‘Not another one,’ said Karen under her breath as she saw the morning’s victim. The sun had barely risen and a dim fluorescent streetlight still flickered overhead from a nearby post, illuminating the body. Just half a year as a member of the city’s homicide division, Inspector Karen Salvador had already seen the many ways humans can kill each other. This wasn’t the worst she had seen—corpses fished from the water could be pretty distasteful, and dismembered bodies were generally disturbing. A strangled corpse was a relatively tame affair for a member of the homicide police, but she was still not used to it. She was determined not to let herself get used to it.
I will avenge you, she swore to herself, as she did before the start of any case.
‘Time of death?’ she asked the medical examiner kneeling beside the body of the woman, who had been identified as Sarah Villanueva, 24 years old. Her smooth skin was ghostly white, except for her face, which had a dark blue hue, and a thin band around her neck, which was reddened. Her eyes were wide open, unseeing, seemingly in shock at the fact that her life had been cut short.
‘No more than three hours ago—lividity hasn’t completely set in yet and rigor mortis is just starting. This one’s seriously recently departed,’ said the ME.
‘So maybe one of them saw it happen,’ she said, looking at the sizeable (and growing) crowd around the barricade tape that marked the crime scene. Some of her fellow policemen were among the curious bystanders, asking the question on her mind. If we’re lucky, we can catch the perp today, she thought, turning back to the body.
‘Inspector?’ said an officer on barricade duty. ‘Someone wants to talk to you. Claims he knows you from high school.’
Karen walked towards him, distracted by her thoughts. Aside from the one on her neck, there was not a single bruise or wound on her body. No broken nail, either. She didn’t struggle with her assailant—either she knew the person or was very surprised by the attack.
‘I think she knew her killer,’ said an unfamiliar voice. No, it wasn’t unfamiliar—just one that she hadn’t heard in a very long time.
‘Yo, Karen Salvador. Long time no see!’
‘Paul Santos! Haven’t seen you since graduation. How’ve you been?’
In their senior year of high school, while she and her classmates struggled to pass math, science, and various other subjects, Karen remembered watching this man before her effortlessly ace all subjects and struggle with another thing entirely—paying for school. Rumours had circulated during their college years that he hadn’t entered any university, despite some scholarship offers, and started working soon after graduating from high school.
Karen gave him a cursory look-over. He seemed to be eating well enough, judging from his arms—they were less thin than they had been back in high school, where he was often called a scarecrow due to his bony frame. But he still retained that familiar faraway look in his eyes, one that gave people the impression that he was dull and uninterested. He usually wore that expression before he politely embarrassed some teacher, she remembered.
‘What did you say?’
‘I don’t think you meant the “long time no see.”’ A short laugh. ‘I said I think she’—he pointed to the body on the ground—‘knew her killer.’
‘How did you know? Did you see anything?’
A shake of his head. ‘But I noticed some things. I don’t think I need to tell you about signs of a struggle—the lack of it, I mean—but this whole thing looks like a crime of passion.’
‘How can you tell?’
‘The location, for one thing.’ He swept his arms around him. Ill-built towering shanties lined an alley behind them, and across the street stood a twenty-four-hour convenience store.
‘That convenience store.’
‘Partly, yes.’ He smiled. ‘Might as well plan a crime in front of a CCTV camera. You’ll probably find a witness, sooner or later. So I was thinking—if someone had to plan a crime around here, there’s a perfectly useable back alley a few metres away, away from the store, the street, and the light, perfect to hide from casual insomniac eyes. Also—may I?’ he said, lifting the tape with one hand. She waved him in and he ducked under and past the tape.
‘The strangulation mark looks like it didn’t come from a rope or a wire, but from a necklace.’ He bent over to look closely at the corpse’s neck, drawing an annoyed glance from the ME. ‘Aha, I thought so.’
‘What?’ barked Karen with some impatience.
‘The marks match the silver bracelet she’s wearing now. If I were planning to strangle someone to death, I won’t use a necklace—it breaks too easily. More importantly, silver jewellery feels like a memento from someone.’ He exhaled sharply. ‘Yup, this smells like a lover’s quarrel gone bad.’
‘What have you been up to all these years? You a detective or something?’
‘Well, I’m not with you guys, if you meant the police rank. But yeah, I’m a PI/consultant. Been doing it for almost three years now.’
‘A private investigator? So, someone came to you for this?’
‘If he did, I’d have turned him over to you.’ He smiled. ‘As I’ve said, this was an unplanned crime that happened less than three hours ago. No, I was just on my way to an acquaintance, and I came across this. Then I got curious.’
‘Will you be leaving soon?’ interjected the ME.
‘Soon as I solve this,’ he said nonchalantly, drawing stares from the cops who heard him. ‘Hm, yeah, that alley,’ he said, either oblivious or apathetic to the stares. ‘Come with me, Karen?’ He extended a hand towards her.
She nodded back but did not take his hand. He walked on regardless. As soon as he had moved out of the barricade and left the crowd congregating around the crime scene behind him, he dashed off into the alley.
‘Hey!’ said Karen, running after him. The rest of the cops on the scene didn’t know what to do—one pointed a gun at the bolting Paul, thinking that he was a fleeing fugitive, but sighed and holstered his pistol soon after seeing the inspector’s annoyed face. She didn’t wear that face while chasing a suspect.
Karen’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dim alley light. She ducked, jumped, and weaved past the various obstacles, chasing after Paul’s fleet-footed figure. Turning a corner, she tried to steer clear of a dumpster but her slacks snagged on some metal and were torn as she stepped out of the alley and into a bigger street. She saw Paul breathing heavily in front of her, his arms on his knees.
‘That’s how he felt after he killed her,’ he said between gasps.
‘They were fighting, he got mad, killed his lover, then realised what he did. So he ran away from her and ended up here.’ He straightened up and looked around. ‘Hm, we haven’t gone too far—there’s the convenience store.’ He walked towards it.
‘Hey!’ was all Karen could manage to say as she walked after him.
‘We’re lucky you’re not in uniform,’ said Paul as the pair crossed the street. ‘He won’t be spooked when we walk in.’
‘How’d you know he’d be there?’ Karen wheezed furiously between gasps. She hadn’t caught her wind yet.
Paul just smiled in reply as he held the store’s door open for her. Karen stared angrily at her; nevertheless she walked in.
‘Can you see him?’ whispered Paul as soon as he had caught up to her by the cold drinks section. There was the cashier, reading a magazine behind the register, her posture betraying her boredom and listlessness. A pair of young professionals (most likely call centre agents) wolfed down their hotdogs as they stood nearby, glancing at their watches as they ate. And in a window table overlooking the crime scene sat a middle-aged man. Four empty paper cups of coffee were scattered around him, and a fifth stood in front of him, half-empty and cold, judging from the lack of steam. From his left hand jangled a silver bracelet, and a similarly-designed silver necklace was clutched in his right hand. He nervously tapped his right foot on the floor; just above it was a gash on his jeans.
‘That’s it?’ said Karen, staring down at a similar tear on her slacks. She then nodded at Paul, who simply smiled and nodded back. Then she walked unhurriedly towards the man.
He noticed her before she got near him, but made no move. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Karen politely. ‘May I have a moment of your time?’
‘What is it?’ he asked without leaving his seat, allowing Karen to get within reach of him.
‘I’m with the police,’ she said as she flashed her badge with her left hand. Her right hand was now firmly on his shoulder. ‘I’d like to ask you, sir, if you saw what happened there.’ She pointed at the crowd around the crime scene.
Her tone betrayed nothing, but her eyes told him that she knew the truth. His attempt to keep a straight face failed immediately. Tears streamed from his eyes as his face contorted with sorrow and regret.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ he blubbered. ‘We were fighting, and I just blacked out. When I came to, she was already—’ He buried his face in his hands. ‘Sarah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.’
‘Sir, do you know anything about the death of Sarah Villanueva?’
‘I did it,’ the man said, continuing to cry into his hands. ‘I killed her.’
‘You don’t need to say anything else,’ said Karen as she took out a pair of handcuffs. ‘You have the right to remain silent…’
* * * * *
Karen and Paul watched as the body of Sarah Villanueva was loaded into an idling ambulance.
‘He could’ve made it harder,’ said Karen. ‘If he clammed up, if he tossed the necklace, I wouldn’t have a case against him.’
‘As I’ve said, it was a crime of passion. He wouldn’t have the wits to plan something like that when his emotions were running rampant, and we didn’t give him enough time to calm down.’
‘You mean, you didn’t give him enough time to calm down. Now can you tell me how you knew he’d be there?’
‘Once I had an idea what the situation was, it wasn’t too hard for me to guess what went through his mind.’ With those words, he turned around to leave, but not without waving good-bye.
‘See you later, inspector. Don’t worry; I know where to find you.’