If he didn’t figure it out soon, the case would go cold, and the trail, if it even existed, would disappear into the shadows forever. He couldn’t let that happen.
Seiji wasn’t the best detective in the force. He was only three years into the job fresh out of college, but he knew enough to realize if he didn’t pick up the pace, it would haunt him forever.
So he worked hard, and he scoured every file in the precinct, read every report he could find, watched security footage over and over again until he could replay it, second by second, in his memory. His desk was covered in coffee stains and papers, the edges worn from his nervous fidgeting when, once again, he found nothing new.
It started with a simple arson, one that was easily passed off as a freak accident that ended up with one casualty. At first, they thought it was a blown fuse or a leaky gas pipe, but the smell and traces of gasoline couldn’t be denied.
The second, the third, the fourth murder were vastly different, the only common factor the nauseating scent of petroleum sticking to the walls and ceilings.
Strangely, they did not all contain a fire.
And yet there it was, at every scene, that unpleasant smell and the lingering taste of smoke in the air.
A woman was locked in a freezer at her butcher shop.
A man choked to death, wrapped in a crudely tied noose.
Someone was pushed over a flight of stairs and when they didn’t die immediately, something, or someone, jumped on them hard enough to snap their spine in half. The police concluded a heavy object must’ve been dropped, but then why? Why were there dirty sneaker prints faintly pressed into the victim’s back?
And the last murder, a flight attendant off her shift at an airport cafe who went to the bathroom and never came out, found head first in a toilet with a taser floating next to her, duct tape around it to freeze it in the ‘on’ position.
Whoever it was, whatever monster took these people’s lives, they sure were creative.
The media named their culprit the Phantom, because no one ever saw them, and no one could ever catch them, defeated as they slipped from the police’s grasp for the hundredth time.
It drove Seiji mad.
And then, as he forced himself to stay on his feet to grab his eighth cup of coffee, he slid on the floor as he walked past his office entrance. He landed flat on his back, banging his head into the hardwood floor beneath him, watching as his vision went fuzzy for a few unnerving seconds. He was sure he was about to have a heart attack when he started smelling something he couldn’t quite place, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.
He’d read something about people smelling either burned toast or gas before they died of heart failure, and there was a fifty-fifty chance between the two. It was a late-night game of ‘Guess that Smell.’
Seiji pulled himself to his knees, rubbing his temples with one hand and placing his other on his chest, counting the beats and making sure he was, in fact, still very much alive. He swiveled his head, swiping his gaze across the floor for what item he could’ve slipped on so he could clean it up and avoid some more brain damage in the future, when he saw the tiniest slip of paper. Pink construction paper, to be exact.
And Seiji may have some secrets, but one of those was not that he hoarded construction paper around his office where one of his coworkers could very easily see it and ruin his reputation. He didn’t have much of one, but he wasn’t ready to be mocked for his art supplies.
He gingerly picked the page up and unfolded it, squinting his eyes to read the scribbly handwriting. It was no bigger than the palm of his hand, a small, delicate thing that reminded him of the messily cut out butterfly he’d gotten from his niece for Christmas.
‘Dear Mr. Detective—
125 Locust Blvd.
The room felt a whole lot colder. A freezing bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, trailing from the right of his eye to his chin, and then dropping and disappearing into the paper. It was as if the walls were closing in on Seiji, suffocating him, just like that third man who lay in the morgue at that very second.
In a burst of despair, he found it incredibly easy to identify the smell he’d mistaken as a heart attack.
Gasoline. The note was drenched in gasoline.
Seiji wasn’t a patient man. He wasn’t a coward, either. Instead, he was known to be a reckless hard-headed master, getting by with not only his skills, but his overwhelming luck. Everyone always warned him to keep his head up and look around, because one day, his luck may run dry, and he’d end up in a ditch.
But he was too thick to listen, which was why his car sat, idling, by a run-down warehouse his GPS deemed ‘125 Locust Boulevard,’ reluctantly picking up his radio comm.
“This is Detective Seiji Kumo, I think I’ve got a lead. I’m checking it out right now. Over.”
The radio crackled for a tense moment as he waited for a response. A female’s voice picked up, audibly stressed, and annoyed beyond belief. His boss was strict with the rules and she breathed over his shoulder a lot, but she was in her position for a reason. She was better than anyone else in the force. She was cautious and analytical, the exact opposite of Seiji, and whoever said that opposites attract was deadly wrong.
“And where exactly are you? I swear to god, Kumo, if you’re doing something stupid, I’ll have your head on a pike. Over.”
Seiji winced. His boss wasn’t that cruel, but she sounded it when she was pissed off, and what was worse was that she could, in reality, beat him in a physical fight and rip his head off with no problem. She was scary good like that.
“I’m at 125 Locust Blvd. I got a note from the so-called Phantom. I don’t know if this really is him, but I’m not wasting any time. Just get me some backup and get here quick, okay? Over.”
Seiji couldn’t hold the waver from his voice, couldn’t stop the phone in his hand from trembling in his tight grasp.
“So you are doing something stupid.” His boss huffed, and the sounds from the other end indicated she was barking orders at the others in the station and fumbling around for something, most likely something to apprehend the Phantom with. “You can’t take Phantom alone and you know that. Stop being reckless, dammit, we don’t need another dead body! Stay in your damn car and don’t move.”
“Hey, hey, chill,” Seiji tried to calm his boss down, but since when had that ever worked?
“I wasn’t done speaking, Seiji. And don’t tell me to chill when you could be the next victim. This is dangerous, I can’t have one of my best detectives offed just because he had no impulse control. Stay in the car. Over.” His boss rambled, and Seiji would’ve felt guilty betraying her if he hadn’t already made his mind up.
“I’ll be good. Over,” was all Seiji said.
A beat of silence.
“Good as in you’ll stay in the car?”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Don’t you dare—” Seiji shut his radio off and tossed it into the passenger side, stepping out of his car easily. He shut the door behind him and raised his head, taking in the looming building in front of him.
125 Locust was the site of an old shipping warehouse, wooden boards halfway rotted and the roof caved in, moss growing up the walls intertwining with vines of all shades of green and purple. It was dark out, nearly black clouds covering the sun above, casting deep shadows across the wretched carcass of an establishment.
The door hung open and it was impossible to tell if it was left that way on purpose or if its hinges were simply busted and rusted from rain and wear. As he stepped closer, Seiji saw the murky film covering the inside of the building, shrouding the contents in a naturally made void, sucking up all outside light.
He took his flashlight out and he stepped in, sidling through the open door into a large room with scattered crates and boxes, empty and ghostly like, illuminated only by his flashlight. He had his gun with him—he’d checked five times on the way there—and he had his hand set on the holster, ready to shoot first at any possible second. It was eerily quiet, dust stagnant in the air, but he could see well enough to notice the floor. It was patterned with little footprints, much too small to be his target, most likely from a child, and all Seiji could think was that someone was in danger. He thought about that little kid, terrified in the hands of a serial killer, shaking, all alone and seemingly abandoned by police and heroes.
He quickened his pace.
As he made his way through the collapsing warehouse, the wooden crates creaked under their aged weight, and thin pieces of plywood in the ceiling wobbled in every gust of wind held up only by rusty nails and steel beams. The floor was wet, maybe from the other day’s rain, though it shouldn’t have been more than a sprinkle hitting the building. A leak, then, maybe.
Something clattered to the ground at the far end of the warehouse, rolling around with loud metal against concrete scraping. It was heavy, slamming down and resonating.
Seiji’s breath stuck in his throat, but he didn’t waste time wallowing in his anxiety. Instead, quickening his pace to approach the origin of the sound, hand gripping his gun tighter than ever before, his knuckles turning white, he rounded a stack of crates, to see—
A little girl. She sat there, dirty and grimy, wearing a tattered and plain-looking dress. Her hair was a mess, tangled like a bird’s nest, and her under eyes were blotched red and blue from a lack of sleep. She looked up with a pitiful expression, hugging her knees closer to her chest.
“Are you alright, are you hurt?” As much for Seiji’s impulsive and reckless behavior, he didn’t want to scare the kid by grabbing her and escaping to the police car. She’d been through a lot, quite clearly, and nearly kidnapping her wasn’t the best way to deal with it. She shook her head, wide eyes staring up at Seiji. Something smelled awful, hurting his head with a headache. She must not have had the option to shower for a while, he assumed.
“Can you talk?”
“Yeah,” the girl mumbled.
“Great. I, ah, I’m Detective Seiji Kumo. I’m here to help you. What’s your name, kid?”
The girl stood up, towering over his crouching form, bringing a hand out from where it was hidden against her body.
It was too late—by the time Seiji placed that smell, it was already over. It was over the second he got that note.
“Phantom.” She lit a single match, waving it tauntingly in the dirty air, casting dark shadows against her face. Those eyes weren’t red from sleep deprivation, but irritation from chemicals.
It was gasoline on the ground, not water.
“This has been fun, ya know? Like hide and seek.” Her voice lilted, false innocence seeping through accompanied by absolute insanity.
“But I’m bored now, and I don’t really like being bored. So I guess that means the end, huh? Right, Seiji? Huh?” Her shrill giggles sent chills up Seiji’s spine. “Yeah… I think this is the end. Bye, bye, Mr. Detective.”
Phantom dropped the match.