Remorse

Locked up for the night. Fort Knox tight. I closed the double doors. At last. A quiet night for a change.


Except for the guy outside. That loiterer can wait till morning.
We’re closed for the night buddy. See you tomorrow.


The doors open and close. Without the usual whoosh.
I turn and there he is…waiting at the counter. I jump and reach for my weapon.


But he’s unarmed.


Male, Caucasian, medium build, 5 4, hooded black jacket, ski pants, muddy ski galoshes. Black straight hair, grey thin face. A plain Jane face. Same as me.


“Buddy…” I began.
His eyes look straight through me.
“Ma’am,” he stammers, “you gotta help me.”


I unlock the annexe door and slip behind the counter.
“Ok, let’s get your details first.”


He starts shivering. I squint at him. He shimmers a little before my eyes. I blink a couple of times. The fluoro lights must be too bright. Besides…if he disappears…the paperwork would take all night.


“I want to report a crime,” he began. His lips don’t move. His breathy voice echoes off the walls.
Sure, what the hell, I thought, it’s end of shift. I can pick up some overtime, fill out the forms, file them in the unsolved pile and pick up a TV dinner on the way home.


Until he told me where. All my hairs stood up on end. My hairdresser wouldn’t be able to help me now.
Waste of time. We’d searched there before, turned it over and found nothing.


“I haven’t got time. I can’t leave it forever.”
He’s going to be an all-night sit-in. I sigh.
A field trip instead. Drop the fella home and make sure he’s safe and sedated. I’ll throw in a six-pack on the way back as payment!


I call for backup.
“Jay”, I said, “No night shift for you tonight.” Jay, the probationer strode in from the back. Tall, gangling: a stripling.
We pile into the cop SUV. Me and the aspiring PI up front, Jay the probationer folded up like a blanket in the back.


He knew the route better than a local. Pointed out the landmarks before we saw them.


As I drove, he kept shaking and muttering to himself about no time left. I heard that. But his fingers kept drumming on the dashboard. I couldn’t hear that at all. Weird. I signalled to Jay to keep a close eye on him.
We pile out of the SUV. I could hear the roar. The waterfall. The mist advanced towards us in the dark night.


He’s already ahead of us, the silent movie. Head steady striding out. Feet rising and falling silently into and out of the mist. I switch on my torch and shine it ahead. The light fizzles and dies in the mist. I had to look twice. He still had that glow around him even in the dark.


He slices through the bushes without so much as disturbing a leaf. Jay and I are dodging branches and bushes as if we’re under fire. Even over the waterfall’s roar, I heard our tramping…loud enough to alert the dead.


Jay’s voice in my ear.
“Another crazy?”
I shake my head.


When we reach the rocks beside the falls, our quarry becomes a polecat. I pick my way, leaning forward and backward, losing and regaining my balance, single step by single step. I look behind me. Jay is on his hands and knees…crawling for the first time.


My pulse races but I have no heartbeat: the roar is so loud. The mist is wet, steamy and sticky now on my anorak. I squint and see him: shadow black against the misty white falls.


Then he disappears.
“We’ve lost him,” Jay again.
I whirl and look for the splash in the pool below.
I shake my head.
Ahead there’s one rock jutting out covering another. And in between, in the grey gloom, a man-sized gap. And beyond: a cavern.


I squeeze through.
Left hand at arm’s length holding the torch. Right hand on my weapon.
I nearly die with relief. A hurricane lamp is my welcome. I turn to Jay.
“Wait outside. Any trouble you know what to do.”


At the front is a card table, then chairs, placed with dinner plates and cutlery. And him: bent over the table setting first a salt and then a pepper shaker. He looks up: shivering and muttering to himself.


I shake the water off. And in the flickering light, I look at him. He’s bone dry.
And there’s a familiar smell. Steam, wet dog and mould. The roar is overpowering.


“There’s no time left. I have to tell you before it’s too late,” he says. His breathy voice loud in my ears.
I shout, “You’ve brought us here for a stupid picnic. You’ve wasted our time. I should take you in for falsely reporting a crime.”
I turn to go.


“Nooo!” His scream cut me in two.
“Look…at…what…I…have…done.” He turns and points to the back of the cave.
I tap on my body cam. I follow his arm with my torch.


Lumpy rocks? Sleeping bags? That sheen was familiar. Where have I seen that before?
The morgue! Body bags! Piled like sacks at the back of the cave.


“They was campers, hitchhikers. Took ’em off the track. Gave ’em a nice meal first, see. Tagged and bagged so their relatives could find them. But no one came for them. I had to go back you see.”


“Why?” I blurt out stupidly.
“I’m free now. They’ll let me return now.”
Tell that to the judge.


“Jay,” I shout. “I’m taking him in.”
Jay enters the cave, weapon drawn and covering me. I slip behind the killer.


“No need for that,” he says, “I’ll go quietly.”
He thrust out both hands.
“Cold all of a sudden,” he said. “But I’ll be warm tonight at last.”


I shiver, unclip the handcuffs and reach out for his left hand.


There’s a clatter. I look down. Two handcuffs lie shiny on the cave floor.
“Jay,” I shout, “Don’t let him get away.”


Jay is a frozen statue. I flash the torch over him. His eyes have rolled back. His face is ash grey.


“Didn’t you see it?” Jay’s lips barely move.
“What?”
“There was white. He disappeared.”


They fished him out of the pool. Same clothes. Forensics said he’d been dead for years. Hitchhikers too.


I ran back the tapes later: mine and the station’s. Nothing.


Forensics still couldn’t explain how they got the fingerprint off the salt shaker.