Roman awoke to the dark winter morning. He fumbled for the lamp on the nightstand next to his bed. Punk rock music burst from his clock radio and sent a fusillade of noise into the still morning. Startled by his alarm, Roman accidentally knocked over the lampshade.
“Dammit! Shut up.” Roman slapped his hand on the snooze button and then turned off the alarm. Rolling on his back and rubbing his face he spoke to the ceiling, “This is not the way I want to start my Monday.”
Roman rolled out of bed and put the lamp back on the nightstand. He sat there for a moment attempting to center his thoughts and control his emotions. He had spent his entire weekend combing the lab reports of the joggers killed by the city’s new serial killer. The press had nicknamed him the “Jogging Strangler.” Between twenty-four hours news and social media, fear, uncertainty, and doubt had spread well outside the city and even the country.
The police had been smothered in tips, all of which had proven false. The department had kept Roman’s name, and the note, out of the paper. With no new bodies in the past week and the President’s latest scandal, the case had shifted off the cable news networks for now. For Roman, the murders had taken over his life. Thanks to the message, he felt every victim was somehow tied to him. He knew he had to stay objective, but the killer seemed to know his buttons.
With a long slow sigh, Roman headed to the shower to prepare for another day. He just prayed it would not end with another false lead. He stood over his coffee pot inhaling the warm aroma of needed caffeine. The shower had helped, but his mind was never fully cleared until his first cup of coffee. Like a child waiting for his mother’s cookies, Roman hovered over the drip coffeemaker. Suddenly, a scream came through the walls, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and a shiver shot down his spine. The familiarity of the voice snapped him out of his momentary terror.
He darted out of the kitchen, jumped over his glass coffee table and slung open his front door. The floor hallway approached his face suddenly. He barely had time to catch himself. Although he saved his nose, the air pushed from his lungs, and he lay there attempting to breathe. The scream turned to weeping. Roman rolled over, and he tried to pull the air back into his lungs.
His neighbor Janice stood above him wailing. Two other tenants poked their heads out their doors. Beneath his feet lay a body. Roman assumed the person was dead given their lack of reaction to him tumbling over them. He forced his stiff and sore body up. Janice grabbed him and buried her head in his shoulder. Roman winced and gently patted her back. Janice’s freshly washed black hair hung straight down her back. The thought shot through him like a bullet. How could I have missed this?
“Janice, I think we should get you back in your apartment.“
She tried to get her sobs under control and answered, “No, I can’t go in there alone. Please come with me.”
Roman looked around. If the killer was watching, it might be safer for both of them if he joined her. “Okay. Call 911 and give them my name. Tell the operator to tell the dispatcher we have another body.”
“Another body?” Janice asked incredulously.
Roman gently pushed Janice off his shoulder and guided her towards her front door. “Please, just make the call. Help will be here soon.”
She shook her head as she stepped away from his hands, “I thought living next to a cop would make me safer.”
Roman was outside looking at the crime scene while police secured the hallway. He had left Janice crying in her apartment. His attempts to console her only seemed to make her more agitated. He noticed the man on the floor was older than the previous victims. He was possibly in his sixties. There was more bruising than usual around his neck. He had put up a fight. The killer had not expected that. Instead of a jogging suit, the older gentleman wore a traditional sweatsuit to run in.
Roman begin to study the body and spied a hair. He looked back at his victim’s head and smiled. There was a tap on Roman’s shoulder. He turned around and saw Captain Harris and Bryson standing over him. He stood and greeted them.
“Good morning Captain, partner. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Both men looked at each other confused. The captain spoke up first. “Okay, Roman, spill it. Why are you so happy about this poor dead man in front of your apartment.”
Roman put his finger to his lips and motioned for the two men to join him by the body. The three stooped down, and he pointed to the strand of hair. He spoke in hushed tones. “Get this processed. If you see his neck, it looks like he put up a fight. Have the medical examiner check under the victim’s fingernails and other areas that might contain our killer’s DNA. This man may have solved our murder.”
Bryson looked Roman, and asked, “Why are you whispering?”
Roman’s face became grave, and he whispered, “I think the killer is still in the building.”
The Captain raised his eyebrows slightly and looked up and down the hall. “Then why don’t you arrest him?”
“We have to be sure this evidence can convict our killer. We can’t tip our hand to this killer too soon. He’s too smart.”
Harris and Bryson nodded in agreement. They stood up to make room for the medical examiner. Captain Harris spoke with Doctor, she called a tech over, and they begin discretely processing the evidence. Roman looked around at the officers. He smiled when he saw Piper with her back to him. He walked over and tapped her on the shoulder.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” he said and then smiled.
“I was thinking the same thing.” She returned a weak smile.
Roman asked Piper if she would talk to Janice and try to calm her down. The entrance to the elevator was covered, and the neighbors had all been requested to remain in their apartments. By his estimates, they already had five more police than they needed to secure the floor. She agreed, and he walked her to Janice’s apartment door. Piper was walking in when Harris hollered his name.
The doctor had just put the body on the gurney. On the ground underneath it was a note that read.
Roman, Time’s Up.
Roman felt a chill run through his body. Captain Harris had a determined look on his face. “I want you in a safe house.”
Roman shook his head. “Trust me, Captain, my apartment is much safer. How about if Bryson stays with me. We can work, and he can “protect” me.”
Harris thought for a moment and agreed.
Everyone left the scene in a couple of hours. Roman and Bryson had returned to Roman’s apartment. He grabbed his belated cup of coffee and took a long swallow. He offered Bryson a mug, and the two sat in the living room across from one another.
Roman smiled at Bryson, and said, “Are you ready to catch our killer?”
Bryson nodded, grinned, and replied, “I’m always up for a cunning plan.”
“Then let’s get to work.”