and mean-looking face.

But he was not in his nature -- and it would have been a miracle that he was not so, given that he was a Westland Pianist.

Finally, probably because Herstal had finally grown tired of his gaze, he simply replied, "You get some pleasure from digging up my unsavoury past, don't you?"

"Not really, Schreiber and I are not the same type." Albarino replied simply, his smile sounding strangely warm, "Rather: for the moment, I am deeply enamored by everything about you, both the parts of yourself that are still acceptable and the parts of yourself that you deeply loathe."

"Is that the kind of sweet talk with which you seduce your bed partners one after another?" Herstal, who obviously didn't believe a word of it, asked stiffly in return.

"For a bed partner, you just have to appear gentle and considerate, and spend your money generously enough, and of course the icing on the cake is if you're handsome enough and have a good job." Albariño narrowed his eyes, his voice picking upward somewhat flirtatiously, "You're worth every ounce of effort, Pianist."

Herstal snorted coldly and didn't make much of a comment on the remark. At the same time, they saw Sharp's car pull up on a street, and Herstal, following close behind, backed the car into a nearby alley with an agile steer of the steering wheel. That way, sitting in the car, they could still get a vague view of Sharp's every move from around the corner of the alley.

Sharp quickly got out of the car, his steps unsteady and somehow seeming angry. But that wasn't surprising -- not only did he lose his job, he'd supposedly taken on a huge debt to get himself a good lawyer. In the end he didn't end up in jail for anything to do with sexual assault, but he did have a large amount of money owed that he needed to pay back, and the part of the charges he was convicted of basically meant that it was impossible for him to find a job in any educational institution.

Life was getting tougher for Anthony Sharp by the day, and the days of drinking heavily to escape reality was draining his demeanor, making him look increasingly depressed.

They watched as the man ascended step by step to the front door of an apartment down the road and began to persistently ring the doorbell. With no response after several impatient rings, he simply began to bang on the door.

Sharp knocked persistently for a while until one of the neighbours impatiently opened the door to the apartment next to him and shouted angrily at Sharp. It was nearly one in the morning, and the neighbour was justifiably angry, but Sharp simply gestured to the neighbour to stop.

The enraged neighbour cursed and slammed the door shut. A dozen seconds later, a window on the first floor of the neighbour's house that had been left open originally was angrily slammed shut as a silent protest against Sharp's rudeness.

As Sharp was apparently about to start knocking on the door a second time, the apartment's occupant was finally overwhelmed and opened the door.

It was--

"Billy?" Albariño uttered, with more or less what could be considered surprise in his voice.

That's right, the pale, shaggy-haired face peeking out of the doorway was the same Billy they'd seen earlier at Sexual Assault Trauma Anonymous. He said something to Sharp, but being so far away, the two men sitting in the car didn't hear it at all, but looking at Billy's body language, it seemed like he was tempted to either hide himself in the depths of the house or tell Sharp to leave now.

-- Neither of those visions came to pass as Sharp reached out violently and pushed Billy, stepping into the apartment, both figures disappeared through the doorway.

The car was silent, Albarino still looked at Herstal with interest, as if he had no interest in the other two guys, and Herstal in front of him was a puzzle that surpassed the Goldbach's Conjecture.

Herstal wasn't looking at him, just in the direction of the door: the door to the apartment was still not completely closed, showing a crack, and the light from the interior shone in, casting an ominous glow along the door gap.

The choice Herstal was facing seemed obvious enough: it was a row of two storey apartments along the street, and there was no telling how soundproof it would be, or whether Billy would be living alone or sharing the apartment with others. Clearly, every aspect of the matter was problematic, and this was not a suitable moment for Herstal -- or the Westland pianist -- to make an appearance.

Albariño waited for the other man to make his choice, and Herstal must have considered the details in his mind, but finally he heard Herstal curse under his breath and jump out of the car.

Albariño smiled a little and followed the other man out of the car, putting on the gloves he had in his pocket as he ran in the direction of the apartment -- what was going on in the apartment, and the state of the street itself influenced where things would go next. Albariño looked around and realized that the street cameras had long since been vandalized, as was common in the gang-ridden city of Westland.

He smiled slowly, that gave things a lot of room to manoeuvre.

The two of them pushed open the ajar door and quickly entered the interior, by which time the second question Albariño had just considered was answered: the apartment was indeed on two floors, but it was clear that Billy had only rented the second floor of the apartment, the first floor rooms were unoccupied and the furniture was covered under white fabric.

Lights filtered in from above the stairs on the second floor, and the sounds of people arguing overflowed down

At this point, the answer to Albariño's first question also came out "The soundproofing of this apartment is very good, after they entered the room, they will find that the noise of the quarrelling was very loud, but even if the door is only ajar, standing outside it was almost impossible to hear the sounds within the room.

It would seem that the neighbor who had just heard Sharp's knocking was able to hear it only because one of the windows next door was open, which would explain why Sharp had been knocking on the door for so long, and only one neighbor had come out to protest.

-- Which could mean a lot of things.

So, as Herstal looked towards the second floor, Albarino stood behind him, silently closing and locking the door to the apartment.

At the same time, they could both hear Billy's shrill voice screaming in panic, "You stay away from me! Don't ever follow me again! Get out of this house right now or I'll-"

"What will you do? Stab me with this little knife in your hand?!" Sharp roared angrily, "You've ruined everything, don't think I wouldn't dare-"

There was no need to listen to them any longer; it was enough to know that the situation upstairs was tense and that a young man who was in no position to defend himself, held a sharp weapon in his hand. Herstal still glanced at Albariño before making a move, and the other nodded knowingly towards him before the two men quickly rushed upstairs.

Herstal did simulate multiple possibilities in his head, and the relative ways to handle them, as well as corresponding ways of dealing with them and means of dealing with the aftermath. He never faced any situation unprepared, yet he still felt a vague concern. This concern came from the scar he had seen under the wide cuffs of the young man called Billy on that Saturday morning they had been at the Mutual Aid Club.

And that concern came true.

As they rushed to the second floor, they were just in time to see Billy cornered in the room by Anthony Sharp, his face desperate, his white scarred face streaked with tears. The look in those eyes told others clearly that he understood what was going to happen to him, and when it was going to happen--

When such a thing was about to happen, Billy raised his hand violently, and in it he held a small fruit knife, not very long, but still sharp.

He slashed this knife at his neck, just as he had tried to slice the veins in his wrist with it when he had decided to give in to the world.

But before he had not succeeded for whatever reason, but at this moment -- at this moment Anthony Sharp cursed in shock; at this moment Albariño and Herstal stood at the stairway, but it was too late; at this moment blood gushed from the wound in the gaunt young man's neck, for the flesh and the veins were so fragile, so soft.

The blood spurted violently over Sharp, frozen in place by the sudden turn of events, spattering the faded wallpaper and the aged floor. The long lines drawn across the floor and walls looked like small, brightly coloured flowers as the heat gradually dissipated into the night.

Blood gushed out of the young man's neck in a frenzied gesture, even more more unrestrained and unyielding than the impression he left on others, the opposite of the impression Billy had left in the Anonymous Mutual Aid Association. The young man opened his fingers tremblingly and the knife clanged to the floor, his lips parted but no sound came from his throat.

He slowly, slowly slid down against the wall.

At the same time, Albariño reached out and pressed his hand to his companion's shoulder. Herstal's shoulders were so tense he could practically feel the muscles quivering with rage.

Albarino warned in a low voice, "Pianist."

Chapter 5: 41. Dance, Dance, My Doll (5)

Chapter Text

Herstal had not actually heard much of what Albariño had said.

For in that instant his ears had been flooded with an infinite roar, that was like a boulder breaking, a canopy crumbling, a furious sound that every feverish patient has in their ears in the dead of night without fail. Billy collapsed in the corner, looking almost as if an invisible hand was draining the colour out of his body, and all that blood running down the floor reminded him of a bathroom with mould growth, dripping in spots along the tiles.

And Anthony Sharp was turning around in shock, obviously having no conception of the unexpected events he had encountered in this room, and not at all expecting to run into anyone else in this house -- they stared at each other for a few seconds, and then Sharp suddenly leapt to his feet.

He was obviously ready to take the road and run, although the path he chose was rather poor, as the two remaining men were blocking the doorway, so he simply scurried towards the window. Even if he did manage to get out of the window -- and judging by the width of the windows in this small apartment, he likely wouldn't -- he would have broken at least one of his legs due to the height of the second floor.

It was enough to see that this wasn't a smart man, at least not enough for Albariño's taste, but of course, the Sunday Gardener wasn't picky about the dead that belonged to him, he didn't really care what most of them looked like before they died, it was the flesh and the blood, the bones, the purely material things that he needed to be able to mould into a form.

He never wasted time fighting, willing to choose the most convenient method to give his target a slash across the throat. Honestly, he hadn't really thought about necessarily putting anyone to death before he left the house today, he didn't even have a handy knife on him. Albariño chose to stand his ground, his face still calm as he waited for what would happen next.

The moment Sharp turned around, Herstal pounced.

Looking at his suit and leather shoes, it would be difficult for ordinary people to imagine that he could move with such ferocity and athleticism underneath this masquerade. He barricaded Sharp and tackled him, the booze-soaked man fell to the floor with a heavy, muffled thud, cursing out in panic. He didn't even have time to turn and struggle out of Herstal's grip as Herstal wrenched him hard on the shoulder -- which was obviously Sharp's arm being dislocated.

Another wail was squeezed from his throat, Albariño watched them, unconsciously reaching out to touch his Adam's apple: the bruise that on his throat before had faded, but the knife mark from before still left a shallow line of white scarring. Herstal, ever so, regardless of what kind of attitude he had in mind towards Albariño, had not been any lighter when he had struck before; or perhaps for someone like him, desire and hurt were inextricably linked.

And at the same time, Herstal neatly drew out a knife from his ankle -- Albariño realized that the blade was very long, it was definitely not the kind of knife Herstal would carry on a daily basis, it was very possible that it was his hunting gear -- and pinned Sharp down with his weight, then cleanly cut the Achilles tendons in both of his opponent's feet with the blade.

Some blood splattered on the floor, and Sharp howled to the point where he would have been worried that the neighbours would have called the police if they hadn't known that the soundproofing was good. Herstal held the knife in his hand and flicked his wrist lightly, causing more blood drops to the fall onto the ground along the blade; then he plunged the knife deep into Sharp's uninjured shoulder.

Sharp's entire body convulsed under his suppression, Herstal didn't even bother to look at him. He simply stood up off the ground and walked over to Billy.

Billy's body was still trembling, blood dripping down his neck while bloody froth choked intermittently out of his throat, it was a startling sight. Albariño, standing as a physician, knew that the young man had only a few minutes to live, and that he was now powerless to do anything; but he could not see Herstal's face: Herstal's back was turned to him, half-kneeling in front of the young man, being careful not to step into any pool of blood. At this moment, what was the expression on his face?

Regardless, he did not move, did not try to stop the bleeding wound, did not speak. Billy looked at him with incredulity, and much, much disbelief and pain still frozen in his eyes, but that was all. Albariño could see the light in his eyes dimming, the gaze cast into the distance beyond their reach and finally froze.

For a moment, none of them spoke, they could only hear Sharp lying on the ground making intermittent moans, curses, and cries for help. It was hard to imagine how sounds like that could mix so naturally, coming from the throat of a single man.

Albariño crossed over Sharp without a glance and stood behind Herstal. If his suspicions about Herstal were correct, the other man couldn't possibly like someone standing behind him at a moment like this, just as his tense shoulders and back indicated -- before they had known each other, murder had remained a private, unspeakable activity, but this routine may not continue in the future.

"He's dead," Albarino pointed out quietly, "We could certainly call an ambulance and have a doctor come in without hopes of resuscitation, but no one survives after all that blood - and besides, the injuries on Sharp's body are not easy to explain to the police. This cannot be excused by excessive defence. You are a legal practitioner and you know this best."

Herstal didn't answer, in fact he just slowly stood up and turned to face Albariño.

His pupils were dilated and his breathing was rapid, a consequence of the adrenaline surging through his blood. It took a moment before Herstal could speak, his voice was deep and hoarse as he asked, "Do you think I'll try to save him?"

"That depends on how empathetic you are to the whole thing, but even putting aside those facts that I can't speculate on, you're a fascinating enigma." Albariño said, cautiously diluting the parts of his voice that he couldn't help but bring a smile to; the last thing he wanted right now was for Herstal to choose to rush over and stab him as well.

Herstal spoke up, "My 'empathy' for this --"

"Because you and I understand that on a moral level, we shouldn't accuse the victim of being weak. Though from the perspective of what we did, discussing 'morality' seems like a joke." Albarino shrugged unconcernedly, still looking straight at Herstal, those green eyes once again making people feel uncomfortable, "But look at yourself, Herstal: you're getting so angry, and that anger isn't just because of what that tasteless guy did -- you're also angry because of what Billy chose, to run away from it all, and you're as annoyed at his running away as you are at yourself; so although you can certainly empathize with him, you don't choose to save him, and when you watched the soul leave his body, it was as if you were seeing the same person you were all those years ago."

"And criminal psychologists say you're the one who can't empathize with humans." Herstal sneered.

"That's because you're too close to me on every level, and being able to understand you doesn't mean that you have to overrule all of Olga's research." Albarino let himself smile, and by now the longest line of blood beneath Billy's body was just about to reach the soles of Herstal's shoes, it looked like a bright red, slender vine that could drag the one standing there into the abyss.

Then he asked, "While there is no point in discussing time travel right now, assuming you had that kind of a chance to go back in time, would you really let yourself die the moment you attempted to commit suicide?"

"There really is no point in this topic." Herstal replied coldly and stiffly.

"In the eyes of psychologists, his matter is of great significance." Albarino tsked, but obviously compromised, "If you insist, let's get back to reality: what are you going to do with that guy?"

--The "guy" he was talking about was desperately trying to crawl towards the door to escape after no one had stopped him at the door. One of his hands was dislocated, a knife was stuck in his other shoulder, and both of his legs were bleeding. Under these circ*mstances, Sharp twisted his slightly mobile arm and other shoulder to crawl toward the door, the wound under his body dragged a long trail of blood on the floor.

The scene looked almost like a classic scene from a horror movie, where he would run back to death in a desperate attempt to escape the monster behind him, but the creature would soon grab him by the ankles, drag him back under the bed, and knowing that the unlucky protagonist would discover his unmistakably miserable corpse.

The reality was probably not that different, as Albariño watched Sharp's gesture of trying to crawl towards the door for a moment before turning back to Herstal once more. Even though the man no longer posed much of a threat to him, Herstal's body language was still taut, and his breathing had plateaued, but Albariño guessed that his heart was still beating like thunder.

They were immersed in the low moans and the desperate rustle of of despair against the floor, Herstal gazed at the shocking red bloodstains and the man's torso writhing in agony before he said simply, "Leave him to me."

"That's of course," Albariño flashed the other man a wide smile, though he knew that Herstal was not in the mood to see it. "Happy to oblige."

Albariño had never seen Herstal "at work"-- neither in the courtroom nor on such a mysterious night. The night at his house certainly didn't count, since that incident had been laced with too much personal emotion in the first place, and since they both knew the victim would survive in the end. Everything before that, no matter how realistic, no matter how painful, was meaningless.

And now he watched as Herstal dragged Sharp back to the center of the house, adding another brightly coloured touch to the bloodstains on the floor. Sharp still grunting in despair, suddenly bursting into a yell as Herstal pulled the knife out of his shoulder.

But it was all to no avail; he was turned back on his back by Herstal, lying on the ground like a lamb to the slaughter, flailing as wildly as he possibly could. But apparently it was all to no avail, as Herstal jammed his knee into his shoulder and cupped his chin in his hand.

--He wasn't wearing gloves, Albariño thought. He thought about those earlier assertions he'd made because latex and leather didn't feel intimate enough against his fingers, and he was pretty sure that assuming that Herstal had removed the internal organs with his bare hands from the victim's disemboweled abdominal cavity, he wouldn't have been wearing gloves. As for the time he'd worn gloves in Albariño's house, he'd definitely only worn them because he'd wanted to keep the bloodstains on the floor intact and therefore couldn't clean the floor.

That was fine for this crime scene, and he was well aware that by the time he'd finished up, they'd have thoroughly clean the entire room with bleach until CSI couldn't detect any DNA samples in here. It seemed a rather comical thing to think that Herstal, who didn't even have a single suitable condiment in his refrigerator, was quite good at cleaning up after himself.

And now Herstal was squeezing the joints of Sharp's lower jaw hard enough to force him to open his mouth, then stabbing the knife right into his mouth.

The blade of the knife was too long, and Herstal's movements weren't deliberately delicate nor precise. Albariño just watched as he cut off Sharp's tongue -- which of course the Westland Pianist would do this, just look at the scars on Billy's face -- a limp, bloody piece of Sharp's tongue was flung onto the floor, done purely to keep Sharp from choking on the chunk of meat that could slip into his windpipe.

But he looked like he was already choking on blood, while Albariño was familiar with the forensic routine of yanking the entire tongue out of a dead body's jaws, he had no concept of how much blood would actually come out of a living person's tongue if it was severed. Herstal was straddling Sharp's entire body as he did this, the latter was kicking and struggling frantically underneath him, blood bubbling out of his mouth and choking him as it poured down his throat, coughing continuously.

"You could get a dog." Albarino looked at Herstal's knife-wielding left hand and suddenly offered, "When you kill someone throw the mincemeat to your dog to eat, I think that's the kind of drama a movie director would appreciate."

"I'm not a mafia godfather or anything like that." Herstal replied without looking up, his voice cold, as if even the last trace of emotion had faded from his voice as he did so. But this sight of him wasn't very shocking, the difference between the Herstal of the night and the Herstal of the day was no more than that between a butterfly and a cocoon, Albariño could easily discern what they had in common.

Herstal continued his work, overall quieter after Sharp had lost his tongue. Albariño watched as Herstal very smoothly cut Sharp's clothing into pieces and then jerked them off, not nearly as meticulously as he had done in Albariño's home; the process was all done from a position of pragmatism: jerking the clothing off of the other man in the simplest way possible, and removing the clothes from the other person’s body without touching the other person’s skin.

In the end, the Pianist knelt on the floor, the man's naked body lying in front of him, Sharp's gaze towards him was still saturated with horror and fear, the kind of wonder that a child would show when listening to a parent tell them about a religious demon story for the first time before going to sleep. But maybe the truth was this: there were no lake and pits of fire within the deepest parts of the earth, no demons that would be watching you at all times, ready to drag you down to hell -- but there would be on the Earth.

"So," said Albariño, "this is your blank canvas."

Herstal didn't answer that comment at all, and Albariño wasn't even quite sure if he was still listening, but it didn't matter; he was so focused that, Albarino, who had dated many men and women, would comment, because he looked extremely sexy -- and if the knife in his hand with the bloody mess in front of him could have been combined into a mosaic, he might've been able to be rated sexy by seventy-five percent of the adults in the world.

But Herstal wouldn't know what was going through Albariño's mind as he methodically went about his work: starting with Sharp's lips, which were constantly dripping blood, he sliced off both of them with his knife until he forced the other man to show his white teeth, and then flung those same pieces of flesh to the floor. Then came the ears, the nose, the parts that protruded but didn't cause a person to bleed to death immediately, slicing off the other man's genitals, and then Herstal began to peel the skin off the other man's chest along Sharp's collarbone.

Even the Westland Pianist rarely had a moment where he made a scene this bloody, and the air was filled with a sickeningly fishy odour. The lines of the scars were visible just as the knife cut down, but immediately so much blood would gush out that it would blur the wound, and the next moments of the blade's fall were practically a swimming pool of blood.

-- This crime scene was rare even for the Pianist, while Albariño was able to recall that case in April of this year, where a suspect suspected of raping and killing four women was murdered by the Pianist, who disemboweled his victim, removed all of their organs, and then shoved the victims' chopped off limbs and genitals into the victims' stomach, before finally sewing the victims' abdomens back together.

Albarino still vividly remembered the scene of that case, of course, mainly because, it was he who opened the stitches in the victim's abdomen and took out those pieces of limbs that had been cut off. That dead man's abdomen had been stretched to physically uncomfortable proportions by the stumps shoved into him, and even Olga admits, "This time the scene of the Pianist seemed very excessive."

-- See, that's the only reason he went overboard, the reason Albariño was able to find Herstal Armalight's first crime like a needle in a haystack of so many cases in Kentucky, and it was all so clear-cut and distinct.

Herstal was wearing nothing but a simple shirt, this one flushed a pale pearlescent gray, the front and cuffs of which were now soaked with blood, even as new blood covered the last stain before it had dried. This was one of those moments when Herstal's almost obsessive cleanliness -- would not make a comeback, Albariño guessed that he almost enjoying the sensation of blood running through his fingers.

It took a lot of time to get the job done meticulously, but actually peeling off pieces of skin does not require surgery and it takes almost an eternity. Herstal even seemed a little over-skilled in his movements when he did it, but not many of the Pianist's victims had actually been skinned, Albariño could only guess that the man had other criminal convictions in other states before coming to Westland to open a law firm.

Eventually Herstal peeled off the entire skin, and Sharp was already in a semi-conscious state, his torso looking like nothing more than a naked, reddish-white piece of raw meat that could barely be associated with a human being. Albarino watched as the tip of Herstal's knife roamed around the other man's abdomen, he reminded him gently, "He'll be dead basically instantly if this cut goes down."

Herstal knelt in the pool of blood, staring at the bloody flesh for a moment before he replied, "I know."

Then he stabbed the knife down anyway, not deep enough to pierce the heart, but enough to cause blood to flow from the other man's body like a fountain. The torso convulsed under his fingers as Herstal pulled the knife mark all the way down, from his chest to his abdomen, before pulling the knife out and returning it to its original position, before stabbing a second time.

It was almost as if he was simply savouring the sensation that a knife brings when it pierces flesh as he repeated the motion, a clean, unhesitating flatness between the cuts, just like...just like those trial cut wounds on Herstal's wrists and those fresh scars under Billy's cuffs.

"In the school bathroom, actually." Herstal said suddenly, knowing Albariño's inner thoughts as if he were reading his mind.

"What?" Albarino asked.

Herstal dropped the knife in his hand onto the floor with a crunch that seemed to signal that he was tired of it and intended to take the other man's life by the ultimate means. He drew a small loop of piano string from his pocket and strangled the indestructible wire around Sharp's neck and began to tighten it slowly and without hesitation.

The other man, even though he had slipped into unconsciousness, struggled instinctively at this point, like a scaled and gutted fish still jumping on the chopping board. Herstal stared down at him, his hands extremely steady, the piano strings sinking deep into Sharp's neck, and leaving one last terrible mark.

"At school," Herstal continued, "one night after that happened, I didn't go home after school and slit my wrist with a box cutter in the school bathroom."

Now his wrist was all drenched in someone else's blood and nothing was visible.

"You're hard on yourself, always have been." Albariño said thoughtfully, recalling the scars he had seen from beneath Herstal's cuffs on the night of Landon's death.

"But at that time I was still too stupid to know where the correct location of the vein was." Herstal snorted.

"And then?" Albarino asked.

"I got suspended, that's natural." Herstal replied, his fingers hanging steady in the air as the twitching convulsions of Sharp's body finally came to an end: his breathing stopping.

It was also at this moment that Herstal looked up at Albariño: he had such a calm demeanor, his hair was unruffled, but there was a drop of blood splattered on his cheekbone from some unknown point. He was kneeling in a pool of gradually congealing blood, behind the bloody corpse, in the very center of the lingering aura of death in the room, his eyes cold and sharp, the turbulence of madness hidden beneath a calm azure pool.

Albariño took a deep breath.

They both remained silent, as if sound would disintegrate the present scene apart. Then Albariño strode forward, stepping into the pool of blood, feeling it gradually begin to soak through his pants as he kneels beside Herstal.

Then he reached out and caught the other man's fingers holding the knife, feeling the slippery skin and the blood that covered his hand. Albariño grabbed his hand and leaned forward, kissing Herstal on the lips.

Chapter 6: 42. Dance, Dance, My Doll (6)

Chapter Text

Herstal said, "Albarino--"

It was a sentence he didn't get to finish, because he was pinned right down to the floor by Albarino the next second -- they did not need to hide in the regard that: if it were not for Herstal's permission, Albarino would never have succeed in pushing him -- but at the moment, Herstal's palms were merely propped up symbolically on the floor in passing, his fingers pressed into the pool of blood. He slipped backwards unexpectedly, his spine crashing into the floor, leaving a stark, five-fingered trail on the ground.

One of Albarino's hands cushioned the back of his head in the process, a gesture Herstal could not comment on as considerate. The act was not considerate by any stretch of the imagination when it fell on the present circ*mstances.

The other man's eyes were always that eerie bright green colour that conjured up images of wolves, ghostly fires, and churning pools of acid. Normally, Herstal wouldn't have been surprised at what over-the-line antics this madman would get up to, but at times like this --

"You're going to make this crime scene extra hard to clean up." Herstal whispered, most of his words ended up reducing into a muffled pronunciation and swallowed down the other man's throat.

Albarino kissed him from his lips all the way down to his cheekbone, finally crushing his soft earlobe with his teeth, laughter still seemingly laced in his voice, "Do you really care? Big deal, just burn it to the ground."

The word "burn it to the ground" shouldn't be followed by "just," and a serial killer who hadn't gotten carried away by his own hubris shouldn't be getting involved with someone else at the scene of the crime.

But at the moment, Billy was still languishing in the corner, open eyes staring ever straight ahead to the other side where they couldn't reach, Herstal felt his entire shirt soaking through with blood bit by bit as he lay on the floor, the sea of blood visible to his eyes that were soaked deep into the crevices of the floor, burning the texture of their skin below their bones. Sharp's entire being was almost transformed into a blood-soaked sculpture, a small sample of the artist's clay, unrefined and unassembled, blurring into an inexplicable mass.

In the corner beneath his darkened eyes hung the darkened zenith of the church when it was unlit with crystal chandeliers, filled with the notes of a piano, their strings like sharp edges, filaments from the spindle of the Goddess of Fate, guiding one to the unknowable.

Albarino's lips held a sweet, sinister smile as he asked again, "Do you really care? From beginning to end, did you ever care?"

The fingers of this cold-hearted murderer gripped his wrist and pressed his hand to the floor, dipping it in blood until his skin was too slippery to grip. Albariño's calloused fingers grazed his wrist, wiping the nearly dried blood on it, there were many scars there, some very shallow and tentative, with a name called Hesitation, and some deep, ivory-white scars, whose name was Death.

"I don't care." Herstal heard himself say.

Whether or not that answer was a lie depended largely on what question it was in response to. And Albarino mercifully didn't break it down; they didn't have to talk about the fact that it wasn't Billy that Herstal cared about, and it certainly couldn't have been Anthony Sharp; the story of a serial killer was supposed to be the story of a bunch of egocentric psychopaths, and they didn't need to emphasize that any more than they had to.

So Albariño just continued to kiss him, before finally running his blood-soaked hands on the floor into the hem of his shirt. Thank God Herstal had not just gotten off work from the law firm so there were no such things as vests, ties, cufflinks, lapel pins, or shirt clips or a host of other things on him that could impede Albariño's movements. His fingers were wet and slippery, but not very hot.

The blood had gone cold.

"I danced to that song of yours." Herstal said in an airy tone as the other man began to unbutton his shirt, "Are you satisfied now?"

"I do not think I need to emphasize again that I have not put you in that position." Albariño replied, his voice lazy, almost as if he wanted to sigh. He ground his teeth into Herstal's throat to create a reddened teeth mark, presumably branding just above the old white scar near his adam's apple. The scars on his skin probably wouldn't fade, and the bite mark Sharp had left on Billy's face would never fade, only rot, then turn to dust as he did.

Albariño had unbuttoned his shirt, and the skin that hadn't been exposed to the sun was very pale - of course, Herstal Armalight didn't look like the type that would ever go sunbathing. Along the traces of Albariño's unbuttoning, the layers of blood that he had rubbed on haphazardly was gradually drying up into a brown colour, and felt coarse to the touch.

This scene was very reminiscent of the night associated with the discussion of the white grapes, and those traces of blood oozing from Albariño's skin outlined a similar picture to that of the wounds on his body, most of which had now been removed, with a few extraordinarily stubborn scabs congealing black and remaining stubbornly in place, the rest of which were all exposed, fresh, tender, and fragile skin of an abnormal red colour, outlining the letters.

"I guess we can all agree," Albariño said, keeping his voice deliberately low and husky, sounding almost analogous to whatever it was he was so deeply fascinated by, "that the human body is good canvas."

--These words should have made Herstal feel a sense of crisis, given the insulting string of words he'd left on Albariño's body with his knife. Thinking back to it now, it was not that Herstal had been overly angry that night, he would still have made those choices; maybe Albariño was right, and the word Psychopath might not have been a bad choice except for the fact that it had too many letters.

But Albariño simply pressed his lips to his collarbone, and he nibbled densely along the string of bloody marks and the curve of the skin, not leaving anything other than red marks. The sensation was private and itchy, Herstal arched up slightly, pressing his fingers threateningly into the other man's shoulder as he replied, "Yes, but I can't say that makes you much classier -- that's the blood of a pedophile asshole."

"Indeed," Albarino said as he licked wetly at the bloodstain near his navel, he could feel the muscles of the other man's abdomen trembling beneath his lips, "The police entered Sharp's entire profile when he was charged -- he didn't have any contagious diseases; so yes, he was a pedophile, but he's just dead meat now, and this is just blood."

Of course that's what the Sunday gardener would think. He didn't care if the dead guy was a pedophile asshole or a philanthropist; the blood of Christ and the blood of Satan made essentially no difference to him -- unless the blood of one could actually turn into wine.

"I suspect you wouldn't have cared much even when he was alive." Herstal hissed as the other man opened the buttons of his pants with his fingers.

"Why should I care? The man is a creation made of blood and flesh, with a bit of soul injected into it. Idealists say that it is by the human mind that all things are given meaning, so I doubt he deserves that honour at all." Albariño snorted softly, pushing his hand into Herstal's pants, taking hold of the already hardened organ -- his movements were so smooth and practised it seemed suspicious. It was not hard to imagine how many times he had done these actions, how he had pleasured his partners on many a night - wet, sticky, and hot, but the touch was not quite the same as a water-based lubricant, and his hand were covered in blood.

Herstal took a breath; the pleasure Albariño could deliver was sharp, like needles and the teeth of an animal. For to the Sunday Gardener in question, sex was never warm and soft, that word was too far from him: he belonged to the thick clouds, the lightning and the westerly winds, and under his fingers was an electric charge, crackling and splitting, bringing touches like pins and needles.

Albariño leaned down to kiss him again, his lips skimming the torso, his teeth and lips grinding near his hip bones like a pagan worshipping a god. And they happened to be lying on top of the altar, consoling their ancestors with the blood and heads of their enemies.

Herstal propped his body up on his heels so that the other man could help him tug his pants down. The whole thing wasn't a good idea by any stretch of the imagination, not even just the fact that he was lying in a pool of drying blood: the house was soundproofed well enough not to make the neighbors suspicious, and the price of rentals in the neighborhood and the level of turnover were such that people weren't going to call the police when there was a rude man banging on the door -- but that wasn't an excuse for "you can have sex at the murder scene", either, which was a load of crap.

As he moved, Herstal could feel the liquid being pushed out of the soaked clothing with an eerie gurgling sound. Albariño kissed his way down his stomach, his lips brushing wetly over his testicl*s as his fingers wandered restlessly in front of Herstal's ass.

Herstal propped himself up onto his elbows and asked, "I surely can't expect you to have lube, can I?"

-- This is what he wanted to ask, but the reality wasn't quite what he expected, and his voice must have stuttered as the other man took one side of his testicl*s wetly and hotly into his mouth. Albariño snorted vaguely, and only the devil knew what he was talking about.

Because there really was no serial killer who carried lubricant to commit crimes, and there wasn't even a word that could be used to describe what was going on currently.

Since Herstal understood exactly what Albariño's answer was, and even what Albariño was trying to do, he had to respond with something to do with the lubricant.

He reached down and roughly pulled Albariño's hair, forcing him to look up.

Then Herstal warned sternly, "If you dare--"

Albariño was right about one thing: this blood on the floor was no different from all the blood in the world, and no different from the blood that had been shed on Albariño's body the night the pianist had left his cuts, and since they had confirmed that Anthony Sharp really didn't have any illnesses that could be transmitted through blood, they shouldn't have been concerned ...

But now Herstal was waiting for Albariño with a gaze that could be called menacing, just in case the other man would actually dip his hand in the blood and send it between his legs. The other man looked up at him with a knowing smirk on the corners of his mouth. Despite the fact that, at the moment, the glistening, hardening penis was pressing almost obscenely against Albariño's cheek, something sharp as a knife still hid inside his eyes.

"Ah," commented Albariño slowly, "how fussy, Pianist."

Then he grabbed Herstal violently by the hip-bone and set his leg over his shoulder.

Herstal didn't quite maintain his balance for a moment, and he was pretty sure his hand grazed the dead man's chest as he tried to brace himself on the floor. That blood was drying on the floor felt strange to the touch, everything was going to fade away, like the soul or blood of a dead man, and in that way it essentially didn't make a difference whether or not his fingers had grazed the rotten flesh.

But it wasn't the same; he remembered the touch of the knife piercing into that flesh, the sensation that still made his heart beat rapidly and his fingertips itch like pins and needles. Albariño was calmly bending him over, burying his head without shame to lick his hole, trying to stab his tongue into the soft, hidden place.

His touch burned like fire from the skin where Albariño's lips touched, and blood dripped viscously from between his fingers as the other man gripped his leg, cutting a crimson trail across Herstal's skin. Albariño pinched his legs, squeezing groans and gasps cruelly from his lungs.

They could make a case that the dead people in the house were the source of the loss of control, precisely because they were different from the others -- but that might as well be a lie.

Albariño must have made an obscene noise on purpose. Herstal's fingers scratched across the floor as he stared up at the empty ceiling, he felt as if his gaze might be even more vacant than the dead. Finally the culprit straightened up, his lips crimson and his voice simply uncontrollably triumphant.

"It's going to hurt." Albariño warned, and as he said this he climbed on top of Herstal, and while supporting his body, he took off his belt with one hand. Herstal realized for the first time in that moment that the feeling of the other man being fully clothed when he was all but stripped naked really irked him - but considering that Albariño was the one who'd had the clothes on his body cut to shreds by the pianist with a knife, perhaps he should be a little more forgiving.

Herstal sneered at Albariño's reminder, the breathy sound escaping weakly from between his lips, still loud in this deathly room. Albariño hung his leg over the crook of his arm and pushed himself into him bit by bit, listening to the low curses and gasps that burned, stung, and felt as much like living as murder.

He remembered that Albariño did talk about it before, about sex and death --

But he didn't have time to think about that now, as Albariño enveloped him like a massive shadow, digging his fingers into his hair and rubbing wet blood into those blond locks.

Then his hands tangled his hands in the hair around Herstal's temples, forcing him to turn his head to the side -- Herstal's cheeks pressed uncomfortably into a pool of blood, sticky, while Anthony Sharp's body lay just a short distance away, his face drenched in blood, his abdomen open, to the point where his insides were about to spilling out due to the depth of the slashes; his white, ghastly teeth were exposed to the air, and the corners of his mouth were stained with pale red foam.

"I guess you would mind, but I would have liked to f*ck you on top of him." Albariño's voice was nearly devoid of laughter, yet electricity crackled at the ends of his words, "No, sorry -- 'it'. You can feel the blood being squeezed out of its body, the blood deposited downwards forming purple dots, the muscles gradually stiffening, the eyes cloudy as it gazes towards death. It is at times like these that you know you are still alive, and that it is but smoke"

Herstal cursed defiantly; he would not doubt that Albariño Bacchus was really capable of that sort of thing, which just goes to show that it was a travesty that many people thought that the Pianist was far worse than the Sunday Gardener.

"Of course I would mind," he hissed, "given that it's clear to many that I killed them precisely because I didn't like them-"

His voice came to an abrupt halt, replaced by a gasp, his voice swimming on the edge of intense pain and ecstasy.

"Because they are like the shadows of your nightmares, or was this just a meaningless self-punishment?" Albariño pinched his leg, bending his body almost cruelly, "How much do you loathe yourself for not putting up a fight in the first place?"

There was no point in talking about it, Herstal glared at the other man beneath lashes tangled in moisture, a reality that diminished the power of that gaze. Albariño looked down at him, his collar open a little, fresh scars tangled on his neck and collarbone, marks that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, a kind of silent memoir.

Albariño looked at him and sighed suddenly, then leaned down, his slightly longer strands of hair falling down and brushing Herstal's cheekbones.

"Mr. Armalight," Albarino then whispered in his ear, almost as if he were chewing up the words and feeding them to him, slowly, intimately, and breathtakingly. I'll repeat those words one more time: you are nothing like these people."

He chose this moment to thrust deeply into Herstal's body, feeling those muscles spasm and wrap around him. Herstal let out a small sound from between his throat, a muffled sigh of relief as if he'd been choked.

Albariño grabbed his hair with one hand and went to pinch his nipples with the other, rubbing a dark, half-dried trail across the skin of his chest and stomach. Herstal struggled half-heartedly, the air so thick with blood that it almost seemed suffocating, a black vortex that could consume a man. He panted breathlessly between the thrusts until until Albariño shoved his fingers into his mouth.

Herstal tasted a strong odour of blood on his fingertip, and of course he knew where it came from. In response, all he could do was gasp and bite the other man's finger with pressure, his teeth digging deep into the root of the other man's finger. He was really using force, and while it may not have been enough to break the skin, it did cause Albariño to let out a low hiss.

As if in retaliation, Albariño entered him hard and deep, forcing a moan laced with curses from his throat as he hit his prostate.

Albarino pulled his finger out, a reddened teeth mark marked the base of his index finger. He pressed his finger onto the corner of Herstal's mouth, playing with the spit-soaked skin before saying, "You are so far above him that he does not even deserve your disgust."

"... You don't understand." Herstal replied through gritted teeth between overdoses of pleasure, the pressure of Albariño's fingers piercing his skin was like a string of electricity, he tapped his heels angrily against Albariño's back, but that did not cause the other man to slow down his attack.

"I do understand." Albariño's voice lowered to a sleepy murmur as he leaned down once more, his lips brushing the corner of Herstal's moist lips. "I understand where your anger comes from, I understand where your sin was born from, I know your disgust, though I do not approve of it. And in this case--"

Again, he kissed Herstal on the lips, and the kiss itself was nearly a gentle, pure kiss.

"Thy sin is between my lips. [1]" he murmured.

[1] Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare. (TL Notes: I can't find an exact quote that would fit this but my best guess in something from Act 1 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet)

Chapter 7: 43. Dionysus in the Tombs (1)

Notes:

Quotes from 'The Psyche' are all taken from this website: http://hca.gilead.org.il/psyche.html

Also bolded 'you' means the polite form of you (您) was used

Chapter Text

"Believe me, the time will come when you will be old, and your sinews will shrink, and then, on some fine sunshiny day, when everything is laughing and rejoicing, you will lie there a faded plant, that will grow no more." [1]

[1] The fairy tale that Shana reads is part of a short story by Hans Christian Andersen called 'The Psyche'.

Albariño's mother -- Shana Barris, read, her fingers resting on the thick cover of the fairy tale book, her voice soft and gentle. Her son, no more than five or six years old at the time, was nestled into his soft bed, enveloped in the glow of the bedside lamp.

"I don't believe what the ministers tell us about life beyond the grave; that's a beautiful imagination, a fairy tale for children, and pleasant enough if you can make yourself believe it. I do not live in imagination; I live in reality. Come along! Be a man!" [2]

[2] The remaining quotes in this passage are all taken from 'The Psyche'.

"Living in reality?" The kid asked.

"Yes Al, it's the things you have to experience, the things you have to do." Shana replied, reaching out to touch the child's temples, the hair fine and soft, curly and a deep gold colour. Children who were blonde at this age had a good chance of their hair turning a darker shade of brown as they grew, that part of the future was something to look forward to.

The child looked at her, blinking a little sleepily, and he whispered, "What must be done?"

"I can't tell you what must be done, because what must be done is different for everyone." Shana leaned over and kissed the child on the cheek and said, "You'll learn for yourself when you're older, dear."

"They told him that art was a sorcerer, betraying us to vanity and to earthly lusts; that we are false to ourselves, unfaithful to our friends, unfaithful towards Heaven; and that the serpent was always repeating within us, “Eat, and thou shalt become as God."

Albariño said as he parked the car, "I guess we all have this common sense: never dismember a body in your own home, there's no way to get rid of the blood and residue that comes out as part of this process. No one wants to have the dead man's DNA extracted one day by CSI in the bend of your sewer pipe."

They drove another rented SUV and gave it a fake license plate before hitting the road -- as the old saying goes, no one knows how Herstal manages to access all these illegal and criminal things. But that being said: this was the city of Westland after all.

Currently, the car was parked in front of a building that resembled a hunter's cabin in the middle of the forest, it was already dark enough that the entire house could only be seen as a vague, dark outline in the moonlight. The snow throughout the forest floor emanated a faint white glow under the moonlight. Herstal looked out through the car window and asked, "Is this your property, too?"

"Not in its name" Albarino winked meaningfully as he pulled a pair of latex gloves out of his pocket and put them on before tossing another pair to Herstal, "Put these on, I don't want any detectable fingerprints left on this house, and I always have to be on guard against this place being discovered by the cops every now and then."

"So the reason why Schwandner and the others found nothing in your house before, it's because you never disposed the bodies there at all." Herstal thought back slowly, obviously referring to the fact that it was because of the murder of Sarah Adelman that the CSIs found nothing but a pile of coyote bones when they had gone to search Albariño's house.

He put on his gloves and got out of the car. The early winter nights in the woods were exceptionally cold, and there was no sound in the darkness except for the occasional chirping bird; many of the cities surrounding the Great Lakes were covered in such vast, untouched forests that no one would specifically search for a cabin within them, it was a good idea to station himself here.

"I don't dispose of the vast majority of the bodies at home anymore - but I still do some of the work there, and that's one of the perks of living out in the country; then again, why would you have to bury charred bone fragments in a shed behind your house when there's almost four acres of land near your home that belongs to you it?"

Albarino said as he slammed the car door shut, his voice calm and cheerful, making it sound as if they weren't discussing dismemberment.

He continued, "I try not to bring home anything too big with too large a workload, but it’s okay to do things like sticking gold foil on bones at home."

Herstal knew what he was referring to, of course: the bouquet of pure white flowers that sat on his desk at the A&H law firm. He rolled his eyes at Albariño uncharacteristically, which the latter ignored with a smirk and turned around to the back of the car to open its trunk.

-- The trunk held two items wrapped tightly in plastic, but no matter how tightly they were wrapped, they couldn't hide a putrid odour that gradually emanated from the thing. The whole scene was extraordinarily like a thriller movie at times like this, and Albariño was just thankful that it was still winter, or else the body would have entered quiet a state by now, after two days of being wrapped up so tightly.

He wasn't the kind of guy with no taste who would display a dead body in his house, and even if he was a forensic pathologist, he couldn't quite stand a corpse whose entire body was swollen with decomposition and whose tongue had toppled out of its mouth by putrefying gases: there was no need to even mention the smell.

It was Friday, because Mr. Armalight, a brilliant lawyer with a busy schedule, had to get off work on a Friday night before he could condescend to deal with the man he'd killed on Wednesday. Not to mention Thursday -- which was Thanksgiving Day, and who the hell set that date? -- He even had a court hearing to attend, which certainly turned out to be all the more reason to shrug off a serial killer's spare-time activities of disposing of dead bodies.

And Albariño on the other hand, had this damned "I won't clean up if you don't clean it up" look on his face, as if what they were actually talking about were the dirty dishes piled up in the sink after a meal. Although he was still on vacation, it was clear that he would rather actually go to the coroner's office and harass his colleague who were doing his job for him, than let these two corpses move off the floor of Herstal's house.

They were in a childish tug-of-war over the whole thing, akin to "why is it my turn to do the chores today" -- and finally, Friday came and they were able to drive the bodies to the mysterious and sinister base of the psychopath Albariño.

Albariño stretched one of the tightly wrapped black bags outward, his face unchanged, as if he hadn't even smelled the sweet odour of decay that hung in the air. He smiled at Herstal and said, "Do me a favor and come give me a hand, you know it's not a one-man job."

Only someone like Albarino could talk about what they were doing now as if they were only printing documents with a printer.

Herstal glared at him none too happily while Albarino made a show of softening his tone, "Come on, you promised you were going to help."

Two days ago.

Herstal had considered this question on a regular basis since he first met Albariño Bacchus: how the hell did his life turn out this way.

Steam was emanating from within the bathroom, Herstal sank himself into the tub, he could feel his tense muscles relaxing little by little. During the shower earlier, his skin had been rubbed red, mostly because of the all the blood that bastard Albarino had gotten all over him; when he killed people, he didn't care about the warm blood splattering all over him, however, by the time the whole thing was over and his heart rate returned to normal, and the adrenaline was no longer dictating his actions, it would be hard for him to suppress his dislike of the dried up stains.

In the other corner of the bathroom, the water from the showerhead splattered against the floor as Albariño washed his hair with his back to him, the skin of his not-so-scarred spine glistening in the light -- so at this point, to repeat the question from the very beginning: how did his life turn out to be like this?

How had he already been reduced to sharing a bathroom with another homicidal maniac?

When Albariño had shamelessly squeezed into the master bathroom of Herstal's house, Herstal admittedly asked a fairly reasonably question, "Why don't you go use the guest room?" Albariño winked and said cheerfully, "But we've killed together, so why can't we shower together?"

The answer was frank enough to make all the cops at WLPD cry, including Bart Hardy -- especially Bart Hardy.

The childish devil blocked the doorway to Herstal's bathroom while Herstal, who was extraordinarily uncomfortable at this point because of the gradually drying bloodstains on his body, and his clothes that were stuck to his skin, frowned and asked, "I'd have to shoot you in the head to get you to give up on that idea, wouldn't I?"

"I'm pretty sure the only gun in the whole house is in my holster, with my coat." Albariño definitely didn't purposefully emphasise the word "my", his smile seemed to get even more cheerful, "And even if you don't agree, I won't force you, but I'll stand here and look at you pitifully, letting you be condemned by your own conscience."

Seriously, what the hell kind of conscience is there to speak of to a psychopathic murderer.

After being covered in dried blood and carrying that blood around for two hours of cleaning up the crime scene, smelling of bleach and extremely tired -- needless to say, before cleaning the crime scene, the two of them f*cked in a pool of blood -- how in the world could anyone use cleaning up a crime scene as an epilogue to sex? -- Herstal really didn't want to argue with Albariño over such arbitrary questions.

Besides, a rational part of him told him that Albariño would really do something like blocking the bathroom door to try to trigger the conscience of another serial killer. In fact, as things stood, he could barely imagine anything that Albariño couldn't do.

Or as the old saying goes: after all those discussions about love they'd had on the couch of Albariño's rented apartment, Herstal knew he would have to make a lot of concessions in the future. Some concessions were harmless, like this argument over the bathroom, and others would cost him his life.

He felt tired, not angry, when he thought about such matters, a feeling similar to that of a dog owner coming home to find that his dog had torn up the couch, and he knew in his heart that this was another one of those silent concessions that had ended up manifesting themselves within him.

-- So he turned sideways and let the smiling Albariño in.

Herstal leaned his head wearily against the edge of the tub, feeling a vague ache begin again in his temples, a headache caused by cervical spondylosis that had been with him since many years ago, it was like a nightmare that could never be shaken off. A damp, fishy odour now lingered at the end of his nose as the dried blood was washed away, as well as the fresh smell of the shampoo he'd bought. He closed his eyes slightly, feeling a slight vertigo in the moments of his headache.

Then the sound of the water stopped and a shadow loomed over him. Herstal opened his eyes to see Albalino standing outside the tub, still smiling. The man still looked wet, his skin red from the heat, and he hadn't even bothered to put a towel around himself.

Albarino asked, "Can I come in?"

He managed to even make this sound like a dirty joke.

Herstal, was too lazy to even bother glaring at him, asking in a ill mannered tone, "Can't you just f*ck off to the guest room?"

"I think we have a lot more to talk about regarding what happened today." Albarino replied matter-of-factly, although apparently his genius brain came up with the idea that they could talk in the tub completely naked. Before Herstal could actually slander him, Albariño all but stepped in with one foot, his toe brushing against the side of Herstal's thigh, stirring up a cascade of water.

He continued gently, "Move forward please, I want to be behind you."

-- Now Herstal was pretty sure that those words together must have been a dirty joke.

He tsked through his nose, but moved out of the spot the other man wanted. Since Albariño wouldn't listen to him anyway, no matter what he said, he might as well save himself the effort of arguing: he was like an unlucky middle-aged man who had given up struggling with his failing marriage, he laughed to himself mentally.

Albariño slid into the water behind him - Herstal was a centimeter or two shorter than he was, but not nearly so short that them spooning wouldn't be comical. But Albariño didn't seem to care, and he reached out to pull Herstal towards him until the other man's spine touch his chest. Herstal could still feel the rough touch of his skin as it met those scars, which sadly still managed to stir up a spark or two.

"My indulgence in you will lead to disastrous consequences." Herstal murmured, a heavy sigh adorning the end of his words as he leaned against the other man in general abandonment.

"Obviously, we are both aware of this." Albarino replied slowly, wondering if today's shambles of a crime scene would be enough to serve as evidence on the topic.

Then Albariño's fingers crept up to his shoulder, rubbing without warning and with force on a particularly stiff and sore muscle in Herstal's shoulder. Herstal took a slight breath, raising his neck almost unconsciously.

"You should likewise know," Albariño said softly, not easing the force of his hand, he seemed to know exactly where Hestal was feeling uncomfortable, "that I have always been a very considerate lover as well."

-- There was no doubt about that, any man or woman who had maintained an intimate relationship with him could corroborate that; it was hard not to like him, even after the relationship with him had come to an end, and that was what made Albariño so charming.

"I understand," Herstal replied, his eyelids closing heavily, the wet ends of his hair pressing against Albariño's collarbone, "and that is what will make the disaster all the more horrific."

The cabin was inhumanly tidy and brightly lit. When Herstal had looked around the room as he dropped the heavy body on the floor, he saw some rather specialized saws, a pulley system hanging from the roof, and freezers and the likes.

The average person would be feeling creeped out at some point in this thing; it was as if they were in a low-budget thriller, and since the director didn't have enough budget to make some kind of monster that could poke its mouth into a person's brain and suck it out, it was all about constructing the fantasy cabin of a psychopathic homicidal maniac.

Herstal surveyed the room with deliberation -- of course he would look around carefully because he usually picked a spot he thought was appropriate to torture his victims, then left them there and walked away, never to return again, therefore he wasn't going to get himself a room full of equipment.

"You have one of the most shocking hobbies of anyone I've ever met." Herstal commented matter of factly.

"Oh, of course you would think so Mr. Pianist." Albariño replied sarcastically, as he half-kneeled on the ground and used his knife to tear the black plastic sheet wrapped around the outside of the body, revealing the ghastly white face inside - Billy's complexion was extremely pale from blood loss, and because he had been placed in the trunk on his side, a layer of bruise-like necrotic stains formed on one side of his cheek; rigor mortis had fully developed, and he remained in a rigid, curled-up position, like a fetus in its mother's womb.

"It's pretty bad, his abdomen has already begun to swell, the human intestines are full of bacteria that are particularly prone to putrefaction." Albarino clicked his tongue, then he glanced at Herstal and explained patiently, "I usually pick the right time to kill them, especially if I want to preserve the skin of the corpse. At those times, I'm not willing or able to spend a week or two decorating them because..."

"Because they will rot, sooner or later as long as you keep anything other than the bones." Herstal said calmly, looking down at Albariño and the corpses, already understanding in his heart, "Corpses stain, then the discoloration of the skin after decay: you don't want these things to spoil the beauty of what you want to present."

"Exactly," Albariño said with a smile, "To be honest, it's really distressing, bloodletting would diminish the colour of the necro-pigmentation to the greatest extent, but unless I can transform this entire place into a cold storage -- " he waved a hand casually across the room, "they'll just always rot. But working in cold temperatures seems to take away from the challenge, isn't finishing before they are defeated by these bacteria and the laws of nature so that they can take on their most perfect form the most challenging part?"

"That's fleeting." Herstal whispered.

"Isn't that what life is all about?" Albariño retorted cheerfully, "Everything is fleeting: life, time, art, even beauty itself, the invincible and indescribable thing that destroys us every moment. And that's the most interesting part of the whole thing-"

He cut away the plastic sheeting wrapped around the outside of the second body, and an even stronger stench of decay hit them as Anthony Sharp's bloodied face was presented to them.

"Because every cut made cannot be healed again, and every part removed cannot be restored, it's not even like painting, but more like sculpture: you can only keep subtracting things and never add them back." Albariño's voice dropped a little softer, like a whisper to a child. His gaze remained glued to Sharp's face, though it was just a shapeless mass of flesh and blood no matter how he looked at it.

"You only get one chance." Herstal said slowly, having thoroughly understood Albariño's meaning, or, as close as he could get to the heart of what the Sunday Gardener was obsessed with.

"And so it is with life." Albariño let out a small sigh, "As a friend with whom I once had an acquainted with liked to quote - 'Beauty is hard'. [3]

[3] Hippias Major, Plato.

Albariño's fingers helped knead Herstal's stiff shoulder muscles and extraordinarily sore neck with appropriate strength, and he might have been able to even sleep peacefully if he hadn't known that deep down the man had as much chance of breaking his neck as he did of massaging it for him.

Herstal was enveloped within a steaming mist, the vapor clinging to his warm skin. Then Albarino himself broke the peace by saying, rather genuinely, "I'm surprised you don't have a rubber ducky in your bathroom."

...He had long said that the man was a psychopath.

"Sorry?" Herstal asked dryly.

"I thought that thing was pretty fun, with all the colorful bubble baths and stuff, and isn't bathing all about enjoyment?" Albariño replied pleasantly, his fingers continuing to slide upward, brushing gently over his temples.

"Those two bodies lying on the porch are probably quite interesting to you as well, what are you going to do with them?" Herstal asked sarcastically.

They were well aware of the dilemma they were now caught in -- Sharp's body clearly showed the hallmarks of the Pianist's M.O., but the Pianist had been committing a little too many crimes lately, and had also attracted a high level of attention. While there were a number of people in the WLPD who were hindering Officer Hardy on this case, if things continued at this speed, there was a good chance that they wouldn't be able to carry the pressure any longer and end up bringing in the FBI to handle the Pianist's case. They really didn't need to involve that workaholic supervisor from the BAU in this any further.

Not to mention, Billy and Anthony Sharp had died together, involving an old case between the two, which was very reminiscent of the anonymous mutual aid society meeting that Billy attended.

"I know what you're thinking," said Albariño softly behind him, the corner of his mouth brushing the moist skin of Herstal's neck, "you're thinking either to destroy the two of them to the extent that no one can find them, or to disguise the injuries on the bodies as accidents, and in any case not to let the police associate the Pianist -- and as a forensic scientist, I can tell you that the latter is basically impossible: there aren't many more homicidal maniacs in Westland you could frame, and the injuries on his body don't look like they could have been done by manslaughter."

He laced his voice with just the right amount of sarcasm, especially when he mentioned the word "frame". Herstal wasn't sure if he was really still hung up on the Landon case, or if he just wanted to see someone else get screwed.

Herstal asked condescendingly, "So what do you suggest, genius?"

"It's simple," Albarino gave a low chuckle, and Herstal could feel that pleasant tremor in his chest, "There's still another serial killer in Westland besides the Pianist."

Herstal moved, the water making a low splashing sound, he was unable to turn around with the other man's arm jammed against him, he was reduced to saying in that warning tone that he had probably used a thousand times on Albariño alreday, "Albariño!"

"The last time the Sunday Gardener committed a crime was on September 25th," Albariño pointed out as if with good reason, "and next weekend will be November 27th."

Herstal retorted rather disapprovingly, "Two months --"

"I understand, of course. But that's better than the Pianist who has committed three crimes since mid-September, isn't it?" Albarino said reasonably, "At this rate, poor Bart is going to suspect that the Pianist is so excited because someone has paid him a salary."

Even Herstal could not refute this reasoning. After a moment's silence, he added, "However, this matter can easily cause trouble. The identity of the deceased can easily lead to suspicion at the Anonymous Mutual Aid Society --"

Albariño laughed softly and suddenly leaned over to suck on his earlobe.

The wet, moist touch made Herstal's entire body shudder, he didn't hesitate to give the other man an elbow strike, hearing Albariño stifle a muffled cry behind him.

"Okay, okay, erectile dysfunction patient." After a moment, Albariño gritted his teeth and said, although he didn't really sound angry, "Think about it, what would happen if they were made to suspect the Anonymous Mutual Aid? -- Bart and Olga are the ones who think that the Sunday gardener has his eye on you, and for that reason has put a skull with flowers on your table."

He paused meaningfully, and when he spoke he lowered his voice even more, deliberately creating that ambiguous and mysterious atmosphere.

"Maybe this is a gift for you, Herstal." He said softly, licking and kissing the hard joints on the back of the other man's neck, running his teeth over the thin, warm layer of skin, "He is very fond of you, and laments the misfortune that befell you in the matter of Johnny the Killer, and in a twisted way, offers you a gift -- in order to show you that the Gardener understands the pain that is within you. And sends his deepest condolences for the loss you have suffered."

Herstal was silent for two seconds, then said acidly, "-- feeling sorry? By way of presenting me with the bodies of a rapist and his victim?"

"By way of this," Albarino agreed, giving a light chuckle, "even if it's all just to tell you, 'I realize now how much you hate what Johnny the Killer did, and if I ever get another chance, I'd like to personally cut Elliot Evans in pieces'. And so what? You know the Gardener can do anything, don't you?"

Albariño stood in front of the two corpses that had been laid side by side on the floor, surveying with disgust the network of rotting veins that littered their skin, as well as the abdominal skin that had first begun to decay and had now turned an oily green colour. The Horseman of Death, as depicted in the Book of Revelation, had a green horse who was purportedly this colour.

"Okay," he stretched his arms lazily, like a large feline, "we're going to start."

"We?" Herstal added an exasperated accent to the word.

"Fine, you can just sit back and watch, Your Esteemed Majesty." Albarino complained, pointing casually to a chair in the corner of the room, "Sit on your throne, I really have lots of work to do."

Herstal glanced down at his watch, "It's ten...thirty-seven p.m. Are you really going to display them on a Sunday night? In that case you'll have to finish it tomorrow night, not to mention the amount of work involved in setting up the second site."

Albarino glanced at him, some of his chestnut-coloured hair piled up fluffily on his forehead, making him look unusually young.

"So I'm burning the midnight oil too, it's going to be a very, very tiring twenty-four hours." He said cheerfully, "But that's the fun part isn't it? Herstal, as we were saying, 'Beauty is hard'."

Chapter 8: 44. Dionysus in the Tomb (2)

Notes:

The bolded text is taken from the same source as the previous chapter (from the fairytale 'The Psyche')

Chapter Text

He knelt on the bow of the ship above the deck that was wet with water droplets, and watched the body sink slowly into the depths of the water, the red fabric of the dress tumbling underwater like a mist, like blood spilling out. He stared into those green eyes and smiling lips, a string of tiny bubbles rose from the corner of her mouth, transparent and light, floating higher.

-- It was like Ophelia, like the Nymph in the water,Frederic Leighton's Crenaia [1] standing on the sand.

[1] Referring to English painter Frederic Leighton's "Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle".

It was the hour of twilight, and the still surface of the lake was gilded with a golden light, scattered over the water like broken gold leaf; the sky was a lonely, heavy blue-violet, with layers of rosy clouds piled up in the horizon.

Her lips opened and closed soundlessly in what must have been a farewell before she was buried within the deep water.

And on such an evening, amid the bitter taste of the water vapor, something was being forged.

Out of the grave in which the young nun was to be laid they lifted, in the rosy morning, a wonderful statue of a Psyche carved in white marble.

Herstal sat on a chair in the corner and watched as Albariño knelt beside the body, a knife in his hand, his posture straight and upright.

A leather tool bag, like the kind of style a nineteenth-century doctor would have particularly favoured, sat by his leg, and inside it were neatly arranged scalpels and other types of knives, bone saws, hemostatic forceps, and some other impressive tools that Herstal couldn't name. They also didn't look like they would ever be in a doctor's hands either.

All of these things shimmered with a cold glare under the light, like the snowy ground of the forest outside. The silvery mist that lingered on it was called death by the people.

"I'm going to remove the bones from the flesh of Mr. Sharp," announced Albariño in a brisk tone as he surveyed the corpse, "at least from the head to about the waist, I estimate that I can retain some flesh on the legs and and lower abdomen, but on top of that there's going to be nothing but bone. "

"That sounds like a lot of work,and I thought there wasn't much time." Herstal pointed out rather reasonably, he couldn't help but frown as he listened to Albariño's description.

"I don't have much time. Not to mention the fact that if the plan is to leave only his bones behind, I have to use additional wires to fix the skeleton to prevent it from falling apart. I figure I'll only be able to secure the wire to the outside of the skeleton, there isn't enough time left for me to thread it from the inside at this point." Albariño smiled, although he said it like this, his body language remained relaxed without a hint of urgency, "But it can't be helped -- it's not going to be easy trying to wipe the pianist's traces clean from this case."

He nudged Sharp's neck with the knife in his hand, a deep groove could be seen that had formed after the piano string had been used to strangle him, taking on a grayish-yellow colour and surrounded by patches of broken skin and bruises.

"Dark leathery lesions and subcutaneous hemorrhages caused by strangulation via piano strings," he said slowly, "and deep bleeding within muscle layers, not to mention bruising at the base of the tongue and tonsils. The only way to hide that he was strangled is to remove all these parts."

Albarino pressed the blade deftly against Sharp's skin and cut downward along the dark strangulation mark, dark red blood slowly dripped out along the incision as the blade sliced deep into the muscle.

"Furthermore, since this strangulation mark is relatively high, I have reason to guess that he fractured the greater corner of his hyoid bone," Albariño gestured with his free hand, "I think that only when all the tissue is removed and only a skull remains, then an experienced forensic pathologist would not notice that the murderer removed the dead man's tongue and cartilage, right?"

Herstal caught the key word and said, "'Experienced forensic pathologist' ...you're not working on this case?"

Albarino's knife must have touched the dead man's cervical vertebrae, and he pursed his lips and jammed the blade tightly somewhere on the bone, then with a deft twist of his hand, that he didn't know how to make, Herstal heard the crisp click of a broken bone.

Then Albarino laughed, "Not sure yet, after all I'm still on vacation. It's possible that the head of forensics will let me go back after the case, or another forensic pathologist might take care of it -- but it's better to do things to the best of my ability, I don't want to stand in front of an autopsy table and lie: I still have some professional work ethics."

Herstal snorted.

So his way of not lying was apparently to process the body to the point where he couldn't tell the exact cause of death himself. Herstal raised an eyebrow and held back the sarcasm that he almost blurted out, before asking, "After this treatment, the coroner won't be able to tell that the victim had been strangled?"

"No, that's not the only sign of strangulation, but most of the rest can be reasonably fooled away: the deceased's internal organs and brain tissue are often bruised, but I will remove these parts in the subsequent processing."

Albarino replied while he sliced off Sharp's entire head, the dark red blood already gathering in a small pool on the floor.

"But there are some mechanical signs of asphyxiation that cannot be masked: such as the rose teeth and the non-coagulation of blood due to hypoxia, as well as the extraordinarily noticeable necrotic spots compared to deaths from other causes."

Albariño paused for a moment, then grinned as if he'd thought of something: "But that's all right, Gardeners sometimes kill their victims by covering their mouths and noses; as long as there's nothing that would remind them that the victim was strangled to death, it's not surprising to see asphyxiation signs on a dead body."

Herstal had studied some of the Gardener's cases before, and he quickly recalled one of them, "For example, that 'Ophelia' case you started with, she died of asphyxiation, didn't she?"

That case was important because the Sunday Gardener's first case was actually a bit sloppy at the scene, and he hadn't been doing the leaving the dead in the car thing since then anyway. It was from the Ophelia case that the Gardener's style evolved, so to speak.

The WLPD officers -- Olga hadn't come to Westland yet, and Bart Hardy hadn't even started working on the cases -- began to realize that Gardener liked to incorporate images related to "water" in his works.

That's what interested Herstal: why water? And why on a Sunday? Did it have anything to do with his mother, who drowned? He wondered if he could get an answer from Albariño in the end or not.

"Because slitting someone's throat more or less ruins the beauty of that image in my head," Albarino explained to Herstal with a shrug, his voice surprisingly sounding a little regretful, "but still...at that time I was really too young, do you understand? I was completely misjudged the prominence of the necrotic spots that formed, and covering up those spots and bruises took a lot of effort on my part."

There was a fishy odour in the air as Albariño dragged Sharp's head into his lap without hesitation, then drew another knife from that leather bag. The scene made him look almost like a twisted version of Salome, except that it wasn't the head of his beloved lying in his hands.

-- The metaphor flashed through Herstal's mind like lightning, and then he suddenly realized that, firstly, he wasn't sure if Albariño's concept of "beloved" existed, and secondly, he couldn't be sure that he wouldn't end up in this situation.

This realization made him want to laugh.

But he still didn't make a sound, just watching Albariño deftly use the knife to peel off the dead man's scalp -- it was done with a creepy amount of neatness, or at least this was definitely so for ordinary people. Just by watching, one could easily imagine how many attempts he had made to achieve such proficiency, and what kind of familiarity such a thing would be for him.

And Herstal recalled that pure white skull that had once sat on his desk, adorned with daffodils and ears of wheat bleached by some chemical, pure in hue to a degree that bordered on distortion, a colour combination that was almost sort of cheerful.

Perhaps it was here that Albariño had finished that piece, and the blood of the gangster who knew one of the Westland Pianist's secrets had once flowed on this ground as well. A steady silver light flickered between Albariño's fingers, like a cold, merciless sentences, like death.

And what arrogance it was for him to say that this was only a part of his work, not life or a living person -- they had no "life" of their own, their life was only given by the Sunday Gardener through the knife in his hand.

Herstal would never admit it, but watching the Sunday Gardener work was a marvellous experience, these serial killers never showed their work to the outside world because it was too personal.

-- This seemed like an opportunity to recapture a city.

Though his sanity told him that if he nestled into this broken chair all night, it would have disastrous consequences for his shoulders and neck. But at the end of the day, not knowing exactly what moment it was, Herstal fell asleep in the not-so-comfortable chair.

Because the position was simply miserably uncomfortable, he slept for two or three hours at the most, and then awoke to the violent protests of his shoulders. Herstal felt half his body go numb, and it was barely four o'clock -- the overhead light of the cabin had gone out, but the corner of the room farthest from him was lit by two or three floor length table lamps, the metal shades of which were glowing brightly, gathering Albariño in the midst of the spotlight, tying him to the corner of the room.

Albariño's sitting position had hardly changed, there were piles of bones scattered around him, half of a torso, blood that had been wiped over with a couple of rags but couldn't be wiped clean, and another piece of plastic sheet in the corner, which was covered with the rest of Sharp's inexplicable bits and pieces: presumably meat and guts. They were piled in a heap, looking particularly like a bizarre Aztec altar.

The smell of blood in the air was strong enough to make one suspect that the place was a vibrant slaughterhouse. Herstal reflected for a couple of seconds on how in the world he'd fallen asleep with a smell this strong and a knife-wielding serial killer in the room. He'd fallen asleep in a state of madness. Normally, he would have blamed it on all the late night drives he'd done over the past few days in preparation for the trial, but he knew that that wasn't a good enough reason.

Herstal stared at Albariño's back for a moment, and then the other man somehow suddenly knew that he was awake, even though Herstal clearly hadn't made any noise. Albariño suddenly spoke, "Mockery -- I taste mockery in the air, what do you wish to say?"

Herstal himself couldn't taste anything other than the smell of blood in the air, and after some thought, he asked, "Do you always act like this? No plans, just do whatever comes to mind is it?"

"What do you count as having no plan? See that table beside you, there's a notebook on it that contains sketches of my work." Albarino asked without looking up, he had wire and pliers in his hand and was threading some bones together. With Herstal's knowledge of the human body, he actually had some trouble seeing which of those bones were supposed to be connected to which.

Herstal swept a glance at the rickety table, which he was pretty sure didn't even have four legs of the same length. The notebook lay on the table, and Herstal, taking Albariño's earlier words to mean that he was agreeable to him touching the thing, brought it over and placed it in his lap.

He could see a few dried bloodstains rubbed onto the leather cover of the book, he could easily visualize Albariño scribbling on the pages while wearing latex gloves that were still bloody.

"As you wish." Herstal added a condemning accent to the word, "Even if killing Sharp was just an accident, setting them up as the Sunday Gardener's work was entirely on your own whim. Furthermore, your unwillingness to either put it off until another Sunday, or to start the work at a moment when I wasn't there has resulted in you now having only twenty-four hours to do it all. As a result, you obviously have to abandon all your normal physiological needs to do this -- so yes, I did mean 'no plans'."

Albarino tossed a bloody mess of who knows what on top of the pile of entrails on the plastic sheet, and he had no qualms about smoothing back the strands of hair that had fallen over his forehead, and though Herstal couldn't see his face, it was clear that the action had rubbed several trails of blood across his face.

Then Albariño let out a laugh.

"I sense you have a distaste for people who don't do things according to plan," Albariño said easily, "but supposing, hypothetically, that artists are inspired by divine possessions, and that they recall the perfection of the world of ideas in the moment of divine possessions, and thus use it as a copy to create their own work -- then you do not know whence the inspiration comes and when it will come; all you can do is to submit to it."

Herstal snorted coldly, clearly feeling that Albariño was doing nothing more than making excuses for himself with philosophers from over two thousand years ago. He lowered his head and turned over the book in his hand: inside, of course, were neatly bound sketches on paper, with no handwriting, no date or inscription of any kind, just the blurred human bodies that Albarino had sketched out with his pen.

Herstal didn't know whether the other man had systematically studied drawing or not, but regardless of the artistry of these drawings, what Albariño drew had a very precise grasp on the structure of the human body, which might also have something to do with his medical background.

The notebook had obviously been used for many years, the skin cracked, the foot of the pages frayed, and some of the pages stained with blood from accidental rubbing, it was apparent that it was kept by Albariño in the cabin to make drafts of his work.

Some of the drawings were very reminiscent of some of the cases committed by the Gardener, who had indeed drawn skeletons in wedding dresses on the pages, as well as skulls filled with blood-red pomegranate seeds. Herstal turned all the way to the last page where the drawings were painted -- they should have been the latest sketches drawn by Albariño.

Two human bodies were indeed outlined on the page, and Herstal could surmise that this was the end that the Gardener had left for Billy and Anthony Sharp.

He looked at the drawing for a moment, feeling his mind sluggish by the uncomfortable sleep and the aches and pains in his body. But soon, at any rate, he recognized it.

Herstal looked up.

Albariño was still just a shadow focused in the midst of the light.He didn't know if Herstal's gaze made him feel as if there was a light focused on his back -- but in any case, he suddenly turned around as if he had eyes on his back and looked sharply at Herstal.

As soon as he shifted his position, the warm orange light was almost blocked behind him, and Herstal's field of vision was darkened at once; and Albarino, with the skull, which had been cleaned and wiped free of blood, in his lap, perched noiselessly in the darkness.

His skin looked strangely radiant and warm under the illuminations of the light, with a mysterious metaphorical quality. The whole person looked almost calm and unknowable, very much like a figure that would have appeared in a painting by Georges de La Tour, the "painter of candlights". The figure in front of him -- perhaps it was a the penitent saint who quietly placed his hand on the skull, but Herstal was certain that the man in front of him was not a believer in God.

Herstal's fingers tapped on the book right in front of him, still feeling a bit surprised by the image he saw on the last page.

He spat out a name as if it said it all: "... Artemisia[2]."

[2] A reference to the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who was raped at the age of seventeen. After bringing the case to the court, she was only scorned and ridiculed by the public.

"Yes, that's Artemisia." Albariño repeated briskly, his eyes sparkling as if he was pleased that Herstal recognized the image on the paper as a masterpiece from which painter it came from. "That is my plan -- the plan that I've set for them."

His eyes swept quickly and sharply over the ground, the limbs of Anthony Sharp lying at his feet, the blood streaming across them, and the ghastly white Billy: covered desolately and alone by a piece of cloth -- the two men who were apparently the centerpiece to Albariño's "plan" as he called it. Albariño, of course, didn't care how Billy died or how his body was exposed to their gazes; he was probably thinking about how Herstal was feelings.

"But why this subject?" Herstal asked, looking at the other person closely, "You don't usually choose the images you want to present because of what the deceased did -- you don't care about the dead's life and past, they're just a tool to be used to display your designs. So why did you choose Artemisia?"

That smile at the corners of Albariño's mouth seemed to widen a little more, as if the skull in his lap didn't make the scene even more bizarre and eerie. In this moment, Herstal suddenly had anticipated the answer he was about to give.

"Because of you."

Albariño Bacchus said.

"As I said before -- this is the Sunday Gardener's gift for you."

His words fell like rain into a silence, and Herstal stared at him as if he were trying to find some shadow of dishonesty in his eyes. Albariño's eyes were green in the light like ghostly fires dancing among the graves, and he still smiled calmly, as if confidently accepting whatever questions the other man had to baptize him with.

"So," Herstal asked in a low voice, "is this also the result of divine possession?"

Albariño gave a soft humming laugh at the question, the syllable sounded almost forgiving. He replied softly, "I was possessed by a grey ghost from the past."

He lowered his head and dragged another knife across the ground, the blade scraping against the ground with a rough, loud sound. It was like a wake-up call, awakening the silent darkness, and making Herstal realize: this was an opportunity, and he had to ask something now, or he would never have the chance to ask it later.

Perhaps the nights made people vulnerable, or perhaps they were in the middle of a private moment in which Albariño was showing himself to him, this was the moment when he was most likely to get an answer.

"So," Herstal said in a low, measured, cautious voice, "where exactly does your inspiration come from?"

-- Albariño knew, of course, what the question he really wanted to ask was: they weren't talking about the Gardener's previous work, or what Sharp would end up looking like, or a female Roman painter.

They were talking about the grey apparition behind Albariño, which the other man had just admitted in person was the very source of his inspiration -- the place where it all began, where the Sunday Gardener originated.

Albariño still faced Herstal, but his eyes did not seem to fall upon him, but looked in a farther, unknowable direction, and he co*cked his head to one side as if in contemplation.

Then he said, "I know you've investigated me, so you must have heard of my mother: she was a surgeon."

Albariño's mother was not as medically accomplished as his father, and so was relatively rarely seen in the public eye. But he knew enough of the story, in accordance with Albariño's words from earlier, and Herstal's own investigations: that of a beautiful, exotic woman, born in Spain, who fell in love with a surgeon from the United States, married into Westland for the sake of the other man, and then died in a drowning accident when Albariño was seventeen years old.

"She was not only a surgeon," whispered Albariño, "she was also an 'Angel of Death' [3]."

[3] Sometimes the term is used to refer to physician serial killers who specialize in murdering patients.

Chapter 9: 45. Dionysus in the Tomb (3)

Notes:

Albarino's quote regarding the fairytale his mother told him as a child (The Psyche) is taken from this website: https://andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/ThePsyche_e.html (It's different from the other website as I liked this interpretation for that sentence more than the other translation)

Chapter Text

"I don't understand." Albariño said.

-- They were sitting on the bow of the boat, the golden sunlight shattering into dazzling fragments on the water, the depths of the lake were still and filled with a milky white mist. Shana Bacchus sat there, one hand covering the oar and a rather gentle smile on her face.

Many years later, people would see such a smile on the face of Albariño himself, as he flashed such a look at his co-workers or the victims who came to the Forensic Bureau to have their injuries identified, to make them think that they were truly cared for.

And Shana's fingers tenderly smoothed the curly hair at her young son's temples -- her own hair was a very light, smooth, satiny blonde, with a fair complexion that presented a set of distinguishing features of the northern Spanish race.

Her colleagues at the hospital would have said the boy looked more like his father, but Shana knew they were alike to their cores.

"You don't need to understand now, you still have plenty of time to spend figuring these things out, Al." She said, sliding her fingers down the young man's cheekbones, "The most important thing you need to know is this: you are free, you are not shrouded in your father's or my shadow, you can choose to be like your father, or like me, or simply go and do whatever you want."

Albariño whispered, "I sense a longing-"

"Then go with the longing." Shana said decisively, still smiling as she said it, her expression made her look very young, "But there's no need to rush, you have endless time, and -- never be hasty. You don't need to imitate me, or any of the cases that have come before; you have to choose what suits you."

"I know!" Albariño raised his voice slightly, sounding a little distracted, "But what's the right way for me?"

"Experience it with your heart," Shana winked at him happily, "Do you remember the time when we were in Paris when you were a child and I took you to see "The Raft of the Medusa"[1]? What did I say to you, Al?"

[1] Oil painting by French painter, Théodore Géricault, a pioneer of the Neo-Romantic school of painting.The Raft of the Medusais displayedin the Louvre.

"We can watch it as long as we want and decide for ourselves the moment it ends." Albariño replied in a whisper.

"Exactly, and it's the same now."

The smile at the corners of Shana's mouth looked even softer as she leaned over to give her son a quick kiss on the cheek -- though the boy was old enough to feel a little awkward with such levels of intimacy -- before she withdrew the hand that had previously fallen to Albariño's shoulder, and stood up in the boat, shaking off the shoes on her feet, the boat rocking from her movements.

More water drops splashed up as Albariño remained seated, tilting his head back to watch her. She was turning her back to the rising sun, so her whole body looked almost like a blurry, dark shadow. The wind was blowing the tulle of her dress, as if it were a tumbling mist of blood.

Albariño whispered, "Mom --"

"We talked about this before didn't we?" She said softly, "I think now is the time, Al."

"I remember us talking about 'death' before." Albariño pointed out.

"We talked about it because it will come sooner or later, this is a constant, I wanted it to happen under my control --because beauty is so fleeting, especially to someone with flesh that decays." Shana brushed away a few strands of hair that had been blown onto her cheek by the wind. In her hair she had delicately pinned a cluster of hemp-leafed hydrangeas that she had pulled from the glass vase she had placed in the doorway before they had left the house that morning. Albariño knew she loved to see the helpless look on his father's face when he saw her do it again, and she did it just for fun.

"Is this the right time?" Albariño asked.

"There is never the 'right' time, just like a traveller in a fable who enters the orchard just to pick the most perfect apple, we will always think that the next moment is more appropriate than the present." Shana replied gently, "But isn't it nice to choose to end it now? -- We're still in our finest hour, and you need to get out of your parents' shadow, especially mine. While I don't want to boast, you seem to be very susceptible to my influence, Al."

Albariño seemed to want to protest or sigh. He muttered a few words and then admitted: "You're right."

Shana chuckled, "So come here, my dear. Experience it with your heart and decide for yourself when it's over -- Al, if you want to figure out what you want the way you want it most, you must first experience 'death'."

"That's not a beautiful thing, it's ugly," Albariño muttered, but he moved obediently a little closer to the bow. "I've been to the morgue at my father's hospital."

"Most of the time indeed, but it still has its merit: it's an essential part of a great journey." Shana agreed, at the same time, the golden light of the rising sun grew brighter behind her, painting her skin with a golden-pink halo.

But Albariño still frowned, "But..."

"I understand why you feel upset, we don't tend to want to be alone on a path, not for you or your father, but it's essential." Shana said softly, "Recall that fairy tale I liked to read to you back in the day, bury your Psyche in a dry well, then return to reality, and give it a short funeral speech: 'Go away, get out of here' -- and then you're free."

"That's not a good metaphor." Albariño said in a low voice.

"Yes, but of course I have to speak to people in metaphors[2], you know." Shana's voice contained a lot of ridicule, as always, and a bit of arrogance that was unique to her -- of course, it would have been too arrogant for anyone else to hear.

[2] Jesus spoke to others in parables, to which Jesus gave the following explanation: "This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving"

Albariño gave a nervous smile at the little joke while his mother gazed at him, her eyes a beautiful mint-green colour. She tilted her head deftly to one side, a gesture reminiscent of a swan.

She said softly, "I love you, child."

Then she opened her arms in the early morning light, painted in a metaphorical silhouette by the backlight and morning haze: it looked almost like a slender cross; the gale brought about them water vapor and the bitter earthy scent of the early morning shore, a bird song or two could be heard coming out of the mist.

-- Then her body fell.

After a long time, the hydrangea rose to the surface with the foam.

From within comes much that renders men sinful and impure. He fully realized the truth of this. What flames arose up in him at times! What a source of evil, of that which we would not, welled up continually! He mortified his body, but the evil came from within. There was a part of his spirit, soft as a serpent, curled up in a ball, and hidden with his conscience under the cloak of charity -- what was this? Was it the childishness or youthful frivolity of the habit, of placing oneself under the mercy of God, and thinking that one is thereby exalted above all in the world?

(TL Notes: Weirdly, the last paragraph of that sentence starting from 'There was a part of his spirit', does not appear in the English versions of 'The Psyche' but does in theChinese Version. I spent an unbelievably long time looking for the origins of these quotes in English to find out they don't even exist ahhhh)

On Saturday afternoon, towards dusk, Albariño brought many flowers back to the cabin, as well as some silk.

Many, many flowers: masses of pale red hibiscus and tulips, stuck inside green floral clay made of phenolic plastic foam; some plants that Herstal identified as red poppies; fragile, light blue hydrangeas, carefully wrapped in paper; bunches of blue pokeweed, almost as numerous as the hydrangeas; and another pale blue plant of the iris family, which Albariño said was actually saffron -- which Herstal could not be blamed for not recognizing; the best he knew of the plant was that he had eaten it when they were used for spices.

The flowers were all light blue and light red, with only the poppies being slightly darker, the color scheme was generally quite light. The blue of the satin Albariño had brought back was a similar color to those of the hydrangeas. Herstal went over the drafts in Albariño's book in his mind and roughly understood what he was up to.

Albariño obviously knew he understood, so he asked directly, "Well?"

Dark circles hung under his eyes -- of course people who stayed up all night would have so, and while it wasn't clear whether he'd gotten any rest during the day on Friday or not, he hadn't slept a second between when Herstal got off work and now, almost twenty-four hours ago.

But the paleness in his skin and his bloodshot eyes clearly didn't make Herstal feel any mercy towards him.

"Did you choose these colors for the flowers?" Herstal asked, "What a frivolous color scheme."

"Ah yes, yes, of course a cold-blooded dismembering serial killer would say that." Albariño placed the last of the foam boxes with flowers on the floor and straightened up, "It's true that I'm not the sort of person who would arrange a large, bloody, living human being to look like Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam'."

-- Of course, for one thing, if the Sunday Gardener wanted to create the theme of'The Creation of Adam', there was an 80% chance he would clean up the blood first, and that was the difference between the two of them.

"Artemisia is a Baroque artist, her work doesn't come with this sweet, cloying, slender style." Herstal insisted, sounding as if the flowers had offended him.

"You're just dissatisfied about the fact that the Gardener decorated the corpse with flowers, aren't you, oh I'm so sorry, the serial killer who has his sights set on you has his favourite artists as Boucher and Fragonard [3]." Albariño tsked.

[3] Both famous Rococo painters, Herstal dislikes the gaudy and exaggerated Rococo tyle and its lack of connotation and substance.

Albariño clicked his tongue. He ended up standing in the center of the room -- where the two corpses had essentially been arranged, with bones and limbs held together by metal and shaped into the form Albariño wanted them to be posed in. Of course, some of those parts could still be disassembled, or no SUV trunk could fit something of that size.

Albariño looked at the two corpses, his gaze completely absorbed. While there was nothing left of Anthony Sharp but elongated bones and limbs with skin removed, however, Billy's body was a bit of an eyesore with his necrotic stains and stained green veins that had formed during the decaying process. At the end of the day, he had to do whatever he could to cover them up with the materials at hand.

Herstal obviously realized that standing in front of two corpses and talking to him about artistic style was not only pointless, but also tasted like dark humour. He gave up and asked instead, "Where did you get these flowers?"

Albariño surely couldn't have bought the flowers for the normal reasons; he would have been caught by Hardy long ago if he had bought them in large quantities for no reason and in the same cycle as the Sunday Gardener's cycle of offenses.

"There's a nominal studio-designer of ceramics, metal, glassware, vases and decorative plates and all that, they buy flowers frequently from wholesalers." Albariño whispered, not turning his gaze away from the bodies, "to take some promotional pictures of the vases to post on their website, to decorate their products in their physical stores, or send them to participate in various design competitions. The flower wholesaler's tax return will show that the flowers were purchased by that studio and not by an individual. Of course, I can even send you the URL of that studio's official website if you want."

Herstal didn't say anything, but Albariño knew the other man was still gazing at him.

He crouched on the ground and picked through the wood hibiscus, he'd maintained this posture for too long in the last twenty hours, so much so that his legs were now aching, but Albariño didn't care much. He asked easily, "What? Surprised I'd make this arrangement after accusing me of doing as I please?"

Not entirely, one look at the well-equipped cabin showed that he hadn't exactly done it on a whim. Several thoughts swirled in Herstal's mind, then he cautiously picked one and asked, "Did your mother teach you this?"

"What? No!" Albariño laughed in surprise, his laugh even sounding hearty. "She taught me nothing, except death itself."

He didn't stop moving at all as he said this, deftly tucking those wood hibiscus between Sharp's empty ribs, carefully adjusting the position of each one to make sure that they weren't too crowded, that the flowers weren't accidentally flipped backside up, and that the posture didn't look too stiff.

Some people still thought the Sunday gardeners' flowers were randomly arranged. Herstal tsked inwardly.

Herstal wondered if he should open his mouth to urge the other man to continue. He wondered if Albariño really cared about his mother's death -- it was kind of funny, the other man had rudely ripped open his bloody wounds, and yet he was struggling with politeness when asking Albariño. But then again, that was where they differed.

"Did she really die of suicide?" Herstal finally asked.

"In front of me, I watched her sink, in the end I called the police." Albariño said simply, pulling another hibiscus out of the floral muck and cutting off its stalk with scissors, "If that's what you're asking -- yes, I didn't do anything."

Herstal frowned slightly, "Why?"

Albariño shrugged his shoulders, his voice relaxed, "Because she wanted it that way -- to choose for herself how she wanted to die, after having lived a beautiful life and killed enough people to not get caught by the police? I guess that was part of her life goal. I don't agree with all of it, but I won't stop her from choosing what she wants, just as she won't stop me from choosing what I want."

"But, even if your father committed suicide because of this --"

"My father did not all commit suicide entirely because of her passing." Albariño replied.

He placed another hibiscus, then pulled a red poppy from the bouquet next to it and stood up, hissing and sucking in air at the numbness in his legs. Then he looked over at Herstal, with some sort of strange shadow lingering in his eyes.

Then he said, "It was a combination of many things: because of her death, the suicide note she left behind -- my father didn't really mention it, but I'm sure something of the sort exists, and knowing her as well as I do, she probably told the truth about the fact that she'd killed at least fifty-three of her patients in that letter -- and his guilt over his own lapse of judgment."

Albariño paused briefly.

"Perhaps there may be a little more," he said quietly, flashing a smile, "I am very much like her, and that may have made my father want to run away from what was bound to happen in the end."

Herstal was silent for a moment, then commented, "Sounds like she ended up killing him."

"'Be true', isn't that the true meaning of marriage?" Albariño gave a light chuckle, "It's true that in a legal sense, she did nothing; but it was the chronic depression and remorse that slowly killed him, so it's probably right to say that."

(TL Notes: 'Be True' was in English)

"And you? How do you feel about all this?" Herstal asked.

"Are we back to this again? The part where we discuss 'Does the Sunday Gardener really have a heart'?" There was still a trembling laughter in Albariño's voice, which sounded almost inhuman at a moment like this, and he took a step forward, nearly body to body with Herstal. He still held the bright red poppy in his hand, which looked as if it were a pool of blood.

"Shouldn't I be worried?" Herstal asked rhetorically.

"You should." Albariño's voice lowered to a whisper, "Because I don't feel anything."

-- Herstal stared at him.

"When my mother first died, my father was in a terrible state of mind." Albariño continued, "I had to run most of the funeral -- and the next thing you know, there were two funerals in two years -- their colleagues at the hospital praised me on my calmness and strength, but no one ever saw through things. The pastors of the Westland parish even refused to conduct either of their funerals."

"Because they stubbornly believe that people who commit suicide can't go to heaven." Herstal sneered; that brought back memories of the Catholic church in Kentucky, and they weren't good ones.

"The girl from the Campagna is as beautiful as your princess in the marble castle. They are both daughters of Eve, and you can't tell them apart." Albariño said happily.

Herstal glanced at him, "What is that?"

"A fairy tale my mother liked to tell when I was a child, by Hans Christian Andersen." Albariño shrugged, his breath blowing on Herstal's lips -- this social distance was very rude indeed, when had Herstal given up on organizing him? "It tells the story of a young artist who carved a sculpture of The Psyche based on the woman he loved deeply, but the woman cruelly rejected his advances, and as a result he buried the marble statue in a deep, dry well."

"That really doesn't sound like a child's bedtime story." Herstal said, but then again, who was he to judge bedtime stories? No one even told him stories when he was a kid.

"Hans Christian Andersen is said to have been inspired by a news story about a statue of Dionysus being dug up in a graveyard, and my mother found this kind of true event that would have happened in real life to be very romantic." Albariño recalled.

He had that same look on his face when he recalled the story of his father and white wine -- pleasant, but no more than pleasant. The tone in which he spoke of these things could easily be mistaken as if he were truly nostalgic, but upon closer examination one could see that it was nothing more than an illusion.

Herstal felt his throat seemed a little dry, and he coughed a little, asking, "And the end of the story?"

"The artist dies, he spent his whole life trying to escape The Psyche he buried in the dry well, but he ultimately learns that he had never escaped the thing that followed him like a shadow." Albariño said softly. "I was once uncertain of my future, my mother pinned her hopes on me watching the spectacle of death, death itself is a wake-up call. She hoped that I would thus find my own path, and not follow the old path of imitating her --"

Herstal thought back quickly to the news stories he'd looked up, those police investigation reports, and then he fully understood.

"But it was she who made you." Herstal said slowly.

Albariño stuck the poppy in the buttonhole of the lapel of his suit jacket, his fingers gently smoothing out the wrinkles in the fabric.

"The Psyche in me will never die." Albariño replied softly.

Chapter 10: 46. Dionysus in the Tomb (4)

Summary:

Again, bolded text is also taken from 'The Psyche'.

Chapter Text

It was no ordinary day, and Albariño knew this from the beginning.

-- It was the anniversary of his mother's death, in July, on a clear summer day. It was still cool inside at nightfall, and the shadows enveloped the mansion, slowly devouring it.

"Father."

Albariño said softly as he stood in the doorway, one elbow propped on the doorframe. And his father -- Dr Charles Bacchus -- sat by the fireplace in his study.

On the respected surgeon's desk was an open bottle of white wine, labelled as a 1990 Château d'Yquemil Riesling Selection Grape by Grape [1], which Charles had won at an auction five years earlier.

[1] The full name of the bottle is actually: Egon Muller - Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, Mosel, Germany. Grape by Grape selection wines are made from late-harvested Riesling grapes infected with botrytis.

Thinking back to five years before now seemed like a lifetime ago. At that time, most people would think that they would be successful, prominent and happy. Perhaps Charles Bacchus himself thought so too.

Albariño stared at the glass bottle for a moment, then asked softly, "Is something wrong?"

Something had evidently gone wrong -- for a pungent odour of smoke filled the room, and it seemed that his father had completely given up on maintaining the illusion of sobriety in his presence. Charles, with his pale face, his chin covered with stubble, and a deep shadow under his eyes, made more hideous by the light of the fire in the fireplace, had evidently been sleepless for a long time.

All this made him look even older, hardly like a man not yet fifty.

"It's nothing," Dr Charles Bacchus replied, trying to keep his voice light, but it was a long time since all his colleagues and friends had seen anything approaching a smile on his face again. "Al, will you leave me alone for a moment."

They all thought it was due to grief -- that it was only due to grief.

Albariño gazed at his father, and for a moment the young man looked as if he were lost in thought, and then he answered, "All right, but if there's anything you need --"

He exited the door as he spoke, and in this moment he could see the things that had caused the flames in the fireplace to blaze: it was paper, the inner pages torn from the book, the white pages slowly engulfed and curled by the blaze, and drowned in a strange, charred black colour.

It was his mother's diary, apparently; that letter, along with Shana's diary, had lain on his father's desk for the last two years, flipped over by the latter no telling how many times, and both father and son tacitly refrained from talking about it as if the thing did not actually exist.

As Albariño was about to close the door, Charles suddenly spoke hoarsely, "Al?"

"Dad?" Albariño asked in a low voice as he stopped in his tracks.

"Al, you know, whatever you..." His father seemed to be about to say something, but paused strangely and shook his head with a bitter smile, as if he didn't know how to phrase it. Then he resumed his speech, "You know I love you, don't you?"

Albariño was silent for a moment, then said, "I know."

"Go on." His father said softly.

SoAlbariño gently closed the door to the study, listening to the slight click of the lock. He hadn't left, and he hadn't devoted his time to the kind of holiday life that any college graduate like him would have lived. As his father had imagined -- he had received his acceptance letter to the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The average person at this point in their life tended to want to spend their time travelling or in the bathtub with their significant other. This was the kind of "real life" that young people were crazy about immersing themselves in -- he made sure the door was closed, then leaned against it, put his full weight on it, and began to wait silently.

He counted from one to three hundred and twenty-four and then heard a gunshot. The sound was strange and sharp, a whole different tone from the kind played out on television.

Albariño stood in the doorway for a moment longer, then pushed it open again and stepped inside. He could see the revolver slipping out of Dr Bacchus's hand and onto the floor, there was blood dripping from his fingers, dripping into the carpet by the fireplace, slowly seeping into it.

Albariño calmly moved past the smell of all that smoke and picked up white wine glass from the shelf by the wall, then picked up the bottle of Riesling from the desk and poured himself a glass of wine.

The room was nearly deathly silent, save for the slight clink of glass on glass.

He stepped over the gradually gathering pool of blood on the floor and sat down in another chair by the fireplace, shrouded in the flickering light of the fire, right in the direction of his father's armchair. So he could see the blood trickling down between the brown hair, and the room gradually filled with a heavy, fishy odour.

That shouldn't be, he thought slowly, a Riesling this sweet should be paired with blue cheese and a caramel dessert. His father should have understood that, too.

Albariño sighed softly before bringing his lips to the rim of the glass.

And there lay also his head in the burning sun, for many dead were there, and no one knew their names, and his name was forgotten also. And see, something was moving in the sunshine, in the sightless cavernous eyes! What might that be? A sparkling lizard moved about in the skull, gliding in and out through the sightless holes. The lizard now represented all the life left in that head, in which once great thoughts, bright dreams, the love of art and of the glorious, had arisen, whence hot tears had rolled down, where hope and immortality had had their being.

The lizard sprang away and disappeared, and the skull itself crumbled to pieces and became dust among dust.

The two bodies stood at the end of the white marble steps.

They had indeed been staged as a scene of bloody murder -- in every sense of the word -- and the younger of them stood propped up on some kind of support, his skin pale and wrapped in a light blue Greek style robe, the silk of which covered the decaying parts of his body and the dirty green colour that spread over his skin; and underneath these blue silks a myriad of pale blue saffron and hydrangea sprang up, as if he stood on a green field, a turquoise-coloured wave, or amidst some peculiar blue wreckage.

His throat was delicately cut, and the state of the cut showed that the skin here had definitely been cut after death, and the great hollow of his throat was filled with blue hydrangeas, and those blue petals poured out of his throat like words.

The other, on the other hand, was comparatively less decent, and at a glance it was difficult even to judge his sex: the flesh of this dead man's whole upper body had nearly disappeared, and the white skull and a single rib glittered in the morning light, leaving only a small amount of muscle still remaining in the legs and back, while the skin had been entirely flayed off, and the putrefying flesh reeked sickeningly on the white steps.

Flowers were used as a transition between the flesh and the exposed bones, pale red hibiscus and tulips filling his abdomen and chest, while brilliant red poppies poured openly from the empty eye sockets of the skull, in colours so vivid as to be somewhat hideous.

The deceased was arranged to lie on his back on the ground, his hands with only bones with only bones and a few muscles struggled to reach high into the sky, the pale finger bones held up by metal wires pointing in a certain direction in the sky.

The standing young dead man stood beside this almost skeletal figure, one hand arranged in such a way as to clutch the bare skull of the other dead man, and the other hand across the other's neck: blue branches of flowers were woven into the shape of sharp swords in his hands, the blades of which were entwined with the cervical vertebrae of the skeleton, where they blossomed into bouquets of small, blue and white flowers. Between the necks of these white bones the red poppies flowed down from there in the form of blood, step by step along the stone steps.

-- The last little red flower lay just in front of the toe of Olga Molozer's shoe, who stood at the very bottom of the steps, clasping her arms, and commenting in a relaxed tone, "He recreated Artemisia -- Judith Slaying Holofernes [2]. "

[2] Oil painting from the Bible. Judea was a beautiful Jewish widow who, when the enemy general Judea killed Holofernes and led a siege on her home town, got him drunk and then pulled out his sword and cut off his head. Artemisia repeatedly created several paintings of the same subject throughout her life, which should be related to her personal experience.

"f*ck." Bart Hardy said sincerely.

"What part of that sentence are you complaining about?" Olga glanced at him and joked, "Is it because the Gardener unexpectedly killed two people today on Sunday -- after all, he's only ever killed two victims at once in one case before, which is still quite rare -- or is it because you have something against Baroque painters?"

"I don't give a damn which painters are Baroque!" Hardy exclaimed in desperation, the kind of sound one would make if one was pretty much disappointed with the whole world, "What I do care about is: how the f*ck did he manage to get two corpses in front of the courthouse?!"

-- Exactly, the two of them were standing in front of the State District Court, a full circle of blockade lines surrounding the wide plaza, and farther back, jammed with press vans. With the scene so open, the WLPD could hardly hope to cover the reporters' view with anything.

This was great, and Hardy could imagine that within twenty minutes the photos of the uncensored bodies would be all over the internet.

The two bodies had been placed right on the top step of the courthouse's stone staircase, red poppies cascading down the steps and mixing with the bloodied bodies, making it physically uncomfortable to watch.

"The CSI's said that all the security footage from the night was deleted, and that the guard stationed in the security room was attacked from behind and is still in the hospital with a concussion." Olga said, though she knew that what Hardy shouted just now was just a desperate complaint, and he didn't really want to know the answer.

Hardy sighed heavily, "But I don't understand why the Sunday Gardener chose the site here. He's obviously always particularly favoured open woodlands, or a park with a water source, or something like that before. Courts, really? Dangerous and-"

"And imposing." Olga chuckled lowly.

Hardy glared at her.

It was at this moment that a constable came in their direction with several pages of photocopied paper, but before he could hand them to Hardy, Olga cut him off. She deftly jerked the pages out of the constable's hand and gave a ha-ha laugh.

"The one victim who still retains his face is named William Brown, generally nicknamed 'Billy' by his friends." Olga read, the piece of paper photocopied with the dead man's social security information as well as a few other details, "Oh, and this one was previously embroiled in a lawsuit: he's suing the teacher at his boarding school for attempting to rape him and for biting him in the face when he tried to struggle."

Hardy couldn't help but look at the young victim's face, where the light-coloured scar was clearly visible. Such young victims always made him feel bad inside, obviously because he also had a child at home.

He asked bitterly, "Does it matter?"

"It matters a great deal, Bart!" Olga exclaimed, waving the pages in her hand.

She paused aggressively, then pointed to the two corpses, "Look at these two corpses -- why was this young man named William Brown carefully adorned with silk and bluebells, but the other dead man was stripped of his skin and half of his body's flesh is nowhere to be found? Also, the gardener posed the two of them in the pose of Judith Slaying Holofernes, where the beautiful young woman Judith kills the invader's General to protect her hometown ...and as we all know, Artemisia has used this biblical story as a blueprint many times after being sexually abused by another painter. Bart, while it wasn't the Sunday Gardener's inclination before this -- I'm guessing he wouldn't have chosen a victim with such a unique experience, a subject like this, and yet nothing in order to illustrate it."

As much as Officer Hardy really wanted to spit out the "we all know" line, was completely shocked by the content revealed in Olga's words, and he stuttered, "You mean -- ? "

"Yes." Olga replied simply, throwing the paper in her hand back into the young constable's and watching the other man catch it hurriedly.

Then she said to the constable, "Excuse me, bring in the forensic scene investigator over there." The Forensic Bureau car had just arrived outside the crime scene, and the scene surveyor was desperately trying to break through the press pack to get into the cordon, an attempt that appeared to be completely unsuccessful at the moment. "We need them to take DNA from the other victim other than Brown, who I have reason to suspect is the one mentioned in the profile that says --"

Olga paused for a moment, craning her neck again to scan down the sheets of paper the officer was holding, apparently not remembering the name she'd just seen.

She quickly saw what she wanted to see and read, "... Anthony Sharp."

"Really? Isn't that too hasty a conclusion?" Hardy couldn't help but ask, something like judging the name of a victim whose identity was unknown with their bare hands was something they'd only seen in blindly filmed deduction dramas after all.

"Never hasty." Olga shook her head as she darted up the steps and then without warning knelt down beside the body lying on the floor. She pressed herself down and brought her face close to that of the poppy-stuffed skeleton as Hardy stared in shock.

"Olga?" Hardy asked, in a tone as if he thought she'd finally gone mad. It wasn't so bad, though; in Lavazza Mercader's eyes, she must have been on the verge of madness, too.

‘Look.’ Olga whispered, From the perspective of the skeleton, looking in the direction of his convulsing fingers pointing toward the sky, would have revealed that the pale, white-boned fingers were pointing squarely at the tall statue in the courthouse square.

-- The female figure, her eyes blindfolded with cloth, stood on a gilded pedestal, holding a sword in one hand and a balance in the other. The statue was the most conspicuous structure in the square in front of the courthouse, and even if one stood at an extreme distance, one could see it at a glance.

"It points its finger towards Lady Justice." Olga whispered, letting out a light chuckle, "An interesting irony, isn't it?"

Albariño blinked sleepily.

He felt dizzy and sore from the sleep, and his arm, which was pillowed under his head, was completely numb from the pressure. To be honest, it was possible for someone who had been working at a high level of stress for more than twenty-four hours to run into this kind of situation. He groaned and shifted, hissing and gasping at the numbness in his fingers. Just as he tried to raise his head, his forehead hit something.

-- Correction: his forehead hit the Westland Pianist's shoulder.

One's life may contain a multitude of choices, but "waking up in the morning to see the Westland Pianist looking at you with a 'why don't I strangle you' look in his eyes" is generally not included in most people's life plans.

Albariño glared at the other man for a moment, then asked logically, "...... Why am I in your bed?"

Herstal sighed, there it was again, that sound of finding your dog tearing up the couch as soon as you get home from work.

"How much do you remember about last night?" He asked in a no-nonsense manner

"Are you asking before or after I set Billy and the others out?" Albariño's voice was still low and soft from the daze, with a bit of a pleasant smile, "I remember everything before clearly, but after that I'm pretty sure I pretty much blacked out on the way back."

-- This is what basically happened the night before: Albariño had finally finished the Gardener's work at roughly about midnight, and so he drove back to the city with his yet-to-be-installed artwork, and a Herstal who had been idly watching him work all day.

Albariño dropped Herstal off near his law firm, and then took the two corpses with him to who knows where. Since the other man had no intention of taking him to set up the crime scene, Herstal didn't even mention it.

Or, they both had to admit: that was still too intimate, especially when it came to the part about putting the Gardener's results on display.

Then he drove back to the flat he was staying in -- his car had been parked for the last few days in a garage near the law firm, a long term rental, no cameras, no receipts left for parking, a good choice. Since he never walked home, it was still a little odd to be caught on camera on the perimeter of his apartment walking home at midnight.

He sincerely hoped he was being too nervous, but when you were a psychopathic murderer, no amount of caution was too much to ask.

Herstal thought that that was the end of it: he'd gone back to his flat, and Albariño had most likely gone back to his rented apartment to catch up on his sleep after staging the crime scene. Once again, they would renacted the whole process of briefly meeting and then going their separate ways, just like every time before.

But things obviously did not go as he expected, because around four o'clock in the morning, his flat was visited by an unwanted guest.

Albarino Bacchus appeared staggeringly in front of his bed, as if he was haunted -- Herstal had confirmed it afterwards, that the man had managed to find his place with precision after staying up for twenty-four hours, picking the lock on the door as he entered, and that Albariño had been extremely lucky to avoid the alarms from those security systems -- he muttered something under his breath that no one could make out, and then flopped down on Herstal's bed.

He fell asleep as fast as if he'd died suddenly.

All in all, Albariño hadn't driven the SUV with the changed licence plates into the underground car park of Herstal's house, nor did he come in wearing the same clothes he'd used to dispose the bodies with, and he hadn't brought back any of his tools. This considerate behaviour saved his life to some extent, preventing him from being strangled to death by the Pianist late at night, and prevented him from being kicked out of bed by Herstal.

At this moment, Albariño listened to the other man's succinct description of what happened last night, and then thoughtfully muttered to himself, "I'm pretty sure I avoided all the cameras near your house that might have caught me yesterday -- I have to say, the apartment you rented is upscale enough, but there are quite a few dead bind spots in the cameras -- since I observed your apartment, I'm sure sleepwalking can do the trick. "

Herstal wisely didn't ask what "observed" meant, anticipating that he wouldn't like the answer.

Then he asked, "So why did you risk being photographed coming to my apartment?" And then collapsing in my bed, is that something a psychopathic murderer does?

Albariño blinked at him, then burst into laughter.

"It's possible that it's because everything really was done subconsciously on my part; it's also possible that I've never slept with you before and feel a little offended; or, it's a sign of weakness -- people believe that your bed partners is at their most open and vulnerable when they're lying in bed, and did that make you feel at ease?" Albariño said lowly, "Of those answers, pick the one you like to believe."

"You know I can't possibly feel reassured when you say it like that." Herstal replied.

"But didn't you realise that possibility long ago? That's not like you." Albariño retorted, his voice light, "Besides, even so, you still slept with me."

"Do you expect me to drag you into the living room or do I sleep in the living room myself?" Herstal sneered back, "I don't think either of those is a good idea."

Albariño half closed his eyes sleepily, the bed was just too warm and he really didn't want to move a muscle. But, still using his very slow-spinning brain cells, he asked, "And what do you think would be a good idea?"

-- Herstal stared at him for a moment, then a grin appeared on his face.

He said, "This."

Albariño followed his gaze -- and then he realised that the hand he had been resting under his head wasn't just resting under his head. That wrist of his was cuffed by a real metal handcuff, the other side of which was cuffed to the head of the bed.

"I think it's a good idea, it makes one feel very secure." Herstal said slowly.

Albariño said, "f*ck."

"Okay," Bates said, his face scrunched up as he stared at the two bodies, "so we have two dead men, one named William Brown and the other Anthony Sharp, who were in a relationship of rapist and victim."

The officers had taken enough photographs to stabilise the scene, the initial autopsy by the forensic scene investigator had been done, and now the CSI's were removing the flowers from the abdomen of the body, which Bates and his colleagues were ever hopeful that they would be able to find any clues from those flowers.

But it was a great pity that, despite a thousand names, the fragrance of the roses remained the same; no matter how many times they tried, the Sunday gardener's fingerprints could not be extracted from the petals.

"Obviously," Olga mused, "Bart would never make that kind of guarantee before the results of the DNA tests are in; but I'm pretty sure, looking at the subject, that the other dead man is bound to be Sharp."

Bart was now directing the other officers to survey the surroundings from a distance, and Bates glanced that way twice before asking, "But why? Kill the criminal along with the victim? I thought killing criminals was a job the Westland pianist would do."

Indeed, the Sunday Gardener never cared about the identities or experiences of his victims, he killed people covering all ages from old to young, and once killed a sixteen year old girl visiting her family in Westland from Los Angeles, the kid disappeared less than three hours after stepping off the plane, and there was no way to logically explain it except to say that she was just unlucky enough to run into it.

And tailoring a scene to a victim's experience? The Sunday Gardener had never done that before.

Olga shook her head, "That's not the strangest thing about this case, if you ask me, the strangest thing is --"

She reached out farther and nudged the throat of the young man nicknamed Billy, where all the hydrangeas had been removed and the wound was now hideously exposed. The metal braces had been removed from his body, the satin fabric gone, and he was now lying naked on the floor, waiting to be placed in a body bag by the Forensic Bureau.

"His throat?" Bates asked, confused.

"Yes, because the gardener often cuts the deceased's throat neatly doesn't he? He never takes the time to torture the dead." Olga gazed at the ghastly white body, "There were no other wounds on the deceased, so it's likely that he was killed by a cut to the throat -- but this time the gardener destroyed the wound left by the slit and decorated the wound with flowers. He had never covered the wound with anything else before and didn't mind it being exposed..."

"Maybe it's just that he had new inspiration this time?" Bettes said uncertainly.

"Maybe," Olga whispered, her brow furrowing sternly, "I hope that when the Forensic Medical Examiner's Office performs the autopsy this time, they'll give a more detailed opinion about the wound, and we might be able to surmise from the autopsy report why the gardener did what he did..."

Her voice suddenly caught as Hardy was walking towards them in a hurry. And the look on Officer Hardy's face was familiar to them all; it was exactly the look of someone who had discovered something.

"Olga, I've suddenly realised something!" Hardy exclaimed, "There's been a breakthrough in this case!"

"What?" Bates asked, pre-empting the question.

"William Brown was under the age of seventeen when he was almost sexually assaulted, and out of concern for his privacy, the information in the case was kept confidential at the time, so there was no way the general public could have known about his relationship with Sharp." Hardy said eagerly, barely even giving himself a gap to catch his breath, "The Gardener had to have known that William Brown was almost sexually assaulted by Sharp to set up the crime scene the way he did, didn't he? Then the scope of insiders who knew this knowledge can be reduced to a very small size already..."

"The police involved in the case, some of the teachers at that school, and the judge, prosecutor and jury?" Bates guessed along with him. "Um, is it really possible that the case involves a prosecutor and a jury?"

"And members of Sexual Assault Trauma Anonymous." Hardy said aloud, "My subordinates went to question Brown's friend, who had recently been attending therapy at the mutual aid society. But I think it's less likely that the killer is in the support group, after all, it's an anonymous support group, and Brown wouldn't give out his real name at a support group, much less mention Sharp's name. But of course, just to be on the safe side I'll have someone look into the members of the mutual aid society, even if it's just to rule out ..."

Olga's eyebrows suddenly furrowed, and she raised her voice sharply, "Mutual Aid Society?"

Hardy nodded confusedly, "Yes, it's held every Sunday in a small theatre --"

Then they watched as Olga gasped, it was rare for her to show such a loss of composure.

"I see." She said with difficulty, "I know about that mutual aid society: I recommended Al and Herstal to it before."

The other two erupted in unison, one saying "What?!" , and the other said "What do you understand?!" , drawing frequent looks their way from the CSIs at work.

"This case has something to do with Herstal." Olga gritted her teeth, "That's why -- why one of the dead would be a criminal when we all know that killing criminals isn't even the Sunday Gardener's modus operandi, he doesn't give a sh*t about criminals."

"Or was it just a coincidence that he and Al went to the Mutual Aid Society?" Bates worded with difficulty, though by the sound of his voice he didn't believe what he was saying himself, "Though that makes them both suspects as well, but after all, Bart did say that Brown wouldn't have given his real name when he went to the Mutual Aid Society, so --? "

"No, I mean this definitely has something to do with Herstal." Olga replied, wildly smoothing her hair haphazardly down the back of her head, looking like a big angry lion, "And presumably it's got something to do with Al, too -- think about it, the Sunday Gardener put a skull with flowers on Herstal's desk! And then there's Al, who's making a lot of noise about that case with the pianist."

Hardy pinched the bridge of his nose with his hand and said slowly, "... So is it possible that this case was the Sunday Gardener's response to the pianist's previous case? To express his mockery of the rapist?"

"Some kind of twisted pity for the victim. Of course." Olga looked directly at the bones of Anthony Sharp, which were being collected, her tone was sombre, "He can do this to Sharp, and is willing to do the same to... 'some' rapist, that's the position he was expressing ; and, he chose the members of this mutual aid society deliberately, just to show the scene to the one person he wished to see it: anyone who knew William Brown would have immediately understood what the Gardener meant as soon as he saw the news coverage of the case."

"So how did the Gardener know that William Brown attended the same mutual aid society as they did?" Bates couldn't help but ask, his voice shaking a little, obviously thinking of something bad, "Has he been following them? Has he been right next to them?"

The three men were silent for a few seconds, probably all mulling over this possibility, and the atmosphere was very disturbing.

Then Officer Hardy cleared his throat and said dryly, "At any rate, we've got to talk to both of them -- now."

Chapter 11: 47. Dionysus in the Tomb (5)

Chapter Text

Sunday, 1 August 1976, Cazadores, Spain.

Charles admitted that his Spanish was a little rusty, which was probably the main reason he felt so embarrassed when he accidentally bumped into the petite local girl.

At the time, he was on his way to a wine tasting at the winery -- slightly underestimating the raging crowds -- although the fact that the organisers were offering over forty different flavours of Albariño for the attendees to sample was certainly appealing. But being held hostage in a crowd on an overly sunny afternoon with temperatures well over thirty degrees was still not a good idea.

He had no choice but to be jostled into her by the crowd, the girl stumbled and was only able to hold on to his arm to steady herself. Charles, on the other hand, was not at all sure that he was pronouncing the words accurately, and tried to shield her from the crowd with his shoulder, stumbling over his words saying, ‘Lo siento muchísimo!'[1]

[1] In Spanish: I'm very sorry!

The girl, still grasping his arm with one hand and quickly smoothing her long, pale blonde hair back behind her head with the other, replied in a brisk tone, ‘No es nada...’ [2]

[2] In Spanish: This is nothing...

Then, unsure if it was Charles' poor pronunciation or something that revealed his status as a tourist, the girl paused for a moment, the smile on her face suddenly a little wider.

‘It's okay.’ She switched to English with a slight accent and repeated what she had just said again.

It was at this moment that Charles could sort of finally see the girl's face: she looked to be in her early twenties at most, her skin and hair colour looked extremely light in the sunlight, as well as that -- she had very, very attractive mint green eyes.

The girl from the Campagna is as beautiful as your princess in the marble castle. They are both daughters of Eve, and you can't tell them apart.

Albariño grasped the metal chain of the handcuff with his handcuffed hand and shook it tentatively; the texture and weight of the thing told him that it was not the kind that could be bought in a roadside sex shop.

Herstal didn't feel the need to tell him that the way he gripped those metal chains between his fingers was very pleasing to the eye -- it involved some of his darker sexual fantasies. Still, even if he really was a sexual paraphilic murderer, he wasn't frank enough to bring such topics to the table.

‘I didn't think your house still stocked such things, Mr Armalight.’ Albariño whispered, looking more awake and his voice still sounded happy, ‘Besides, it's slightly creepy from an erotic point of view.’

‘I don't think I have to go easy on liars.’ Herstal replied calmly, sitting up slightly and leaning over Albariño majestically like a mountain.

‘Is that so?’ Albariño asked, blinking innocently, as if he really didn't know.

‘You didn't come straight back from the scene of the crime, I'm pretty sure you went back to your flat to shower and change first. To make sure that you didn't leave any detectable DNA in your cabin that could potentially be found by the police, there's no shower unit there, is there?’ Herstal reached out calmly and ran his hand through Albariño's hair, those brown strands smooth, soft, and obviously freshly washed, still smelling like fresh shampoo. ‘So you don't actually have to play the whole pick one of several possibilities thing: you have to admit that you went back to your flat after you'd been to the scene of the crime and destroyed any possible evidence before you came back to my place, am I right?’

‘How boring.’ Albariño curled his lips, ‘Can't you just believe that I just came to your house by instinct in the middle of the night, all exhausted, as if I were a lost chick trying to imprint onto you, how romantic would that have been?’

Herstal snorted coldly, ‘Because I'm not stupid.’

Albariño grunted -- really grunted -- it was hard to believe how a man his size could make such a noise.

Herstal, obviously struggling to suppress the urge to roll his eyes at him, asked, ‘So that's why you're here? To wake up with someone to help you with your morning erection?’

He finished the sentence with an intentional glance towards Albariño's lower half. Albariño laughed out loud, ‘Ouch, that's too much of a buzzkill, Herstal! No wonder you've never even had a one-night stand before.’

Herstal didn't heed his remark, just leaning down ferociously to kiss the other man. Albariño wriggled underneath his torso, the man's body smelling completely devoid of blood. The skin was smooth, and all that was left was a whiff of soap.

It smelled almost like ‘home’ -- a rather unnatural word to describe Albariño, but it was certainly the kind of word that a love-struck guy would use when they woke up in the morning with their partner in their arms. It was inevitable that they would think that.

Herstal allowed his thoughts to gallop in that direction for a few seconds before he had to admit that he wasn't fit to define the word home, which had been filled with the stench of alcohol since he was very young.

As he attempted to start unbuttoning Albariño's trousers, he felt the other man wriggle and pull something out of his trouser pocket, looking like a flexible fish. Herstal lifted his head slightly and saw that Albariño was cupping a curved paper clip in his hand.

The other smugly waved the small piece of metal in front of him, then bit one end of the paper clip with his teeth and straightened it out.

‘Seriously? Now?’ Herstal asked, frowning.

‘Get busy with yourself.’ Albariño replied with a grin as he inserted the paperclip into the keyhole of the handcuffs.

Hardy's car was stuck in a long line of cars made up of sedans that were trying to get out of town in the morning. He couldn't help but sigh as he impatiently tapped his fingers against the leather wrapped around the steering wheel.

Olga sat in the passenger seat and surveyed his furrowed brow curiously before she said, ‘I'm guessing that the expression on your face right now means, “I have absolutely no f*cking idea what the hell is going on”.’

‘I do have no idea what the hell is going on,’ Hardy let out a long sigh, ‘I regret it, maybe asking the BAU for help was really a good idea.’

‘Don't even think about it, those superiors of yours won't issue those papers, they're probably dying to send you out to post a ticket.’ Olga grimaced, ‘I don't know if it's any consolation, but: if even I don't see what's going on, Lavazza Mercader certainly won't know what's going on.’

‘Seems to me like you've always had a problem with him, so what's going on? Because of that book you mentioned before about some motiveless killing?’ Hardy asked, seriously, to be honest, it was a question he'd wanted to ask a long time ago.

‘The Case of George Robo: Murder Without Motive.’ Olga repeated the title of the book again good-naturedly, ‘But no, I didn't fall out with him over that book -- I fell out with him over the Robo case itself.’

Hardy didn't say anything, and Olga knew that meant ‘I'd like to hear about it.’

Olga shrugged her shoulders and went on, ‘You may have heard of the George Robo case, which was quite famous a few years ago. A few years ago he killed six people in three states in a row, ‘motiveless killings’ as the title of that book says, which made him extraordinarily difficult to catch, you don't even know how much profiling we did for that, but all in all it was our efforts and the federal police's efforts that finally locked him up. Unfortunately, although we managed to get a search warrant and searched his house, we didn't find any evidence sufficient enough to convict him.’

Hardy had heard of that case, it had been such a big deal some years back that the WLPD had given lectures on the subject. He slowly recalled the specifics, ‘As I recall, the FBI finally found evidence to catch him after the seventh case? I think they found one of Robo's hairs at the scene of the seventh case?’

‘That's the problem,’ Olga said dryly, ‘He didn't do the last case.’

‘What??’

The traffic had moved forward a few metres, and being so absorbed, Hardy was completely unaware of it until the frantic honking of the car behind him woke him up.

Hardy scrambled to start the car while Olga continued.

‘At the time, I was at odds with my colleagues in the entire department because I didn't think some of the details of the last murder were quite the same as the previous cases -- I can't go into detail due to the non-disclosure agreement I signed before I left my job.’ Olga's nose wrinkled up, ‘That modus operandi would have convinced everyone including Special Agent Mercader, but not me ...no, actually it wouldn't have convinced Mercader either, but he didn't care, he just needed a reason to be able to arrest the murderer.'

‘...You think it was a copycat who committed the crime?’ Hardy asked dryly.

‘I believe it was indeed the work of a copycat.’ Olga put an emphasis on the word ‘indeed’, ‘At the time, details of the Lobo case was all over the newspapers, and it wasn't difficult to kill a man in the same way as Robo, but small discrepancies in the details were unavoidable. I thought at the time that the last case was actually a personal vendetta, and that the killer had framed the case on someone else by shaping the scene similarly to Robb's. That case did resemble the previous serial murders, but no, I didn't think it was done by the previous killer.’

That was downright creepy when you really thought about it, and Hardy said with difficulty, ‘But... Olga, that's the last case through which they convicted George Robo. That hair the CSI found was the decisive evidence!’

‘Yes.’ Olga said in a single word.

‘Oh God,’ Hardy couldn't help saying, he sounded a little stuttered, obviously reading Olga's hints and thinking of a horrible possibility, ‘Oh God, are you implying that --? ‘

‘I am.’ Olga gritted her teeth. ‘After the first six cases, the police got a warrant to enter Robo's house to investigate, but due to the lack of evidence, we didn't get the authorisation to collect his DNA, so no one could get it the official way. but from his house? Everyone loses a lot of hair in their homes, right? On pillows, on combs in the bathroom, within easy reach!

‘It was the Pennsylvania State Troopers, the scientists from the local crime lab, and the two BAU profilers, that's me and -- under the guise of, 'observing his residence could potentially be helpful in profiling!' so Lavazza Mercader himself went to his home with state troopers.

‘Before we went to search Robo's house, this cunning serial killer had never left any evidence of collecting significance at the scene of the crime; after we searched his home, one of his hairs inexplicably appeared at the scene of a crime that mimicked his modus operandi, and you, as an experienced police officer, tell me who is most likely ...’

Obviously, Olga's implication couldn't be more obvious: she believed it was Mercader who obtained Robo's hair from his residence and then placed it at the last crime scene as hard evidence to nail Robo. This should have been flawless, but therein lies the problem: the seventh case was simply a copycat crime, not committed by Robo himself at all.

‘This is really quite an outrageous accusation, you're accusing an FBI special agent of perjury to frame someone else!’ Hardy raised his voice and once again missed moving forward with the traffic, he had to raise his voice over the jarring sound of the horns, ‘I see what you're saying Olga, but it doesn't make sense, there has to be a motive at least ...’

‘Motive.’ Olga snorted softly, her eyes looking ahead through the windscreen with a cold smile, ‘Justice is motive, Bart. Of all the people who were there: me, the CSI scene investigator, the state trooper, and him -- out of all of those people, there was only one who was willing to pay whatever it took to bring the murderer to justice.’

There was a silence in response to her, as if the middle-aged cop driving the car was nothing more than an empty shell.

It was almost a minute before Hardy said slowly, ‘The price is breaking the law.’

‘Some people think it's well worth it. What are professional ethics and the law in the face of real life?’ Olga tsked, ‘Bart, what would you choose at such a fork in the road?’

Hardy didn't answer the question, perhaps because he too was at a loss as to what choice he would make when faced with such a thing.

Olga, on the contrary, didn't continue to pursue the question, she just swept him a glance before continuing, ‘Some people call it justice, some people see this as madness. From my point of view, it is intolerable to distort the truth for the sake of an end, but perhaps some people think it's not so bad when it turns out well: ha, it did turn out ‘well’. After Robo's imprisonment, no one has died of murder just because of a brush with a madman; and that copycat ...that copycat was motivated by revenge, so he won't be committing a second case. The serial killer has been brought to justice, end of story.’

But from her tone, she wasn't happy with the way the story ended.

Hardy was silent for a moment longer, then slowly said, ‘Everything has been finalised. Only by confirming that that case was really the work of a copycat at the time can --’

‘It can't be confirmed, and I alone can't sway the direction of the investigation, not to mention that the entire BAU doesn't support my profiling results even before the case is closed.’

Olga shrugged, her tone unusually relaxed.

‘In fact, Robo certainly refused to confess when he was arrested. But while he denied committing all the crimes, he didn't have an alibi that made sense: he claimed he'd been home all day at the time of the last case, but wasn't able to back that up -- plus, he couldn't afford to hire a good lawyer, and the DNA was kind of an ironclad proof in front of the jury. ‘

She took a deep breath.

‘Now we no longer have a chance to prove who's right,’ she finished dryly, ‘the law for trying interstate cases is based on where the case was first filed, which is Pennsylvania, and as you know Pennsylvania has the death penalty, it's just ...’

‘Robo is dead?’ Hardy asked in a low voice.

Olga did not speak, apparently acquiescing.

They were silent for a moment, then Hardy said with difficulty, ‘Olga ...’

‘I was never angry with him for such acts as violating professional ethics or the law itself. He wanted to make sure that a homicidal maniac could never harm anyone else, so he thought it was worth making that choice for that reason; after all, who knows how many more people he would have killed afterwards if he hadn't caught Robo? I think there are even a lot of people who would think he's right from that perspective, he's kind of a big hero who knows the law and breaks it to keep the people safe.’ Olga said lightly, a hint of a sneer in her voice.

Hardy was strangely attuned to Olga's bizarre brain circuits: the reason Olga was upset about what Mercader had done wasn't because the other party was unethical, forged evidence, or anything else; Olga was angry because Mercader had tried to bring Lobo to justice and ended up blaming him for a crime that he hadn't committed. Figuratively speaking, it's like filling in an answer when you know it's wrong.

...Although he understood Olga's way of thinking, in all fairness he still felt he could not understand it.

‘...There is a necessity for the law to set strict rules for depositions, and even if on this occasion a man does catch a real murderer and prevent unnecessary deaths by such means, there will always be times when his judgement is wrong, and a trial based on a man's subjective judgement would be very dangerous.’ That was all Hardy could say in the end, and he wasn't sure who he was rebutting, because Olga surely didn't care about the ‘necessity of rules’, so he was probably talking to an imaginary audience. ‘If there is no guarantee that the rules will be enforced with precision, then the rules themselves are open to question. No matter what position a man takes in doing such a thing, then the correctness of all the cases he has handled before and after will be questioned.’

Olga grunted, ‘I don't care, that's something for the jury to consider.’

Yes, of course someone like Olga would make such a questionable sounding statement. Hardy sighed and continued, ‘But you still don't like him.’

‘Work-wise, I don't like the way he treats profiling. On a personal level, given that I'm too lazy to maintain a personal relationship with anyone else, what he's like as a person is meaningless to me.’ Olga said. She paused, then continued with a warning, ‘But I reckon you don't share that style of his; I hate to speculate on people like that, but just so you know -- if the WLPD ever does invite the BAU to work on the Pianist's or the Gardener's case, watch out for him to to do something like that on your turf.’

Hardy swept her a glance, his voice sounding as if he felt some amusem*nt, ‘Westland is not my territory, Olga.’

‘In your mind it is.’ Olga snorted, then replied thus.

As Herstal ran the tip of his tongue delicately over Albariño's co*ck, he finally managed to force a moan out of his throat. Between his trembling fingers, the paper clip fell off the bed with a snap, the handcuff had yet to be pried open.

Herstal's fingers were buried in his body, his lips next to those silky soft, fragile skin. He swept deftly over the point where he could make Albariño's legs curl up and gave the latter a provocative look.

Albariño's chest and stomach rose and fell, a faint blush appearing on his cheekbones as he gazed at Herstal with pupil-dilated eyes and gasped, ‘You're very proud of yourself, aren't you? -- Woah!’

Herstal returned the answer with a heavy suck and roughly f*cked his finger into the other man's back hole, squeezing the moans out of his throat like toothpaste. Albariño's legs unconsciously rubbed against Albariño's shoulders, his skin damp and warm, his entire waist was trembling.

He whimpered a curse that certainly wasn't in English while one of Herstal's hands was slowly circling the letter ‘T’ on Albariño's abdomen, pressing against his quivering skin, and then swallowing his co*ck deep into his throat until he felt the muscles of his throat convulsing around the organ under the actions of his gag reflex.

Herstal had never liked the sensation and was reluctant to do it, but the look on Albariño's face was worth a thousand bucks.

Herstal watched as one of his hands tugged tightly on the chain of his handcuffs, causing the metal to creak on the bedside post, while the other fumbled helplessly on the mattress, but the paper clip had long since fallen out of Albariño's reach.

Then Herstal lifted his head and felt the wet organ slide out of his mouth and just stick to his chin. He waited for his gasp to be less pronounced before he said slowly, ‘Now you know what I felt when you took away the piece of porcelain in Elliot Evans' basem*nt’.

Albariño spat a series of obscenities and accusations of ‘holding a grudge’ at him, and Herstal stared at the other man with a slow smile before he slowly knelt down, pulling his hand out of Albariño's body, and began to slowly unbutton his pajamas.

The action of pulling out his fingers brought out a large stream of lubricant, which dripped down Albarino's legs and soaked a large area of sheets, making it look almost as if he was incontinent. It wasn't surprising that this would happen, given that Herstal had just about poured half a bottle of lubricant on him.

And Albariño squirmed less than comfortably at the strange sensation -- surely due to the wet sheets -- and almost slu*ttishly brushed his leg against Herstal's crotch, then watching with satisfaction as Herstal frowned in a confused expression.

Albariño's face was still as red as ever, but his breathing was at least panting a little more evenly. He grinned again as Herstal parted his legs and sank his fingers deep into those soft skins.

‘Thank you for being willing to condescend to f*ck me again,’ he hummed lightly, his voice sweet, ‘Rapist.’

‘So?’ When they finally broke free of the near-endless traffic jam, Hardy finally turned the conversation back to business. Or maybe he wanted to talk about something lighter after the mind-numbing content about Lavazza Mercader -- which really just mean that he wasn't good at choosing his topics very well - ‘About Al and the others, what do you think?’

Olga glanced at him through the rear-view mirror.

‘I guess the prevailing view now is this,’ said Olga slowly, ‘that the Pianist and the Gardener were engaged in a bizarre murder contest around Herstal; during which Al was framed and imprisoned for the Sarah Adelman affair, and then the real murderer was killed by the Pianist by a coincidence; and then, the Pianist in turn violated Al for over some little thoughts about the artistry; possibly to mock the Pianist this time, or perhaps to make a statement about his attitude towards the Johnny the Killer case, the Gardener kills a rapist as well as his victim, who just happens to be someone Al and Herstal have met at a mutual aid meeting.’

‘Bizarre, intricate relationships.’ Bart Hardy commented, a series of words that madae him feel a dull ache in his temples, as if in demonstration.

‘Too intricate, so intricate that one would question its authenticity.’ Olga shook her head, sounding very dissatisfied.

Hardy took a moment to glance at her during the drive, but unfortunately he couldn't see much expression on her face, and he couldn't guess what she was thinking.

‘Occam's Razor principle, remember?’ Olga reminded, though Hardy didn't understand why she had suddenly started referring to the fourteenth century philosophical principle again, ‘the simplest solution is almost always the best', surely there is a simpler theory that can be used to explain what is happening now, the simpler the better. ‘

‘That's a really positive thought. Like the idea that it's actually me who's insane and this is all a hallucination; and that when I've taken enough sedative drugs I'll realise I'm actually lying in a soft bed in a mental hospital.’ Hardy said bitterly.

‘Bart.’ Olga said rather disapprovingly.

Hardy sighed, then asked, ‘All right, all right. But what could it be?’

Olga shrugged her shoulders, ‘Maybe we'll find out soon enough.’

Herstal's reasoning told him that he should have kicked Albariño out of bed and then at least change the sheets himself, or take a shower; no sane person would enjoy sex with a murderer in a bed dripping with lubricant in the early hours of the morning. But since he already knew people like Albarino, it was obvious that he had already left the highway called "sanity" at a speed of more than eighty miles.

They were now stuck together: mostly Albariño, who had wasted his shower, given the incredible amount of lube on his skin and the sem*n dripping out of his red, swollen hole.

Albariño didn't seem to care one bit. Herstal had alreday removed the handcuffs, so he was rubbing the red marks on his wrists from where the cuffs had been. He leaned over to kiss a fresh bite mark on Herstal's shoulder: the bastard was very sharp-toothed,both literally and figuratively.

Herstal asked, ‘So, what the hell are you here for?’

‘Do you have to say such fraught things after the fact?’ Albariño asked rhetorically.

‘You're talking to a -- and I quote -- “rapist”, about after the fact?’ Herstal choked back.

Albariño grunted through his nose and brazenly moved in a little closer, leaving a few more reddish hickeys on the skin near the bite mark, making a mess of his neck. Herstal was getting a little worried that the marks wouldn't fade away before he went back to work: it was already Sunday.

‘Okay, okay,’ said Albariño helplessly, ‘for the sake of an alibi.’

Herstal stared at him.

‘Even if it wasn't the Pianist who committed the crime this time, Bart and the others would eventually inevitably find out that Billy attended a support group with the two of us, right?’ Albariño's lips were warm against his skin as he said vaguely, ‘And with all due respect, our names are probably already closely linked to those two serial killers -- Bart's a responsible man, he'll name us as suspects.’

And Herstal had an alibi; a camera near his flat had caught him driving home the entire time, and Albariño hadn't even set up the crime scene yet at that point. And the windows of his car were so darkly tinted that the camera couldn't even confirm how many people were in the car.

He'd taken the lift from the car park straight to the flat, and there was no footage to back this up, but the perimeter cameras could show that he hadn't left the flat once he'd entered it -- and Albariño had avoided the cameras when he'd come in, so it would be perfectly safe to say that they'd stayed together all night.

Damn it, Albariño must have planned it all out before he came that night.

‘Are you going to get yourself off the hook by becoming my f*ck buddy?’ Herstal asked in a sarcastic tone.

‘Haven't I been your f*ck-buddy for a long time? You've had a lot of fun playing with me while holding a knife.’ Albariño smugly countered, ‘Of course, it's no problem if you want me to be yours for anything else, I'll go to Vegas with you right now and get married.’

Herstal almost slapped a pillow in his face, at this moment he really wanted to just smother him with a pillow for good measure, just like last night when he had stared at Albariño's sleeping face for half a day considering it.

But then again, since he didn't do it last night, it was certainly impossible to do it in the morning.

He pondered for a moment, then said, ‘Even if you can come up with an alibi this time, you know that's enough to make Officer Hardy and the others suspicious, right? They'll be on to us from now on.’

‘Us,’ he couldn't help but spit on himself for a couple of seconds after he spat out the word, wanting to swallow it back down like a shredder and crush it to bits.

‘Aren't you?’ Albariño stared at him with burning eyes, looking strangely pleased with himself, ‘Didn't you think that something like what's happening now would happen sooner or later, when you realised that being stuck with me would lead to great disaster, but didn't kill me? Did you not foresee the worst ending of failure and death?’

Herstal looked into those mint-green eyes and swallowed -- and then, once again, he gave up lying. Because there was no point in lying when you were in Albariño's presence.

‘I've thought about it.’ He said simply.

Albariño laughed.

At the same time, they heard the doorbell ringing in the distance.

‘Go answer the door and do the honours of a landlord.’ Albariño commanded with a grin, ‘Darling.’

Officer Hardy and Olga stood at the door for almost five minutes before it opened. For a man of Herstal's character, that speed was beginning to make one wonder if he had been kidnapped again.

Herstal Armalight opened the door for them while still impatiently straightening the neckline of his robe and the nightgown he wore over it, as if the crumpled fabric had insulted him. It wasn't all that strange, considering his usual compulsive action of straightening his own cufflinks.

But the rest of it was much stranger.

While Herstal was messing with the lapel fabrics, Officer Hardy saw with a sharp eye a red mark on his collar, which he didn't realise what it was at first, probably because very few people associated the Armalight lawyer with the word ‘sex’.

‘Is there something, Officer Hardy?’ The lawyer asked in a business-like manner.

‘This morning, the Sunday Gardener laid out two bodies on the steps in front of the State District Court.’ Hardy said bluntly; Herstal was not the type to like small talk.

Herstal's eyebrows furrowed, looking a little surprised, a surprise that did not look feigned in any way. Hardy stared at him sternly and had finally come to this conclusion. Then Herstal asked, ‘...So?’

‘The deceased was known to you, and those two corpses contained some very private information, which allowed us to classify the suspects in a very small circle.’ Olga explained from behind Hardy's shoulder, ‘If you go to the police station, I'm guessing Bart will show you the details, mind you, this isn't a good place to show photos of the victims.’

Herstal was silent for a couple of seconds before asking, ‘So since you two showed up on my doorstep, am I right in guessing that I'm in that circle of suspects?’

Hardy wasn't sure if he should show a bit of apology in his voice; after all, it was kind of bad luck for Armalight these days. But then again, as a cop, he really didn't like mob lawyer very much either.

He said with deliberation, ‘I'm afraid so, so I'm going to have to ask you a few questions, last night, what were you doing...?’

Herstal stared at him for two seconds.

‘I was at home,’ he then said, a note of careful deliberation showing between the words, ‘and I had a ... visitor.’

He showed a strange hesitation in saying the word visitor, which caught Hardy's attention. Hardy repeated the word with a frown, ‘A visitor?’

‘Yes,’ somewhere behind Herstal they heard a voice answer loudly and cheerfully, ‘me.’

Hardy, of course, immediately heard who the voice belonged to, which would explain why he didn't hold back an expletive from rushing out.

He stared dumbfoundedly somewhere behind Herstal's shoulder -- which was presenting a spectacle that would make a man's brain haemorrhage kick in. He wouldn't have believed that these two could be in the same frame caught in such an act, even if he believed that the world had really been descended upon by the Virgin Mary -- and seriously, shouldn't this be the kind of plot that would appear in a blindly shot criminal investigation drama? Why did it really happen to them?

But all in all, Albariño Bacchus standing barefoot on the floor of Herstal's house, wearing nothing but a pair of trousers, which were not quite buttoned up enough, told the others that he really was just wearing ‘a pair’ of trousers. The splotches of red on his skin, the tangles of dried fluid between the scars on his abdomen, told every adult with the ability to judge what had happened to him and who he'd had a morning f*ck with today.

Albariño grinned and said, ‘Hi.’

Chapter 12: 48. Transcript of the Interrogation of Albariño Bacchus

Notes:

The 'Q' stands for Question and 'A' for Answer

Chapter Text

Introduction:

In mid-2019, the WLPD released to the public some of the materials from the Westland Pianist case, including a copy of a transcript of the audio recording from police questioning of the suspects following the murders of William Brown and Anthony Sharp (which occurred on 27 November 2016). A copy of the text version of the interrogation was released to the public by the WLPD.

The document contains names of people, places, and details of the case that have been withheld from the public due to privacy concerns and restrictions imposed by relevant legal regulations.

Document NON-PUBLIC NARRATIVE

Author Bacchus, Albarino

Related Date/Time Nov-27-2016 (Sun.)

Q: It's Monday, November 27th, and the video recording has begun. The person asking the questions is: Police Officer ▇▇▇▇▇. Now, please give me your name.

A: Albarino Bacchus.

Q: What is your occupation?

A: Forensic Pathologist, I work for the City of Westland's Forensic Bureau.

Q: You are not currently charged with a crime, but you have the right to wait until your attorney is present for this questioning.

A: I understand that, but I waive that right -- also, of course, because my attorney is in another interrogation room right now defending himself, and as I recall the law says that one attorney cannot defend two suspects in the same case, right?

Q: Dr Bacchus --

A: Okay, okay. I'm sorry. Let's just get right to it.

Q: Do you recognise this young man in the photograph?

A: He looks familiar ...... Ah, I think I met him at the ▇▇▇▇ Anonymous Mutual Aid meeting last week, he took the stage and spoke after me.

Q: Can you describe the Mutual Aid meeting in more detail?

A: Well, after that case in ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇, I had a period of paid leave because the officer didn't recommend that I stayed back in my own home those days -- I guess he wanted me to protect my psychological factors, and you should know that he's a friend of mine -- so I rented an apartment in the city. At the beginning of this month, when ▇▇▇▇▇▇ visited my flat, it was suggested that I should not stay home all the time and that I should at least go to a Mutual Aid Meeting if I was not willing to go to a psychologist.

Q: So, this Mutual Aid Meeting was recommended to you by Ms. ▇▇▇?

A: Yes, she said that the founder of the support group was a friend of hers from her work in Chicago, and that the support group only accepted recommendations from insiders -- and ▇▇▇, obviously, has this qualification. The Mutual Aid Meeting was held every Saturday at the ▇▇▇ Theatre on ▇▇ Street, and I attended twice after she signed me up.

Q: And then you met this young man at the Mutual Aid Society, didn't you?

A: I can't say I knew him, only that I did see this person there. I'm not even sure that he was there the first time I went, but I'm pretty sure he was there the second time I attended. When he came up on the stage and introduced himself, he said his name was Billy or Bill or something like that.

Q: It was Billy, Mr Bacchus. So, do you remember any stories that he told at the support meeting?

A: Actually, I didn't pay too much attention, I met Herstal at the support meeting when he was speaking on stage, he was sitting right behind me. I basically spent the whole time trying to figure out how to look back at him without being too rude.

Q: Okay, we'll ask questions about Mr. Armalight later. But for now, please refresh your memory, did you really not hear what he was saying at all?

A: Erm, let me think for a moment ... it must have been related to ▇▇, right? I was sitting in the front row and noticed ▇▇▇▇▇ on his face. In my experience as a forensic doctor, that's ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇.

Q: ...Okay, so may I ask if you recognise this male in this photo?

A: Not at all, is this the bastard from ▇▇▇▇▇?

Q: Dr Bacchus, you're still on leave and I can't tell you that kind of detail in accordance with the relevant regulations.

A: Okay.

Q: This male in the photo used to work at ▇▇▇ middle school, you have never been to that middle school or been around nearby, right?

A: Yes.

Q: And you never saw Billy, or the man in the photograph, again in the period after the Mutual Aid Meeting, right?

A: Yes.

Q: Okay. So now let's talk about Mr. Herstal Armalight, did you know ahead of time that he was going to be at that Mutual Aid Meeting?

A: No. The last time we met was when I was hospitalised after the ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ case, when he visited me in the hospital. At that time he never told me that he was going to be at the Mutual Aid Meeting as well. But after we met at the Mutual Aid Meeting, Herstal said that it was also ▇▇▇▇ that forced him to go there, which was very much in line with her style.

Q: But the ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ incident was committed on the 29th of October, and you haven't seen each other since then?

A: I know what you actually want to ask, ma'am, and no, the two of us hadn't slept together at that point.

Q: So the relationship started after you met at the Mutual Aid Society?

A: Yes, as with all sloppy one-night stands -- of course, I still think it's wonderful, but sensibly, I don't know how long it will last. After the Mutual Aid Meeting that day, I was going to take the subway back to my flat, but I was blocked in the car park by a reporter with the name of ▇▇▇, who works for the ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ newspaper, and whom you can ask for details of this. He wanted to ask me about the details of the case that had happened to me previously, and in order to bail me out, Herstal offered to drive me, so we went for lunch together.

Q: And then?

A: Then we rolled into bed. Although I don't usually recommend putting that kind of activity after lunch.

Q: How did Mr. Armalight feel about the Mutual Aid Meeting?

A: He didn't like it. I see that he intends to work like crazy to heal his wounds, not through talking to a therapist or other victims. He thought the support meeting was a waste of time, which is why, this Saturday, none of us went to the support meeting.

Q: So, did Mr. Armalight mention to you about Billy, who attended the support meeting?

A: Not at all, I guess he didn't listen much at the support meeting either, maybe he was just watching me.

Q: So next, I will ask you some questions about your alibi. Firstly, have you been staying together for the last few days? Since that Saturday the 19th.

A: No! We haven't gone so far as to live together, besides Herstal is a workaholic. Mostly I stay at my own house and then go to his home to have dinner and spend the night with him, because the amount of instant food in his fridge is really something like that of someone who would want to kill themselves through malnutrition would do. But because he often works overtime, he actually comes back very late.

Q: Mr Armalight's partner, Mr. ▇▇▇, said that he seems to be in a bad state of mind this week and seems to be tired.

A: Well of course, he's spending the night with me, ma'am.

Q: Can you tell me where the two of you were on Wednesday night, the 23rd? Camera footage from the street outside Lawyer Armalight's apartment shows that his car was not driven into his garage until the early morning hours of the 24th.

A: Are you asking this question because the medical examiner concluded that the victim died on Wednesday night?

Q: Dr Bacchus, we really can't provide you with the information --

A: Well, don't worry, ma'am. I can certainly answer the question, although it's a little inappropriate to say up front: that partner of his, ▇▇▇, should have mentioned to the police that Herstal had a court hearing on Thursday, and as far as I know he put in quite a few extra shifts on that case, and by the time Wednesday rolled around he was so busy he almost collapsed.

Q: And then what happened?

A: I went to wait for him at his office when he got off work, and his secretary named ▇▇ can provide testimony in this regard, and then we went out to dinner at a restaurant --credit card records and invoices would corroborate all of that. The meal lasted until about 8:30 p.m., and then, uh ...

Q: Dr Bacchus?

A: He had been drinking a little bit, so it was my turn to drive his car. I took him over to the West Side, as you probably know, ▇▇▇ Street, which is a very active place with a lot of young active girls, cute, sexy --

Q: Are you trying to say that you took him to a prostitute?

A: There are times when a third person can be appropriately included in a relationship between two people, if that's what you're asking.

Q: Dr Bacchus, please answer this question dircetly.

A: I can only admit that I had an enjoyable evening with him, and another girl -- a very, very enjoyable evening. The girl claimed her name was Cherry or something, and if the WLPD could find her, it might prove our innocence.

Q: So you don't admit that it was prostitution.

A: I can only admit that I had a threesome with someone else, and if you ask any more in-depth questions, I'll have to invoke my Fifth Amendment rights. A lot of people think it's unseemly for a profession like a doctor or a lawyer to admit to something like that, and I was only in a position to admit to it with the police because I am concerned about not becoming a suspect in a serious homicide case.

Q: But soliciting prostitution carries a fine and at least three months' imprisonment --

A: Indeed, but the police have to prove that I had indeed engaged in the prostitution. Since there were no plainclothes policemen on hand to catch us, it would be up to the girl, probably named Cherry, to admit that she did take money after she slept with us, or to wait until one of us tests for AIDS. But I would venture to guess that there are plenty of girls that would be willing to sleep with me even if I didn't charge money.

Q: Okay, later on we will arrange for you to meet with a portraitist, we may need a portrait of that lady. So next, Mr Armalight's car has not been seen near his flat since Friday night, were you two still together during this time?

A: Yes, at my house, I guess he was a little annoyed by the fact that we ruined his sheets.

Q: Although there are no cameras near the apartment you rented, your neighbors did not witness a Rolls-Royce parked near your home during the visit.

A: Because it wasn't parked near my home, it's a Rolls Royce! In the lot where I rent, a car of that price range disappears as soon as you turn your head. It had been parked in the ▇▇ car park, near Herstal's law firm, and it was my car that we took recently.

Q: There are no cameras in that car park.

A: Yes, because it was a long term rented garage and they were obviously very confident in their security. Herstal told me that there are no cameras in that place since two neighbourhood lawyers set up their garage. But if there's any doubt whether Herstal parked there or not, you can check the parking recorder. I'm guessing the footage may have been partially covered, but it's enough to see where he parked.

Q: But by Saturday night, last night, you returned back to Mr. Armalight's apartment late at night, it was almost twelve o'clock at night by that time, why was that?

A: Because he finally found the mouldy drawer in my fridge -- apparently in the war between cleanliness and me, cleanliness won -- but really, don't you think someone like him, who doesn't even open the fridge door much, would find mould in the fridge purely to pick on me?

Q: I don't want to comment on a personal matter between the two of you. So, you drove Mr Armalight's car back?

A: Why not? The flat I rented was recommended to me by ▇▇▇. After renting it, I realised that it was only a quarter of an hour's walk from Herstal's law firm. His house, however, is far from the law firm where he works, so he has to drive to work. Naturally, he won't take my Chevrolet to work tomorrow, so he has to go to the garage to pick up his own car.

Q: You two went back together.

A: Why not?

Q: You went back home with him -- or from your own home -- don't you think this is a bit too troublesome? If Mr Armalight didn't want to stay at your house, you could have let him go back on his own; after all, you'd only miss one night. Not to mention the fact that you just said it was a ‘sloppy one-night stand’.

A: I've done the same with every single one of my past f*ck buddies -- stayed at their house and make their morning -- you can ask them. It's precisely because of this ‘illogicality’, which in their eyes is full of tenderness, that they like me so much. Besides, at this stage of my life, I don't want to miss a night like this.

Q: So the two of you stayed together last night until Officer ▇▇ and Ms. ▇▇▇ went to look for you this morning.

A: Yes. Although I think the video speaks for itself, if the ▇▇ is really a concern, you can do a test with the bite marks on Herstal, you have on my dental records.

Q: Okay, thank you, Dr. Bacchus, I have no further questions.

Chapter 13: 49. Talia's Evening Talk: An Interview with John Garcia

Chapter Text

Introduction:

'Talia's Evening Talk' is a popular live evening programme on Westland's local television, hosted by the station's popular presenter, Talia Stoker. Of course, there is an argument to be made that part of the reason for her popularity is that she is, after all, also a weather presenter with proud breasts, and that her size and her profession dictated that she was often in the sweet dreams of local adults and underage males in Westland.

The evening show tends to focus on the high crime rate and proliferation of murders locally in Westland, with the crew often inviting a number of guests to give their poignant, yet humorous -- and at times over-the-top humorous -- insights into real-time unfolding situations. As it is a live show, viewers can also interact with the show's guests in real time by leaving comments in the corresponding module on Westland's Local TV station.

On 13 June 2019, WLPD, under pressure and increasingly outrageous speculation, released to the public some insider information about the Westland Pianist case. On June 20th, 'Talia's Evening Talk' invited former FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit member John Garcia to take to the stage for an interview related to the Westland Pianist.

And this live broadcast was interrupted in a very strange way.

(The studio lights turned on and Talia Stoker was sitting on a single sofa in a violet dress that's a little too short at the top and bottom, her blonde hair falling delicately over her shoulders; in another single sofa sits a tall, thin, ginger-haired man, none other than John Garcia, who turned to writing for a living after leaving the Behavioural Analysis Unit)

Talia: Hello viewers, and welcome to tonight's episode of 'Talia's Evening Talk', where I, Talia, sincerely love every single one of you. Today we have invited a famous guest -- Mr. John Garcia, former FBI agent and now a best-selling author! John, say hello to everyone!

John: Hello everyone!

Talia: We've invited Mr Garcia here today to talk about the most high-profile event of recent times, the discussion of Herstal Armalight. After the WLPD released some of the information about the Pianist's case, the discussion about whether he was the Pianist or not is once again becoming rampant. What are your thoughts on this matter?

John: I've never thought that Armalight was the Westland Pianist, a view I've expressed on various occasions. But in this case alone, I think the public is uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the Westland Pianist, and I hear he has a group of fans who scream every time they hear his name -- but I have to say that this enthusiasm is unreasonable. People think that most of the people he killed were guilty, so they imagined him as some kind of Western Ranger who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. The reason why people want to know if Armalight was the Pianist or not is to simply satisfy their desire for curiosity, and to put a face on their idols. I don't really agree with either of these intentions; the Pianist is so dangerous that the only place he should be is in front of a firing squad, not in the heads of people who know nothing about evil.

Talia: So it seems that you are upset by the way some people appreciate the Pianist, is that right?

John: Of course! Those people are nothing more than advocates of behavioural justice -- even if it's not about this old topic, it's about the ‘degrees’ of behavioural justice: a true dark vigilante wouldn't rape a forensic pathologist or murder the head of the Behavioural Analysis Unit. The Westland Pianist has never been, and can never be, a hell of a Batman.

Talia: You are referring to the former head of the BAU, Mr. Lavazza Mercader are you not? He died in the Pianist's church case at the end of 2017.

John: Of course! That's why I left the BAU -- you have to understand, working at the BAU was exciting of course, but I had a wife and kids to support, and I didn't want to end up like that too.

(Talia pauses and doesn't answer this sentence right away)

Talia: Ah, the director just said that some viewers are interacting online, do you mind if we hit the big screen with the viewer's messages?

John: Totally fine with that, but I hope it's not some of the Pianist's fans who are vehemently refuting my points?

(A screenshot of a message from the official website of Westland's Local TV station is shown on the huge display screen behind the pair)

But Mercader is clearly no innocent lamb either -- as you and I both know, he is responsible for the unfortunate events that took place at WLPD on Christmas Day 2016. I don't need to help you recall how many casualties his mishandling of the George Robo case resulted in, do I?

John: That's-?

Talia: Er... according to our website's real-name registration records, this message was left by Ms Olga Molozer -- the criminal psychologist consultant at WLPD.

John: (Muttering under his breath) Ah, of course, she'd obviously have a problem with Lavazza.

Talia: Mr, Garcia? Is the case Ms. Molozer referring to ...?

John: Let's not talk about it, okay? You should have heard rumours that something ...very unpleasant happening to Ms Molozer when she was in the BAU, and she has never been very friendly to us, so let's talk back to the Westland Pianist.

Talia: ... Okay. Here's what's happening now, Mr Garcia: documents recently disclosed by the WLPD shows that in the wake of the Brown and Sharp case perpetrated by the Sunday Gardener, the WLPD had subpoenaed Armalight and the late Dr. Albariño Bacchus after it was confirmed that they attended the same Mutual Aid Society as one of the victims.

John: So it's reasonable to assume that Dr Bacchus was indeed the victim of that sexual assault by the Pianist?

Talia: Basically, although we don't know exactly what happened to Brown due to protection laws, but after all, some of William Brown's classmates at boarding school have said that Brown was indeed involved in a sexual assault at one point in time, so it's highly probable that Brown was attending an anonymous support group for victims of sexual assault.

John: That's one of the pieces of evidence that I think Herstal wouldn't have been the Pianist -- how about we think about why Herstal would show up at an anonymous support group about sexual assault? Can you guys imagine the Westland pianist being sexually assaulted?

Talia: Some people actually think that he went to that support meeting for Dr Bacchus. Now, it seems that Dr Bacchus was the victim in the Pianist's case, doesn't it? People who hold this view call this -- ‘returning to the scene of the crime.’

JOHN: (Laughing) That's not how the term ‘returning to the scene of the crime’ is used, madam! Besides, the Pianist never returned to the scene of the crime, or the WLPD would have caught him long ago. But even if Armalight was the Pianist, why would he follow Dr Bacchus to the Mutual Aid Society? Not to mention the fact that that Mutual Aid Society was apparently referral-based -- and while I do have a mediocre relationship with Olga Molozer, she's still right about her profiling of that sexual assault: the Westland Pianist sexually assaulted Dr. Bacchus because he was annoyed that the other man was destroying his own work, and therefore chose a nasty way to degrade him. His mission, having been accomplished, meant there was then no need for him to see Dr. Bacchus distraught by stalking him; the Pianist wouldn't have been interested in that. Lawyer Armalight's behaviour is in complete conflict with our profiling of the Pianist.

Talia: In a time when most people think that Armalight is the Pianist, your viewpoint is truly unique.

John: Most people take a different view than I do because the other view is more dramatic, that the victim and the suspect attend the same Mutual Aid Society, and what an ironic picture that is, even Hollywood screenwriters would love it.

Talia: In fact, I've heard that Columbia is already planning to put together a film on the subject.

John: See, I told you that audiences have always had a frivolous attitude towards these serial killers --

Talia: Wait a minute, Mr Garcia? The ... director tells me that Ms Molozer has posted another message.

John: What did she say?

Talia: She said, ‘That sexual assault case was profiled by Mercader, and I merely read it at the press conference. Incidentally, I disagree with most of that profiling, and given that you just gushed about that profiling, I kinda feel a little embarrassed about it.’

John: ...Do we have to pay attention to an off-site viewer's live message?

Talia: But real-time interaction is the hallmark of our column. However, we can move on to the next question first: just yesterday, the Westland Daily News newspaper released a statement saying that the reporter mentioned in Dr. Bacchus' transcript was none other than their former special correspondent, Leonard Schreiber.

John: That also means that as long as the WLPD doesn't talk, we'll never know the truth about the two of them attending the Mutual Aid Society together; after all, I heard that Schreiber died in Europe.

Talia: Yes, it was a very dramatic death, and it was covered quite a bit in the newspapers.

John: Which is why he shouldn't have returned to his country, the crime rate in the Kingdom of Hoxton isn't much lower than in this city, and the gangs aren't necessarily any more moral. Apparently, Mr Schreiber had crossed some lines he shouldn't have -- just as he should not have been standing guard at the door of the Mutual Aid Society where victims of sexual assault gathered -- and this reckless behaviour brought him retribution.

Talia: I saw that news and it was so scary. I think if he had stayed in Westland, he might not have suffered this misfortune.

John: Of course, Westland is a much safer place. We have newspaper columns and TV programmes devoted to psychopathic killers.

(Audience laughs)

Talia: But what happened to Mr. Schreiber also means that no one will ever know what state Armalight and Dr. Bacchus walked out of that meeting in, which is a shame. But I don't think it would have occurred to Mr Armalight that the thing that's more important to the public right now is his private life: the documents that the WLPD disclosed showed Armalight and Dr Bacchus admitting that the two of them were in a physical relationship at that point in time.

(The large screen in the background displays the part of the documents released by the WLPD, which highlighted the" wonderful night" comment made by Dr. Bacchus when he was questioned)

JOHN: (Sneering) Yes, I've seen those documents too, and the description of the threesome in those transcripts is quite impressive, it seems that Dr Bacchus's reputation in high society is well-deserved.

Talia: Is that one of the iron clad reasons that you think makes it impossible for Mr Armalight to be the Pianist?

John: Yes, because the Westland Pianist is a sexual pervert, a sexually inverted fellow incapable of satisfying his pleasure in any way other than by committing a crime. If he really was a guy who could be easily appeased by a threesome, then I don't think he would have had to kill so many people at all; the girls who provided the erotic services would have been enough to satisfy him.

(A burst of laughter arises from the audience)

Talia: Ah, wait a minute ... Ms. Molozer has made another comment.

John: Ms. Stoker --

(A new message is typed on the big screen)

The Pianist doesn't only get an erection when he kills someone, there's a big difference between getting an erection when you kill someone and only getting an erection when you kill someone. As I've said many times, you're being a little too stereotypical about sexually inverted people.

John: That's a complete injustice to me, I never said that erotomaniacs only get erections when -- (pause) anyway, that's just my opinion of the Westland Pianist as a criminal, and she's just being critical of my statements. She always does.

Talia: Well, well, please calm down. I think that perhaps you could speak to Ms. Molozer in private.

John: She doesn't like to talk to any of us because we had a pathetic disagreement on a case before she left ... Lavazza approached her a few times, perhaps to keep her from going astray, but I don't think the conversation turned out too well.

Talia: Step astray?

John: (Smiles) Our euphemism for ‘delving too deeply into the criminal's mind to the point of falling into an unhealthy state of mind’.

Talia: That's perhaps too harsh an accusation, but as far as I know, she was hired by the WLPD as a consultant because she was good at teaching, and she was well established in her achievements in the academic circle.

John: But in any case, she sure is rude, isn't she?

Talia: People are bound to have some flaws in how they treat others... anyway, let's get back to what we were talking about. Combining the points you just made, in your opinion, Mr Armalight is just a ... well, a typical middle-aged man who is obsessed with sexual urges? Like all miserable middle-aged males, who are so caught up in a tragic love affair with a young and elusive lover that they end up killing them?

John: It seemed to me that it was pretty obvious that he wasn't the Pianist. Because then the police later found Cherry, didn't they? They found the lady according to the portrait provided by Dr. Bacchus, and she readily admitted in her statement that she had ‘a pleasant evening’ with these two men, she just didn't admit that she'd been paid, but that's the way it is with all prostitutes who don't get caught. If you ask me, they were sleeping with prostitutes that night.

Talia: Yes -- and we also looked into this Cherry after the WLPD released these documents, and fortunately, we found clues based on the documents that were made public: she was indeed a prostitute working for an Italian mob leader, and as you know, Herstal Armalight was the defence attorney for some of the heads of the Italian mob ringleaders.

JOHN: Yes, and because of that connection, some people think that the prostitute was specifically recruited by Armalight to give a false testimony. Because it's true that, in Armalight's position, it was not particularly troublesome to get his clients to do him small favours, and his clients do much worse things than perjuring themselves. And it's also true that Attorney Armalight isn't exactly a nice guy in the popular sense.

Talia: But?

John: But, if it were true that Armalight had arranged for a witness to commit perjury, I don't think he would have used a threesome as a justification for it, it doesn't fit the usual impression he gave people when he was working at the firm. There are also a lot of people who think he could never be the Pianist because he just looks like he has a cold personality.

Talia: Unfortunately, Cherry will never be able to tell us if it was true or not, and even if she did make up a false alibi, she cannot be prosecuted for perjury. We learned that she had passed away in early 2017, in a horrific car accident.

John: (Laughs) So the conspiracy theorists will think that Armalight chose to kill the girl in order to keep his secret -- it's very easy to get caught up in the preconceived notion that Armalight was the Pianist, it is easy to fall into the error of confirmation bias.

Talia: Let's go along with this, if Herstal Armalight was really the Westland Pianist, this story --

John: In that case, this story will become quite implausible: first of all, the Pianist was obviously sexually assaulted for some reason as well, otherwise he would not have been able to get into that Mutual Aid Society; and even if he did have a reason for getting into the society, his interest in the chief forensic pathologist went beyond what he deserved, and look at that accidental imprisonment case that happened to Dr. Bacchus, the one about Landon. If combined with the fact that Armalight was the Pianist, one would simply have to say that the Pianist is paying too much attention to Dr Bacchus, so much so that I almost suspect they had a personal relationship.

Talia: It's true that some people have some romantic fantasies about them.

John: But that doesn't fit the profile. There's no way a sexually inverted homicidal maniac like the pianist could possibly fall in love with a medical examiner, and we already know that whatever the relationship between Armalight and Dr Bacchus was, that relationship ended tragically -- with the death of one of the parties.

(John Garcia's mobile phone rings)

John: Ah, I'm so sorry -- it's Molozer.

Talia: Ms. Molozer?

John: Yes, that's her. I guess she's got some kind of rebuttal she wants to say to my face this time, and like I said, she always does. Do you mind if I pick up the phone?

Talia: No problem at all, and I'm guessing that my fellow viewers are also interested in the debates between criminal psychologists.

(Garcia takes out his mobile phone, connects it, and puts it on speakerphone. The audience can hear Olga Molozer's words quite clearly thanks to the microphone he has pinned to his lapel)

John: Hello?

Olga: You've fallen prey to confirmation bias as well.

John: You should have heard what I just said, it's a bit rude of you to start off like that, isn't it?

Olga: I chose to start like that precisely because I heard what you said. Anyway, you've already decided that I'm impolite, so I can't restore your opinion by being polite. Let's get back to the serious stuff: you've also fallen prey to confirmation bias.

John: (Laughs) Because I think Armalight is not the Pianist, so I am desperately trying to find evidence for myself that he's not the Pianist?

Olga: Apparently so.

John: Where's the evidence?

Olga: Because of Kaba Strider's criminal history, because of his death and the way he died, because of that bishop who died in the Christmas Eve massacre, and because of Lavazza Mercader -- who had nothing against the Pianist, and it was Herstal who had a problem with him.

John: Agent McArdle intervened in the investigation of the Westland pianist.

Olga: So you're going to force this into ‘it's all a coincidence’ again, as you always do, Johnny. You trust your profiling so much that when your profiling is wrong, you think the truth is wrong. Refusing to accept reality and giving yourself too many reasons --

John: And you think you have the truth?

Olga: I have always mastered the truth -- because the process of digging up the truth is my profession.

John: That's an arrogant thing to say.

Olga: Mercader thought so too, but given that he's one step ahead, time has yet to prove that he is completely right about me.

John: But you didn't see through the truth even before Armalight was arrested, and these arguments of yours were merely summarised after he fled the country. If he really was the Pianist, why didn't you see through him long ago?

Olga: You can say that if it makes you feel comfortable to say so. But in any case, you're the one who's now insisting on false assertions.

John: Wrong, none of us have the only correct assertion, unless Armalight is arrested in a foreign country as the Pianist.

Olga: That's not necessarily true, perhaps you've heard that you're not the only one who's a writer these days. I'm not a bestselling author, but I have a new book coming out this year ...

John: (Laughs) Yes, you're going to write about the Westland Pianist for money too.When you were in office, you clearly disdained the use of murder as a gimmick to attract readers——

Olga: I don't think it's necessary to write laugh-out-loud popular books about these serious things, and as you say, it's also to satisfy the reader's curiosity. And, as I said, my job is to dig up the truth -- so since you don't see the truth, bringing it to you is what I have to do.

(The phone hangs up abruptly, and Garcia looks furious, probably feeling resentful at the accusation of ‘writing popular books that make people laugh.’)

Talia: Mr Garcia--

John: That's enough! She's always like this, when she was in the BAU, and she's still like this since she left! Overbearing, rude, and thinks she is holding the only truth in the world ...

(John Garcia stands up angrily and walks briskly out of the studio, walking out of the camera's reach)

Talia: Hold on, Mr Garcia ...

Postscript:

At the beginning of October 2019, Olga Molozer's much-anticipated book was finally published. It was an obscure monograph on criminal psychology, but still achieved extremely high sales on the book market.

Some joked that the reason the book did so well was because Morozer's editor finally convinced her not to give the book a title that would make people not want to read it, such as "sad*stic Killers and Orgies." "On the Characteristics of Style Killing" and the like.

The real reason is probably that that book didn't have the title printed in a lone line of large print, as most people would expect. On the cover of the book, pictures of Herstal Armalight and Albariño Bacchus are prominently featured, occupying almost the same space.

And what one would never really expect is that the title of that book, listed squarely at the top of the photo of those two men, making it hard to misinterpret what she was implying.

"Wine and Gun: The Sunday Gardener and the Westland Pianist".

Chapter 14: 50. Let it Snow (1)

Chapter Text

Oh the weather outside is frightful

But the fire is so delightful

And since we've no place to go

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! [1]

[1] From the Christmas song 'Let it Snow'

December 24th, Christmas Eve.

A rather large Christmas tree stood in the lobby of the WLPD's ground floor, the golden star at the top of the pine branches almost touching the ceiling, a height that seemed incongruous in the room. The Christmas tree was covered with colourful ribbons, small decorations and brightly lit lights, and underneath were piles of presents -- the sort of things that fellow police officers would use to exchange gifts with each other, most of them wrapped so sloppily that all that could be unwrapped was a scarf and a sock.

In reality, there weren't many people who attended the police department's Christmas Eve party at all -- most of them chose to go home for the holidays, and only those who didn't have family in Westland or couldn't get a vacation day off to go home showed up. Back here, everyone at the party looked at each other with an air of tacit pity.

And Olga Molozer, naturally, didn't want to attend a party among her peers at Westland State University, and didn't seem to have any family gatherings to attend -- Albariño didn't ask in detail, it seemed a bit impolite to inquire about this matter -- so it was just a matter of being in the crowd with an eggnog it was, of course it was eggnog, but there seemed to be a greater proportion of ‘alcohol’ in the drink.

None of the single men who were willing to drink with her had ever worked with her, which might explain why they were still able to keep drinking, as those who spent time with Olga would always uncover her less than likeable qualities.

Albariño looked in Olga's direction with interest: he knew that the other was a good drinker and not a light-weight, as could be seen from the nights they spent in the ‘I Quit’ bar, but he hadn't really thought that the other's drinking capacity was obviously much better than he had thought.

He watched with interest for a moment, then turned his head to look at the man standing alongside him -- Herstal Armalight leaned against the wall, a glass of untouched eggnog in his hand, as if the drink or the world at large had offended him. But if Albariño really did ask, he would answer, ‘At least one of us knows better than to drink and drive.’

‘It's a wonderful sight to see you, a lawyer who specialises in defending criminals, standing in the middle of a crowd of policemen celebrating Christmas Eve,’ Albariño whispered to Herstal, ‘What a wonderful scene.’

Herstal gave a cold grunt of no expectation at this, obviously in his opinion, Albariño, as a psychopathic murderer, was in absolutely no position to say such a thing.

There was quite a long story about why Herstal and Albariño had appeared together at the WLPD's Christmas Eve party, and the story began, at the very beginning, on the 27th of November, when Billy and Sharp had been laid out on the steps in front of the State District Court.

Because Bart Hardy wasn't a fool by any stretch of the imagination, or he wouldn't have been able to make it to his current position with many of his superiors in the police department not liking him very much. When the coincidence happened so many times in a row, he immediately rushed to Herstal and Albariño and ordered them to go to the police station to give their statements.

They had gone to great lengths to avoid leaving evidence and hammering out alibis before then, and most of that was done before they went to Albariño's cabin on Friday. Herstal went to one of his clients for help -- he didn't like the ‘my alibi is a threesome’ offer, but an illegal sex worker was really the easiest thing they could buy, and ‘I had tea with a wandering tramp’ probably wasn't a credible alibi -- anyway, things got resolved fairly quickly.

In any case, they weren't deluded enough to think that an alibi would dispel Hardy's suspicions, and Albariño, apparently decided that ‘in that case, we must at least show that we've really been together lately’ -- and he followed through on this proposal. He began obsessively showing up at Herstal's house every single day, although when he finally went back to work at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine again in December, he quickly checked out of the apartment with the mouldy fridge drawers so that he could go back to his own place.

And so it went on until late December, when Albariño planned to skip the Coroner's Bureau's internal Christmas celebrations to run down to the police department's party for a bit of fun, and completely ignored the protests of others by dragging Herstal, who finally had a day off, to the scene as well.

‘We're maintaining a “relationship” now, Honey.’ So said Albariño.

Herstal didn't think that maintaining a relationship meant going to a Christmas party with the other person -- not to mention the fact that most of the relationships Albariño maintained with other people were f*ck-buddy relationships; but when Albariño gave that damned ‘Oops, what if you don't say yes to me and our identities are exposed!’ expression, it was really hard to do anything other than to say yes to him or to reach out and strangle him to death. Lately, Herstal had been choosing the former in this sort of dilemma, which really didn't bode well with him.

So now all they could do was to stand around and drink eggnog. Herstal really wanted to add lots and lots of alcohol into his drink, but still, someone responsible had to be in charge of driving home without a DUI. And usually, that responsible person was him.

Albariño's mouth was now stuffed and bulging with a gingerbread man made in an extraordinarily realistic shape, like a chipmunk, or an ogre, or a combination of the two, the kind that had been irradiated by nuclear waste. Herstal spent half of his time looking around the room warily, while the other half was all focused on disliking Albariño.

It was at this time that they heard Olga shout happily, ‘Hey! Bart!’

-- Officer Hardy appeared at the end of the hall, wearily clutching his briefcase and carrying a large bag in his hand, apparently having just finished his last hour of pre-holiday overtime, and was about to head in the direction of the door.

He walked up to Olga and said, ‘I can't celebrate with you, my daughters are still waiting for me to come home.’

Without saying a word, Olga shoved a candy cane into his mouth.

Okay, she might actually be a little drunk.

Officer Hardy muttered something vaguely about his wife and turkey or something, slurping his candy cane. Then he seemed to give up, sighing, and compromised, ‘Okay, Olga, I'll just stay with you guys for fifteen minutes, and then I have to go home right away.’

-- If there was so much as a remote possibility that Officer Hardy possessed an ability to predict the future, even if he really was a tragic Cassandra, he would never, ever have chosen to stay fifteen minutes longer.

But he didn't know that yet, and Albariño certainly couldn't have known either. So Albariño just reached out and stretched Herstal's cuffs, showing his shiny teeth as he smiled.

‘Come on sweetheart,’ he said, ‘let's go say hello to them.’

Herstal frowned and said, ‘Don't ...’

Because if you're a psychopathic murderer in your right mind, you'd know better than to go and chat with the cops when the police already feel that you are too involved with the case. But alas, most psychopathic murderers aren't very sane in the head, and Albariño Bacchus had got to be on the top of the list.

So Herstal had no choice but to be dragged over there to exchange pleasantries with the police officer in charge of the homicide case and the criminal psychologist who worked in the FBI's Behavioural Analysis Unit, a pleasantry which, as he had expected, began with talk about work -- about Albariño's recent work at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, because if they were actually going to talk about Herstal's work, it was bound to be awkward for everyone. It was because of this that Hardy must have questioned Albariño's taste in boyfriends.

Then, once everyone had exchanged fake pleasantries for a while, Hardy could no longer hide the worry in his heart and started to ask Albariño insinuatingly how he was feeling lately.

Herstal wasn't surprised that he would ask that; considering that sexual assault victims were made of glass in everyone's eyes, let alone the fact that Albarino had theoretically been sexually assaulted by the Westland Pianist. Albariño laughed and reached out to wrap his hand Herstal's wrist.

‘I'd be lying if I said “I'm fine”,’ he said smiling calmly, acting it out, ‘but I'll get over it.’

‘A lot of victims can't face sex calmly after something like that, and some of them even break down when someone tries to unbutton them.’ Olga chose this moment to speak, hiding a smile.

Hardy gave a jolt, crushing the Christmas cane candy in his mouth with a crunch.

‘Indeed,’ Albariño replied, leaning closer towards Herstal as if unconsciously, ‘but I think the main reason I'm okay now is because ...I can be understood, you know? ‘

Herstal silently rolled his eyes inwardly: well, their relationship had been thoroughly described by Albariño as two victims of sexual assault consoling each other.

Olga turned to Herstal, still with that smile on her face, ‘You have to be gentle with him, you know that, right? Hate to say it, but out of the two of you, he's the one who suffered something a little more horrible.’

‘...Do you guys have to talk about people's sex lives under the Christmas tree?’ Hardy couldn't help but hiss at the question.

‘Are “Christmas tree” and “unicorn” a pair of innocent synonyms in your eyes?’ Albariño asked with a smile.

Hardy chose to roll the eyes that Herstal hadn't rolled out, and Olga actually burst out laughing.

While they were chattering like high school girls, a policeman who'd obviously had too much eggnog and looked like he was about to throw up covered his mouth and walked past them, he looked to be over thirty. Herstal had never seen this man before, so he probably wasn't one of Hardy's men.

‘That's Coris, the person in charge of narcotics. He divorced his wife earlier in the second half of the year, poor guy.’ Olga introduced, with a ‘you're Al's boyfriend, you should know everything about the police department’ look, though Herstal didn't think she was naive enough to think Albariño could sustain the relationship for much longer, and he himself wasn't naive enough to imagine that himself either.

‘If I don't leave, I will become a pitiful guy like him...’ Hardy said rather disapprovingly, ‘Well, everyone, I really must go home--’

‘Have I brought my Christmas present for your little Clara?’ Olga asked.

‘And our share for both of us.’ Albariño went on, and Hardy raised the bag in his hand towards them, signalling that he had everything ready. Then Albariño continued, ‘Give our regards to Wallis.’

Herstal couldn't help but glance at Albariño, he hadn't heard any of these names before.

‘Bart's daughter's Christmas present, idiot,’ Albariño whispered as he sneakily elbowed Herstal, ‘I got your share for you.’

Officer Hardy scowled, but failed to hide the small smirk that leaked from the corner of his mouth, ‘You know I can hear you, right?’

'It's the thought that counts!' Albariño's eyes widened innocently, 'Come on, it seems like it's snowing heavily out there, and the traffic is going to get worse if it continues like this.'

-- Just at that moment, they heard Olga's voice say flatly, 'f*ck.'

They looked in the direction Olga was gazing, and then unexpectedly saw BAU DirectorLavazza Mercader standing in the doorway of the hall with a frown on his face, patting a sizable thickness of snow off his shoulders as he peered into the hall.

As a few of them had looked stupidly in the direction of the doorway, it was obvious that Mercader had noticed them as well, so the other man took it in stride, looking particularly targeted, and no one would believe him if he said he wasn't here to see them.

'That's my hallucination, isn't it,' Olga whispered, 'please tell me it's my hallucination and that I may have not only had too much eggnog, but also too much alcohol in my eggnog.'

'I don't think so.' Herstal told her stoically.

'What about collective hallucinations?' Olga asked, grasping at straws.

Obviously it wasn't a collective hallucination either, because Lavazza Mercader quickly walked up to them, bringing with him a gust of coldness. He calmly said to them, 'Merry Christmas.'

Looking at the expression on Olga's face, she couldn't have felt any worse than she did now, even if there had been a blood-soaked Santa Claus standing in front of her with a double-barrelled shotgun, while breathing fire, and wishing her a Merry Christmas.

'Why are you here!' She exclaimed.

'Have I never told you?' Mercader frowned, his voice soundingas if he was feeling quite confused, 'My second brother lives in Westland, we'll be spending Christmas at his house this year?'

'No, I don't know a word about either where you'll be spending Christmas or how many brothers you have or anything like that.' Olga said woodenly.

'I have two older brothers,' McArdle added details needlessly, 'and two younger brothers.'

Basically everyone intentionally ignored Olga's little mutter of 'middle child', and Albariño said with a smile, 'I guess she didn't mean why you were in Westland, but why you are at the WLPD's Christmas Eve party. '

'I got an invitation.' Mercader's brow furrowed even more, 'Got it two weeks ago, it came in the mail to my office at the BAU. In past years I definitely wouldn't have been able to come, but this year I happened to be coming to Westland for Christmas, so...'

Judging by the expressions on the faces of the few people in the room, no one had any idea how that invitation had ended up in the mail, but after all, he'd helped the WLPD with the Johnny the Killer's case a few months ago, and had contributed to the profiling of one of Albariño's case. It probably wouldn't be surprising to receive an invitation as a courtesy.

'You guys can have a nice chat,' Hardy finally hammered out, 'I really have to go, the snow is getting pretty heavy. If this continues on...'

'No, wait a minute, Officer Hardy.' Mercader interrupted, 'I'm here to talk to you and your superiors this time as well, I've been following those cases of the Westland Pianist and the Sunday Gardener, they've been committing too many crimes lately. Personally, I'd really recommend that the WLPD seek help from the FBI, and the BAU could-'

He didn't get to finish; in fact, he wouldn't get another chance to finish what was really going on with the BAU for the rest of the night, because things were always a matter of opportunity -- they heard a scream piercing the air, shrill and panicked.

The sound came from across the hall.

Somehow, Bart Hardy and Mercader reacted almost simultaneously, and the two of them rushed in the direction from which the sound came from. At the same time, Albariño tugged at Herstal's cuff and whispered, 'Keep up.'

The few of them followed some other police officers who also realised something was wrong and rushed across the room, the place where the screams came from was the restroom on the ground floor of the police station. A female police officer working as a clerk was frozen in the doorway of the restroom, unable to stop trembling.

Hardy squeezed past the girl neatly, while Albariño stood further back and did not step forward. By this time he could clearly see the drunken officer named Coris collapsed on the tiled floor of the restroom, leaning weakly against the wall, his hollow, wide-open eyes staring dully into the restroom mirror.

There were two parallel, bloody slashes on his neck, spaced maybe four or five centimetres apart, deep enough that the bone was visible, blood was trickling out along the edges of the wounds, staining the entire lapel of the shirt he was wearing.

And on the glass of the mirror that his eyes were fixed on, a bloody five-pointed star pentagram had been painted on with his blood. There was an excessive amount of blood dripping down the corners, drawing a long bloody line on the polished glass.

The room was filled with shocked and uneasy murmurs, while Mercader stared blankly at the blood-soaked scene, and after a few moments, he whispered, 'Olga-'

It was really strange: it was clear that Olga Molozer had been away from the BAU for a long time, and Mercader had always been at odds with her, but it was still hard for him to break the habit of asking for the other's opinion at moments like this, when they were all gripped by the horrible emotion called shock.

And he wasn't supposed to do that as head of the Behavioural Analysis Unit.

By this time, Olga was just squeezing through the gathering crowd, still holding the glass of eggnog in her hand, and flattening the wrinkled hem of her dress with the other hand in boredom. Her eyes were shiny, probably glowing from the alcohol, and a slight blush coated her cheekbones.

Olga scanned the scene calmly, then took a sip from her glass.

'You shouldn't ask the opinion of a very drunk person, Mercader.' Then she said flatly, and she laughed softly. 'But yes, that's exactly George Robo's modus operandi.'

-- Although, the man had died by lethal injection a few years ago.

Chapter 15: 51. Let it Snow (2)

Notes:

Now is probably a good time to mention (although it's probably fairly obvious), that footnotes e.g. [1] and [2] etc. were created/provided by the author in her original text BUT other footnotes that include '(TL Notes)' are from me to clarify information and provide extra insights.

Chapter Text

George Robo -- Albariño pulled the name out of his head with great difficulty: he had heard Olga mention the man once, when Lavazza Mercader first came to Westland, and Olga had said that she was going to write a book about the serial killer, but that it had been stopped by Mercader before it went to press. Olga also accused that if that book was published, it would reveal something about Mercader.

This attitude is very interesting. Albariño thought to himself as he gently bit his lip. It was a shame then, if he had known there was tension between them, he would have really poked around to find out exactly why Olga and Agent Mercader were not on good terms.

By this time, Olga had already turned around and smoothly shoved the glass in her hand, which had been reduced to a light layer of eggnog, into the hands of the nearest police officer and commanded, ‘Everyone out.’

‘She's right, this is a crime scene.’ Hardy added when the officer gave Olga a look of disbelief. He quickly directed his subordinates who were still at the party, ‘All members of the homicide team stay, everyone else exit. Gather everyone in the hall, we have to surround this place, no one can leave until everyone's suspicion is ruled out -- Ella, you go and question the witnesses, then go and see what the hall's security footage captured; Ben, you call CSI and the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, see if they can send someone; Alexander, you go to the office and get the evidence signs and camera, take pictures and fix the evidence first.’

The officers dispersed as if they were a swarm of bees, and then Hardy turned to Herstal and said, ‘Mr Armalight, excuse me?’

Because of course, even those other police officers weren’t allowed to enter the scene right now, and it was certainly even more out of order for Herstal to stay here; it was a matter of urgency for Lavazza Mercader to stay behind, but there was no reason for Herstal to stay and watch anyway. He nodded briefly and was just about to exit the door when Albariño gave his wrist a gentle tug.

‘No farewell kiss?’ Albariño said with a smirk, ‘I'm going to start working late.’

Obviously no one understood what kind of farewell kiss Albariño really wanted as Herstal was about to retreat down the hall. And by the look on Herstal's face, if it weren't for the fact that they were now at the scene of the crime, Herstal would have been tempted to fly up and stick a foot in him.

In the end, he just gave Albariño a cold sweeping glance and said simply, ‘I'll wait outside.’

He left quickly, and as soon as Herstal was gone, Olga slammed the outermost door of the bathroom shut. She leaned behind the door, staring at Hardy, and said, ‘They're going to be furious.’

‘What?’ Hardy asked, although judging by the tone of his voice, he didn't necessarily have any idea what Olga was talking about.

‘Those colleagues of yours,’ Olga laughed a little, ‘you'll leave them all behind and have your poor subordinates cross-examine them one by one, considering everyone as suspects. They will definitely feel that you are ruthless, thinking that they are all murder suspects.’

‘I have no choice.’ Hardy couldn't help but raise a hand to rub his brow, ‘No one else has been out since Agent Mercader walked in the door, all the other side doors outside the main entrance are closed at this time of night, and with all the snow falling outside, I don't think anyone could jump out of a window and escape at this time -- the murderer has to be amongst us.’

"We stuck in a classical mystery novel now, right?" Olga laughed softly.

By this time, the police officer named Alexander had returned with a camera and evidence signs. Albariño also walked over with him to look at the body, and although there were few tools at hand at the moment, it was still possible to make a simple judgement based on the state of the body. What's more, there was no need to even judge the time of death, the unlucky Officer Coris had just been alive.

Albariño pulled out the pair of latex gloves that he always kept in his pocket and knelt down next to the body, then he heard Lavazza Mercader's voice say in a slightly agitated tone, ‘Let's get down to business, Molozer.’

‘It was George Robo's modus operandi.’ Olga repeated calmly, tapping the floor with her heels in an impatient clatter.

‘But it couldn't have been Robo, Robo died years ago.’ Hardy replied.

‘Oh, then it's Robo who has risen from the dead, and I reckon he's the only one who can do that apart from the gentleman who’s birthday is today.’ Olga said coolly, ‘Have you guys ever seen one of those classic horror films? ‘Dead Silence’ or something? The way things tend to go, there's usually one person who dies a spiteful and horrible death, and...’

‘Molozer!’ Agent Mercader yelled, his voice so loud it rumbled and echoed between the polished tiled walls, startling Officer Alexander, who was taking a picture of the body, so much so that he nearly threw the camera out of his hand.

‘Don't yell at me, Mercader.’ Olga said sullenly, ‘You're not my boss anymore.’

Hardy took a long, deep breath, as if he were trying to draw strength from the air, and said dryly, ‘Come on, you two, can we get back to the case?’

‘Like I said, it's George Robo's modus operandi, whether it's a motiveless killing or not can't be confirmed right now, but the way the scene was staged is exactly the same.’ Olga said, her voice urgent and fast, ‘Two slash marks on the neck, generally the first one is fatal and the second one is cut when the injured person is near death, the specifics of the dead man in front of us will depend on what Al can tell in a few moments. These marks are symbolic, George Robo, a serial killer with a God complex and a bit of religious fanaticism, uses these two knife marks to represent the ‘yoke of the Lord’, and the star is the Star of Bethlehem -- the birth of Jesus and the conversion of faith. Seriously, it's quite fitting that this kind of murder occurs at Christmas.’

‘I've read the documents on Robo's case, and the main features of the scene do look exactly the same, and we're in no condition to extract any other physical evidence for testing if CSI isn't coming in.’ Hardy shrugged his shoulders, his voice very serious, ‘But the most important thing right now is: why does Officer Coris' body exhibit the characteristics of someone who was killed by Robo? Is he really dead, and was now just a copycat who committed the crime?’

Olga snorted, ‘Ah yes, copycat crimes can be common enough indeed --’

‘I see what you're trying to say,’ Mercader said gravely to Olga, ‘You want to say that the seventh case of the Robo case was committed by a copy-cat, not George Robo himself, but now that things have happened -- ’

‘Alexander.’ Hardy said suddenly, ‘You go out for a moment.’

The young police officer looked up from his camera in confusion, ‘Huh?’

‘You go out and help the others, when Ella comes back from watching the footage, we'll have to ask for an alibi, there are twenty or thirty officers present, it's a big job.’ Hardy said calmly, ‘You go and help them, I'll do the fixing of the evidence and get an overall picture of the physical evidence.’

For everyone except Alexander, this excuse was too obvious. But the young police officer, who obviously hadn't been on the job for two years, was quickly fooled, handing Hardy the camera and the rest of the evidence signs before walking quickly out the door.

He had just closed the door behind him when Olga said firmly, ‘The seventh case was the work of a copycat, Robo never left the body indoors, his God complex demanded that he display the body in front of other people to give them a shock, not leave it in a shed to silently wait for it to rot. Leaving a body in a room where no one would go is something only a murderer who is afraid the body will be found would do, that's a pathetic man who kills due to disputes and blames serial killers for what he's done--’

‘Doesn’t this conversation sound particularly familiar to you? Didn't we have this conversation many times three years ago?’ Mercader interrupted, his brow furrowing in two great rifts -- like valleys, ‘That case has been closed, Molozer, because Robo's hair appeared at the scene of the seventh case, and the jury apparently found it to be conclusive evidence.’

For a moment it was as if Olga was really angry with herself for handing that glass over to someone else, otherwise she could have cracked Mercader with the glass right then and there.

‘That's what I hate about you: you make bad judgements not even because you're just not good enough!’ Olga exclaimed loudly, ‘And the result? You know that the group except for you and me won't dwell on this detail, because human psychology is so varied that it's very easy to convince others that the killer committed one crime that was simply a little different from his usual scenes. So you left evidence at the scene even though you knew the case wasn't Robo's doing -- is this all just the kind of moral issue that involves tying people onto the tracks in your eyes? [2] The killer of the seventh case obviously had a personal vendetta against the deceased, and the killer wouldn't have killed anyone else after murdering that man, whereas Robo would surely have killed again if he hadn't been caught, so you chose to frame Robo for a case that didn't belong to him? Is it so easy for your professional ethics to succumb to your sense of morality?’

[2] (TL Notes) Just for people who don’t understand this reference, it’s commonly known as the ‘Trolley Problem’. It’s a series of morality questions e.g. A train is heading towards a group of 5 people, but there is a lever that can derail the train onto a different track, but there is 1 man standing on that track, is it morally permissible to use the lever? And other questions similar.

Mercader simply laughed in anger, ‘What? Now you’re the one to talk to me about morals and ethics? Why do I remember you not being particularly ... interested in either?’

‘Because I don't give a damn if they're brought to justice or not! If the seventh case was indeed Robo's doing and you faked the evidence, I wouldn't say a word about it! But you went so far as to make a false profile over it, and attribute the discrepancies between the cases to the murderer's --’ Olga's voice had a little angry hiss in it, making Hardy start to worry about whether or not she was going to come out with a gun. Throughout every stage of the argument, she looked like she wanted to shoot Mercader dead.

‘Olga, did I or did I not tell you when you joined that ‘profiling is just a too’?’ Mercader raised his voice slightly as well, ‘Profiling is a tool, a guide, not the truth; it exists only to point out to the police who the murderer is...’

‘So it has to give way to the greater good where necessary? Do you not regard it as an independent science at all?!’

It was at this point that Albariño coughed a few times beside the body.

‘Ladies and gentlemen? Pause for a moment?’ Albariño said cheerfully, ‘I've really discovered something here.’

‘On the body?’ Hardy asked.

‘There was nothing on the body, only that the victim's throat had been slit with a sharp instrument. The time between the two knife cuts cannot be determined as when the cuts occurred, the person was still alive, and so the vital reactions are about the same, you’re unable to tell which cut came before and which came after.’ Albariño shrugged his shoulders, ‘If CSI were here, they might have been able to tell more, they're better at bloodstain analysis. And all I can say is that looking at the wound pattern, the killer was right handed when using the knife and was shorter than the deceased -- but that's not worth much, after all, the deceased looked at least 1.9 meters tall to me. If it were the usual scenario, I'd say that whoever killed the deceased was an exceptionally strong male, but looking at the way the deceased was drunk before he died, that category would be greatly relaxed.’

Several of them walked over to beside Albariño, who was still half-kneeling on the ground, with a piece of paper raised in his hand, and said with a smile, ‘But anyway, I found this in the pocket of the dead man's jacket.’

Hardy also put on his gloves and carefully took the piece of paper from Albariño's hand.

There was also a lot of blood on the chest pocket of the deceased, and the outside of the paper was covered with scratch-like blood stains, even someone with a half-assed knowledge of bloodstain analysis could tell that the paper had been stuffed into the dead man's pocket after he had been victimised. Hardy's brow furrowed as he unfolded the piece of paper.

Hardy read, ‘An unclean thing. I shall not rest until I've driven the corruption from the land. By exile or death, blood must spill, for blood shed long ago.’ [3]

[3] (TL Notes) The quote above is taken from ‘Sophocles ‘Oedipus Rex’’, where Creon reports Apollo’s prophecy. HOWEVER, the direct Chinese translation is: ‘Thou shalt order the exile, or death, of a man to atone for the blood previously shed; it is that bloodshed that brought this risk upon the city-state’, yet nothing like this line exists in the play through all my research, that line was the closest direct quote I could find.

Apparently that was all that was written on that piece of paper. Hardy finished reading it, looking up with a confused face.

‘Apollo's prophecy.’ Olga shrugged, as if pointing out the source of every sentence she saw wasn't something commendable to her and her herself only. ‘From Sophocles ‘Oedipus Rex.’

‘What the hell does he mean?’ Hardy couldn't help but ask.

By this time, Albariño was slowly getting to his feet, his legs numb as he stumbled slightly from the discomfort.

‘It is that famous tragedy in which Oedipus kills his father and married his mother,’ explained Albariño good-naturedly; ‘when Oedipus became king, a terrible plague prevailed in the city of Thebes over which he ruled, and prophecies emanating from the temple of Apollo said that the city of Thebes could be saved only by catching the murderer of the late king, King Laius -- it was his own son, Oedipus, who killed the late King, but Oedipus was completely unaware of this -- and when he finally figured out the tragedy that had occurred that year, he blinded himself and left the city of Thebes to wander. ‘

‘So it's unlikely that the murderer in this case is the copycat of the seventh case.’ Olga said.

‘...How did you come to this conclusion?’ Hardy asked sceptically.

‘The copycat of the seventh case --’ Olga said, then she noticed the look Mercader threw her way and smiled sarcastically, changing her wording, ‘Well, I mean, IF the seventh case was a copycat's work, then as I said, he was a killer who was afraid of his actions being discovered, so he framed the case on a serial killer. So there's absolutely no need for him to come all the way from Pennsylvania to Westland and kill someone inside a police station after so many years when the dust has settled.’

‘Erm, suppose this murderer killed someone and then got a taste for killing...?’ Hardy asked hesitantly.

‘In the same way that a lion that has eaten human flesh becomes a man-eating lion? I don't think so. The moment he chose to frame someone meant that he's at least cautious enough not to take that risk, and a man who turns into a potential serial killer after his first dip in blood? There are too few such cases.’ Olga answered amiably, ‘We don't usually consider such possibilities in the first place, because not everyone can become a homicidal maniac -- it's remarkable that there are two of them in Westland.’

Hardy's expression clearly said that he didn't see anything ‘remarkable’ about it.

‘And the meaning of the content on this piece of paper is crystal clear,’ Mercader followed, looking over Hardy's shoulder to read the line of text, ‘It's a metaphor: the City of Thebes is in danger -- the WLPD is facing the threat of a hidden murderer, we need to atone for the blood previously shed; it is that bloodshed that has led to the current situation.’

Albalino said, ‘Given that the murderer obviously imitated George Robo's methods... is he seeking revenge for Robo? Will the case only stop when Robo's blood is avenged? Who amongst us does the murderer wish to gouge out their eyes and wander in the wilderness?’

Hardy sternly replied, "No one needs to atone for the blood Robo shed—!"

‘Considering that the murderer couldn't possibly have known what happened within the team handling the case at the time, he must be referring to me and Mercader,’ Olga shrugged, ‘At that time, he and I were the most prominent people in charge of the Robo case, as reported in the news. So what’s the deal now? Who's going to hand us a knife to stab our eyes?"

‘Not funny.’ Albariño said lazily.

‘Well,’ Olga replied sweetly, ‘your sense of humour has really dropped off.’

Vaguely remembering something, Hardy swept a look at the body on the floor again, then turned to Olga and asked, ‘Isn't there another possibility? If the murderer, like you, thinks Robo was framed in the seventh case, then might he be looking for the person who framed Robo? That's not strange, right? If the murderer was close to Robo, he might know Robo didn't commit the crime at the time?’

Mercader was silent for a moment, then said, ‘At that time, the only people on the BAU side who had entered the crime scene of the seventh case were Molozer and I.’

Sure enough.

Hardy's frown deepend as he slowly said, ‘...In that case, why exactly were you invited to this Christmas party?’

Everyone was contemplating this dreadful possibility, while McCard stared at them, as if he was angry at someone. After a moment, he said, ‘But that's impossible. The case file said that Rob had no relatives.’

‘Maybe it was the little guardian angel sitting on his shoulder.’ Olga sneered, ‘By the way, Bart, there's something I’ve been meaning to ask -- that holster on Officer Coris’ waist, is it supposed to be empty?’

Everyone lowered their heads in that direction: the buckle of the holster on the corpse's waist was slightly open, and it was empty inside, as if mocking them.

Officer Hardy said succinctly, ‘f*ck.’

Herstal leaned against the wall, looking bored, as the officers around him suddenly scattered with apparent purpose. He watched them intently, wondering what they were up to, while considering whether he should just go and have some gingerbread men himself.

Just as he picked out a few gingerbread men that didn't quite look like they were beaten to death, Albariño slipped through the crowd and skulked back to Herstal's side. However, the plate of gingerbread men on the long table seemed to hold more appeal to him, and Herstal watched as his hand reached out for the plate.

‘Wait a minute,’ interrupted Herstal, ‘didn’t you just perform an autopsy? Did you wash your hands?’

‘I wore gloves when I handled the body!’ Albariño protested.

Herstal was unmoved, ‘You're not allowed to eat anything until you've washed your hands.’

Saying this, he bit off the head of the first gingerbread man in his hand rather harshly. stared at him for two seconds, then suddenly opened his mouth wide, as if waiting to be fed.

Without hesitation, Herstal aggressively stuffed the other half of the gingerbread man in his hand into Albariño’s mouth.

Then, he watched with satisfaction as Albariño's expressions changed dramatically as he struggled to swallow, before slowly asking, ‘What's the deal with that dead guy?’

Albariño grabbed an unused glass from the table and took a few wild gulps of the fruit wine to catch his breath. He wiped the water stains off his lips with the back of his hand and briefly explained the situation, including the old situation regarding Olga and Agent Mercader.

‘The officer who was watching the surveillance footage came back and found that the restroom entrance is a blind spot, you can't see anyone coming or going. The police who were drinking didn't seem to have any recollection of it.’ Albariño explained, his tone confident as if he hadn't been drinking himself, ‘And both CSI and the Coroner's Office both said on the phone that although they have staff on duty, the roads outside are blocked by heavy snow. The snow plows probably won't be running at this point, and it'll probably be dawn by the time they can get here.’

‘And until we find the killer, none of us can leave -- actually, none of us can leave.’ Herstal emphasized decisively.

‘And with a murderer still lurking in the shadows, Olga and the others won't rest until they've got their pound of flesh’ Albariño's voice still sounded as if he was having a good time, maybe he was just loving this part of the processions, ‘We're in a Agatha Christie novel, aren't we? The Stormy Mountain [4] kind?’

[4] (TL Notes) ‘Stormy Mountain’ (暴风雪山庄) or a similar phrase in English, a ‘closed circle of suspects’, is basically a Chinese term used to describe the kinds of novels where everyone’s a suspect and no one can leave e.g. A murder happens within a Manor on a mountain, everyone is a suspect and no one can leave because there is a storm outside, therefore they can only try to deduce the murderer.

‘People don't normally do Stormy Mountain in a police station.’ Herstal pointed out, failing to hide the sarcasm in his voice.

‘But it’s just as fun, and equally as romantic,’ Albariño winked at Herstal with a subtle smile, ‘and similarly unescapable.’

While the two of them stood chatting over the plate of gingerbread men, the other police officers were kept busy by Hardy: all those who were now present registered their names in a notebook, and then the officers dispersed to search the entirety of the police station's building. It still couldn't be fully confirmed whether the killer was from within their ranks, and at times like this, it was better to check and see if anyone was secretly hiding in the building.

The police station was really surprisingly large. Albariño leaned over the edge of the table and ate half the plate of gingerbread men -- or rather forced Herstal to feed it to him all over again -- like an evil Gulliver massacring Lilliputians. And so they passed the time until a little past nine o'clock, when Olga suddenly appeared from nowhere.

‘Hey guys, bad news.’ She said, but her expression didn't look too grim.

‘How bad of news?’ Albariño asked as he crunched down the last crumbs of the gingerbread men, ‘The kind where World War III is imminent, or the ‘my boyfriend won't sleep with me no matter what’ kind?’

Herstal shot Albariño a glare.

‘It's neither,’ Olga said solemnly, ‘another person is dead.’

Chapter 16: 52. Let it Snow (3)

Chapter Text

‘A second victim.’ Albariño said slowly, gazing at the pool of blood in front of him with a rather leisurely attitude, ‘The efficiency of the killer is quite high, to the point of seeming a bit desperate.’

-- This was due to the new victim: a young female police officer lay on the dusty floor at the corner of the fire escape stairs, with two deep slashes across her neck. A bloody star was painted on the wall behind her, the blood had not yet dried, taking on an almost black colour in the dim yellow light.

Hardy looked exhausted, while Mercader seemed a little more angry, as if the fact that things had gone beyond expectation was an insult to him. Olga, on the other hand, just stood quietly in the dim darkness where the overhead lights could not illuminate, looking like a gloomy mushroom.

‘She had obviously fallen behind while searching for anyone hiding in unseen corners,’ Hardy said with a tight frown and a hint of remorse in his voice, ‘I've radioed the others and asked them to make sure they stay in groups of two during the search -- Al, what's your opinion?’

However, Al had little to offer at this stage of the case. There wasn't much room for speculation with the autopsy, considering the death occurred recently enough for logical deduction, and the clean-cut wounds didn't reveal any distinctive characteristics of the murder weapon. Albariño was carrying the torch Hardy had given him, adding to the dazzling light in the room.

He scrutinized the blood spatters on the ground, though bloodstain analysis wasn't his forte like it was for CSI scientists, he had some experience. Then he said, ‘The killer attacked her from behind. This can be deduced more or less from the bloodstains... Herstal, could you come here for a moment? I need to demonstrate something to them using you.’

Herstal was standing on the other side of the staircase, wisely staying away from the area Hardy had delineated as the scene of the crime, like a beast that knows not to step lightly into the territory of another predator. He gave Albariño a disgruntled glance, probably not pleased with the phrasing of "using you," but since Hardy didn't object, he complied.

‘This is where the murdered officer probably entered the fire escape. You just said she was in charge of searching the wings on these two floors, it's so far from the lifts that she must have decided to take the fire escape up to the upper floors.’

Albariño reached out and gestured for Herstal to follow the direction he was pointing, and Albariño walked up behind Herstal and squeezed his shoulder with one hand as he continued:

‘Then from here -- the starting point of the bloodstains -- the killer attacked her. The first cut severed her carotid artery, blood sprayed out in a fan shape with no signs of obstruction between the bloodstains, indicating the attack came from behind.’

Then Albariño extended his right hand, two fingers resting on Herstal's throat -- a gesture that seemed all too familiar, reminiscent of their first day in the morgue. Herstal simply wanted to turn around and kick him between the legs.

‘The killer slit her throat, leaving a slash in a more upward position.’ Albariño said calmly, ‘Judging by the depth of the cut, she would have gone into haemorrhagic shock within a minute or two. The dragging direction of the knife mark suggests that the killer is habitually right-handed, and the high position of the wound is an 80% indication that the killer is taller than this victim.’

Then Albariño lowered his hand, tactfully stepping aside, and Herstal immediately stepped back and stood further away.

He raised his eyes and swept them over the others present before him; Hardy remained expressionless, as if Albariño hadn't just pinned a mob lawyer in his arms, apparently much more mentally capable after the surprise raid on Herstal's home; Olga looked as if she wanted to laugh just a little, but didn't say anything; only Mercader scrutinized the two of them critically, obviously contemplating something.

Mercader's gaze made Herstal feel a little uncomfortable, and he suppressed the urge to spit out some sarcastic remark, letting himself hesitantly reach up and touch his throat as a subtle, metaphorical display of weakness. He wasn't keen on pretending to be shy in front of others, but this man was the head of the BAU after all, and it seemed prudent to err on the side of caution.

-- He thought, as if the warmth of the other man's fingers had lingered there.

‘And?’ Hardy interjected, seemingly ignoring the tension, and Albariño continued.

Albariño pointed to the floor, where there was a long scuff mark amidst the spray of blood, ‘She collapsed, then was dragged over to the corner by her killer. There's a smeared blood trail from the higher wound, but not by the second one, indicating the second cut was made after she was thrown into the corner by the murderer.’

Hardy thought for a moment, then said, ‘That suggests--’

‘It suggests that the killer was between one metre six and a half and one metre eight and a half.’ Mercader said succinctly, apparently estimating roughly the heights of the two successive victims. Then he thought for a moment and added, ‘But that's not much help; most of the people in the police department fall within that height range.’

‘And the killer wasn't confident in his own strength: the two targets he picked, one a drunken man and the other a female police officer, clearly they didn't have the confidence to take down a stronger target single-handedly. Of course, one could argue that he was simply overtly cautious.’ Olga spoke from amongst the shadows, twirling her fingers around her hair in boredom. ‘And the killer's choice of location clearly indicates that the person is familiar with the internal structures of the police station: neither crime locations could be caught on camera, along with attacking the victim in the fire escape where no one would normally come was also quite cleverly done.’

Mercader said slowly, ‘Then we should be looking for suspects among the long-timers at the police station --’

‘No,’ Olga interrupted sharply, ‘We have to look for people who have been here since the Robo case ended three years ago.’

‘I know what you're thinking, and if the killer is indeed seeking revenge for Robo, your line of thinking is reliable. But how do you explain someone who has been here for less than three years knowing the internal layout and the positions of surveillance cameras? Did you know every corridor in the Chicago PD after three years of service? I don't think so...,’ Mercader began disapprovingly.

Olga snorted, ‘But you don't like this scenario, because if the killer is indeed seeking revenge for Robo, combined with the manifesto left on the first victim, you'll have a hard time defending yourself against accusations of procedural misconduct in the seventh case -- I imagine you particularly dislike that topic, don't you?’

Mercader sighed heavily.

‘Alright, alright,’ Hardy intervened, ‘Perhaps the killer targeted you two simply because of your significant contributions to the arrest of Robo, and is just coming to get revenge on you guys for this and this alone? Let's not dwell on that, shall we?’

‘Since when did “just coming to get revenge on you guys for this” become a comforting phrase?’ Albariño whispered softly as he nudged Herstal with his elbow again -- Herstal felt like he looked like an elementary school student whispering in class.

‘Don't stir up trouble!’ Hardy exclaimed helplessly.

Mercader took a deep breath before exhaling slowly, as if he had finally almost calmed down. Then he said with a headache, ‘Well, let's at least begin narrowing down our suspects.’

‘You do that,’ Olga said dryly, ‘I don't work when I'm drunk, I have professional ethics.’

--More or less, apart from the fact that Olga and Lavazza Mercader were substantially at odds, Herstal seemed to understand why she had left the BAU: because if Olga wanted to, she could be very, very annoying.

Mercader really couldn't resist glaring at her before continuing:

‘I believe the killer is a white male, roughly the same age as George Robo, so he certainly can't be over forty now. He either lacks confidence in his strength or is extremely cautious, likely not very muscular, with a height between 1.65m and 185m.’

‘This person is very familiar with the police station's interior, likely moving between different floors frequently. So, we’re probably looking for someone who often runs errands around the station—either due to their job requirements or because they have good relationships with everyone and often visit other departments. He has worked in the station for about…’

He looked at Olga, who stared back unwaveringly, almost as if in defiance.

‘Three years,’ Mercader spat the word out quickly, reluctantly, as if the term itself would bite his tongue,, ‘he came to work here three years ago or so.’

‘Understood, I'll have my team start the screening process.’ Hardy nodded and turned to Olga, ‘Anything else to add?’

Olga shrugged her shoulders, ‘The killer is from Pennsylvania. While they might not admit it when questioned, we might catch a clue from their accent or employment history if we’re lucky.’

‘Got it, I'll get on it.’ Hardy sighed, then turned to Albariño and Herstal, pondering for a moment, ‘You two can head back to the main hall downstairs for now. Everyone without immediate tasks should be there—and please stick together. I don’t want anyone else getting killed because they were alone. ‘

Albarino nodded, placing his hand on Herstal's arm, his fingers gently tightening.

‘Don't worry, Bart.’ He said, a hint of a smile creeping into his voice despite the feigned seriousness, ‘We're guaranteed to be as good as Siamese twins.’

Herstal didn't even bother to glare at him.

Herstal Armalight didn't particularly like Christmas. Whenever Christmas came to mind, he couldn't help but think of those days when he attended mass at the church as a child -- his father was an alcoholic, but that didn’t mean he didn’t try to take care of his child. In other words, before he drank himself into oblivion every day, he tried to take care of his child as best as he could.

That's why he made his child join the church choir; his child wasn't particularly gifted at singing, but he learned to play the piano at that church. The seasoned electrician had replaced all the dying circuits and wiring in the church in exchange for the opportunity to have his son taught piano by one of the church's choir members.

When Herstal's father wasn't drunk -- which, to be honest, was very rarely -- he would watch the choir rehearsals, and he would see his son playing the piano to accompany them. The church’s nave was brightly lit, and the choir children wore pristine white robes, looking like angels following the King of Kings.

For a family that couldn't afford to buy a piano or enroll in piano lessons, this was the best he could do for his child.

-- But therein lies the problem: this father was indeed good at 'giving,' but he never learned how to express care. This was one of the devastating impacts of the absence of a mother figure in the family: the father never learned how to talk to his child, so he didn't know many things… he didn't know what was happening.

‘...What are you thinking about?’ Albariño asked in Herstal's ear, his warm breath softly grazing Herstal's earlobe, almost startling him.

Herstal turned his head to look at the other man: Albalino was fiddling with a small ornament on the Christmas tree, in an attempt to pull something off, causing the tree to wobble and dry needles to fall off.

Around them, people were anxiously waiting. The police officers who had been sent out had searched the entire building thoroughly, they were almost certain that no one was hiding anywhere else, unless someone had the audacity to break into their armoury, which would be practically magic.

Now that the doors that led to places other than the hall were closed and locked, everyone was gathered together; most of them were idle with nothing to do, frowning, while Hardy's men were sifting through a pile of personnel records, clearly trying to find individuals matching the profile.

Poor Hardy, on the other hand, was standing in a corner of the room calling his daughter, seemingly trying to explain why Daddy didn't come home on time. But Hardy's daughter was only eight years old, and she obviously couldn't understand such a complicated situation. Her pitiful wailing could be heard even over the phone from such a distance.

But even if the case could be solved right now, Hardy obviously couldn't leave: the snow outside had gradually intensified to a blizzard, reducing visibility to a frighteningly low level, turning everything into a bleak gray-white landscape torn by strong winds. Clearly, as long as the snow didn’t stop, they would have to stay put.

Due to the Great Lakes effect [1], experienced particularly heavy snowfall in winter, but being trapped in a police station by a blizzard on Christmas Eve was an overly peculiar experience.

[1] Refers to a phenomenon where cold air meets a large unfrozen water surface, gaining moisture and heat, then creating precipitation, snowfall, and fog downwind on the shore. Westland, located along the Great Lakes region near New York State, frequently experiences severe winter snowstorms due to this effect.

Albariño didn’t seem anxious at all. He kept fiddling with the Christmas tree while keeping half his attention on Herstal, looking as if he wouldn’t rest until he got an answer.

Herstal didn't want to pay him any attention, but Albariño lowered his voice a little more, ‘Let me guess, thinking about family?’

Herstal glanced at him.

‘It’s normal, you know. After all, Christmas is theoretically a time for family reunions and eating turkey. People tend to get sentimental and think about… certain things during this time.’ He wondered if Albariño was saying all this because he was hungry. The man blinked, his gaze growing sharper, ‘What did you do for Christmas when you were a kid?’

‘Do you really think you can get an answer out of me?’ Herstal asked sceptically.

‘Why not? You have to have hope.’ Albariño shrugged his shoulders lightly, ‘After all, the last time I asked you a question about your family, I think I asked which of your relatives sexually assaulted you -- and I have to say, that doesn’t seem like an appropriate way to start a conversation. I suppose if I ask the question properly, I can still get an answer, right?’

Herstal sneered: this guy actually knew that his previous question was inappropriate --maybe it really was a Christmas miracle.

But the other man kept looking at him, his green irises subtly gray under the shadow of his eyelashes. Herstal was silent for a moment, then said, 'We almost never celebrated Christmas. Financial issues were one thing, but another was that my father was too drunk to have time to set up a Christmas tree. I went to church on Christmas; I played the piano in the choir back then.'

‘And your mother?’ Albariño asked softly, though Herstal suspected that if the other man had indeed investigated him, he probably already knew the answer, and simply wanted to hear it from his own lips.

‘I don't know, she divorced my father when I was very young, no one would want to stay married to an alcoholic.’ Herstal shook his head slightly.

Albariño thought for a moment before asking his next question, ‘So you really can play the piano? I didn’t see a piano at your place.’

‘I haven't played the piano in years, and I don't think it's a good idea to keep playing when the WLPD is looking for a psychopathic murderer among those who can play the piano.’ Herstal replied, then he looked sharply at Albariño, speaking before he could ask the next question, ‘Don't, I know what you're going to ask -- I'm not going to play it again, no matter what the circ*mstances.’

‘That’s why you won’t play the piano -- and that’s why you’re standing here right now, without having touched a drop of alcohol, it’s not entirely to avoid breaking traffic laws, is it?' Albarino’s voice was softer and lower. 'Most criminals are products of their environment, not entirely from their family, but most indeed come from their family. And even from a normal person’s perspective… I’ve never seen you drink, even when we had multi-course French dinners. Why? Because you don’t want to become like your fathe?’

Herstal condescended to sneer at him, ‘That's exactly why I don't want to talk to you about family.’

‘I haven't had many proper Christmases either.’ Albariño shrugged casually, as if he hadn't heard the accusation, ‘You know, when both your parents are doctors, you basically never see them at home. Most of the time, it was the nanny who helped me set up the Christmas tree.’

‘Are we playing some kind of girlish game of exchanging secrets?’ Herstal asked.

‘I'm getting to know you better, Herstal.’ Albariño replied leisurely, ‘because we both agree that how well we know each other’s bodies is of little significance. Those fleeting pleasures are short-lived, but the soul is --’

He paused and lowered his voice suggestively.

‘-- so wonderful.’ He said softly.

‘Sounds pretty creepy.’ Herstal commented.

‘You obviously think so too, or else I'd be dead by now.’ Albariño laughed lightly before he finally managed to yank something off the tree. The tormented branch trembled with a rustling sound, making the small lights on it shake.

Several officers in the room looked over in their direction, undoubtedly thinking that anyone who still had the mood to fiddle with a Christmas tree at this point was probably not quite right in the head.

-- Albariño had already stretched out his hand in front of Herstal's face, and in his hand lay a small silver bell that he had pulled from the Christmas tree.

He brushed off the pine needles from the bell, and then said to Herstal, ‘Some people think the bells on a Christmas tree represent the church bells, while others believe they symbolize the bells on Santa’s reindeer. I think, since the Christmas tree is just a secular symbol of Christmas, it doesn’t need to be imbued with so much meaning -- anyway, this one's for you.’

‘...I really want to ask,’ Herstal said, after a moment's silence, and then with difficulty, ‘for what reason did you decided to pull an ornament off a police station’s Christmas tree to give to someone? ‘

Albariño looked at him frankly, with an expression that could only be described as innocent, ‘The gift I had for you was left at your house, and with all the snow falling, it looks like we won’t be able to get back even if the case is solved before midnight. So, take this as a temporary Christmas gift.’

Herstal stared at him accusingly.

‘Do I look to you like the kind of person who has to have presents for Christmas?’ He asked snidely.

‘Nothing is mandatory, but something is better than nothing.’ Albariño laughed and unceremoniously shoved the bell into his hand without a second thought, ‘Besides, I know you didn’t prepare a gift for your cohabitant, so from a guilty conscience perspective, you owe me this at least.’

Herstal squeezed the bell and almost laughed out loud: how could someone like Albariño say something about ‘a guilty conscience’?

‘The WLPD doesn’t use cheap plastic for their Christmas tree. The ornaments are all high-quality. I'm pretty sure this bell is genuine silver-plated, and I grab a few every year.’ Albariño informed him enthusiastically.

Herstal looked down at the bell lying in his palm, wearing an expression of someone trying to understand why things had taken such a nonsensical turn. He was silent for a moment, then slowly closed his hand around it. 'You know, Albariño, I've never been able to figure you out.’

‘And that makes you feel threatened?’ Albariño asked with a smile.

‘I don't see any point in denying it.’ Herstal replied in a low voice.

It was at this moment, as if to punctuate their conversation or to oddly echo some of its themes, the lights above them flickered and then abruptly went out.

The entire police station was plunged into darkness, and a surge of unrest spread around them. Outside, the blizzard continued to rage, with nothing visible beyond the storm’s ferocity.

‘Power outage?’ a policeman shouted in the darkness.

‘All the lights in the whole building are out.’ Another person answered.

There was the sound of people making phone calls in the darkness, others switched on their mobile phones and torches for illumination, casting a ghostly pallor over everyone’s faces.

After a minute or two, someone said, ‘I called the power supply company. They’re not sure if the snow knocked down power lines or if a pole fell, but in any case, the entire neighbourhood is out.’

Great, although a bunch of people trapped in a police station by snow and a murder case wasn't exactly the classic set-up for a Stormy Mountain, the current situation was certainly suspenseful enough, Herstal silently cursed inwardly.

By this time, Hardy was pushing through the crowd in their direction, he was clearly one of the most anxious person in the situation, there were just too many things that could happen in the darkness, not to mention the fact that there was definitely a murderer hiding amongst them.

Herstal knew that in reality, there was actually more than one murderer hiding here, and and wondered if Hardy would go crazy after knowing this fact.

‘If this continues, I'm worried that the murderer will take advantage of the darkness to commit more crime.’ As soon as he came up to them, Hardy got straight to the point, ‘Agents Olga and Mercader are sifting through the suspects on their end, but at this rate I don't think there's enough time.’

‘Speaking of which, the police station has back-up power supplies, right? I remember that being one of the architectural requirements for large buildings like this?’ Albariño thought for a moment and asked, ‘Backup generators?’

‘Yes, there is, the backup generator is opposite the car park behind the police station, and the power distribution room is right there.’ Hardy gestured in some distant direction, but his voice seemed more agitated, ‘But that's no use at all, the staff responsible for maintaining that machine have gone on holiday for Christmas, and I doubt there's anyone here who can operate a diesel generator without a manual -- ‘

‘I can.’ Albariño said abruptly.

Hardy and Herstal both stared at him.

Albariño shrugged, ‘What? I basically built that house of mine myself from scratch, I even installed the wiring in the house. Living so far from the city, of course I have a backup generator in my basem*nt.’

Hardy was silent for a couple of seconds, then said slowly, ‘So you’re saying… you can walk through this damn blizzard and start the backup generator that’s almost a kilometer away?’

‘Why not give it a try?’ Albariño replied cheerfully.

Chapter 17: 53. Let it Snow (4)

Notes:

My sincere apologies for the constant mix of American and British English haha. I'm Irish so I'm more familiar with British English, hence the 'single quotations' and not "these double ones" (although I do acknowledge that I used "double quotations" in early chapters...sorry to all my college professors whom I have probably disappointed), but sometimes the American English just slips out...

Chapter Text

The young officer named Alexander struggled to pull open the back door of the WLPD -- the thickness of the metal door and the blizzard raging outside made the manoeuvre particularly difficult to carry out.

Hardy stood a metre away, and behind him stood the security guard with a keychain: after the incident, they had locked most of the doors, and now the security guard had the only set of keys. Hardy scrutanised the young constable, Albariño and Herstal with a rather severe look and asked, ‘Are you three sure you can handle this? I can go with you.’

‘What you need most is to stay and catch the killer, while we're just going to operate the generator. Unless there’s a Yeti or something else hiding out there, I think we should basically be fine.’ Albariño said in a brisk voice, ‘After all, we can't keep working by flashlight can we? Besides it's not like the two of us can do much to help by staying there.’

Indeed, the darkness had intensified the uneasy atmosphere in the hall, and at this rate the officers were going to start a riot. Hardy already didn’t get along with many of them, he didn’t need to face more accusations of ‘are you treating us all as suspects’ in the dark -- because the answer was obviously ‘yes!’.

Herstal surveyed Hardy and the security guard, then asked thoughtfully, ‘Besides the keys you have, are there any other sets for the locked doors in this building?’

‘There's another spare set in the security officer’s drawer, and the drawer key is carried by the on-duty guard, ’the man quicly replied. ‘Some special rooms, like the archives or the rooms storing extra tear gas and Tasers, have keys kept by specific officers and aren’t our responsibility.’

Herstal frowned, clearly deep in thought until Albarino nudged his elbow and smiled, ‘Come on, Detective, we'd better get going.’

And so, they stepped out into the storm. The wind was far fiercer than they had thought, almost to the point where one could hardly stand, and the snowflakes pelted painfully against their bodies. The heavy door behind them closed slowly, where Hardy had left two men to wait for their return, but that path was swiftly swallowed up in darkness as well.

They made their way towards their destination -- a distance of no more than a few hundred metres, but it seemed alarmingly long in such harsh weather conditions. All around them was total darkness, all the lights in the windows of buildings and street lamps were all extinguished, revealing only the occasional silhouette of large structures through gaps in the snow curtain.

The snow was already piled up to their ankles, fluffy and slippery as it accumulated. Albariño reached out and grasped Herstal's arm, while the flashlight in the hand of the young police officer leading the way fluttered in the darkness like a dying firefly.

It was hard to calculate just how long they had been walking, at any rate, it wasn’t until Albariño's fingers were aching from numbness that Alexander said, ‘We're here.’

Albariño had often parked in the car park behind the police station, but he had to admit that in the past he had never paid any attention to the power room or the generator shed next to it. These two small buildingd were hidden in the wind and snow, looking like two small coffins.

In fact, ‘building’ was a very generous term, because the generator room was actually a glorified soundproof box with a door: completely devoid of any technical content, with a layer of featureless iron-sheet lined with a layer of sound-absorbing material, complete with a set of ventilation and smoke exhaust systems installed on top of the metal box; the interior of which was fully equipped, but not very friendly to those who were about to be squeezed into it.

The door to the generator room was also locked, and it took Alexander, who had brought the key from the security guard and whose fingers were stiff and clumsy, three tries to unlock the door. The rarely used door made a long creaking noise due to the lack of maintenance, a sound which was quickly swallowed up by the wind and snow.

Albariño peered inside, taking in the full extent of the tiny generator room before him using the light of the flashlight in his hand, ‘Clearly, they had limited floor space when they first planned it, and squeezed in the two generators -- it's really small in there. ‘

It couldn't be helped, a place like the generator room wasn't meant to be used for sheltering people from snowstorms, and with two generators crammed in there, it was hard to even get a foot in the door.

‘I can wait at the door,’ Alexander suggested, shivering from the cold but clearly trying to appear unaffected by it, ‘It’s too cramped. Three people wouldn’t even be able to turn around in there.’

Albariño hesitated for a moment, but then nodded, and the young officer stood in the doorway, bouncing around in place to keep his feet warm. For his part, Albariño began instructing Herstal without any hesitation, which was the main reason he had to bring a few people with him.

‘Check if the water in the radiator tank is frozen for me, and I’ll see how much diesel is left inside the tank.’ Albariño pointed to him the location of the radiator tank, ‘If the water’s frozen or there’s no fuel -- we’re screwed. I know how to use this thing, but I have no idea where the maintenance guy stores the diesel.’

‘The average person would put antifreeze in the tank, right?’ Herstal couldn't resist asking.

‘In theory, yes, but some people get lazy and use plain water. Doing it like that, even if you don't experience low temperatures, the limescale can mess with the functionality of the radiator.’ Albariño huffed, clearly disapproving of such practices.

Herstal opened the tank lid and peered inside, then said, ‘It's full.’

‘Okay, then I guess the maintenance crew did use antifreeze, thank goodness -- but a generator this large has two radiator tanks, the other one’s over there.’ Albariño reminded, pointing it out to him in passing.

Herstal nodded, and as he made his way over to the other tank he said, ‘I didn't realise you were interested in these things as well --’

‘...Have you done research? Feeling quite surprised?’ Albariño said with cheerful smile, seemingly in quite a good mood, probably because the generator's tanks were full of diesel, ‘I've been living on my own for many years, Herstal, and it's not surprising that I would know a few things in such circ*mstances.’

‘Such as?’ Herstal asked as he opened the second tank’s cap.

Albariño replied in all seriousness, ‘Knitting.’

This magical statement forced Herstal to stop what he was doing and give him a complicated look, ‘You're kidding.’

‘Why would I joke about something like that,’ Albariño shrugged, nimbly squeezing between Herstal and the wall to check the fuel tank of the second generator, ‘And you, I’ve already answered one of your questions, so how about you answer one of mine now? ‘

‘Do you think we’re putting down our fingers in a game of ‘Never Have I Ever’ now?’ Herstal retorted sarcastically.

‘No, but I find that game rather fascinating.’ Albariño finished checking all the oil and put the lid back on with a firm hand, then looked up at him, ‘My question is: what do you think of Lavazza Mercader.’

‘What can I think of a man I hardly know?’ Herstal said calmly -- he made it sound so ambiguous, mainly because they could still see Alexander hanging around in the doorway through the slightly ajar door.

Albariño nimbly finished checking the generator components and lubricants, then switched the control switch to manual. The entire machine ground to a halt, before shaking and vibrating with a loud noise. Before he could get to the second generator, Herstal stepped forward and pressed a hand to his shoulder.

‘Does him wanting the FBI to get involved in Hardy's case upset you?’ Herstal asked, the corner of his mouth almost touching Albariño's earlobe, making it barely audible over the noise, ‘I thought the Gardener wasn't the type to flip the chessboard if he things didn’t go his way.’

Albariño twisted his head slightly to look at Herstal. He could see a hint of a shadowy smile in the other man's eyes, as if what Albariño was contemplating right now made him feel satisfied -- as if it wasn't the two of them who were in danger if the BAU intervened in the case.

Albariño suspected that Herstal seemed so calm now was mainly because he had more or less accepted his own fate: that is, the fate that belonged to most serial killers. It wasn’t surprisingly, Mr Armalight was obviously the kind of guy who would be able to run through a list of the worst possible outcomes of something in his head before he even started doing it. Or in other words, he had long since began waiting for his death.

Just looking at those scars on his wrists -- and looking at the things he'd let himself go on: He was falling in love with someone who may one day kill him or go on to do something even more brutal. They both understand this, but Herstal still made the less than stellar choice.

Albariño, on the other hand, was not, and while his mother had not set a good example in such matters, but according to his own judgment, perhaps for now, his desire to live is much stronger than the other person -- for, as Shana Bacchus had said, he had to decide on his own when the end would come, whereas Albariño felt that the most opportune time had not yet arrived.

‘The Gardener isn't one who just flips the chessboard if things don’t go his way, but he always has to choose opponents that are to his liking, doesn't he?’ Albariño replied in the same whisper, his voice swallowed by the noise, ‘Olga and Bart are worthy opponents, but unfortunately, Agent Mercader may not be my favourite type.’

‘It's arrogant to want the other man dead because he's not your favourite type.’ Herstal replied in a low tone.

‘Why not?’ Albariño replied with a smile, ‘Isn't that what our killer is doing, taking the lives of innocent people in order to declare war on someone else -- arrogance is one of our original sins, it's a deadly passion.’

‘It seems like you have your own thoughts about the killer?’ Herstal couldn't resist asking.

‘I don't think the murderer was really one of those police officers; the victim was killed from behind, so the murderer wouldn’t have blood splatter on their clothes, but some would still get on their hands and sleeves. Severing an artery creates a gruesome scene that most people can’t imagine. But remember? Bart had everyone sign a sheet before searching the building. We were there the whole time -- no one had unwashed blood on their right hand or sleeves, and no one was hiding bloodstained rubber gloves in their pockets because Bart checked everyone’s bags for the murder weapon. The killer couldn’t have used the restroom faucet either -- there wasn’t enough time, and no blood was left in the sink... It’s impossible to clean the scene so thoroughly in such a short time.” Albarino said thoughfully as he flipped the switch on the second generator.

‘But that's the only bathroom on the ground floor, if he went up to the second floor he’d have had to go through the entire hall, and no one can pass through with blood splattered on their hands without being discovered.’ Herstal followed his train of thought, having to raise his voice so that it wasn't all drowned out by the noise of the machine, ‘The killer couldn't have gone up the stairs, but he obviously didn't stay in the hall either -- unless he left through another door. But all the doors except the main one are locked, and only the security guard has the key, so it's reasonably unlikely that anyone could have entered or left.’

The glass windows in the police station were pushed outwards, and the gap that can be opened is definitely not enough for a person to jump out of the window. In that case, the murderer should definitely have been trapped in the police station after killing the man.

‘Or maybe the security guards claim that they are the only ones with the keys.’ Albarino sighed and said.

‘So you had a general idea in your head, but didn't say a word to Officer Hardy.’ Herstal said disapprovingly.

‘Yeah, but what's the point of doing things any other way?’ Albariño shrugged his shoulders, ‘I want to see what happens next.’

‘-- ‘Death’.’ Herstal replied, ‘You've seen a lot of that stuff, haven't you?’

‘The same story will have different meanings when told by different creators.’ Albarino replied calmly.

Herstal shook his head, ‘Your curiosity will kill you one day.’

‘Is it just like the curiosity I showed towards you? Maybe so, this is indeed a question.’ Albariño admitted frankly, but still smiled strangely, ‘But there is another problem now, even a little more important than the one just now.’

Herstal stared at him while Albariño continued slowly, ‘I noticed that that Alexander doesn't seem to be at the door anymore.’

Needless to say, it was the vibration and noise of the generator that weakened Herstal's attention to the outside, so when he turned his head around, he saw that the door was still slightly ajar, but Alexander was nowhere to be seen.

Herstal's entire being snapped to attention, and the two of them glanced at each other as they jerked open the door and rushed out -- only to be met with a raging expanse of gray and white, the wind whipping snowflakes painfully against their faces. They both staggered forward through the snow, and Albariño called out Alexander's name twice, but the wind swallowed his voice.

They fumbled forward a few more steps before finally hearing a clear sound cutting through the gale: it was the sound of a crisp gunshot.

It must be said that the vibrations and noise from the generator had dulled Hestal's attention to the outside, so when he turned around, he saw that the door was still slightly ajar, but Alexander was nowhere to be seen.

Hestal was suddenly jolted into alertness. He and Albalino exchanged a glance, then flung the door open and rushed out—only to be met with a raging expanse of gray and white, the wind whipping snowflakes painfully against their faces. They staggered through the snow, with Albalino calling Alexander’s name twice, but the wind swallowed his voice.

They fumbled forward a few more steps before finally hearing a clear sound cutting through the gale: a sharp gunshot.

Following his instincts, Hestal stumbled toward the direction of the gunshot, one hand already feeling for the knife which lay just in the pocket of his coat. The problem was that the current conditions were far from ideal for a fight, with visibility reduced to less than a meter in the blizzard—

His mind was racing with these chaotic thoughts when his foot suddenly struck something.

Herstal looked down to find Alexander on the ground. In just a couple of minutes, a thin layer of snow had accumulated on his thick coat, making him almost invisible in the dim flashlight beam. The young man struggled in the snow, letting out a low groan.

Herstal knelt beside Alexander, his right hand still gripping the knife in his pocket. He saw that Alexander was clutching his shoulder, and that there was a small hole in the material of his coat. The blood hadn't yet soaked through the thick fabric, but it was surely starting to flow beneath.

‘Albariño!’ Herstal shouted back, his voice barely audible over the howling wind, ‘He's been shot, we've got to-’

He stopped abruptly, staring straight into the vast curtain of snow, no one emerged out of the black chasm torn open by the wind and snow.

‘...Albariño?’ He called out again tentatively, though didn't think he'd get an answer.

‘I saw a figure moving not far away, but Officer Hardy said there would only be people waiting at the door for us, so it couldn't be someone else who came out.’ The pale faced Alexander said, he was letting another police officer help him wrap the wound in his abdomen, the bullet hadn’t hit directly but had grazed heavily across his waist and abdomen, causing profuse bleeding but sparing his life, ‘I was worried it might be the suspect roaming outside, but the noise from the generator was too loud for anyone else to hear my calls. I was also afraid that if I went back to look for help, that person would run away, so...’

The only consolation was that with the joint effort of the two generators, the power was finally restored. The first-floor lobby of WLPD was brightly lit, but the atmosphere was particularly somber.

--Herstal ultimately hadn't been able to find Albariño in the end. In such heavy snow and poor visibility, finding someone was almost impossible. It wasn't as if Herstal had heard any more gunshots either, but it was possible that it had been completely drowned out by the sound of the howling wind and snow whipping about.

Now Hardy's face was even worse than it had been during the blackout. He questioned, ‘So you chose to chase a suspect in such bad weather, knowing that this suspect had just taken a gun from his previous victim –-‘

‘Go easy on him, Officer Hardy.’ Mercader said calmly, ‘He just narrowly missed being shot to death.’

‘Al might already be dead by now.’ Olga added with relish. She was sitting on a table, looking overly eager, surrounded by the personnel files that the officers had been sorting through earlier.

Everyone listening to the conversation couldn't help but glare at her, except for the expressionless Herstal Armalight: His face remained appropriately blank, making one think that losing a boyfriend every other day was a norm for a mob lawyer.

‘Well, anyway,’ Hardy paused, softening his tone, ‘you should have at least seen what the killer looked like, right?’

But his tone didn’t comfort the other party much. Alexander, extremely ashamed, quietly replied, ‘…No, sir, the visibility was really too poor…’

“That means we’re back to square one. No one in the room was missing, which can only mean that the killer wasn’t in this room,” Mercader said sternly. “The previous profile range was wrong, so --”

‘Not necessarily,’ Olga interjected nonchalantly. ‘It's also possible that Dr Bacchus took advantage of the chaos in the snowstorm to rush ahead of Mr. Armalight before shooting Alexander and taking the opportunity to get away.’

Hardy opened his mouth, pausing for several seconds like a stuck record, with an expression so comical that one wanted to take a photograph of the scene and then blackmail him. He asked incredulously, ‘... Are you serious?’

‘I'm not, but Agent Mercader probably thinks so.’ Olga replied sweetly. Her tone was so whimsical as she said those words that everyone could tell she was a bit drunk, ‘After all, according to that theory of his, if one person committed the first case, then surely that person must have committed the seventh; and anyway, no matter who actually committed the crime, George Robo's hair will show up...’

‘Molozer!’ Lavazza Mercader shouted, exasperated. ‘If you’d kindly spend some time finding the killer instead of using this precious time to mock me –-‘

‘Are you going to say the line “Every minute you waste, someone is dying” now, Agent Mercader?’ Olga looked sharply straight at Mercader.

‘Precisely.’ Mercader glared back without hesitation, his eyes looking as if they were burning with fire, ‘And you, Molozer, you have no professional ethics.’

‘Oh, really? Since you put it that way…’ Olga snorted coldly, before jumping down from the table and turning straight towards the pile of files on the desk, unceremoniously sweeping one of the stacks onto the floor without hesitation. With a clatter, the pages cascaded to the floor like a waterfall, those that slid the furthest even landing at Herstal's feet.

Hardy spoke in the tone of someone placating a temperamental child, ‘Olga--’

‘None of the men in that pile are murderers; they were all present, so we’ve ruled out the possibility of a murderer amongst them. And the people who have been with the police department for less than three years but aren't here -- they're all in this pile.’ Olga said as she grabbed the other stack of files and quickly flicked through them, none of the officers had properly examined the contents of those files earlier as they were focused on ruling out those who were present because they thought at the time that the murderer was in their midst. ‘These -- and these -- are not suspects, too tall and too fat; this one? Three-time martial arts champion, no way.’

Muttering to herself, she tossed the top sheet from the stack to the floor, then similarly discarded the second and third sheets, murmuring dismissive words. Hardy looked at the mess with an expression that said he didn’t know whether to lose his temper or not.

Olga worked quickly, her fingers flipping through the pages, more sheets of paper being carelessly thrown to the floor. Half the people in the hall stared at her, and then with a clatter she drew a photograph out of the pile and held it up to show it to those present.

‘Who knows this officer?’ She asked loudly.

A policeman in the crowd hesitantly raised his hand, ‘Uh ... he's a friend of mine.’

‘Is he left-handed?’ Olga asked, glancing back down to the file in her hand, her tone almost perfunctory.

‘Yes.’ The officer said, frowning in confusion.

‘Okay, then he's not a murderer.’ Olga tossed the photo aside, shrugged her shoulders and hurriedly flipped through a few more sheets of paper, ‘And your chief’s secretary, previously a state trooper in Pennsylvania, does anyone have anything to say about him?’

‘He takes bribes.’ Herstal said abruptly.

‘... he what?’ Hardy's voice rose sharply. Apparently, even Hardy wasn't privy to some of the dirty little secrets of the WLPD higher-ups.

‘Let's put it this way—I'm very sure he can be bribed, not that I've actually tried.’ Herstal said, flashing Hardy a meaningful smile, and no one was foolish enough to believe the "not tried" part.

‘Good, then he's not the murderer either.’ Olga muttered, throwing away more paper as she went along.

Mercader interjected, not quite agreeing, ‘Wait a minute, I don't think --’

‘Taking a bribe at the risk of being prosecuted when you're carefully planning for the right opportunity to take revenge on someone else in a police station? People don't normally do that, it's a matter of probability.’ Olga shook her head and casually flipped through another folder, then her eyes lit up, ‘Ha!’

Everyone watched as she grabbed the file, stepped over the mess of papers on the floor, and walked straight to the security guard from earlier, shoving the file under his nose.

‘Do you know this person on the file?’ She asked bluntly.

‘… Uh? Yes.’ the guard answered, bewildered and almost recoiling, the natural reaction of someone seeing a file thrust toward their face. ‘That is --‘

Olga interrupted him, clearly uninterested in any rambling, ‘Which one of your colleagues is she f*cking? Or is she f*cking you?’

‘What?!’ The security guard's eyes widened and he blurted out in disbelief, ‘Oh my God, of course I'm not sleeping with her! You --?’

‘I'm just asking a question, you just need to answer.’ Olga said slowly, blinking as if she knew she had uncovered some secret, ‘But judging by your reaction, she must be maintaining an intimate relationship with someone? I'll ask again, the answer to the question is crucial to this case: who is she sleeping with?’

"Uh -- well, she's close to one of my colleagues," he stammered, clearly indicating a very unusual "close" relationship. "She’s with Brown get together now and then…"

Olga didn't even hear the end of that sentence, she obviously didn't give a damn about who was doing what with which Brown, or who Brown really was. She nodded briefly, leaving the obviously confused security guard on the spot, turned back to Hardy neatly, and slapped the thing in her hand on the table in front of him.

She declared succinctly: ‘This person is the murderer.’

Hardy opened the file to a one-year work contract, flipping through a couple of pages, his frown deepening. ‘Olga, this contract is for... Blanca Areola, a female janitor at WLPD.’

‘The average profiler would assume that serial killers are white males, purely and simply because there are vastly more males than females among serial killers, and basically all of them are white, which makes sense statistically, but in reality --’ Olga drawled lazily.

‘We apply the theory to reality, and most of the time the results aren't bad.’ Mercader replied through gritted teeth, ‘That's why we're scientists, not psychics.’

Herstal silently scanned the mess on the floor: there were times when Olga did act quite like a psychic.

Olga shook her head, words flying out of her mouth:

‘Look, she fits the profile: 1.73 meters tall, started working at WLPD about two years ago. Cleaning ensures she's stronger than the average woman but not strong enough to overpower a male officer; it also means she has to move between floors repeatedly, giving her enough familiarity with the building’s layout over the past two years.’

‘Not to mention the fact that she seems to maintain a physical relationship with a certain male in security; do you think it would be a difficult task for her to get the keys to most of the doors of the police station?’

Hardy pondered for a moment, then said, ‘So in your opinion, when these two cases occurred...’

‘She killed the first victim and came out of the bathroom. For everyone else, there would be nowhere to go because getting to other floors means passing through the lobby, but for Areola, it wasn't a problem.’ Herstal said thoughfully, ‘If she had keys, she could have gone out the same back door we went to the car park.’

‘That way she could certainly avoid detection,’ Olga gave Herstal an approving look and continued, ‘She could follow the wall to the west where there’s another side door, re-enter the station, and take the freight elevator upstairs. There's no way to access the freight elevator directly from the lobby because the door to it is locked, but coming in through that side door will do the trick.’

Hardy was obviously visualising the layout of the police station, ‘...You're right, if she went up the freight elevator, she could directly reach the floor where the second victim was killed.’

Mercader looked around at them and finally asked, ‘But how are we going to prove this conjecture?’

‘The contract lists basic information about Areola, including the house she rented, and it's possible to call her landlord; there's no way she could have been outside in such snowy conditions, and it's most likely that she is at home. Of course, I expect her landlord will tell you she's not at home, maybe the rented flat is missing a knife or two in the kitchen.’ Olga nodded, waving her hand to start giving orders, ‘And now that the power’s back, I need to use the WLPD’s computers and the police network to check any connections between this lady and George Robbo. Maybe once we find some useful information, we’ll have a lead on Al’s whereabouts.’

Herstal looked at her and asked, ‘Do you think he's still alive?’

Olga studied him for a moment, then gave a toothy smile.

‘If the killer’s target is me and Mercader, Al must still be alive.’ She made a brisk gesture of spreading her hands, ‘But if not, you might actually have to prepare to collect his body.’

Chapter 18: 54. Let it Snow (5)

Notes:

Just realised Albarino's name was spelt 'Albarino' and not 'Albariño' (like how I've been spelling it) in the previous translation by GRain. I'm really not bothered to go back and edit all the previous chapters but I'm going to change it to 'Albarino' from here on out (aka after this chapter bc I've finished this chapter already).

Also is it too late to mention that I don't proofread any of the chapters because they literally take me hours to read and re-read each paragraph, compare, and edit, and by the end I'm so done with the chapter haha. So if there's any mistakes, repetition, or sentences that make no sense or need further clarification, please do tell me!

Chapter Text

Not too long ago--

Herstal Armalight sprinted in the direction from which the gunfire had come, with Albariño a step behind him. At times like this, it highlighted the downside of having slightly longer hair; the gale kept blowing his hair into his eyes, and he reached up to haphazardly wipe a handful of the snowflakes that adorned his forehead and brow as he made his way towards where Herstal's silhouette had been swallowed by the wind and snow.

Then, a gun was silently pressed against his back.

Albarino’s hand instinctively, yet discreetly, moved to his waist where his Colt was concealed beneath his coat. If Herstal's deduction was correct, and the killer was indeed not one of the people in the hall, they might not even be a police officer at all. That would explain why they targeted drunk people and female officers -- human instinct was to avoid risk and seek advantage after all.

And there were many ways to deal with someone who wasn't professionally trained but was armed with a dangerous weapon. The person behind him had the gun raised at an elevated angle, nearly pressed against his shoulders. If he chose to resist with enough agility, he would be able to avoid most of the damage caused by the other person's shot, or at least preventing a fatal wound to the torso…

Several countermeasures flashed through Albarino’s mind, but --

‘Don’t move,’ a low voice commanded from behind him.

-- It was a female voice.

Interesting.

Albarino stopped his furtive reach for the gun and instead silently slid his fingers into his coat pocket.

‘She's smart,’ Olga murmured, sitting in the corner of the hall with a laptop on her lap that was displaying pages of internal police department information. She stared intently at the page, and deliberately ignored the fact that most of the people in the hall were sneaking glances at her from time to time, ‘She's very smart - and that's exactly the problem.’

‘What?’ Mercader asked, his tone irritated.

‘This Blanca Areola is Mexican, and assuming she's never been involved in any illegal immigration activities, she came to the United States almost three years ago -- specifically, she married a man from Pennsylvania two months after the Robo trial ended, and received a conditional green card as a result.’ Olga stared at the screen and replied without looking up.

‘Marriage immigration, at least that's what it’s looking like.’ Herstal snorted, ‘So what brings her to Westland?’

‘That's the problem: her husband had a stable job in Pennsylvania at the time, and she was working for a local domestic service company.’ Olga evenly, ‘And then guess what? Her husband beat her and they divorced after a shockingly brief three months. Mr Armalight, tell me what would happen to Areola after that?’

Both Mercader and Hardy looked to Herstal, who nodded slightly and said, ‘Granted, matrimonial law is not my speciality, but -- if she entered into the marriage in good faith, but was subjected to domestic violence by her spouse, who is a U.S. citizen, she is exempt from the ‘Both spouses must file a joint Form I-175’ restriction. In other words, she can apply for a full green card on her own two years after the conditional green card takes effect.’

‘The divorce guarantees her freedom of movement, and the domestic violence guarantees that she will be able to apply for her green card alone no matter what, because she can't be the party at fault in the marriage -- is that what you're saying?’ Mercader asked.

Hardy asked disapprovingly, ‘But how could she have predicted that before she got married --?’

‘I think she could have predicted it; her ex-husband was a known scumbag in the town where they lived, with heaps of convictions in the records of Pennsylvania police.’ Olga snorted and rested her chin on the palm of her hand as she answered, ‘And this is the man's fourth wife, he's been the one at fault in the first three marriages: for abuse.’

‘So she married a scumbag for a green card,’ Hardy frowned, clearly finding it a little unbelievable, or maybe he was just simply unable to watch someone beat their wife. ‘But she’s making such a sacrifice for what?’

‘For me.’ Olga said crisply, shrugging her shoulders.

-- Everyone turned their heads to stare at her, including several officers across the room who were staring intently at the Christmas tree pretending they weren't eavesdropping.

‘It's true!’ Olga emphasised, ‘She got a temporary green card two months after the Robo trial ended through a very bad marriage, I reckon that she certainly didn't love her ex-husband, and it's unlikely that she didn't know about the other guy's bad habits. The whole thing from her marriage to her divorce must have been planned by her, and she got married in September 2013. Does any of you remember what happened at that time?’

Herstal, who was obviously calculating the time, thought for a moment and said slowly, ‘... That's when you first came to teach at Westland State University??’

‘That's when you had just become a consultant for WLPD!’ Hardy slapped his thigh suddenly, ‘We had a case in early September, didn't we? Then you attended the press conference as a consultant for the first time.’

‘She found out I was working for the WLPD.’ Olga repeated the sentence in a different way, so that the point of the words seemed more obvious.

‘Because you can't have a legal job without a green card.’ Mercader whispered, ‘If she wanted to work at the WLPD, she has to have a green card ...’

‘Let's assume she approached you for Robo's revenge -- if she's the killer, that's the only possibility.’ Herstal said disapprovingly, ‘But why would she pick the police station? Isn't it more dangerous to be in front of a group of police officers? She used to work in a housekeeping company, so she could have applied to the university where you work.’

Mercader shook his head, ‘The university is still too big, and she could easily be assigned somewhere far away from where she wants to be.’

‘And she might have even been waiting for you.’ Olga said softly.

Mercader gave her a sharp look.

‘She probably doesn't know the “truth” about the Robo case,’ Olga made air quotes with her hands, showing a sarcastic smile, ‘so she decided to get back at the people responsible for profiling the Robo case: that is, you and me. You work at Quantico, she'd have to go through a much stricter background screening if she wanted to work in there, and someone still holding a temporary green card is highly unlikely to get the job, so she chose Westland. As for you -- she must have believed you’d return. Westland has the Pianist and the Sunday Gardener; most people would think the BAU chief would soon collaborate with the police on these cases.’

There was a moment of silence before Hardy coughed awkwardly: after all, Olga had been here for three years, and they hadn't once turned to the Behavioural Analysis Unit for help.

‘Molozer,’ said Mercader rather disapprovingly, ‘we have the facts of the case.’

‘Okay, okay, I get it, Robo is a serial killer, that's the truth.’ Olga repeated lazily, ‘So let's just guess what happened to Blanca Areola: she smuggled herself into the United States from Mexico an unknown number of years ago, probably to make a living. Anyway, she met George Robo in the process -- I don't know how close their relationship was, but whatever -- then one day Robo was arrested and sentenced to death. Our Blanca was determined to avenge Robo's death, and I happened to be out of the BAU at this time, so she married a domestic-abuse bastard, got herself a green card and a legal status, got a job at WLPD, and hunkered down here waiting for you, Mercader, to come in on the case one day.’

She paused, as if savouring the whole process.

‘Pretty boring motivation.’ Olga commented with disgust, ‘But it does make sense.’

‘But I never came.’ Mercader said quietly, ‘Until the Johnny the Killer case.’

‘Johnny the Killer came from another state. That was too sudden; she probably wasn’t prepared.’ Olga laughed a little, ‘After all, who would have thought -- the Sunday Gardener had been in Westland for ten years without any help from the FBI, but was recruited for the Johnny the Killer case.’

‘So she sent Agent Mercader a greeting card?’ Herstal asked with a frown, ‘the possibility of being so desperate that she placed all her hopes on a greeting card is still too small?’

‘Maybe there's a plan B.’ Olga said without much concern, ‘Three years is a very long time for some people, maybe she's running out of patience.’

‘For some people?’ Herstal raised an eyebrow, catching the key phrase.

Olga swept him a glance, then shrugged, ‘I'm a very patient person.’

There was nothing worse than kidnapping someone on a stormy night and then holding them at gunpoint while forcing them to walk to your evil lair.

For a moment Albariño felt utterly disorientated as he made his way through the long approach to the endless blizzard, until finally the other man stopped. They had stood before a glass door, and the woman behind them lowered her voice and said, ‘Open the door.’

During the endless trek through the blizzard, Albarino felt completely disoriented until they other person finally stopped. They stood before a glass door, and the woman behind him said in a low voice, ‘Open the door.’

The lock that encircled the handle of the glass door had been cut off already, Albariño pushed the door open as he was instructed before realising where they were -- they were in a shop right next door to the WLPD, which had once been a clothing shop so vast that two whole floors had once been its storefront.

But the shop had closed down more than half a year ago, it had never been successfully rented out since then Inside, the remnants of the previous owner’s belongings lay scattered: discarded metal hangers, cracked dressing mirrors, and numerous cheap plastic mannequins, some standing, most lying amidst dust and debris, looking like they had been excavated from ancient Greek ruins, and all of them were missing limbs, adding to the eerie atmosphere under the flashlight’s beam.

In all the crime scenes Albarino had seen, he'd rarely seen one that looked as much like a crime scene as the one he was standing in now.

And the female behind him ordered him to keep moving, leading him up the stairs to the second floor of the shop. It was filled with more broken mirrors, metal hangers, and mangled plastic mannequins. The wallpaper was peeling off one wall and a row of radiators stood in the corner. These buildings were all individually heated, and the rows of unattended metal was alarmingly cold as the person shoved him into the corner of the room, signalled for him to turn around, and then used metal handcuffs to chain him against the radiator in the corner.

Albariño recalled that morning at Herstal's place -- it seemed like everyone quite enjoyed handcuffing him to things.

But now he was finally able to turn and look at the woman who had been pointing a gun at him earlier -- a tall, dark-skinned female who looked to be in her thirties at the most, and somehow strangely familiar. Albariño recalled for a moment, then asked with uncertainty, ‘...Your name is Blanca, isn't it? I've seen you at the police station a few times before.’

The woman -- Blanca -- gave a very surprised look, confirming that Albariño was correct. That was one of the things that annoyed many of his previous lovers: the ease with which he managed to appear thoughtful and sweet over such small details, and yes, he was the kind of man who could actually remember the names of those he'd only seen a few times. Who else would remember a cleaner's name and appearance? Most people are as blind to the cleaners as they are to the air.

This trait undoubtedly proved very useful to the person in question, but when your lover is like that to everyone, it naturally doesn't sit well with you.

Blanca, on the other hand, merely looked wary as she said, ‘Dr Bacchus, you have a better memory than I thought…and you are much calmer than I expected you to be.’

‘Of course, I don’t see you wanting to kill me.’ Albariño shrugged as best he could with his hands cuffed behind his back, his tone relaxed, ‘Your first two victims are dead, and if you had wanted me dead, I would have been dead in front of the power room. What I care more about is: why didn't you kill me?’

Blanca looked at him for a moment, then said slowly: ‘You are close to Olga Molozer, aren't you?’

‘Not the kind of closeness you think.’ Albariño replied in a soft tone, almost as if he were talking to a small, easily frightened animal. And considering who had the gun in their hand, that would have been completely unnecessary.

‘That’s not important, that's enough.’ Blanca replied simply and calmly.

‘So you did do this for revenge,’ Albariño co*cked his head, thoughtfully, ‘kill the first two, create a panic, create a sense of a ghostly murderer, and by the way, tell them that you're indeed playing for real...then kidnap someone close to them and force them to confront you. From the start, at least, you pretty much win in terms of momentum. But what was this for? For George Robo?’

‘I love him.’ The woman replied.

''Love,' what a tacky tale -- A madness most discreet, a choking gall, and a preserving sweet [1].’ Albariño tsked.

[1] Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare (Act 1 Scene 1)

‘Wouldn't you?’ Blanca asked rhetorically.

‘I find it hard to imagine that I would do something like that.’ Albariño replied courteously, ‘And this is why you're doing it for him: you're honouring him in the same way he did? By cutting someone's neck and then painting pentagrams on the wall?’

Albariño had always disliked copycat criminals; for a true criminal, every detail presented by their staging of the scene had a significance and a meaning, even if it was simply just painting a crude pentagram on the wall like George Robo had. But copycats were just meaningless reproductions that neither touched the soul nor created beauty.

To put it bluntly, it's boring and barren.

‘It's not a remembrance,’ Blanca denied in a low voice that trembled slightly, ‘I'm doing it because I have to let the others know -- only if I do it will they finally notice the closed case -- that he didn't commit the seventh case.’

‘There is no proof.’ Albariño pointed out calmly.

‘There is,’ Blanca shook her head, ‘I was with him the day of the murder, we were at the house the whole time.’

Albariño perked up instantly, things seemed to be getting a little more interestingly. He resisted the urge to smile, simply asking, ‘But you didn't testify on his behalf. Even though there was hair of his at the scene of the seventh case, it might have made the jury a little more hesitant if you had testified.’

‘I tried, but he refused.’ Blanca gritted her teeth, ‘I was an illegal immigrant at the time, and testifying against him would have resulted in a certain deportation back to Mexico, and George didn't want me to go back to ...’

‘So you complied with him, you caved.’ Albariño hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘You pretended that you were never with him, he pretended that he was alone on the night of the murder -- it will be interesting to psychologists that an unmotivated murderer can show such delicate feelings in private...In any case, in the end he died.’

‘I regret every moment.’ Blanca said simply.

‘So you decided to kill the profiler who was in charge of the case at the time to vent your anger.’ Albariño said.

‘It was revenge!’ Blanca emphasised, ‘The two of them must have faked the evidence -- if George hadn't killed the victim in seventh case, George's hair certainly wouldn't have been at the scene at all! When the search warrant was finally approved and they went to search George's house, I had already moved out of the house like George had asked, but then I found a way to get a gangster in Pennsylvania to help me bribe a local policeman. He said that the only people who accompanied them in the search were the BAU profilers, and that it must have been them who got hold of George's hair and framed him for the crime.’

She took a deep breath, and for a moment the façade of calm finally broke and she looked like she was about to cry:

‘It turns out that there was George's hair at the scene, and the BAU profiler went to court as a technical witness and said that according to their analysis, George was the murderer in the seventh case -- all of this was reported in the newspapers as well, but I knew there was no way he could have been the murderer!’

‘Not to mention the fact that the victim of the seventh case had a brother who clashed with him over splitting the inheritance and even sent him death threats, but apparently those profilers didn't even consider the possibility of a copycat and just assumed it was the same person as in the previous case ...‘

Needless to say, Blanca's guess was very close to the truth, except for the fact that she couldn't delineate further because of the ambiguity of the source of the information, which resulted in her classifying both Olga and Lavazza Mercader as the targets of her vengeance.

Albariño sighed softly, ‘But in any case, George Robo is indeed a serial killer, and while he may not have commited the seventh case, he did kill all six of the previous ones, as you know in your heart. Now, are you using his death as a reason for you to kill? Are you justifying your killings with his death? Killing isn’t justified by necessity -- you’re doing it because you want to, not because you have to.’

‘Because that's not enough justice?’ Blanca asked with a hiss.

Albariño shook his head, ‘It wasn’t beautiful enough.’

‘Death is never beautiful, and George's death was not beautiful.’ Blanca gave a shrill laugh, her voice snapping up as she paced in agitation in front of Albariño, ‘Neither did those two today, and neither will you soon after --’

‘I'm afraid I see things a little differently than you do.’ Albariño replied.

Blanca stopped her impatient pacing and swept him a suspicious glance, ‘Then what do you think?’

‘I think,’ Albariño said politely, ‘that you're suited to poinsettias and marigolds.’

‘What?’ Evidently this reply, which appeared to have not the slightest connection with the above at all, made Blanca feel very much perplexed.

‘You're from Mexico, aren't you? Aren't marigolds the most important flower of the Day of the Dead? The golden path that the dead tread on when they return home.’ Albariño gave an extremely small smile, with a bright light hidden under his eyes, ‘And the poinsettia was first grown in Mexico as well, and is now often associated with quarterly births ...it’s used to symbolise the Star of Bethlehem, which is what your loved one liked to paint in blood to guide the way for his victims.’

Blanca stared at him intently, seemingly surprised by his relaxation.

‘So that's why I think you’re suitable for poinsettias and marigolds, especially at this moment, in this scene. It is very appropriate and very beautiful.’ Albariño whispered, his voice curling up in the air like a soft snake. "It's just a pity that neither you nor I will have this opportunity.’

Chapter 19: 55. Let it Snow (6)

Chapter Text

Finally, it was Olga's phone that rang first.

-- By then, Officer Hardy had decided to desperately organise a manhunt for Albarino, even though it was an almost impossible task with the weather as bad as it was. Olga, on the contrary, looked like she was in no hurry or panic, having made up her mind that Blanca Areola would call: she didn't think that Albarino was under the same circ*mstances as the first two victims, and if Areola had wanted to kill him, she could have done it right then and there in the snow.

‘The first two bodies were placed where we could definitely find them. Her fundamental purpose was to demonstrate and make a statement.’ Olga analyzed at the time, ‘So if Al is dead, we should be able to find his body in a conspicuous place, and if we can't find his body, then he's not dead – it’s simple reasoning.’

Hardy thought at the time that the theory didn't sound as simple as she made it sound.

Olga said vividly, ‘It's like how all the protagonists whose bodies are not shown in the movie will be resurrected in the sequel. It’s the same idea.’

...Of course, that comparison didn't make things much better.

Nevertheless, Olga spoke with such certainty that when she got the phone call, Hardy's first thought was that now Olga would be unbearably smug to the point of irritation.

‘Hello?’ Olga answered, her tone even.

A deep, raspy female voice came from the other end, saying, ‘Ms Molozer.’

‘Blanca Areola?’ Olga asked tentatively, noting that several of the men standing close by had immediately focused their eyes on her after hearing her say the name. Hardy's eyes were heavy, full of anticipation, in contrast to Herstal who was much more subdued -- looking at the lawyer's calm countenance, it seemed as if he really didn't care whether Albarino lived or died.

It was hard to imagine that he was really fell in love with someone, but reality proved otherwise.

‘That's me,’ answered the female voice on the telephone, with some strange smile on the edge of her tone, the kind of ominous laughter Olga had heard in the voices of some desperate criminals, ‘then you should know what I'm calling about, too.’

‘Albarino is alive, isn't he?’ Olga asked, her voice as level as possible. This was in line with some of the techniques they had learnt when they were still at the FBI Academy: be calm, don't let the other person feel you're too desperate, and don't provoke them.

Areola replied, ‘He's alive now, of course, but it's entirely up to you and Agent Mercader to keep him alive -- I want you both to come and see me, no one else, and no weapons, you know the consequences of that; don’t try any tricks. I want you to be here within twenty minutes.’

Before Olga could say anything else, Areola quickly gave her address and hung up the phone.

Olga put the phone down and sighed softly. The situation was not beyond her expectations, but it was certainly difficult.

‘What did she say?’ Herstal was the first to ask, still frowning, as if he was solving a difficult mathematical equation than his boyfriend being kidnapped. If he put on that face with everyone he dated, others could easily see why he hadn't had a girlfriend or a boyfriend before.

‘They're at the now-closed clothing shop next door to the police station,’ Olga stretched out her hand to vaguely indicate the direction for them, her sense of direction really wasn't that good, and after she did so, she realised that she seemed to have pointed backwards, ‘She’s on the second floor. She wants me and Mercader to meet, if she sees anyone else, she’ll kill Al.’

‘That's the only demand she made?’ Hardy asked incredulously, that didn't sound like the usual kidnappers he'd seen, didn't the average kidnapper ask for money, getaway cars or helicopters, or something as absurd as making the Prime Minister have sex with a pig on live television?

‘She's not doing this for the usual reasons, money doesn't mean anything to her.’ Mercader shook his head, his voice tight, ‘That's why I'm worried about what she'll do if we don't go through with her instructions.’

‘Probably shoot us full of holes like a sieve with that gun she got earlier to vent her anger, then turn it on herself.’ Olga scoffed, ‘Then we'd better hurry, Areola wants us there in twenty minutes or she'll hurt Al. That place is close, but the roads aren't good in this weather ...’

She stared at Mercader's face, her voice unconsciously getting smaller the more she spoke; finally she fell silent for almost half a minute before suddenly exclaiming, ‘f*ck, you’re kidding me!’

‘What?’ Hardy was completely bewildered. He had no idea where the conversation had veered off to.

‘I'm sorry, Bart, but I need to talk to Special Agent Mercader right now.’ Olga said suddenly through gritted teeth, unusually emphasising Mercader's last name and title heavily.

She grabbed Mercader roughly by the elbow and started dragging him towards an unoccupied area despite his objections; while dragging, Olga glanced at Herstal and casually reassured him, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll save your princess within twenty minutes. No need to panic.’

Herstal still didn't show any particularly out-of-control expressions, but if he really wasn't nervous at all, he would probably have made a sarcastic remark about Olga’s not-so-clever joke -– but he didn’t, instead he just nodded with a tense face, indicating his underlying anxiety.

And Olga dragged Mercader all the way to where no one else could hear them at all before releasing the other man. Mercader furrowed his brows and took a step back, smoothing out the wrinkles of his cuffs that had been creased due to the rough handling. Just as he seemed to be about to open his mouth to say something, Olga beat him to it by saying, ‘I know what's going on in your head.’

‘I thought we were just talking today about how profilers aren't psychics.’ Mercader said rather disapprovingly.

Olga glared at him, ‘And you're obviously still fixated on that conversation we had earlier -- you came to me at the end of October and said you thought Albarino was a serial killer.’

‘My opinion remains unchanged,’ Mercader stated calmly, ‘Just in case you've forgotten...’

‘Oh, right, you thought he was the Westland Pianist at the time, until he was later kidnapped by the actual Westland Pianist and then hung up on the wall of the morgue. Do you think that the CSI's got the modus operandi wrong, or do you still believe that Al was somehow able to hang himself on the wall?’ Olga said sarcastically.

‘Perhaps I was mistaken about the Pianist, which is exactly why I’m here.’ Mercader shrugged and continued, ‘Sometimes we have to rely on intuition -- as I said, I don’t think a normal forensic pathologist would have shown that look in his eyes like he did, and it's something we've discussed before. Do you think it's possible that Dr. Bacchus is the Sunday Gardener?’

‘You won't let me rely on my instincts when I'm working on a case, buy you’re free to use yours whenever you want to.’ Olga shot back, ‘And, Mercader, I'm not talking to you now about whether or not Albarino is the Sunday Gardener -- I'm talking about this: it's fine for you to think that Al is a serial killer; but you're making that judgement just as he's now been killed by another serial killer, who’s threatening to kill him if we don’t show up. Naturally, your brilliant little mind must be thinking…’

‘Molozer--’ Mercader's voice suddenly rose.

But he was unable to finish the sentence, becasue the next instant Olga seized him by the collar and pulled him hard in front to her. For a woman of Olga's size, it was hard to imagine her bursting out with such force all at once. Mercader staggered a little as he was caught unaware, and reached out to grab Olga's wrist.

‘And naturally, you think,’ Olga hissed, a terrible anger flickering in her eyes, ‘why bother following the kidnapper's demands when Bart can just lead a raid? That way Areola might kill the hostage, but if Al's a serial killer, you're killing two birds with one stone. Al's death wouldn't be a loss -- that's what’s on your mind, except you're struggling with how to justify your ideas in a way that won't breach professional ethics. With all due respect, it's hard to put a hostage in a situation where you suggest letting him die without violating professional ethics.’

‘Since when do you care so much about professional ethics?’ Mercader retorted sarcastically.

‘I don't care.’ Olga replied firmly, ‘I care that you’re willing to risk Areola killing Al, knowing she’s likely to commit suicide afterward. She had a gun in her hand, and Bart wouldn't have a chance to capture her alive: she will absolutely choose to put a bullet through Al's head first and then her own when the police starts storming in -- what I care about is death as the final outcome, it comes as a way of settling the dust, and if she dies before being brought here, who will be able to prove my profiling about her was right?’

‘...That's the only thing you care about, you being ‘right’. You don't care about the lives of the hostages.’ Mercader gritted his teeth, anger simmering in his voice, ‘That's why I don't think you're cut out for the Behavioural Analysis Unit.’

Olga scoffed, ‘I want to know why everyone kills, that's the only thing that matters to me. And you're not even in this job for the ‘truth’, are you? If you thought the hostage was innocent, you'd be fighting tooth and nail to save him right now, even risking your life for them, but now that you suspect the hostage is a homicidal maniac, then you think, ‘Isn't that just right to let them both die together?’.’

‘All I'm doing is keeping innocent people safe, and making sure that all murderers stay well where they belong.’ Mercader replied slowly.

‘Maybe I'm not in the position to judge you -- but I still think you're judging them with your own morality and then deciding whether they live or die; you're fabricating their flaws so that they can ‘become’ criminals as a way of putting them to the scales of judgement.’

Olga loosened her grip on his collar and watched him straighten up with a frown.

‘No one has the right to judge all others, Mercader. Perhaps the vast majority of the time you're right, and that's no loss to others; but the moment you make a mistake, the consequences are dire. So I don't think you're any better than me; at least the truth doesn't lie to people, but you do.’

Mercader shook his head, ‘The truth can't save people from harm, Molozer.’

Olga’s cold smile widened, ‘And the truth is this: you tried to save innocent lives, but instead it drove a woman into the abyss of sin. And so you and I are now faced with what we have today. You thought you could stop death in its tracks, but death is now approaching, and the dead lie at your feet ... And now, you just want Dr Bacchus dead because you think he's a psychopathic murderer, not caring why he became one.’

Mercader sucked in a sharp breath, and Olga was acutely aware that his voice trembled a little when he spoke again, ‘Are you implying that the two people who died today are to be counted in --’

‘I’m not implying anything, because you already know that I don't care about the dead; isn't that why you think I'm so cold?’ Olga looked him straight in the eye, her gaze bright, a terrible smile tugging at the corners of her lips, ‘I didn’t say a word -- it's your conscience that's talking to you, and it's that very heart that's been bringing you constant pain and misery -- now, Agent Mercader, I'm running out of patience. If you stand here any longer and don't move, I'm going to go and tell Bart what you've been mulling over in your mind, and a man like Bart won't like the thoughts that have been swirling around in your head.’

Mercader looked at Olga, then he sighed in frustration.

‘You're just going to stand here and wait for them to come.’ Albarino noted calmly after Blanca Areola hung up. At any rate, he must have been the calmest person ever handcuffed to a wall.

‘Yes.’ Blanca replied.

‘And put a bullet through their heads?’ Albarino guessed.

Whereas the average person would surely have been surprised by his attitude of both being calm and strangely cheerful, Blanca -- arguably as calm as any person who recognised that their death was imminent -- said: ‘I only want to know which of the two of them did it, or whether they were both accomplices. I think it's more likely that only one person was involved, the person I hired told me only one BAU profiler entered George’s house, but he didn’t know who.’

‘Who framed George Robo? That's the only thing you want to know?’ Albarino thought for a moment, ‘But does it matter? He's a serial killer, even if he wasn't framed for the seventh case, he would have eventually slipped up. That's the fate of all serial killers.’

Blanca's lips parted and looked as if she was recalling a distant memory. She didn't bother to look at Albarino, just gazed at the dusty floor. After a moment, she spoke softly, ‘I knew a long time ago that George was a killer, and he … told me that he understood that there were only two ways he could end up: either he never got caught and got away with it, or he got caught, and then is sentenced to death or life in prison. ‘

‘But he didn't wash his hands of it, he couldn't stop.’ Albarino pointed out calmly.

‘Yes.’ Blanca took a deep breath, then tried to relax, shrugging her shoulders, ‘In George's eyes it was a race, a race between him and the police. I can't say that that kind of thinking is correct, but he did see it that way. So he was open to all kinds of bad endings, as long as the other party won fair and square -- I don't particularly agree with him in that regard, but I understand him, and I love him, I respected his choices. So I was mentally prepared for the day when he would be arrested.’

Albarino had already understood, and said thoughtfully, ‘Yet he wasn't arrested by normal means, but by ...someone framing him on a case he hadn't commited.’

Blanca nodded, a hint of resentment in her voice, ‘Exactly. And that was the only result George couldn't accept! He thought he could only lose to himself by revealing his flaws, not by some planted evidence. This result was demoralising and painful for him. I didn't even see him during his arrest, but ... God, I can't even imagine how painful it must have been for him to be executed... sometimes, I feel I can accept his death, years ago I was preparing myself mentally for this, I knew this day would always come ...but I can't tolerate his death with so much pain inside. ‘

‘So you wanted revenge on the one who framed him, not on the one who arrested him; because you only want revenge for his pain, not for his death.’ Albarino murmured.

‘...I can’t help it; falling in love with a murderer is quite a painful thing.’ Blanca smiled palely and miserably, ‘But I haven't regretted it yet.’

Albarino was silent for a little while, as if pondering carefully over what she had said. For a moment, all they could hear was the trembling sound of the gale blowing through the broken glass.

Then he gave a strange, thoughtful, little smile. Almost gently, he said, ‘Look, Blanca, I do sympathise with you’re experience, but it's also true that I can't tell you exactly which one of the two framed your boyfriend... However, I can at least give you a thought.’

Blanca, clearly doubting her ears, asked, ‘What?’

‘I said,’ Albarino repeated calmly, ‘I sympathise with your situation, so I can offer you a thought.’

‘Okay, so no men, no weapons.’ Hardy said with a look of frustration, watching as Olga and a visibly irritated McCard removed their holsters and placed them on the table. It was surprising that Olga, a university professor, to be carrying a gun with her -- prehaps it was a lingering habit from her days as a cop in Chicago.

‘Officer Hardy, please still have your men on stand by around the building to assist us.’ Mercader suggested, nodding. ‘Although with visibility this bad, you just relay on snipers to be effective… Anyway, we can only take one step at a time for now, I'll try my best to persuade her to let the hostage go first.’

Olga's lips wrinkled, clearly skeptical of their chances.

Hardy shared her doubts, he really wanted to send a team under the cover of darkness to feel their way into that building. But as bad as the weather was right now, had it really gotten so bad that the police could just sneak in and infiltrate without being noticed? And just how unhinged had Areola become? Would she shoot Albarino at the slightest sound of suspicion?

When one had someone else's life in their hands, it was inevitable that they would be wary, not to mention the fact that their opponent was also a lunatic with unpredictable behaviour, so they had to be cautious for now. Hardy thought about it for a long time, and finally decided to only arrange for police officers to guard the perimeter of the building, and no one was allowed to enter without special circ*mstances.

Herstal stood at the side and watched him arrange the personnel, and as soon as he finished speaking, Herstal pointed out calmly as he left, ‘I don’t think you’ve thought of a way to rescue the hostage yet, and looking at the arrangements you're making right now, it's completely at the mercy of God.’

Being called out so bluntly stung, and Hardy couldn’t help glaring at the other party. But what Herstal said was also true, they could only stabilise the murderer for now, and then try to find a way to exchange Albarino first The weather severely restricted their options.

‘I'll do my best to ensure his safety.’ Hardy promised, feeling like he didn't believe it when he said it.

‘I hope so.’ Herstal replied restrainedly.

The abandoned room littered with mangled plastic mannequins, dark and damp and cold, with peeling wallpaper, the perfect hideout for a psychopathic killer to hibernate in.

Olga and Mercader climbed into the second foor, immediately they spotted Albarino who was handcuffed to the wall amidst the shadows. He looked completely unharmed, but obviously wasn't able to break out of the handcuffs either. He gave the two a pale, weak smile, as if to hide the uneasiness in his heart, and he said, ‘Hi.’

Olga, of course, didn't even have time to ask him how he was doing, because the next second Blanca Areola stepped out of the darkness, a gun in her hand --

At the sight of the gun, Mercader's heart sank: for whereas the first officer killed, Officer Coris, had a revolver which was taken, Blanca now held a semi-automatic pistol. It was obvious that Blanca had more than one gun on her.

-- Was she more prepared than they thought? This made the whole matter even more unpredictable.

Mercader collected himself, trying not to think about the gun Blanca held. Now the two of them had no choice but to open their arms to show Blanca that they were indeed unarmed.

Then Mercader spoke up and asked, ‘Blanca, what do you want?’

Blanca sized him up as if she had something very interesting in front of her, time passed mind-numbingly slow, and it took a few seconds, or maybe actually months, before Blanca answered, ‘...Revenge, if you want to interpret it that way. ‘

Revenge is a rather romantic word, a word that had been recurring in various theatre productions since many centuries ago. Mercader suppressed his desire to frown, still doing his best to soften his voice, ‘But you don't need to take revenge for George Robo…no matter what he told you, he did deserve it, and he was arrested because he was a motiveless murderer. ‘

What was truly unexpected, however, was the reply of the deranged serial killer before them.

‘I'm not trying to avenge his death, I've long accepted the possibility that he could die because of what he did.’ Blanca replied, her grip on the gun pointing steadily at her hostage, the black muzzle pressed above Albarino's temple, she could easily take the man's life, ‘I'm going to avenge his death for an unjust game -- you all should know well in your hearts that he wasn't the one who killed the seventh victim.’

Suddenly, Mercader felt a stinging dryness rise in his throat, and strangely enough, Olga Molozer's sneering smile still appeared in the corner of his mind. She said: ‘It's your conscience that's talking to you, and it's that very heart that's been bringing you constant pain and misery.’

It seemed insane, incomprehensible, but --

‘What?’ Mercader asked, and he could feel something sensationally unpleasant lumping in his throat.

In answer, the other person smiled unsettlingly, opening her mouth with a voice that still seemed shrill and frenzied, laden with long-suppressed fury.

‘My lover died in an unfair competition. This was not the ending he expected. One of the endings he expected was for him to be arrested because of certain flaws he exposed, rather than being framed for a crime he did not commit. He wanted to win against you all squarely, or lose plainly -- but someone between the two of you took away his only possibility. I won't allow him to suffer this indignity ... I have to put him to rest.’

‘The relationship between a homicidal maniac and the police is not a competition, nor does it matter that he 'honorably wins' against the police.’ Mercader said slowly.

‘I agree with this.’ Olga said lazily, her attitude still seeming too relaxed.

Sure enough, Areola screamed angrily, ‘That's not the point!’

As always, Olga nailed the most important point in the midst of the tedious rhetoric, ‘The point is that you don't know exactly which one of us fabricated the evidence, do you?’

They stared at each other in the darkness, the only source of light coming from the two flashlights standing in the corner. Those rays glowed with a ghastly white halo that casted onto the stumps of the mannequins, drawing jagged shadows on the floor and walls, creating a grotesque carnival of fools.

Then Blanca smiled and said, ‘...Yes, I don't know who did it, what should I do?’

This was obviously a rhetorical question, because she paused briefly before giving a quick answer.

‘It doesn't matter,’ she murmured, taking a deep breath, ‘I've devised a not-so-fair game for you two, and I guess after all this, we will be even.’

Still pointing the gun steadily at Albarino's torso, she then drew the other pistol from her belt -- the revolver she had taken from Officer Coris, no less -- and then she set it down on the dusty ground and lightly slid it across the floor.

There was a scraping sound, a distinct track was drawn on the dusty floor, and the pistol stopped between Mercader and Olga.

Mercader looked down at the gun, and for the first time all day, felt his heart sink to its deepest depths.

‘I'm going to give you two choices,’ Blanca said briskly, ‘the first is that there is only one bullet in the cylinder of the pistol at your feet, and the two of you have the option of playing a game of Russian Roulette: take turns firing at each other until the one bullet inside is fired. When one of you is dead, I will let the other and this Dr. Bacchus go.’

Olga blinked and spoke in a voice so steady to the point where it sounded as if it wasn't her that was being discussed in the matter, ‘And what about the second option?’

Blanca let out a soft, creepy chuckle, ‘The second option is: I want the one of you who fabricated the evidence to contact the police in Pennsylvania right now and confess to them the perjury you committed – make them record it and assure them that even though you're now under a serial killer's coercion, you are not lying; just do this and all three of you can go.’

This option isn't even easier than death: making a false statement in a formal trial proceeding alone is a third-degree felony, not to mention being an FBI agent who falsified evidence to set up a suspect for imprisonment who was eventually sentenced to death by lethal injection for the case. If the person who forged the evidence turned himself in, he would face more than twenty-five years in prison, in addition to certain ruin.

And every one of them knew that an ex-FBI agent wouldn't have too easy a time in prison.

She paused, enjoying the eerie silence.

‘If neither of you want to choose, I will use this gun in my hand to kill you one by one.’ Blanca added, ‘Trust me, there are enough bullets.’

Chapter 20: 56. Let it Snow (7)

Notes:

This chapter is one of my absolute favorites, it's also almost twice as long as other chapters (6861 words) so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Although Blanca had asked Olga and Mercader not to bring weapons or other police officers with them to the scene, she hadn't actually told them ‘no listening devices or hidden cameras’, and this loophole was why Olga was wearing a small recording device, with a concealed miniature camera clipped to her collar.

Blanca's voice was clearly transmitted to one of the police surveillance vans, but the dim lighting inside the building made the images captured by the camera and broadcasted on the van’s screen somewhat difficult to decipher.

The van was inching its way through the snow, but very coincidentally, it had been parked near the WLPD's front door earlier, and the stronghold Blanca

The van was unable to move in the heavy snow, but by coincidence, it had been parked near the gates of the WLPD earlier, and the stronghold Blanca had chosen was still within range of what it could monitor.

Now, Hardy, Herstal, and the injured officer named Alexander were nestled in the van. The voices from Olga's side echoed through the headphones. After Blanca made her request, Herstal clearly heard Hardy spit out a series of expletives.

‘Sir?’ Alexander asked in a small voice.

‘We really need the SWAT team right now,’ Hardy muttered, looking exhausted as he propped his hand on his forehead, ‘We don't have the kind of extensive experience and specialised equipment they have in dealing with hostage rescue situations -- Alexander, where are they now?’

‘I immediately requested backup from their supervisor, and they did contact the closest squad to here.’ Alexander pulled his headset away a little and replied worriedly, ‘But apparently they can't get to the scene fast enough, the road conditions are too bad right now. The SWAT supervisor told me he wasn't sure when the team would get here, maybe as fast as half an hour ...’

Hardy sighed heavily, by the time the SWAT people arrived, it would surely be too late for anything.

At this moment, Herstal suddenly asked: ‘What kind of gun is Areola holding?’

Hardy looked up at the screen: Right now Olga happened to be facing right at Blanca Areola, so she could barely make out the suspect was holding a gun with one hand, and the muzzle of the gun was dangling dangerously between the hostage and the profiler.

Hardy squinted his eyes and stared at the screen for a moment, then said with uncertainty, ‘...I'm not so sure, it's too dark, but it looks like a Glock 17.’

‘You sure it's not a Colt M2000, right?’ Herstal frowned.

Clearly confused, Hardy said, ‘While I'm not too sure about the exact model of that gun, it's definitely not an M2000, the appearance of the M2000 is far different from this.’

He paused, then continued in confusion, ‘What's the problem?’

Herstal didn't answer, but there was indeed a big problem -- he knew that Albarino had a concealed carry permit, and he knew that Albarino would be carrying a gun with him, and he even knew the model of that gun. At first he had thought that since Areola had thrown the revolver she had taken from Officer Coris to Olga and the others, she would be holding the same Colt M2000 that she had taken from Albarino.

But obviously it wasn't, and Herstal didn't think Officer Hardy would be wrong in his judgement over such a trivial matter. So was it because Areola hadn't searched Albarino at all? It was possible. The camera on Olga's body had just captured an image where Albarino could be seen handcuffed to a radiator by the wall. He always used an armpit holster, but seeing as how his tunic was still neatly in place, it didn't look as if his clothes had been ripped open during a body search.

That left only one possibility: that there was a third gun at the scene in addition to the two already in view, and that gun should be on Albarino.

-- That would really say a lot.

Herstal took a deep breath and felt his temples begin to throb in pain again: he really shouldn't get his hopes up about Albarino Bacchus, should he? After all, there was no way this bastard would dip his toes into this mess unprepared.

In fact, he might have willingly and enthusiastically dived into it.

Some thoughts flashed through his mind as he stood up at the same time.

‘Mr. Armalight?’ Officer Hardy called out after him.

‘I'm going to the scene.’ Herstal narrated in a very calm tone. It didn't sound like he was asking for the other party's opinion, but begrudgingly sort of informing him about it.

But looking at the way Hardy looked at him, he was pretty sure that the other party had definitely misunderstood what he meant -- because the other party looked at him as if he was planning to die for his love -- Hardy said urgently, ‘But you can't help even if you go --’

‘No one can help now, not even you.’ Herstal hit the nail on the head, ‘That's why I'd rather be there than wait here. Don't worry, I'm not going to rush into the scene blindly.’

Hardy looked at him for a long moment, then sighed deeply. Herstal knew the other man had compromised. Though such a compromise was in no way actually in line with standard operations, and might even cost the other man his job if someone looked into it.

But that was just the way Bart Hardy was.

‘Okay.’ Officer Hardy backed down, but still included several warnings, "But don't enter the scene, stay with the officers who are already on the scene -- don't do anything rash.’

Olga thought about how it wasn't really a loss to see that look appear on Lavazza Mercader's face.

The other party's complexion visibly turned pale, looking almost like a dead corpse.

Because in any case, the choices they faced really didn’t have many loopholes to exploit: the most important point was that the real murderer of the seventh case was still at large, and Olga actually suspected that the murderer of the seventh case was the brother of the dead man, who had a conflict of inheritance with the deceased, and in fact had a very good motive for committing the crime.

Assuming that Mercader turned himself into the Pennsylvania State Police, not to mention whether his testimony could be invalidated on the grounds of coercion, and even if it could be, the case would inevitably be re-investigated after this matter attracted the attention of the FBI. After all, the charge of falsifying evidence is very serious. And if the dead man's brother really was the killer, and the prosecutor is willing to sign an exoneration agreement with him in order to investigate the truth of the scandal -- it's not hard to imagine that under pressure and the temptation of profit, the real murderer woud definitely confess to his crimes.

Blanca may not have been thinking this far ahead when she proposed her conditions, but Olga was very sure that this plan was absolutely feasible. She allowed herself time to survey Mercader's pale face: one of the most interesting parts of this matter so far was, what was going on in Mercader's mind at this very moment.

Would he be thinking something along the lines of, ‘If only I’d silenced the killer of the seventh case back then, then I wouldn't be blackmailed right now’?

Olga glanced at Albarino again, whose arms must have gone numb from the way he was restrained in the corner. The forensic pathologist didn't show much pain on his face, nor fear, but instead was concentrated on looking straight at them intently.

-- The question to which she had spent her entire life searching for an answer to was, ‘At what point does a human being begin to become a monster?’

Did they still have an ounce of compassion? Did they treat everyone as insignificant, or were there still some people who could be special to them? Could they really have family, friendship, and love? How far were they from normal people?

Mercader bit his lips until they turned white, and after a moment he looked back at Blanca Areola again as if he had made up his mind. He drew a deep breath, and then moved forward without hesitation, just as he was about to speak --

Olga beat him to it, ‘I choose Russian Roulette, thank you.’

At her words, the entire room went eerily silent for a moment. Mercader stared at her with his mouth open, as if all the words he had finally made up his mind to say were all suddenly lumped together in his throat, and even Albarino seemed to be looking at her with a hint of surprise.

Apparently, they'd both thought she'd choose the other game -- and that was only human nature.

Mercader said dryly, ‘Olga, I don't think this is....’

Olga ignored him as she slowly, slowly bent down and picked up the pistol under Blanca’s gaze. She pointed the muzzle of the gun at Mercader and then unnecessarily co*cked the pistol's hammer, the metal collided with a crisp click. She saw Mercader flinch visibly, the instinctive reaction of those confronted with a dangerous firearm.

Lavazza Mercader's expression at that moment was extremely complex; if shellfish had expressions, they would have looked like that when their shells were roughly pried open. Then he said, almost in a murmur, ‘You...’

‘The first person to make a choice at least earns the benefit of firing the first shot, right?’ Olga asked, turning to Blanca.

Blanca looked a little confused as well, but still nodded, ‘Be my guest.’

Olga let out a light hum, indicating ‘I understand’. Then she reset her gaze on Lavazza Mercader. She was quite a bit shorter than Mercader, and held her gun at a slightly higher angle, as if she were aiming for her opponent's head.

She still wore that strangely relaxed expression on her face, and Mercader stared at her intently, his chest rising and falling uncontrollably and violently. Then Olga slowly, slowly pulled the trigger.

Click.

Empty gun.

Herstal Armalight probably wouldn't have said anything about attending this Christmas party if he'd known it was going to turn out like this, no matter what sweet talk Albarino said to him. Now he had climbed up to the roof one slippery step at a time: the shops along the street were composed of rows of connected building. It was possible to climb through the roof through the skylight by going up onto the second floor of the shop next door to the one that Areola had chosen as her stronghold.

Previously, Hardy had arranged for two police officers to be lined up to ambush on the roof, and following the route they took to get on to the roof wasn't a particularly.

... Of course, this was easier said than done because the process of climbing the roof was extremely difficult: the snow on the roof was already so thick that it was slowly building up to lay just below his calves, and the layer underneath the snow was wet and slippery. The angle of the roof was still slightly tilted, so a single careless step could cause a person to fall down onto the street below and break their neck; not to mention that the cold wind was still whistling around people's ears, cold and piercing, like knives cutting into his face.

The police officers on the roof had obviously heard from Hardy's command that Herstal was coming to the crime scene, but they never thought that this ‘coming over’ would be to the extent of climbing the roof. The two people were obviously stunned when they saw him, Herstal had no time to explain anything to them. As soon as he walked over, he stretched out his hand to one of the police officers:

‘I need to speak to Officer Hardy.’ He said.

The other party hesitantly handed him his radio. As soon as Herstal took it, he said to Hardy on the other side of the communication line: ‘I'm on the roof.’

Officer Hardy gave him a long silence back in return, obviously not wanting to know why he was on the roof at all.

‘Did you arrange two officers here to conduct a downhill raid?’ Herstal asked him.

‘I had thought of that before, because by securing ropes on the roof, it would be relatively easy to rappel through the glass windows on the second floor from the outside.’ Hardy replied, the snow was slightly lighter at the moment, but the wind was still strong enough to make his voice less clear amid the gale of wind. ‘But from the footage coming back from Olga's side, it seems likely that Areola is standing in the blindspot from the direction of the window; even if we were to go in through the window, she couldn't be subdued immediately, which would be a problem.’

Herstal nodded, Hardy did have a point, he thought for a moment, then asked, ‘How are they doing now?’

Hardy laughed bitterly, the kind of laugh one would give if they had completely lost hope in life.

‘They're playing Russian Roulette.’ He said dryly.

With mixed emotions, Mercader took the gun from Olga.

Olga watched him, and it was difficult to guess from her face what thoughts were hidden in her mind; she always seemed to look at others with the same pure curiosity and aloofness. To be honest, right now Mercader wanted to rush over to her and grab her by the collar and ask her what was going through her mind, but that didn't seem like the right thing to do when Areola had the gun in her hand pressed against the hostage's temple.

‘I guess you want to ask a lot of questions now.’ Olga whispered, but not so quietly that Areola wouldn't be able to hear them.

‘Shouldn't I? You didn't even want to ask my opinion before you decided our fate.’ Mercader pointed out.

‘I don't need to ask your opinion, it's just a waste of time.’ Olga shrugged, ‘I knew what you'd choose, anyone who's known you for more than two weeks would know what you would choose, because you're just an egomaniac with a hero complex in your heart, aren't you? I'm just saving you the process of doing a righteous psychological dissection before you finally make a decision.’

Mercader gritted his teeth, ‘Since you know that so well, you should know that the choice you made was not at all --’

‘Are you going to shoot or not?’ Olga interrupted dryly, ‘Or do you now intend to go against Areola's intentions and get us both killed?’

Mercader looked straight at the other person, took a deep breath, and then pulled the trigger.

Click. Empty gun.

-- and so the pistol was back in Olga's hand.

‘The third shot was also empty.’ Officer Hardy reported the latest progress over the comms. Somewhere below the roof, out of Herstal's sight, Olga had just finished firing her third shot, ‘There are six chambers in a revolver, we're running out of time. At this rate I'm going to have to order a simultaneous breach: one team will break through the second-floor window, another through the stairs.’

It was an old-fashioned house, it was unknown if it had been an ordinary residential home before it was used as a shop. Anyway, there was a vertical pipe erected on the roof, which was probably a smoke exhaust pipe, many homes built in the late century would retain these structures on their roofs.

The officers on the roof had anchored their rappelling gear to the chimney, ready to break through the window. But the officer in charge of rappelling still worriedly pointed out, ‘But, sir... there are too many people inside. Even if the two groups enter simultaneously, they may be limited to a blindspot and unable to directly kill the target. If the gun in the suspect's hand is fully loaded, then everyone is in danger.’

Hardy obviously thought about it for a while, and after a moment he said: ‘Agent Mercader has fired his fourth shot, and the fourth shot was also empty. Let's move according to this plan, we only have time for two more shots.’

At this time, Herstal, who had been silent, suddenly spoke up.

‘How's Olga's shooting?’ He asked.

Hardy paused, and sounded a little confused when he spoke again, ‘I haven't seen it with my own eyes, but as far as I know it's very good: I did hear about it from a friend who worked for the Chicago Police Department back in the day; and she graduated from the FBI Academy with very good grades -- why do you ask?’

‘I have an idea now.’ Herstal said.

Mercader handed the gun in his hand to Olga again, his palm slick with sweat, warming the metal of the revolver.

Olga's movements were still gentle and deft as she took the gun, and this time Blanca Areola spoke first instead, ‘Don't any of you want to say something?’

‘I have nothing to say anyway,’ Olga replied without hesitation, ‘I don't confess to anyone, neither to the clergy nor to the psychiatrists -- and I have no intention of opening up to a serial killer.’

But Mercader said nothing; his fingers were trembling slightly, and his mind seemed to be spinning with some kind of thought: Olga felt that she could guess what he was thinking now. Still, anyone who has known Lavazza Mercader for more than two weeks could be able to easily guess what he was thinking, because in a sense, he was indeed very simple.

So Olga no longer at Mercader and turned her head to Albarino: the latter had not spoken since the beginning of this mad game, and his eyes were focused -- as if he was mainly looking at Olga -- and his mind seemed inscrutable.

‘If no one wishes to say anything,’ Olga said calmly, ‘then I shall continue.’

Herstal said slowly, ‘I'm wondering if there's a way to momentarily distract Areola from Albarino, could Olga take down the perpetrator? -- She might only have a few seconds; could she react quickly enough?’

‘Do you have a way to distract Areola's attention?’ There seemed to be some expectation in Hardy's voice; it seemed that Olga's own abilities were well worth his trust.

‘There are two rounds left in the pistol.’ Herstal warned, stepping over to the exhaust pipe and reaching down to sweep the snow off the top of the metal, ‘There's a good chance that the next shot will also be blank, so she'll have to fire again.’

‘I can arrange for the teams to be ready at the same time, so if she misses her target, the others can move in quickly.’ Hardy replied over the radio, ‘The most important thing right now is to get Areola to move her gun away from Al, that's all that matters.’

Herstal stared fixedly at the exhaust pipe, recalling in his mind the positions of all the people he'd seen standing from the screen of that surveillance van; the pipe's opening on the second floor, Blanca Areola's and Albarino's postitions should be in a straight line, with Areola right in between ...

Trying to clear his mind, Hestall said, ‘Then arrange it as quickly as possible.’

Olga aimed her pistol at Mercader's brow, and just by judging her expression, it seemed as if she still wanted to smile, but that impulse seemed too crazy in a scene like the one she was in now. Mercader was a little confused, he knew that Olga should have no affection for him after experiencing so many things, but obviously she shouldn't hate him to the extent that she wanted to kill him. In any case, Olga Molozer had always been a person who distinguished between public and private affairs.

He didn't know what was going on in the other person's mind, but at the same time, a terrible thought arose in his own mind -- a fact that irritated him more and more.

‘Agent Mercader,’ Olga asked, looking at her former supervisor, ‘I've always wondered at what point in time does a person decide that he or she is going to become a murderer?’

Mercader looked at the other person with an ugly expression, his suspicions seemed to have been confirmed.

‘And at what moment does a person decide to step in and save someone else's life, even if they are guilty of a heinous crime? -- I will definitely know the answer to at least one of these two questions today.’ Olga ended her sentence lightly.

Her finger steadily began pressing down on the trigger.

Herstal stood in front of the exhaust pipe.

The pipe was too narrow, otherwise Hardy and the others would definitely have thought to throw flashbombs or tear gas into it, but something of that size would surely get stuck halfway down.

Herstal wiped the snow particles that fell on his eyes with the back of his hand, and then threw the object in his hand into the exhaust pipe.

All the while, there was a voice in his heart reminding himself: This is pointless.

Blanca Areola stared intently at the two.

The pressure was building, and she knew it too. The college professor was still calm now, but Agent Mercader was clearly very nervous, and she was waiting for the moment when that string would snap... That moment would come soon enough.

Olga's finger was halfway down the trigger --

Then Blanca heard a soft crash.

At first she thought it was just her hallucination, but alas it was not: for in the next instant, she heard a series of sounds coming from the supposedly empty darkness beside her: loud, crisp, and abrupt in such eerie darkness, to the point where it was slightly disturbing.

Areola was not a trained professional, which could explain why she turned around so sharply, the gun in her hand pointed straight into the darkness where the strange rattling had come from. And in that instant --

In that instant, the window at the other end of the room shattered violently, and an officer with a rope hanging from his body smashed the glass with his elbow and leapt inside.

At that instant there was a rattle from the other side of the stairs, the sound of several heavily armed police officers rushing up.

In that instant Olga Molozer smoothly turned the gun and fired the first shot at Areola. The first shot was a blank, the pistol only made a slight click. But that was one advantage that made the revolver better than a semi-automatic pistol, it would automatically rotate the cylinder to the next chamber even if a bullet jammed, without ever having to remove the sleeve and barrel to clear the jammed bullet like a semi-automatic.

Olga then fired a second shot, and the sound of the bullet firing echoed deafeningly in the small room before it struck Blanca straight in the chest.

From where Olga stood, hitting Blanca carried a significant risk of collateral damage to Albarino, as Blanca's body mostly shielded him. If the bullet pierced through her, it could also injure Albarino.

Originally, Albarino, handcuffed to the wall, had no way to dodge the bullet; however, the moment the gun went off, he inexplicably and deftly ducked and rolled, evading the shot. As Blanca collapsed and the officers poured into the room, Olga saw the handcuffs still dangling from Albarino's wrist, with a twisted paperclip lodged in the lock.

Meanwhile, the object that had created the rattling noise finally rolled out of the exhaust pipe with a clank and rolled across the dusty floor.

Blanca struggled on the floor for a moment. She could feel the blood gushing out of the wound in her chest, forming a small pool on the floor. She lifted her head laboriously to look at the object that had rolled across the floor. The object shimmered silver in the white column of light from the shifting torches in the hands of the policemen who had rushed in.

-- It was a small, round metal bell, the kind that were often hung on Christmas trees.

Herstal Armalight listened to Hardy's barely suppressed excitement over the radio as he loudly reported the status of the current situation. The corners of his lips tugged upwards, but didn't really show a smile.

He handed the communication device in his hand back to the officer still standing on the roof and began to slowly climb down from where he had just come up.

The snow had nearly stopped, but it was still too cold here.

Amidst the cacophony of people, Lavazza Mercader walked towards Areola.

The woman had struggled briefly in the small pool of her own blood, the pistol in her hand had been kicked away. She was no longer a threat, just like all criminals who were about to spend the last periods of their lives. Mercader estimated her bleeding and knew she wouldn't last long enough for an ambulance to come -- and besides, looking at the weather conditions, an ambulance probably wouldn't be able to come at all.

He didn't know what state of mind he was in as he knelt in that pool of blood; in fact, there was a voice screaming frantically somewhere behind his ear, a voice that had been chanting since the moment Olga picked up that gun, a maddening tune that had played throughout the entire process, it never stopped at any point.

The truth lingered on the tip of his tongue, stuck to his palate, but he couldn't utter a single word.

And Areola looked to him -- Mercader didn't know what kind of expression he had, but the other person must have seen something in his face, perhaps even discerned the truth from it. Because in the next moment, Areola suddenly burst into laughter.

That laughter mingled with the strange sounds caused by the froth of blood gushing from her throat; Olga's shot must have punctured her lungs. She reached out and grasped the collar of Mercader's coat as hard as she could with trembling fingers, and then she coughed so violently that spots of blood splattered onto his face.

‘It's you! It's you!’ Areola shrieked, gasping between laughter and coughing fits; she pulled Mercader as close as she could, a broken gasp interspersed with her voice as blood poured intermittently from her throat.

‘Everyone who died today did so because of you, Agent Mercader.’ She hissed in a low, curse-like voice, so quiet it was barely audible to anyone else, ‘I don't know how many more people George would have killed if he hadn't been caught... but today, the two people who died, I killed them for you’.

Her voice dwindled to almost nothing, replaced by another terrifying spasm, until Macard watched her fingers stiffen and slide off his collar. When he finally shifted his gaze from the now lifeless body, he saw Olga Molozer standing behind him.

Olga looked as expressionless as ever, like a figure in a portrait. She silently walked over, half-kneeling on the floor, and picked up the gun that had been kicked away by the officers who had stormed in -- it looked like a Glock 17, but...

Olga hooked her finger around the gun's trigger guard, spun it around in her hand, and then pulled the trigger.

With a pop, a small flame flickered out from the muzzle, burning steadily.

Mercader stared, speechless, at the gun -- a lighter shaped like a pistol -- and at Olga.

‘That explains why she took the victim's service weapon earlier.’ Olga said calmly, ‘When people make up their minds, they can do terrible things—others can easily be manipulated by them, can't they?’

Mercader stared at the flickering flame for a long moment before finding his voice again, speaking dryly, ‘Olga, everything that happened tonight... were you testing me?’

Olga said in an almost sweet tone, ‘Why would you think so?’

‘You know the bullet was in the sixth chamber.’ Mercader stated, it was almost the third empty shot before he realised it too, and he suspected Olga had guessed it when Areola gave them the choice. That was her talent.

Olga shrugged, ‘In the same way that directors like to arrange for a bomb about to explode to stop at the last second, it's a dramatic technique: she's putting pressure on us, letting it build up over the previous five shots, so that at the last moment we all know who has the gun and who that bullet will put to death- -She's hoping that that pressure will force the one of us who did the wrong thing to talk, or the two of us to frame each other, as is humanly possible.’

Olga shrugged, ‘It's like when directors time the bombs to stop at the last second; it's a dramatic technique. She was applying pressure on us, letting it build up with each of the first five shots, so at the final moment, we would all know who had the gun and who would die from the bullet -- she hoped that the pressure would make the guilty one among us confess or make us turn on each other, which is only human nature.’

Mercader took a deep breath, his voice trembling, ‘... And then you chose to be the first to pick up that gun.’

Olga had picked up the gun first, then by the time it was time to fire the sixth shot that actually had bullets in it, that gun would have been in Mercader's hands -- and Mercader knew the other person well enough to understand this wasn't an act of kindness, at least not from an ordinary person’s perspective.

Olga shrugged her shoulders, ‘Like I said, I wanted to know when a person would decide to kill and when they would decide to save. Of course, thanks to the bell that fell earlier, I was not able to prove either of those points.’

‘So you're just observing me as a guinea pig? Wondering when I'll actually cross that line?’ Mercader retorted, his voice sounding as if he'd actually been shot, ‘You're cruel.’

‘But as it turns out, my friends weren't going to just sit there and do nothing either.’ Olga shook her head slowly, ‘You see, there were three choices in front of you: tell the truth, shoot me -- and the third one, I could almost see it taking shape in your head the whole time. Since I won't end up knowing exactly what choice you would have chosen in the end, would you mind telling me what that last option was?’

Mercader sighed softly, and for a moment he lowered his eyelids, his gaze observing the ground.

‘The gun with the last bullet would be in my hand,’ he said slowly, ‘... I could still kill myself.’

‘You see, this is where the line is drawn.’ Olga said.

‘But you won't be able to prove which end of the line I'm on in the end.’ Mercader let out a bitter laugh.

‘In my eyes, the line isn't very distinct, and you've likely crossed something already, so you need to be very careful in the future…’ Olga smiled mysteriously and stood up. At the same time she tossed the lightweight, fake plastic gun to Mercader, who reflexively caught it.

‘Merry Christmas, Agent Mercader.’ She said.

Olga stood in place and watched Mercader leave. The look on the other man's face was a complex one, and Officer Hardy was oblivious to it, simply directing the police officers energetically to photograph the scene and put the body into a body bag.

How nice, she thought. Bart Hardy was actually rather professional, keeping his emotions out of his work unless the victims reminded him too much of his wife and daughter. This attitude protected him from harm, unlike many at the BAU who suffered from ulcers due to their overly sensitive emotions.

Albarino finished his statement on the other side and wandered over to Olga, also watching Mercader's retreating back until the other man's figure was completely swallowed by the darkness at the end of the stairwell.

Then he asked, ‘What will happen to Mercader?’

‘Nothing will happen.’ Olga said in the sort of tone one would use when discussing something completely unrelated to oneself, ‘Areola indeed accused one of us of perjury, but if you noticed, while I was wearing a wire and Bart was recording, she never actually spelled out exactly what happened. In the end, Mercader didn't call anyway, so most of these statements from Areola will end up being classified as the ramblings of a madman, unless she spilled the beans to you about some other evidence.’

Albarino paused, then said, ‘Uh ...actually, she admitted to me that she was with George Robo at the time of the seventh murder.’

‘Funny, it's at moments like this that we have to wonder how much impact coincidences can have on life.’ Olga lamented slowly, ‘And you're not going to turn Mercader in for this largely uncorroborated testimony, are you?’

‘Why would you think that? You do realise that Mercader's type isn't really my cup of tea even when it comes to things like picking a bed partner.’ Albarino asked with interest.

Olga glanced at him as if the answer was obvious: ‘Because, as I said, Areola is dead and her testimony would be difficult to corroborate, plus her position as a serial killer with likely mental problems isn't exactly credible. Besides, surely you wouldn't do that: what would be the point?’

‘So we will all remain silent,’ Albarino drawled thoughtfully, ‘until-’

‘Until the situation is broken again, until someone crosses that blurred line, whether from this side to that or from that to this.’ Olga snorted softly, ‘Al, I'm more interested in knowing what you would have done next if Blanca Areola hadn't been distracted enough to be hit by me.’

Albarino looked to Olga.

Olga was still staring at the dimly lit ground in front of her, where a plastic dummy with mutilated limbs stood like a horrible version of Venus. Then she said, ‘Because apparently you managed to pry the handcuffs off -- seriously, I'm not surprised you'd carry a paper clip around -- and from what I understand about you, you still have a gun on you, right? I don't think she searched you.’

Albarino looked at her for a moment, then admitted, ‘You're very observant.’

‘It's only because I know you well; it's nothing to be proud of,’ Olga dismissed lightly, ‘But then what? I'm guessing you didn't expect that things would escalate to Russian Roulette, and likely even Areola thought that one of us would confess instead -- but suppose that gun ended up in Mercader's hands, with the last bullet in it about to be fired at me: what would you have done?’

Olga paused meaningfully.

‘Would you risk your life to stop what was about to happen,’ her voice took on some strange lilt, and what seemed to be pure curiosity, ‘or would you have stood by and watched?’

Albarino looked at her, his lips parted as if he were about to speak -- Olga didn't think he truly knew the answer, or if he could be sure the words he was about to say were the truth -- but it was at that moment that the Herstal Armalight appeared at the top of the stairs, his brow furrowed, his shoulders and hair covered in snow.

‘Albarino,’ he interrupted the conversation smoothly, ‘come here for a moment.’

Albarino glanced at Olga again.

‘Your boyfriend’s calling you.’ The profiler said sweetly.

While everyone else stayed upstairs to process the crime scene, Mercader had apparently wandered off to who knows where. Albarino went down the stairs with Herstal, where it was completely deserted, the scattered mannequins and brooding shadows adding to the desolate atmosphere of the long-closed clothing store.

‘How much of this thing was planned by you?’ Herstal asked in a low voice as soon as the two of them, ‘At least the plan involving Blanca Arreola was your idea, wasn't it?’

‘Are my personal touches that obvious?’ Albarino replied with a playful smirk, but something in the other man's eyes quickly made him suppress his smile. Spreading his hands he said in an almost innocent tone, ‘It's true, I didn't think at first that the culprit of this case was a woman, and what's more, that her target was Lavazza Mercader -- I was intrigued.’

Herstal let out a cold snort, ‘Ah, “intrigued”. So, despite being more skilled than Areola, you let her bring you to a hellhole like this at gunpoint, just to watch two profilers play Russian Roulette in front of you --’

‘And I thought you wouldn't come to my rescue.’ Albarino shook his head, apparently not taking his accusations particularly seriously, ‘I figured, given your recent conflicted state, you'd think letting me die here might be a good idea, saving you from all your troubles.’

He stared directly at Herstal, and then the next second -- somehow -- Herstal was pushed violently against the wall. Albarino's lips, still warm, subtly brushed against the skin at the corner of Herstal's mouth.

He whispered, ‘But I saw the bell -- are you worried about me, Pianist?’

Herstal tilted his head to one side, trying to avoid Albarino's kiss. His voice was swimming on the edge of an extraordinarily violent rage, ‘Have you ever thought about how things are going to end -- after all these cases, and you still expose yourself to two top profilers like this regardless. Or did you just want the thrill of it, and didn't even think about...’

‘I’ve thought about it.’ Albarino said suddenly.

Herstal paused for a moment.

‘They will find out sooner or later, but you can come with me.’ Albarino's voice still sounded as damned light-hearted as ever, not to mention the fact that he was still eagerly trying to kiss Herstal's face again as he spouted such nonsense, ‘We could go back to Spain, or Russia, or Morocco, or Croatia...’

Of course Albarino would say something like this, he could say it as easily as ‘Let's have Chinese takeaway tonight’ when he was throwing out such life-changing proposals to another person. And Herstal had always suspected that for this man, such an offer was no more or no less different than a takeaway box.

He probably approached Elliot Evans the same way, casually suggesting the involvement of a lawyer from A&H law firm, and likely made a similar proposal to Areola.

Within his games there was never any distinctions between the highs and the lows, between precious or not, of course there wouldn’t be.

Herstal suddenly jerked free from Albarino's hold, deftly twisting the other man's arm and slamming him against the wall in a motion so rough that Albarino's spine hit the wall with a muffled thud.

Then Herstal wrapped his arms around his throat, gradually tightening and tilting his neck upwards until the sound of his breathing and all the words he wanted to say were choked out.

His other hand pressed against Albarino's ribs, feeling the outline of an underarm holster through his jacket.

Sure enough. Obviously Albarino Bacchus wouldn't step into harm's way out of negligence -- he'd stepped into danger on his own initiative at every turn, with great enthusiasm and no concern for the consequences, not to mention the fact that he wasn't even acting alone at the moment: he practically had an accomplice.

-- but even so.

‘Don't involve me in all your spur-of-the-moment plans, Gardener.’ He leaned in close to Albarino's ear and hissed threateningly, ‘You and I know deep down that your passion won't last that long -- and I don't want to become one of your playthings, I'm not going to lack the self-awareness to think that I'm going to end up any better than Elliot Evans or Areola. ‘

Albarino finally stopped talking, he just looked at Herstal with his eyes wide open, seemingly genuinely feeling surprised. His light-coloured irises making him look so damned vulnerable and innocent.

When Herstal spoke again, he could hear the anger in his own voice, the words being ground between his teeth. His voice was hoarse, but he pressed on. ‘I don't think you actually care about anything -- I should have known better, but my feelings have never been more evident than they are now.’

Then he let go of Albarino, letting the other man slide down the wall, staggering to stand up straight, listening to the low, coughing sounds the other man made -- and then suddenly he couldn't find a reason to still be standing here, so he chose to leave without looking back, letting the darkness and the wind and the snow swallow him up.

Notes:

Ugh I f*cking love Herstal

Chapter 21: 57. Burial of the Dead

Chapter Text

January temperatures were still cold, and beneath the leaden sky, the ice and snow had yet to melt. Albarino Bacchus stood in the cemetery, his feet in the thick snow and frozen ground, clutching a bouquet of flowers in his hands.

The cemetery, established in the first half of the twentieth century, was vast and tidy, with white headstones and crosses standing in vertical rows across the lawn, spaced in appropriate intervals and aligned in such a way as to make it easier for the lawnmower to pass through. The lawn had long been covered by deep snow, and the ashes of the deceased were frozen in the hard soil below.

The newly erected headstone in front of him summarized a person’s life in simple words, so plain and silent that those who passed by would not even give it a second glance.

Blanca Areola

(1980-2016)

Before the case was closed, Areola's body was kept in the morgue of the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, and since her loved ones could not be contacted -- in fact, most people suspected that she had no family in Mexico at all -- after the case was closed, she was buried in the middle of a cemetery at the government's expense. It was a completely normal procedure, though most taxpayers probably wouldn’t be happy about their money being used to bury a serial killer.

Her body had been cremated, allowing her to occupy a narrow corner of the crowded cemetery. At this moment, the coroner in charge of Blanca Areola's unnatural death case – Dr. Bacchus himself -- was standing in front of her grave, as if he were offering a cheap tribute to the cold headstone.

Albarino leaned over slightly and reached down to brush the snow off the headstone, then placed a bouquet of flowers in front of the low, artificial marble, the soft petals crunching against the snow on the ground with a faint creaking sound. Then he stood up straight and gazed at the only bit of colour in the stark white snow: the delicate petals of the flowers against the bone-white marble.

Albarino heard the crunch of thick boots through the snow behind him.

‘I'd like to say “I'm not surprised to see you here,”’ the person behind him said, in a serious tone, ‘but that statement itself seems strange enough.’

Albarino turned around, unsurprised to see Olga Molozer standing behind him, bundled up in a thick hat, scarf and gloves, looking like a chubby, knitted, woolly monster.

‘Hi.’ Olga added after a moment, as if suddenly realizing she should add something.

Herstal shifted on the sheets, unable to suppress a groan of discomfort.

This was his first weekend off since the Christmas holidays, all the time before that had been filled with endless overtime. Apparently everyone had been in high spirits before the Christmas break, and the desire for a holiday had slowed down everyone in the office considerably. Now, the consequences of that indulgence were finally catching up with them.

On Friday they won a case that had been dragging on for three months, a murder case involving a rock star that had garnered significant media attention. In the end, the suspect was released due to insufficient evidence. How much extortion and bribery had occurred along the way didn’t need to be said, anyway, Herstel was quite sure that half the people on the witness stand were not there willingly.

his meant he had been dragged into a meaningless celebration the night before, and now he lay in bed with a splitting headache -- it wasn't a consequence of the alcohol, which he hadn't consumed as per usual, but from the endless pleasantries that were enough to cause a headache. And now Herstal could feel the shocking chill of the air against his exposed arms; he had come home too late the previous night and must have forgotten to switch on the heater when he entered, leaving the room freezing.

Herstal gave himself up to burying himself in the pillows a little longer, pondering whether he should get up and make some breakfast or not -- even though the bedside clock told him it was long past breakfast time and he wasn't really hungry; the fridge was once again empty, symbolically filled with a couple cans of energy drink. The times when Albarino would often run over to stay at his was gone, and his fridge had quickly returned to its original state.

The last trace of Albarino's presence in the house remained on his bedside table: the never-opened Christmas present, wrapped in ridiculously shiny light blue paper, full of Christmas cheer but with terrible taste -- or perhaps the two were synonymous.

After the events of Christmas Eve, Albarino hadn’t come back with him, and this thing had been sitting there ever since, completely out of place in a house devoid of any Christmas spirit. As January approached, the silly, shiny wrapping paper looked more and more like a joke left behind from old times, the sort of object that was embedded deep in the house yet produced a rejection reaction, like an abnormal organ.

Herstal lay at an angle that allowed him to see the box. After a moment he reached out to retrieve it: it was not heavy, and the moment he touched it, the wrapping paper rustled like a breeze passing through the branches at the crack of dawn, giving no hint as to what was inside.

For the first time in days, Herstal was able to hold it in front of him for a good look, and then he realised that the blue wrapping paper was dotted with small patterns that were faintly visible. He squinted to make out the pattern:

The patterns on it were blue delphiniums.

For a moment, he was tempted sneer, the same way he would at his not-so-bright interns and his overly foolish clients. A desire to tear something was growing within his throat, an unquenchable desire that had always grown with him, the flapping butterfly wings itching lightly between his spine and ribs.

But in the end, he did nothing. He simply pulled open the drawer of his bedside table –- inside two books were thrown in, but otherwise it was empty, just like a showroom of a designer’s display room, looking good but clearly uninhabited. Herstal had very few personal belongings, as someone who was ready to flee at all times would. He then tossed the box, wrapped in its silly light-coloured ribbon, into the drawer and slammed it shut.

And so the last bit of colour that was still vibrant in the whole room was snuffed out by the darkness, like a beam of light that failed to escape a black hole. Herstal sighed and pressed his thumb against his aching temple.

‘I feel like I shouldn't turn a blind eye to the fate of someone who almost killed me.’ Albarino said to Olga in a rather sincere tone.

‘But I don't seem to see you mourning Bob Landon, or is framing you for imprisonment not nearly as bad as killing in your eyes?’ Olga snorted through her nose, exhaling a cloud rapidly condensing white mist as she stared at the cheaply made marble headstone. Then she suddenly asked, ‘I’ve noticed Herstal isn't with you though, what happened between you two?’

‘There were…some problems.’ Albarino admitted vaguely.

‘Ah, “problems”,’ Olga nodded solemnly, her gaze still fixed on the tombstone, ‘similar to the problems you had with your almost two hundred exes?’

Albarino laughed, ‘Olga, saying that makes me sound...’

‘Frivolous.’ Olga winked, cheerfully completing the sentence for him.

‘And I wouldn’t use that word to describe myself,’ Albarino finally relented and shrugged, ‘I couldn't give them what they wanted, so we parted ways -- it's always been that way. ‘

Olga turned to look at him, the tip of her nose frozen red from the cold, but her gaze was still frighteningly sharp. Most people would have squirmed under such a stare, ‘What did he want?’

Albarino gave a soft smile and uttered a few words: ‘...something trivial.’

‘For you?’ Olga continued, pressing on in a strangely aggressive manner.

‘For most people.’ Albarino replied.

‘When people are in love, they tend to have all sorts of strange expectations, for example: I wonder if Blanca Areola ever expected to get a green card by marrying Robo when she fell in love with him -- regardless, the results of our investigations showed that they were together for at least five years without ever getting married.’ Olga said lightly, reaching out and gesturing as if that were enough to aid her example, ‘It shows that what is easy for most people can be very distant under certain circ*mstances…pursuing it recklessly can lead to terrible outcomes’.

Albarino glanced at her and paused briefly before speaking: ‘You seem to have given a very extreme example.’

‘That's because I find the line between the extreme and the ordinary to be very blurry. These things are truly unexpected.’ Olga replied flatly, but the tone in which she spoke made it really hard to believe that anything could be unexpected to her.

‘Did something happen?’ Albarino asked keenly, ‘Perhaps something involving a blurred line??’

Olga glanced at him and smiled faintly.

‘George Robb committed a series of homicides back in the day, when a middle-aged man was killed in Pennsylvania, it was generally assumed that Robo did it: this is what we now refer to as the ‘seventh case’. At the time the case was under investigation, if it was determined that it really wasn't committed by George Robo, the police would have considered it as a copycat, and moved to look at the people who had conflicted interests with the victim of the seventh case, as was common sense.’ Olga spoke slowly, ‘Back then I thought there was a suspect worth noting: he was the brother of the victim in the seventh case and had some inheritance disputes with the victim ...a motive was established. But because CSI quickly found Robo's hair at the scene of the seventh case, ironclad evidence, no one ever investigated further in that direction.’

‘And then?’ Albarino asked. Many involved in criminal cases had heard of the George Robo case, through lectures on the subject, reading materials and texts, but Albarino had never heard one of the people involved talk about what was considered to be an extremely sensational case at the time.

Olga smiled, ‘I have a friend in Pennsylvania who I had asked to keep an eye on this for me after the Robo case was closed ... Then yesterday he told me that the brother of the victim in the seventh case had died.’

She took a deep breath and turned to Albarino.

‘The local police suspect that he died in a robbery, because the killer took all the money he had on him, as well as a watch and other valuable items.’ Olga said, her tone light and cold, ‘He was shot in an alley after his night shift, the bullet went straight through his temple -- boom. It all ended cleanly and neatly.’

‘It does sound a lot like a robbery.’ Albarino replied in a low voice, catching the implications in her words. Nonetheless, he still felt surprised that the other person would mention this to him.

‘Indeed.’ Olga said, and flashed him a smile, ‘That does look very, very much like a robbery.’

Someone knocked on the door of Lavazza Mercader's office.

Agent Mercader was sitting behind his desk at the time, looking at an extraordinarily official-looking document. It was a quiet day at the BAU: no fieldwork, no sudden homicides, and everything was proceeding remarkably smoothly. One of the main reasons for this, of course, was that after the Areola case, Mercader had left Westland in a hurry without a single last word to Bart Hardy; otherwise, if he had succeeded in his persuasions, him and his team might have been busy in Westland by now.

But Blanca Areola's case had brought too many variables into play that required their full attention -- one always had to contend with such sudden changes, and it was always a very precious experience when things went according to plan.

Mercader knew this well enough to be at peace with himself.

Another unexpected event was that on the day of his return to Quantico, Olga Molozer had gone to the airport to see him off -- an inaccurate statement, of course, but rather Molozer had appeared in the airport lobby without warning, without anyone having told her which flight Mercader would be taking.

Of course, that was typical for Molozer. Mercader had to constantly explain to various media people who didn't really understand the science of behavioural analytics and that profilers weren't psychics, but sometimes Olga acted more like a wizard.

‘What happens next?’ As usual, without pleasantries, Olga just stood in front of Mercader and bluntly asked.Her question was so straightforward that passersby couldn't help but stare at her, as if she was stranger than the couple crying and kissing at the other end of the waiting hall.

‘Why are you asking me that question? It's not like I'm in control of where things go.’ Mercader replied with a frown.

‘Aren't you? That's a pretty arbitrary way to position yourself.’ Olga shrugged and threw him a meaningful look, ‘At least, I remember you saying you were going to talk to Bart -- and it turns out you didn't.’

Mercader sighed and told her, ‘I wanted to, but there's no time. The Quantico side wants me back immediately ...Apparently the Areola case has attracted some attention, and they want to hear what's going on from my perspective -- after all, it involves Robo's old case, and they'll always take it more seriously.’

Olga nodded understandingly, the words coming out as cutting as ever, ‘You on the other hand will have to find a way to remove yourself from this incident.’

‘-- I have a clear conscience.’ Mercader emphasized with a straight face.

‘For now.’ Olga smiled, and only she could show the complex meaning of ‘I don't believe a word of it’ in that light smile.

‘Look, Molozer,’ Mercader sighed deeply and looked over at her, ‘I have to return to the BAU, but if there's time after the holidays, I'd still like to talk to Officer Hardy. Consider my offer, too: it should be obvious to you that the WLPD can't do anything about the frequency of vicious crime cases anymore, and that if they want to solve the Pianist's and Gardener's cases, they'll need the BAU -- also, consider my theory, okay? Albarino Bacchus is a murderer.’

‘And it's also true that Dr Bacchus had an alibi at the time of the Anthony Sharp and William Brown case.’ Olga pointed out, apparently anticipating that he would make this assertion.

‘The man who gave him his alibi was also his boyfriend, and it's certainly possible that the other man was covering for him.’ Mercader shook his head, ‘We both know that that doesn't count for much, people do all sorts of stupid things for love, and isn't Areola a prime example?’

‘I consistently disagree with you.’ Olga objected with a grin.

‘The part about harbouring criminals?’ Mercader asked exasperated.

And the other replied briskly, ‘The part about love.’

-- But anyway, Mercader had also been busy after the Christmas holidays, and hadn't ended up taking the time to talk to Officer Hardy or the chief of the WLPD. Their department was trying to recruit new people, which meant that he was still responsible for the endless evaluation process; but the good thing was that now that the dust had settled and they finally had a new member in their midst, they were able to fill that gap left by the fact that they hadn't been able to recruit a single employee capable of a full year's work since Olga had left.

And now poking his head in with a knock on the door was a tall, thin, young male with curly ginger hair: the agent had just officially graduated from the FBI Academy not long ago and his name was John Garcia. For what it was worth, Mercader was pleased with him in every way, and really hoped he'd make it through the full year.

‘Sir,’ the young Agent Garcia said, his voice revealing some suppressed excitement, ‘we've been contacted by the New York State Police, who have discovered a strange homicide on their side, and they suspect that it's -- ‘

Mercader nodded, folding the documents on his desk before standing up.

He had long since grown accustomed to this kind of life, and knew the truth: quiet times never lasted more than a few hours, murderers didn't take holidays, and they should always be on their guard.

The bar at night was filled with a heavy smell of smoke and the unpleasant scent of evaporating alcohol. This place suited Herstal’s taste, unlike the ones Olga picked, which had good co*cktails but too much harsh music; but though it was comparatively quiet, the crowd of pleasure-seekers was the same everywhere.

But nevertheless, he had not sat here with such a purpose in mind -- it was not in line with his will, nor was it in keeping with his taste. Gazing at the half-full glass of liquor in front of him, Herstal once again began to question his decision.

And a soft hand landed on his shoulder.

When Herstal turned around, he saw a beautiful woman with soft brown hair leaning casually against the bar: at least, that’s how it seemed. The dim, ambiguous lighting blurred many of the details, transforming all of the flaws into a mysterious allure. The hands were dyed with nails that were as red as blood, so vivid that they looked as if they had just been drawn from a corpses's chest.

And the woman smiled at him: the kind of smile that meant ‘I'm interested in you’. He did occasionally give off that impression to others when he wasn't wearing one of those overbearing custom-made three-piece suits; he never cared for it, but it didn't seem so bad this time, at least it was something to pass this boring night with.

‘I've been watching you for a while now,’ the woman said with a smile that had a lot of carefully calculated sweetness in it, perfected for those who would come to a place like this to pass a long night, ‘Sitting here alone drinking so many glasses of whiskey, you must be quite lonely’.

He thought for a moment, then calmly admitted, ‘Indeed.’

At ten o'clock in the evening, Albarino sat in front of the fireplace.

His house in the far outskirts of the city was entirely covered in snow, with only a shovelled path leading to the road. The weather forecast predicted more snow in the next day or two, and the temperatures were likely to drop further. Spring was still far from this city.

Albarino had a sketchbook in his lap, casually doodling in it -- not the one he kept in the forest cabin, whose pages were stained with dried blood, but another one. Most of its pages had been torn out, and on the current one, he was drawing delphiniums growing from the hollow eye sockets of a skull.

The branches and leaves struggling ferociously to emerge out of the white bone. The tip of his pen stopped at the tender buds of the flowers and pressed against the empty eyes of the dead.

Truth be told, even before the three drinks, Herstal would not have chosen such a place to spend the night -- but after three drinks, anything was possible.

That was the essence of such a place: to cover your sanity with alcohol and wash away sins with a woman's red lips. The nature of the thing even made the other less-than-ideal aspects tolerable: the cheap motel sheets, the mattress that wasn't soft to the touch by any stretch of the imagination, the strange smell of bleach in the air. The woman's long hair brushed his skin when she giggled, hot and restless.

Unfortunately, it still wasn't enough, for her body was soft, yet still not as feeble as the dead; her fingers would scratch helplessly across the sheets, yet more gently than those of a dying person. Herstal looked down at the woman -- and then realized in hindsight that he hadn't asked her name at all, she could be a Mary or Anne, it didn’t matter -- listening to her disordered breaths mixed with occasional laughter, all so cliché.

At one point, he wanted so badly to tighten his fingers around the woman's neck, his fingers pressing against her slippery, sweaty skins, feeling the swift, fawn-like beating of her heart. So alive, so fragile, so easily breakable with just the slightest pressure -- yet this woman kissed him, so innocent, so passionate, so frivolous and clueless; she rubbed her lipstick on the corners of his mouth with reckless abandon, like an elongated trail of blood.

Herstal felt his soul hovering above; it was true he was slowly being swallowed by the hot sea, but his inner goddesses named Murder and Death resided under his eyelids. On her lipstick and the warm blush of her cheekbones, he saw the blood of his fantasies. The urge to destroy lingered in his fingers, numb like pins and needles, like a raging burning fire.

He forced his hand away from her neck, pressing down on her shoulders and arms, letting his fingertips dig in slightly.

Her brown hair flowed across the not-so-comfortable mattress, like a thick, slow river. Herstal noticed that her eyes were a kind of pale blue, but under the lamplight they seemed almost gray-green.

Herstal reached out and covered her eyes.

Albarino observed the dull pencil coloured flowers; unfortunately, he’d imagined the colour to be a blue that he couldn’t quite capture. The draft was never satisfactory, and gradually, from the time he began to pencil the image to the end, it had become so ugly in his eyes that it was unacceptable.

It shouldn’t be like this, he harshly critiqued himself. This wasn’t a good design.

So he chose to tear out the entire page -- the sound of thick paper ripping was clear and harsh in the room, because at this moment, everything was so quiet. The snow-covered earth was silent outside, not even the coyotes that often roamed the wilderness made any sound.

Albarino crumpled the paper in his hand into a ball, as his father had done one summer day many years ago, on the twenty-fifth of July, sitting by the fireplace of their old family home. He felt a little amused by the association; he could still feel the hard, angular edges of the crumpled paper against his palm.

It should have been the same with those letters and diaries all those years ago.

Then he threw the paper ball -- a failed draft, for achieving perfection was so difficult -- into the fireplace and watched as the white surface of the paper was kissed by the flames and charred into blackness.

In the public cemetery of Westland, the groundskeeper made his final round of the day, trudging through the increasingly hardening snow with his flashlight. This profession was becoming obsolete, just like the increasingly crowded graveyard.

The sky had been completely engulfed in darkness, the rows of headstones and crosses standing stiffly in the snow, rigid and desolate.

Suddenly, the beam of his flashlight shone on a colour other than white. The vibrancy of the colours, like a dancing flame, suddenly crashed into his vision, almost startling him: then he realized it was just a bouquet of flowers, placed before a newly erected tombstone. The cold air had kept it fresh, but it was still wilting inevitably:

It was a simple bouquet with marigolds clustered at the center like fresh blood. Underneath the countless golden petals were poinsettias and dahlias; their petals, delicate and soft, were gradually rotting and curling up amidst the cold air, just like a pool of blood flowing across the ground.

Chapter 22: 58. John Garcia's personal website: January 30th, 2017

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Cited from: https://johngaztia.squarespace.com

Published: 2017-01-30

As those who follow my updates know, lately my colleagues and I from the Behavioural Analysis Unit have been working in a small town near Buffalo, New York -- due to confidentiality agreements, I’m unable to disclose the exact location -- on a gruesome murder case. It was the latest in a series of serial killings that have occurred in the Great Lakes region since March of the previous year.

Even though I can’t reveal the details, the case has been widely reported in newspapers and online. To make events more sensationalised and eye-catching, the media often gives serial killers flashy nicknames, such as the ‘Westland Pianist’ and the ‘Sunday Gardener’. And since this serial killer began his crimes in early 2015, he has been given many notorious names.

Some in the media like to call him the ‘Family Killer’ or the ‘Family Executioner’ because he chooses to murder entire families. Over the past two years, he has committed eight cases, killing nine couples (because in one family the husband and wife lived with the man's parents) and a total of thirteen children. It is because of this brutal act that some media outlets have called him the ‘Family Butcher’ -- although his actions are indeed brutal, I think such sensational, fear-mongering names are unnecessary.

As a member of the Behavioural Analysis Unit, it’s crucial to avoid using such provocative terms to describe the killer. There are serial killers who derive their vanity from the overwhelming publicity they receive, which can escalate their behaviour. I believe the ‘Westland Pianist’ is one such example. His taunting of the police is typical among murderers, from Jack the Ripper in the 19th century to the Zodiac Killer in the 1960s. Sending cryptic letters to the police, just to flaunt their confidence, has become a staple among serial killers.

The latest serial killer in this series also likes to flaunt their power by leaving souvenirs for the police to find: As reported, he breaks into the homes of his victims, takes control of the poor unfortunate family members, tortures them, and videotapes the process, leaving the footage on computers at the scene, waiting for the police to find them.

One of these videos, from a horrifying murder last May, was notoriously leaked during the investigation. Despite the best efforts of Detroit police to delete most of the footage that circulated, some of the gruesome clips can still be found online today.

Those who have followed the case will remember these details: the killer used rope to hang a father and son from the ceiling, resting their feet on only a few stacked metal cans to prevent immediate strangulation. He then handed a shotgun to the mother, forcing her to choose between shooting the can under her husband or son feet – in short, only one could survive, or the killer would murder them all. With a pistol aimed at her head, she had to make a choice.

The video was filled with the woman and child's cries, as well as the killer’s maniacal laughter. In the end, the mother chose to save her son, hanging her husband from the ceiling. The killer forced the two remaining family members to watch this victim's slow death before shooting the mother and dismembering her in front of her child, before finally hanging the child as well.

This was just one of the six cases he committed. As a BAU member, I have reviewed all of the latest case files, and I can responsibly tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg of his madness, he is more brutal, more psychopathically inventive, and more dangerous than we can even imagine.

The more complex the details a serial killer displays, the more truths he reveals to us -- While we no longer employ psychics like in Robert Ressler’s era, we still have ways of uncovering clues. For instance, DeBurger and Holmes proposed a classification of serial killers by dividing them into four categories: the visionary, the missionary, the hedonistic, and the power and control types. Of these, the hedonistic type is specifically further divided into killing for lust and killing for thrill.

Undoubtedly, the murderer in this case belongs to the thrill killer category. The most typical characteristics of this type of serial killers are: inflicting abusive behaviours on their victims which are not sexually motivated, killing because the process of killing brings a feeling of excitement, and deriving pleasure from their actions.

This type of homicidal maniac is undoubtedly very dangerous, deriving twisted pleasure from slaughtering entire families, or even forcing them to kill each other, recording every moment of it. I would not be surprised if he kept a copy of the videos for his own enjoyment in addition to the one he leaves with the police. We can easily deduce that this twisted mindset is often related to a person's early experiences, and the investigation is currently progressing in that direction.

However, this wasn't even the only trick he showed. This time the killer himself made a big mistake.

Anyone who's been following the news coverage should know the latest development: two weeks ago, this killer committed his eighth crime in Buffalo, murdering a couple and their two young children. I must keep the specific details confidential, but, as he brutally shot the father and one of the older children, the sound of the gunshots drew the attention of their neighbours.

We are confident the killer scouted the area beforehand. He chose a time when the only neighbour who could hear the crime was supposed to be working the night shift, but that neighbour had switched shifts due to illness. Anyway, this unexpected turn of events, which the killer couldn’t have predicted, led to the neighbour calling the police. A police car patrolling the area arrived so quickly that the murderer fled before he could kill one of the children and his mother; but unfortunately the mother had already lost too much blood by the time the police arrived and died shortly after being taken to the hospital.

The surviving child was only six years old and is still being treated by a psychiatrist. New York State Police hope that once he’s a bit more stabilized, he can help create a composite sketch of the killer, giving us another lead to pursue.

But now is not the time to relax. In the past, this killer typically waits a few months between his crimes, possibly reliving the process through his recordings until they no longer satisfy his need for stimulation. But this time, he was unable to complete his crime; he was forced to flee before he could kill his wife and one of the family's children.

Some serial killers with control-freak tendencies can become enraged over unplanned mistakes in their cases, while others suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder because they didn't complete a murder in its entirety. Moreover, it’s highly likely that the killer didn't have time to record a full video before escaping, leading to another dangerous aspect.

It’s easy to imagine that this type of serial killer won’t rest after such a significant failure. He will likely commit another murder soon to “make up” for this mistake. All police and families in the Great Lakes region should be on high alert. We don’t know when or where he will strike next, but one thing is for sure: he’s lurking in the shadows, and when the time is right, he won't hesitate to strike.

My colleagues and I have been working overtime for this case, searching for enough clues to be able to catch him before he commits another crime.

The fate of potential victims lies in our hands, and a serial killer who has been committing crimes since 2015 until now is intolerable. No one wants a serial killer to be constantly active in their city for more than a decade; it often signifies failure on the part of the police and profilers when this happens.

I hope that by the time I write my next article, it will already be announced that this horrible serial killer has been apprehended by us and put on trial. At that point, depending on the need for confidentiality and the relevant regulations, I may be able to reveal to my readers more details of the case: about how this twisted, terrifying murderer tortured his prey, and where the origins of this sick and twisted mind-set came from ...Once he’s apprehended and brought to justice, we'll have all the answers to our questions.

Lastly, I am pleased to tell you that I have been invited to appear on a nightly talk show on WNYC’s [1] late night talk show next Saturday, where I be discussing my views on this case. The show will be broadcasting on the 4th of February at ten o'clock in the evening, and I hope you will tune in.

[1] WNYC is the station code for New York Public Radio, which starts with a ‘W’ on the East Coast.

Notes:

The next arc is one of my favourites from this novel!

Chapter 23: 59. The Altar of Isaac (1)

Notes:

Some chapters may take a little longer to update for at least the next 2 months because I'm currently on holidays visiting family in China!

Chapter Text

‘The cause of death was a craniocerebral injury.’

Albarino said as he and Bart Hardy stood in front of the mobile autopsy van, using the hemostat in his hand to point out the mottled wounds on the head of the deceased. The victim's hair had been shaved off, revealing a horrifying mass of bruises on the occipital region.

‘There are six contusion wounds on the deceased's head, which were inflicted after being subjected to a number of blows from a blunt instrument. The murderer struck hard enough to cause a comminuted skull fracture as well as severe intracranial haemorrhaging and brain contusions in his head. Such wounds are enough to cause the victim's death.’ As Albarino finished speaking, he waved his hand towards Tommy, signalling him to push the body back into the morgue drawer; he paused and continued, ‘The blood test report came back as well, ruling out the possibility of poisoning.’

Hardy nodded, ‘That's good. This finding will help us convict the suspect, the autopsy report--?’

‘My secretary already has it compiled, you can go to his office later and ask him for it.’ Albarino replied.

So far, everything seemed routine, nothing was different from what would happen every day: Albarino was in charge of handling autopsies of contentious murder cases, and Hardy, as a homicide police officer, came to listen to his opinions. Normally though, Hardy would have left in a hurry after that, factoring in the eight hundred other jobs he hadn't yet done, but he didn't today.

In fact, Hardy looked over at Albarino and more or less looked like he wanted to say something.

‘Er, Al,’ he stammered, ‘have you...’

‘What’s wrong?’ Albarino asked back, confused.

Hardy took a deep breath, then blurted out the words he'd been holding in his stomach in one breath, ‘It's like this, Olga asked me to be a little more concerned about you because she says you're going through ‘the hardest breakup you've had in years’ --’

Even Hardy himself felt that he looked odd saying such a thing, so it was rushed out by him hastily without a single break in between. Even Albarino was confused for a moment after receiving such a large amount of information at once. He thought for a moment, then asked, ‘...Am I?’

‘Olga said you are. Excuse me for quoting her, she said, ‘Mr Armalight is evidently unique’. Hardy said dryly, likely unsure how he was roped into discussing someone else's love life by his friend.

By this time Tommy, who was in charge of bringing the body back to the morgue, had returned. He looked over at Albarino with interest, asking a little too eagerly, ‘What? Did you break up with one of your new girlfriends again?’

Feeling that it was time for him to reflect on what kind of impression he usually left on others, Albarino smiled and said ambiguously, ‘If you really want to know, I don't think I have reached the stage of 'breaking up' yet.’

-- Though he guessed Hardy likely wouldn't believe a word of it; in all the years Hardy had known him, he had never seen him get back together with any boyfriend or girlfriend who he had quarrelled with. Of course, Dr Bacchus didn't care anyway; Dr Bacchus was charming, rich, good-looking, and connections in Westland's high society, thanks to his father. There were plenty of boys and girls willing to sleep with him.

Hardy opened his mouth for a moment, obviously wanting to say something, but the sudden ringing of his mobile phone didn't give him the chance. With a hasty apology, he left to answer the phone, leaving only Tommy still standing in place with great interest.

‘So you really quarrelled with someone again? How many times has this happened since I've been interning at the Bureau of Forensic Science?’ Tommy's eyes were practically sparkling. Albarino miraculously detected a hint of earnestness in his tone, ‘When are you going to settle down?’

‘You're not going to be attending my wedding in this lifetime anyway,’ Albarino said perfunctorily, ‘You should pin your hopes on Olga.’

Tommy pouted inconspicuously, implying that Olga wasn't a reliable prospect either; he had met Olga many times since he’d been working, and it was clear that the other person's way of dealing with people were evidently beyond his comprehension.

At that moment, Hardy returned from his call, frowning and looking concerned. As soon as he came, over he said to Albarino, ‘Clara's school called, I might have to go over there, you should ask your secretary to email me the autopsy report ...’

As he said this, he hurried out the door, and Albarino, eager to escape Tommy's musings on his love life, subconsciously followed two steps in Hardy's direction and asked, ‘The school's calling at this hour? Is everything okay?’

It was just after ten on a Wednesday morning, hardly the time for an elementary school to finish.

‘It’s nothing, just kids ...’ Hardy mumbled a few more words that Albarino didn't quite catch, but the other party had already waved his hand and walked quickly to the door, ‘Anyway, I'll be gone now. If you have any issues with those two cases of unnatural deaths, hand them over to Officer Bull.’

His figure quickly disappeared through the doorway, Albarino paused and spoke before Tommy could rush forward in excitement to unearth more gossip.

‘Come on, Tommy.’ He said, ‘Did you hear what Officer Hardy said? We've got two more bodies waiting for us today.’

Herstal Armalight was sitting in an opulent room -- the word ‘opulent’ sounded cliché, but there really wasn't a better word to describe the place he was in: the walls were decorated with rich gold and red tapestries and there was a glittering crystal chandelier hanging above their heads. If it weren't for Herstal's work ethic, he would have been tempted to turn around and leave.

Across from him sat his client -- a newspaper tycoon, a successful man who was on the ropes because of his rebellious daughter who had just pulled one of the biggest screw-ups of her adult life.

‘I'm recommending a plea bargain,’ Herstal said, ‘based on the evidence available, if the prosecutor charges her with intentional homicide, there's a high probability that the jury will find her guilty. And with a plea bargain, we can find a way to exchange sentences. We might be able to get her down to a five-year sentence in prison, or if we’re lucky, even probation.’

The other party swallowed dryly and asked anxiously, ‘Aren't there any other possibilities?’

‘It's highly unlikely.’ Herstal replied calmly, ‘Your daughter, upon learning of her boyfriend's infidelity, confronted him. But before meeting him, she went home to retrieve a golf club, which she then placed in her trunk. Generally speaking, under such circ*mstances, the jury won't believe that her subsequent acts of smashing his head in with the club wasn't premeditated. If the prosecutor determined that her act was murder with intent to kill, the lightest charge would be second-degree murder -- and that's the last thing we want to see right now.’

The client's lips twitched, ‘But is there no way to argue for manslaughter...?’

Herstal frowned imperceptibly.

Then, as calmly as he could, he explained, ‘There are at least four conditions which must be fulfilled in order to convict the murder of a crime of passion: firstly, the defendant must be in a situation that would provoke or enrage a normal person -- this is true; secondly the defendant must indeed be provoked -- this is also undeniable; the issue is with the remaining condition. The law states, 'The time between being provoked and the killing must be short enough that a person could not have fully calmed down, and the defendant must not have calmed down', and that's the problem -- whether or not your daughter was still in a state of provocation at the time of the killing is unverifiable, and the court will need to hear a lot of testimony in order to discern this. However, your daughter did not show any abnormality in the nearly six hours between her learning the truth and acting on it, during which she had lunch with you without showing any abnormal behaviour. Furthermore, their confrontation was fully recorded by surveillance cameras, and there were at least five eyewitnesses who can attest that the victim had no chance to say anything before being attacked, which also negates the possibility of him provoking her again.’

‘A jury... wouldn't believe that she was still in an irrational state at the time.’ The client admitted bitterly.

‘Precisely,’ Herstal nodded calmly, ‘Had she killed immediately upon learning the truth or if she had had another altercation with the victim beforehand, we could plead manslaughter. But given the current circ*mstances, I can't assure that defence.

He paused, and when the other party did not say anything, he added, ‘I suggest that you make a decision as soon as possible. The investigation process of such a simple case is very short. We also have to meet the prosecutor of this case before the pre-trial hearing.’

The client was silent for a few moments, then nodded with difficulty and said, ‘… Okay, plea bargain.’

Herstal stood up calmly and stretched out his hand to straighten his cuffs; this answer was within his expectations, and there was no room for improvement in this case.

‘Then, I will go see the prosecutor of this case. Her name is...’ Herstal paused and reached out to flip through his memo. His secretary wrote down the name for him when he handed down the commission, ‘Wallis Hardy.’

—— At the WLPD party on Christmas Eve, Albarino had said to Officer Hardy: ‘Give our regards to Wallis.’

Herstal frowned.

Olga stood in front of the podium and pointed at the big screen with a laser pointer. She was a visiting professor at Westland State University and only taught one course a year. Apart from teaching her weekly class and serving as a consultant for the WLPD, she spent her free time battling wits with editors -- a lifestyle far more comfortable than her tenure at the BAU. It's no wonder many profilers turned to publishing memoirs after retirement.

Now the lecture theater was densely packed with people, each’s persons face was bathed eerily by the pale blue light of the projector. Olga knew that many of the people who enrolled in this course did not want to learn any real knowledge of criminal psychology, but only to satisfy their curiosity about real crime scenes. In this course, they could indeed see real crime scene photos -- it is these people who will watch the process of Eskimos eating seals alive in ‘Nanook of the North’ with great curiosity. Curiosity is a fundamental human instinct.

Olga tapped the keyboard, switching to the next photo, eliciting gasps from among the students.

‘This is Trepp Carloan,’ Olga introduced in a calm voice, ‘the twenty-fourth victim of the Westland pianist. He was found dead in his bed late last April. The killer sliced open his abdomen, removed most of his organs, and then stuffed his severed hands, feet, and genitals into the abdominal cavity before sewing the abdominal wound back together -- We've been studying the Pianist this month, so who can tell me why he did this?’

Only a few hands were raised in the huge lecture hall. Of course, this is what these college students will do to you when you ask a question. Olga randomly pointed at the crowd, and then a man stood up from the back row of the lecture theatre.

Anyone who was not blind could come to the conclusion that the man standing up was obviously not a student of this university.

He was a middle-aged man who looked to be over fifty. His black hair had basically turned silvery gray, and his chin was covered with uneven, white stubble.

After he stood up, he actually answered the question calmly: ‘Because Trepp Carloan was suspected of raping and killing four women, and the last victim was three months pregnant when she was killed.’

Olga nodded and gestured for the other party to sit down. The man looked familiar, but she couldn't think of where she had seen him beore, not that it mattered; journalists had snuck into her class before.

‘That’s right. The Westland Pianist likes to perform similar creations on his victims -- his creativity in killing is closely related to what his victims have done before.’ Olga continued, ‘Some profilers like to call it an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. They think the pianist was motivated by a sense of mission, but I don't think so; rather than saving the world from the quagmire of evil, I am more inclined to believe that such acts of murder excites him. Let’s talk about the evidence that supports this conclusion...’

In the end, the class concluded uneventfully. All in all, Olga was sure that her students left the class with plenty to discuss, although any reasonable person should know that when trying to pick up girls, talking about a psychotic murderer is probably not the best strategy. And although they are satisfied, when they turn in the paper they were supposed to write next week, the quality of that paper was another matter entirely.

Just as Olga expected, the man who answered the question did not leave immediately after the class ended. Instead, he limped toward the podium. Only then did Olga realize that he was holding a cane in his hand, his entire weight was balancing precariously on it -- he stood in front of Olga and said: ‘Hello, Professor Molozer.’

‘Hello,’ Olga replied as she struggled to stuff a stack of lesson plans into her bag, without even condescending to extend her hand to shake. ‘Who are you?’

The other party seemed to have expected this reaction from her. On the contrary, this person had an interested smile on his face: ‘I am Orion Hunter.’

Olga raised her head and looked at him with a strange concentration for a moment before asking: ‘Are you the famous bounty hunter?’

‘I'm surprised that I'm already considered ‘famous.’’ the bounty hunter replied calmly.

‘At least you are well-known in the WLPD. Obviously not every bounty hunter will abandon ordinary criminals who have jumped bail and absconded, and instead turn to arrest criminal suspects who have not been brought to justice. Some of your work overlaps with that of a private detective,’ Olga replied.

The other party shrugged easily, apparently acknowledging Olga's statement. Not only that, he added: ‘And... there's often some legal problems.’

‘When you have neither an arrest warrant nor a copy of the bail bond, of course there will be legal problems with breaking into a private house. You have not been prosecuted so far because you are lucky.’ Olga smiled, ‘So, what do you want from me? I don't think bounty hunters will have any criminal psychology problems.’

Orion Hunter laughed loudly, took out a piece of paper from his coat pocket and placed it in front of Olga: it was a newspaper clipping from the ‘Buffalo News’.

‘I'm just here to avoid legal problems,’ he said.

Olga glanced at the newspaper clipping: ‘This is a report on the murder case that happened in Buffalo last month... they now call the serial killer the 'family executioner' or the 'family butcher' or something like that. I have to say, those reporters’ naming skills are really getting worse.’

‘I'm here for this,’ the bounty hunter said.

Olga raised her head and glanced at him: ‘Really? There have been no new murders recently.’

Hunter's voice lowered, the corners of his mouth pulled up slightly and showed an enthusiastic smile: ‘I have reason to believe that this murderer has come to Westland.’

As Lavazza Mercader stepped out of the office, John Garcia trotted to keep up with him.

He had just been scolded by their immediate superior -- it was not his fault that he was angry. Afterall, the murder case in Buffalo was not going well. The lone surviving child provided the portrait artist with some characteristics of the suspect, however these features were not complete enough for a portrait. The police had used these characteristics to ask everyone who may have witnessed the murderer fleeing the scene of the crime, yet no one remembered such a suspicious-looking guy.

Although their superiors seemed disappointed, this was not beyond Mercader's expectation: the child was only six years old and was frightened. During the interview, his descriptions were different every time. Mercader almost suspected that he would have said that the murderer was a vampire if he had continued to ask. This problem often occurs when the survivors were a child, and there was nothing they could do about it.

But now, Garcia, who rushed in front of him, was obviously very excited. He said loudly: ‘Sir, we have made a new discovery!’

‘What is it?’ Mercader asked hopelessly. The last ‘new discovery’ had been the child finally speaking.

‘There's a high probability that a serial killer will return to the scene of the crime, right?’ Garcia said excitedly. ‘With this in mind, we reviewed the video footage from the vicinity of the crime scene in the days after each murder, and we found someone who is consistently appearing near the crime scene.’

As he spoke, he thrust the folder in his hand in front of Mercader. Mercader opened the folder and saw many screenshots from the camera. The surveillance quality was blurry, but the person's features were somewhat discernible.

‘Have you identified this person?’ Mercader inquired.

Garcia nodded eagerly: ‘This man's name is Orion Hunter, from Westland.’

Chapter 24: 60. The Altar of Isaac (2)

Chapter Text

Olga sized up the man in front of her: there was a perfectly good reason why she had heard great things about Orion Hunt. Even among bounty hunters, who essentially lived with a target on their backs, Hunter was a legend. Most bounty hunters thought he was completely insane.

Hunter got into the bounty hunting business for the thrill of it – much like how some people would ride a roller coaster ten times in one sitting at an amusem*nt park, Orion Hunter's way of seeking an adrenaline rush was by capturing criminals.

The story goes that the man tried to join SWAT at first, but it didn't work out; he then worked in the police department for a while, but then he quickly realised that even as a cop he couldn't kick down doors and shoot people on a daily basis. When he discovered the world of bounty hunting, he immediately entered this new world with glee and quickly became one of the best bounty hunters in the country.

If the story ended there, it might even be said to sound quite inspirational, but Hunter was never satisfied -- and soon for him, even fugitive criminals lost their allure to him as well. He began accepting only the most dangerous commissions, while spending his spare time independently researching and pursuing dangerous murderers, much like how storm chasers tracked tornadoes.

As a result, some say that if he weren't so focused on criminal hunting for the thrill and refused private hires, he could have left the bounty hunting business and gone straight to opening a detective agency.

From past experience, Olga knew that despite his seemingly crazy demeanor, Orion Hunter was actually quite insightful in his study of the murderers of dangerous criminal cases, and that his opinions were definitely worth listening to. So she chose to put her bag and the pile of lesson plans she hadn't ended up stuffing back into her bag back onto the table, and then propped her chin up with one hand.

‘What did you find out?’ She asked.

Hunter flashed her a smug grin before dropping a heavy folder on top of Olga's podium with a thud. Olga reached out and removed the folder before flipping it open, finding that it was indeed full of maps with marked lines drawn all over them, densely packed surveillance photos, newspaper clippings, and notes.

‘The “Family Butcher” committed eight crimes in total. I’ve taken notes on all of them and went on the ground to investigate each site -- Though of course, I have to say that the “Family Butcher” is an awful name, but slightly better than that of the “Family Killer”, which sounds almost like a family nutritional cereal name.’ He said.

Hunter's voice sounded coarse and heavy, like the kind of voice one would imagine an old hunter who lived in seclusion in the mountains and regularly wrestled with bears would have. He reached out and flicked to the first page of the folder, pointing out the photo and text notes on it to Olga, ‘Even the newspapers have said that the FBI investigation into suspicious individuals who have appeared around the scene of the crime has not yielded much luck. I’ve decided to start with the killer's car, and the killer must have had a car, right?’

‘Obviously,’ Olga agreed, ‘He committed crimes across multiple states. In two cases, he abducted children from their schools, but the police checked the cameras in the subway and surrounding stations and intersections but found no footage of any adults leaving with the victimised children. He definitely has a car.’

Hunter nodded happily, ‘But I followed that up by checking the footage near the various crime scenes, and there was no reoccurring car out and about. Besides, licence plates from other states would easily attract attention. I questioned a number of people -- including a vendor who makes fake licence plates -- and no one had any recollection of an out-of-state car appearing near the scene at the time of the crime, which can only mean that ...’

Olga wisely didn't bother to ask Hunter how he'd managed to view the CCTV footage that only the police were supposed to be able to see, or how he'd managed to find a guy who made fake licence plates close to the scene of the crime. She simply interjected with good grace, ‘The killer must have a car to be mobile, which makes sense. But the fact that no cars with reoccurring characteristics were found at the various scenes suggests that he wasn't driving the same car each time; and the fact that no out-of-state cars showed up suggests that he drove cars with local licence plates, whether the plates were real or not -- which opens up several possibilities.’

Hunter slowly held up four fingers, ‘Buying a used car locally and abandoning or selling it, renting a car locally, buying a stolen car locally through illegal means, or simply stealing a car... though the last one is a bit technical and very noticeable. ‘

Olga co*cked her head, ‘So, which one was it?’

‘Stolen car.’ Hunter spat out that correct answer forcefully, ‘He'll buy a stolen car locally -- one that's been repainted and had its licence plate changed -- and then resell it before he leaves the city. I questioned a couple of sketchy car garages in a few cities, and they all had some impression of a buyer with those characteristics. And the cars they sold have all turned up near the scene of the crime.’

Olga understood why the FBI hadn't discovered this lead: Let alone how much work Hunter had to do to find this information, the FBI had no way of knowing what locations were selling stolen cars; some of the older policemen may have some knowledge about it, but it was hard for the feds to think of this aspect. But then again, if the killer knew about all the underground black-market cars in the area...

‘You suspect the killer had other previous convictions?’ Olga asked, looking up suddenly.

‘I'm certain he has a criminal record. I'm in this business.’ Hunter said with confidence, ‘I have collected detailed descriptions of that customer's appearance from the shop owners. I believe it will be easy to find his identity, as long as --’

Olga clearly understood what he meant, ‘...As long as you have access to the police database.’

Hunter shrugged his shoulders, ‘Unfortunately, I can't. For reasons you know all too well.’

‘Yes, I've heard you've even been arrested for obstruction, the police in various states don't exactly have a good impression of you.’ Olga laughed a little, she had heard a lot of stories about Orion Hunter in the WLPD. After all, the bounty hunter's main base was in Westland.

‘Exactly.’ Hunter replied, ‘That's why I want you to help me -- I've heard you're a consultant for the WLPD, right?’

‘You came to me because you suspect he's come to Westland.’ Olga pointed out, ‘Why do you think he came to Westland?’

Hunter snorted disdainfully, ‘The usual bounty hunter routine: stalking, questioning and a little bribery. With all that previous experience, I've been following him since he committed the Buffalo case. He obviously went west along the interstate until he disappeared at the border of Westland -- and while it could be argued that Westland is my territory and I'm sure that I could find him if I took my time with the investigations, but I'm worried that this is a life-threatening matter, so I thought I had better come to you.’

Olga looked at him and said slowly, ‘You also think that this murderer will soon commit another offence.’

‘That's obvious, after all, he suffered an unmitigated major setback earlier.’ Hunter curled his lips, he made a lot of small moves when he spoke, ‘Okay, so are you going to help me or not?’

‘Actually, you knew before coming here that I would help you, didn't you?’ Olga said, leaning back against the podium, leisurely folding her arms in a somewhat lazy stance.

Hunter looked smug, and when he spoke again, there was a sly light flashing in his eyes, ‘After all, I've heard some interesting claims ... some people say that the WLPD’s consultant has an insatiable curiosity.’

Hardy rushed to the school for one reason: his daughter Clara hadn't gone to school.

Hardy himself was a police officer and his wife, Wallis Hardy, was a prosecutor. The two of them had met while working on a homicide case: that alone told you just how busy they both were with their jobs on a daily basis. Hardy himself had to admit that there were times when the couple were neglectful of their child due to their work, but he would never have imagined that something like this would happen.

Clara was ten years old and usually took the school bus to school. According to Clara's friend, she did take the bus to school with other students that morning, but once she arrived, she suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to bring the card paper for her craft class, so she went to the stationery shop near the school to buy card paper.

Originally, students entering the school were not allowed to leave the school gates, but little Clara had assured the security guard at the gate that she would be back as soon as she bought what she needed, and so she was able to leave the school temporarily before the craft class – however, she never returned. The craft teacher was alerted when she didn't show up for class. They had checked the stationery shop, but the owner of the shop said that Clara hadn't gone shopping at all.

The craft teacher was on the verge of tears as he recounted to Hardy what had happened, and Hardy's heart sank: because Clara had always been a good girl, and would never have faked being sick to skip school. But now he comforted the other side, ‘Maybe she just didn't want to go to class and snuck home. My wife's home, I'll call her and ask if Clara returned.’

The female teacher nodded tearfully at him, but Hardy had been a policeman for so many years that he himself couldn't say he had any hope for his guess.

He dialled Wallis's number and listened anxiously to the busy tone on his phone.

Hardy listened to the relentless beeping for ten, thirty, sixty seconds -- no one answered the phone.

Albarino Bacchus nearly collided with Olga in the corridor of the WLPD.

In the end, he'd taken the day off work out of annoyance -- there was nothing special about either of the two remaining unnatural deaths today, and he'd dumped the bodies on Tommy and one of his other assistants after reading the reports; if Tommy couldn't handle a case like this, then the head medical examiner would no longer mentor him. Counting the dates, it was also almost time for Tommy to take his forensic licence test, his dream of inspecting bodies at crime scenes would soon come true.

Albarino came to the WLPD to meet a prosecutor, he was responsible for the autopsy of a murder case that went to trial recently. He and the police officer who found the body were going to court as technical witnesses. Before that, the prosecutor wanted to talk to them about the defence strategy on the side of the defendant. If they wanted to convict the murderer, their words and deeds in the courtroom were very important. Since the prosecutor was coming to the WLPD, he stopped by just in time to hand Officer Bull the autopsy report that he had put together earlier.

Albarino had done something like this eighty times if not a hundred, and as a result he finished his part relatively quickly. He was about to leave when he saw Olga hurrying by with a visitor badge on her chest, followed by a limping middle-aged man.

The unusual pairing caught his eye. The man behind Olga had an unfamiliar face and definitely wasn’t from the police department. Before Albarino had the time to say hello, Olga grabbed him by the arm.

The other party didn’t even condescend to ask ‘What are you doing in the police station today?’ or any other pleasantries, instead, speaking directly: ‘Al, you came at just the right time, I have something good to show you.’

--Albarino didn't find this comforting, because the last time Olga said that, she had managed to steal an original letter from the Westland Pianist from the WLPD's archives, one of the many letters he'd sent to the police department after committing his crimes. Albarino had never been able to figure out just how she did it, but they both got a two-hour scolding from Hardy.

Albarino was dragged by Olga for two steps in confusion, while at the same time the man behind her asked, ‘...This is?’

‘This is Dr Bacchus,’ Olga cheerfully introduced, ‘the unlucky man who was falsely accused in the Bob Landon case.’

To be honest, Albarino really didn't want to leave the world with the impression that he was ‘the guy suspected of killing his ex-girlfriend,’ but it seemed that this was unavoidable. The man scrutinised Albarino from head to toe with a harsh gaze before saying, ‘I've been keeping an eye on you for a while now. You've had quite the eventful time lately, Dr Bacchus.’

--That didn't sound like a very friendly way to start off a greeting either. Albarino frowned slightly.

Then Olga continued, ‘And this is Orion Hunter.’

‘ -- The bounty hunter.’ Albarino said.

‘Everyone seems to know me. I'm flattered.’ Hunter said gruffly.

Albarino walked down the corridor with the two of them, noticing a number of police officers curiously glancing in their direction: it was exactly that, there were very few people who dealt with homicide cases who hadn't heard of Orion Hunter's infamous name. Albarino was simply confused as to why Olga would be bringing a bounty hunter through the doors of the WLPD.

And Olga obviously realised this as well, explaining to Albarino with an almost excited manner as she walked: ‘Mr. Hunter believes he has a lead on the recent serial killer, the 'Family Butcher', and I wanted to see if we could find him amongst those with previous criminal records, as delineated by his previous testimony and my profiling.’

Albarino was momentarily stunned: ‘...In other words, the man is in Westland?’

‘In Westland -- why not?’ Hunter let out a wide grin, his eyes sparkling, ‘It's a serial killer's paradise.’

Herstal's secretary, Emma, wore her usual impeccable makeup, and her hair neatly tied back. She always presented herself like a perfect character that people would envision in workplace dramas: perfect, expensive, and unattainable. She knocked on Herstal's office door and entered after hearing him say, ‘Come in.’

‘I called the prosecutor's office,’ she reported to her boss, ‘Ms. Wallis Hardy can't schedule an appointment with you today because she's home sick with a cold -- but tomorrow is the pre-trial hearing for the case. If you want to sign the immunity agreement before the hearing, time will be tight, so --’

She paused and raised the note in her hand.

‘I asked for her home address for you.’

Hestal looked up at her above a pile of case summaries and other documents. His gaze typically made most people in the law firm nervous, except perhaps only for the heartless Mr Holmes; and it took Emma two years under Hestal's employment to stop instinctively worrying about her lipstick smearing under his scrutiny.

In short, the other party simply nodded and asked succinctly, ‘No other appointments this morning?’

‘No, but there are two phone consultations scheduled for this afternoon.’ Emma replied, stepping forward as she did so and handed Herstal the sticky note with the address on it.

Herstal looked down at the sticky note in his hand, presumably estimating the proximity and traffic conditions of the address. He thought for a moment before saying, ‘There's plenty of time.’

‘Yes.’ Emma replied, watching as Herstal, almost compulsively, tidied the stack of documents and shuffled them until they all aligned with the edge of the desk before getting his coat. Then Emma added thoughtfully, ‘If Mr. Holmes comes looking for you this morning, I'll tell him you're out.’

Herstal nodded absentmindedly. At that moment, neither he nor his secretary would know that he would inevitably miss those two phone consultations due to unforeseen circ*mstances.

‘Black hair, tall, probably between 1.8 and 1.9 meters.’ Olga said, standing just behind the technician's chair as she watched the other woman enter the criteria into the database and sift through the information they needed.

The computer's database contained information on people with criminal records all over the United States. Even if they had limited their screening to a few states around where the cases had taken place, it was still like looking for a needle in a haystack. Of course, the more comprehensive and detailed the information they provided, the better.

‘There's a tattoo on his left arm.’ Hunter added, which was evidently one of the pieces of information he'd gotten from the owners of those garages selling stolen cars. ‘His criminal record should involve theft or gang activity, or else he was incarcerated for illegal street racing. People involved in such activities know the best places around the country to offload stolen cars.’

Albarino studied the man in a trance: he should have been a few years short of fifty, but seemed much older than he actually was. Someone who pursued a case like this and paid attention to such tedious and intricate details required exceptional perseverance, and his hard work was all but etched into actual lines piling up on his forehead. Despite this, his eyes looked frighteningly sharp.

‘He should be very young, having only started committing serious crimes in the past two years.’ Olga said, ‘As a general rule, just like his crimes, he himself has just matured—I suggest checking people between twenty and twenty-five.’

And Hunter cautioned, ‘He's travelling regularly, he was in New York State two weeks ago and entered Wasteland at least three days ago -- we should hope he used a credit card at least once, as credit card records could help us track him.’

‘But he obviously used cash when he bought the stolen car.’ Albarino objected.

Hunter gave him a disapproving look, ‘Even someone who is not intending to kill would pay in cash for a stolen car out of caution. But if he's arrogant enough, he might not be so careful when checking into a hotel or buying from a convenience store. As long as he’s used his credit card once, we can find him.’

‘Judging by his boldness in leaving videos for the police, he’s definitely arrogant.’ Olga snorted.

The technician's fingers flew over the keyboard, adding more criteria. Columns of text appeared on the screen. Then with a frown, he said, ‘Guys, there are over a hundred and twenty individuals like the one you're talking about in Westland alone.’

‘That's not all,’ Olga wagged her finger, ‘Check their family backgrounds -- divorced parents, long-term absentee parents for various reasons, adopted, drug-addicted, or those who lost custody due to domestic violence… This murderer's MO, in addition to killing the entire family, is particularly fond of letting the family members torture each other, which we generally attribute to psychological trauma. He must have had a terrible childhood: although this conclusion is cliché, it's quite effective.’

The technician input a few more commands: ‘There's thirty or so individuals left, and while it's not discriminatory, I really have to say that a lot of people with criminal pasts have all sorts of problems in their families as well.’

‘That's true.’ Albarino let out a laugh.

‘How many of these people are the only child?’ Olga asked suddenly.

‘What?’ Hunter's voice sounded bewildered.

‘Only child,’ Olga repeated patiently, ‘He's not picky, but he does have a preference for one-child families, and the one-child families in this series of cases have been particularly brutal.’

‘Nine.’ The technician reported.

Hunter nodded, ‘Okay, that's a small enough range --’

‘Exclude left handed individuals.’ Albarino instructed the technician, ‘One of the cases reported in the papers stated that the father of the family tried to fight back, and had his throat slit by the killer. The newspaper provided photos of the scene, and by looking at the direction of the blood splatter, the killer certainly couldn't have been left-handed.’

‘That only leaves six,’ Olga said quickly as she crossed her chair to look at the computer screen. The screen looked dizzying with the densely packed lists of information about those six people, but Olga quickly reached out and tapped on the screen, pointing to the second photo on the screen, ‘I think this person is the murderer.’

Albarino looked at her speechlessly. Despite knowing Olga for a long time, every time he saw a scene like this it still felt very surreal indeed.

Hunter's reaction was more intense, and he asked gruffly, ‘What?!’

‘The killer had hung an adult male from the roof in the first case, he can't be too weak. That rules out numbers four and six here, those two look like addicts. Number three looks fine, but his medical records show he has lupus, diagnosed after imprisonment. This photo was taken when he was incarcerated and he still looks strong, but he must have gained weight by now due to hormone treatments, this doesn't fit with the eye-witness testimonies of those witnesses. Numbers one and five are married, and a phone call to their wives would tell us if they have an alibi -- but I'm leaning towards the killer being unmarried, so I'll go with number two.’

Olga finished quickly and then looked leisurely at Hunter.

Hunter stared back, dumbfounded.

‘Well,’ Albarino nearly laughed as he interrupted the wordless stare-down, ‘I guess we'd better call the two married men.’

Herstal pulled into a parking space on the side of the road and walked to the front of the beautiful white house.

He didn't care about Bart Hardy's family, so he didn't even know that the man lived there, but Albarino must have known: some strange thoughts went through his mind as he walked up the steps: such as, he guessed that Albarino must have been invited to Hardy's house before, and that he might have walked up these very steps and knocked on the door --.

Herstal frowned suddenly before he reached out his hand to ring the doorbell.

Then without warning, he reached out and pushed the door.

With a long creak, the unlatched door swung open.

Hunter put down the phone and looked to the other two, ‘If they're not lying, their husbands have been home lately.’

‘Then, assuming that neither of them are lying, I'd say go with number two.’ Olga said with a smirk.

‘Of course it's possible that the man paid in cash throughout the whole process, so we didn't screen him out from the suspects at all.’ Hunter said hoarsely as he poured cold water on her, but Olga smiled at him unconcernedly.

At that moment, Albarino, who was staring at the personal data spread out on the computer screen, suddenly spoke up.

‘Maybe I'm being paranoid,’ he said with a frown, ‘but this man's credit card records ...the hotel he recently stayed in is across the street from Bart's daughter's school.’

Olga said ‘What's wrong with that’, and Hunter asked, ‘Who’s Bart?’

Albarino says slowly, ‘I was hoping it wouldn't be that coincidental, but he was supposed to go to the coroner's office today, but suddenly took a phone call and left in the middle, saying that his daughter had some issue at school. Anyway -- now that I think about it, I think that his expression was a bit abnormal.’

Olga slowly frowned as she listened too, and that was when Albarino's mobile phone suddenly rang, interrupted her thoughts. Albarino apologised to them and picked up the phone.

‘Herstal,’ after the caller said something unknown, the other two heard Albarino suddenly say with a smile, ‘So after something like this happened, your first reaction was to call me?’

Chapter 25: 61. The Altar of Isaac (3)

Chapter Text

‘...Even without Bart, it’s obvious,’ Olga whispered as she glanced around, ‘that there was a fight here.’

They stood in the centre of the Hardy's living room, surrounded by chaos: shattered glass vases, a carpet torn from its place, and overturned chairs; the sunlight slanting in through the open doorway added a touch of eerie atmosphere to the whole scene. And Herstal Armalight, who had contacted them, stood at the table, frowning and slightly irritated, but resolutely refused to look at Albarino.

And as if he hadn't noticed the other man's slight unnaturalness, Albarino glanced at Herstal and said, as if nothing had happened, ‘I thought you would call the police.’

‘You can take a look at the computer, the house was dark when I came in here and it was the only thing that was on,’ Herstal gestured to the computer on the table, its screen set to emanate a constant ghostly white light, ‘I don't think it's a good idea to go to the police after reading what's on it. ‘

When he said this, his eyes subtly passed over Albarino's shoulder and looked at Olga. When Olga and Hunter came over, he stepped aside to make room.

Olga peered over and saw that on the computer was an open document with some writing on it:

Dear Officer Hardy:

I assume thatyouhave visited your daughter's school before returning to your home, soyoushould already know what happened to sweet little Clara -- and in the same way, similarly,youshould be able to easily guess what happened toyourwife.

After all of this,youare surely asking the question, ‘Who are you?’

And I'm sureyou'veheard of me; some people call me the ‘Family Executioner’, and others the ‘Family Butcher’, neither of which I like very much, but they can succinctly describe the nature of the gameyou'reabout to face.

Naturally,yourwife and daughter are in my hands. I've placedyourwife high up in the air, much like how the sailors of old made ill-fated women walk the plank. I will make her fall from a great height and kiss the earth; andyourdaughter is in a dark little room, with a gas canister slowly leaking...I've estimated the time:youneed to find them before twelve noon, or they will both die.

This is a simple game with no complicated rules – search, and use the resources atyourdisposal. But be careful, don't letyourfellow police officers know about this or the game will be over much faster thanyouthink.

Yoursfaithfully,

3rd February 2017

In addition: I have attached a video link as a gift toyou, I suspectyouwill like it.

‘I feel,’ Hunter muttered gruffly, ‘that the person who wrote this letter is an unmitigated egomaniac.’

‘I contacted you guys because the person who wrote the letter threatened not to call the police, and I couldn't get through to Officer Hardy on his phone.’ Herstal added coldly in the background.

‘To be precise,’ Albarino glanced at him, and Herstal was sure that there was a mischievous smile in the bastard's eyes, ‘you contacted me.’

Herstal rolled his eyes at him.

‘So it’s obvious that the bastard did kidnap Clara and Wallis, and put them in deadly situations of falling from a height and being poisoned. I just don't know what's going on on Bart's end right now.’ Albarino coughed and said in all seriousness. He touched Olga's shoulder who was holding the computer mouse, ‘Olga, check out that link he gave.’

‘It's coming up.’ Olga replied in a whisper, clicking on the link.

Another new pop-up window quickly popped up, and by the time the image of the new window loaded, everyone in the room gasped: it looked like a surveillance video window with a slightly distorted image. The image was of a small, dimly lit room, with a little girl of no more than ten years old huddled in the corner.

After the image loaded, the little girl suddenly looked in the direction of the camera -- Herstal didn't think she could see the corresponding image from her side, and it was most likely the blinking red light of the camera that caught her attention. She jumped up and ran in the direction of the camera, her voice full of sobs when she opened her mouth.

‘Daddy!’ The child screamed, ‘Daddy, are you back!’

‘Oh my God,’ Herstal heard Albarino whisper, ‘Clara.’

Several minutes earlier --

Bart Hardy was so nervous as he rushed home that it made him feel nauseous.

He didn't naively tell himself that this was all a coincidence: his daughter had disappeared from school, and Wallis wasn't answering her phone. In fact, he'd heard a lot of stories about officers whose family members had been retaliated against by the criminals, but he had never imagined that such a thing could happen to him -- because as bad as law and order was in the city of Westland, he didn't handle gang-related cases that would make him enemies, and it wasn't as if the city's two serial killers had ever been the type to retaliate against police officers ... He had mentally prepared for a lot of things to happen to him once he became a police officer, but not for this one.

And he was nearly right: the door was ajar.

Hardy pushed the door open as the dead silence pressed down on him suffocatingly, as if it held a physical weight. His heart pounding wildly beneath his flesh and bone. His experience as a police officer told him that a fight had occurred in the messy room, and that if he switched on the light, he might even be able to see droplets of blood dripping onto the floor.

He called out Wallis' name without hope, his voice echoing in the empty chamber. The echoes mocked him like a malevolent spirit -- and there was a beam of light in the room, flickering like a dying spirit.

Hardy looked to the lit computer screen.

‘Clara,’ Olga confirmed that the microphone was on, and then spoke softly into the other end of the camera. For the first time, Herstal found it shocking that the usually difficult-to-deal with profiler could actually put on a warm, gentle voice. ‘It's me.’

Clara was obviously familiar with Olga's voice, and she really started crying when she spoke: ‘Olga!’.

‘Hush, don't cry.’ Olga soothed her, ‘Your father spoke to you already didn't he?’

‘Yes, but he left ... He told me to be good and stay here, and he'd find me and mom.’ Clara sobbed in answer.

‘That policeman can be pretty ruthless,’ Hunter whispered behind Olga, ‘If he continued talking to his daughter the whole time, he will become more distracted. For the sake of efficiency, he had to leave her alone, but -- ‘

‘But there's not enough time.’ Olga reached over and covered the computer's audio port, turning around with a frown, ‘The killer said he calculated the time and that both Clara and Wallis would be dead by twelve noon, and it’s now...’

‘Ten minutes short of eleven.’ Albarino looked down at his watch and told her.

Hunter's brow furrowed, ‘Though the Butcher didn't say so outright, he's practically forcing that officer of yours to make a choice -- do any of you feel confident enough to believe that a police officer could, without relying on anyone else’s help, find out within an hour or so the two different locations his wife and daughter are being held in, and get them out one by one? He can't, can he? He can only pick one path, and if he's unlucky, he'll lose both.’

‘It's okay, we can help him.’ Albarino said lightly.

Hunter turned his head to stare at him, like a falcon staring at its prey.

‘Didn't the serial killer tell Bart not to tell other police officers? With all due respect, none of us are police officers.’ Albarino shrugged, ‘Clara and Wallis are going to be fine -- but only if we can get in contact with Bart first, although I don't think he's likely to pick up the phone under these circ*mstances.’

‘Al's right,’ Olga said, ‘Why don't you three stay here and comfort Clara, and see if you can find any evidence in the house while I go to look for Bart. I'm guessing he may have returned to the police station. Although he can't tell anyone else about this, he can always use the resources at hand to check the surveillance or something if he's at the station.’

If Hardy really did go back to the police station, he may have passed them on the way back when they had just received the call from Herstal and headed straight to Hardy's home. Sometimes things were so coincidental that it was deeply frustrating.

Albarino nodded and Olga nodded briefly at them. She consoled Clara with a few words and then turned around and strode out of the house.

But Clara was obviously not really comforted, and the video still dutifully played out her distorted sobs; meanwhile, Albarino walked towards Herstal and gently touched the other man's wrist.

Herstal glared at him.

‘Go,’ Albarino urged, ‘go talk to the little girl.’

‘I don't even know her.’ Herstal hissed in a low voice.

‘Does this bounty hunter look to you like someone who could comfort a ten-year-old girl?’ Albarino tsked, and completely ignored Hunter's glare at him, ‘You're the only one who can do this -- for some reason, Clara's always been a little scared of me ever since she was a little child. Bart thinks it's because I'm a forensic pathologist and work with corpses every day. ‘

Herstal sighed and prepared to approach the computer, pausing just before he brushed past Albarino, and said in a voice so low that only the two of them could hear, ‘That could just be because she possesses a keen instinct when facing danger.’

Albarino flashed him an unpleasant, secretive smile.

The flight from Virginia to Westland took less than eighty minutes.

On their way to the airport, they contacted the Westland police, notifying the WLPD that a possible suspect known as the ‘Family Butcher’ was in Westland. If the FBI wanted to get involved in this case, it would be best to complete the necessary procedures before the plane landed at Westland Airport.

Officer Hardy, who worked with Lavazza Mercader, happened to be away from the police station for some reason, so the case was handed over to a police officer named Bull.

As the plane soared through the boundless blue sky, leaving long contrails behind its wings, Mercader sat in the cabin going through the previous case files as well as the information regarding Orion Hunter: this person appeared to be and unemployed vagrant, seemingly a rude and bad-tempered middle-aged man, with a couple of bad records for getting into bar fights and disrupting police enforcement. Other than that, there was nothing particularly wrong with him.

However, Mercader felt that something was off. Hunter did not fit the profile of a serial killer at all.

-- In hindsight, Mercader would learn that John Garcia's lapse in judgement on Hunter was almost an understandable mistake:

For in some states, bounty hunters needed to be licensed to practice, and in others, becoming a bounty hunter required little more than registering with the proper authorities. In Westland, one can become a legal bounty hunter by registering with the local police department, but naturally the WLPD's bounty hunter list was not shared online…

In short, before meeting with the local police, no one knew that Hunter was a bounty hunter. Since their department did not deal with bail jumpers, of course no one had ever heard of Orion Hunter's great name.

That's why Mercader was now frowning at Hunter's profile, because he didn't seem to fit their profile of the ‘Family Butcher’ particularly well. The man was even twenty or thirty years older than Mercader's profile suggested. Of course, profiling only provided a direction for the investigation, not a conclusion. The profile will always be slightly wrong, and a murderer beyond their expectations will always appear ... but such a large discrepancy was still very surprising.

But, if Orion Hunter wasn't the killer, why did he happen to be in a specific place at a specific time?

Of course, it would be even stranger if he really was a criminal. Mercader had found some of the man’s medical records in his file: Hunter had been admitted to the hospital five years ago for a comminuted leg fracture. The treatment was not very successful and had ended up leaving two steel nails in his leg bone that would probably never be taken out in his lifetime. Mercader suspected that the man would need crutches, and could a man on crutches really so easily control entire families like those in previous cases? Even with a gun in his hand, Mercader doubted it was possible.

He sat by the window, deep in thought until finally Garcia interrupted him. Garcia had been on his laptop earlier, probably communicating with someone from the WLPD online. Now he approached Mercader with a grim expression.

‘The WLPD ran the credit card of that Orion Hunter and found that his last purchase was around ten o’clock this morning when he bought a packet of cigarettes at the convenience store across the street from Westland State University.’ Garcia reported, ‘Then they contacted university security to check the surveillance footage and found Hunter in a nearby car park -- he got into a car in the car park, but it’s unclear where it went.

‘And then what?’ Mercader asked confused, finding such recent traces seemed like significant progress. He didn’t understand why Garcia looked so worried.

Garcia pursed his lips, evidently recalling some unpleasant rumors he’d heard during his time at BAU.

‘That car belongs to Olga Molozer,’ he said.

Hunter had gone to check the rest of the house, the two remaining men heard his limping steps echo further and further away. Herstal stayed by the computer, and for the first time that day, he felt uncharacteristically at a loss. Because if he had to say he wasn't good at something, it would probably be dealing with anything that had to do with children -- whether it was having them, delivering them, or calming crying babies.

But after Olga left, Clara had tried to quiet herself by biting her lip. Although she still looked miserable, she had at least managed to ask Herstal his name after their conversation began, and then started calling him ‘Mr. Armalight’ between her sniffles.

Then, to the best of her ability, she began describing what happened.

‘I shouldn't have left school in the middle of the day, our teacher said before that we weren't allowed to do that.’ she said quietly, sniffling. ‘... But I just wanted to buy some paper and paintbrushes. My mom wasn't feeling well this morning so daddy made me breakfast, and ended up burning my toast ... there was a delay and I forgot to bring the paper... I was going to go back as soon as I could, but someone came out of the side alley and grabbed me, dragging me into the alley and stuffing me into the trunk of their car --’

Albarino recalled the second suspect that Olga had pointed out at the time: a man named Jerome McAdam, whose face now floated obscurely in his memory.

‘Black hair, very tall,’ Albarino said, ‘Dark skin and black eyes?’

‘I can't remember clearly, maybe.’ Clara whispered. Maybe Albarino was right, because once she heard his voice, she somehow spoke even quieter.

‘If you’re really making her nervous, just stop talking.’ Herstal said, frowning at him.

‘You seem quite invested in this case.’ Albarino said suddenly, and Herstal saw a hidden smile flashing in those brightly coloured eyes, ‘I really thought before that when you encountered such a thing -- how should I put it -- that you would walk out of the room pretending as if you hadn't seen anything. I thought you wouldn't care, because it has nothing to do with you after all.’

Herstal once again pressed his hand against the computer's microphone, so that the little girl wouldn’t hear anything she shouldn't hear. He listened carefully and could hear Hunter limping along on the second floor, far away from them.

So he answered simply, ‘It’s not entirely unrelated to me. The suspect kidnapped the prosecutor in charge of my case.’

‘That way the prosecutor might even miss the trial,’ Albarino said with a smile, ‘Which I thought would work in your favour.’

‘That wouldn’t be a fair competition.’ Herstal shook his head disapprovingly, His gaze roamed over Albarino’s face, as if trying to see through the impenetrable mask for any truth. Then he spoke suddenly, ‘And I thought you wouldn't care either.’

‘Why wouldn’t I care? Officer Hardy is a respectable opponent and a good man.’ Albarino replied, his eyelashes lowering elegantly in a look that could be best described as compassionate. Though he was clearly in no position to talk about his admiration for ‘good people’, even this sounded ironic.

He was quiet for two seconds, as if enjoying the silence.

‘Herstal,’ Albarino continued after a moment, ‘It is foreseeable that Bart will inevitably become my enemy one day, but that doesn't mean that I won't help him in such a situation. I admit that I may not feel the same way about certain things as normal people do -- but different feelings don't necessarily have to produce completely different results. Do you understand what I mean?’

Hardy's fingers trembled as he typed on the keyboard.

He pulled up the surveillance footage for the street across his house, only to find out that he was unable to concentrate at all -- the somewhat blurry picture recording the busy traffic all melted into a ball in his eyes.

His heart was pounding, his breathing disorderly, and in the meantime, Officer Bull had come by and mentioned something about Quantico, the other man's voice confused, but Hardy hadn’t listened to a word of it. Finally, the other party came and went along the corridor, and Hardy only felt the burning pain in his eyes.

He understood the killer's implicit insinuations: how cruel it was, that even if he tried his best, he might only be able to save either his wife or his daughters, only one or the other, or possibly even neither. There would never be enough time, every second that ticked away, his little daughter was gradually suffocating to death in a small room, and her cries still lingered in his ears --.

Cars sped by in the surveillance footage, the timeline fast-forwarding rapidly. Hardy felt that he saw nothing suspicious, constantly worrying that he may have already missed the culprit.

And then --

Then a hand tightly grasped his wrist, the strength was beyond his expectations and he felt a burst of pain.

Hardy almost jumped as if he'd been stabbed, and he jerked his head around with such force that he almost twisted his neck. Olga Molozer was standing beside him, she stared at him intently, her eyes burning with cold fire.

‘I know now.’ Olga said succinctly.

Hardy went limp almost as if his strength had been drained.

He wanted to ask something, but the words were all caught in his throat, like hard lumps that he couldn't spit out. Olga nodded lightly at him, her lips twisting into a sneer.

‘Let me quote him. He said, ‘Use the resources at your disposal.’ This person -- a former FBI agent, professor of criminal psychology at Westland State University, and the best profiler the Behavioural Analysis Unit had seen in the past decade -- narrated in a calm voice, ‘Bart, in case you've forgotten, I am your resource.’

Chapter 26: 62. The Altar of Isaac (4)

Notes:

For anyone that's still curious about the Christmas present Al gave to Herstal, don't worry, Herstal just doesn't open it for a LONG LONG time, but it will get revealed eventually.

Chapter Text

Eleven o'clock. (11:00)

Mercader rushed off of the tarmac with such urgency that John Garcia had to jog behind to keep up with him.

Most of their team was handling a difficult kidnapping case and ransom case in North Carolina, leaving just the two of them to deal with the situation in Westland -- which wasn't surprising, seeing as a judge probably wouldn't even sign a warrant based on the mere coincidence of 'one person appearing near all the crime scenes', so there was no need for everyone to make such a trip for an arraignment.

With a mixture of excitement and confusion in his voice, Garcia asked, 'Sir, do you think ...?'

'I think it's highly unlikely that Molozer and the suspect being together is a coincidence.' Mercader's brow furrowed, 'I didn't initially think Hunter was the killer because he didn't match the profile... but profiles can be wrong. If Molozer showed interest in him and even left Westland State University with him --'

As much as he was always reluctant to admit, Olga Molozer was indeed rarely wrong.

'But why would she leave with the suspect? If he really is the killer, shouldn't she at least have called the police?' Garcia asked sharply, clearly reflecting the stories he'd heard about Olga from his colleagues during his time at the department.

Mercader didn't answer, but the question he had considered many times before did cross his mind -- namely, would Olga really do something like that? Would her curiosity one day slip so far down into the dark abyss that she would really become an accomplice to a criminal?

Since she had come into contact with the suspect, her own stance was worth scrutinizing -- if Hunter was indeed the murderer, Olga would have been able to pick up on the clues after meeting him. But since there was no movement on her end as of right now, she must have been hiding something.

Would she ultimately side with a murderer? Succumbing to the sinister pleasure and that terrible curiosity...

'In any case,' murmured Mercader, his voice sounding very grave, 'I must talk to her.'

Seven minutes past eleven. (11:07)

'I suspect that the name of the 'Family Butcher' is Jerome McAdam.' Olga said reasonably.

'Wh- what?' Hardy couldn't help but stutter. Not to mention the fact that he'd just encountered a traumatising situation where his wife and daughter had all been kidnapped by a serial killer, but Olga's abrupt rush in and saying 'I know what's happening and I've found the killer for you' was a bit too much for his heart to handle.

'It's a long story, it involves a bounty hunter, blah blah blah, it's not important.' Olga waved her hand, deciding to gloss over Hunter's business for now, otherwise the story would be a bit too long. 'Anyway, I'm investigating the serial killer and have defined a range based on the profile. The most likely suspect is Jerome McAdam -- twenty-four years old, lives alone; he's a victim of domestic violence. According to the local social workers, his mother favoured his brother over him and beat him a lot, in any case, she ended up being stripped of custody, and McAdam grew up in an orphanage. He's got a juvenile history of brawling, burglary and arson. And his appearance matches some of the eyewitness testimonies.'

Hardy digested the information quickly, he thought about it for a moment, then admitted, 'A typical serial killer profile.'

'-- Standard to the point of being boring, not that all serial killers wet the beds and commit arson.' Olga snorted lazily, 'And it's basically confirmed now that bought a stolen car with a changed license plate and repainted it to get to the crime scene, but I presume there's not enough time to start investigating Westland's black market cars now. How far have you gotten with the investigation?'

'Comparing cars that pass in front of my daughter's school and my house.' Hardy admitted, 'It's difficult, my house is near a main road, there's too many cars -- not to mention in front of the school, it's even worse.'

'When did Clara go missing?' Olga asked, she looked past Hardy's gaze at the CCTV windows lined up on the screen.

'Before the craft class started, between ten past nine and nine thirty.' Hardy answered immediately, he'd asked for this sort of information after he'd gone to the school.

Olga nodded, obviously deep in thought, 'You go to work at 8:30, your house is very close to the police station, even taking into account the traffic jams, the journey shouldn't take more than twenty minutes. However, the murderer would not risk acting out before you left for work for safety reasons. The last time I visited your home, Wallis said that Clara's school bus stopped in front of your house at eight forty. The process of committing the crime...by the way, how was Clara abducted?'

'She left school to buy supplies for her craft class.' Hardy said bitterly.

He knew about his daughter's craft class, but he had forgotten to remind her to bring the materials before he left for work that morning. If he had remembered to remind her, Clara definitely would not have left the school.

'So it was an unexpected opportunity, definitely beyond the serial killer's expectations.' Olga laughed suddenly, her voice bursting with a bit of excitement, 'I surmise that his M.O. went something like this: he'd been stalking the area around your house, then realised that Wallis had taken the day off from work and so decided to strike today. He didn't have an opportunity to strike when Clara took the school bus in the morning, so he had planned to wait for her to get out of school, but he hadn't expected that Clara would leave the school in the middle of the day...he first abducted Clara from the school, then went back to your house to attack Wallis, before taking the two with him to who knows where after that.'

Hardy's eyes widened a little, 'That means ...'

'I'm sorry, but I reckon this murderer's target after coming to Westland was your family from the beginning.' Olga shrugged.

Hardy was speechless for a moment.

Olga looked at Hardy's ugly expression and sighed before continuing, 'There's no point in saying more now, the most important thing is to find the person first, and then we can ask the motive. Only then will we know why he chose you. But even if Clara had disappeared at ten past nine, the murderer could only arrive at your doorstep after half past nine. I suggest you start your investigation from this point.'

Hardy nodded: he'd just been looking at the footage from Clara's school, but hadn't yet looked at the ones from his own doorstep.

He pulled up a new window and explained to Olga, 'There is no camera facing my door, but this camera is located at the intersection in front of my house. If you want to drive from Clara's school to the driveway in front of my house, you must turn around at this intersection.'

'I'm sure he drove.' Olga muttered.

Hardy dragged the timeline to nine-thirty, then adjusted the speed to play four times as fast, and the picture began to play rapidly forwards. The traffic flowed smoothly across the screen: the road was not particularly congested during the morning rush hour, and there were not many cars turning around at the intersection. However, the possibilities were still so numerous that it felt despairingly desperate.

Olga seemed to understood what he was feeling inside, so she even willingly patted him on the shoulder in a comforting nature.

'It's okay,' she said in a light voice, 'Looking at the scene at your house, the fight happened very quickly. We only need to check the footage between nine-thirty and nine-forty-five. We should note all SUVs, the car he purchased for other cases were all SUVs -- eliminate red and other brightly coloured ones, and pay more attention to gray and black cars. After all, it's human nature to want to keep a low profile when stalking'

Olga's voice trailed off as the security camera fast-forwarded to nine thirty-nine.

She started hitting Hardy's arm. 'Stop, stop, look at that car.'

-- Olga poked the screen with her finger: there was a black SUV making a U-turn at the intersection on the monitor. Hardy paused the video and felt a flicker of anticipation in his heart.

'I remember these streets have all uniformly been replaced with HD cameras in the past two years, let's see if we can zoom in.' Olga said.

Hardy followed her instructions and enlarged the images. The high-definition cameras were indeed high-definition enough. It seemed that the Ministry of Transportation's propaganda of 'clearly seeing from the cameras whether the driver is playing on their phone or not' was indeed not an exaggeration. However, although the camera could capture the windscreen of the car, it was very unfortunate that the driver's face could not be seen clearly: the driver's face was obscured by sunglasses and the brim of their baseball cap pulled down low. While it was indeed strange to dress like this while sitting in a car, it was not concrete evidence that he was really the suspect.

'Rewind for a few seconds, rewind back to the shot of the side of the car. Just there, it looked to me like there was something on the side of the body.' Olga said.

Hardy clicked the mouse, and the screen went back a few seconds; Olga took the mouse from Hardy's hand and adjusted the zoom ratio to the maximum so that it was possible to see that there was a long scratch on the side of the car, likely from an accident.

Olga tapped the screen again, 'Did you notice that the paint on this car is black, but the layer underneath the part where the paint was scratched off is red. Have you ever seen a car that was red before it was painted?'

'...This car was repainted?' Hardy's voice rose.

'Nine times out of ten, isn't it human nature to paint a stolen high-profile red car black?' Olga said as she turned suddenly and grabbed the laptop on Hardy's desk, 'You keep tracking where this car is going, and I'll take a look at the rest of the footage just to be on the safe side: if the driver of this car has been stalking you for a long time, this car must appear often around your home.'

Eleven-fourteen. (11:14)

'Okay, Clara.' Herstal asked patiently, 'What do you see?'

'There is a very narrow window near the roof of the room, and I can't open the door, it won't budge.' Clara reported. Apparently the camera the killer had left her with had a rather narrow field of view, she only needed to take a few steps to disappear from Herstal's sight. 'There's nothing in the room, except for a metal shelf high up with a ... metal can on it.'

'A metal can?' A sense of foreboding rose in Herstal's heart.

'It's hissing slowly and there's an awful smell.' Clara said, her voice breaking into a sob as she spoke the last word, 'Is that poisonous? Will I die?'

'It's okay, we'll find you soon and nothing will happen.' Herstal reassured her stiffly, glancing in Albarino's direction as he did so: the person who had pushed him into this helpless situation was roaming around the room like nothing was happening, refusing to even take half a step closer to the computer.

Herstal was not surprised. Albarino probably enjoy watching him struggle with situations he wasn't familiar with: whether it was him being kidnapped by a perverted murderer or him having to comfort a kidnapped little girl.

'You're so nice.' The little girl said tearfully.

-- Hearing her say that, Herstal couldn't help but glare at Albarino again. The other party exaggeratedly covered his chest in a corner where Clara couldn't see him with a fake, melodramatic, 'I'm so heartbroken' expression.

'Are you able to reach that metal can?' Herstal continued, trying to push aside his urge to curse. Right now, finding a way to solve the problem of Clara dying of carbon monoxide poisoning was the most important thing.

Once again, Clara left the range of the screen, obviously trying to reach the metal can. After a short while she returned, her voice sounding frustrated, 'I can't reach it, it's placed too high up... I feel a little sick and my head is starting to hurt.'

You didn't even need to be a doctor to understand what this meant: it was clearly an early symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning. It appeared that the concentration of carbon monoxide in the room had gradually increased.

Albarino had obviously heard her, because he almost immediately threw away his 'stay away and don't get close' rule out the window. He quickly returned to the screen and leaned over Herstal's shoulder. He didn't seem to mind that his lips were almost brushing against the other man's earlobe.

He said, 'Clara, sit down and don't walk or run ...stay away from the can, that's right.'

The child sat down as she was told and curled up into a tiny ball in the camera feed.

Carbon monoxide intake can be reduced with slow and steady breathing, but that method may not be enough to support her for long either. According to the serial killer, the concentration of carbon monoxide in the room would be enough to kill by about twelve o'clock, and long before that, deep carbon monoxide poisoning could result in irreversible damage to the person.

-- Leaving them with not enough time.

t was around this time that Hunter limped back in, undoubtedly bringing yet another piece of bad news. As soon as he entered the room, he shouted, 'All I found was that the woman was dragged out of bed, nothing else. No clue where that son of a bitch went.'

No one had the time to address the issue of adults using foul language in front of a child. Herstal pinched his brow with a headache and realised that this wasn't going to work, 'Clara, do you have any idea how long it took to get from your house to where you're currently being held?'

'The man put me in the trunk,' Clara said, 'but I know it took eighteen minutes.'

She held up her wrist to show Herstal her cute light blue watch: one of those glow-in-the-dark cartoon watches popular among kids. And true to form, Clara, being the daughter of one of the WLPD's best homicide police officers, had remembered to look at her watch to calculate the time while being kidnapped, something most little girls wouldn't have thought to do.

Albarino obviously understood what Herstal was trying to do. He turned to Hunter and asked, 'Do you have a map of the city? And a pen?'

'A bounty hunter has everything on him, young man.' Hunter winked at him slyly. He nimbly dropped the backpack he'd been carrying on his back earlier and pulled out a large map and two different coloured markers.

'The speed limit in the city averages sixty kilometres per hour, but consider the morning rush hour and you'll be thankful to go over forty.' Albarino said as he used the marker as a makeshift ruler to measure the scale of the map, 'Even if the car drove straight for eighteen minutes, it would only go as far as ...'

He quickly did some mental calculations and drew a circle on the map centered on Hardy's house, within which were all possible locations where the murderer had imprisoned Clara.

Meanwhile, Herstal continued asking Clara for more details, his voice as gentle as he could manage -- though Albarino could still detect a stiff undertone in his voice -- it was definitely enough to surprise the interns he'd scared into tears and the opposing lawyers he had mocked.

After a moment, Clara suddenly cried out, 'I remember! The car kept stopping and starting for a few minutes before it stopped completely. I could hear lots of honking! Until the car turned to the side of the road and stopped!'

'There must have been a traffic jam. You guys should thank God that I know Westland very well.' Hunter said loudly as he staggered closer, his cane thumping the ground. Then he jerked the marker away from Albarino and began to scribble on the map, 'The killer was stuck in traffic before he reached his destination, and these are the only two roads near the edge of this circle that experience morning rush hour traffic ...'

He marked two perfectly parallel streets on the map, both located at the eastern edge of the circle. Both streets led to the city's financial district, lined with office buildings, so it was no wonder there was a traffic jam.

Herstal leaned over to look at the map, still tense and obviously not at all relaxed by this discovery, 'So she must be near one of these two roads right now, the question is: which one is it.'

Searching every potential hideout that could be holding a little girl along even one of the streets was already challenging enough, let alone both. Judging by the limited time left, they couldn't afford any chance of a wrong judgement.

Eleven-twenty. (11:20)

'Judging from the surveillance, that car has indeed been frequenting your neighbourhood lately. I think it's the suspect's car.' Olga threw away the mouse and said, 'What have you got on your end.'

'I could tell he was heading east of the city, but I quickly lost him on the security footage.' Hardy said in frustration, 'Once you lose him on the two intersections, it's practically impossible to find his car again.'

Olga agreed deeply: the east side of the city was quite busy, with high traffic volumes. It would only be a waste of time to check the cameras one by one.

'He probably reached your house around nine-forty, and it must have taken until about nine-fifty to kidnaps Wallis and sets off again.' Olga considered, 'He likely didn't take her far, but if he went to the east side of the city... where did you lose track of him?'

Hardy reported a place that was towards the east of the city, an urban area that was known for its wide lanes and intricate roads and overpasses, any cars going in that direction was basically like a drop of water blending into the ocean. It would basically be impossible to find an answer if you didn't call in an entire team of police officers to check out the CCTV footage day and night.

It was at this time that a new message alert suddenly popped up on Olga's mobile phone. It was from Albarino. She looked down for a few moments, then blinked and suddenly smiled.

'There's an update from Al and the others, they've determined that the killer's car must have passed one of two roads, so that narrows it down by quite a lot.' Olga said, naming the streets while her fingers rapidly typed on the keyboard to input the vehicle's characteristics.

'Wait a minute ... Al?' Hardy was oblivious to the recent developments. He had no idea that shortly after he had left the house, Herstal had gone to find Wallis.

'Uh huh, they're helping to save your daughter.' Olga hummed vaguely, but there was obviously no time to explain in more detail.

Now of course, they could theoretically line up the security footage from both roads and observe them one by one, but given the amount of traffic and their limited time, this approach seemed very impractical. But Hardy had already started desperately pulling up the CCTV footage from both streets, while Olga went back to her laptop and started typing away.

'I'm guessing the killer went in that direction to tie Wallis to a building and complete his setup.' Olga murmured, 'This can help us define a range: not too far away from the financial district, since he can't be sure how fast you'll react; also, the serial killer would have picked a building that was suitable for the crime, unoccupied, and high enough. This kind of killer who loves to leave the police with video footage of him mutilating his victims usually have a tendency to flaunt their peaco*ck feathers. If he had to choose, he would definitely choose to have a prosecutor fall from a great height and experience a bloody fall smashing into the pavement. Any buildings under ten floors don't even need to be considered; lastly, he'd definitely pick a building that's unoccupied, there's no ordinary homes in that area, and if he wanted to commit a crime during the daytime, he would definitely have chosen a building that's not in use.'

Hardy walked over briskly and couldn't help but ask, 'That area is very busy, won't he worry about being discovered?'

'To be honest, serial killers never lack the confidence that they won't get caught.' Olga snorted and laughed. She pulled up a map marked in red, 'Oh, here: there's a series of buildings that were developed near the direction the Butcher was heading. Three high-end office buildings, all over twenty stories tall; they were built but have remained unoccupied because of failed fire safety inspections.'

Hardy looked at Olga in horror.

'Yes, I mean exactly what you think.' Olga confirmed in a calm tone.

Eleven twenty-three. (11:23)

Albarino suddenly exclaimed, 'Ah!' and stared fixedly ahead, prompting the other two to look at him. Suddenly he asked Clara, 'How's the soundproofing in the room you're in?'

'Not good,' Clara replied through her tears, 'I can hear cars passing on the street outside.'

Albarino smiled with satisfaction and took out his phone before dialling 911. When the call was answered, Albarino said to the operator in a convincingly urgent and anxious tone, 'Hello, I'm at the intersection of 15th Avenue and Klem Road. There's an elderly man here who's collapsed and is convulsing. We need an ambulance. '

-- 15th Avenue was one of the two congested roads.

Herstal raised his eyebrows as Albarino calmly hung up and explained, 'There's a hospital at the end of 15th Avenue. They'll dispatch an ambulance that will travel the entire length of 15th Avenue before it reaches the intersection with Klem Road -- Clara, if you hear ambulance sirens, let us know immediately.'

'So,' Herstal said, 'if she hears the ambulance, she's on 15th Avenue. If not, she's on the other street.'

'Let's hope so,' Albarino replied, winking. 'Or there might just happen to be another ambulance passing near her street, or maybe the traffic jam she encountered was just a sudden congestion caused by a car accident, and we've misjudged the street -- then it's just a case of us not being blessed by the Fates.'

He was right; without other evidence, this was their best course of action. So all they could do was wait – each passing second that ticked by was excruciating, and at the same time, it was clear that the concentration of carbon monoxide in the small room Clara was in was getting higher and higher. They could hear the girl starting to dry-heave.

Then, after about five minutes or so, finally --

'I hear an ambulance!' They heard the girl call out.

Eleven thirty. (11:30)

'Good news, Al says they've basically pinpointed where Clara is and they're heading that way right now.' Olga explained as she and Hardy hurried through the front lobby of the WLPD, past the same place where they had once set up the Christmas tree. They'd had to delay for a few more minutes just now, searching for any other eligible high-rise buildings in the vicinity of the murderer's recent activity sites -- the little time they would have to search after they arrive would be precious, and if they were to search in the wrong place from the get go, it would be all over.

But there was good news: there really weren't that many buildings that matched the criteria, only those three.

Three buildings weren't many, but searching them one by one would still waste time. However, with both of them working together, they had a good chance. The morning rush hour had passed, and if the speed limit weren't taken into consideration, it would only take about fifteen minutes by car to get to the location of those office buildings.

But just as the two of them were about to walk out of the police station --

'Molozer!'

Hearing the familiar voice call her name, Olga stopped abruptly and looked up to see Lavazza Mercader standing at the entrance of the police station with a grim face and furrowed brow. Moreover... this person subtly placed one hand on his shirt hem, right where his waist holster was located.

'I need to talk to you, Molozer -- now.' Mercader's voice was cold, and his expression was unusually complex -- Olga actually knew what such a look meant, but she tended not to think about it in detail, 'I came when Officer Bull called to tell me that you were at the station now.'

Olga stared at him, then suddenly grinned.

'What would you do if I don't want to talk to you?' She asked nonchalantly, 'Are you determined to shoot me this time?'

Chapter 27: 63. The Altar of Isaac (5)

Chapter Text

Eleven thirty-one. (11:31)

Olga was blocked in the doorway by Mercader, and the other officers in the hall turned to look in their direction. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Hardy quietly slipping out of the station, evidently taking it upon himself to find Wallis.

At this point, explaining everything to Mercader wouldn't have necessarily been difficult (and she knew that he would believe her if she told him), however, Olga was wary of explaining the situation easily to him.

-- The consequence of telling Mercader the truth would likely result in a fully armed SWAT team storming the crime scene, even though the killer had explicitly warned against involving the police...this couldn’t even be blamed on Mercader. Deploying one or more SWAT teams to the kidnapping site to rescue the hostage was standard procedure, and a mere ‘the killer said not to involve the police’ wouldn't stop them.

How strong were the Butcher's counter-surveillance capabilities? Would he choose to throw Wallis off the building at the first sight of anything suspicious? Olga really didn't want to take that risk.

She desperately wanted to sigh and head to the ‘I Quit’ bar for a drink -- the name of the bar had never felt more appropriate -- and Mercader, with a taut face, finally stated the purpose of his sudden appearance in Westland.

‘You should know of the serial killer, the ‘Family Butcher,’ who was previously in Buffalo,’ he said, ‘and whom we suspect to be a man by the name of Orion Hunter – someone who was seen with you before. Do you know where he is, Molozer?’

Olga really couldn't help but roll her eyes at Mercader and the unknown sidekick behind him.

‘I've imagined you making a lot of mistakes, Mercader.’ She said sincerely, ‘But the mistake you’ve made today was definitely the stupidest one I could have ever imagined.’

Eleven thirty-eight. (11:38)

‘Albarino, we have to go faster.’ Herstal urged, ‘She's not answering me anymore.’

-- The situation was now this: Albarino, Herstal, and old Hunter were all crammed into Herstal's Rolls-Royce Phantom, with Albarino behind the wheel. He was usually a steady driver, but now he was driving as fast as he could, cutting the time it took to travel by half.

Under normal circ*mstances, Herstal would have died before letting Albarino touch the steering wheel of his car, but now he could only sit in the passenger seat with Hardy's laptop on his lap, connected to Hunter's mobile hotspot.

They didn't dare break contact with Clara so easily, but at this point in time, it could only be used to show them how the silent footsteps of Death was slowly approaching: Clara had thrown up once while they were leaving Hardy's house, and now she was just nestled weakly in a corner that was just within the range of the camera, letting out indistinct moans whenever Herstal called her name.

‘Clara said it took eighteen minutes from Bart's house, and about five minutes from that hospital.’ Albarino's fingers tapped rhythmically on the steering wheel, ‘The lanes aren't as congested in this direction now as they were in the morning, and I'm pretty sure I just ran two red lights ...we're probably almost there -- Herstal, is she still able to answer you?’

‘I'm afraid not.’ Herstal replied with frown.

Trying to find the location where Clara was being held instantly became more troublesome. From her description, she’ve should be in a basem*nt, but ... Herstal glanced around through the car window: both sides of the street were lined with single-family homes, each one likely having a basem*nt.

Old Hunter cursed gruffly in the back seat, while Albarino didn’t seem too desperate. He remained focused and concentrated on looking straight ahead, saying: ‘Just there, Clara mentioned that there was a window in the roof. We just need to find a house with a basem*nt above ground level… Herstal, can you hear the sounds of vehicles honking outside if you turn the volume up?’

The street was somewhat congested, with horns blaring sporadically. Herstal did as he was told, listening for a moment and then said, ‘Yes, but it's very faint.’

‘That doesn't matter, use the same method as earlier.’ Albarino nodded, ‘I’ll continue to honk the horn to distinguish it from the horns of other cars. When you can hear the sound of the horn from the computer, we must be very close to the basem*nt, and then we can get out of the car to search.’

Hunter kept peering forward from the back seat of the car to look at the computer screen in front of him, then he said rather bluntly, ‘Then you'd better hurry, I'm afraid the little girl won't last much longer.’

Eleven forty. (11:40)

‘Hunter's just a bounty hunter, nothing more. Didn't the WLPD’s registration files confirm that?’ Olga said in annoyance. She was now sitting behind the table of an interrogation room -- an unusual position for her as she usually sat on the other side of the table -- but since she wasn't handcuffed, she casually propped her feet onto the table.

‘Yes, he does appear to be a bounty hunter from the registration papers. But until he can provide the police with an alibi, he's still a suspect. You know the procedure.’ Mercader insisted, ‘And until we bring him in, you can't leave; it’s protocol…and it’s for your own good too.’

Although the conflicted expression on his face indicated that he seemed to have something else on his mind that he was holding back.

Olga snorted, feeling a little annoyed by the time that was slowly slipping away. ‘Even if I say I have more important things to do now, that won't work?’

‘Nothing will work unless you tell us why he came looking for you.’ Mercader shook his head in exasperation, his frown deepening, ‘I don't understand Molozer, if he's not the murderer in this case, what the hell do you have to hide? Tell me what you're with Hunter for and I'll let you go.’

The whole reason for her concealment was, of course, to keep the WLPD from sending a whole SWAT team to the murderer's location. Olga rolled her eyes at the ceiling.

‘In fact, you don't even believe in your heart that he's a suspect in the Buffalo case; your professional judgement told you a long time ago that he doesn't fit the profile, didn't it? You're just holding onto this now simply because the person you really don't trust is me.’ Olga didn't bother to hide the vicious note of sarcasm in her voice. She had figured out long ago the best wording to use to jab at Lavazza Mercader by mentioning these past events, ‘Does this scene look familiar? It's almost like going back to my time in the BAU, the time when you went to the higher-ups and told them that although I had a high crime solving rate, my personality was not trustworthy?’

‘Olga!’ Mercader suddenly raised his voice, visibly losing his composure.

Then Olga shut up and they were silent for a difficult ten seconds. Immediately afterwards Mercader said slowly, ‘…I want to trust you emotionally. I know you’re the best among us.’

Olga coldly interjected, ‘But intellectually --’

‘But intellectually, I must remind our superior of the many problems with your personality.’ Mercader continued calmly, his gaze lowering, ‘...I'm in charge of the BAU now, I have to do things like this.’

‘But what exactly is wrong with my personality?’ Surprisingly, Olga softened her tone when she spoke again, like a predator silently stalking its prey in the grass.

Then she continued, ‘Haven't you heard the famous quote by Frederick Wiseman[1]? ‘The camera should be like a fly on the wall.’ An excellent observer should remain unnoticed by the observed -- if I knew who the Butcher was, why would I happily join his tasteless hunt?’

[1] American documentary film director and screenwriter.

‘You would not.’ Mercader said with certainty.

‘So?’ Olga huffed, ‘I notice I'm still stuck in the interrogation room.’

Mercader was silent for a few more seconds, as if hesitating about something. Hesitation made him less like him; the head of the BAU had always been vigorous and resolute.

Then he suddenly raised his eyes, looked straight at Olga, and asked, ‘But supposing this excellent observer were sitting in the best seats in the theatre, could she really tolerate others interrupting this performance?’

Olga was silent for a moment and opened her mouth to say something, but just at that moment, there was a knock on the door. Mercader took a deep breath and tried in vain to smoothen his composure, then turned and opened the door.

Outside the door stood John Garcia, who had no intention of hiding the excitement in his voice, ‘Sir, two officers on patrol near 15th Avenue have sent word that while following a speeding Rolls Royce on the road, they noticed that one of the men in the car had a profile that matched Orion Hunter's description.’

‘Is that so? Let’s discuss it outside.’ Mercader replied, glancing back at Olga, who was still lounging back in her chair, watching him coldly.

‘I'll talk to you when I get back.’ Mercader told her.

Eleven forty-two. (11:42)

-- Hardy could already see the three buildings from among the forest of towering structures.

His experience patrolling the streets and alleys of Westland before his promotion to an officer was finally paying off. In just about ten minutes, he had taken a shortcut and was now approaching the three unused buildings.

Two of the three buildings had already been constructed, their tempered glass shimmering in the noon sunlight. The construction of the third had halted because the fire safety design review for the first two buildings had not yet been approved, leaving scaffolding and green netting still in place on the top floors.

Hardy himself, of course, trusted Albarino with his daughter's side of things -- he had no other choice, given the current circ*mstances. Even so, managing just one side of things was starting to become overwhelming. Thoroughly searching all three buildings seemed like an impossible task; if Olga had been there, they could have split up, but now ...

Hardy took a deep breath, but it did nothing to calm the deafening pounding of his heart.

Eleven forty-three. (11:43)

‘I can hear the horn.’ Herstal said.

At the same time, Albarino jerked the steering wheel abruptly and the car came to a sharp stop on the side of the road. It had to be said that his parking skills were impressively clean and sharp, but then again -- the other drivers who had been startled by his sudden movements were honking their horns furiously behind him. On top of this, where they were currently parked certainly wasn't a legal parking spot.

Albarino, of course, didn't care so much. He simply opened the door and jumped out of the car, turning back to Hunter before he got out and said, ‘You call an ambulance first, and also help me find out where I can borrow an ice pack. If the ambulance doesn't come right away, I'll need to administer emergency first aid treatment.’

By the time he said the last few words, he had already swiftly jumped onto the pavement and vaulted over a fence, landing into the yard of the nearest house. But of course, this was the only way they could find the basem*nt, although theoretically, this probably violated certain laws.

Herstal was a few steps slower than him, only managing to catch a glimpse of his back as he leapt into someone else's yard. To some extent, he still felt annoyed, but probably more surprised: Albarino was becoming much more active in this matter than he would have ever expected, because he should not care. Herstal knew that ‘because Officer Hardy is a respectable opponent’ was still not good enough of a reason either.

It was true that Albarino could, at certain times, give off a strange illusion of inherent gentleness. Such as when he woke up in the other's cabin cornered by a dim light or the hint of a smile on the corner of Albarino's mouth when he had handed him that bell on Christmas Eve.

Thus, he couldn't help but want to sigh.

Eleven forty-five. (11:45)

Garcia reported that the two officers had tailed the car for two blocks before unfortunately being outpaced by the other car at a frighteningly high speed -- but Mercader didn't feel too anxious. He simply asked Officer Bull to arrange for more men to be sent over to search the area.

‘The Rolls-Royce should be relatively easy to find,’ he said, ‘and in any case, don't do anything rash once you find it; we don't have a warrant, so we'll have to ask him to come to the station and talk to us.’

Despite his words, Garcia still looked excited, as if finding Orion Hunter would definitely confirm him to be the murderer ...But now, Mercader hesitated: Olga was right. He had checked the registration documents within the WLPD, Hunter was indeed a bounty hunter. Was it all just a coincidence, as Olga had said? But why would Hunter, a bounty hunter, be investigating the case of the Butcher? And why wouldn't Olga say anything?

He had a vague premonition that the situation had gradually spiralled beyond his control and was gradually leading to an even worse outcome.

He tried to shake off this ominous premonition and arranged for Garcia to continue to follow up on the investigation. Then, after that, he walked back to the interrogation room and hoped to pry something out of Olga again -- when he was no longer standing in front of Olga, he realized that he was silently praying (he didn't believe in a god, so who was he praying to?) that Olga hadn't actually cooperated with the Family Butcher, who wasn’t even in line with her usual taste for criminals.

These thoughts flitted through his mind like snowflakes, so subtle that he was barely aware of them himself. Then he took a deep breath and pushed open the door.

His hand froze.

Olga was gone.

The chair in which she had sat before was empty. The window of the interrogation room had been pried open a crack, and through that crack, a steady stream of cold air poured in, like some kind of mockery, coldly and blatantly displayed in front of Lavazza Mercader's face.

Eleven forty-nine. (11:49)

‘Over here!’

When Albarino heard Herstal's voice, he had just trampled over the freshly tidied flowerbeds of two yards and avoided a barking dog. It's difficult for the average person to imagine the series of chaotic events that unfold behind the scenes of a rescue against the race of time.

He reached Herstal by jumping over a Canadian red maple that had not yet sprouted new leaves, and in the process he accidentally broke a few of its branches. The latter was now standing in front of the basem*nt of a neglected house, where a small figure could be seen huddled on the dirty floor through a greyish window. The window rose a foot above the ground and appeared to have never been cleaned before.

Jerome McAdam was from Buffalo and it wasn’t like he would be staying here long term. This house was most likely an unsold home that he had holed up in. Houses along this stretch of road were extremely expensive, and the people who could afford to pay that amount of money were more likely to find a house more comfortable than to settle down here. The real estate agents probably did not have many customers who wanted to view the house every day.

These questions would be answered once the suspect was caught. Now was not the time to think about this. The two men exchanged a glance before Albarino rushed to the door in two strides and kicked it open.

Unlike the way it often played out in forensic crime dramas, forensic scientists and profilers would never, ever go to a suspect's door and kick it in on a regular basis. Albarino's actions were unfamiliar and slightly clumsy, but the good news was that the results were effective: the door opened with a crisp sound of cracking wood.

The two men walked inside, and Albarino had a feeling that something was amiss -- he worried that the suspect could be nearby; the Family Butcher enjoyed watching his victims fall into despair up close. If he thought it was more likely that Hardy would sacrifice his wife than his child, he might have chosen to stay put.

Herstal quietly removed a knife from the inside pocket of his suit, the blade glinting coldly as he unfolded it -- no one else could have imagined the aloof and reserved lawyer carrying a knife, except Albarino, only he could imagine Herstal rising up at any moment to suddenly stab his unintelligent clients in the skulls to entertain himself.

Herstal gave Albarino a condemning look, presumably because the little inexplicable smile on the other man's face unnerved him. He asked, ‘Where's that gun of yours?’

‘On me,’ Albarino shrugged, ‘but who knows what the carbon monoxide concentration is in that basem*nt. I don't want to set off an explosion when the gun is fired.’

As they talked, they had already made their way down the stairs and rushed to the basem*nt door; Albarino, as he had done previously, kicked the door open again. The door swung open under the force with an unwieldy thud. Albarino heard Herstal remark coldly, ‘Much more skilful this time.’

‘Thank you so much.’ Albarino said helplessly, and a particularly pungent scent of gas rushed out of the chamber head-on at them. Herstal let out a low curse and held his breath as he rushed inside, while Albarino followed close behind.

Clara lay soundlessly where she was, her skin had already changed to a cherry-red colour from the poisoning. Herstal gently picked her up carefully and took a few steps towards the door, while Albarino, who stood beside him, shifted his gaze elsewhere.

-- In the corner of the basem*nt, there was a small door.

This was a common design: a freight passage leading to the upper floors, allowing heavy items to be conveniently transported directly to the basem*nt without needing to carry them up steep, difficult steps. Clara had noticed this door before, but it had obviously been nailed shut and could not be easily opened with the strength of a little girl.

But now Albarino looked at the little door, and an ill sense of foreboding swept over him.

-- He had seen all the information that old Hunter had collected regarding the modus operandi of the Butcher. After he forced his victims to choose between their partners and their children, he would kill them one by one, regardless of the choice they made in the end. No one was able to escape the hands of the serial killer.

Albarino didn't think Bart would be an exception.

And if this serial killer's prediction from the start was that Bart would go to Clara's rescue, then there had to be a trap waiting for him here.

Although the freight passage leading upstairs was nailed shut, oxygen mixed with carbon monoxide must still be leaking out little by little into the passage through the gaps --

Then they heard a clang, the sharp metallic sound of something hitting the metal pipes of the freight passage.

It was such a familiar scene that it bordered to the point of irony: it had been the same on Christmas Eve, when Herstal had thrown that silver bell into the exhaust pipe. The very thing that symbolised death in some way -- later, the fire fighters would find a piece of blackened and twisted metal among the wreckage of the room, which was the lighter that had been thrown down the freight tunnel.

When the concentration of carbon monoxide in the air is between 12.5% ​​and 74.5%, it will explode when it encounters any open flame. They had almost made it to the door when the crash sounded, but then, the ensuing events all happened so fast --

Albarino realised he didn’t have time to shout; and Herstal hadn't reacted yet. Everything that happened next was purely based off of his instincts. He suddenly grabbed Herstal's elbow and shoved him out of the room, and the next second, the sound of an explosion rang out with earth-shattering force.

Something burned, something broke and fell, and tongues of flames almost licked the tips of Albarino's hair as they seared past. They were blown away by the blast and the ensuing wave of air -- the sensation at that moment was almost strange and comical -- Albarino used his body almost entirely by instinct to sheild Herstal from the flames, while the other man tried to protect Clara in his arms before they were flung onto a pile of hard steps.

In short, neither tasks went very smoothly. Albarino was thrown heavily onto the stairs by the wave of air, the sharp pain of the collision almost causing him to black out. At the same time, the ceiling of the basem*nt crashed onto the ground behind him, kicking up a wave of dust filled with the smell of char.

For many seconds, Albarino's ears were only ringing. Dazed, he propped himself up, then realised that Herstal's torso was almost bent into an arch, at least avoiding Clara's fate of almost being crushed underneath two adult males.

Herstal's fingers were scratched, and when he turned around, Albarino realised that his lips were bleeding as well. The other person looked at him with a tight frown, his lips opened and closed, but the sound was all but drowned out by the buzzing in Albarino's ears.

Albarino gestured to the other man, pointing to his ear and then shook his head. He might have been smiling, because he suddenly noticed Herstal's lips parting slightly and his chest rising and falling -- which meant he was sighing. Though he couldn't hear anything for the time being, Albarino realised that he understood the other person so well that he didn't need the guidance of sound.

Possibly realising that this way of communication wasn’t working, Herstal wrapped one hand around Clara, and with the other hand, he reached out and touched Albarino's shoulder.

In that instant, it was as if the pain finally penetrated the numb haze. Albarino gasped suddenly, and at the same time Herstal drew back his hand, opened his palm, and showed it to Albarino.

-- From his fingertips, a thick, red, liquid dripped downwards.

Eleven fifty-two. (11:52)

Old Hunter had called 911, but hadn't succeeded in borrowing an ice pack. Now he was standing stupidly in front of the obscenely expensive Rolls-Royce, holding a bag of frozen peas and a towel. He was sure that he was the dumbest looking person ever to stand in front of a Rolls-Royce.

It was at this moment that the explosion sounded.

He saw tongues of fire erupting from the basem*nt of a house, and the windows shattering outwards with a loud bang; for a split second, the bright light was so blinding it stung his eyes. The alarm systems of all the cars along the street set off in unison, and people were in chaos.

-- And that house was in the exact direction that Albarino and Herstal had gone in.

Old Hunter stared blankly in that direction for three seconds, then suddenly cursed, throwing his frozen peas and towel onto the roof of the Rolls-Royce haphazardly. He grabbed his walking stick, and limped off towards the explosion.

Eleven fifty-three. (11:53)

Hardy rushed out of the second building, panting.

The time had passed by too quickly. Even with the building being inaccessible on most floors because it wasn't operational, checking the first two buildings had taken him more time than he needed. The third building was even more so without power because it wasn't fully completed yet - he'd thought the killer wouldn't have picked the third building, and that would mean he'd have to climb it with the kidnapped Wallis in his arms, wouldn't it?

Time was slipping away too fast. Even though most floors were inaccessible due to the buildings not being in use, checking the first two had taken too much time. The third building had no electricity yet because it was still incomplete -- he had thought that the killer wouldn't have chosen it as it meant that he would have had to drag a kidnapped Wallis up the building, right?

Hardy plunged headlong into the stairwell.

He had to hurry. There was only seven minutes left.

Eleven fifty-five. (11:55)

Albarino leaned against Herstal’s body and staggered to his feet. He sincerely hoped that the explosion just now hadn't left him with any concussions; at any rate, he didn't feel like throwing up just yet.

Clara was still unresponsive, unconscious, and breathing weakly. When a moderately poisoned person was lying in front of you, you could no longer comfort yourself with ‘at least they’re still breathing’ any more.

Herstal held Albarino with one hand and Clara with the other. As they walked up the stairs, Albarino dripped a long trail of blood along the way. And the moment they reached the top of the steps, Herstal knew that their bad luck wasn't over.

Because a young, dark-haired man -- presumably Jerome McAdam -- stood in a maniacal state with a crazed look at the entrance of the basem*nt, pointing a pistol in his hand straight at them, its muzzle bobbing dangerously up and down.

‘Who are you people?!’ His shouts were hoarse, his voice frenzied and trembling, ‘What are you doing here?’

Herstal tightened his grip on Albarino’s elbow.

Eleven fifty-nine. (11:59)

Bart Hardy burst onto the roof of the building, the dazzling midday sunlight made him almost cry.

Then he saw his wife, Wallis -- hanging by a rope from a makeshift platform built from a patch of interlocking planks on the roof, the rope was tied to the edge of the wooden planks. Wallis's entire body was suspended and swaying in the wind, her mouth gagged with a towel, tears streaming down her face.

The problem was that there was also another person crouched on the platform, their black hair tossing wildly in the gale on the roof.

‘Olga!’ Hardy couldn't help but exclaim.

‘You chose the wrong roof earlier, Bart.’ Olga called out as she slowly struggled to pull Wallis up, ‘Don't you think a murderer like that would quite enjoy watching you anxiously climb the stairs but still not make it? His taste is extremely low -- stay back, don’t come any closer. I don't think this platform can hold the weight of three people.’

Hardy looked at the rickety timbers and had to admit that Olga was right. He stood anxiously at the edge of the rooftop and watched as Olga finally dragged Wallis up from under the platform and removed the towel from her mouth in the process.

Wallis didn't sob loudly or scream, just stifling a low sob. Then she hoarsely asked, ‘Bart, Clara, she-’

But what else could Hardy say? He didn't know what was going on on the other side either. Albarino was the victim of the Pianist, and a suspect who had to be taken seriously in the case of William Brown and Anthony Sharp, and Wallis, who as a prosecutor, had never been favourably disposed towards Herstal Armalight. So where on earth would he get the idea that these two people could save his daughter?

He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could even get a word out, a loud noise rang out -- not far away was the iconic building of Westland's financial centre: the Westland Stock Exchange, which was built in the late nineteenth century and had a tall clock tower rising from the top of the building.

And right now, the clock struck twelve noon with a loud bang. As the first deep, resonant chime rang out, a small flame suddenly burst out from underneath the wooden platform: a homemade bomb made from a calculator, gunpowder, and a rudimentary ignition device was all that was needed to make a simple clay bomb. And for what the Butcher was trying to accomplish, he didn't even need much gunpowder.

-- The explosion was so small and minimal in size that it wasn't even enough to hurt anyone. But the wooden platform collapsed almost immediately after a key component was damaged. At that very instant, Olga shoved the not yet fully untied Wallis into Hardy's direction. Instinctively, Hardy reached out and caught Wallis by the waist and pulled her body, which had already begun to fall downwards, up from the collapsing platform.

Wallis writhed in his arms and the usually ever-calm prosecutor let out her first scream of the day.

‘Olga!!!’

Bart Hardy watched his advisor plummet with the gradually disintegrating debris of the platform, her hair looking like a bird's tattered wings as it was lifted by the gusting wind.

Then she fell.

Chapter 28: 64. The Altar of Isaac (6)

Chapter Text

John Garcia was en route to the scene with the SWAT team.

He had to admit that he had actually watched quite a lot of fictional films and TV shows full of fantastical plots before he actually enrolled in the FBI academy -- from Criminal Minds, where BAU members actually arrest suspects handsomely with guns, to Silence of the Lambs, where even under-graduated trainees can solve strange cases.

He had to admit, before applying for the FBI Academy, he had watched a considerable amount of fictional films and TV shows full of fantastical plots -- from the BAU agents dramatically apprehending suspects handsomely with guns in ‘Criminal Minds, to ‘Silence of the Lambs’, where even under-graduated trainees could solve strange cases.

In short, such films and TV shows gave the viewers a significant misconception: that FBI agents were those unflinching individuals who could calmly investigate three-meter-high totem poles of corpses that mysteriously appeared on the beach.

-- But that was not the case.

Or perhaps it was better to put it this way: cases like Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia and the Zodiac Killer were famous precisely because they were gruesome and unsolved murders. The term ‘gruesome and mysterious’ often referred to killers who would cut out female organs, dismember their victims, carve smiles on the corners of their mouths, or write letters to the police in code.

A profiler spends most of their life dealing with cases like desperate kidnappings, a series of brutal night-time home invasions, or a serial killer who rapes and kills his victims. Most criminals acted out of uncontrollable, irrepressible, low-level desires, and even the ‘mass murderers’ were a rarity. Even the ‘Butcher’ was an outlier; the Westland Pianist’s logic was somewhat understandable, but encountering a serial killer like the Sunday Gardener was as likely as a meteor hitting the earth.

There was no doubt, then, that Westland was a city chosen by a meteor.

It was precisely because of this that Garcia was so excited to be en route to the location where Orion Hunter was seen: some of his colleagues would never be involved in a single capture of a serial killer of this magnitude in their lives, let alone the fact that Hunter's clues were essentially found by him from a pile of videos.

He was fidgeting in the back seat of the car, and as soon as they reached the intersection at 15th Avenue, a loud boom sounded off in the distance. Black smoke rolled up from somewhere further down the road, casting a dramatic shadow over the midday street -– clearly, an explosion had occurred.

It took several more minutes for the car to weave its way through the streets, which had been thrown into chaos by the panicked crowd, which wasn't surprising after all, given the lingering shadow of 9/11 had yet to fade. Yet, Garcia found it too coincidental that an explosion occurred right after receiving news about Hunter’s location -- but then again, the Butcher had never been known to commit his crimes using explosives, right?

He was confused, and as soon as the car pulled up alongside the road he caught a glimpse of the house whose white exterior walls were now scorched black. A small crowd of onlookers had already gathered not far from the house, and the sound of fire engine's siren wailed in the distance. Just at that moment, the door of the house where the explosion had just occurred burst open, and several people stumbled out of it.

Among them were several familiar faces: their suspect, Orion Hunter, Albarino Bacchus, who had been in the newspapers for a while because of the sensationalised Bob Landon case and the subsequent Pianist rape case that followed -- the WLPD had never revealed who the victim in that case had been, but that didn't stop the press from putting the latter's pictures in the paper -- and a man Garcia had never seen before, who was currently holding a little girl in his arms.

All in all, to further emphasise: these men were covered in blood, rushing out of a house that had just inexplicably exploded, and among them was a suspect suspected of being the Family Butcher. Therefore, it was completely understandable that the SWAT members chose to jump out of their car immediately and approach these suspicious people.

‘Freeze! Kneel down! Hands above your head!’

Whether they knew they were being mistaken for terrorists or not as soon as they left the house, Orion Hunter let out a series of curses as he dragged his not-so-functional legs to kneel down before being pressed down firmly by the SWAT who rushed over.

And Dr Bacchus, who had a large patch of blood staining his shoulder, even had the time in this situation to lazily shout, ‘We need an ambulance!’

And the man Garcia didn't recognise carefully placed the little girl on the ground, then turned to Hunter and asked in a menacing tone, ‘Did you put a bag of frozen peas on the roof of my car?’

A few minutes earlier --

Albarino couldn't help but begin to reflect on how often he found himself trapped in a room with a psychopath.

His ears were still buzzing, but at least he was beginning to hear a little, namely the frantic questionings of Jerome McAdam, a man who, like most serial killers with overflowing self-confidence, was completely unable to accept the fact that the person who he'd nearly blown up wasn't Bart Hardy.

‘So,’ Albarino interrupted lazily. After all, one shouldn't waste time on such meaningless conversations as ‘Who the hell are you? My plan can't possibly go wrong’ conversations. He might as well find another way to stall for some more time. ‘Why did you choose Officer Hardy?’

And as was with most villains in the world, this one was also apparently quite eager to explain to his victims the ins and outs of his nefarious plan. Really, haven't these people watched action movies? Those chatty villains usually die horribly.

‘I was staying in a hotel across the street from the primary school, and I wanted to pick a suitable victim from that school.’ McAdam hissed, his expression ghastly, his eyes bloodshot, ‘I infiltrated their school posing as a maintenance worker and saw that they were holding an art exhibition --’

Albarino roughly pieced together what was going on. Bart Hardy really was the kind of guy who would take pictures of his daughter's coloured-pencil drawings on his phone and then gleefully brag about them to everyone around him: Clara had won a prize at school for her drawing of something similar to ‘My Mum, Dad, and Me’.

No one could have imagined the consequences of a colourful pencil drawing, such was the unpredictability of fate. Herstal was holding Clara, his shoulders tense, his knife having fallen somewhere during the explosion. Albarino was trying to hide behind him as much as possible, trying to reach for the gun in his underarm holster without straining his wound too much -- an action that wasn’t going smoothly either.

To make matters worse, it was clear that McAdam was nearing the end of his speech, and the barrel of the gun in his hand moved forward again, almost touching Herstal's brow. Herstal flinched back almost subconsciously, his spine touching the back of Albarino's hand.

‘Although this isn't the situation I expected,’ McAdam announced, ‘But don’t you guys dare think that I’ll let you live --’

He didn't finish his sentence.

A sharp, bright, shiny blade protruded out of his chest, bringing out a cascade of bright red blood. It was at this moment that Albarino, quick on the uptake, lunged over Herstal’s shoulder to grab McAdam , stifling a grunt of pain from the wound in his shoulder. Then with a swift, hard twist, the pistol clattered onto the floor that was covered in charred black soot with a bang.

Then the sharp blade was pulled out neatly, and as if slow to feel the pain, McAdam shuddered and touched his chest with his trembling hands, only to feel a handful of blood. He fell to his knees in a slow, agonised heap. Orion Hunter stood just behind him, holding a sharp blade in his hand, the handle of which was clearly the handle of his cane.

‘I’ve never seen anyone actually hide a knife in a cane ,’ Albarino remarked with genuine sincerity, ‘Are you living in a 19th-century movie ?’

‘This dramatic gesture just saved your life, young man ’ Old Hunter replied with an unhappy tone. Then he turned to Herstal, hesitating as he glanced at McAdam, who was down on the floor moaning in pain, and asked, ‘...Uh, lawyer, this counts as self-defense, right ?’

Herstal really wanted to ignore them.

Now.

Fifteenth Avenue was in chaos: a fire truck was conspicuously parked on the side of the road, and heavily armed firefighters were nervously moving in and out of the house. One ambulance took McAdam away, and another took Clara. Before that, Albarino had carefully put Clara in a side-lying position under the watchful eyes of a group of SWAT, and then applied the bag of frozen peas wrapped in an old towel to Clara's forehead –- he said it was to reduce brain swelling -- in short, it was a rather skilful position for first aid.

Fortunately, the misunderstanding had been cleared up by now. The young FBI agent stood awkwardly beside the SWAT vehicle, looking highly embarrassed as he made a phone call to his superior. Meanwhile, Old Hunter, swaggering like a proud peaco*ck despite his limp, paced around him. Albarino, on the other hand, finally got a chance to sit in the back of the last ambulance, where an EMT attended to the burn on his shoulder.

‘You're lucky the burns aren't too severe,’ the soft-voiced female paramedic said, all the while pressing Albarino down with surprising strength to rinse the wound with cool water and apply iodine, completely ignoring the fact that her patient was grimacing in pain. ‘I'll dress the wound, and give you a tetanus shot just to be safe, and then you'll be fine.’

-- But things were far from ‘fine’.

Because on the one hand, they still didn't know how Hardy and Wallis were doing. Herstal had called Hardy multiple times and got absolutely no answer, so he had to settle for sending a text message regarding Clara's temporary safety. On the other hand, Herstal was eyeing up Albarino with a gaze that was like a knife cutting through bone.

That EMT finished treating Albarino's wounds, gave him an injection, and then left -- a neighbour had approached her saying that the explosion had shattered the glass in his house, and that the shards of glass had cut a child. He wanted to ask her to see if it needed to be bandage -- Albarino's eyes followed the female doctor's back until she disappeared down the street, before turning his gaze back to Herstal.

His gaze somehow still looked lazy, and when he spoke, his tone was neither salty nor bland. He simply said, ‘Ask.’

For a person who was so fond of talking in circles, it was still quite shocking that Albarino would choose to begin with such a straight-to-the-point approach. Herstal stared at the soft smile at the corner of the other person’s mouth. Albarino was topless, his shoulders wrapped in gauze, and his chest and abdomen were all covered with long, thin scars that were only just starting to fade from that uncomfortable tender red colour.

His fingers still had the other man's blood slowly drying on them.

Herstal thought for a moment and simply asked directly, ‘Why did you do all this?’

‘I remember I gave you a reason earlier today,’ Albarino winked softly at him, ‘Isn't that enough?’

‘You mean the 'Officer Hardy is a worthy opponent'? That sentence may be true, but for this reason you decided to risk your life to save a child? Do you think I would really believe that?’ Herstal asked aggressively in return.

Albarino stared at him for a moment, then sighed.

‘Jerome McAdam likes to force his victims to choose between their children and their partners as a way of putting the other person in a moral dilemma, but after the other person has made the choice, he will still kill everyone. Thus, the very act of making the choice is meaningless.’ Albarino said softly, ‘I don't doubt for a second that serial killers like him actually have a bit of a God complex, and -- surely you must have heard the story of Abraham sacrificing his only son to God, right?’

Herstal looked at the other man without saying a word: surely Albarino must have known that he was bound to have heard that story, given all the time he had spent in the church.

Albarino then continued, ‘God commanded Abraham to offer his only son, Isaac, as a burnt sacrifice. Despite his pain, Abraham obeyed; at the very last moment when Isaac was about to be sacrificed, God prevented Abraham from doing so. From a theological perspective, this was a test of Abraham's personal faith: he firmly believed that God was omniscient and omnipotent, and that human reason was not sufficient enough to understand God's will; therefore, although God's command put him into a moral paradox, and he didn't know why God asked him to sacrifice his son, he still obeyed unconditionally -- because he did not do it for the wealth and kingdom that God had promised him, but because God was inherently worthy of obedience. As Søren Kierkegaard said, 'God's will must be the ultimate goal of any man’.’

Herstal frowned and said, ‘Albarino --’

‘So,’ Albarino flashed him a bright smile, ‘if I told you I did this under the guidance of my muse, not knowing the purpose myself, would you punch me?’.

... Herstal was silent for two seconds, then made himself clear with his actions.

-- He punched Albarino in the abdomen.

Albarino let out an exaggerated cry and curled up like a shrimp, and in doing so, naturally rested his forehead on Herstal's shoulder. Suppressing a sigh and the urge to plunge the knife inside the pocket of his suit into Albarino’s spine, Herstal reached out with one hand to run his fingers through the ends of the other man's curly hair.

After a couple of strokes, he then decided that it was still a bit too much for the other man to be sitting topless like this in the February chill. So he reached over to fish out the orange blanket that had been left in the ambulance and draped it over Albarino's shoulders.

Albarino mumbled, ‘...You're not angry anymore?’

He made the mistake of choosing a tone of innocence, as if he was pretending to be only eight years old, which made Herstal extraordinarily tempted to punch him, or leave him in a cardboard box in front of an orphanage. He bared a fake sneer at the other man and said, ‘Not at all.’

Albarino was quiet for a short while, then continued, ‘The fate of Clara means nothing to me, and Bart, as much as he loves his family, would never give up his job because of a major blow. He'll be in a lot of pain, but he'll get over it -- I did this because I know that no matter how you behave on the outside, deep down, you actually love this state of a perfect, intact family in your heart.’

Herstal eyed him cautiously for a moment, then asked, ‘Are you saying this because you really think so, or because you think I would enjoy hearing such words?’

Albarino looked at him with a smirk and asked rhetorically, ‘Which truth would make you feel a little more dangerous?’

‘Both are indistinguishable from the other.’ Herstal flashed him a sneer.

Albarino let out a laugh.

‘Then come and kiss me,’ he replied cheerfully, ‘It's the way to do it once and for all: embrace the source of the danger.’

No matter day or night, the hospital was always a busy place, with worried family members crowding the doors of the emergency room. Albarino had seen too many of these scenes in his time as a pathologist in the hospital, and he hadn't thought that one day he would become one of them.

Bart Hardy stood anxiously in the doorway of the operating theatre, one arm wrapped tightly around his wife's shoulders; although Wallis was pale, she still stood firmly. At this very moment, their daughter was also lying in a hospital bed: moderate carbon monoxide poisoning had caused some bad consequences that could still be reversed. Hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatment and medication would allow her to recover within a month without leaving any bad after-effects.

But others might not be so lucky.

Standing in the doorway of the operating theatre was Olga's attending physician. His face was calm, obviously used to life and death, and even less likely to be moved by such a small scene now.

He calmly explained to the people standing in the corridor, ‘When she fell from the building she hit many scaffolding steel bars, on one hand, I have to admit, that it did act as a cushion. But on the other hand, it caused irreversible scarring to her bones -- she only hit her legs on the top of those steel bars, which is lucky, if it was her spine that hit those bars, she would have been left paralysed by now. However, now both of her legs are comminuted fractures, with the left one being particularly bad: in layman's terms, those bones are too broken to be fixed with steel nails or plates, and one of the open fractures already shown signs of infection.’

Hardy swallowed dryly and asked, ‘...So?’

‘We're going to amputate her left leg below the knee. The fractures in her thigh can be attempted to be saved, but the bones in her lower leg are beyond repair, we're doing this to avoid a worse infection.’ The doctor said, glancing down at the clipboard he was holding, ‘Additionally, the condition of her right leg isn't good either. We'll monitor it over the next few days, but if it continues to deteriorate, we might have to amputate that one as well, but I'm afraid her body won't be able to handle the amputation of both legs at once.’

Wallis was undoubtedly trembling, and Albarino glanced at Herstal, who stood beside him. The other man's lips were pursed tightly together and his expression cold. Then again, he'd never known exactly what Herstal's attitude towards Olga had been -- he wasn't supposed to be 'friends' with a profiler after all. The irony was palpable.

‘In addition, there is another piece of news that I must inform you of.’ As it turned out, this obviously wasn't the end of the story, as the doctor continued, ‘Officer, you said that after she fell down a few floors, her clothing got caught on the protruding scaffolding, is that correct?’

Hardy's face turned pale, and he was obviously reluctant to recall the situation at that time. He gestured helplessly and replied, ‘Yes, it was her scarf ... but it nearly strangled her. When I rescued her, she wasn't breathing, and I was the one who performed CPR on her.’

You did the right thing.’ The doctor nodded and continued, ‘Under normal circ*mstances, being suddenly strangled by a rope-like object during a fall ... would most likely break the patient's spine, but neither her spine nor her spinal cord were damaged. I believe this is due to the earlier obstacles cushioning her fall. However, the fabric severely compressed the cervical vessels and airways after she was hung.’

Suddenly realising what the other party was actually saying, Albarino finally frowned and asked, ‘Did her EEG show any problems?’.

‘Scattered waveforms.’ That doctor nodded, ‘Although it is necessary to be very cautious when making such a judgment, so it may take us weeks of repeated follow-ups to come to a definitive conclusion. It is my duty to warn you all of the worst possibilities -- and not to mention the patient's legs, I now suspect that she is in the midst of a deep, pathological state of unconsciousness.’

He paused, scanning over the other people standing in the corridor.

‘In other words, a vegetative state.’

The coffee at the WLPD was terrible, and as it turned out, the hospital coffee wasn't much better.

Lavazza Mercader stood in front of a coin-operated coffee machine and tried to scrounge a coin out of his pocket. Whether he just wasn't in the habit of carrying change with him or if he was just plain unlucky, but he found nothing.

Then, a hand abruptly jutted out in front of him, and in its palm lay a coin with the head of George Washington gleaming on it.

Mercader was silently taken aback, but his face showed none of it when he looked up. He looked over to the man who was grinning and leaning against the humming machine -- it was none other than Albarino Bacchus.

‘Why didn't you go to the waiting room? Or did you plan on going over to take a quick look before leaving immediately?’ Albarino asked.

‘I suspect that Officer Hardy might not be very eager to see me right now,’ Mercader was silent for a moment, then admitted calmly, ‘He'll think that I'm responsible for what happened to Molozer, and I suspect he'll be furious as a result.’

Albarino blinked, ‘Is that so?’

‘I made an error in judgement due to incomplete information, and in a sense it did interfere with your rescue mission, putting his wife and daughter in danger. There's no need to deny that.’ Mercader nodded slightly, his voice flat, ‘But there is no direct link between the series of delays caused by my misjudgement and Molozer's fall.’

‘A very rational assessment,’ Albarino chuckled, ‘but also very inhuman -- no wonder you didn't go in.’

‘Just like the law.’ Mercader continued in his emotionless tone.

‘Is that how you judge everything? Like the classic trolley problem, regardless of why someone is on the tracks, you’ll just let the train run over whichever side has fewer people that can be saved?’ Albarino asked, the smile that hung for so long on the corners of his mouth looked cold and vapid upon closer inspection, making people feel a little uneasy.

Mercader gave him a deep look, ‘Leaving aside the moral dilemmas people might face, what's wrong with that?’

‘As long as everything goes according to plan, there's nothing wrong with that. But as you know, Agent Mercader, things can never always go the way one expects them to.’ Albarino replied matter-of-factly, ‘It would be as if, no matter how many people were supposed to have died under the hands of Robo, Blanca Areola still killed two people who didn't deserve to die.’

Mercader's brows furrowed deeply for a moment before he calmly asked, ‘Are you saying that because you really care about the lives of those two people, or because you're just trying to irritate me?’

‘I don't think that's the most important thing you want to ask.’ Albarino shook his head.

‘Then why are you with Herstal Armalight? I remember you telling me last time that you didn't like him.’ With that, Mercader asked directly, and his next statement made it clear that he wasn't asking the question just for the gossip, ‘Was it you who took the piece of broken porcelain from Mr. Armalight in Elliot Evans' basem*nt?’

Albarino blinked, and then that smile on his face widened a little more.

‘I will invoke my Fifth Amendment rights to the Constitution, Agent Mercader.’ He replied lazily, ‘Perhaps you should call the prosecution's witnesses to the stand.’

Mercader eyed him carefully for a moment, then gave a short nod.

‘I see.’ He said.

Then he reached out and took the coin from Albarino's hand.

Chapter 29: 65. Diary of a hospital attendant, Annie Brooke: February 4th, 2017.

Chapter Text

Friday -- Sunny

Truth be told, I've been in the caregiver profession for almost three years now and I've never seen a situation like this.

-- As I write these lines, I'm sitting outside the intensive care unit where a poor girl who fell from a great height and had her leg amputated is lying in a single room. Of course, falls from heights aren't rare, and I've taken care of multiple amputee patients. The doctor says she might become a vegetative patient, which is not new to me either: I once cared for a man in a vegetative state for six months until his wife could not bear the increasingly heavy hospitalisation costs, and finally chose to take him home.

When a patient is not yet in the general ward, there really isn't much I can do. My primary responsibility is to monitor the progress of IV infusions, and whether the dripping instruments are functioning as usual, though the chances of them malfunctioning are minimal. At this stage, it's not time to fight bedsores, muscle atrophy and other ailments, in fact, most people don't usually hire caregivers when their loved one is first hospitalised.

-- This is one of the strange aspects of this situation.

Firstly, the girl didn't have any family. I've seen unfortunate people like her before, and generally their hospitalisation always turns out to be particularly tragic. Secondly, this morning, the chief of the Westland City Police Department stood in front of me, with a tired look on his face, as if he'd been punched by someone.

'Ms. Molozer is a consultant for the WLPD,' he explained, Molozer being the surname of the poor girl, 'what happened to her ... is more or less related to our police department. Whether she will demand compensation once she recovers is another matter. For now, we must pay for her round-the-clock care and medical expenses.'

Beside him stood a much more gaunt looking officer, the officer who, according to this chief's explanation, was the one who had been working with Molozer, by the name of Hardy or something. He mumbled a bit and said, 'Sir, actually...'

'Shut up!' The Chief roared back fiercely, so loud that the officer and I were both shocked. 'If you had reported this to the department sooner, at least half of this wouldn't have happened! Not to mention the FBI --'

I watched him stop talking with a disgruntled look on his face, obviously swallowing back a lot of expletives and not saying what happened with the FBI. Then the Chief turned to me and awkwardly explained, 'In short, we have to hold a press conference regarding this matter. And it's your job to take good care of her ...then there's also going to be a lot of reporters trying to storm into the hospital, lots and lots of reporters, and you're going to have to be mentally prepared for that.'

I nodded my head in confusion, although at the time I didn't understand why there would be a lot of reporters storming in at all. Based on my understanding of the print media in Westland, they should only be interested in stories about serial killers and the WLPD Chief's extramarital affairs and the like -- especially if it involved the Chief having a fling with a city councilman's wife.

Then reality hit me quickly: I had greatly underestimated this situation.

And I certainly didn't expect -- that this was actually a love story.

It was around one o'clock this afternoon, when I was sitting in that lounge across from the ICU eating a sandwich bought from the vending machine. I still hadn't learnt my lesson from last time: ever, ever buy the hospital's salmon sandwich, that stuff tasted like something had died in it.

At that time, all the monitoring equipment for Ms. Molozer was functioning normally. One IV drip had just finished, and the new one would take at least ninety minutes to completely infuse, giving me a bit of a break. However, according to the doctors, she was still running a fever, and while it's not fatal, if the infection in her right leg continued to worsen, they would have to amputate her remaining leg.

Truth be told, the chances of something going wrong with the infusion reminder and the alarms on the pile of equipment are slim to none, and real patients don't actually go into cardiac arrest every two or three days like the ones in medical dramas. But since the WLPD was willing to pay a hefty sum, I must perform my duties diligently.

All in all, I was at least able to take a break in the middle of the day to read a few more chapters of 'Twilight: New Moon' in the lounge. The plot had just reached its most thrilling part -- the part where Edward, mistakenly believing Bella to be dead, decides to take his own life in Italy -- although this was my fourth time reading the book, I really shouldn't be this excited.

It was at this point that I suddenly noticed a man standing at the door of Ms. Molozer's hospital ward.

No, let me rephrase that: at the door of the ward stood an extraordinarily handsome man with lovely chestnut-coloured hair. I could have sworn to God that it was one of the best-looking men I'd ever seen (except for movie stars, and Robert Pattinson in particular). He stood there motionless and lonely, staring fixedly at the lifeless figure lying inside the glass window.

--Of course, from my angle I could only see the man's back, but I guessed that his face must have been full of grief. This was a woman's keen intuition.

'How sad,' I thought, 'this must be Ms. Molozer's boyfriend.'

Then, after a few more moments, just as I was about to immerse myself back into the romantic plot of the novel, a series of knocks once again interrupted my thoughts. This time, from across the corridor came an old man with a cane, from my angle I couldn't see his face, but I could see the gray hair on his temples.

He stopped in front of the chestnut-haired man and said in a gruff voice: 'Dr. Bacchus'

-- So, that WLPD consultant's boyfriend was also a doctor, what an enviable couple that would have been.

And as a doctor who saved lives and healed wounds, it must be a very painful feeling to watch your loved one lie in a coma and be powerless to do anything about it.

On the other hand, the surname 'Bacchus' sounded very familiar to me, but I couldn't remember where exactly I'd heard it before.

'Mr Hunter,' the handsome doctor replied, his voice sounded very soft and light. I guess he was the type who would suppress all his grief in his heart and not show it at all. I have seen too many people who pretend to be strong. 'I didn't expect you to come today.'

'What, do I look like the type of person who would just walk away once the culprit is caught?' The one called Hunter asked rhetorically, his tone sounding a bit rude anyhow; how could a person speak to a patient's family member in that tone?

He paused thoughtfully, probably in hindsight realising he wasn't being too polite, and softened his voice a little, 'I greatly admire Ms. Molozer's work. I'd only heard of her before this, but now I see her reputation is well-deserved.'

'I just wanted to say that I thought you would attend the press conference today. As I understand it, the launch takes place at three in the afternoon, shouldn't you be preparing to go to the venue by now?' Dr Bacchus said patiently.

Hunter snorted coldly and said, 'They're going to skip over my role in the whole incident.'

'With the threat of revoking your licence?' Dr Bacchus asked with interest. Perhaps I should retract my earlier comment; it wasn't exactly a forced composure; his self-control must have been quite strong.

But thinking about how his heart must be bleeding right now, I felt a twinge of sympathy as I looked at him.

The two of them didn't notice I was peeking over my book at them, and that Hunter continued in a bad tone, 'Apparently, they think there's some kind of procedural issue involved in this ... those bastards think I overstepped, as if they didn't realize more people might have died if I hadn't gone to Molozer. Do you really think Officer Hardy could have saved his wife and daughter alone? Molozer's role was crucial.'

'I think,' said Dr. Bacchus slowly, 'that if you hadn't gone to Olga, she wouldn't be in the position she's in now.'

Good heavens! I suddenly realised what I may be witnessing: one of those dramatic breakdowns from an intimate lover, with the whole 'If you hadn't done this, my girlfriend wouldn't be in a vegetative state' or something. What should I do if that actually happens? Should I go call security if he punched that Hunter in the face?

'Are you blaming me?' Hunter asked cautiously.

'No,' Dr. Bacchus replied, 'I think you did a good job.'

...Huh???

Then he followed that up by adding, 'A lot of people were saved because of it. Clara is only ten years old; she certainly didn't deserve to die from carbon monoxide poisoning.'

I don't think I could even pretend to hold a book anymore, even if it was my favourite novel. If I hadn't been eavesdropping on their conversation, I would have jumped up and applauded the doctor: what a touching sentiment! To pay the price of losing a loved one in order to save a life or for an even cause was nothing short of a moral triumph.

Hunter was silent for a moment, then said, 'That's a very noble excuse.'

-- Is that something a human being would say? I was puzzled by how Hunter managed to say something nastier with each sentence. Was he the ex-boyfriend of Ms. Molozer trying to break them up? Though I shouldn't hold any prejudice, but the age difference seemed a little too large, didn't it?

'Don't you think so?' Dr. Bacchus was so well mannered, he didn't sound angry at all.

'If you really thought so, you wouldn't have been staring at McAdam with such interest in that house on 15th Avenue.' Hunter's voice sounded rough but sharp, a little aggressive.

'Did I?' Dr. Bacchus asked rhetorically.

'You did -- even though you were wounded at the time, I'm certain of it -- an ordinary person wouldn't have noticed it, and perhaps Armalight wouldn't have picked up on anything either, but people like us are very sensitive to that kind of scent.' Hunter spoke quickly, and he took a step forward, to the point where he was close enough to Dr. Bacchus that it could be considered a little rude. I couldn't help but stare nervously at them even though I couldn't understand what they were saying at all, because I felt like Hunter might pull out a gun at any moment. 'Do you know what I was thinking at that time? I was thinking: the most dangerous beast in this room isn't the one I stabbed.'

'Oh,' Dr Bacchus said, and when he spoke again, his voice was unusually low, 'how do you know what a beast is?'

'Because it's the hunter's job to identify them. They certainly haven't fallen into any traps, left hair on the branches, or a single footprint in the dirt. But when the hunters smell their presence, they know whether they are wolves or foxes.' Hunter gave a light wave of his hand, 'And – Dr. Bacchus, I followed the Landon case. They say he killed the girl in the alley behind the bar. But how the hell did your fingerprints end up on that knife?'

I almost screamed in the lounge.

I finally remembered where I had heard the surname Bacchus from! Albarino Bacchus, the chief medical examiner of the Westland Forensic Bureau, the man who was suspected of killing his ex-girlfriend! But of course, he was later proven to be wrongfully accused, and it seemed that as a result, the police department compensated him with a sum of money for emotional distress. That case had a lot of media coverage at the time.

After the news broke, an almost 50-year-old caregiver at the hospital shared with me some other gossip. She had worked in this hospital for most of her life, and knew that both of Dr. Bacchus' parents were surgeons in the hospital -- his father seemed to have been particularly famous for his expertise in heart surgery.

Unfortunately, his mother drowned in an accident when Dr. Bacchus was very young, and within a few years, his father committed suicide due to depression.

I suppose it's not surprising then, that he became a playboy, which must have been some sort of vicarious compensation for a bleak childhood.

Does this mean he finally ended his playboy lifestyle and decided to settle down? Of course, Ms. Molozer, despite having a great figure, wasn't conventionally attractive (perhaps it could've been because she looked so emancipated that I couldn't accurately judge her appearance). He must have been captivated by her talent as a police consultant.

Isn't this the kind of romantic film that was popular in cinema some years ago? A talented prodigal son falls in love with an innocent and beautiful girl. He feels the love and warmth of home in his lover, and eventually becomes a reliable man of outstanding character under the girl's influence.

'Do you suspect me?' Dr. Bacchus asked calmly.

Now I even hate this Hunter a little bit, how could he suspect someone who was obviously wrongly accused? The reports of that Landon case couldn't have been any clearer, the crime scene investigation team found the hair of the female victims in Landon's house. So if the case had been committed by Dr. Bacchus, how could the hairs have ended up with Landon?

'I'm worried about you,' Hunter said gruffly, 'I'm not going to lie, I looked into you a little bit during the time of that Landon case, and then I noticed your mother ... I hope you don't follow in her footsteps. '

-- What kind of bullsh*t was this? Does he think Dr. Bacchus will commit suicide? Because of his seriously injured girlfriend? If I were Dr. Bacchus, I'd really be beating him up right now.

...Wait, no, wasn't it his father who committed suicide from depression?

I was really confused and felt like I didn't understand a word of it. But Dr. Bacchus clearly wasn't angry, and I even detected a smirk in his voice when he spoke again.

'Mr. Hunter,' he said softly, 'whatever accusations you're making, please be ever so careful.'

He truly had remarkable composure. Hunter paused for a moment, and then said cryptically, 'I'll be watching you.'

Then he turned around and limped heavily away.

Dr. Bacchus watched his back leave, then sighed heavily. He slowly walked into the lounge and took a seat just one seat away from me.

I couldn't sit still any longer. Knowing so much about the events that led up to this, I felt compelled to offer some comfort to this poor man. Though it may indeed have seemed abrupt, I turned to him sharply and said, 'Don't worry! Your lover will be fine!'

In retrospect, I wonder if I startled him. Anyway, he visibly froze for a moment, then suddenly laughed.

-- He smiled so beautifully, and if I hadn't known he had a girlfriend and was particularly affectionate, I would definitely have asked for his phone number by now.

'Thank you, ma'am.' He replied softly, 'I suppose I haven't lost my loved one yet.'

Chapter 30: 66. The Manuscripts of Orion Hunter the Bounty Hunter

Chapter Text

I know many of my colleagues have had the same thought: that in their youth they should take on some exciting commissions and make big money. Then after they retire, they could see if they can publish an autobiography, or, if they're lucky, a TV producer might take a liking to their story -- they might even get a TV series made about them, just like those made for Duane 'Dog' Chapman [1].

[1] A famous American bounty hunter. A&E made a TV series about him called, 'Dog the Bounty Hunter'.

...And I, more or less, thought the same when I was younger.

But now, the situation is quite different from what I expected: I'm sitting at my desk, racking my brain trying to come up with a story, which feels like I'm back in the third grade. In reality, my memories of the third grade are nothing but a bunch of kids who would steal your lunch.

I have to admit: this is more of a suicide note than a story.

-- It's like the plot of a bad mystery novel: a person, usually a neurotic old man (which is exactly how I am perceived by many), hands the protagonist of the story a safe deposit box, and mysteriously tells him, 'You have to wait until I die before you can open the box'. Then, of course, the supporting character dies mysteriously soon after, and the protagonist opens the safe to find a stack of yellowed manuscripts inside...

Is the atmosphere of this story eerie enough? This is exactly what I'm going to do: I'll finish writing this pile of crap, then give it to someone I trust, telling them that if I die mysteriously one day and my body is dumped on the interstate, to have him publish this stuff on the Internet.

That way, when I finally confront the killer, I can say to him, 'You can't kill me, or you sure as hell won't know what I'll post on the Internet!'

-- 'The Internet'. When I was 20 years old, I certainly didn't think that one day I'd be able to use this 'I'm going to move my finger and hit the enter key' as a means of saving my life. Another question is, can this thing really save my life? Will the person who wants to kill me care? Nobody knows, including me.

...Looking back at the pile of sh*t I've just written, I seem to have rambled on too much again. But forget it, I'm just too lazy to start over. So let's get to the point and let me start the whole thing from the beginning:

It was on the 18th of October 2016 that I first became aware of a person named Albarino Bacchus.

At that time, I had already started investigating various murder cases out of interest. In a city rampant with corrupt cops like this, getting hold of police files wasn't too difficult if you had connections and money. But the problem was that the police themselves weren't making much progress, and my legs seemed to hurt more year by year.

Back then -- anyone who paid a bit of attention to the news would remember – there was a murder case that was making the rounds, a serial killer preying on women in red dresses at night, which greatly reduced the number of people who dared to walk the streets of Westland at night by ten per cent.

Alan Todd happened to be in Westland on one of those days for a capture job. He had dinner with me in order to enquire about some backroads where he could avoid the police. His words were laced with a deep disdain for this damned city. I never liked this kid much -- he was cautious, in fact, according to most of my old friends, he was a little too cautious. He never took on any jobs related to gangs and stayed far away from anything potentially dangerous. Some people liked to call this rationality, others saw it as cowardice.

Todd said he'd taken on a big job: a bail-jumper with a bail set at $150,000. No wonder the bail bondsman who'd hired Todd was desperate. If Todd could catch the guy, he'd make at least $20,000 from the job.

Todd said the man he was after was named Bob Landon.

I'm one of the oldest bounty hunters in Westland, so it was only natural for Todd to come seeking for me for advice on such matters. Of course, with $20,000 on the line, I wondered why, if the fugitive was from Westland, they didn't contact me but went all the way to hire a young man from Syracuse.

But I still didn't think much of it; I told him all the information I knew, and he soon left Westland -- until the 18th, when I saw the news.

Albarino Bacchus, the chief medical examiner of the Westland Medical Examiner's Bureau, who had previously been arrested as a suspect in the Sarah Adleman case, had been acquitted of all charges. Bob Landon had been identified as the man responsible for the series of murders of women in red dresses.

And, Bob Landon had been killed the night before, at the hands of the Westland Pianist, according to the WLPD's press conference.

I stared at the heavily pixelated footage on the television, the pixels were covered in a thin layer of red, making it impossible to tell that the pile of things shot by the camera was a human being. I think my brain may have gone blank for several seconds, and when I finally reacted, I had already jumped into my car and driving down the highway to Syracuse.

By the time I got to Syracuse, I found Todd lying as if he were a dead corpse on the floor of his house, drunk as hell. Clearly he was trying to drown himself in alcohol to completely and utterly forget whatever had happened to him. When he saw me -- and I'm not even sure if he actually saw me, or saw several of me standing on the floor -- he flashed me a drunken grin and said, 'We're definitely not going to be seeing each other anymore.'

I was stunned by the lack of logic in his words, and it took more effort to pry more details of the story out of him. In a nutshell, what happened to Alan Todd was something like this: he was contacted by a professional agent who called himself William Smith, he was then sent a copy of the bail bond via email (though it was a fake, it looked extremely realistic), and then told to go arrest Bob Landon.

After Todd captured Landon, he dropped Landon off at the designated location: a locked apartment, and then left. He never saw this Smith person from beginning to end, but the next day, he saw Landon's death being reported on the news.

After that, Todd even got through to Smith, who had no intention of denying his connection to the murder during the call. But that didn't mean much, the other side was well prepared and that number must have come from a disposable phone, making it impossible to trace. The mysterious person who hired Todd had vanished like water into the sea, it was impossible to find him again.

'Did he admit on the phone that he was the Pianist?' I asked Todd.

Todd was obviously stunned for a moment, using his alcohol-filled brain, he stuttered: 'No, no, I don't think so?'

-- This is what never made sense to me: according to the news reports, Sarah Adleman was killed with a bouquet of mint placed on her chest, and in Landon's case, a delicate flower ball woven from mint flowers and leaves was stuffed into his chest. While no photos of the corpse were leaked, a reporter from Westland apparently found a way to get some photos of the evidence, and now photos of that flower ball was all over the internet.

Decorating a corpse with flowers didn't seem like the Westland Pianist's style, the mints always struck me as incongruous. I've studied the Pianist's cases; he uses metaphors and analogies to dress his crime scenes. He cuts open and sews up bodies, dismembering whichever parts he pleases, but ultimately, his decorations have meanings.

And what could that bouquet of mint mean? Was that the kind of puzzle he would leave behind?

'...Do you think it's possible,' I thought for a moment, then said to Todd, 'that the real killer who murdered Landon wasn't the Westland Pianist? Rather, someone else killed him and staged the scene to look like the Pianist's work?'

As it turns out, it's not a good idea to discuss issues with a drunken bloke either.

Todd blinked blankly for a long time, then said, 'Why? Wasn't Landon a criminal? The Pianist only kills criminals.'

Although the smell of vomit on Todd's body smelled like a dead dog, he had a valid point with that statement. The WLPD did say that they had received a letter from the Pianist, and it was well known that Pianists letters were all handwritten, so it shouldn't have been possible for anyone else to mimic the Pianist's handwriting.

But in any case, that mint woven flower ball was still very abrupt and concerning.

Speaking of which, decorating the corpse with flowers seemed to be the style of the Sunday Gardener?

'Or, was this a joint crime committed by the Pianist and the Gardener?'

I had expected to be laughed out of the room at that thought -- after all, these two serial killers had only crossed paths somewhat in the Norman Brothers case, so maybe the two of them didn't even know each other. But instead, Todd stared blankly ahead and after a moment, he muttered, '...Yeah, someone else was with him at the time.'

That was all that came out of that trip to Syracuse: I got the forged bail bond from Todd, which was of no use at all, since Westland is full of people who could forge such documents; there was also the phone number used by the murderer, which had long since been disconnected and the SIM card unregistered; and finally, there was the address of the house where Todd had delivered Bob Landon. I had gone myself to checked out the house once, and the house was empty. According to the estate agent, it hadn't even been sold yet.

Since then, all clues about the Gardener or Pianist seemed to break off. But I didn't want to give up on it. Hunting a fierce predator could be said to be a dream of mine -- but I didn't actually want to lose my life over this, which wasn't contradictory -- so I launched my own investigation after returning to Westland.

Before I left Syracuse, I also tried to invite Todd to join me in my investigation. I didn't have a large amount of cash to lure him in, so I could only ask things like 'don't you want to know the truth' or other things like that. But this drunken, lump-like figure just slumped on the couch and looked at me with a horrified expression, as if I was inviting him to jump into a crater with me.

'He's right!' Todd said to me, with a tone I could only describe as horrified, 'We shouldn't challenge the unknown.'

He was like the guy in adventure films who would jump out and put a stop to the protagonists search for the Pharaoh's treasure before he sets off to find it. I couldn't convince Todd that I didn't really want to get myself killed in this matter (he seemed hell-bent on believing that I would definitely be dead), and so the matter had to be put to rest.

I could only continue piecing together the known clues myself, hoping to figure out whether Landon was really killed by the Pianist or not. I had to admit: one of the most suspicious people in the whole Landon case was, in fact, Albarino Bacchus.

This man was the chief medical examiner of the Westland Bureau of Forensic Medicine, and according to Westland Criminal Secrets website, he was one of those typically talented playboys. One of the victims, Sarah Adleman, was his girlfriend. Adleman and Bacchus were seen having a confrontation on the night of the murder, seemingly over the victim's accusation that Bacchus had been unfaithful to her.

A few hours later, this woman was found dead in an alley behind a bar.

With Bacchus' fingerprints on the knife sticking out of her chest, it seemed like the nail in the coffin as to who was responsible for the murder. Bacchus was quickly arrested and in jail awaiting trial. But then, as everyone knows: Landon collected souvenirs from his victims, and CSI found Adleman's hair in his house.

Although the police still couldn't explain why Bacchus' fingerprints were on that knife, they still had to release him due to insufficient evidence. Furthermore, of the several crimes committed by Landon, the mint only appeared on the chest of the deceased in the Adelman case, while the same mint also appeared on the body of Landon himself.

From any angle, Albarino Bacchus seemed very suspicious. I doubted whether Bacchus could really kill Sarah Adelman and then go onto framing Landon for the murder. I didn't understand the significance of the mint leaves. Thus, I began investigating Bacchus' background.

The results were not promising. He was indeed released before Landon's murder, but I doubt there was enough of a time gap in it for him to commit the crime. It would require someone extremely efficient to kill Landon and stage the scene in such a short period of time, the chances of which were close to non-existent.

Bacchus also seemed to be well known in upper-class social circles, a reputation his father's family had built up for him, so I had no trouble finding out a lot of information on the subject. Dr. Bacchus was one of those people -- the kind of guys who would be the last person in the world you would ever imagine being a murderer -- well-off, well-educated, exceptionally well-mannered from a young age, and outstanding in his studies. He never even had his parents called in by the school for fighting or playing pranks on his classmates or anything like that. Even as an adult, despite his playboy tendencies, he maintained good relationships with most of his ex-lovers, who had nothing but praise for him.

To put it simply: one couldn't possibly even imagine him killing anyone, and presumably in the eyes of some in Westland, people were more inclined to believe that Prince William would kill someone before believing that Dr. Bacchus did.

Sarah Adleman, however, was somewhat of an anomaly: she was possessive, and everyone dating Bacchus knew that he had no intentions of marriage. But since Sarah was the type of person who wanted to spend the rest of her life with someone after just three dates, it was not surprising that she publically accused Dr Bacchus of leading her on in that bar.

From the information already available, it seemed like things were just an accident from start to finish.

But I wasn't going to give up, in fact, I didn't believe in my bones that anyone could be as perfect as they appeared on the surface. I believe that everyone had some dark little thoughts in their heart. So I continued my investigation aimlessly and found something interesting.

Technically, it wasn't about Albarino Bacchus, but his mother, Shana Bacchus.

His mother, also a surgeon, had come to the United States from Spain through marital immigration. I interviewed several sources who said that Shana and the late Dr. Bacchus were 'very much in love'.

The unfortunate lady died in a drowning accident, with her son by her side -- it is interesting to note that the absence of a parent in the early years of a child's life tends to affect the child in all sorts of ways, and that Dr. Bacchus himself has given the public too perfect an impression to be affected by it. Unless, of course, we're talking about his inability to maintain long-term intimate relationships, but he's even on good terms with most of his exes, which didn't fit the profile of someone with a messy personal life.

It doesn't seem like much, but the whole thing started when I managed to get my hands on old files from the hospital where Albarino Bacchus' parents worked. I looked through the files purely as a last ditch effort.

But while sifting through the documents, I noticed a subtle phenomenon. It's hard to spot such clues without being in my line of work, but bounty hunters are adept at dealing with such numerical issues.

The inpatients of the hospital died of the same cause of death with a certain imperceptible fixed pattern. Because most of them were critically ill, their deaths were attributed to ineffective treatment -- this part of the evidence is too complex, so it has been placed in the dossier bag that I have attached to this manuscript, which, in addition to the patient files, also includes two testimonies from the deceased patient's families.

In short, one can conclude from those files that there was an Angel of Death in that hospital.

I believe that if an experienced police officer looked at those files, they would also come to the same conclusion. But the perpetrator did so very carefully, so no one in the hospital noticed anything unusual, and if no one noticed anything unusual, no one reported it, and if no one reported it, there was no investigation. It's not surprising that the truth was left buried in a pile of unexamined documents.

At that point, I'd pretty much given up on the Albarino Bacchus investigation, so I simply went along with the Angel of Death leads – I could not have imagined how much of a hassle this would be beforehand. I can't even begin to describe how tedious it was just trying to get my hands on the hospital inpatient unit shift schedules. Then came the endless interviews, investigations, comparisons, bribes ... By the beginning of this year, I was nearly so broke that I almost had to apply for welfare. But I had finally worked out my most likely suspect from a list of hospital staff.

-- Coincidentally, it was Shana Bacchus.

Shana Bacchus was already in the ground, and I'm afraid that I'll never be able to confirm the truth. But my thoughts couldn't help but return to Albarino Bacchus: seriously, did he really know what happened to his mother? Or perhaps back to the popular topic: could a serial killer's influence affect their child?

It was at this point that a crazy thought that seemed to explain the inconsistencies in the Landon case popped into my head: could Dr. Bacchus have killed Sarah Adelman and framed Landon for it -- of course, he'd have to have had an accomplice, otherwise he wouldn't have had enough time to plant Sarah's hair in Landon's home. But didn't Todd also say 'someone else was with him'? -- And then ended up killing Landon to silence him?

Only if both cases were committed by the same person could the crime scenes signature 'mint leaves' be explained.

But that didn't make it very plausible that the murderer was either the Gardener or the Pianist -- the Gardener didn't need to frame Sarah's death on someone else at all. He would simply have set Sarah up like a large bonsai; similarly, I find it very unlikely that the Pianist would have killed Sarah, as he's the kind of murderer who had his own system of morality and therefore wouldn't kill anyone other than a criminal.

And I can't for the life of me imagine that a murderer like the Pianist or the Gardener would be inaccurate enough to leave ther fingerprints on the knife in Sarah's chest.

So, perhaps the most likely scenario is that Bacchus killed Sarah over an emotional dispute, then framed Landon for it (though I still can't figure out how he discovered that Landon was responsible for the series of murders of women in red dresses), and then killed Landon to eliminate all evidence.

Of course, this was just a preliminary guess, as some details stilled seemed quite implausible. I originally planned to investigate further, but then the Family Butcher struck in Buffalo, and I was obliged to put the matter behind me for the time being and rush to Buffalo.

-- The subsequent events were widely reported in the newspapers, so I need not recount it in detail. Anyway, my investigation in Buffalo went much smoother than in Westland. I obtained testimonies regarding the Family Butcher and sought the criminal psychologist Olga Molozer for help.

Then came a series of Hollywood movie-like chases. My leg was already in this condition, yet I still had to deal with such things? Anyway, I stabbed that murderous bastard just as he was about to blow Albarino Bacchus' head off.

I didn't expect to encounter Dr. Bacchus in this case, after all, I didn't know he was a friend of Molozer either. But obviously things just happened to happen in front of me in such a simple, brutal way: as I stabbed McAdam with the knife, I saw a fleeting, strange expression on Bacchus' face -- it was quick enough to make one suspect it was just a hallucination, but I did see a vague flash of interest in Bacchus' eyes.

If I had only known him as a normal person, then I would have said that I was drawing too wild of a conclusion. But on the contrary, I knew about Shana Bacchus, so in that moment I firmly believed that Albarino Bacchus knew exactly what happened to his mother. Not only that, but that he might follow in his mother's footsteps, perhaps he had already followed in her footsteps -- he was standing on a dangerous edge.

Later, in the midst of our chaotic rescue party on 15th Avenue, I stood near the perpetually unhelpful John Garcia and actually managed to eavesdrop on Bacchus' and Herstal Armalight's conversation. I was actually quite surprised about the relationship between the two of them, Molozer had told me earlier that they were a couple, but with all due respect, Armalight didn't seem like the type to be in a relationship with anyone by any stretch of the imagination.

The two of them kept their voices low enough that I could only catch a fragment of their conversation. But I could clearly see Armalight punch Bacchus in the back, which looked quite painful -- Bacchus leaned into Armalight's arms for a long time with a shameless manner that was inconsistent with the impression he left on the public, and then straightened up and said something.

Then I heard Armalight raise his voice slightly and say, 'If you know it's dangerous, you shouldn't embrace it. I thought this was common sense.'

What were they talking about?

'In that case,' Bacchus' voice rose a little accordingly, his voice still cheerful, 'are you still angry? Over the Blanca Areola case?'

Armalight's brows remained furrowed. He was silent for a while before saying, 'You are wrong about many of the conclusions that you make.'

Bacchus nodded, then continued, 'So you're angry because --?'

'You understand neither the hesitation nor the pain of love.' Armalight said in an icy voice, 'I don't want to play that metaphorical game with you on this topic anymore; you know this is true.'

Bacchus just looked at him and smiled. I couldn't really see Bacchus' face from the angle I was standing at, but by the sound of his voice, I knew he was smiling. I suddenly realised that I hated the triumphant sound of his smile.

'So what are you going to do?' He asked.

Armalight seemed to be silent for a moment, as if he was trying to figure out how to answer -- in fact, he didn't. He just took a step forward, grabbed Bacchus by the shoulders, and pushed him backwards in one swift move. In this way, the two of them were all but blocked by the ambulance, escaping from my sight.

I suspect that Armalight kissed him.

-- In the end, I had heard nothing more than a petty lovers' quarrel. My interest lay solely in whether or not Albarino Bacchus was actually a serial killer, and I had no concern for his love life. At this rate, I might have to take matters into my own hands and test him myself.

However, my probing yielded no results. He appeared calm and sly, never revealing any flaws out of surprise.

'Whatever accusations you are making, please be ever so careful.'

He said this in a tone that was extremely, extremely unsettling -- a tone that made it certain anyone speaking like that was definitely up to no good. Even I was a bit sceptical; I wasn't even sure if he was saying it with the intention of killing someone off or doing something else even more terrible. That was not an exaggeration; when someone speaks in such a manner, it feels like they're capable of anything.

This was how the whole thing ended, without any results. It is also the fundamental reason why I wanted to write this down -- I wanted to find out the truth, but I am not sure what will happen to me, so I am using this as a final insurance policy.

During this time, Olga Molozer was in a coma, and I used this opportunity to frequent the hospital, because Bacchus was always there too, giving me a way to observe him closely. Moreover, the hospital, being a public place with many people around, meant no one would dare to do anything to me here.

One day -- probably sometime around late February -- on a weekend, I went to the hospital and happened to see Officer Bart Hardy and another man with an unfamiliar face standing in front of Molozer's ward.

It's really a shame that Molozer ended up where she did; she was far more useful than most of the officers at the WLPD. Officer Hardy was clearly worried as he looked inside the ward, and I was cautious to keep myself hidden: although I had more or less saved his daughter, there were still quite a few people within the WLPD who had a problem with me. What if the one beside him was one of his colleagues?

I'm guessing that the unfamiliar man was probably a cop or something as well, since he was built and looked quite fit, with tanned skin -- different from the fake tan, suggesting he was often on duty outside.

In any case, I'm a pretty good judge of people, and this current scenario, for example, told me that if these two discovered that I was eavesdropping, I wouldn't be able to outrun them with my bad leg. So I hid myself around the corner, where only the female caregiver sitting in the lounge reading a Fifty Shades of Grey novel with great interest could spot me.

But then again, I've been here so many times and that caregiver hasn't even noticed me twice.

Then I heard Officer Hardy say, 'I didn't expect to run into you here.'

'Because I try not to show up here -- at least when you're present.' The man replied, 'I know I'm not welcome.'

'Because I would hate you?' Hardy asked.

'Do you want to punch me now?' Mercader asked rhetorically.

'Not as much as I wanted to punch you on the first day.' Hardy shrugged his shoulders and said frankly, 'I understand your initial intentions were good, trying to catch the Family Butcher. Your starting point was correct, even though the execution was terrible -- but that doesn't mean I'm not angry with you.'

Oh, I now knew who this man was -- Lavazza Mercader of the BAU, the one who insisted on keeping Molozer at the police station, causing Hardy to have to search the buildings alone. Now, I understood why he asked, 'Do you want to punch me now?'. If Olga hadn't managed to get there in time at the end, Hardy's wife would have been dead.

Mercader nodded slowly, as if chewing over some words in his mind as he did so. He was silent for a moment, then suddenly said, 'I saw Dr. Bacchus here when Molozer was first brought to the hospital.'

Hardy tilted his head and looked at him, 'What did he say?'

'He thinks that the deaths of many people are my fault.' Mercader said.

I carefully huddled behind the corner to listen to them talk, but still couldn't fully make out what they were talking about.

Hardy sighed and asked, 'Does it matter to you what he thinks?'

'Very much,' Mercader enunciated, 'because I heard that Cherry, the witness in the case that happened in front of the Court House, she died didn't she? Car accident?'

Although I didn't understand how the topic turned in this direction, my whole body jolted: for I knew they were discussing the Sunday Gardener's case! They must have been referring to the case of William Brown and Anthony Sharp, the two men who had been displayed by the Gardener on the stone steps in front of the Court House in the manner of Judith beheading Holofernes.

Although I've always been interested in the Gardener and Pianist cases, I've never been able to get my hands on the case files for either of them. The WLPD, though rotten from the roots, were still very careful regarding these two's cases.

Hardy was silent for a moment, then asked, 'Are you implying something?'

'I have some personal opinions about your friends,' said Mercader, looking around cautiously as he spoke, and I had to press myself against the wall to avoid his gaze, 'This is not a good place to talk, I'd rather talk to you in your office -- Leaving that aside for the moment, about the case of the Gardener and the Pianist, did Molozer say anything about it in the first place?'

Hardy thought for a moment.

'You know all that speculation we've had internally...' Hardy waved vaguely, cautiously avoiding keywords which made me furious, 'Olga believed there was a simpler explanation, telling me, 'Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity'.'

A long, strange silence followed.

I couldn't help but peek around the corner, only to see Mercader standing stiffly, staring blankly out the window of Molozer's hospital room.

Then he said dryly, 'f*ck.'

Hardy couldn't help but ask, 'Agent Mercader --?'

'I see,' said Mercader suddenly, his voice hoarse, 'There is indeed a simpler way. We don't have to sort out such complicated interpersonal relationships. If people are not as complicated as we think, then -- who's there?!'

My whole body shuddered violently, and I stood nervously still, unsure if I had been discovered and wondering whether or not to run. But Mercader seemed to turn and head off somewhere I couldn't see, and within a few seconds, someone ran desperately along the corridor.

It was a young man with shaggy hair and an unshaven face. He flew past me, almost knocking me over, leaving me with only a hasty 'excuse me' with an European accent.

The man fled like there was a fire chasing him, and I took the opportunity to escape into the lounge, where the carer merely gave me a curious glance from above her books and said nothing. While I escaped with my life, Mercader and Hardy gave chase in the direction of the other eavesdropper.

I just stood there, holding my aching leg and breathing heavily. After the fear of being discovered gradually calmed, I realised two things:

Firstly, I felt like I had heard some very important information -- probably related to the investigation of the Westland Pianist and the Sunday Gardener -- but I hadn't really understood what the two of them were talking about.

Secondly, who was the other fellow who had overheard them both, as I had?

Chapter 31: 67. The Fountain of Blood (1)

Chapter Text

It seems to me at times my blood flows out in waves

Like a fountain that gushes in rhythmical sobs.

I hear it clearly, escaping with long murmurs,

But I feel my body in vain to find the wound.[1]

[1] 'The Fountain of Blood', Baudelaire.

'No,' said Bates, stuttering as he uttered the word, 'You're kidding, right?'

We could take a moment to view the start of the new year from Bates' perspective: he had just enjoyed a pleasant Christmas holiday and returned from vacation only to hear that the WLPD had been attacked by a serial killer who had brutally murdered two police officers in a frenzy; and then not even two days of peace and quiet later, the Family Butcher had kidnapped Bart Hardy's wife and daughter, and Olga had fallen from a tall building and was still in a coma unconscious.

And now, on what should have been a lovely, beautiful afternoon, Bates had come to the WLPD to deliver a DNA test report and intended to briefly discuss a few things with the officer in charge of the case before he was inexplicably summoned into the office by Hardy with a serious look on his face.

The gentleman in front of him -- Lavazza Mercader, the head of the BAU, whom Bates had only met once before during the Johnny the Killer case -- was standing in the middle of Hardy's office, declaring in a resounding voice...

'I think Dr. Bacchus is the Sunday Gardener and Armalight is the Westland Pianist.'

Bates simply wanted to go home immediately and lie in bed, then open his eyes and go through the day again from the beginning. But it was no use; the serious look on Mercader's face, Hardy's headache, and the red mug which Olga had thrown in the corner of the room which had been gradually accumulating dust, all told him that this was no hallucination of his.

Bates blinked blankly, the way most people would react when their friend was being accused of being a psychopathic murderer. He struggled with the wording, 'But, Al...'

'He fits the profile -- actually, both of them do. I'm surprised no one has thought of it before.' Mercader said, waving his hand for emphasis, 'Age, time in Westland, even their occupations: Armalight is a lawyer, so he certainly has his ways of accessing cases to crimes that haven't been publically tried. We've been looking for traces of the Pianist among police officers previously; and as for Dr. Bacchus, he's a forensic pathologist, and his parents were surgeons, so he obviously has a medical background.'

'I don't think Al's behaviour fits in with any of the typical childhood characteristics of a serial killer,' Bates shook his head, 'Arson, animal abuse...'

'That's not the only set of characteristics. If you refer to Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, you'll find he fits many criterias.' Mercader countered, 'Irresponsible, superficial charm, impulsive, promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long term intimate relationships-'

'...Sorry,' Bates interrupted, confused, 'Promiscuity? Really?'

Hardy gave the other man an indescribable look; Because of the incident where the Gardener placed the bodies on the steps of the Court House, they had to bring Albarino in for questioning. Bates probably didn't known that during the questioning Albarino had mentioned a threesome.

Hardy thought it best not to tell Bates about it.

Besides, if the two men were indeed serial killers, their alibis would have been perjured, and the threesome never having existed -- but Cherry, the witness who'd testified to them, had died in a car accident. Which, according to Mercader, was something much more than a simple car accident, but they could no longer prove anything.

'And Dr. Bacchus being with Armalight now is strange in itself,' continued Mercader, 'He admitted to me that he wasn't close to Armalight during the Johnny the Killer case -- But then, after the Pianist's sexual assault case, he quickly got together with Armalight so soon after? This applies to both of them. Shouldn't this kind of sexual assault leave some sort of psychological trauma on the victim?'

'Because they were both 'in the same boat',' Hardy gestured, his expression not very good, 'Al told me that it was because their experiences were similar that they got together. But by your theory -- if it's true that one of them is the Pianist and the other the Gardener – does that mean that Al condoned the sort of thing that Armalight did to him?'

Bates knew what was going through his mind when he said that: they both envisioned the same gruesome scene: blood-soaked flesh, knife-carved letters, the creation of Adam.

Mercader retorted, 'Is that so hard for a psychopathic killer?'

'Alright, alright,' thought Hardy, who could only wearily intervene, 'This is just a suspicion. Since we started investigating these two serial killers, we've sifted through a number of characters that we thought fit the profiles perfectly, but none of them, upon elimination, were the actual killers. Agent Mercader, there's no way that 'fitting the profile' alone is going to be enough for a judge to issue a warrant.'

Bates nodded and added, 'We searched Al's residence during that Landon case, and I can assure you that there's no sign that he's killed anyone in his house.'

'Besides,' Hardy added, 'just on the basis of Olga's 'Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity', I don't really believe ...'

Mercader waved his hand again, as if he recognised that his argument wasn't strong enough for the men in front of him. 'She's provided a good way of thinking about it, and we've been trying to find a relationship between the four; the Pianist, the Gardener, Armalight and Dr. Bacchus before. But any possible connection seemed too complex and confusing, but, if the entire incident only ever involved two people, everything would make sense.'

'Perhaps it does,' Hardy's brow furrowed deeply as he said this, 'but if you can realise this just based on hearing it alone, how could Olga not have thought of it? Does it seem possible to you that she proposed the concept without reaching the final conclusion?'

Mercader paused for a moment, and then had to admit that the other man had a point.

'I don't know either.' He said with a sigh.

'I have another question,' Bates hesitantly raised his hand, feeling like a schoolboy about to be repimanded when he was in front of Mercader, 'Agent Mercader, I've been wanting to ask since the beginning...shouldn't you be back at Quantico right now?'

Mercader scrutinized him for a long time, making Bates feel the urge to shrink back.

But the question was valid: it was already early March, almost a month since the Butcher's incident. Mercader and John Garcia should have left Westland long ago. But Bates had encountered Mercader at least twice during his visits to Olga in the hospital, not to mention this encounter in Hardy's office.

Did this man ever go to work?

Mercader was stunned for a moment and shifted his weight awkwardly.

'Uh, my colleagues are in New Jersey dealing with a premeditated mass poisoning case,' he said awkwardly, 'My case is almost wrapped up, so I took some time to check on things in Westland -- I'll be leaving soon.'

'I suggest you get back to your work as soon as possible as well. We'll keep an eye on the Pianist and the Gardener... Without any evidence, the WLPD can't do anything, and you should be mindful of any procedural issues your frequent visits to Westland might cause.' Hardy reminded him.

Mercader took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, followed by his statement, 'If the WLPD were willing to seek the BAU's help, there wouldn't be any procedural issues. The Westland Pianist and the Sunday Gardener cases may not be interstate crimes, but they should still warrant FBI involvement...I really hope you'll consider my earlier suggestion to turn the case over to me and my colleagues.'

Bates listened and couldn't help but sigh inwardly: it was a good idea, of course it was, and if the WLPD could actually request assistance from the FBI, Hardy would have a much lighter burden on his shoulders. No officer should have to handle two serial killings simultaneously.

-- But things weren't as simple as Mercader thought:

Bart Hardy had been promoted by his predecessor, a Chief who had harboured a number of bright and heroic fantasies in his heart before dying in a shooting five months into his tenure. The current Chief just wanted to use his position to make a quick fortune and retire to Malibu Beach. So of course he couldn't stand Hardy, who was an obstacle on his path to accept bribes, and wanted to find a reason to transfer him for a bad case.

The mayor of Westland, on the other hand, wanted to transfer the Chief out from his current position sooner rather than later so that he could have his cronies running the WLPD, which would greatly benefit him in his campaign for governor. He didn't care about the WLPD's crime solving rates and was only interested in trying to catch the Chief of police in the act.

In short, Lavazza Mercader knews nothing about the complex political landscape of Westland, nor could he have known that Bart Hardy was probably one of the few people in the entire police department who genuinely wanted to solve these two cases, while everyone else was more or less trying to make a profit out of these two serial killings -- and their first step to making a profit was to keep the FBI out of these cases in the first place.

Bates could only watch silently as Mercader shook Hardy's hand and walked away at a brisk pace, presumably on his way to New Jersey to join his own team and handle the poisoning case. Bates watched him leave and then turned his head to glance at Hardy, who seemed exhausted, his hair whiter, and his eyes filled with fatigue.

Clara was only a few days away from being discharged from the hospital. Hardy and Wallis had to find time out of work to go to the hospital to take care of their child in addition to juggling their work responsibilities, they were simply busy. And at this moment, mixed in his eyes was a deep concern ...a look of deep contemplation.

'Oh.' Bates whispered.

Hardy looked over at him, the corners of his mouth turned stiffly downward.

'You're seriously considering Agent Mercader's theory now,' Bates felt his voice lighten as if it were a whisper, and he felt a strange pang of unease at his realistaion, 'Aren't you? '

Hardy was silent for a long time, then nodded.

'I really don't want to think this way, they're all my friends and they just saved Clara's life.' Hardy's tone was heavy, 'But what other options do I have? Too many people have died already.'

'What a beast!' Tom gritted his teeth, 'And such a young child!'

-- It was the last autopsy of the day before the end of their shift. The light of the shadowless lamp focused on a bruised and battered body of a dead boy. He looked quite young, maybe thirteen or fourteen, lying naked on the autopsy table as if he were a lifeless white stone.

His body was covered with bruises. There were many restraint marks on his neck and wrists, and some strip-like wounds on his back, white in the middle and dark around the edges. These were the marks of being beaten with a cylindrical object, probably a baseball bat, according to Albarino.

At this moment, the autopsy was nearing its conclusion: the deceased's nails and lips were cyanotic, his right heart was highly congested, blood inside his vessels was unclotted, saliva and mucus had flowed out, and his eyes were protruding. It was clear that he died from mechanical asphyxiation. Combined with the extent of his sphincter tear, it was evident that this young man died from a cause that, while unseemly, was quite common.

'If this were an adult, people would say it was 'SM gone wrong',' said Albarino, seeing Tom wrinkle his nose, 'but this kid is clearly underage, so this is most likely a rape and murder case. Though the killer might have strangled him by accident, raping a minor is still a serious crime... He was found in the river, right?'

'Yes,' Tommy said, looking down at the report provided by the scene investigator in his hand, 'A dog walker found the body in the river this morning and called the police. There's been a resurgence in these types of cases lately, and the river's only just thawed enough to dump a body!'

Albarino shook his head, 'Cases like these tend to remain unsolved, the victim looks like he's been in the river for almost two days. Even though we've sent the materials to the evidence lab, experience tells me the river water has probably destroyed most of the evidence. If the WLPD can't identify the victim, there's a good chance that the case won't be solved.'

Tom pursed his lips, clearly unable to bear seeing such a young child die tragically. 'But--'

'This isn't a high-profile case,' Albarino gave him an amused look, even though the young man in front of him had been an intern at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine for such a long time, there were times when his naiveté and idealism still surprised Albarino, 'What I mean is, the victim isn't some celebrity, tycoon, or politician's child. If it turns out that he was a runaway or a kid who sold his body for money -- you know there are still many of those people -- the case is likely to go nowhere. If the case is handed to an officer like Bart, it might be different, but...'

'But there aren't many officers like Hardy in the WLPD.' Tommy admitted in a reluctant whisper.

Albarino nodded with a smile, 'That's what I mean.'

Tom muttered something in frustration. Meanwhile, the door to the autopsy room was knocked on and cautiously pushed open. Albarino's secretary stood in the doorway and asked, 'Dr. Bacchus?'

'What is it?' Albarino raised an eyebrow; his secretary didn't usually come to him when he was nearing the end of his shift.

'There's a gentleman here to see you in your office, says his last name is Armalight.' The other man replied. Everyone -- including the secretary and the receptionists at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine -- had become immune to the sight of good-looking men and women visiting Albarino at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine over the years. Overtime, they no longer even felt the urge to gossip.

...Except maybe Tommy.

Tommy's eyes began to glaze over at the mention of Armalight's name, and Albalino couldn't help but suspect he had heard too much gossip from Olga. Albarino nodded, feeling a headache coming on and replied, 'I see, you tell him to come straight over. Also, the recording of this autopsy is over,' Albarino said, gesturing to the lifeless young body behind him. 'You can finish the autopsy report tomorrow morning and give it to Officer Bull.'

-- Bull, Albarino had dealt with this officer before. He wasn't as responsible or as competent as Hardy. In any case, Albarino believed that if Officer Bull was in charge of this case, the case of the unidentified boy's body would end up being thrown into the pile of 'unsolved' cases, gathering dust like the hundreds of other unsolved cases.

Albarino's secretary probably felt the same way, but in any case, he simply nodded and exited the autopsy room, closing the door behind him. The faint smell of decay from the corpse and the lingering, damp odour from the river hung heavy in the chamber for a few minutes before the door was opened again, and Herstal Armalight appeared in the doorway of the autopsy room.

Herstal looked as immaculate as ever -- his tailored suit, expensive silk shirt and tie, and handmade leather shoes easily created an image of arrogance. Albarino knew that, despite Tommy's eagerness to gossip about their relationship, he was actually somewhat afraid of Herstal.

Tommy, who had been yelling at Albarino before Herstal walked in the door about whether or not the two of them had finally moved in together, snapped to a halt, like a student caught reading a p*rnographic novel by his teacher. He shrunk his neck and ducked behind Albarino to concentrate on stitching up the dissected corpse, while Albarino looked over at Herstal with a smile.

'Why are you off work so early today?' He asked.

'I'm skipping a banquet,' Herstal replied, his frown not loosening even a little, making one want to reach out and smoothen the crease with their fingertips, 'Holmes wanted to use this opportunity to network and make friends with socialites, but I really wasn't interested.'

Albarino took a few more steps forward while he was talking, reducing the distance between the two of them to something that was less than appropriate; but then again, Albarino was never great with personal space, even between normal people. Now, he lazily put his hand on Herstal's shoulder, and when the other man didn't tense up the instant his fingers fell, Albarino swept his fingers over the seams of the fabric with satisfaction.

'So,' Albarino asked lightly, 'you'd rather spend your time with me, right?'

His fingers crawled like spiders to the other man's collar, lightly brushing his fingertips there -- where a bite mark lay on the skin underneath, which had been left by Albarino the night before. It was now properly hidden under the layer of shirt collar and tie. Unsurprisingly, Herstal glared at Albarino.

'Watch it,' Herstal warned, 'The reception hasn't even started yet, so I could still change my mind at any moment and turn around to go back.'

'And take away the key to your place?' Albarino asked with a raised eyebrow, snapping the pockets of his jacket down as Herstal's fingers were stealthily making their way inside.

Apparently, Herstal's hand had already hooked onto the key ring, but he simply clicked his tongue and released his grip, giving up on the doomed attempt. Then he emphasised again, lowering his voice so that only the two of them could hear: 'Don't pry open the door of my house again. If one day you don't have a key, go back to sleep in your mouldy fridge.'

About the mouldy fridge, Albarino felt aggrieved. He could swear to God that the fridge in his house in the suburbs was definitely not mouldy, but that wasn't really the most pressing issue right now either.

What was perhaps the more pressing issue was that they had been sleeping together most nights recently, and they were good-natured enough after waking up as to not have killed anyone.

Albarino had stayed at Herstal's house for a while just before Christmas last year, and as everyone knew, that had ended on a very unpleasant note. And Albarino thought that since neither of them had any ideas of killing the other, or of getting tired of this game for the time being, and besides, considering that they've 'killed together,' they might as well continue the same lifestyle as before Christmas.

Herstal didn't object to the proposal, though he did have a look of disgust in his eyes.

And now they fell back into the routine: When Herstal wasn't working late, he would naturally stop by the Forensic Bureau, and they would go home together. It was too lifelike, but it was a good cover for fooling the police: they could never imagine the Westland Pianist and the Sunday Gardener coming home from work together; and it was really good evidence for the 'we're in love', a notion which Albarino enjoyed, probably just to see Herstal suffer.

And so, this day was like any other day. Herstal began to regret it three minutes after seeing Albarino -- but it only lasted for those three minutes.

For in the next moment, Albarino inadvertently sidestepped to one side, and Herstal saw the body lying on the autopsy table, as pale as marble.

In that instant, Herstal could not hear what Albarino was saying; an earth-shattering sound silently exploded in his ears. When he regained his senses, he found himself gripping Albalino's elbow tightly.

'Herstal?' Albarino asked in confusion, sounding as if he was genuinely worried.

Herstal swallowed dryly, then gestured towards the body with his chin.

'Who is that?' He asked.

Chapter 32: 68. The Fountain of Blood (2)

Chapter Text

Herstal’s complexion was not good, and that obscure look lingered in his eyes like dense clouds before a rainfall. Of course, the average person would say that he looked as serious and aloof as usual, but Albarino felt as if a flashing neon sign had appeared above his head, highlighting even the tiniest, little crease in his brow.

Albarino even glanced back at the corpse once again, as if hoping to discover some new secret from it, but unfortunately, it looked no different than any other miserable corpse.

And Tommy, undoubtedly, was one of those average people who couldn't read Herstal's emotions. He explained to Herstal carelessly, ‘This is the John Doe who was found on the riverbank this morning, he must have been washed ashore. We don't even know where he was thrown into the river from, and we haven't identified him yet.’

‘…Aren't we supposed to not disclose case details to unrelated personnel?’ Albarino hesitantly reminded Tommy.

Tommy looked at Albarino incredulously, ‘Isn't he your boyfriend?!’

The implication was clear: would he reveal case details to the media?

Albarino was stuck for two seconds, then silently confirmed in his mind that this young man, Tommy, would certainly suffer losses in such matters after he gets his forensic license and officially joins the team.

Herstal glanced at Albarino sinisterly, the mockery in his eyes was overflowing: Albarino was in no position to educate his juniors not to disclose information to uninvolved people. He himself was a guy who would rush in and sneak into the basem*nt of a suspect's house while the suspect was being questioned by the FBI.

Tommy, on the other hand, as always, was oblivious to the undercurrents between the others in the room. He continued, frowning, ‘...Although it really is quite tragic, but to be honest, it’s not very likely to be solved. There's been several cases like this before --’

Albarino tore his gaze away from the stalemate between him and Herstal, and abruptly turned his head to ask, ‘There have been several cases?’

Tommy nodded hurriedly, ‘Yes, I remember I was responsible for an autopsy of a similar unnatural death case at the end of last year. I stopped by to retrieve those previous reports when the scene investigation report came in at noon today. There have been five other similar cases since 2013.’

Albarino co*cked his head as he thought for a moment, then said, ‘Show me the autopsy reports -- Herstal, I may have to work overtime for a few minutes, so make yourself comfortable somewhere.’

Herstal surveyed the surroundings evaluatively: the ordinary autopsy room was filled with mobile autopsy carts, shadowless lamps, and all sorts of equipment. The ventilation system was working vigorously, and although the room didn't smell too bad, he really couldn't find a suitable place to ‘make himself comfortable’.

Tommy hurried off to fetch those autopsy reports. Herstal looked at Albarino's profile and asked, ‘What do you think this is...?’

‘If only one minor died after being sexually assaulted, I'd say that Westland had a paedophile bastard who played SM too much,’ Albarino whispered as he watched Tommy leave, ‘But if a total of six children died in a span of over three years? Then there are two possibilities.’

Herstal watched the subtle curve of Albarino's mouth and whispered, ‘There's a sexually sad*stic killer in Westland.’

‘Or there's a group of people with special fetishes having a little party.’ Albarino shook his finger and said slowly, ‘Neither of which are particularly pleasant speculations.’

Bart Hardy never understood why the name of the bar was ‘I Quit.’

Olga might know the truth, because she was probably very familiar with the bar owner – as when Hardy and Bates passed through the looming haze of marijuana smoke, and through the many young people with shiny skin tattoos and dyed colourful hair, the bar owner's hawk-like eyes picked them out from a circle of people.

‘Hey! You're a friend of Molozer, right?’ The bar owner shouted, with a beaming smile on his lips, ‘How come Molozer hasn't been around lately?’

Hardy felt the sensation of something prickly stuck in his throat. He forcefully flashed a pale smile at the other man before muttering something like -- ‘she hasn't been able to make it lately’, which was a lie as close to the truth as he could get. He then allowed the considerate Bates to drag him to a booth away from the bar, where the high leather back of a double sofa shielded them from the flickering lights and the owner's inquiring eyes.

Bates left briefly and returned with two beers. The heavy glass clanked down onto the wooden table top with a thump, leaving a ring of damp water vapour. Bates himself settled into the seat with the same thud.

‘Let's not talk about the Pianist's mess first,’ he said with a frown, ‘Bart, how long has it been since you've had a good night's sleep?’

Hardy knew the large, dark circles, under his eyes were obvious to anyone who wasn’t blind. He rubbed his dry eyes, unsure how to explain himself to the other party.

Bart Hardy's father had been a soldier in the Marine Corps, so it wasn't hard to imagine what kind of upbringing he'd been brought up under -- boys shouldn't cry, and boys certainly couldn't show vulnerability, which was the old Hardy's usual stance -- so he didn't know how to confide in Bates about the nightmares he'd had since his wife and daughter had been rescued, or how to approach the parts that had to do with Lavazza Mercader.

Olga lay silently in the hospital, and when Hardy looked at her, he often thought of the doctor's frightening words and the Butcher himself, until Mercader appeared inexplicably that one weekend and once again dragged his attention back to the Sunday Gardener and the Westland Pianist.

-- And the other party thought that those killers were his daughter's saviors.

For a long time, they’d had some particularly preposterous speculations about the Pianist and the Gardener, and what Mercader said was undoubtedly one of the most absurd he had ever heard. He said: I think Dr. Bacchus is the Sunday Gardener, and Armalight is the Pianist.

At the time, they had just finished a breathless, inexplicable race through the hospital corridors, and they were both stood back in front of the window into Olga's ward. ‘That's what Molozer's words revealed to me.’ Agent Mercader said coldly and stiffly, while Olga, particularly uncharacteristically for the impression she left on the regulars lay as peacefully and quietly as she did, without speaking or saying a word.

This conclusion was so bizarre that he shouldn't have believed it, but...

‘I’ve been worried, so I’m... losing sleep.’ Now facing one of the leading figures of the Westland Crime Lab, Bates Schwander, he finally told the truth.

‘Because if those two are indeed criminals, you'd have to arrest them yourself?’ Bates asked, shrugging his shoulders and leaning back against the soft backing of his chair. ‘Let me put it this way, Bart: while I don't deny the role of profiling in solving cases, I believe in science more than I do in criminal psychology -- a lot of the conclusions of criminal psychology are summarised generalisations of countless previous cases, and even if they apply to a wide range of cases, there are always exceptions to the rule. Science, however, is irrefutable.’

‘And it's true that Al's house didn't show any suspicious evidence. CSI searched his house twice in two different cases, I know that.’ Hardy said propping up his forehead, perhaps they shouldn't have come to this bar in such a complicated state of mind about Olga, and the piercing music didn’t help with their headaches, ‘I know you're comforting me, thank you.’

‘Why on earth are you so concerned about what Mercader had to say this time? I'm guessing it's by no means just because Mercader said he got his inspiration from Olga, and it's true that I've never seen Olga make a mistake, but it's not like Olga's a god - so why exactly?’ Bates asked a rather to-the-point question, and as if to soften his slightly sharp phrasing, he picked up his glass of beer and brought it to his lips.

‘Albarino ...’ Hardy mused, ‘is a very strange man. You know what they call him, don't you?’

‘They say he's a 'genius', which I've heard a lot.’ Bates laughed.

‘He graduated from medical school at twenty-three, then went off to travel around Europe and returned to Westland at twenty-four.’ Hardy said, flashing a small smile, ‘You know, usually in their line of work, you're supposed to work as a pathologist for four years before becoming a forensic pathologist, but he only did two years before the hospital director wrote a special letter of recommendation for him to join the Bureau of Forensic Medicine early. Excluding his internship, he was appointed Chief Medical Examiner after only six years in the Bureau of Forensic Medicine. His achievements are astonishing.’

‘I feel you,’ Bates said sincerely, ‘so you were quite impressed with him back then?’

‘Very, very impressed,’ Hardy replied in a particularly serious tone, ‘When I first met him, I was an ordinary officer, and he was still only an intern forensic pathologist -- it’s not an exaggeration Bates, I'd never met anyone like him before.’

It was a hot summer's day when Bart Hardy first met Albarino Bacchus. It was well known that all forensic pathologists and homicide detectiveshated the summer months because the heat made corpses decompose into unpredictable horrors.

When Hardy crossed the yellow police tape, the place was already crowded with reporters, andseveral younger officers were puking in the corner outside the house. One officer shoved a DSLR camera into Hardy's hand, frustration etched on his face.

‘You, you're replacing the guy who’s responsible for evidence photos,’ he said, gesturing to Hardy the guy who was puking until he was pale in the doorway, ‘he's about to vomit his stomach out.’

That's how Hardy stepped inside, clueless, donned in a blue protective suit, and immediately he was assaulted by an unbearable, pungent, odour. The house was a small, two-storey building, painted a lovely white, but the interior held none of that freshness that could be seen on the outside – unspeakable, putrid liquids mixed with blood that was running across the grey floor, with white maggots writhing and rolling around inside.

It took Hardy a great deal of effort to stifle the dry heaves. There were a couple of CSIs in the room, pinching their noses and going about their business. At the source of the odour -- a rough concrete pit built into the centre of the living room floor -- crouched a young, brown-haired man, who, by the look of the kit he had in his hand, was supposed to be a forensic pathologist.

Hardy carefully navigatedacross the floor to avoid stepping on any bugs. Once he finally managed to stand beside the young man, he asked, ‘You're the one who needs the body photographed?’

‘Yes. We'd better get busy and finish it before my boss arrives, or else he'll lose his temper again.’ The young man replied nonchalantly.

-- Later, Hardy learned that the ‘boss’ he was referring to was the Chief Medical Examiner of the Bureau of Forensic Medicine at the time, a very ill-tempered old man.

At this moment, the concrete pit in front of him was piled up with body parts. A few flies were buzzing around the pile of corpses, while dense maggots writhed on the surface of the body like a sea of white. Hardy saw five hands in just one glance, and they seemed to be mismatched.

But the young medical examiner didn't seem to be affected by the shocking fragments and the unspeakable odour. Instead, he nimbly poked his tweezers into the mountain of body parts and pulled a white worm out of it.

And now he could only watch as the other man put the maggot into a small vial containing ethanol: the type of worm on the body, its length, and the stage of growth the worm was in, were important in determining the time of death. But even so, the other man seemed a little too calm, not to mention the fact that he was the closest person in the entire room to the gruesome scene.

‘This is like one of those fairy tales, like the ones in Grimms' Fairy Tales.’ The young forensic pathologist commented enthusiastically, talking to him in a familiar manner. ‘The young bride opens the door to the room her husband won't let her open, and then discovers a large pool inside piled high with the body parts of young girls; and because she couldn't help but pry into her husband's secrets, she had to become one of them.’

‘Er,’ asked Hardy at last, after the first photograph had been taken, ‘don't you think this looks unpleasant?’

The young forensic pathologist pondered for a couple of seconds before replying, ‘Aesthetically speaking maybe it does, but considering that this is everyone's destination, maybe it's not so bad.’

‘I don't think my destination is in such a pool.’ Hardy muttered with a laugh.

‘But this is exactly how we return back to dust, it is the true form we present to others.’ The young forensic pathologist looked down at the body partsand concluded with regret. ‘The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream’.’ [1]

[1] 'A Carrion', Baudelaire.

‘This was what happened when I first met Al.’ Hardy said frankly, while Bates, whose glass had been drained, stared at Hardy with a bewildered expression.

‘...Should I make some comment about this way of meeting?’ There was a long moment of silence, and then Bates stumbled over his words, clearly at a complete loss as to how he should phrase them, ‘Just, this way of meeting is really... impressive?’

‘It does in fact seem overly impressive,’ Hardy admitted, and a familiar bitter smile once again appeared on his face. ‘I'll have to admit this fact to you: that's the only reason I'm worried. As I said, I actually know that Albarino is not an ordinary person, he's sharp, technically brilliant, skilled and so damned smart -- so while I still don't believe he'd do something like the Sunday Gardener...’

Bates caught the other's drift.

‘But you know in your heart,’ he said softly, pointing out as calmly as he could in his voice, a fact which the other's heart dreaded, ‘that he by no means lacks the ability or courage to do such a thing.’

The five autopsy reports were lined up in front of Albarino, accompanied with detailed photographs. The ghastly pale skin and criss-crossed wounds of those who had died looked shocking.

‘Okay, so far there are six victims, four girls and two boys, aged between ten and fifteen.’ Albarino quickly flipped through the autopsy reports, the harsh, shadowless lamp casting an ominous and deep shadow under the arch of his brow. ‘They were all sexually assaulted prior to their deaths, and were found in dishevelled clothes or simply completely naked ...but there’s nothing particularly common about the manner of death.’

‘Two of the previous victims died of asphyxiation, but one by strangulation and the other by a rope, respectively.’ Tommy was a little more familiar with the situation than Albarino after having read the autopsy reports earlier, ‘And then there’s this one, a congenital heart attack, and the other one died of craniocerebral injury caused by a heavy blow to the back of the head.’

Albarino nodded, ‘The causes of death are very different.’

‘You guys don't think one person did it?’ Considering the various confidentiality regulations, Herstal stood farther away, unsure if it was just the lighting, but he still looked pale.

‘If it was done by one person, there should be at least some similarity in the methods.’ Albarino mused, ‘Besides, assuming it was really done by one person, the accidental death rate from sleeping with him is a bit too high... No, I don't think this was done by one sexual sad*st -- at least not 'one' sexual sad*st. Tommy, has there been any testable DNA extracted from these cases?’

‘You can check the information on the CSI’s side, they took biopsies and the results from the crime labs are attached onto the end of the autopsy report.’ Tommy leaned over and flipped the autopsy report back a few more pages, ‘...okay, obviously not.’

‘The murderers were very cautious, they must have worn condoms.’ Albarino nodded and didn't look too discouraged, ‘All in all, it seems like there's still not enough evidence for a joint investigation right now. But as I said before, so many similar cases occurring in the same area means attention must be paid to it. Tommy, can you come to my office? Give these autopsy reports to my secretary and ask him to summarise these contents in the index at the end of the autopsy report of this victim. When the reports are handed over to Officer Bull tomorrow, I'll have him take a look at these, it might help in the investigation.’

Tommy gave a noise of assent and put the autopsy reports away before going out again. Albarino, meanwhile, went out to call his assistants in so they could wheel the body back to the morgue and into one of the cold cabinets.

By the time he returned, Herstal was still standing in the doorway of the autopsy room, arms folded. The expensive clothes made him look as if he'd just stepped out from the inside pages of some fashion magazine, out of place in the pale, quiet corridor.

Albarino tugged the latex gloves down from his fingers as he made his way over to him, finally stopping two steps away, close enough to be within earshot but not enough to share the same breath. He gave the other man two heartbeats worth of time before asking, ‘Herstal, do you care for that?’

Herstal raised his head at the sound of his voice and surveyed him, his blue appearing unusually light under the lamp's illumination, which made them seem cold and unfeeling, as people often said of light-coloured eyes. His voice was equally as cold and hard, like wind blowing through a long corridor built of white stone.

‘You think I care about a dead person?’ He asked rhetorically in his usual tone of voice, counting on the other man to hear the sarcasm in his voice and know better. Unfortunately for him, however, Albarino was usually impervious to his tactics.

‘Or is it the grave in your heart that you care about.’ Albarino pressed on.

Hestel clicked his tongue, ‘Is this going to be another metaphor filled conversation?’

‘No, this is entirely literal: I sense a cemetary here ...a cemetery abhorred by the moon, in which long worms crawl like remorse [2].’ Albarino laughed a little, and that laugh swept swiftly past the corners of his mouth like an icy knife. Then he reached out, his fingertips resting steadily on Herstal's chest, his fingertips could feel the vibrant heartbeat from beneath the fabric. The organ steadily pumping blood to all of his limbs, a river of red coursing through his body. ‘I discovered its existence the night Billy was killed. I'm guessing you buried a child there: a child who was powerless in the face of an overwhelming, irresistible force above him’.

[2] ‘Spleen’, Baudelaire.

‘You discovered its existence.’ Herstal echoed with a sneer, his eyes blazing like a fire. ‘How interesting, I thought you were the type to announce your discoveries to the world immediately.’

‘Why would I? If I keep silent, it and your beauty belong solely to me.’ Albarino replied smoothly, effortlessly uttering out the kind of sweet talk that would be too much even for a lady. ‘You understand how alluring that is to an artist, don't you?’

‘Very poetic, and somewhat creepy too.’ Herstal sneered, though what he really meant to say was probably something like ‘annoyingly melodramatic.’

‘This is advice from the Gardener, my love.’ Albarino continued in the same light voice, giving a knowing wink, appearing cheerful and pleasant, ‘Since that grave will always exist, why not use it to bury more dead people? The person that disgusts you -- or the people, it doesn't matter -- find them, kill them, bury them.’

He paused meaningfully, that hand still overlaid where it was, while he eliminated those remaining two steps forward, and kissed the corner of Herstal's lips.

Herstal did not move, nor did he hide, only a sigh as soft as the breeze blew from between his lips.

‘And then that child you buried in the cemetery won’t ever feel lonely.’

Chapter 33: 69. The Fountain of Blood (3)

Chapter Text

Westland was a very precipitation-heavy city, and even in March there was an unappealing drizzle every now and then. Temperatures would rise to tolerable levels, but rainy nights would still remain wet and cold.

Morrison huddled at the entrance of the porch, shivering as he tried to light himself a cigarette with his frozen, stiff fingers. The door opened onto an alleyway where the streetlight's glow couldn't reach, facing a river that gave off a damp, fishy odour wafting from afar; and the alley itself reeked of rotting garbage, with homeless people camped in the farthest corners against the low walls -- such alleys were common in the old town, these neighbourhoods have been left behind by the city's rapidly expanding economy, like an invisible hand tearing off a dark piece of the brightly lit urban animal.

These streets were known for their cheap rents, labyrinthine alleys, and outdated surveillance equipment, gradually becoming the perfect nests for the city's illegal activities. The land was divided into numerous pieces by various shady gangs. So much so that even the residents who've lived there for decades couldn't even begin to articulate the intricacies of what was at stake.

It was also because they were divided by the gangs so cleanly and thoroughly that the security of the streets was even better than in most other places -- each street was looked after by a different gang, and other gangs would not willingly trespass onto another's territory. As long as it was not at the boundary of power between two rival gangs, even road robbery and petty theft were very restrained. No gang leaders would allow their own minions to cause trouble on their own territory, which would not benefit the businesses they protected.

Morrison was a pimp living under gang protection. Whoring and prostitution were both illegal in Westland, but he didn't have to worry about that -- he paid a stack of cash to the local gangs every month, ensuring that the local police wouldn't kick down his door and search his house whenever they felt like it. Everyone could be bought off, especially the gangs in Westland and the police.

-- And of course, Morrison himself.

As he lit a cigarette with trembling hands, clenching it between his lips, a person emerged from the rain. They were dressed in a nondescript hooded jacket with the hood pulled all the way down to his eyebrows, and a scarf that made it hard to see his face. When the person stopped still in front of Morrison, the light from the yellow bulb dangling above his head fell on the figure, casting a deep shadow on the brim of his hood and the arch of his brow.

'Hey,' the person spoke with a grin, using the inappropriate topic of 'talking about the weather' to start the conversation, 'it's really cold out here, isn't it?'

This was an outdated tactic for picking up girls on a college campus, let alone starting a conversation with a pimp in a dark alley. Morrison eyed the other person warily and asked, 'What do you want?'

'Nothing much, just a chat. On such a lousy night like this, it's perfect for having someone to soothe a bored soul with, right?' The other party shrugged their shoulders and leaned casually against the porch beside Morrison, out of the way of the pouring rain, and sighed contently. 'Your girls are in the house right now doing that kind of soul-soothing work, and I'm sure you wouldn't want the police barging in and interrupting their noble job, right?'

Morrison stared intently at the other man, feeling a sense of betrayal. He spoke in a low voice, 'You here to collect protection money too? I just paid five hundred dollars to the Ravens two days ago, and you --'

'Shhh,' the man interrupted, shaking a finger, 'This has nothing to do with the Ravens. I have no intention of messing with the local leaders right now -- listen, I have a proposition that will save us both some trouble: Between the 25th and the 27th of last month, someone parked a car on that intersection over there ...'

He stretched out his hand slightly in front of him, and Morrison followed his finger to see the long river that appeared black in the night. Unlike this gloomy alleyway intersection, the one by the river was fairly well lit. By now the night was so dark that the street was empty, only bathed in a flawless orange-yellow glow by the night lights.

'And then a body was dumped into the river. With the drop from the embankment to the water being so large, I bet it must have made a good deal of noise.' The man continued slowly, 'You stand here every night supervising your girls' work, so you must have seen it, didn't you?'

Morrison stared the other man dead in the face and hissed, 'You one of the cops?!'

Morrison didn't spend time in the neighbourhood during the day, and it was only when he came back one night a few days ago, that he heard about what had happened during the day from one of the girls working under him: a number of police officers had come to the neighbourhood that morning, and they seemed to be investigating a body that had been dumped into the river.

They'd identified the dumping spot on the road outside the alley through surveillance cameras, but the quality of the cameras in the old town was too poor -- the mayor who'd taken office two years before had made a proposal to replace the city's cameras with high-definition surveillance cameras as a gimmick to get re-elected, but he only had time to replace the cameras in the main city before he was found guilty of corruption and bribery. After he stepped down, the proposal died down with him -- the police were unable to identify any physical characteristics of the suspect, or even the colour and model of the car that was parked on the side of the road.

As a result, the officers tried to find witnesses in the neighbourhood, but failed miserably; no one had nothing better to do than just sit and watch the river at night, and Morrison was completely unaware of the incident because he was away during the day. Besides, no one was going to tell the police that 'a pimp might be a witness' under the pressure of possibly offending the Ravens, so of course the matter was left unsettled.

Now Morrison eyed the man in front of him with suspicion: was it possible that this intruder was a police officer? If so, he was probably a corrupt one, because if he wasn't close with the Ravens, he shouldn't have known that there was a small-time pimp here.

But if the other party was a cop, what was his purpose? It was certainly impossible for a corrupt cop to be solely focused on pursuing the truth about an unlucky person whose body was dumped. So he could only be here for money, threatening to say, 'If you don't give me money, I'll tell the police that there is a witness like you'? That was very possible, because then he wouldn't be able to continue his business.

Morrison's mind raced several times, and what he said when he finally spoke was: 'How much do you want?'

'...What?' The other party looked as if he was genuinely stunned for a moment, before pausing and laughing sincerely, 'No, I'm really not here for the money. My purpose is simple: tell me exactly what you saw that night.'

Morrison was silent for a moment, then asked hoarsely, 'Or else what? '

'Otherwise you'll just have to tell the police,' the other replied lightly, 'and I bet you probably don't want to talk to the police yourself, do you?'

Morrison simply wanted to sigh, the other man's words were poking at every one of his weaknesses, leaving him feeling cornered. He let out a long breath and then spread his hands out to the other man in a half-hearted gesture of surrender.

'Alright, alright' he conceded, 'On the night of the 25th, I did see someone dump something into the river, but I swear I didn't know it was a person being thrown down there -- it was a black SUV driven by a bald man with tattoos on his face ...'

Natalie didn't expect to see her 'regular' that night.

Natalie ran a completely legal, indulgent nightclub in the East District called 'Sodom'. The letters were spelled out in crooked little neon lights, the pictures flashing colourfully in the night -- and it should be emphasised that the words 'completely legal' should be in a special font, because although the provocatively dressed bartenders and beautiful waiters in the club didn't actually have sex with the customers, they did have ties to the local gangs. Natalie had installed a few special ATMs outside the bar, so that when unlucky customers and their dancers and waitresses were about to engage in some unseemly 'private' activities, they would steal their credit cards and withdraw money from the ATMs outside.

It was a rainy, wet, and cold night, so business wasn't great: 'not great' was a relative term, the club was a 24-hour rave spot so it really didn't make that much of a difference, and the bad weather only deterred a few people. The dancefloor wasn't packed as of right now, which was the only difference the naked eye can see.

The room was suffused with sweet, cloying pink lights, and in addition to the people dancing, there were a few regulars sitting near the dance floor. Natalie, as usual, was sitting in the innermost booth, with a glass of brandy on the table. The man had been brought in by one of the girls serving drinks; he slid into the booth with familiar ease, but didn't pull down his hood.

Natalie had worked with this man a few times, or maybe 'worked with' wasn't the right word, because Natalie didn't actually know what he did. She guessed he was either a police informant or a trusted henchman of some gang boss, something of those sorts, because an air of coldness and ruthlessness exuded from the party's every move.

Natalie had connections with various gangs; she was close to the Norman Brothers -- of course, the gang was no longer called the 'Norman Brothers'. The last time this man had come around, it was during the uproar over Richard Norman's murder. He had paid Natalie a large sum to dig up any dirt on the conflict between Thomas Norman and his brother, or whether she had heard any rumours about Thomas' intention to murder his brother. Natalie had come back empty-handed, but the other man did not say anything.

Because her instincts told her that the man sitting across the table was not someone to be trifled with, and their last collaboration had cost him a lot of money for nothing, Natalie forced a smile as she greeted him.

'I didn't expect you to come by tonight, sir,' she said, 'What can I get you?'

'This is just a spur of the moment visit.' The man replied, his words delivered lazily and with a smile that Natalie didn't believe for a second. Instead, it sent a cold shiver along her spine, like a snake slithering down. 'And of course, there's a question I'd like to ask you.'

He paused, his voice a little softer when he opened his mouth, 'Is there a very tall man among your staff, bald, with a large tattoo running from his right temple to his cheek? He wasn't working on the night of the 25th -- I remember seeing such a person here before?'

Natalie nearly gasped.

Her nightclub was one of the largest in the East District, which meant she not only had to maintain a good relationship with various gangs, but also hire bouncers to watch the floor and avoid rival troublemakers, as well as drunken youngsters getting into fights and causing trouble. Her bouncers were all closely tied to the gangs, and sometimes they took on private jobs, which she never stopped them from doing, as long as they didn't bring trouble back to the club.

'Uh,' she began cautiously, her head instantly spinning at the thought that the only way to explain his earlier nuanced interest in the Norman brothers was if the other man was a police informant or a gang confident, '...has someone done something?'

The other man shook his head slowly.

Natalie's heart only partially settled before his next words sent it racing again, 'Except that while he hasn't committed anything yet, he's about to get caught up in something big -- the kind of big that the police are willing to spend their time tracing every lead. When that time comes, the police will inevitably have to check out your club as well. Even though you're running a legitimate business, surely police attention is not good for business, is it? Not to mention, I've heard that your place is still a favourite spot among some 'important' people.

Natalie steadied herself and asked in a low voice, '...What exactly do you want?'

'I want names.' The man said leisurely, as if savouring her distress, 'Give me his name and that's the end of it -- you won't see him again, and the police won't be looking for him.'

Natalie easily read the implication hidden behind his words, and couldn't help but feel a chill run down her spine.

'No, I can't!' After a long silence, Natalie said firmly, 'I can't do something that will definitely bring trouble just for the chance to avoid something that might not happen. Even here, murder is --'

The more she spoke, the lower her voice became, and the smile on the other person's face grew. When her voice had finally trailed off to the point where it was all but swallowed up by the music, the other person straightened up slowly. In the pink light, Natalie could finally vaguely make out that the mysterious man who had hidden himself under the shadow of his hood had light-coloured eyes, but it was impossible to discern exactly what colour they were.

'Ma'am,' said the other patiently, but Natalie keenly read a clear threat from beneath his patience, 'believe me, some things are inevitable -- just like how you know that the moon orbits around the earth, and the sun will rise as usual tomorrow -- it's all irrefutable. Soon, the police will start investigating a big case, and your bouncer who takes on private hires will be implicated, and then they'll naturally come to you with endless questions...so I'm proposing a timely solution: give me his name, and then no one will come to bother you about your life.'

Natalie stared at the other party steadily.

'Don't be naive,' the other man continued to encourage, 'you've been in this business for years, of course you're not that kind.'

Natalie was silent for a moment longer, then asked in a whisper, 'What will happen otherwise?'

'Didn't Thomas Norman end up dead?' The man said with a smirk.

-- There was a conspiracy theory circulating between the gangs about Richard Norman and Thomas Norman. Some people didn't believe that the two mob bosses were killed by the Westland Pianist and the Sunday Gardener. They thought that the two men had been murdered by assassins from another rival mob, who then framed the Pianist and Gardener for their deaths. Natalie had heard this theory but couldn't believe it...

She shrank back under the other person's smiling gaze.

Then she suddenly deflated and wordlessly leaned back against the booth, her voice revealing unspeakable frustration, 'The bouncer's name is Michael. I'll write down his address for you.'

The other man grinned and reached for the untouched glass of brandy she'd placed on the table, raising his glass to hers in a fake salute.

'Thanks.' He said, the empty glass clinking crisply on the table.

Natalie watched the droplets fall downwards from the glass, unable to resist asking the question buried in the back of her mind. She asked, 'What's going to happen?'

There was a pause on the other side.

'Watch the news,' the other said, 'You'll know when you see it -- there's never been any major news in Westland, has there?'

Michael woke up in the early hours of the morning in his rented, rundown, basem*nt apartment.

Usually, he was jolted awake by the sound of rats having a dance party on his floor, but today was different -- he woke up due to a pressure on his chest. The vivid dreams of sudden wealth and blonde beauties quickly shattered into pieces in the darkness as he realized someone was kneeling on his chest, with a knife pressed against the nape of his throat.

Standing at over 1.9 meters, Michael was considerably taller than his assailant, who certainly wasn't as physically imposing as he was. In terms of size, it shouldn't have been difficult for him to throw the other man off of him. But just as this thought flashed through his dazed mind, the other man swiftly reached out with a quick hand and dislocated one of his shoulders with a sickening crack.

That turned whatever thoughts he had in his head into a fog of pain, all while the knife continued to press deeper against his throat. The person restraining him -- a young man with beautiful curly brown hair which Michael swore he'd never seen before -- greeted him with a grin.

'Yo, you're awake.' The man spoke with an unsettlingly casual tone, 'I have a question for you.'

Herstal Armalight was awoken by the sounds of police sirens blaring outside his window.

It was early in the morning, a quarter of an hour before his alarm usually went off. What Herstal wouldn't have known, was that the flurry of sirens was due to the WLPD receiving a report of a suspected home invasion, where the landlord found a man in a basem*nt apartment seemingly killed during the break-in; such occurrences would happen almost daily, and no one would even care.

Upon waking, Herstal was enveloped by his usual morning grumpiness, but the aroma of toast and coffee wafting through the air helped to rouse his spirits a little bit.

Moreover, the spot beside him was empty, or rather, it was so neatly arranged it seemed as if no one had slept there at all.

Herstal frowned for a couple of seconds in recollection, and realised that Albarino did not seem to have returned home before he fell asleep last night.

But it was also true that the guy was indeed in the kitchen making him breakfast as a gold-medal boyfriend would. When Herstal went over, the other man was neatly dressed in a burgundy shirt, wearing a grey and white-striped apron, looking like a stay-at-home husband who'd just stepped straight out of some fantastical movie.

'You didn't come home last night.' Herstal pointed out to Albarino's back as he leaned against the kitchen doorframe.

'Uh huh, sometimes my work is unpredictable like that.' Albarino said calmly as he flipped an omelette.

Herstal sneered. In their relationship, sneers were more common than kisses: 'So would you care to condescend to explain what happened to the bloodstained jacket in the bathroom laundry basket?'

Albarino was busy cracking the second egg, his voice still very much at peace, 'That's just evidence I didn't have time to destroy.'

Herstal said stiffly, 'Albarino.'

-- People who owned pets will find that this tone was one that owners often used when they would say 'sit down' to their dogs.

'Okay,' Albarino immediately gave in, smoothly transitioning 'I figured out what happened to the boy who was dumped in the river. If you've got some time over the weekend, I can take you somewhere and then you'll understand everything.'

Herstal looked at the other man's back, feeling the urge to sigh yet again for god knows how many times that morning. Then, he stepped forward and reached out to switch off the stove; the circle of blue flames extinguished, leaving the unconsolidated egg whites still bubbling in the pan.

Albarino turned his head to look at him.

'What's wrong?' He always asked this kind of question with surprising innocence, as if he really didn't know why the other man sighed, as if he'd done everything purely unintentionally. Those green eyes seemed to hold a hint of true confusion, and even the smile he often wore at the corners of his mouth faded in due course.

'Albarino,' Herstal said in a low voice, he was so familiar with Albarino at this point that he didn't need to say these words with an angry tone, 'I am not a sword in your hand, nor am I your dog. I am not someone who will bite whomever you lead me to at your bidding. '

Albarino stared straight at him for a moment, then suddenly laughed a little.

'It's not like that,' he replied in a remarkably relaxed tone, 'I'm not sure if you necessarily want to kill the culprit, but you do seem to care about what happened. I thought you might need to know the truth of the matter.'

He paused again, then didn't bother with the gradually cooling pan, instead moving over in Herstal's direction. Herstal felt the other man's soft lips brush lightly against his earlobe, and Albarino's voice was as light and as fragile as a bubble that would burst at the touch.

'I just want to make you happy.' He whispered in Herstal's ear, as if intending to devour his soul with that voice.

Chapter 34: 70. The Fountain of Blood (4)

Chapter Text

This was how you should deal with Albarino Bacchus: you must give him a clear answer, either a 'yes' or a 'no', and the result of being ambiguous or ignoring him will lead you to being dragged along by him, after all, this person had an uncanny talent for persistence.

'I just want to make you happy' -- such a humanizing statement. It was what children would often say to their parents when they came home trembling with their report cards, or what men would say to their girlfriends when a gift doesn't meet their expectations. Flattering words are one of the most effortless sentences that can be uttered without much effort.

-- And at this very moment, Herstal Armalight was silently reflecting on his many strategic missteps in dealing with Albarino.

It was Saturday night, March 11th, and the time was not yet eight o'clock, but the sky was already thoroughly dark. Herstal sat in the passenger seat of Albarino's red Chevrolet as the car sped along a road somewhere outside of the city -- a route that Herstal was unfamiliar with and Albarino used a GPS to navigate; the headlights illuminated the limited stretch of road ahead, and when he looked up, all he could see were dark woods lining on either side of the road.

Such scenery was common on the outskirts of Westland, the city nestled behind them like a behemoth of glowing lights, the wilderness of the countryside belonged to the domain of roaming foxes and wolves.

At last, the headlights illuminated a sign erected at a fork on the side of the road. The sign did nothing more than to indicate that following one of the roads all the way down would lead into a private territory. Albarino paused for a second or two, before decisively jerking the steering wheel in that direction.

'That's our destination over there,' Albarino said said calmly, sounding very much like a tour guide, 'The locals call it 'Sequoia Manor' [1] because the trees that grow around it are mostly western redwoods. The manor previously belonged to Philip Thompson.'

[1] (TL Notes) Can also be translated to 'Redwood Manor', as Redwood and Sequoia are often used interchangeably. I'm going with Sequoia as it sounds fancier.

Herstal recalled the name for a moment, then realised it did sound a little familiar: 'Thompson? The deceased newspaper mogul?'

Albarino hummed in agreement: 'You could also say that he was just a nouveau riche who made his first pot of money from investing in stocks, and that 'Westland Daily News' we're all so familiar with was his newspaper. But of course, as you know: the gentleman died almost twenty years ago and, having no heirs, devoted much of his estate to charitable endeavours, setting up all sorts of foundations ... but he also used a portion of it to continue operating a club at Sequoia Manor.'

'...A club?' Herstal frowned, obviously never having heard the story before.

Albarino nodded a little:

'He liked to meet up with some of his old rich friends at Sequoia Manor many years ago, and over time it turned into their own private club. They told outsiders it was a place for old men to play cards and hold dances -- although most people suspected they were actually meeting with high-class prostitutes for private parties and such, which wasn't uncommon among the wealthy.

'In any case, he later used the estate for that purpose alone, and a number of people of their status and interests joined the club, and Thompson hired a group of men to take care of the huge estate for that purpose. It appears that a number of other club members besides himself contributed to the maintenance of the club; and after his death the club continued to operate under the auspices of these constant streams of financial support.'

Herstal remained silent, while Albalino laughed to himself and said, 'It does sound strange, doesn't it?'

Herstal seemed to be choosing his words carefully, possibly harbouring some unpleasant thoughts in his head, and at last he asked in a low voice, 'What does this have to do with the case?'

'A great deal,' Albarino clicked his tongue lightly, 'I previously found someone who was hired by an anonymous client to dispose of bodies in the river. Three of the six recent victims were his responsibility -- he was tight-lipped, but not invincible-- at any rate, two of those three bodies were handed over to him near the Sequoia Manor, and he suspects that the deceased came from that very manor.'

The end of the sentence of this chilling speculation was silently swept away by the cold wind. It was a clear night, and under the light of the moon they were able to peer through the gaps in the trees at the manor house nestling among the woods: it was a vast building, with numerous windows emitting flickering lights, indicative of a number of people evidently moving about inside.

This time, Herstal was silent for a long time, and then said softly, 'Albarino.'

'Hmm?' Albarino responded, apparently at ease.

'That manor is a club for the wealthy,' Herstal emphasized the word 'wealthy', and now you suspect the manor is linked to a series of rape and murder cases. Regardless of whether your suspicions are correct or not, there's only one question: how exactly do you plan on getting in?'

Albarino glanced at Herstal, 'Aren't you wealthy enough?'

'I'm obviously not as wealthy as you think I am, and definitely not on par with Philip Thompson.' Herstal replied irritably.

'That's easily solved,' Albarino replied with no concern at all, reaching out to rummage through the Chevy's glove compartment before pulling out a copy of something from the very bottom and casually tossing it into Herstal's lap, 'An invitation.'

Herstal cautiously turned over the item that had been thrown at him: it was actually just a black card the size of a business card, made of thick paper, with a gold-embossed silhouette of a building printed on it, presumably the silhouette of the buildings of the manor that was ahead of them.

Although the card had been well preserved, you could still tell that the edges were slightly frayed, indicating it was quite old.

'As I said, Thompson was just a nouveau riche with no historical legacy.' Albarino said, 'While he was still alive, he consistently tried to integrate into the high society of Westland -- unfortunately without much success -- anyway, during that time he attended many elite gatherings and handed out these invitations to those he particularly wanted to befriend, inviting them to his club for 'entertainment.''

Herstal looked at Albarino with a complicated expression: 'He gave this invitation to your father?'

'Yes, but he didn't end up going. My father said Thompson's use of the word 'entertainment' sounded too much like he was planning on soliciting prostitutes on the manor.' Albarino laughed in complete disregard, 'Of course, he didn't tell me that himself. I guess no matter what, he wouldn't have said something like that in front of a child.'

Herstal felt a headache coming on for some reason, and waved the card in his hand, 'So this piece of paper is at least twenty years old.'

'More than that, my father was a lot younger when he was invited to the club.' Albarino gazed intently at the road ahead, the sprawling manor with its lights dominated their field of vision. 'But it doesn't matter, it's never been touched, it doesn't look that old. I asked a friend of mine who'd been to the club the other day, and he said their invitation design hadn't changed at all over the years; the club's on an invitation system, and only some of the older members have the right to recommend new people. That friend of mine couldn't get new invitations, otherwise I wouldn't have to use this trick.'

'Don't they have to report the name of the invitee?' Herstal was still feeling uneasy, this sounded a little too easy to expose.

'No, they value confidentiality, and it is said that the number of such invitations is very small. They trust the ability of those who hold the invitations to select newcomers.' Albarino smiled and licked his lips that were dried by the wind. 'This sounds like a club with many secrets, Herstal.'

Herstal looked at him with his head tilted, wondering if in his mind he was pondering the same thing he was; after all, the level of secrecy in this club was a bit strange, and using an entire manor as a club venue was unusual -- though not unheard of. Instead of voicing his thoughts, when Herstal spoke up a few moments later, the words even surprised Albarino:

'So, you've still kept your father's belongings.'

It wasn't a question, and the semantics of what was stated were so clear that there was no room for evasion. Albarino was silent for a moment, then lightly asked Herstal in return, 'Is that question important compared to what we are facing now?'

Herstal was silent for a moment.

Then, he raised his lips and said, 'Perhaps not important.'

Herstal drove the Chevrolet into Sequoia Manor alone.

Albarino had gotten out of the car midway, saying that the invitation allowed only one person to enter, and that he would have to find another way in. He seemed confident, and Herstal guessed that he had already made certain preparations before coming, so he didn't ask much.

Of the two of them, Herstal was indeed dressed more like a wealthy man whose status would allow him to enter a club like this; besides, because of the Landon case and the subsequent sexual assault incident that followed, Albarino's pictures had been distributed all over the news. Even now, the whirlwind of gossip still hadn't completely subsided, so it was probably wise to avoid the risk of being recognised by sneaking into a place like this.

On the other hand, Herstal was different. The victims in the case involving Johnny the Killer were all kept entirely confidential. Except for a few insiders, no one knew he had been involved in such an incident.

At that moment, Herstal slowed down the Chevrolet near the entrance to the manor. The computer-controlled metal gates slid open noiselessly. Once the wide private driveway of the manor's entrance was presented in front of Herstal's eyes, he suddenly really regretted not driving his Rolls Royce. Albarino's common car wasn't the best disguise for pretending to be a wealthy individual.

But then again, assuming that their guess was correct, and that this place was actually a pleasure paradise for a bunch of rich people to have fun in, it might have been better not to attract too much attention by disguising themselves in a less noticeable manner. The illegality of soliciting prostitution was clearly stated in the law, and of course, those wealthy bastards who paid attention to their public image would not take the risk.

When thinking of these things, Herstal always wanted to sigh: because he wasn't here to carry out any righteous actions. The starting point of the Westland Pianist was never 'justice', and Albarino was equally uninterested in the dead, whether they were three years old or thirteen years old.

The reason they ended up standing in such a place was entirely because of the shadow in Herstal's heart, and that endlessly flowing river of blood.

The profilers said that the Westland Pianist killed because of childhood trauma, and that he felt safe when he killed people who resembled those who traumatised him -- but those profilers were not quite accurate in their judgement.

He wasn't a vigilante in the dark, nor even his own saviour. He still stood in that river of blood.

But look at yourself, Herstal: you're getting so angry, and that anger isn't just because of what that tasteless guy did -- you're also angry because of what Billy chose, to run away from it all, and you're as annoyed at his running away as you are at yourself; so although you can certainly empathize with him, you don't choose to save him, and when you watched the soul leave his body, it was as if you were seeing the same person you were all those years ago.

'While there's no point in discussing time travel now, but assuming you had that kind of a chance to go back to the past, would you really let yourself die at the very moment you attempted to kill yourself?'

'How much do you loathe yourself for failing to put up a fight in the first place? How happy you are when you first kill them, and then how painful are the nightmares that visit you late at night?'

-- Albarino knew him too well, it was awful.

He frowned at these tumultuous thoughts. Meanwhile, the car had reached the end of the driveway, nearing the huge, brightly lit, white building. The manor even offered valet parking services, and just as he drove up to the gate, a valet came over to take the Chevrolet away.

At this moment, there was almost no sound coming from the huge manor. Herstal could only hear some kind of nocturnal bird chirping in the hedges that had been cut into the shape of robins. Those oddly shaped hedges looked like massive black shadows walking on the ground in the night.

Herstal could only walk alone towards the ridiculously large front door of the mansion in the middle of the estate. He first had to climb a series of long steps, which appeared bleak and grayish-white under the moonlight -- the door was tightly closed, and Herstal stood there and tentatively knocked, the knocking echoed in the dead of night.

Within seconds, the door was opened. It was clear that someone had been standing there waiting all along: it was another doorman in a waistcoat and bowtie. At first glance, he looked very much like a hotel waiter, and along the same lines, he gave him the perfunctory smile of a hotel waiter.

Herstal hadn't planned what to say, so he simply handed him the card in his hand -- since, as Albarino had said, this was a club for the wealthy, so he should put up the sorts of eccentricities that the wealthy may have.

The young doorman surveyed the card carefully, apparently not realising that it was probably older than he was. Then he opened the door and let Herstal in respectfully.

Herstal entered and was greeted by a foyer with a row of extravagantly luxurious crystal chandeliers: dazzlingly gaudy tapestries hung on the columns and a thick, bright red carpet on the floor which gave the room a hotel lobby like look; on one side of the wall, with diamond-shaped dark gold checkered wallpaper, hung a set of three abstract paintings, where the artist had depicted a bunch of gourds in a particularly erotic way with messy brushstrokes.

Now Herstal understood why Albarino had emphasised the 'nouveau riche' and the 'wanting to integrate into the upper class' part -- even though the entire house was very expensively decorated, this kind of mix-and-match style still looked headache-inducing.

'This isyourfirst time here, isn't it?' the doorman asked respectfully. 'Then please wait here for a moment, Mr. Stryder will be here shortly. He will introduceyouto the specific activities of this club.'

And so Herstal was left to remain standing in the colourful foyer that gave him a headache, until after a few more minutes, a door on the side of the foyer was pushed open by a hand. Before the owner of the hand could appear, a burst of cheerful laughter crashed into Herstal's ears first, causing his brows to twitch: there was something unpleasantly familiar about that voice.

'We haven't had any new members for quite some time,' the voice said boisterously, 'and I thought our regular patrons had long since used up their rare invitation slots!'

Then the person appeared, their polished leather shoes made no sound as they stepped on the soft carpet, an entrance so silent it resembled a dead ghost in a grave. He looked like a man in his late fifties, with a shiny forehead and sparse, gradually greying, blond hair combed into a Mediterranean hairstyle that didn't hide his receding hairline; he was slightly overweight, and his expensive suit couldn't contain his protruding beer belly; and nestled between the same sparse, light-coloured eyebrows and heavy eye bags, were a pair of small, nimble eyes that were now filled with laughter.

Herstal felt a chunck of ice sliding silently into his stomach.

Or perhaps, that description wasn't quite accurate. He felt the thick carpet underfoot suddenly turn into sticky quicksand, and felt the walls tearing apart and the air filling with cries of pain from an untraceable source. Those things looked down at him with a cold sneer, mocking his powerlessness and sending a bitter shiver down his spine. He felt something grotesque growing from his stomach, tearing through his flesh and blood, sprouting painful and hideous branches from his throat.

'I love you more than all the other children.'

Herstal didn't know what his own expression looked like at this moment, he wondered if he could maintain the mask that was supposed to be impenetrable, and this 'Mr. Stryder'-- that was not his real name, no doubt, at least the priest of the Kentucky Church wasn't using his surname – seemingly oblivious, he simply looked over at Herstal with that same fawning smile still on his face.

'My name is Kaba Stryder, the manager of this club. Back in the day, Mr. Thompson entrusted me with his favourite club to take care of.' Now the other party smiled and said, 'Andyouare?'

Herstal wondered if he had wobbled in place for a moment, his knees were numb.

When he opened his lips, all he felt was a fragmented breath being exhaled, like a dying bird flying from his mouth. He swallowed dryly before finding his voice.

'Herstal Armalight.' He said.

'Greetings, Mr. Armalight.' The other replied, holding out his hand to shake.

-- The other party didn't recognize him, obviously. So many years had passed that he no longer resembled the frail boy from Kentucky, whether in height, appearance, or accent; the cold mask fit so tightly that no one could easily glimpse his true heart.

During his time in Kentucky, he hadn't left any records that would be uploaded to the internet, and once he left his father, he changed his first and last name. He now used his mother's surname, and no one could easily connect him to the teenager he was back in Kentucky.

So now, in the eyes of this Kaba Stryder -- the former priest, who had somehow become the club's manager -- he was just an overbearing, wealthy lawyer. It wasn't surprising that the other party wouldn't remember his victim's face.

How strange it was that one could so easily forget those that they harmed. Herstal himself didn't remember every face of the Pianist's victims, but--

'How much do you loathe yourself for failing to put up a fight in the first place? How happy you are when you first kill them, and then how painful are the nightmares that visit you late at night?'

Herstal stared at the other man's smiling face, a nauseating desire lingered in his chest; a voice was screaming at him to run away, just as it had done those same days and nights when he was fourteen. That feeling of self-loathing was like a fishbone stuck in his throat, telling him: he was still no different than he was back then, just as weak and helpless, just as afraid.

Kill him, another voice whispered in his ear. Kill him. Kill him. And then you'll be free -- his fingers itched with needles driven by desire, and the knife lay as always in his pocket, his skin thirsting for blood more than the cold blade.

But his reason remained cold and unwavering amid the screeching waves, an immovable rock that stood still: because now was still not the time, if he acted now, no one could leave unscathed.

Herstal took a deep, shuddering breath and tried to concentrate: the only problem now was ...

It was still too coincidental that he participated in the investigation of this case at the instigation of Albarino's, and then met Stryder here. The deepening drama of it all begged the question, did Albarino really know nothing about this?

Could this have been planned by him?

If it was his plan ...

Herstal still remembered the snowstorm on Christmas Eve, the gift box wrapped in blue delphinium wrapping paper, and the weight of Albarino leaning his forehead against his shoulder in the ambulance on 15th Avenue.

Perhaps he shouldn't have had such needless expectations of the other man in the first place.

At this point he could still taste the thorn in his throat, it had given birth to something more pungent and piercing, stinging the corners of his eyes. Meanwhile, Stryder, completely oblivious to it, was still rambling on about the history of the club and such things, though Herstal didn't listen to a word of it.

They made their way to the end of the foyer, and Herstal felt almost as if he had trekked across the land of the dead. Stryder pushed the heavy wooden door open for him; the house was well soundproofed, and as he pushed the door open, loud music and a sweet, cloying smell hit him.

Behind the doors was a large banquet hall, the décor as over-the-top as ever; waiters in tuxedos went back and forth serving drinks to the guests in the room, some of whom were sprawled out on the soft sofas that could be seen everywhere, inhaling some smoke that obviously wasn't very legal; others were dancing to the music with some scantily-clad girls who were sticking a little too close, and the air was filled with giggles from the girls.

'You're very fortunate to come on a day when we're having a party.' Stryder exclaimed, seemingly proud to showcase the scene to Herstal, 'Mr. Armalight, welcome to our Utopia.'

Utopia, under the dome of the church, the priest's teeth scraped across his throat.

Stryder nimbly moved through the crowd to introduce Herstal to the rich activities of their party: the dance floor, some regular drinks and some spiked ones, marijuana leaves, ecstasy, and other small pills of pleasure, crowded gambling tables, and nearly naked boys and girls lounging on velvet cushions, available for selection.

'Ifyoufancy any of them,youcan take them to the rooms at the back, all the guest rooms are ready. Of course, ifyouparticularly like the feeling of being in the spotlight...' Stryder's voice was lowered, full of obvious insinuation.

Hastaral felt a headache so intense it blurred his vision, a tension headache, an acute stress response – of course. But now wasn't a good time to stop to take aspirin; he couldn't risk letting the other man see what was going on. He still needed the truth about Sequoia Manor, otherwise there was no point in him blending in.

Herstal took a deep breath, hoping that his mask remained intact on his face. He scrutinized the young people harshly, as if he was picky, but in reality, it was hard to concentrate.

The ages of those young people seemed to range from legal twenties to not-so-legal seventeen or eighteen, but no younger. No, there weren't any as young as the children in the morgue at the coroner's office among them.

Herstal still felt a nauseating discomfort in his throat that made him want to dry-heave, but now he also had to focus on business: he considered whether or not to ask, and maybe Stryder would give him an answer. However, if he did ask if there were younger children providing sexual services in their club on his first day, it could easily arouse the other party's suspicions.

Stryder wasn't necessarily a smart guy, but he was certainly sharp. Otherwise, he wouldn't have disappeared without a trace before two of his colleagues were found hanging from the church ceiling.

If he had accidentally made the other man aware --

His heart was still beating wildly and uncontrollably. But it was at this moment that a little incident interrupted his internal struggle.

For a waiter was walking past them with a tray, the golden liquid in the champagne glasses glittering under the light of the dazzling crystal chandeliers. Herstal hadn't paid much attention to the waiter before, only catching a quick glimpse of his back: while it was true that the owners of this club had bad taste in décor, that bad taste didn't extend to the way they dressed their wait-staff: the tuxedo outlined the waiter's waist to an exaggerated thinness, which also accentuated the waiter's surprisingly firm buttocks.

If this had been a proper dinner banquet, dressing the waiters in such tight pants might have seemed overly frivolous, but since this was a promiscuous party for the rich, there was no need to be concerned with such details. Clearly, Stryder thought so too.

As this waiter walked past them, Stryder, wearing his usual smirk, reached out and slapped the waiter's buttocks. The waiter's entire body trembled in shock, and the champagne glasses on his tray clinked together.

Then, the waiter turned his head toward them --

Herstal stared at the face of Albarino Bacchus that looked like he deserved a beating.

No, in fact, he didn't even look like Albarino anymore: the other man must have been wearing contact lenses, concealing the bright green colour of his irises; Albarino had his hair neatly combed back behind his head, exposing his forehead, which was a rarity; his whole demeanour was cautious, with a nervous hunching of his shoulders, and underneath the subtle visual trickeries caused by the movements, his whole being appeared smaller.

Albarino's face already looked young, and now, coupled with that tense expression, he resembled a nervous young man in his twenties who had just stepped out into society, looking alert and naive. He shrank back nervously under Stryder's greasy smile, and said quickly, 'Sir,you--'

'I haven't seenyoubefore, young man.' Stryder said, still smiling.

'I'm here to fill in for Frederick's shift; he broke his leg in a car accident today.' Albarino still used that same nervous tone. Stryder still hadn't taken his hand off of his buttocks, not only had he not removed his hand, he even gave it an intimate squeeze, and Albarino's entire body shudder conspicuously, '...Sir!'

It was the classic 'I don't actually want to have sex with you' routine from p*rnos, which sadly, Stryder likely bought into it. Herstal was pretty sure that the bastard across from him had deliberately planned this, knowing Stryder would fall for it. He never minded flirting with his enemies. That was Albarino, unhinged, reckless, and uncaring.

A burning fire smouldered in Herstal's throat, leaving his throat gravelly and dry and his temples aching. That piercing desire surged through his fingertips once more, making him want to tear something apart, Stryder's throat or Albarino's smiling face.

At the same time, a series of dog barks came from outside the window. Harsh, piercing, and sounded very ferocious.

'What's that?' Herstal asked, speaking almost without thinking, desperately needing an excuse to change the subject.

'It's late at night, we've let the dogs out.' Stryder explained, finally withdrawing his hand from the other's buttocks before turning his head to scrutinize Herstal, acutely aware that the other man didn't seem to be looking too well. Then he smiled again, 'What? Doyounot like dogs? They're loyal creatures.'

Albarino still looked at them with that false, nervous smile, his false dark eyes as cold as bottomless pools.

'Perhaps so, but even though they are more tameable compared to other animals, some of their behaviours remain difficult to control ...which is very distasteful.'

Herstal sneered, his gaze skimming over Stryder before resting briefly on Albarino's face as he lowered his voice meaningfully.

'I really hope my dog doesn't go eating sh*t on the road.'

Chapter 35: 71. The Fountain of Blood (5)

Chapter Text

'It's not as difficult asyoumight imagine -- training them, I mean.' Stryder said, his smiling expression never faltering. 'Give them a little bit of pain, then a little taste of sweetness, and everything becomes easy.'

Of course, Stryder would think that way, just as he had treated the choir boys at the church back then. The vivid images still surged through Herstal's mind like a boiling sea. Herstal wondered if his face looked as bad as he felt, and if Albarino could see it -- but Albarino had glanced in his direction several times, a hint of genuine confusion flitting through his eyes -- he was quite the actor.

In short, Albarino, now realising that Herstal was in a bad mood, tactfully had the good sense to deftly extricate himself from Stryder's roving hands the next time someone called out for a waiter to help them with some trivial matters. With a slightly apologetic smile, he left them behind and swiftly departed.

With Albarino leaving systematically, Herstal could only exchange a few more meaningless pleasantries with Stryder before the other party took his own initiative to excuse himself, probably because he had yet another guest visiting.

Herstal was surprised to find that the other party's presence could actually give him the illusion of being trapped underwater and suffocating. It wasn't until the other party's figure disappeared into the depths of the crowd that he seemed to take his first real breath of the night. The whole time he had been in a constant 'fight or flight' mode, his mind constantly swirling with blood-red fantasies of plunging a knife into the man's eyeball.

Standing there, Herstal took a deep breath, the headache distracting him so much that he had to take a glass of champagne from a waiter who passed by -- it certainly wasn't the correct cure for a migraine, but the alcohol was good, and he certainly couldn't have cared less at that point.

Albarino had already blended into the depths of the crowd, and now there wasn't even a shadow to be found. Herstal's stomach felt like a churning sea, and he realised that he'd better not face Stryder again, or there would always be the inevitable moment when he'd throw up in the other man's presence. His mind was a mess, he couldn't help but think of the relationship between Albarino and the sudden appearance of Stryder, which pointed to a grim conclusion, and unfortunately, Herstal couldn't even control exactly what was going through his mind either.

But he had to take action, otherwise it was pointless to blend in. Herstal cleared his head and cautiously wandered through the venue, observing the men who were having a good time -- all members of this club shared the same dark secrets, and Herstal had to find a way to uncover them.

He did not see any children in the crowd.

And although he found nothing, some of the people attending the party were already having fun by now, and there were sticky moans floating from the depths of the crowd at intervals. Herstal could catch glimpses of some of the men and women tangled together on the long sofas, their skin white and dazzling under the lights. He really didn't want to know what they were all doing.

It was at this time that a soft hand rested on his shoulder.

'Is this your first time here?' A soft female voice asked against his ear, 'Handsome?'

Herstal still had a strong urge the moment someone appeared behind him: the same urge to stab the knife he kept in his pocket between the other person's ribs. But Herstal resisted, and he turned to see a small stage set up not far behind him for stripteases, and two girls were now dancing on that stage, tossing their underwear into the writhing crowd below -- Herstal was pretty sure that it was definitely against the law to perform with that level of nudity on such an occasion -- and the woman standing behind him had obviously just stepped off that stage, her skin still glistening with the sheen of sweat, and her hair lush like seaweed.

She was wearing something that could barely be called a strip of cloth, Herstal really didn't know how to describe it. She had black hair, black eyes, and smooth olive skin. She looked a little too young, definitely less than twenty years old.

Herstal raised an eyebrow. By this time, his discomfort had dissipated slightly to a point where he was able to engage in conversations. This girl seemed to be very interested in him, which was a good point of entry.

'How could you tell?' He asked.

The other party laughed softly, her hand still on his shoulder, leaning in until her full lips almost brushed his skin. She blew out a light breath, the stream of air mixed with the sweet scent of perfume grazed Herstal's earlobe.

'Becauseyoulook like a lost lamb in the crowd.' The young woman said with a smile in his ear, 'Well? Come and have some fun with me?'

Albarino hurried through the corridors, alert for any burly men who may ambush him and beat him into the ground as he went; from what he'd seen, there were quite a few bodyguards working at Sequoia Manor.

He had gone to great lengths in order to blend in with the team of waiters in the club, even going so far as to pay someone to drive into one of the waiters and break his leg -- although this sounded quite exaggerated, Westland had people who were willing to do all kinds of jobs, and hiring someone to break someone's leg can be said to be a very common and uninteresting part of a Westland gangsters' daily life.

Yet, he didn't find any suspicious children in that banquet hall; there were definitely a large wave of men and women who were under twenty years old among those available for pleasure, but it wasn't exaggerated to the extent that they were as young as ten years old.

That was the shrewdness of those club members: Thinking about it, if the managers of Sequoia Manor were really pimping out people for the paedophile club members, they certainly wouldn't do it in front of such a large crowd. Some of the details of the party were less than legal, such as the drugs and the 'high class' escorts who were probably not even twenty years old. But those things were just a little spice to a rich man's entertainment, a part of the business where things can be smoothed over by money and still be played with, while raping and murdering little boys and girls and then dumping their body was not.

So these transactions were most likely that conducted in more private moments, and they might get nothing tonight -- Herstal had just entered the circle, and would presumably have to gain a certain degree of trust from the manor managers to be able to unlock that sort of thing -- despite knowing this, Albarino was undeterred in his intention to roam the manor, not really holding out hope of discovering a secret basem*nt of some sort where children were being imprisoned. One couldn't just sit back and wait for things to come to a head.

The entire manor had been decorated in a style so opulent it was dizzying. Albarino walked through the empty rooms on the first floor of the manor, his eyes aching from the gold and red colours. But this floor was clearly unoccupied at the moment, and there was silence all around, as well as no particularly suspicious-looking, locked rooms.

Albarino was already debating whether or not to take the first step and withdraw first; the longer he stayed here, the more likely it was that the people in the kitchen would realise that he wasn't really a waiter at all. If it really didn't work, he could always just go ahead and leave here first, and wait at the edge of the driveway near the manor to pick up Herstal later.

However, just as he turned to leave, he suddenly heard a series of shuffling footsteps coming around the corner of the corridor.

Albarino turned back cautiously. He considered for a second whether or not to hide in one of the empty rooms, but dismissed the idea. The manor's entire team of waiters were hired on a temporary basis, and the housekeeping company that provided the services were paid a commission so expensive that the non-disclosure agreement guaranteed that they wouldn't say a word, otherwise they would await the fate of a jail cell.

This just goes to show that the manor's people weren't familiar with the individuals from the service industry. He was sure that he'd be able to muddle through a reason as to why he was here even if he wasn't supposed to be. If he hid in an empty room and was discovered, it would be far more difficult to explain.

So he kept his footsteps unhurried, and then he saw a housekeeper wearing plain blue dungarees pushing a cart piled high with clean, fresh sheets along the corridor. The housekeeper walked with a slight limp, and his hat was pulled down so low that it only exposed scattered golden stubble mixed with white hair.

-- Just like that, Albarino was caught off-guard, face-to-face with Orion Hunter.

It took Albarino a second to work out what was going on: Obviously, the truth could not be that Orion Hunt had risen to the challenge of becoming a cleaner after having to collect welfare. The last conversation he had with Hunter was very impressive. Hunter did not hide his discovery of Shana's affairs at all, and even told Albarino straight out, 'I hope you don't follow in her footsteps', which, it had to be said, was a far cry from Lavazza Mercader, who'd played endless roundabout hints with him over an automated coffee machine.

Even if Hunter did not find out that he was the Sunday Gardener, he obviously suspected that he had some direct connection to those murders. The other party was a guy who was as extremely curious, if not quite mad, about serial killers, just look at how he behaved on the Family Butcher case.

So the truth was bound to be that Hunter spent time tracking Albarino before realising that Albarino was investigating Sequoia Manor. Hunter likely thought that Sequoia Manor was the next step in some nefarious plan of Albarino's or something like that, so of course he figured out a way to infiltrate the manor to see what was going on.

Then, just like now, as if by chance, the two of them finally met in the corridor of the manor in their housekeeping company coveralls.

Albarino watched as Hunter's face flashed with a horrified expression that could be interpreted as 'oh sh*t, should I run away now?', his expression was so clear it could be read like an open book. But with the state of Hunter's leg, he couldn't have run far even if he wanted to.

Hunter obviously couldn't just ignore the facts of the matter and stared fixedly at Albarino for a few seconds, then gave an awkward dry cough.

'I shouldn't think you're planning to leave a good job as a forensic scientist to come and work as a waitress.' Hunter said in a low voice, glancing at Albarino meaningfully, 'Still, the tuxedo is quite nice, and the trousers are very tight.'

Albarino wondered if the other man was complimenting him, it didn't sound like it. In response, all he could do was shrug his shoulders nonchalantly and say, 'And surely you're not here to clean someone's sheets are you?'

'I'm practically broke.' Hunter put on a thick skin of a dead pig [1] and replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

[1] (TL Notes) 厚脸皮 -- 'Thick skin' is another way of saying someone is shameless and would confess or admit to anything regardless of embarrassment. No easily hurt by criticism.

Albarino sighed, knowing in his heart that nothing would come out of this entanglement. He decided to abandon those little thoughts for the time being, anyway, no matter what the other party was suspecting in his mind, he was certain that the other party definitely had not obtained any evidence yet.

So he smiled at the other party in a relaxed manner, took a few steps forward, and whispered, 'So, as a cleaner, have you found any places in this manor where children may be imprisoned, Mr. Hunter?'

Whatever Hunter had expected Albarino to say to him before, he obviously didn't expect him to say this. He was stunned, then said very helpfully, '...Ah?'

'Here's the thing: I suspect that there is some kind of child-related sex trafficking going on within this manor, so I'm investigating here.' Albarino shrugged and replied, 'Though, you know, the process of investigation is obviously not very... legal.'

Not only was it 'not very' legal, but there was nothing remotely legal about what they were doing right now. Hunter surveyed Albarino as if he was looking at a rare animal, and then asked sincerely, 'Are the forensic pathologists in Westland still in charge of covert investigations?'

'No forensic pathologist in the world is in charge of covert investigations,' Albarino snorted and laughed, 'but this is entirely just a guess. In fact, there's not a shred of evidence at all. Even if it is handed over to the WLPD, they can't start an investigation. Moreover, the officer in charge of the case is slightly ...' Albarino paused for a moment, stretched out his finger and tapped his temple, making a less than respectful gesture.

Hunter sneered and put most of his weight on the cart. As Albarino suspected, the old bounty hunter did not have a favourable impression of the police, so he did not raise any objections to Albarino's blunt statement that 'the other party's brain is not working well'.

Hunter asked rhetorically, 'Aren't they all like that?'

'I sincerely hope they're not all like that, but this case isn't in Bart's hands; the investigation is going nowhere, and I believe at least six children have been killed in this place so far.' Albarino said lightly, co*cking his head at the other man with a large smile, 'How about it? Are you going to help me in this matter, Mr. Hunter? I may need your professionalism.'

-- It was a very risky move, especially after the other party was already convinced he was a murderer.

Hunter stared at him, like an owl staring at a mouse running past the barn, a gaze as sharp as a needle, as if it could pierce his soul. Albarino met the other man's gaze, calmly and openly.

Then Hunter made the first move of giving way, and, with a tsk, asked gruffly, 'What? Am I supposed to believe you're a righteous man now, Doctor?'

'Wasn't I a righteous man before?' Albarino replied with a smile, 'Justice is a path that everyone wants to pursue.'

'I prefer younger girls.' Herstal told the other party. He wasn't really expecting such a girl to reveal any shocking secrets, but it was always a good idea to try.

The pretty, dark-skinned girl stared at him with her eyes widened exaggeratedly. In that somewhat artifical tone of surprise, she said, 'That's very rude ofyouto say to a young woman.'

Herstal gave the other party a soft smile, recalling the cases he'd handled --those of murderers, rapists, and drug dealers – and considered how to make his smile wet and sweet. He reached out and ran his fingertips gently over the other party's neck, touching the hard bones beneath the bare skin. The other party let him stroke them like a soft kitten.

The entire hall was sinking into an atmosphere of joyful indulgence, and not wanting to appear too out of place, Herstal brought them a little closer together and leaned in to kiss the other party's earlobe gently.

'...A little younger.' He whispered softly in the girl's ear.

The girl seemed to shrink a little and whispered, 'Oh.'

'What's wrong?' Herstal raised an eyebrow slightly. He didn't want to press the other party too much, so he pulled away, leaving a little distance between him and her. Of course, this didn't stop him from almost holding the girl in his arms, 'A friend of mine told me that this club would be to my liking.'

'There's nothing like that at this party,' the girl whispered, a few flirtatious hints still twining around the corners of her eyes, 'Mr. Stryder doesn't offer activities like that to new members, unless ... '

'Unless?' Herstal said with a raised eyebrow, feeling like he was touching the door slightly.

The girl winked and smiled, 'Unless someone within the manor proves to Mr. Stryder that the member is reliable -- someone who works at the manor regularly -- someone like me.'

'And how should I prove that I am reliable enough?' Herstal asked in a low voice, though he basically already knew what the other's answer would be; the rules by which things worked were similar after all.

The girl tiptoed closer to him, those red lips whispering a few words softly in his ear.

Then Herstal smiled and pulled away from her a little, drawing out his pen and a cheque-book from his suit pocket. The girl watched calmly as he filled in a long series of numbers in the amount column, and Herstal asked, 'What's your name?'

'Aurelie Delphine.' She replied with a smile.

'Okay, Aurelie.' Herstal filled in the payee's name, calmly tore off the cheque, and folded it in the middle. He tucked the piece of paper between Aurelie's cleavage, the voluptuous touch sweeping past his fingertips with vibrant heat. 'I hope you think I'm reliable enough.'

Herstal picked up Albarino from the driveway outside the manor. The other party had changed out of the tuxedo back into the jacket from before, the collar of the shirt inside was loosened by two buttons. When Herstal arrived, he was so idle that he was tearing bark off of a small tree on the side of the road.

Albarino had realised that Herstal was not looking well when he got into the car, but he didn't think much of it. He just assumed that the other man was upset because he was touched by someone else -- a tactical error, but after all, no one had a plan going in -- Herstal drove down the road for ten minutes, crossed the three-way intersection they'd come from, and, after driving a little further, jerked the car off the shoulder.

The red Chevrolet drove into the woods, following the rutted tracks left by the hikers. Once the dense black trees covered the road, Herstal stopped the car. He turned his head to Albarino, who was looking at him sideways with curiosity.

Albarino hadn't spoken during this time; he had wanted to tell the other man about the sudden appearance of old Hunter, but had decided in the moment that it was better not to provoke or offend him. But obviously, now he had to say something.

'No matter what you're up to,' Albarino said, 'first of all, the place you've chosen isn't good for killing and dumping bodies.'

He was right: it had rained just a few days before, and the ground was still soft enough to leave clear tracks and footprints. Even though Albarino's words made sense, they didn't hide the fact that Albarino had the ability to 'choose the sentence that Herstal least wants to hear among all the words.'

Herstal glanced at him coldly and said, 'Get out of the car.'

Albarino did as he was told. No psychopathic killer was as well-behaved as the current Albarino, not even a psychopathic killer who was being held at gunpoint. He got out of the car and stood in the cold, early spring forest. The ground was still soft but not muddy.

And Herstal had already walked around the car, he suddenly surged forward and grabbed Albarino by the collar, slamming him hard against the side of the Chevy.

This was nothing to them, no more brutal than anything Herstal had done before, no more dangerous than the knife that had once been at his throat, but this was different: the colour of his eyes was just like the greenish-blue flame of carbon monoxide when it burned, and a strange, unfamiliar raging passion in them pulsed as incessantly as the flames.

Albarino recognised this look, but he had never seen such an expression on Herstal's face: it was the look of anger when the bottom line of someone's boundaries had been touched. And right now, Herstal was clutching his collar so tightly that he could almost feel the other man's fingers trembling slightly with rage.

'How did you know where he would appear?' Herstal hissed, 'Is it because you knew he would appear that you sent me?!'

Albarino was genuinely confused, such emotions were very rare for him, but he couldn't be blamed. He reached out to grab Herstal's wrist as it clutched his collar, genuinely fearing that the other man would strangle him to death in a fit of rage: right now, Herstal looked very much impelled to do just that.

He asked, in a tone that seemed to be of genuine perplexity, 'He...what?'

'Kaba Stryder!' Herstal seemed a little more angry as he repeated the name in a horrible tone, 'How did you know that he was the priest in Kentucky?'

Albarino's fingers on Herstal's wrist tightened slightly, digging into Herstal's skin, causing a slight pain; Herstal froze for a moment before he heard Albarino raise his voice slightly, 'He's the priest from Kentucky? The one who manages Sequoia Manor?'

Albarino's expression didn't seem to be faked -- but who knows, he was an actual psychopath -- Herstal's mind was blanked for a split second by him, asking 'Wha....?'

Then Albarino sighed.

Immediately after, he did something quite unorthodox: he leaned forward hastily, his lips grazing Herstal's cheekbone and face lightly, like a dragonfly skimming over water, with a little rough touch of stubble.

It wasn't a very passionate kiss, but it seemed to win out because of its familiarity: it was the kind of kiss that lovers who had been together for many years would exchange when they woke up early in the morning. Albarino rested a hand against Herstal's shoulder, fingers so warm they seemed to make his heart fall back into place.

'I didn't know.' Albarino whispered in his ear, his breath swept hot and wet across his ear, 'If I had known, I certainly wouldn't have let you go there.'

Herstal wanted to refute, he didn't believe it intuitively, but his headache was at a level that was near impossible for him to think properly. He frowned and said, 'Your lies --'

'I didn't lie to you.' Albarino interrupted, frowning a little, his voice a mixture of what seemed like genuine sincerity and a real contempt for something -- Herstal didn't know what it was, perhaps human emotions or something that seemed like common sense but was only terrifying to normal people.

What Albarino said next would sound bizarre to any sane person, but he clearly considered them to be sort of universal truths: 'We're past the point where I need to lie to you, past the point where I need to test you with someone like Elliot Evans. Since you don't hesitate to show me your beauty, then I will...'

Herstal had a premonition that Albarino could turn the rest of his words into a ridiculously florid love poem. But Herstal was like a balloon, once punctured, it was difficult for his anger to regather back to its previous intensity.

-- That is, the level that actually made him consider slitting the other man's throat once and for all.

Herstal took a deep breath and reached out to pat Albarino on the ribs, signalling for him to open the distance between them. So Albarino let go of the hand he had on Herstal's shoulder, took a step back, and stood up straight.

Herstal stared at his face and asked directly, 'Of all the things you just said, how many of them were just to coax me?'

'What do you think?' Albarino asked rhetorically, his tone light.

Herstal paused, then spoke once more, his voice cold and hard, 'Kneel.'

Albarino followed suit, without asking why the other man wanted him to do so, without even hesitating. The rough cloth of his jeans fell on the soft earth, and he could even feel the wet, cold touch of the soil at night.

Herstal stepped forward and looked down at him.

Then Albarino moved forward two steps on his knees in Herstal's direction, watching as Herstal reached out and brushed his fingertips through the hair at his temples. Then Albarino leaned forward slightly and rubbed the side of his face against Herstal's crotch.

'Do you like those sexual fantasies about dogs?' Albarino asked in an airy tone, running the skin of his cheekbones over the gradually hardening organ in the fabric of the other man's trousers.

'What?' Herstal tsked, narrowing his eyes, still slowly stroking his hair, 'Locking you up and restricting your freedom?'

'And then I wouldn't be free?' Albarino asked rhetorically, adjusting his position on his knees before using his nose to push open the fabric of the trousers, and then pulling down the zipper with his teeth. He did everything with his hands behind his back in a serious manner, holding the wrist of one hand with the other, as if it were a fine study.

He spat out the zipper in his mouth, then looked up, the corners of his mouth raising pleasantly, 'What about you, Herstal? Are you free now?'

Herstal was still stroking his hair intermittently, anger that had yet to fade pervading his voice, 'You talk too much.'

Albarino snorted and then deftly peeled the fabric of Herstal's underwear off with his teeth, rubbing the tip of his nose against the pale, tender skin near the other man's groin. He felt Herstal's hand leave his head, and there was a rustling sound of fabric -- Herstal pulled off the belt of his suit trousers, and the trousers hung low on his hips.

Then Herstal commanded, 'Raise your head.'

Knowing what he wanted, Albarino did as he was told. Herstal looked down at him, his irises drowned by dilated pupils under the unclosed headlight, their colour as pale and as shallow as the tropical ocean. Then, Herstal wrapped the belt around Albarino's neck, threading the perforated end of the belt through the buckle, gradually pulling it taut.

The tightening belt caused Albarino to stagger slightly at the pull, forcing him to reach out and grasp a section of the belt, his fingers brushing over the diamond-shaped patterns on the leather. He shifted his weight, licking his lips needlessly before taking the head of the other man's penis into his mouth.

Simultaneously, Herstal yanked the belt sharply, brutally forcing Albarino to take the entire length into his mouth -- something not easily done, contrary to the misleading impressions some might get from certain dubious websites. Albarino choked slightly, his gag reflex dutifully kicking in.

Herstal could feel the soft muscles of the other man's throat spasming to try and squeeze the foreign object out. He gripped the hair at the back of the other man's head with one hand as he continued to tighten the belt with the other, f*cking in more roughly.

Albarino slammed one hand against his hipbone, fingertips pressing into those taut muscles, only a few ragged gasps leaked out. From Herstal's angle, he could see his eyelashes trembling, the light from the headlights casting a faint and blurred shadows underneath his eyelashes, his lips crimson from the grinding friction, and there was saliva dripping down the corners of his mouth.

At this moment, few could have imagined what kind of soul lay beneath such a skin. Herstal knew deep down that he wasn't just simply throwing his carnal desires at the other man, but that he had signed a contract with Mephistopheles to sell his soul.

He pulled his belt tighter, listening to the other man's breathing become more and more difficult under the pressure, mingling indistinguishably with the sticky sound of water. Thoughts of wanting to kill the other man, to hurt him, still came to him at times, and eventually these ideas were compromised with his current actions.

But Albarino seemed as if he didn't care, the force from his hands were leaving painful bruises on Herstal's skin. Some tears spilled involuntarily from the corners of his eyes, staining them and making them appear to sparkle.

And those eyes were still smiling.

Finally, he ejacul*ted into the other's mouth, not pulling out right away, and just listened as Albarino choked and coughed, yet still dutifully tried to swallow some of the liquid.

Estimating that the other man was about to choke at this point, Herstal finally pulled out and watched as the other man shuddered and arched his body in a futile attempt to stop the coughing and dry heaving. Some saliva mixed with white liquid dripped out of the corner of Albarino's mouth, tugging at the thread that was about to break, more obscene and decadent than Herstal could have ever imagined.

He undid the belt from the other's neck and saw a red mark pressed into the nape of Albarino's neck, slightly sunken, the skin looking damp and soft.

So of course he gave in to his desires, pulling Albarino up off the ground after reattaching the belt around his waist, and leaning in to lick the blood-filled red mark on his neck.

'Herstal,' Albarino raised his neck and allowed him to move while whispering in his ear, his voice sounding unusually husky, 'As long as you ask, I will help you kill him -- and if you really can't face him, I can do it for you.'

Herstal pondered for a while, then spoke, 'Go home first.'

And that night, he awoke from a nightmare.

And the next night.

Chapter 36: 72. The Fountain of Blood (6)

Chapter Text

He dreamt that those stained-glass inlaid rose windows shattered into pieces, and what came out of the rotting wooden frames were not shards of glass, but colourful butterflies. Those butterflies fluttered down with flapping wings, the edges of their delicate wings gleaming as sharp as razor blades.

Their wings caressed against his skin like soft feathers, leaving invisible crack-shaped scars that spread like a spider's web. His naked eyes couldn't see exactly where the scars were, and he could only feel the piercing, excruciating pain.

When he reached out his hand to touch the source of the pain, he found that the place within his reach was covered in sticky blood, which dripped down along his fingers like cold worms wriggling and crawling through. Then his fingers touched the nape of his neck -- where a piano string was gradually tightening, cutting deep into his flesh, like a snake or the cold, slender fingers of death, or the spinning thread in the hands of the Fates.

Then he awoke from his dream.

Herstal's eyes snapped open, staring at the empty ceiling between ragged breaths, where of course, there were no colourful butterflies falling slowly from the stained glass windows, nor were there strings and blood running across the floor. A little later, he realised with disgust that his pyjamas were soaked through with sweat, which were slowly ruining his sheets.

The alarm clock on the bedside table was pointing to ten minutes before the time he had set to wake up, and the other side of the bed was empty. His 'bed partner' -- Herstal chose that word carefully in his head, because f*ck buddies don't spend the night at each other's houses, and lovers ...Albarino was a million miles away from the word 'lover' -- had long gone, and the smell of scrambled eggs wafted through the crack of the door, indicating the location of the other party.

So Herstal changed and went to the dining room, where Albarino and the scrambled eggs were waiting, like some sort of perfect boyfriend who only appeared in dreams. The other man glanced meaningfully at Herstal from above the dining table as he untied his grey and white striped apron. It was at this time that Herstal noticed a slight paleness under the other man's eyes.

Albarino said simply, 'You were screaming in your sleep.'

The truth itself was not as exaggerated as Albarino made it sound.

Herstal, like all successful people, had an impractically large bed. On this vast territory, the two kings could avoid each other and co-exist peacefully -- this wasn't an exaggeration. Albarino's sleeping posture was surprisingly good, contrary to the impression he left on some people. Herstal, on the other hand, often curled up while sleeping, a posture with obvious psychological implications.

In short, some people believed that partners should sleep in each other's arms, but that usually only resulted in numb shoulders and sides by the next morning.

And even though Albarino felt like he was a thousand miles away from Herstal, he was still awakened by a painful groan in the middle of the night.

When he opened his eyes and slowly adjusted to the darkness of the late night, he saw the other man tossing and turning restlessly in his bed, the mattress creaking. By the time Albarino propped himself up on his elbows to look at Herstal, he saw that the other man's hair was plastered to his forehead by sweat, the blond colour appeared extremely dark in the night, like fragmented cracks.

That was the moment when he was closest to Herstal's heart. This organ, which had been given too much significance by literature, was like a dying bird, struggling unwillingly and gradually losing its warmth. Albarino was as silent as a statue in the darkness of the night, and at last, stretched out his hand and brushed the wet hair from the other's forehead.

It was certainly possible that the other would wake up, and then be angry at Albarino for having witnessed his vulnerability -- human emotions were fragile and complex in such a way. Albarino still remembered the night when he had knocked on the door of his father's study, the fireplace burning silently, and the death he'd seen in the eyes of the middle-aged man.

Albarino slowly stroked Herstal's damp and cool forehead like a cat. He wanted to ask the other man if he dreamt of the high windows of the church or of the river of blood, but in the end, he chose to remain silent.

At the moment, Albarino's words were enough to shatter the illusion of a perfect boyfriend. A perfect boyfriend wouldn't say, 'You were screaming in your sleep,' in that tone of voice.

'Is that so?' Herstal said flaly, sitting down without looking up and picking up his fork.

'A little bit of an exaggeration at best,' Albarino shrugged his shoulders and sat down heavily at the other end of the table, 'or rather: you were groaning in pain and flopping around like you were in labour, but I figured you wouldn't like that description.'

Herstal chewed on his scrambled eggs, shooting him a cold, sweeping look: if this person knew that he didn't like to hear such adjectives, he wouldn't have said this sentence. Herstal had long since grown accustomed to his habit of saying every word in a joking tone. For Albarino, it seemed as if speaking seriously meant he was losing to the chaotic world.

Albarino quietly behaved for a few seconds, and given that his self-control was less than that of even a child, he quickly continued, 'Have you considered my proposal?'

'What proposal?' Herstal put his fork back on his plate and looked up at the other man, 'That you would help me kill Stryder?'

Albarino chewed a piece of sausage intently, asking in a light tone, 'What's wrong with that? I think it's kind of a good idea.'

He knew why Albarino wanted to do that; Herstal's reaction that night they returned from Sequoia Manor clearly showed that he simply couldn't face Stryder properly, and Albarino also understood that for Herstal, Stryder had to die, so Albarino wanted to do it on his behalf.

-- But that wasn't the right way to solve the problem.

'Yes.' Herstal pointed out coldly, 'Firstly, that court case of yours has attracted a lot of attention because the public thinks you're challenging the authority of the country's legal system; lately, Agent Mercader has been visiting Westland every three days, and the rumour on the street is that he's just trying to persuade the WLPD to get the FBI involved in the case. If you commit a crime now, you are basically sending yourself to him. Secondly, we provided each other with alibis in the last case, and as soon as you're caught, my alibi will be disproven as well. Thirdly, and most importantly, Albarino, do you really think that 'you helping me kill someone' is going to solve my current problems?'

Albarino looked at him quietly and asked, 'What else?'

Herstal was silent for two seconds.

'I need a list of names of the people within Sequoia Manor who attended that party: perhaps the Manor does let children provide sexual services to powerful individuals, but most likely not every member is involved, and I'm guessing that many of the Manor's members aren't even aware of such services.' Herstal said, 'I want to know who else was involved in this besides Stryder -- if I kill Stryder directly, they'll scatter.'

It was obvious that he wanted to find them one by one, and then --

Albarino smiled and propped his hand on his chin, then said, 'Indeed, that's the difference between you and me. It's true that the Westland Pianist is not a vigilante; he doesn't do these things because he feels that the other person is to be sanctioned by the law or by justice, which have no significance for the Pianist; he does them because such people arouses his bloodthirsty, raging, violent desires ...But despite this, he still has his own code of conduct. '

'You, on the other hand, do not.' Herstal said in a low voice.

'The Sunday Gardener would not, for their souls are not differentiated between the inferior and the superior to the Gardener. Since their inner selves have not yet reached the realm of 'beauty', only their bodies are of use. On that level, if we wanted to achieve the same end, I might suggest that you pick the time of their next gathering to set fire to Sequoia Manor; it would be more efficient and quicker. Though it might cause turmoil in Westland's financial sector, the overall benefits would outweigh the drawbacks.' Albarino replied easily, and he paused again, waiting for the atmosphere to build and take shape. '...But, you won't agree with my suggestion, will you?'

Herstal stared at him sharply, 'Of course not.'

'Indeed.' Albarino said calmly, picking up the bacon on his plate and throwing it onto Herstal's plate -- Albarino was an example of one of those rare people in the world who didn't like the taste of bacon.

'Then let's eat. We can still enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet, it won't delay anything.'

Orion Hunter sat beside a greasy wooden table with a glass of bubbling beer in front of him. The glass didn't look particularly clean, but there was no need to worry about such details now -- Hunter knew the ins and outs of Westland's streets, and this bar, despite its questionable hygiene, was considered 'safe.'

In other words, whatever he was about to say here wouldn't leave the confines of this bar.

He had been sitting there for twenty minutes before Albarino Bacchus arrived. Hunter had mixed feelings about Dr. Bacchus. On the one hand, he was very much impressed by the other's performance in the Family Butcher case; on the other hand, he was now wholeheartedly convinced that the other was indeed a killer, which only made Dr. Bacchus' image increasingly enigmatic in his eyes.

When Albarino sat down on the other side of the table, Hunter raised an eyebrow at him and said, 'Today is Wednesday.'

The implication was clear, and it was exactly the same question Herstal wanted to ask Albarino every time: 'Do you ever work?'

'We work in shifts. I worked last Sunday.' Albarino answered calmly -- but Orion Hunter knew exactly what he'd gone and done on Saturday night, so he let out a sarcastic grunt.

'You certainly have a lot of energy.' he said, adjusting his posture slightly, an action made awkward by his cumbersome leg. 'Then let's get down to business: what do you want to talk to me about?'

Albarino paused for a second or two, then said:

'The Sequoia Manor case -- if you're interested in it, I can share information from the Forensic Bureau and the Police Department with you. Officer Bull can't be relied upon, and I wouldn't count on him to solve the case.

'Anyway, given the sensitivity of the case, I need a list of everyone in the club involved in raping minors. I want to uncover the truth of the case and ensure those responsible rot in prison.'

But Herstal didn't see it that way. Herstal wanted to hunt them down one by one and tear them into pieces -- rapists were the source of the Westland Pianist's violent urges, and he could never resist them.

Of course Herstal knew about the recent surge of interest in Westland from Lavazza Mercader, and the Pianist's increasing number of crimes over the past two years had drawn significant attention from authorities. Although he was known for his calm demeanor, Albarino doubted Herstal could resist such temptation.

If the Pianist followed that list and started killing them one by one, it might result in a reshuffling of the state's wealthy elites, while the FBI, finally pressed into action, would start investigating the Pianist's cases.

Reflecting on his conversation with Agent Mercader in front of the coffee machine, he suspected that Mercader was not far from the truth. The FBI would seize this opportunity to catch Herstal -- Albarino didn't need to think hard to know that when dealing with someone like Agent Mercader, whether the Pianist committed a perfect crime or not, Mercader would have his own way of apprehending the person he suspected.

Herstal's plan, on the other hand, would keep him tied up in the country for a considerable amount of time. If the FBI's progress went smoothly, it might cause him to miss the best opportunity to escape. At that point, not even God himself would be able to prevent the Pianist from being arrested.

But that wasn't the plot Albarino had planned.

Therefore, he had better get a head start on finding a way to get those members of Sequoia Manor involved in lawsuits first. Most of whom were powerful and influential, so the evidence would have to be very, very strong for that to happen. The prey chosen by the Pianist were often individuals who had escaped justice, and as long as those men could be sent to prison, the Westland Pianist would not go on a killing spree against them.

Then, he would have to find a way to leave Kaba Stryder to Herstal. It wouldn't be fair to deprive Herstal of this layer of enjoyment as the Pianist.

Once Stryder was dead, it would cut off the shadow that had haunted Herstal for so long. At that point, he could logically suggest to the other man, 'I think the FBI is onto us now, are you going to come with me to Spain?'

This certainly wasn't moral, but it was obviously a little more feasible than the non-plan Herstal was weighing in his mind. Albarino couldn't have imagined that one day he would be the more rational one between the two of them, but now this seemed to be the case. The other man's sanity was teetering on the edge of breakdown, tormented by long-standing trauma. At times like this, Albarino should rightfully be the one steering the ship.

Although he hadn't thought deeply about when exactly he'd started to assume that they were actually in the same boat.

And as his mother had said, he needed to choose the right time and the right way, because it was an essential part of a great journey -- Herstal may not care when he dies, he was running to death just like he was running to his final home.

But for Albarino, the end of Herstal Armalight should not be now, should not be here.

So as of right now, Albarino's idea was basically considered a good plan, and as long as the Westland Pianist didn't massacre the entire Sequoia Manor in a fit of rage, everything could proceed according to the plan.

And this bounty hunter, who was staring at him suspiciously at this very moment, was a very important part of that plan.

If Olga hadn't had an accident, she would have been the best person for Albarino to work with; she wouldn't have asked so many questions or looked at him with such a questioning gaze. But unfortunately, even though she hadn't lost her other leg, Olga was still unconscious in the hospital. And in that case, Albarino had to settle for Hunter as a second best option.

'So you're choosing to ask for my help?' Hunter said, 'Because I was at that manor before, you want me to continue posing as a janitor and poke around the manor?'

'Isn't that a good idea?' Albarino asked happily, 'As a bounty hunter, you have more experience in such matters than I do. Most importantly, I can't spare so much time to do this, and with a number of people recognising my face after the Landon case, I can't keep taking these risks.'

Hunter's brow furrowed with suspicion as he asked, 'Is this proposal a manifestation of your sense of justice? You should know very well why I was at that manor that day, and in this case, you're still choosing to ask for my help?'

This bounty hunter clearly didn't believe him, the other probably thought of him as a serial killer bred by another serial killer. But that didn't matter, Albarino didn't need to earn the other's trust in order to act. After the case of the Family Butcher, he had more or less pinpointed Hunter's soft spots.

'Shouldn't I?' He asked rhetorically, his eyes widening innocently, 'Officer Bull's efficiency in handling cases is worrisome. He hasn't linked those children to Sequoia Manor, nor does he even have the courage to challenge the status of that club's members. As long as this conspiracy remains hidden, more children will be victimised -- so, Hunter, I'll say it again: we need that list in order to take them all down. Otherwise, even if the club shuts its doors, these things will continue to happen in other dark corners of the world.'

Hunter himself was single to this day, but Albarino knew that he had a soft spot for children. In the previous case, he had treated Clara with an unexpected gentleness that was quite unexpected. And as soon as Albarino spoke these words, he saw the other man's nose and eyes wrinkle, the wrinkle lines deepening threefold.

'I can do my best,' Hunter said after a silence so long that it felt like half a century, 'But if I find out you're playing any tricks --'

'Please, what tricks could I possibly play? Get the list of those beasts and then blackmail them?' Albarino said disgruntled, and Hunter's face showed a hint of embarrassment, clearly having thought exactly that.

Based on the expression on the other party's face alone, Albarino was sure that the other party must have only suspected him of being a murderer, but not the Sunday Gardener. After all, surely someone like Hunter, who knew serial killers well, would know that blackmail wasn't the Gardener's style.

'Forget it,' Hunter said, awkwardly changing the subject, 'But I have another question: why don't you investigate this with your boyfriend? Shouldn't someone like him have a pretty extensive network of sources as well?'

Albarino stared at him and then laughed.

With a slightly troubled but very honest tone, he said, 'Should I? Investigate this case with a lawyer who specialises in defending criminals? Some of the members of Sequoia Manor might even be his clients.'

Herstal had just visited a client who wanted to amend their will. He had barely sat down in his office for two minutes before his secretary, Emma, appeared hesitantly at his door. Her brow furrowed slightly as she said, 'Mr. Armalight, there's a lady here without an appointment who wants to see you. She says she's here for personal reasons.'

'No appointment?' Herstal raised an eyebrow; knowing Emma as he did, she should have stopped everyone outside of appointments at the door -- perhaps except for Albarino, they had never managed to stop Albarino from delivering lunch to him, which made everyone in the law firm aware that the Chief Medical Examiner of the Westland Forensic Bureau was either courting him or already in bed with him. Herstal hated this kind of attention.

'Yes, she said you'd let her in once you heard her name.' Emma nodded, her expression as weird as it could be, 'She said her name was Aurelie Delphine.'

Herstal was silent for a couple of seconds before recalling who this Aurelie was -- the dark-skinned girl with a stunning figure from Sequoia Manor -- so all Herstal could say was, 'Let her in.'

He could easily imagine why Emma's expression was the way it was; before he'd met Albarino Bacchus, his colleagues at the law firm were unsure about his sexual orientation. He'd heard that some daring interns had bet in private that he was asexual. After Albarino, they'd obviously had their own theories; now that a girl had come to see him for 'personal reasons', which he readily agreed to, the interns, who already had all sorts of ideas about the pretty girls who visited the firm, would now have even more to speculate about.

Moments later, Aurelie appeared in the doorway of his office, wearing a pencil skirt that probably cost more than the suits of some young lawyers just starting out. From this perspective, the work at Sequoia Manor seemed to provide a good living for her.

It was obvious that the manor's people had already investigated Herstal. Last time, he'd only given Stryder his name, and now they had sent someone directly to his office. It had to be said that those people were very efficient, although such a fact didn't feel too reassuring.

Aurelie smiled sweetly at Herstal and walked over to him to gracefully lift a leg and perch sideways on Herstal's desk.

-- This scene was starting to look like the beginning of a p*rno. Herstal frowned a little and said, 'Ma'am, this is a desk.'

'Yes,' Aurelie replied calmly, 'So, hypothetically, if I were to get down on my knees and crawl under this desk to give you a blowj*b, would it ruin your reputation in your law firm?'

Herstal was too lazy to play this roundabout flirtatious game with her, so he asked point blank, 'What brings you here, Ms. Delphine? I'm sure you didn't come all this way to offer me sexual favours.'

'Most men are begging for a scene like the one just described, and I do provide these services to various men on a regular basis.' Aurelie let out a cute snort, but Herstal just gazed at her coldly, forcing her to be serious.

Herstal's gaze, which could make intern lawyers cry, clearly had its intended effect.

'Alright, alright, I'm here to deliver a message. Because the manor's manager doesn't trust phones or the internet, I have to tell you in person.' After a brief pause, she finally said, 'I conveyed your wishes to Mr. Stryder. He said that if you wished, you can attend the club's event next Sunday, and that there will be several entertainments on that day that might satisfy your appetite.'

Herstal wanted to sneer: it didn't take much thinking to figure out what entertainment would satisfy his appetite.

This seemed almost a little too easy. Yet, thinking back to those days in Kentucky, Stryder had made some less-than-smart moves too. His arrogance had been the main source of those flaws. From that perspective, it was understandable that he might be somewhat gullible in this matter with Herstal.

'So, what do I need to offer in exchange?' Herstal asked. While Strayed might be gullible, he wouldn't invite someone to a private gathering for nothing.

Aurelie winked and smiled, 'A promise to keep secrets for your companions and a donation to the club: these donations will ensure Mr. Stryder can maintain the club's operations.'

-- It probably also ensured that he got to pocket a large sum too, Herstal silently added the latter half of the sentence.

These conditions were still relatively easy, in fact, anyone of sufficient status to enter the club at Sequoia Manor could easily come up with a large sum of money. Perhaps the greater likelihood was that his status as a mob lawyer had attracted Stryder's attention -- obviously, when doing this kind of high-class pimping, the stronger Stryder's backing was, the more beneficial it was for Stryder himself.

Herstal paused for a moment, then gave a smile that wasn't much of a smile, 'No problem, all his requirements are easily met.'

Aurelie nodded, but still stared at him. The woman had very bright black eyes that looked at others as if she knew exactly what was going on inside them. After a moment, she suddenly smiled and said softly, 'I think you're being a little too pushy about this.'

'Shouldn't I be?' Herstal asked rhetorically, 'You have no idea how desperate men are about such things.'

'I have a feeling you're going there for another reason.' Aurelie said with a sweet voice, but there was no sweetness in her words.

'Is that so?' Herstal asked, feeling a silent thud deep in his chest.

'That night I said you looked like a lamb in the crowd, it was true in a metaphorical sense.' Aurelie's voice was soft and calm, 'You know what a lamb represents in religion, don't you? 'Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain' [1].

[1] Revelation 5:6 in the Bible. The lamb refers to Christ, 'as if it had been slain' refers to Christ being crucified.

Herstal shook his head and said quietly, 'Ms. Delphine --'

'The heart that wore the crown of thorns was pierced by a lance[2].' Aurelie interrupted with a smile, 'The first time I saw you, I saw something familiar in you -- I guess you've been hurt, haven't you??'

[2] Refers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

That day, Herstal worked late as usual.

By the time he got home, Albarino was sitting on the living room couch, his knees, the couch seat, and the floor were covered with scattered autopsy reports. The bodies of children who had been abused to death and dumped into the river had their pale eyes open, forever gazing into the land of the dead.

'A long day, huh?' Albarino said in a relaxed tone, sounding like a normal man who could build a family with someone else. He flipped through the pages of the autopsy report in his lap and looked up at Herstal, 'Anything in particular happen?'

Herstal's throat tightened -- he should have told him about Aurelie, and about the gathering at Sequoia Manor next weekend. Albarino wouldn't have let him go back there alone. But what was the point? Even if Stryder's appearance had indeed been unexpected, Albarino probably wouldn't care.

'No,' Herstal replied, looking steadily at the other man, 'and you?'

Albarino smiled at him gently, as if he wasn't holding the last wisps of a dead person's soul between his fingers:

'No, I stayed home all day.'

Chapter 37: 73. The Fountain of Blood (7)

Chapter Text

It was March 18th, a weekend evening.

Orion Hunter was sitting in the driver's seat of a low-profile black car, clutching a greasy wrapper in his hands, wolfing down a sandwich. He looked very much like an old officer on a stakeout, watching a suspect's house for four days straight. In reality, his line of work wasn't far off.

'All in all,' he said vaguely, mouth full of food, fighting to swallow a large mouthful, 'They're very cautious. From my observations these past few days, they let the dog out into the yard after eight-thirty. You're bound to run into them when you come out, so you'll have to use your own discretion to handle them. '

The person who was being advised to use his own discretion regarding the dogs was Albarino Bacchus -- who was sitting in the passenger seat, looking like he was about to rob a bank, dressed in agile black sportswear and a black ski mask on his lap.

When Hunter wrote his long-winded manuscript with grim determination suspecting that Albarino had blood on his hands, he certainly didn't expect to find himself crammed into a car with the other man, planning to break into the late newspaper mogul's estate. Life was always so unpredictable.

In short, here's how it all began:

Old Hunter had been working diligently as a cleaner on the estate for a few days. The work wasn't too heavy, and to be honest, the pay as a cleaner was far better than his welfare benefits. If someone just seeking an easy life were doing this job, they might even consider becoming a cleaner for the rest of their life.

No one paid any attention to cleaners. To most people enjoying their services, they had no faces, no thoughts, no past or future. Sequoia Manor was visited by members every day of the week, the sheets in the guest rooms were changed daily, the long corridors were swept every day; old Hunter just looked like a poor man limping towards retirement in a place like this, passing his monotonous life with repetitive, dull work.

Until Friday afternoon, when they were informed by the boss's secretary -- the man who managed the club's funds apparently even had a secretary -- that they didn't need to come to work on Sunday.

'There will be a private gathering on Sunday night,' said Rowan, the secretary, who had a miserable looking face and looked very much like the sort of bloke who would haggle over his employees' wages. 'Our members need some peace and quiet, so you'll be coming back to work early on Monday morning. '

Hunter hid behind the crowd and frowned: according to Albarino, the child deaths that had occurred in recent years were likely connected to this club, but from what he'd seen in the few days he'd been working here, Sequoia Manor was, at most, a rather depraved palace of pleasure, with no minors in sight. He'd almost thought that Albarino had made an error in judgement this time, but then this development arose right at this juncture.

A private gathering, where no staff was allowed on site -- this was really strange, especially for these rich people who preferred to use mobility scooters even indoors. Needless to say, there were indeed many dirty secrets hidden behind the scenes.

In accordance with their previous agreement, Hunter informed Albarino of what he'd seen and heard. The ensuing speculation was obvious -- they both had the same thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the latter planned to sneak into the manor that night. And so they did -- at the moment, Hunter was sat in the driver's seat, warning gravely, 'Dr Bacchus, this is not one of those romantic games you play with your partners.'

Albarino swept him a lazy glance and replied, 'That's certainly true, I'm sure there's quite a difference between the two.'

Hunter hated his nonchalant attitude the most, he cleared his throat and emphasized through gritted teeth, 'You don't have a search warrant, this is considered trespassing. It's legal for them to put a bullet through your head if they find you, not to mention being arrested by the police.'

'That's true, but is there any other way for us to get that list of possible names other than this?' Albarino shrugged his shoulders, 'I don't mean to be accusatory, but you've been working as a cleaner at Sequoia Manor for a few days now, and you haven't even scratched the surface of any secrets yet.'

'Please consider my leg before you say that,' Hunter retorted sharply, 'This leg prevents me from sneaking into any rooms and escaping smoothly, not to mention the fact that unlike you, I prefer not to get my head blown off. Aren't you a doctor? Be reasonable.'

Albarino smiled tolerantly as he opened the car door while holding the hideously ugly ski mask in one hand.

Hunter still couldn't resist calling out to him, 'Wait'.

By this time, Albarino was already standing outside the car. He stopped his action of closing the door and lowered his head to look at Hunter, his eyes as cold as a wolf wandering in the wilderness. Every time he saw such eyes, it made Hunter feel a shiver run down his spine. He believed in a hunter's intuition about this matter.

'Why are you investigating this case? Do those lives really matter to you?' Hunter couldn't help but ask the question that was on his mind. It probably wasn't a good idea for any rational person to ask such a question; but there were already more than enough people who were convinced that Orion Hunter was indeed mad.

He didn't believe Albarino truly cared about those lives; the light-hearted tone he used when referring to each of the deceased and the cold, intent gaze he used when looking at the photographs of the corpses, as well as that fleeting, strange look in Albarino's eyes when Hunter stabbed the Family Butcher, all suggested he didn't care about human life.

'Why do you always have such suspicions about me?' Albarino asked in a tone of total innocence, 'Human life is important to most people, not to mention the lives of small children. They always have a sense of compassion for those that are weaker. Besides, as you just said: I'm a doctor; and even though I'm a forensic pathologist now, I once took the Hippocratic Oath.'

The Hippocratic Oath -- I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat -- Hunter almost rolled his eyes at Albarino.

He asked directly, 'Did you kill Sarah Adleman?'

Albarino stunned for a moment, as if genuinely surprised by his question. Then he laughed, 'Of course not. Admittedly, sleeping with her wasn't pleasant, but not unpleasant enough to make me want to kill her.'

He paused, maintaining that smile.

'Then, if you have no further questions, Mr. Hunter,' Albarino continued, 'I'll be on my way.'

Herstal had no desire to return to Sequoia Manor for the second time; it felt like doing something you knew would have disastrous consequences, like drawing a moustache on your mother's passport photo as a child -- now he felt like there was an alarm in the back of his head, beeping whenever he got close to Stryder, more sensitive than a nut allergy to peanuts.

When he knocked on the door, it was somewhat of a relief that it was neither Stryder nor the doorman who answered.

The man on the other side had long, dry, pale yellow hair who looked to be in his mid-thirties with an angular, sharp-jawed face. He eyed Herstal suspiciously from behind those thick glasses, and it wasn't until he somehow finally passed the other man's scrutiny that the man averted his gaze.

He introduced himself as Stryder's secretary, Rowan. Herstal tried to keep his face calm and said, 'I thought Mr. Stryder would be here tonight; after all, according to Ms. Delphine, tonight's party is very important.'

'It is very important,' Rowan said slowly, his voice so dry that it sounded reminiscent of a frog dried out on asphalt, 'which is precisely why Mr. Stryder will not be attending tonight.'

Herstal, of course, easily understood his meaning: assuming that Sequoia Manor was caught red-handed, Stryder would likely have escaped the net because he had never been present at anything resembling an illegal event. Conversely, Rowan, who single-handedly organised such gatherings, would most likely end up going to jail. Who knew how much Stryder paid Rowan to make him so loyal?

Rowan led Herstal to a reception room next to the hall where the last party was held. The taste of the reception room wasn't much better, with soft, blood-red velvet curtains and a huge golden frame hanging on the gold embossed wallpaper, in which a painting was set: some sort of inferior imitation of Bosch's art style, depicting a mass of entwined bodies deep in desire.

'I thought I wouldn't be the only one tonight.' Herstal's gaze briefly skimmed over the painting -- the room's overwhelming decor gave him a feeling of oxygen deprivation -- as he asked with feigned curiosity.

'We offer the utmost respect for the privacy of each member,' Rowan said in his dry tone, 'Our members don't usually arrive at the same time, and even if they do arrive at the same time, we don't put them in the same reception room.'

That was the last answer Herstal wanted to hear. His original plan to meet other members who participated in this activity was shattered, but it had to be said that it made sense for Stryder to arrange it in such a way. There were many powerful and influential individuals among the members of Sequoia Manor, and having them meet in such a situation of 'Hey, are you molesting children? What a coincidence that I am also molesting children', was probably not a good idea. Not seeing each other would definitely make his clients feel more at ease.

But this also meant that his investigation would inevitably slow down. He may have to come to the club multiple times to figure out who was visiting, but honestly, he didn't want to spend even a moment in a place like this.

Rowan, of course, had no idea what was going through his mind as the other man snapped his fingers and a lady stepped out from behind a layer of curtains. It was none other than Aurelie Delphine.

In fact, Herstal was a little surprised: when Aurelie was able to bring his wishes to Stryder so quickly, Herstal knew that the other party's status in Sequoia Manor was not low, but he didn't expect that this 'not low' was in fact high enough to personally participate in such activities.

In that case, Aurelie probably knew the identities of the members who were involved in the rape of minors, but Herstal had never asked her directly. Aurelie attitude towards him was abnormally strange, with quite a few uncharacteristic hints in her words. Herstal was really worried that this was just a trap that Stryder had dug for him. Before he earned Stryder's trust, it was best for him not to act rashly in this regard.

Aurelie was holding a book with a thick cloth cover in her hands while Rowan nodded towards Herstal and said, 'Please choose according toyourown wishes. Delphine will arrange the rest foryou, now if you'll excuse me.'

With that, Rowan walked out of the room and Aurelie handed Herstal the book before going to pour him a drink. Herstal was still confused when he opened the beautifully bound book -- but then he immediately saw the truth written on those glossy, heavy pages.

That booklet wasn't thick, decorated like a menu of a Michelin restaurant. On each page were several photographs of children, both male and female, with their Christian names and ages simply labelled underneath the photographs. A cursory glance showed Herstal that they were all basically between eight and fourteen years old, with a particularly young six-year-old in the middle.

Of course, he immediately understood what this thing was; there was a reason it looked like a menu.

-- It was a roster.

Albarino climbed through the second-floor window along the drainage pipe.

Night had already fallen enough to cloak his figure, and the dogs had not yet been released. This was the best time to enter the manor. The most fortunate thing about Sequoia Manor was that, because it was obviously engaging in illegal activities, there were no surveillance equipment installed inside the manor except for the cameras along the outer walls. Clearly, they did not want any footage to become evidence when the day of reckoning came.

This, of course, also provided an excellent premise for any criminal activities involving breaking and entering. Albarino had figured out the blind spots of the outer wall cameras during his first infiltration into the manor. He was certain that if he wasn't unlucky enough to be spotted by anyone, there was no way anyone would ever realise that he'd even been in here after the fact.

But of course, fate proved he was indeed unlucky -- but not in the way he had imagined.

Albarino crossed the second-floor corridor, attempting to navigate the complex and glaringly colourful hallways to reach the third floor. Based on the investigation he'd done on the manor while posing as a waiter last time, the estate's manager, Kaba Stryder, had his office located on the third floor. He believed that a guy like the manager who exuded pride from every pore -- as evidenced by his overly sophisticated and hideously checkered suit -- would certainly keep some leverage over the club members for blackmail when necessary.

If he was lucky, that would be the list he wanted.

Albarino had just reached the spiral staircase when, while absently looking down over the second-floor railing, he saw a skinny man leading one of the members from below.

The thin man with pale yellow hair had been mentioned by Hunter before as Stryder's right-hand man, and the man following behind him was unmistakably Herstal Armalight.

Albarino was no less shocked than seeing a unicorn behind Rowan. He subconsciously took a step back, retreating to a spot out of sight of the two men. He stood quietly on the soft carpet of the second floor while his mind spun rapidly: Herstal's presence here was unexpected, after all, the last time he had asked, Herstal had also said that he hadn't made much progress, and that he might need to attend a few more gatherings at Sequoia Manor.

Clearly, that was a lie. Herstal had found a way to infiltrate the sinister parties at Sequoia Manor -- not only within a week, but more importantly, he had done so without intending to reveal a word to Albarino.

Why on earth would he do that? Hadn't Albarino made it clear that they no longer needed to lie to each other the last time Herstal had confronted him about whether or not he knew Stryder was at Sequoia Manor? Could Herstal still be worried that Albarino would stop him from killing Stryder?... Ah, of course, with Mercader also going crazy on the side, Albarino wouldn't let Herstal go and kill people based on some kind of list or a directory of Westland's rich and powerful, but he had sworen that he would never let the other party give up on his vengeance.

It was a strange feeling. Most people would probably call the feeling surging through his heart 'betrayal', but given that the two of them had literally put each other in prison and at the hands of other sexual perverts -- not to mention Albarino's identity as a forensic pathologist, which led to several beatings in the New Tucker Federal Prison during those few days when he was being imprisoned, leaving his ribs bruised when he went to find Herstal after he was released -- and besides, the fact that at this moment in time, Albarino himself had come to Sequoia Manor without telling Herstal, neither of them seemed to be in any position to talk about 'betrayal.'

Albarino gritted his teeth; if he didn't, he would indeed feel an uncomfortable lump in his throat (or heart). Quietly, he waited for the two men to walk off to god knows where on the first floor, before just as quietly heading up onto the third floor.

Following his memory, he found Stryder's office. The door to which was now locked, there was no light seeping through the crack, indicating that no one was inside.

Pushing aside his thoughts for the moment, Albarino knelt at the doorway and drew a length of wire from his pocket.

While Albarino was struggling with the extraordinarily complicated door lock, Herstal was staring at the roster in front of him.

He knew he had to choose from someone among them, and this was difficult in every sense of the word. What he was about to do made his throat close up, it was hard to imagine that the Westland Pianist, who remained calm in the face of blood and internal organs, would want to dry-heave over this.

On the other hand, it was very important that he chose the right child. In the absence of the other members and managers, he could only pin his hopes on gathering information from these children. Firstly, the child couldn't be too young, a child too young might have a hard time articulating things clearly, and secondly, it would be best if they hadn't stayed at Sequoia Manor for too long. Herstal was very worried that they would have already succumbed to the cruel fate, causing the child to tell Stryder or Rowan about what he had asked them as soon as he finished questioning.

The child he chose would ideally be slightly older, still retain hope of escaping, be brave, and co-operate with his actions. Which meant --

'Are there any new children?' Herstal asked casually as he flipped through the roster.

'Sorry, what?' Aurelie's reaction to his strange request was exactly what he expected.

Swallowing the uncomfortable feeling in his throat, Herstal slowly laid the roster flat on his lap and looked up at Aurelie. He smiled, then whispered, 'Well, you understand, a child who has spent too much time in a place like this can have all sorts of defects ... I hope the child I get is a virgin, is this an excessive request?'

A month ago, just a month ago, if someone would have told Herstal that he would be making such a request in a place like this, he would have hung the other person up and ripped out their tongue. But the feeing at this moment was just very strange. Aurelie's gaze shifted away from him for a brief moment, failing to completely hide her disgust, which stabbed into his heart like a thorn.

After a moment, Aurelie said, 'Yes...some of these.'

Aurelie pointed out two children in the booklet, both boys, one of whom was nine and the other fourteen. Herstal had originally considered the older child, the fourteen year old boy had soft, curly golden hair, adorably curled like the little angels at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna painting.

Below the photo was his name: Midalen. It was indeed an angel's name.

[1] (TL Notes) The original Chinese was 米达伦, which phonetically in PinYin would be pronounced 'Midalun' (for the sake of English it's pronounced more similar to 'len' than 'lun', so I'll keep it as 'len'), not Metatron (which is the official English name for the angel 米达伦). I'm going to keep his name as Midalen and not Metatron for... obvious reasons -- Metatron is one of the most powerful archangels, acting as the celestial scribe to the Book of Life, which keeps track of all the choices made by earthly and divine beings. Metatron also serves as the guide to humanity, is the speaker for God, and is granted the right to be in the presence of God.

There was something about this child -- his age, the colour of his hair, a certain youthful and determined look in his eyes that had not faded -- made Herstal feel a tremor of pain, it made him feel like he was about to be torn apart, just like his nightly dreams. He reached out to point at the photograph, feeling his finger burn slowly against the smooth surface of the paper.

'I choose this child.' He said.

Chapter 38: 74. The Fountain of Blood (8)

Chapter Text

Aurelie was silent for two seconds. Herstal felt as though she was deliberating something, but whatever it was, she didn't voice it. Still maintaining that flawless masquerade of a charming smile, she said, 'Alright, please wait a moment while I make the arrangements.'

Herstal didn't quite want to know what she was going to arrange, and in any case, she strode out of the reception, her figure disappearing once more behind the heavy curtains. With even that sound fading from the room, everything fell into a terrifying silence, even the ringing in his ears felt like an unending tsunami.

The rhythmic sound matched the beat of his heart, a sound that was generated from the blood flowing through his veins being transmitted to his eardrums. It didn't require special treatment as it didn't affect his quality of life. Herstal only heard this sound in extreme silence, and because it didn't affect his sleep, he had never paid much attention to it.

But at this moment, he realised once more that he was still drowning in that river of blood. The last time he'd felt like this was when he was standing before Billy's corpse with Albarino's fingers pressing lightly but firmly on his shoulder, saying, 'Pianist.'

Herstal sat still and adjusted his breathing, watching the coffee in front of him cool bit by bit, the last wisp of steam dissipating into the air. About fifteen minutes later, Aurelie appeared before him again, her formulaic smile still in place, but looking a little colder than the day she had conversed with him at the party.

She simply said, 'Please follow me.'

And so Herstal rose and followed her, much like Alice following the rabbit with the pocket watch down the winding rabbit hole -- but things were ever so subtly different, for in the end, Alice would still wake up from her dream and find herself lying in her sister's lap. But what he faced was not a dream he could wake up from, even if he told himself, 'I'm sure everything will be fine', he could never wake up from the dream. In real life, there were no cupcakes with sweet labels saying 'Eat Me' on them. They couldn't be sure if they would die the next moment after eating something.

He was most likely walking down a path toward death. It had always been so; and now he was trapped in a predicament.

Herstal followed Aurelie through the winding corridors, realising that the interior of the building was even larger than it appeared from the outside. Every inch of the walls and ceilings that could be decorated, was decorated, with patterns that showcased the owner's terrible taste and their abundance of money that had nowhere to be squandered.

They reached a blue corridor, at the end of which a taxidermied deer head was mounted onto the wall, its glassy eyes staring dully straight ahead. The corridor's overhead lights casted a branch-like blue-grey shadows behind the massive antlers. The walls were painted in bright colors, but it still gave off an unpleasant feeling: some psychologists insisted that living in a blue room for a long period of time could make one's mood depressed Herstal could vaguely see a hint of 'The Shining' set in this corridor.

'It's there, the red door at the end of the corridor to the left.' Aurelie said softly, handing Herstal an antique-looking key. 'This is the key to the room, Mr. Rowan has another spare, but don't lose it. When you wish to leave, please lock the door and return the key to Rowan -- he will be waiting in the front hall of the manor.'

Then she nodded and hurried away, perhaps to attend to another guest. She turned a corner and her figure quickly disappeared, leaving Herstal standing there with the key in his hand.

The door wasn't far from him, painted a deep blood-red, clashing horribly with the blue corridor walls. He wondered which little genius came up with the idea. Although he complained in his heart, Hestal knew this was likely the taste of the late Philip Thompson.

At this moment, Herstal had no choice but to walk up to the door and insert the key into the lock, turning it with a faint click. The hinges creaked as the door swung open. He had mentally prepared himself for what he would see inside, and these preparations weighed heavily on his mind like a large boulder.

And as he opened the door, all he saw was a figure lunging swiftly towards him; there was a flash of light before his eyes: it was the glint of metal under the light.

It took Albarino quite a long time to pick the lock.

He considered himself quite skilled in lock-picking -- he'd learned the craft from a French thief during his travels to Europe after college; the thief had made the mistake of trying to pick his pocket, and in the end had to save his own fingers by teaching him diligently -- but the lock in front of him was quite difficult to open. Furthermore, he was constantly distracted by looking out in case someone turned the corner down the corridor.

It took him about fifteen minutes to get the door open. He then silently slipped through the doorway, carefully locking it from the inside. The corridor outside was thickly carpeted, so he wouldn't be able to hear the footsteps of anyone coming. He could only count on Stryder's making a noise as he unlocked the door to give him a hint.

Of course, it would be best if Stryder didn't make a surprise trip back to his office; as there was no telling how much time Albarino would have to spend in here. Confirming that the door was securely locked, he straightened up and cautiously surveyed his surroundings.

He was now standing in a spacious office, facing a desk so large that it was enough to make love on, and ergonomically soft office chairs. Fabric sofas decorated the corners of the room, and bookshelves filled with books that had never been opened, merely displayed for show, lined the walls.

Albarino made his way around the room first, wearing latex gloves on his hands so he wouldn't have to worry about leaving fingerprints on anything. The first thing he did was go and open the window to the room -- it was an old house, and the locks on the windows had gradually rusted over time, but they could still be forced open.

That way, if someone did try to come through the door, he'd still have a chance to escape through the window: Stryder's office was on the third floor, and below it was soft grass. The long windows of the old manor included protruding carvings, and it wouldn't be difficult to climb down to the yard along the windowsill, and then down to the courtyard below using the drainpipe.

Albarino could see the dark, night-shrouded ground outside. In the shadows of the darkness, the bird-shaped hedges were barely discernible, and faint barking could be heard between the trees, indicating that the dogs had been let out. Figuring out how to deal with the dogs when he escaped was a problem for later; and he really didn't want to spend time thinking about that right now.

But he did have time to be distracted by the thought of something else: if he were the gardener of a manor like this, he would absolutely build a hedge maze on the property. He was very interested in a style of gardening that had been popular during the Renaissance era but had never been able to put it into action. His house on the outskirts of the city certainly had enough land, but it was best for Dr. Bacchus to stay away from his hobby of gardening.

While thinking of all these random things, Albarino efficiently searched every drawer in the office; focusing on whether there were any secret compartments in the bookshelves and desks, suspicious holes in the floors and walls, or a safe hidden behind the ugly Dadaist painting on the wall.

But as it turned out, he seemed to have greatly overestimated Stryder's ability to hide things -- or greatly underestimated his opponent's ability to hide things -- because in any case, he found nothing useful in any of those places. The only things he discovered were two p*rnographic magazines at the bottom of the bookshelf and a suspicious bottle of water-based lubricant in the right-hand drawer of the desk. He had found nothing, and the other party hadn't even played into the classic film cliché of 'hiding a safe behind a painting on the wall.'

Therefore, he could only admit that either Stryder was smart enough to hide things in a place where even Albarino couldn't find, or the other party was so pure that he didn't leave himself any leverage regarding the members of Sequoia Manor. Of course, there was also one last possibility: Stryder was extremely confident and had stored all the information on his computer.

Albarino shifted his gaze to the computer on the desk. The rather expensive, sophisticated device lay there looking as pure and as innocent as ever, as if it were lying in a normal person's office. Stryder didn't seem like a computer expert, nor did he seem to have anyone around him who was particularly skilled with IT. Albarino doubted that the other man could hide his information very well.

So he whistled contemptuously before walking over to the computer and switching it on. The computer was well worth its price, running quietly and smoothly, booting up quickly. The start-up screen then popped up, requiring a password.

This was probably the only protective measure that Stryder's shallow computer knowledge allowed him to make. If there was a hacker present in the room right now, they would likely have laughed out loud. But Albarino wasn't a hacker, and even forensic pathologists and psychopathic killers weren't omnipotent.

However, Stryder had set a password hint under the start-up password -- the password hint indicated to Albarino that the start-up password was the name of a book, and nothing more.

It was a laughable scene that definitely wouldn't appear in a spy blockbuster movie; no viewer would want to see a spy venturing deep into the enemy's lair, gaining access to the villain's computer, only to then find that the villain had set a password hint underneath the password.

It clearly wasn't cool nor dramatic enough. It was as if Stryder was just sitting in an ordinary office, doing a boring job like selling insurance or used cars. No one would ever know how many dark and nasty secrets were hidden in a computer whose start-up screen was a silly reindeer head. Although most people in the world lacked creativity, they never disappointed in terms of evil.

Albarino sighed and collapsed heavily into the office chair with such force that it creaked with the pressure. His fingers tapped the desk rapidly and randomly; he needed that password.

What could it be?

If Olga were here, she could probably have been able to tell Albarino the answer in three minutes, but thinking about Olga now was pointless; after all, fate was so unpredictable, even for a someone like Olga Molozer.

Albarino could only go over the useful information carefully in his mind: Stryder gave the impression that he didn't read very often. Of course, there was no denying that he must have learnt the Bible by heart when he was a priest, but now his dusty bookshelf spoke for itself.

He'd obviously abandoned his literary hobbies for a long time, but still had his start-up password set to the name of a book. His desk faced the magnificent but useless bookshelf; was it one of the books from that shelf that had inspired him?

Albarino stood up from the desk again and walked towards that bookshelf -- most of the books were covered in dust, and a few had traces of fingerprints. Stryder must have something important kept in this office, which was why he didn't let others in; otherwise, he would have had someone clean the dust off the shelves.

The dust was like footprints or tree rings. The thickness and patterns of the dust indicated the experiences of these books. Albarino quickly eliminated most of the books; they were heavy with dust, but the books themselves looked new, and the spines showed little sign of being read. Albarino's eyes swept over books on philosophy, psychology, some acclaimed masterpieces of literature...It seemed that only the popular novels had been opened; Albarino glimpsed a few fingerprints on the spines of a few books.

What sort of books would a person like Stryder favour?

Herstal had almost never mentioned what Stryder had been like back in Kentucky, but Albarino had already seen him smile at his own disrespectful display of frivolity at that last party. It was clear that sexually harassing the wait-staff was just a joke to him, a kind of vulgar, lowly pleasure derived from insulting others.

In that case, Albarino sincerely hoped that the start-up password for the computer wasn't the title of Playboy or a more obscene p*rnographic magazine. Although on second thought, it wouldn't be surprising if Stryder did something like that.

Albarino carefully examined the entire bookshelf, and finally, his gaze stopped on one book. It looked a little older, like it had been there for a long time, with a thinner layer of dust on the spine.

-- Justine, by Marquis de Sade. How interesting.

'Prosperity is always accompanied by sin ...'

Albarino murmured, reaching out to brush the spine of the book. His fingertips touched the line of letters along the spine, the touch of dust was coarse and light under his fingertips.

'The more corrupt and depraved you are, the more you can live what the world calls a happy life. [1]'

[1] Marquis de Sade, 'Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue'. (TL Notes: I can't seem to find a quote similar to the exact Chinese in the novel so I just translated the original Chinese. The book is available here.)

He gave a vague smile.

It was the kind of story Stryder would enjoy, infused with an image that wasn't actually humorous, and deep down he would laugh heartily at this unfunny joke. Albarino curled his lips, didn't really have an opinion on Marquis de Sade himself, but he still felt that Stryder's perspective wasn't exactly refined.

But now really wasn't the time to be dissatisfied with others' tastes. Albarino withdrew his hand and circled back to the desk once more. This time, he placed his fingers on the keyboard and tried entering that string of letters.

'J-U-S-T-I-N-E.'

To be fair, Albarino wasn't entirely sure that his answer was correct. There was a good chance that he was wrong, but fortunately, Stryder's computer skills weren't advanced enough to set up a program that would format the computer if the wrong password was entered. So even if he was wrong, he had room for another try.

Albarino paused and stared at the string of letters on the computer screen. Then, with a faint, meaningful curl of his lips, he lightly tapped the Enter key.

The screen flickered.

Fortunately, the next second, the computer desktop appeared in front of him.

Albarino let out a long sigh of relief and leaned heavily back in the chair. But now was not the time to celebrate his good luck; he needed to find what he was looking for on this computer.

Herstal instinctively sidestepped and grabbed the wrist of the person who lunged at him, they were apparently holding some sort of metal weapon. He slammed the person heavily against the wall before taking in the details of the room -- it was a beige wallpapered room, with a floor-to-ceiling lamp, and a soft, double bed. The decor in this room was far more pleasant than the blue hallway outside, as long as one didn't think about what might have happened on that bed.

But just thinking about what had happened in this room sent a shiver of numbness down Herstal's spine.

And now he was in control of the boy who had tried to jump up and stab him. The boy was glaring at him and baring his teeth threateningly, but he couldn't stop his wrist from trembling nervously under Herstal's grip.

Obviously, the boy who tried to attack him was called Midalen. Midalen was wearing a thin white shirt on his upper body and simple black trousers. One end of an iron chain was tied to his thin ankles, and the other end extended towards the bed, most likely tied to the headboard.

The boy looked even taller and thinner than in the photograph, almost so thin that you could see the distinctive ribs under his shirt. He wore a fierce expression, his light brown eyes were wide open like clear glass beads, and his blonde hair was indeed very curly.

When a boy reaches this age, his secondary sexual characteristics have begun to develop, and he has already treading awkwardly on that threshold between child and teenager. It was at this moment that Herstal suddenly understood why this boy had never been chosen by the VIPs of Sequoia Manor before; according to the notation on that roster, he had been here for at least three months.

Because he no longer looked like a 'little boy' anymore, the sudden realisation caused a familiar feeling of nausea to well up in Herstal's chest. He had to take a deep breath to swallow this feeling. The boy in front of him was doing him no favours in terms of helping him concentration, Midalen's hands were firmly restrained against the wall, but he was still writhing and trying to lift his foot to kick him.

The boy also held a crooked, dirty fork in his hand, the same thing he had just tried to use to stab Herstal with. The dignity of this fork made Herstal suspect that the boy had used it for other activities before: such as digging a tunnel underneath the bed to try and escape from this prison or something similar.

'Pervert! Let me go!' The boy cursed shrilly with a high-pitched voice typical of someone going through puberty, writhing like an eel under Herstal's grasp, 'f*cking fa*ggot!'

Herstal frowned at him with an indescribable expression, '...Where did you learn a word like 'fa*ggot'?'

'f*ck, does it matter?!' The boy continued to scream, piercing Herstal's eardrums. Now he didn't look like the little angel on the roster at all, but like a microphone that kept squeaking because it was out of tune, 'You're going to f*cking rape me!'

To be honest, he had a point.

'Listen, Midalen,' Herstal frowned. He had to find a way to make the other person calm down. He couldn't let him continue to yell like this, otherwise it would be even more troublesome if he really attracted the attention of other people in the manor; but it wasn't going to be easy, the boy was as headache inducing as Albarino was. 'I don't intend to rape you.'

...Never in his life did Herstal ever think that he would be having this conversation with a foul-mouthed fourteen-year-old, so it had to be said that fate was very indeed very unpredictable.

And Midalen looked at him as if he were a mentally retard person, with a 'Don't be ridiculous, don't think I don't know what you're doing in this place' look written all over his face.

However, Herstal had already thought of a suitable excuse; he had considered this matter over the past two days -- a small lie, but one with sufficient reason to make the boy believe him; moreover, even if the other party decided to tell Stryder what Herstal had said in this room, Herstal would be able to find a suitable reason to excuse himself.

'Well ... I'm an investigative journalist.' Herstal replied. He then paused for a moment, trying to make his tone as sincere as possible. Despite this, he still hadn't loosened his grip on Midalen's wrist, just in case the other person suddenly changed his mind and tried to stab him with the fork again. Midalen's aggressive demeanor made it seem quite likely.

Midalen, obviously not expecting that answer from him, froze for a moment and stared at Herstal suspiciously.

'I've noticed something strange about this manor before ...so I wanted to come in and investigate what was really going on here.' Herstal said to Midalen, to some extent, this wasn't entirely a lie. But the absurdity of the situation almost made him want to laugh; He had always lied to himself, and now he had to go out of his way to appear sincere to someone else.

Midalen whispered, 'You want to report this kind of explosive news to gain reputation --'

'No, it's not just about reputation.' Herstal interrupted, staring at him in an effort to convince the other party that he himself deeply believed that what he was saying was true. 'Reporting this kind of news will definitely attract the attention of the authorities, and the entire manor will be done for. Everyone here can be saved.'

He gazed into Midalen's absurdly large eyes and repeated, 'Please believe me.'

Chapter 39: 75. The Fountain of Blood (9)

Chapter Text

Midalen narrows his eyes and scrutinized Herstal, clearly skeptical of what he is saying. He asked, 'Are you telling the truth?'

The boy had left a general impression on Herstal after he entered the room: relatively calm, short-tempered, lacking in manners, and brave -- though given his act of trying to stab his assailant to death with a crooked fork, Herstal didn't think it was the intelligent type of bravery. The fork was still tightly clutched in his hand like a lifeline -- but in any case, this probably meant that they were able to have a somewhat adult conversation.

Herstal finally let go of him, allowing him to stagger back against the wall. Herstal took a step back and said, 'No matter what I say, you have no way of proving whether or not what I say is true. So you essentially only have two choices: cooperate with me, or not. Hesitation may cause you to miss your only chance and leave you suck in this place forever until the thing you fear happens to you.'

Midalen stared at him for a while, as if mulling over the credibility of what he was saying. Finally, he gave a sharp smile with a bit of bravado, 'I can go tell Mr. Rowan what you said to me, and let him know that your true purpose for entering this place was just to dig up news!'

In fact, Herstal had already considered this possibility before coming here, but the only problem was that he wasn't actually a journalist. So if he did arouse Stryder's suspicion, he could still righteously muddle his way out -- claiming he wanted to see if the people here were really tight-lipped, or if they would reveal the identities of the members, so on and so forth. After all, having their actions exposed was probably the biggest fear of those visiting Sequoia Manor.

But now in front of Midalen, of course he couldn't say that.

In the end he just laughed softly and asked, 'What? Do you intend to side with those people?'

Midalen was stunned for a moment, a deeply conflicted expression crossed his face as he muttered in a small voice, '...Then how do I know you aren't sent by them to test me?'

Herstal guessed that this kid had been causing trouble continuously in the few months since he was captured by Stryder's men, likely giving the people of Sequoia Manor a hard time, otherwise he wouldn't have brought up the idea of being 'sent by them to test me'.

Herstal sighed deeply and reluctantly reached into his suit pocket in a compromising manner. His action caused Midalen to take a wary step backwards, clearly worried that he'd pull out a gun; but Herstal didn't do anything threatening, he just held the object he'd taken from his pocket and laid it flat on his palm:

-- It was a butterfly knife, the metal surface gleaming softly under the warm light.

'I want to try to make this deal as fair as possible. So if you're willing to answer a few of my questions, I can give you this in exchange so you can replace your useless fork.' Herstal said calmly. 'Well? If I were sent by the manor, I wouldn't give you something this dangerous, would I?'

As it turns out, when one wanted to hide something, it was best not to hide it in a folder named 'Tax Record Sheets'.

First of all, Albarino didn't even think Stryder paid taxes; secondly, even if he did pay taxes, Albarino believed that Stryder wouldn't be the type of person who would diligently record and organize tax files. This folder sat on Stryder's computer like like an apple among a pile of potatoes, it looked as conspicuous as could be.

Albarino looked at the folder and couldn't help but snort, his finger twitching as he clicked it open with the mouse.

What then popped up in front of his eyes were a series of images, interspersed with a few videos in between. Unsurprisingly, Stryder hadn't forgotten to leave himself a way out while engaging in such despicable activities.

He had obviously placed hidden cameras in some of the rooms of the estate, recording scenes of club members with the children -- this was a polite way of putting it, as most of the scenes were disgusting -- these rooms had no distinguishing features and no other people appeared in them, so they couldn't be used as evidence to accuse Stryder of being involved in the incident. He must have kept these as blackmail against those wealthy individuals.

Albarino quickly skimmed through the pictures, his eyes filled with intertwined, pale bodies. The people taking the photos had clearly been selective, capturing each man's face very clearly.

This was the kind of 'list' he was looking for. Although there were no names on the photos, the club members were all wealthy, so identifying them based on the photos wouldn't be difficult.

Albarino fished a flash drive out of his pocket. He needed a copy of the photos and then had to delete the information from the computer. In any case, he didn't want to take the risk that Herstal would also get a copy of the list and start a killing spree, especially since Herstal appeared at Sequoia Manor today. This had to be done now.

The file was enormous, presumably due to the high definition of the photographs. When Stryder ordered his people to take clear photos of these men, he probably hadn't considered how troublesome it would be for someone trying to steal these photos. Albarino watched the painfully slow, snail-like progress bar and felt a strong urge to sigh.

It was at this moment that Albarino realized that his misfortunes weren't just the vicious dogs wandering outside, he excessively large file, or the lingering shadows in Herstal's mind that were bringing him down, it wasn't even the fact that Herstal had shown up at Sequoia Manor without a warning.

-- He heard the faint sound of a key being inserted into the lock from outside the door.

Midalen sat obediently on the edge of the bed, his skinny, bony legs dangling off the edge. Herstal pulled over the only chair from the corner of the room and sat facing him. The light brown curtains were drawn tightly shut, and the bedside lamp cast a scattered beam of light, creating a thin shadow over the two of them.

The atmosphere was suited for a specific kind of ambiguous, intimate, and lingering evening, which explained why it was incredibly awkward for the two of them. After all, it was hard to remain calm under the overarching premise of 'you're basically paying to rape me'.

Herstal had already searched the room earlier to ensure there were no hidden cameras or recording devices in the room before taking a seat across from Midalen. Midalen, on the other hand, hesitated for a moment before beginning to tell his story.

The beginning of Midalen's story wasn't much different from the beginning of any child with a tragic life; he'd been abandoned by his mother at the doorstep of an orphanage in the northern part of Westland before he could even speak, with a slip of paper with his name and date of birth tied around his wrist. Midalen never found his family again, and lived in the orphanage ever since, until a few months ago.

With the long lines of people wanting to adopt children nowadays, and the rigorous vetting that had to be done in order to adopt a child, the fact that Midalen had managed to stay in the orphanage all this time was quite telling. Rebellious, short-tempered, and not very social. Several families had tried to adopt him, all of which ended in a series of less-than-pleasant experiences.

But despite all this, Midalen was actually still a very good-looking young boy: which was precisely the problem.

'A few months ago, I noticed someone was following me.' Midalen said, with a low grunt of displeasure, 'I told the social workers, of course, but they didn't believe me, they said 'Midalen, you're lying again' -- but I wasn't! Besides, I didn't lie before, I just didn't tell them that my teacher wanted to meet my guardian, and about my fight with that little chubby kid from school!'

Herstal was speechless. It was clear that Midalen was also a victim of the boy-who-cried-wolf story. He reached up and rubbed his brow before asking, 'And then what happened?'

'One day, I was cornered in an alley by two men. One was black, and the other was a bald man with a big tattoo on his left cheek. I punched the bald guy until his nose bled,' Midalen made a grimace. It was strange to hear such words from someone with an angelic face. 'Then the other guy grabbed my hair and slammed my head against the wall, repeatedly ...'

He paused, swallowing dryly. Herstal saw his Adam's apple bob up and down. Then Midalen said, 'When I woke up, I was captured by them.'

'I'm going to need a more detailed description of what the two men who kidnapped you looked like, and also information about the place where you were being held -- anything you can remember.' Herstal said, frowning.

'Isn't that the police's job?' Midalen glanced at Herstal.

'You might as well believe in God if you're going to trust the Westland police to get you out of this hellhole.' Herstal sneered. Seeing Midalen's expression, he added with deliberation as to not let his attitude get too far from the characteristics of a reporter, 'If possible, I'd like to investigate the place where you were held. A news story without enough details isn't worth much.'

The boy wasn't easy to get along with, but at only fourteen years of age, Herstal was able to handle it.

So now, Midalen described, 'I was locked in a small room with a very high window and a small bed. Outside the window there was a beech tree growing, I could see parts of the top of the tree from the window of the room I was in. The room was very narrow, and I guessed that it was artificially divided into small rooms with thin wall panels. Many nights I could hear other children crying next door, but I'm not sure how many children were there ...'

At least ten, Herstal thought, the roster Aurelie gave him had ten names. But all of those children were at the manor tonight, so they likely had more.

'Twice a day they would bring water and food into the room through a small hole under the door, so I never had a chance to escape. Every two or three weeks, they would blindfold some of the kids and take them out, twice without me, but I heard footsteps next door.' Midalen continued, perhaps because he was a little older and hadn't been victimized yet, he was extremely articulate and spoke without much fear, 'They put us in a car and finally brought us to this manor.'

Herstal's heart sank: if Stryder's men had brought them here blindfolded, then there was a good chance that Midalen had no idea of the route they'd taken from where they'd been held to Sequoia Manor. In that case, as soon as Stryder died, his men would likely kill the children to silence them.

He asked without much hope, 'Even if you were blindfolded, can you remember anything specific about the route? Sharp turns or uphills and downhills for example?'

'I tried to count the time. It's not very accurate, and I'm not sure if it would help.' Midalen co*cked his head and said, 'But anyway, it goes like this: the car might start in a yard, then turn left out of it, count to 267, reach a junction, then count to 79, turn right, where the sound of water can be heard, maybe there's a fountain, and then count to 124...'

Herstal looked at him in surprise.

Midalen continued on and on. Who knew how he came up with such an idea or how he forced himself to remember it, but by the time Herstal reacted to what this meant, Midalen was saying, '...to 741, turn left, then a short downhill, count to 210, the car goes over a bumpy road, and then we arrived here.'

He stopped, nervously licking his lips and looked up at Herstal.

'Well?' He asked softly, 'Does it help?'

Herstal took a deep breath and pulled out a small notebook he always carried with him to keep track of things. Then he said gently, 'Very good, kid. I need you to say that again.'

When Albarino heard the soft click, he felt his hair stand on end: it wasn't that he hadn't thought Stryder would suddenly come in while he was still in his office, but he hadn't expected him to come in at such an inconvenient time. There was no time to do anything, Albarino didn't even get a chance to pull the flash drive out, so he could only turn off the computer and leap over to a corner of the office.

There was a long couch between the bookshelf and the wall. Albarino jumped behind it and crouched down low, his knees hitting the soft carpet.

That way, from the angle of the office door, Stryder wouldn't be able to see him hiding inside the office. Albarino kept his body as low as he could, his hand silently reaching for the dagger hidden at his waist -- if Stryder found him here, he would have no choice but to strike.

Of course, Herstal would be furious; but if he only seriously wounded Stryder, and then found a way to bring him out to Herstal, he'd calm down, right?

...Or maybe not, Albarino could already imagine Herstal's sarcastic comment, 'I already told you that moving on Stryder prematurely would only end up spooking him, didn't I?' or something like that.

Maybe he would die. Maybe this time Herstal won't show any mercy. This matter was Herstal's bottom line, and Albarino had known that fact for a long time. He sighed inwardly, but his heart remained calm.

Herstal might have been under the impression that it was Albarino who was controlling the game, but that wasn't really the case; it wasn't a game of chess, it was by no means a game that could be carried on by just one person but a mutual battle. From the moment Albarino chose to provoke the Pianist: he knew for a fact that in terms of committing crimes, the other man was far more ruthless and skilled as a hunter than he was.

The Pianist's preference for slowly torturing his victims meant that the Pianist had to possess force that could keep them under control; in contrast, the Sunday Gardener, who often slit his prey's throat with a single slash when the other was caught off guard, having the advantage of surprise.

Albarino knew that Herstal could certainly kill him if he wanted to.

He actually didn't mind dying in Herstal's hands -- but preferably not now, not with Stryder's affairs still unresolved. Albarino was far more interested in seeing the moment when Herstal would kill the shadow that haunted him with his own hands.

At this moment, Albarino thought of many things. If he was lucky enough, maybe he wouldn't end up in the position he'd imagined -- The office door opened and Stryder appeared in the doorway of his office.

At the moment, although his computer was in its usual position, the monitor was still warm, and in the direction facing away from Stryder, the flash drive was still plugged into the computer.

Stryder stepped hurriedly through the door, seeming to see neither Albarino hiding behind the couch nor the computer's unusual state. He walked to the desk and began pulling open drawers one by one, rummaging around for something. He was followed by someone else: a man with yellowish hair, presumably the Rowan that Hunter had mentioned earlier.

Rowan stopped at the doorway while Stryder continued rummaging around, saying, '... a missing person report was posted online. The problem lies in the fact that he disappeared in Massachusetts only six months ago, and his family and the local police are probably still looking for him, so --'

'You mean,' Stryder said slowly without looking up, not even looking in the direction of the computer, ' that the police in Massachusetts may have realized that the boy whose body was dumped in the river in Westland is the same one who disappeared six months ago, right? '

'There's a possibility,' Rowan said tensely, 'that this case will attract the FBI!!'

Stryder clicked his tongue, straightened up, and tossed what he was holding to Rowan, who caught it: a bulging envelope. Given Albarino's understanding of these people's methods, the envelope was probably full of money.

'Pay that cop you previously dealt with a bit more. We need to know if the Massachusetts police are going to take notice of this case or not.' Stryder arranged, 'If they do contact the WLPD, I need to be informed immediately.'

With those words, he pushed the drawer closed with his backhand and the two men quickly left the room again; it turned out that the two of them were only here to get some money. Albarino waited for the sound of the door locking again, and waited a further ten seconds or so before he emerged from behind the couch where he had been hiding.

He continued checking the file transfer speed on the computer while considering the information he had just overheard: The WLPD had posted a notice online to identify the drowned John Doe. This was something he knew. It now seemed that the boy had been kidnapped by Stryder and his people not too long ago.... Rowan's concerns were valid; if the Massachusetts police noticed that the boy whose body had been dumped in the river in Westland was in fact the same boy who had disappeared six months earlier in Massachusetts, they would definitely contact the FBI: this was, after all, an interstate case that needed federal jurisdiction.

-- And with the level of attention Lavazza Mercader had been paying to Westland lately, they would undoubtedly encounter that troublesome agent soon.

However, there was no point in thinking about it now; Albarino saw that the transfer process was complete. He quickly removed the flash drive and, after some thought, opted to restore the computer to its factory settings.

'You can't leave now.' Midalen said.

Herstal had already gathered a lot of information from Midalen: for example, he'd never received any guests, so he didn't know who was visiting Sequoia Manor, but the children were all being held in the same place, so if he could bring them out, he could certainly get a list of people from them. In addition, these children had only come into contact with Rowan and his men, and never knew of the existence of Stryder as a person.

This showed that Stryder was still quite cunning, and no one could prove at this point that he was actually involved in this organized case of sexual abuse of minors -- except maybe Aurelie, who had personally told Herstal that she had secured his participation in tonight's event in front of Stryder. However, Aurelie's stance was ambiguous, and it was not clear if she was willing to cooperate with the police -- Stryder had probably prepared for such situations, planning to push all the blame onto Rowan if something went wrong.

Knowing this information, Herstal felt that there was no need for him to stay any longer. As he straightened his cuffs, he glanced at Midalen and asked, 'Why can't I leave?'

Midalen, who was sitting on the bed intently playing with the butterfly knife, raised his head at his words and pointed the knife's handle at Herstal's lower body. 'They'll think you're too fast.'

... Herstal could kind of understand why the kid hadn't been adopted after more than ten years in the orphanage.

Herstal wanted to curse a little and to turn around and leave. But the main issue right now was that he regretted giving Midalen the butterfly knife in the first place. The way Midalen flung the blade out of its sheath was so clumsy that it looked like he was almost about to cut off his own finger.

Herstal watched Midalen for a while before he couldn't bear it anymore, finally relenting, he said, 'Come here, that's not how you use that knife.'

Midalen grinned and jumped off the bed.

Albarino stood in the shadows of the mansion.

He had climbed down from upstairs along the drainpipe and was now standing on the lawn. The lawn at Sequoia Manor was a mixture of ryegrass and tall fescue, evergreen throughout the year, and without a team of gardeners, it would be impossible to maintain a lawn that could grow up to thirty or forty centimetres tall. The ground was moist and soft beneath his feet, but the lawn ensured that he wouldn't leave any identifiable footprints. Albarino's gaze was fixed on a figure that was moving not too far away.

Hunter had helped him figure out the daily routines of the guards, which hadn't changed much even on such a special night. If he could take down the person moving in front of him, he could reach the manor's wall by the shortest route and climb over it. The dogs generally didn't patrol that direction, so as long as he was quiet and fast enough, he should be able to avoid the miserable fate of being chased by five dogs.

-- But Hunter wouldn't know what he was about to do next.

But that didn't matter; information between Hunter and Sequoia Manor wasn't shared with each other, and they would never find out what happened in the end.

Silently, Albarino made his way through the heavy shadows toward the figure. The person stood at a corner of the wall, looking in the direction of the courtyard wall, a cigarette clutched idly in his hand, the red tip glowing intermittently in the darkness. Clearly, this was a rather unprofessional guard.

Albarino crept up behind him silently, as nimble as a cat or a cheetah, and snapped a hand over the guard's mouth.

The other man was so startled that in the midst of his struggling he actually opened his mouth and bit down through the glove on Albarino's hand. Albarino let out a low hiss, but his movements never paused, stabbing the guard in the throat.

The guard made no sound, only warm blood gurgled and ran down his throat. Albarino withdrew his knife and wiped the blood clean off the blade on the fabric of the man's shoulder before releasing his grip. The guard's body, no longer having any strength to support itself, collapsed heavily on the ground.

Albarino's palms throbbed in pain. The guy had bitten down hard enough that the latex gloves he wore on his hands were probably torn, and the skin on his palm seemed to be bleeding; Albarino estimated that the injury would inevitably redden and swell, likely turning bruised and purple by the morning.

Albarino didn't even spare the body a glance, he just calmly stepped over it and quickly moved into the dense darkness. The scent of the blood and the slight commotion had already alerted the dogs, which were now barking on the other side of the manor, a cacophony in the night.

Albarino started to run, following the shadows as he slipped into the darkness, leaving the series of barks behind him.

Herstal's return to the reception of the mansion to return the key was poorly timed; there were no other members around. Rowan was standing in the corner on the phone to whoever he was calling, his voice was low, but it didn't hide the anger and anxiety in his voice. When Herstal approached, he only vaguely caught a few words, 'I don't know when ... the knife ...unable to find him anymore... '

Just from those fragments, it was clear that something had happened either at the place where the children were kept, or somewhere else in Sequoia Manor. Herstal wanted to stay and listen but was worried that lingering too long would arouse suspicion. So, he simply walked over and left the keys on the table in front of Rowan.

Rowan stopped talking and looked up at Herstal, then nodded to him and made an apologetic gesture, indicating that he couldn't see Herstal out the door.

There was certainly nothing more for Herstal to say under the circ*mstances, he could only turn and head outside the mansion, where the cool night breeze was already pouring in through the half-open door in the reception, bringing in a hint of the slightly bitter freshness of the night.

What he left behind were countless depraved beasts in human form who indulged in sensual pleasures in the manor. There was still a monster lurking in his heart, and another in the unknown darkness in the distance, waiting for him to return home.

By the time Herstal finally got home, Albarino was already asleep, and the house was silent. The curtains hadn't been drawn before the other man went to sleep, and the cascade of lights layered up on the horizon enveloped Albarino in a pale shadow. Herstal could only make out the outline of the rumpled sheets piled on top of each other, with the edges gilded in a soft, bright light like the contours of a mountain range or a river.

As quietly as he could, he went to the bathroom to shower and wash up. His hair was still not quite dry when he got into bed, the tips still damp to the touch. The mattress creaked slightly under the pressure as his weight landed on it, and behind him, Albarino stirred in response, mumbling something in his sleep.

-- Then a hand landed on Herstal's shoulder, the palm unusually warm. The hand slid down the curve of his shoulder and slowly encircled his waist.

Herstal stiffened for a split second and whispered, 'Albarino?'

Herstal's home, like most wealthy people, boasted an exaggeratedly large but a practically useless king-size bed. Albarino had always slept on his side of the bed as a rule, not even touching Herstal unconsciously in his sleep.

But now, there was a heavy fatigue in his voice, his voice slurred when he spoke, and his hand fell on Herstal's body.

'I read online that couples should have more physical contact while sleeping so that they can improve their relationship, I think it's written in a reasonable way.' Albarino replied matter-of-factly, 'You came back late.'

Herstal wanted to sneer at him. Normally, he would sneer at the other party for thinking that reading some random love advice online meant that he understood 'love'. He was in a position to say this, but at that moment, he hesitated. Simply because the lights of Sequoia Manor were still a speck in the thousands of lights that glowed outside his window, and his nightmares were still lurking under his bed, ready to extend their sharp claws.

So what he said in the end was, '...There's a new case that's going to require overtime.'

Albarino hummed vaguely, as if satisfied with the answer. His hand tightened a little, and his lips pressed silently and warmly against the back of Herstal's neck.

'Sleep.' He said.

Wine And Gun (酒与枪) by 梦也梦也 (Chapter 37+ Translations) - Queen_Of_Hearts453 - 酒与枪 - 梦也梦也 | Wine and Gun (2024)

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