He was sitting by the table, a lock of his dark hair had fallen into his eyes. His beer was still in front of him, mostly untouched and he was staring at it as if the reason for his grief was inside that particular glass. The place was quiet, a regular Thursday evening, and the booth he had chosen was dark.
I didn’t say anything. I knew that he would get to the point in time and I had a beer of my own to nurse. I was in no hurry.
It was good to see him again. Peter and I had worked together for ten years. We’d been partners for at least five of those but when the partnership had blown up in our faces he had quit without a word.
“It’s good to see you again, Mark,” he said finally and looked up. He was smiling, but the smile was awkward and faded away quickly. He brushed the lock of hair from his face, picked up his beer and took a large clunk while the lock of hair stubbornly fell into his eyes again.
“You too,” I said. It was true too.
“You’re still on the force, huh?” he asked. I noticed he was making an effort to look me in the eyes long enough, but not too long. It was a fragile balance, I knew.
I told him a little about my partner, Bill, who was a father of two, a competent detective and quite the joker. I talked for a while, sharing something, anything while I waited for Peter to get to whatever it was that had triggered him calling me after all those years. Talking had never been hard for me.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous though. My heart was racing.
It was taking him a while to get to it and I was beginning to think that he wouldn’t manage it at all. He was always a bit timid, Peter, and what had transpired in the past hadn’t made him any less so.
“Still married?” he asked casually when I had depleted my Bill story. I nodded my head, looked down at my ring and started turning it on my finger.
“You should come for dinner, Marie and Pete would love to see you.”
“Is that right?” he said. “Look, you have no reason to be nervous,” Peter smiled and this time it looked like his smile came from the heart.
I had almost forgotten how well Peter knows me. Some things don’t change. But it’s odd meeting someone after many years who knows all your tell-tale signs better than anyone else. Our lives had, once upon a time, often depended on us knowing each other through and through though and those things don’t change easily.
“So what have you been up to?” I asked Peter. I was finished with my beer, but he had only started on his. I wanted to go get another, but felt a bit awkward about it so I waited.
“This and that,” he said, “I worked in security for a while, until a better offer came along.” Then he was silent, as if he really didn’t want to continue.
“Look,” he said after a pause, “I wouldn’t have called you to stir things up but I know you’d like to know what I know. Do you remember the Crown of Thorns case?”
I remembered the Crown of Thorns case and he knew I did. It had been a particularly difficult one and quite deviant. A prostitute had been murdered, a young woman stabbed to death. She had called herself Star and had been found in an ally, naked, wearing a thorny crown on her head. Two months later a nineteen year old man was found with a similar crown in an alley in a different part of town. He too had been known to prostitute himself. The third victim was a forty year old woman who was found in her home with nothing on but a similar crown of thorns and a strap-on dildo attached to her hips. She had been the CEO of a small company.
Both Peter and I obsessed over the case for a long time. We never had much luck with it though. The victims had no apparent connections, the theory was that the third victim was key somehow, as she didn’t quite fit in with the other two, but we realised even back then that we were missing something. The case was still unsolved, even though I’d pulled some evidence out of old lockers to have them retested with new technology.
“Of course,” I told Peter. “How could I forget.”
“I may have stumbled onto something,” he said. “Not that I’ve been actively researching it really, though I may have looked into it from time to time.” He looked down, as if he was ashamed to say this.
“I thought you left the police carrier behind you when you quit,” I said, trying to smile. “Look, hangon, I need another beer,” I told him, stood up and went to the bar. I ordered another beer and took a large clunk from it and lingered a moment before returning to the table where Peter sat, deep in his own thoughts.
He looked older, of course and I did too, yet he looked the same somehow and as I stood there, glass in hand looking at him from a far I realised just how much I’d missed having him around. A surge of nostalgia and frustration went through me and I took another clunk, hoping the beer would dampen the feelings.
It never does.
Peter looked at me when I returned to the table. “You don’t look like you drink too many of those,” he said pointing towards the beer, “is it me?”
I grinned and just nodded my head.
“I’ll be out of your hair quickly enough,” he said, “I just wanted to tell you what I’ve found out then I’ll go.”
“Peter, it’s good to see you. It stirs things up and as difficult as that might be I don’t mind. I’ve changed a little, I hope.”
He looked at me, smiled and for an instant I thought he was going to say something more, but he didn’t.
“How’s Jonah?” he asked then. Jonah had been our boss once upon a time.
“Retired,” I told him. “Still going strong though, I meet him for golf from time to time. He sometimes speaks of you.”
“All bad, huh?”
“You’d think that, but no. He thinks it’s a shame you quit”.
“Really?” Peter seemed surprised.
“Yeah, said you were a good cop and that there aren’t too many of those. We need all the manpower we can get.”
Peter finished his beer and then he pushed the glass away.
“I can get you another,” I said quickly but he just shook his head.
“I shouldn’t have too much of it, had problems with it for a while.”
I just nodded my head, it didn’t surprise me.
“So,” he said. “A few years back I was seeing someone who said something to me about the case. I was a bit of a fool and didn’t react as I should have.”
“Who was this?”
“I’ll get to that,” he said. “At the time we did all this research on the thorny crown trying to find a significance or a connection but we did miss something or well it was hard to find, impossible maybe.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew we’d missed something. I’d been trying to wrap my brain around what for years. In the ten years that passed I had made no progress with that.
“Pieces of what is believed to be the real thorny crown of Christ belongs to the church. The thorns were divided up a long time ago and some have been on display. Of course the origin can’t be authenticated, but these pieces have been priced relics for a very long time.”
Peter pulled the empty glass towards him and tried to drain a few more drops from it. I pointed towards the bar and he nodded. I told him I’d go to the bathroom and then buy him another one. He just nodded, apparently relieved to get a moment to himself. The bathroom was filthy, but I got the job done, lingering slightly by the mirror. Staring into my own eyes, wondering if to head back to the table or just leave. After berating myself for being a coward I went to buy that beer and returned to the table.
When I got back and sat down I noticed the stubborn lock of hair was resting, politely where it should be on top of Peters head.
“You look good,” I told him as I was sitting down. “You’ve been working out?” And as if that had been its cue the lock of hair fell down into his face again.
“Age,” he said, “I have to work for it now.”
He took the beer and stared at it for a time. It was as if he didn’t want to say what was coming next. Or maybe he didn’t want to be there at all.
“The crown had apparently seventy thorns which the church has as relics and religious reminders,” he said this looking at me. An old sensation rushed through me. This feeling that used to rule my days back while we worked together, the rush of working with him was always a bit different from working with other people. And it wasn’t just because Peter was always more engaged in his cases than the rest of us.
“You can’t find much information on those thorns though and I’m not sure that what I’ve been told is true, but one of those thorns went missing a long time ago. And I’ve done some research. Murders similar to the one in our case have been committed before, in other cities around the world. The murderer is never found, the victims are always stabbed to death and a thorny crown left on their heads. The thorns are of different origins, just like we gathered, but there is one thing they have in common and that is the mark on the chest, made with a thorn, as we gathered.”
I shook my head, drank from my glass and looked at him. “What are you trying to say?”
“I think these are ritual murders, and I think that the people who do it have what they think is one of the original thorns and I think that the victims are in some way connected to the idea of salvation. I don’t think they are hate crimes as we thought.”
“Really?” I was sceptic to say the least. It hadn’t just been an assumption we made, everything we knew had pointed to the fact that these people had been murdered because of their sexual behaviours. At the time we had seen the thorny crowns as some misguided attempt at blaming Christianity.
“There was never any sign of sexual violence,” Peter continued, “And the way the first victim lay, that should have been our first clue.”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “What is it that makes you think this?”
“This person I mentioned,” he stopped talking and looked me in the eyes, a long time we just sat there looking without saying anything – the years falling off one by one until we sat there as if we had never done anything else.
“Peter,” I started and put my hand on the table in front of me. But he shook his head and looked down.
“This person said something to me that startled me,” Peter continued. “We had been partying, and we weren’t exactly thinking clearly. I didn’t listen until the name of the first girl came up, her right name and not the one she used herself, I kind of sobered up then,” Peter was avoiding looking at me. “I started asking careful questions and he uttered some strange words, said that she had been a true Star and that she had dearly deserved the death she got, as if it was a true honour. It scared me straight out of hell,” Peter said and looked at me.
“Who was this, Peter?” I asked gravely, “Why didn’t you report this at the time?”
Peter just looked at me. He didn’t say anything, but I suspected I knew the answer to my question. Peter had always been a creature dictated by impulses and feelings, though a lot of that had been trained out of him in the academy.
“He wasn’t the guilty one and I don’t think they will do this again,” Peter said, “It’s over for now, for the next hundred years.”
“Hundred years?” I echoed.
“I’ll send you the research I did. But I thought I’d tell you. That I’d clear it up, so that you can rest with it, stop thinking about it. This won’t happen again, not here and not in our life time and what happened is beyond our reach.”
“Peter, that’s not for you or me to decide, you know that?”
“This is,” he said. “The killer is dead, and the matter should rest,” he smiled sadly.
I was getting angry. This was typical of Peter and though he’d been right about things in the past his methods of acting like he always knew better drove me nuts. It still did, apparently.
“You can’t just come here and tell me you solved the bloody case and then do nothing about it, this needs to be researched properly, you can’t just come here and stir things up and then leave things hanging again. This is ridiculous. You know I can’t just leave it.”
Peter smiled and shook his head.
“Do you believe in God, Mark?”
“I’m…” I hesitated, trying to calm myself. I took another sip of beer, finishing my second one. I felt the alcohol surging through my veins.
“I don’t know,” I told him, “If he does exist I’m angry with him.”
“I know,” Peter said, “But can’t you trust me on this? I came to tell you, because I knew this would eat you up unless you got some form of closure.”
“Peter, this isn’t closure, this is picking old scab,” I told him.
“The story of this society is a secret, you have to promise me not to start picking at things by yourself.”
I just nodded my head, bewildered.
“As secret societies go this one is pretty odd, though I’m no expert. They have what they think is a thorn of Christ’s crown and their high priest gets a vision, once every hundred years apparently. He is told who the victims are supposed to be and he is told why they have to suffer death. It’s an honour, though a dubious one. These people are chosen to become some sort of soldiers against bigotry and evil.”
“Peter, this makes no sense, this is madness,” I told him.
“I know, and I do think there is something strange going on, obviously. What I do know is that if we dig deeper we will become victims ourselves. People who dig too deep vanish. I was lucky, very lucky, to get away.”
I grabbed his hand, it was an instinct, but pulled away quickly. “What happened?” I asked. Then I shook my head and smiled, “You’ve never been one to shy away from threat,” I said.
“I ran from you, didn’t I?” he said.
“I never threatened you,” I said.
“You didn’t threaten me violence no,” Peter said. “But you were deeply conflicted and the resentment you felt towards yourself echoed over on me.”
I was silent, my hand resting on the table in front of me. Suddenly I felt Peters hand on mine.
“Look,” Peter said, “I’ve missed you. A thousand times I’ve thought about contacting you. Thousand times I’ve dialled your number. I’ve even let it ring a few times.” He sighed.
I didn’t say anything. I was uncomfortable, just wanted to vanish out the door and not be reminded of the past this way again, not this part of it.
“A thousand times I’ve berated myself for not staying and taking just what you had to offer. I should have, but …” he went silent.
“I know, it wasn’t much. I’ve always been a coward,” I whispered. We’d had this conversation once before, just before he left.
“It wouldn’t have been right staying at the job though,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered to prevent my voice from breaking.
Peter stood up and went to the bar. He came back with a glass of beer, handed it to me and sat down in the booth next to me. I moved closer to the mosaic window.
It felt intoxicating having him this close, still after all those years, all those years trying to convince myself that it had been just the stress of the job, or the fact that we had worked very closely for a long time. All those years trying to convince myself that it was just a thing you do when you’re young. Trying to convince myself that it was nothing. I’d known better then, and I knew better now.
“I don’t think we should investigate further,” he said. “My warning came in the form of a friend and it was a stern one. If we defy it we will be in deep shit.”
“You’ve never been the one taking shit from anyone,” I said and looked at him.
He smiled. “Are you suggesting we should investigate? Because I can’t do it by myself and I won’t,” he said, “and I’m warning you. These people mean serious business and will stay anonymous and unseen at all cost.”
“Secret societies and murders? How can I say no?”
Peter had been turned away from me, his hands folded on the table in front of him but now he lifted his knee up into the couch and turned towards me. He didn’t say anything, he just sat there looking.
I leaned forward. It was my turn to console myself by looking into the beer as if the piss-coloured liquid had any answers. I took a large clunk and sighed.
“I don’t know if I can,” I told him. I didn’t want to look at him, so I said the words to the beer, hoping he would hear them.
Peter placed the palm of his hand on my back gently. The gesture sent another familiar feeling up my spine and involuntarily I turned my head towards him.
“Can’t have one without the other,” Peter said. “We never could.”
He put his hand on my cheek, he didn’t pull but I felt pulled towards him, as always.
And I kissed him.
First softly but then with the eagerness of the past years boiling in my blood. The memory of what was and why speeding through my veins, entering my mind and raging through my body. Everything reminding me of what I’d missed. It had never been easy for me, but times had changed and I had waited for this. Or hoped, impatiently, I had hoped.
Peter was the one to withdraw. I felt the agony rising within me, the decision to be made, the words to be uttered, hearts to be broken. I sighed, took my glass and emptied it.
“I don’t know what these people are up to, I do know that either we leave this case alone and continue with our lives as we have, or we do this and then we do it properly, like old times only we can’t hide, I can’t do that again.”
“I know,” I told him.
“I’d love nothing more than to do this with you,” he said, “I’d love to crack the case that had us so bewildered and I still…,” he didn’t finish his sentence, but I saw his adams apple dancing on his neck.
“I thought you’d forgotten all about me,” I said. “Moved on.”
“I tried my best,” he said, “Turns out you’re not so easy to forget and this damned case wouldn’t leave me alone either. When I got the reminder that it would be best to leave it alone, I thought of you and well…”
I kissed him again. I could never get enough of him. He inhaled deeply when I withdrew.
“Look the crown of Christ is a strange thing. It’s a relic, but imagine the kind of relic it is. It’s the crown they used to mock and torture him with. He bled from those thorns. And thorns are essentially a thing of the devil. They are of evil, according to people I’ve talked to, something placed on the earth to make life for the fallen harder. If there is black magic in the world, it’s buried in those thorns.”
“If they think they’re doing good by ritually murdering people, then either we believe it and leave it, or we risk getting to the bottom of this.”
“We’re, or I am a police officer, of course we will investigate.”
“But I can’t do this half heartedly,” he said. “I can’t do the dance we used to do again. It’s all or nothing man.”
“All or nothing?” I asked, myself more than him.
“It’s easier than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy,” he said.
“I know,” I mumbled. “Will you teach me how to fly?”
“If you want me to,” he said gently.
Then I pushed the beer away from me and turned towards him again. This was a bit like finding something that had once been a part of me for a long time but that I’d lost. It was like coming home.
“Then I’m all in,” I said. “We’ll do this, or die trying.”
“Will you tell her?”
“I will tell her.”
He sighed. “I didn’t come here to win you over, you know,” he said and laughed. “I came to tell you that the case was finished and that you should stop thinking about it. I came to make sure you would stop searching for clues. But when I saw you I realised that I wouldn’t be able to, I couldn’t help myself. You’ve always had a way of changing my mind.”
“HA!” I said mockingly.
“I think we need to find out who the thorn belongs to,” he said. “And if we manage it will be one less thorn to worry about.”
“God, I’ve missed you,” I muttered.
“It’s Peter, but thank you, I’ve missed you too,” he said.
© Eygló 2016