"He left another calling card."
"Which one this time, Harry?"
"Ace of Spades."
No one likes to hear their mother is dead, even if it's the biological mother they barely knew. Nor does anyone like to hear her husband of 17 years is divorcing her and moving three states away with their children and his new love. Certainly no one likes to receive another bounced check, "INSUFFICIENT FUNDS" stamped across its face. But to have all these things happen in rapid succession, each building on those before it; that's why I'm here.
I needed to start over in a new place, with a new beginning, so I did what I needed to do; I sold my belongings and hopped on the first bus out of town. It wasn't that I couldn't make it at home; it was more like the place I called home was no longer Home.
It was at the second bus change, when I got off in Houston to change directions, that my life would be forever changed.
"This one looks different."
"Same lacerations on the neck, post-mortem, typical in the other cases. Suffocation appears to be the cause of death, I'd say just like the others."
"Yep, but I still say something's different."
I had a sizeable layover, a couple hours long, but I didn't want to waste my money on buying food instead I grabbed the last of the sandwiches I'd prepared before leaving. If I only ate half today I could save the rest for the next day.
There was a park across from the bus stop, surprisingly large for a city like Houston. I sat down on a bench, surrounded by trees, but the skyscrapers poked through; the city noises, muted were still audible. I began to miss the trees, open spaces, and clean air of my small hometown.
I first saw him when I was feeding my crusts to the squirrels, I might not have even noticed him if he hadn't laughed at something in the local section of the paper on his lap. He had a strange laugh, something about it sent shivers down my spine, or perhaps that was the chill burst of wind that gushed at me, signaling the coming of night. I wrapped my remaining sandwich half and walked back to wait for the bus in the enclosed glass shelter. I had just reached the corner when I heard it, a screeching of breaks, squealing tires. I turned and saw the bus careening out of control down the street. My feet were frozen, as my brain struggled to process what my eyes were seeing. WHAM! A force hit me from the side, pinning me to the ground just as the bus swerved into the shelter I'd been standing next to. The screech of metal filled my ears as the bus came to a rest, shattered glass falling all around my unknown benefactor and me.
I looked at him as we picked ourselves up, brushing off bits of debris and examining minor scratches here and there. It was the man from the park.
"Thank you," I managed to croak out, my voice scratchy as if scorched by fire.
"I couldn't let anything happen to you now, could I?" he replied, his voice laced with the strange laughter and his cold black eyes glittering.
"What do you think happened?" I said, watching the few occupants of the bus climb out of the wreckage.
"The police will figure that out." He said.
Mention of the police evoked bitter memories of jeering faces, condescending questions lasting hours with no reprieve. I shuddered, blinking away my past.
"Do you have somewhere you were going?" he asked me, concern dotting his face. Perhaps he had seen my sudden fear, or perhaps he had read my mind.
"I was supposed to catch that bus, I needed to be on it." I didn't add that it was my ticket out of town, but at the thought sudden frustration hit me, I couldn't afford to waste money on spending the night here in Houston.
"Do you need a ride, I could take you to another bus stop later in the route, or another route entirely, they're bound to send a replacement sooner or later, right?" He cracked a smile, eager to help.
"That would mean the world to me."
He led me to his car, just down the street a bit, it was sleek and black, it's leather interior infinitely softer than the tapestry seats of the bus. He opened the door for me, like a true gentleman, and I sunk into the passenger seat, my bones weary.
"Is there anyone you need to call?" he steered with one hand, holding a sleek and slim cell phone, no bigger than a deck of cards, to me.
"No, no thank you, no one's expecting me." I replied as the smooth motion of the car combined with my long day lulled me to sleep.
"What do you make of this unusual bruising on the wrists, shoulders, and near the jaw?"
"It looks familiar."
"From another case."
"From my sister's mugging, they broke her jaw when she tried to defend herself."
I began to wake up from dreams of home as the vehicle slowed to a stop. I became disoriented upon looking out the window.
"This isn't Houston." I looked at my driver, the moon behind him casting his face in shadow.
"No, it's not."
My pulse began to quicken. "Where are we?"
"Your last stop" he said before sleeves rolled up and jacket off he dragged me from the vehicle.
There is a point perhaps in everyone's life where they are forced to struggle with every ounce of their being. My struggle would ultimately be futile and part of me knew that, the same part that remembered the failures I'd had in every fight with my drunken father. The other part of me remembered those fights though, transforming that suave gentlemanly face to the tobacco chewing, slurring, jeering, angry face of my drunken father all those years. Scratching, kicking, and punching I could feel the bruises forming on my fists as I hit every bit of him I could reach. When he finally pinned me to the riverbank we were parked on it was only after twisting my left arm behind my back, my right arm with a broken wrist could no longer inflict damage. He leered at me, his face coming close to my face as he whispered in my ear, his voice still smooth like liquor. "You shouldn't have fought so hard Hun, everyone's problems are solved in Death."
I did the last thing I could, biting the ear dangling in front of my mouth. His scream of pain was worth it as he jerked away, his left hand on his ear his right fist slammed into my jaw with an audible crack. I took pleasure in seeing the blood flowing freely from his ear and covering the hands encircling my throat even as my body screamed for oxygen. And then it was over, and the dark of the night enveloped me in its cold embrace.
"Did you find any ID on her?"
"Another Jane Doe then?"
"No" was the reply, "not this one," a small piece of flesh was extracted from the broken and bloody mouth. "We'll call her Hope."