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A Hole in the Head
In the underground darkness, I turned off the buzzing radio and tore up today’s edition of The Truth. “GUILD MERCENARY ASSASSINATES MAGISTRATE” in great glossy text could be seen on every perch. The crows did not even have the heart to name her until the second indent. The story was more important to them than the people in it. Julia was gone and I was alone in this world again. As I listened to the distant chatter and the soft hum of the evening train, a tall man in a large shadowy coat with thick yellow gloves approached the booth. The checkpoint was dimly lit, but I could make out clear, light, grey eyes through the glass wall that separated us. I checked his appearance with the photo given by the Lieutenant this morning. The man in the photo had a black mustache, eyes hidden beneath shadows, and a conspicuously missing right thumb, whereas the man standing in front of me was clean-shaven and looked older in the weak yellow light. Once I had counted five fingers on the entrant, I turned to the thin, frail sheet that the entrant had given me. His name was Johann Doe, the expiration was tomorrow, and the seal was of a rose wreathed in thorns. A red rose, I realized.
“This access permit,” I checked the seal again with the guidebook lying next to the radio, “It has a red seal.”
“Oh?” The entrant replied simply.
“You can’t use this to board the train,” I handed the paper back, trying not to tear it, “You’ll have to get the green one for this station.”
Checking a watch, the old man returned the discarded document. “There are only thirty minutes left. I am afraid that I must be gone by then.”
At that moment, my mind was not focused on his words, but the odd way that the ugly paper was held between the index and middle finger. This was his right hand. I noticed the yellow gloves again and suddenly had a crazy thought. “Sir,” I felt silly saying it, but I had to be sure, “Take off that glove.”
To my surprise, the stranger began to smile. “Very perceptive, very good. Now we may begin.” His face betrayed no sign of anxiety. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Niemand Wolff –”
“– the assassin.” I interrupted. A sudden pain struck my chest. I remembered what Lieutenant Justice had told me, “If you encounter any sign of him, report to me at once. This man is very dangerous.”
“My dear Cedric, I have a – shall we say – gift for you,” Wolff reached into his coat with his left arm, “Whether you receive this gift is entirely up to you.”
My right arm itched for the grey radio, but a hunger tingled inside me. “What is this gift?” I asked.
“I have but one request first. I am going to board the train for nine and leave this city. I was never here.” Wolff pulled out something dull and heavy from his coat pocket. He clutched a fat green folder, “This contains the case files on Julia’s murder, plus some –”
“You’re bluffing,” I declared, “Only five detectives have full access to those files.”
“Autopsy report of Julia Stone. Victim sustained two gunshot wounds. Bullet #1 entered the right back and exited the right upper chest. Fatal. Abrasion collar no more than – ah – seven millimetres in diameter. No projectile recovered.” Wolff smiled, not able to hide a face of triumph. “A friend in your department gave me a copy.”
I frowned. A crack in the walls, I thought, with possibly more than one rat. “A friend?”
Wolff interlocked his hands. I realized I would not get a name. I thought constructively, then asked, “Did this friend tell you anything?”
“He told me to run. Or she.” He waved the green folder around. “No need to glare, Mr. Stone, I am here to reveal all you need to know.”
A stonewall, I thought. This was not his first time being questioned by police. I would have preferred to interview him myself, yet...I glanced at the radio on the desk. Wolff began to eye the radio intently.
“Have you heard about the sheep and the wolf?” (Jones) Wolff placed the folder onto the desk. There suddenly shone a small flash of reflected light from inside his coat. “Will you kindly,” Wolff smiled and clasped a small grey pistol with both hands, “keep both hands on the desk?”
I moved to shout, but sweat had paralyzed my body. Frozen hands struggled for the radio in vain.
“The wolf was dying, you see. A rabid pack of dogs had bitten him badly.” Light from the metal glared through the glass wall. “But as the week went by, the wolf recovered. Nearly dead from thirst, the wolf begged a passing sheep for water.’' His voice was tired with age, but his hands was steady. I felt his shadow. He would not miss. I closed my eyes. I could see it clearly: the black hole, death.
“The sheep was no fool.” He grinned and raised the pistol higher. His teeth exposed obvious malice. “I beg your pardon. I hope you will understand.”
The man with the pistol was still watching me, but I adjusted my gaze to the radio below. Though my hands were stone, I forced myself to think of one last desperate gambit. If he would not give an opening, I would have to make one myself. I only had one chance. In an instant, I ducked my head under the desk while my right hand scooped up the radio.
“G-17. Small, compact pistol, a first-generation model.” Something heavy landed on the desk. I slowly looked up and saw the pistol resting. Wolff raised his arms and clasped both hands behind his head, “It’s not loaded.” As my hands gripped the pistol firmly, I noticed a small ziplock now lying on the desk. Its contents were small, round, and yellow with a thin line of reflected light. Wolff nodded at the two bullets, “Nine millimetres,” then looked at the folder, “Seven.”
“Is that it? You claim innocence?” I studied the strange man. Every action and smile is intentional, I reminded myself. Do not think you’re ahead of him. “Julia was found in your apartment.”
Wolff pulled out a small silver key, “This one’s a spare. I lost the original over a week ago.” Wolff made a sad smile, “You might want to look into the whereabouts of the twin.” He paused, then added, “Perhaps that open window…”
“I’m not on the case. Go talk to Lieutenant Justice.”
“This case needs a fresh pair of eyes.”
I examined the soft pistol; it felt smaller somehow. Underneath that sly smile, I could sense someone much more dangerous and cunning than I had initially imagined. “You’ve planned all of this,” I said, “What is your plan when I detain you?”
He replied without hesitation, “I will confess of course,” then quickly added,
“The good Lieutenant’s half-full case is already enough for most. They can blur the numbers seven and nine. It is a very small hole after all and easy to miss.” Niemand raised his right hand, showing the missing thumb. “I know how Justice operates. A plea bargain might cost a finger but will save the hand.” Niemand’s smile twisted into a frown, “To you it will cost more.”
I hesitated. I knew I should have just activated the radio, but a weakness of will compelled me to ask first, “Are you – did you kill her?”
“No, but you are free not to trust me.” Bowing his head, Niemand held out the green folder, “There is no way to know. It would be safer to follow protocol and detain me. This could be all one big trick. Yet you cannot remain trapped in time forever. Whichever decision you make, I ask you not to doubt it. You have to believe in yourself, or regret will bury you.”
The best liars hide in bits of truth, I told myself, and I do not have the authority to make that choice. Putting the guidebook aside, I closed my eyes and thought through the situation logically. I arrived at the same logical conclusion every time: this man should not be trusted.
After I had placed the radio down, I returned Niemand Wolff his papers, stamped in a green “ENTRY GRANTED”.