Partners in Crime
How does it all end? The only way to find out is if you become a patron.
The Phantom Returns
Velvet and Otis jumped to their feet at the same time, chairs shrieking and clattering.
The man just stood there, wearing all black, his face uncovered, framed by dark hair and shining pale white in the glare of the light. He stared right at the camera. Daring them.
Velvet had no doubt in her mind who it was or what he was doing. He’d come back to get them, pure and simple. She knew that the papers speculated the killer might have been looking for something the night before, and maybe he had been. But right now, all he was looking at was them.
At least it felt that way. Velvet felt his stare right through the screen even though she knew he couldn’t see her.
“I think we’re getting fired tonight,” Otis said, reaching for the phone on the desk, keeping an eye on the figure on the monitor.
“I’m good with that,” Velvet said, sounding as breathless as she felt, eyes fixated on the man on the screen.
Velvet heard him punch the numbers on the phone over her heartbeat pounding in her ears. This was the most terrifying stare down she’d ever been part of and that was saying something considering the guy wasn’t even in the building with her, let alone the same room. Worse, the longer Velvet stared, the more the man looked vaguely familiar, and that only added to her terror. She was barely aware of the click of the phone’s cutoff.
“The phone’s dead,” Otis told Velvet as he gently replaced the receiver.
A noise escaped her, something like a low, keening moan, and she leaned forward, bracing herself on the desk, eyes never leaving the monitor. This wasn’t happening. Trapped in a warehouse by a murderer and no phone or gun. Not that she knew how to shoot a gun, but Otis probably did. She would have felt a little bit better if Otis were armed. This was like a horror movie.
Velvet shook her head. If she got murdered in this warehouse, she’d never hear the end of it from her parents.
“I just wanted a normal night at work,” she complained. “This week is shit.”
“Where’s your cell phone?” Otis asked, businesslike as always. It should have been more comforting, but Velvet’s fear was whipping through her like an out of control roller coaster and it was taking everything for her not to burst into tears or laugh hysterically.
“In my car,” Velvet whispered, like the guy standing in the parking lot might hear her. “Mr. Kobel doesn’t let us have our cell phones in the building, remember? That son of a bitch. He probably just doomed us both. Probably did it on purpose, that asshole. That stupid mother-”
“Okay,” Otis said, cutting her off. Probably for the best. Velvet was working her way up to one hell of a rant. He took a deep breath and held out his hand. “Give me your keys.”
For the first time since the man appeared, Velvet looked away from the monitor long enough to look at Otis like he was crazy. He didn’t look like he’d lost his mind, but she was pretty sure he had.
“Give me your keys,” Otis repeated. “I’ll go down there and get your phone.”
“Otis, the killer is standing right there,” Velvet said. She reached over to tap on the monitor to emphasize her point. The man moved just as she did, and Velvet jerked her hand away like he tried to grab her through the screen.
The two of them watched as he walked along the backside of the building and disappeared around the southwest corner.
“He’s going back to the crime scene,” Otis muttered and then louder, “Quick, Velvet, your keys. Now’s the time.”
Otis Gorski sat at his kitchen table, eating a peanut butter sandwich, drinking a glass of chocolate milk, looking at that morning’s paper, and stewing in his own juices.
He should have quit last night when Kobel threatened to fire him. He should have just walked away right then, left that pompous twit holding the bag with the two detectives standing right there. Boy, how would that have looked? Not so pretty. Especially since Kobel would have been left scrambling for someone to fill in for him. Velvet couldn’t work alone. Wouldn’t work alone. She’d raise a holy fit if Kobel tried to make her, probably get herself fired for her mouth. Otis didn’t want to put her in that position.
Velvet wasn’t what stopped him from quitting, though she did factor in some. Otis could never leave her hanging high and dry like that. But mostly, it was his pride that kept him from quitting right there. It felt like losing and Otis never liked to lose. There was dignity in retiring that he’d be denied if he quit in a huff. Kobel would probably take a victory lap if he did that.
On page four of the paper was a short blurb about the crime scene being disturbed. The same speculation the detectives had put forth the night before, about the crime scene either having been ransacked by souvenir hunters or perhaps the killer coming back to look for something, was mentioned, as well as a recap of Simon Sidney’s murder, though not much was added. In conclusion, the whole incident was downplayed quite spectacularly.
For some reason, this disappointed Otis.
Probably because he’d so enjoyed Kobel’s name showing up multiple times in the initial newspaper report of the murder. This little blurb didn’t do enough to reflect badly on a man who threatened to fire Otis and Velvet for doing their job and calling the police. He couldn’t help but take that personally even though he knew on a logical level that the paper wasn’t there to serve his personal vendettas.
Velvet should think about leaving, too, Otis thought. She’s got a degree. She can get a good job with it. No need for her to hang around that warehouse rotting for that disrespectful jerk.
Otis flipped the page and reached for his glass of chocolate milk. Empty. He stood up to get a refill. The change in his pocket jingled and Otis remembered the coin he’d found on his rounds the night of the murder. The one he was going to show the detectives because he thought one of them might have lost it. The one he was going to keep if one of them didn’t lose it. The one that was still in his pocket, mingled with his ordinary quarters and nickels. The one he’d forgotten all about.
Otis glanced down at the paper.
The police speculated that maybe the killer had returned to the scene to look for something.
Otis took the coin out of his pocket and looked it over. He frowned and shook his head.
“No. That’s not right. I found this inside the warehouse. The killer wasn’t in there.”
Otis’s fingers closed around the coin.
“It belongs to somebody.”
Back to the Dumpsters
Velvet arrived at work that night toting bits and pieces of gossip in her head, all of it juicy, but none of it definitive. She put her cell phone and her purse in her glove box, locked her car, and hurried against the whipping autumn wind to the backdoor. Once inside The Kobel Warehouse Off Rockrine Road, Velvet quickly navigated the maze to the security room, not pausing to think about what might be lurking in or around that new crate (or the other side of that wall). She found the atmosphere in the security room an odd mix of boiling and icy.
Cami and Trey sat hunched in their chairs while Otis stood behind them, arms folded across his thin chest, absolutely fuming.
“Hey, guys, how’s it going?” Velvet asked hesitantly, looking around the room as she spoke, trying to figure out what the hell had happened.
“Otis is in a mood,” Trey said, getting to his feet.
“He’s always in a mood,” Velvet said, casting a glance at Otis, who was definitely in a mood.
Cami stood up, too.
“Where are you going?” Otis asked, his voice gruffer than usual. “You still got ten minutes.”
“I’ll take the cut,” Trey said, scooching past Velvet to get out of the door. Cami followed right behind him.
Velvet stared at Otis, who stared back. She listened for Trey and Cami to clock out, gave them a second to flee, and then walked back out of the security room to clock in. Otis followed her. The two of them clocked in and went back in the security room to start their shift.
“What did you do?” Velvet asked.
“I didn’t do anything. It’s what Kobel did,” Otis said, sitting heavily in his chair, the damn thing screaming like an overacting victim in a cheap horror movie.
“What did Mr. Kobel do?” Velvet asked, sitting down in her own chair a little more delicately. It still squeaked horrendously.
“Left a message for us.”
Otis sat back in his chair, ignoring the noise, and glared at the monitors. Velvet stared at him for a moment, waiting. With a roll of her eyes, she prompted him, speaking slowly, enunciating every word.
“What is the message, Otis?”
“He said that the next time we need to call the police, we’re supposed to call him first,” Otis said.
Velvet waited and when Otis said nothing more, she picked apart the sentence, looking for the insult.
“So?” she said.
“So?” Otis scoffed. “I’m not deferring my judgment and my responsibilities to that man.”
“It’s his warehouse, Otis,” Velvet said, shaking her head at Otis’s wounded pride.
“And it’s my job.”
“I thought you were retiring.”
“And until I do, this is still my job.”
Otis shut down, going into full pout mode, his whole posture a frown. Velvet sighed, and leaned back in her chair, looking up at the monitors. Why did men have to be so impossible?
Normally, Otis would have walked the first round, but he was in such a fiercely foul mope over his job and retirement that he didn’t even make an attempt to get out of the chair when Velvet told him it was time. So, she walked the first round, her own mood souring over Otis’s behavior and his impending retirement (which she was still not sure he’d actually be able to go through with, but was afraid that he would), her brain rolling over the bits of gossip she’d acquired during the day in an attempt to keep the dark shadow of fear at bay. Because against all logic, Velvet was a little afraid. The killer was long gone. Those shadows were just shadows and those noises were just noises. There was nothing to be afraid of. Yet she was. Just a little.
Velvet completed that round in record time, coming back to the security room to find that Otis’s mood hadn’t improved
“It’s going to be a long night,” she said as she sat down.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re in full grump,” Velvet said. “You’re no fun when you’re in full grump.”
Otis grumped loudly in reply. “I’m not here to have fun.”
“Yeah, but it’s only when you’re in full grump that it makes it impossible for me to have fun.”
Otis ignored her. Velvet reached over and gave him a nudge.
“You’re not really going to retire, Otis. Right?”
“My mind is made up, Velvet, and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”
Velvet crossed her arms in a huff. “You’re a real pain, Otis.”
“Well, you won’t have to put up with me for much longer.”
“But I want to put up with you.” Velvet paused. “Except when you’re being a grump.”
Otis didn’t respond.
Velvet left him be for a bit. Her eyes drifted over the monitors in a pattern, starting at the top and working across, then down and across again, back and forth. It was a soothing sort of thing, even if she did end up suffering from eyestrain after a couple of hours. But it was also an easy way to pass the time. It didn’t require much thought.
“I’m going to walk rounds.”
Velvet jumped, her chair squeaking loudly and preventing her from pretending that she hadn’t. Otis looked over at her with a raised eyebrow before his own chair squealed as he got up.
“So nice of you to participate,” Velvet said. “I was wondering since you were retiring if you were going to walk rounds at all.”
“I always do my job,” Otis said, deadly serious.
“Really? You didn’t walk the first round.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“I never have to!”
“I’ll be back.”
Otis stalked out of the security room, flashlight in hand and radio on his belt.
“Maybe it would be better if that old grouch did retire,” Velvet muttered to herself, knowing full well she didn’t really mean it.
She went back to the monitors, watching Otis disappear and reappear as he walked through the maze. Something on another monitor caught her eye. It moved quickly, but Velvet was a little quicker, seeing it before it vanished.
A shadow in the parking lot.
The Munsterville Courier was a marvel of a modern newspaper. No matter how late a story broke, they always seemed to have it first thing in the morning, usually on the front page. And not just online. In the physical copy, too.
Simon Sidney’s murder was no different.
Otis sat at his kitchen table, eating a peanut butter sandwich, drinking a glass of chocolate milk, and reading about what he’d already experienced, which was splashed in glorious fashion all over the front page. He was somewhat relieved that his and Velvet’s names were kept out of the press and a little more than tickled that Manfred Kobel’s was splattered all over it. Just out of spite, he hoped some rumors about the man started.
And judging by the way the article was written, they would.
The article highlighted that the body was found at The Kobel Warehouse Off Rockrine Road, a warehouse that Mr. Kobel was thinking of selling, possibly to the victim, something that Otis didn’t know. He reckoned that none of the other security guards knew it either. And none of them probably would have known until the day the warehouse was sold and they were all fired. Otis realized it was very likely that Simon Sidney’s death saved all of their jobs, at least until Kobel could find another buyer. Not that it mattered much to Otis. He was retiring.
The paper also went into great detail about the business deals and steals of the two men. There was also something else about Simon Sidney’s estranged wife and his connection to a dead woman found at The End Of and the late Winchester Harmon, but that didn’t interest him. He preferred the parts that drug Manfred Kobel through the mud.
It served the man right. Otis didn’t believe in Karma, but in this case, he was willing to make an exception. If Kobel was going to insult Otis’s work, then he could be insulted, too. Being seen as a shady businessman and a murder suspect in the court of public opinion was much better than any name Otis could think to call the man.
Otis finished the paper and his peanut butter sandwich, only pausing here and there to read a few shorter blurbs of other stories that caught his eye. When he got up to get another peanut butter sandwich, he got his checkbook, too.
As he ate, Otis looked over his finances. Growing up poor had taught him two things: be frugal and be meticulous with money. Otis only bought things when he was sure he could afford them, which was why he drove a car nearly twenty years old; he wasn’t sure that he could afford any of those pricey new ones. He bought a house, the one he still lived in, but it was an investment when he bought it all those years ago and he’d been good about taking care of it, even if it wasn’t as up-to-date and fancy as some of the others in the neighborhood. Take the kitchen for example. The stove was over twenty years old and one of the knobs was gone and sometimes it shocked you if you were touching the sink at the same time, but it still worked just as well as when he’d bought it from a rummage sale about fifteen years ago. The table came from his grandmother’s basement and despite a couple of nicks was still in good shape. The wood paneling and the floor were new-ish; he’d redone them both about five years ago. The place might be well-worn and lived-in, but it was a good house.
He’d tried to pass on some of his wisdom to Velvet, though she seemed to have a pretty good head on her shoulders when it came to money. She didn’t wait to get married to buy a house and she was in no hurry to buy a new car even though the one she drove was paid for. He couldn’t convince her to spend less on clothes or make-up, though.
Otis had one hundred thousand dollars in his checking account. He also had savings accounts pushing two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, thanks to steady deposits and interest. Otis frowned. He wasn’t sure that’d be enough. He probably should have started investing in CDs or bonds or something, but Otis didn’t really trust that sort of thing. He wasn’t even sure about the savings account, but the bank had proven solid over the decades he’d used them. He still kept about ten thousand dollars in cash in the house, though. Just for emergencies. Thinking critically about his money situation, Otis decided that he could afford to retire if he really had to, though he might have to splurge on fewer name brands during grocery shopping trips just to be safe.
When he stood up to return his checkbook to its proper place and to get another glass of chocolate milk, the jingling in his pocket caught his attention. It wasn’t an unusual sound by any means, but it reminded Otis of what was actually in there.
Digging into his pocket, Otis found the coin and pulled it out. He sat down at the table again, checkbook and milk forgotten as he examined the coin, turning it over and over in his hands. It wasn’t any American or Canadian currency he knew. Didn’t look like the English money he’d seen either. There was a bird on one side, sort of like an eagle, and there was star and crescent on the other side. It was strange. And it didn’t look like it’d ever been used, like most currency, nor did it have that look of being a forgotten lucky charm. This had been cared for, the silver gleamed in the morning sunlight spilling into the kitchen. This was important.
The police wrapped up their investigation a little after two in the morning. Otis sent Velvet down to meet Detective Carpenter at the backdoor when he knocked, which was fine with Velvet. Otis had been suspiciously quiet the whole time they’d been in the security room. Not that Otis was a real talker or anything, but he usually had at least something to say about everything and Velvet was sure Otis would have a lot to say about this. But he didn’t. He was quiet, and this quiet was deeper than his usual quiet, which irked Velvet.
“We’re finished for this evening,” Detective Carpenter said as Velvet tried not to look like she was looking for Detective Carthos. She decided that she liked his kind, awkwardness. It was comforting. “The crime scene tape is staying up for now. Forensics will be back in the morning to have a look around by daylight and I’ll probably be back sometime tomorrow, too, for my own look around. You and Guard Gorski can go back to your rounds as usual, but please avoid that side of the building for now. Let the next shift know what’s going on.”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Oh, and if one of you could drop the security footage off at the police station when you get off work in the morning, that will be helpful. The sooner we look at it, the better.”
“Again, no problem.”
Velvet smiled and nodded like she was talking to a teacher she was trying to please, an odd feeling since she hadn’t done anything wrong. Maybe Detective Carpenter just had that affect on people. She bet he got a lot of confessions. Bad guys were lulled by his good looks and nailed by his aura.
They said their goodbyes, Detective Carpenter reminding her to call if she or Otis remembered anything, and then he left, getting into the last unmarked car in the parking lot. As he pulled away, Velvet could make out the shadow of Detective Carthos riding next to him in the passenger seat.
Velvet closed and locked the backdoor and walked the maze back to the security room.
Otis sat in his chair like a grumpy lump, the deep, unhappy silence still heavy in the room. Velvet sighed and sat down next to him, her chair squeaking and popping.
“Detective Carpenter wants one of us to run the security footage over to the police station in the morning,” she said.
“You can do that,” Otis said, his gravelly voice agitated.
Velvet bristled at being volunteered.
“Why do I have to do it?”
“Because I found the body.”
“Man, that isn’t how this works.”
“How would you know how it works?”
“I know it doesn’t work like this.”
“I’ll put it together, you run it over,” Otis said, sitting up in his chair. He quickly pulled up the program on the systems computer that allowed him to copy the footage and started to go through it.
“Fine,” Velvet said, watching him work.
They probably could have had this done and waiting for the detectives by the time they left, but Otis didn’t seem to be in any hurry at the time to get it done and Velvet was in no mood to prod him.
Now, prodding Otis would be an excellent way to get things back to normal. And she was eager to get things back to normal and shake the creepy feelings that had been plaguing her all night, anything to erase the image of that dead man’s legs sticking out from between the dumpsters that she was sure to be seeing for a while. She wasn’t looking forward to going to sleep and seeing what her dreams had in store for her after a night like this.
“What’s with you?” Velvet asked, watching the monitors. Otis didn’t get as cranky with her for conversing if he thought she was keeping an eye on things.
“What do you mean what’s with me?” he asked, focusing on his own work.
“Why are you so cranky?”
“I’m always cranky.”
“Yeah, but you’re cranky even for you. You’re not that fun cranky that I’ve come to know and love. You’re a sullen cranky that makes me want to push you over.”
Otis stopped what he was doing and looked at her. “Push me over?”
“That’s what I said.”
He shook his head and went back to his work.
“So?” Velvet prompted after a minute.
“So, what’s eating you?”
Otis didn’t answer.
“You’re underestimating me, Otis,” Velvet said with a little smile. “I will bug you until the rest of your hair falls out. When I want some information, I will stop at nothing to get it. You know this. You know how I can be.”
Otis stayed silent.
“I mean it, Otis. I will make our shifts a living hell for you with non-stop chatter if you don’t spill your beans. I will-”
The two words hit Velvet with the same force as a cinderblock chucked at her gut. It took her a couple of seconds to get her air back.
“You are not,” she said in disbelief.
“Yes, I am.”
The next noise Otis heard was the sirens of the approaching police cars. He watched the red and blue lights as they sped down the lane. A dead body where there shouldn’t be one warranted a little haste, though Otis fretted that Velvet might have gone into hysterics on the phone and that’s what caused the quick response. She must have had some of her wits about her, though. The lights disappeared around the far side of the building and then reappeared in the back lot.
The first responding officers, uniforms, quickly roped off the scene and set up generator powered lights, flooding the area with such bright light that Otis thought he could see every flaw in the concrete. One of the uniforms, a young guy that was probably only just out of school, ushered Otis to stand out of the way, but still inside the tape. A second uniform, obviously the veteran as he was nearly as old as Otis and carried himself in a similar manner (he’d seen it all), asked Otis for a rundown of what had happened, and Otis gave it to him in a succinct and professional manner.
Just before the detectives arrived, Velvet emerged from the building and came to stand with Otis, only she stayed on the outside of the tape. She looked better than she had before, though her arms were crossed tightly over her ample chest and she trembled a little like she was cold. The night was chilly, but not that chilly. Otis felt bad for her. He reached over and gave her shoulder a firm pat. She smiled weakly in return.
The two of them waited and watched in silence as the detectives talked with the uniforms and surveyed the scene, taking pictures and notes. A forensic team arrived and then the death investigator. Once the death investigator had her notes and pictures, she, the younger detective, a forensic officer, and one of the uniforms pushed the dumpsters apart to create a space around the dead man instead of pulling the man out. After even more pictures and some consultation, the senior police detective, a handsome black man in a pressed navy suit, walked over to Otis and Velvet. Otis stood up a little taller, smoothing down the front of his jacket.
“I’m Detective Josh Carpenter,” the man said, producing a notepad and pen from his pocket. “Are you the security guards who found the deceased?”
“That’s right, I did,” Otis said, voice firm and authoritative, professional. “I’m Guard Otis Gorski. As soon as I found the body, I alerted Guard Velvet Li,” Otis nodded to Velvet standing just behind him, still on the outside of the tape, “to call the police and Mr. Kobel.”
“Would that be Manfred Kobel?” Detective Carpenter asked, scribbling something in his notepad.
“That’s right. This is his warehouse, part of Kobel Industries.”
“I suppose that saves us the time of calling him ourselves,” Detective Carpenter said, glancing at Otis.
“Mr. Kobel insists that we call him any time, day or night, if something happens at one of his facilities,” Otis informed the detective, who nodded and scribbled.
“Very hands on kind of boss, huh?”
“He likes to know what’s going on with his businesses,” Otis said. “Can’t blame him for that.”
And Otis didn’t. He knew Velvet had no love for him, but he was overall rather indifferent to the man. He was just a boss and Otis had always been indifferent to those. They had their own agendas and as far as Otis was concerned, his job as a security guard had very little to do with that. He walked the grounds he was supposed to walk, watched the property he was supposed to watch, and collected his paycheck. That didn’t mean he didn’t take his job seriously because he did; Velvet Li would be first in line to tell anyone who questioned it. But the way he did his job had nothing to do with a loyalty to any particular boss. His loyalty was to the honor of being a security guard.
“Hey, Josh! Guess who are vic is!” the death investigator called to the detective.
“I don’t have to guess, Lu,” Detective Carpenter replied, still scribbling. “Because you’re going to tell me.”
“You’re no fun at all.”
“You’re enough fun for both of us.”
Otis watched the death investigator hand an ID to the other detective, a much younger, whiter, cherub looking man whose grey-brown suit looked as though it had never existed without a wrinkle. He hurried it over to Detective Carpenter.
“Detective Carthos, this is Guard Gorski and Guard Li,” Detective Carpenter said, taking the ID from his partner without glancing at it. Otis nodded at Detective Carthos, who returned it. “Please take Guard Li,” he gestured to Velvet, “to a quiet spot for questioning.”
Otis looked at Velvet, a little concerned that she wouldn’t be up to it. But she looked a lot more alert than she had before. In fact, she looked downright feisty.
“What do I have to be questioned for?” Velvet asked, on the defense and ready to bite.
“Everyone has to be questioned, Guard Li,” Detective Carpenter said.
“I didn’t do anything,” Velvet said, and Otis held his breath instead of sighing loudly like he wanted to do.
“No one is saying you did, Guard Li,” Detective Carthos said, a little more gently than Detective Carpenter had spoken to her. “It’s just standard procedure.”
“They just want your statement about what happened, Velvet,” Otis said, trying to sound supportive and not annoyed.
“I saw a dead man’s legs by the dumpsters, damn near fainted, and called the police,” Velvet said. “There. That’s my statement.”
This time Otis didn’t restrain his vocal sigh or his annoyance.
“That’s a very good start, Guard Li,” Detective Carthos said, cutting Otis off. It irked him, but it was probably for the best. He and Velvet could really go at it when they were both in a sporting mood and now was not the time for that. “But if you could recount the events leading up to finding the body and making the phone call, it might help us understand more about what’s going on. Maybe even tip us off to who the killer might be. After all, something unimportant to you might be important to us.”
Velvet looked the detective up and down suspiciously. Just as Otis was about to open his mouth to tell Velvet to talk to the damn detective and answer his questions, the death investigator called out to the assembled uniformed officers.
“Time to put this man on a gurney and get him home to the morgue. Who’s going to help me?”
Velvet’s dark skin paled and the fire in her eyes went out without so much as a puff of smoke.
“Fine, I’ll talk to the detective, but over there.” She pointed behind her. “Around the corner. I’ve already seen more of that dead man than I ever wanted to.”
“That’ll be just fine. Lead the way,” Detective Carthos said with a smile.
Detective Carthos nodded to his partner and then walked past Otis, ducking under the tape and following Velvet as she hurried around the corner.
“Is she going to be all right?” Detective Carpenter asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” Otis said, turning to him. “She’s a tough girl. Really good at her job. I sort of took her under my wing when she first got here. Showed her the ropes. She’s a good girl. It’s her first dead body, I think. The first one is always a shock.”
“Ah. I see.”
Detective Carpenter looked at the ID in his hand, a flicker of recognition crossing his face. Otis wondered who the dead man was since both the death investigator and the detective seemed to recognize him.
“Who is in charge here?”
Otis turned around already knowing what he would see. All of the noise and bright lights of the crime scene must have blotted out the headlights and sound of the car coming up the lane.
Manfred Kobel had arrived.