Rabbit left Julian alone in his office with his files; he knew their contents by heart after hours of examining them. It would get the other man out of his sight long enough to consider the position he was now in.
Of all the people in Solace, the SPD found Julian Vaughn to assign to this case? It was too convenient. They’d never tried to unload a partner on Rabbit before--he was well-known for being a loner and wasn’t an actual member of the force. If they were going to try shackling him to someone, why another outsourced member? Why not someone from the department who had experience in this sort of case? Something was wrong. Things didn’t add up. Rabbit did not believe in coincidence and he wasn’t prepared to blame it on fate.
Rabbit fished through the pastry bag, and was pleased to discover another cinnamon roll at the bottom. A good deal of frosting had come off of it, but there was enough to spark a small flicker of joy inside him. Even if the taste was dull, there was still the smell and texture to enjoy while his memory filled in the blanks.
He sat on the couch and began to consider his immediate options as he ate. He did not want to work with Julian; that much was certain. But how to unload him? He could call up the Captain and complain, but that wouldn’t fix the problem even if it would make him feel a little better. The old man usually had more respect for his abilities--and his privacy--than to assign him help, and it was like a punch in the gut, and a surprising one at that. Captain Helms had never questioned him before, not even hinted that he doubted Rabbit. The William Speight case wasn’t a large, high profile case; the SPD was planning to drop it in another week or so and wouldn’t think much more about it. William was one in a hundred cases that needed attention and was just going to have to be another of the many that fell through the cracks. The SPD couldn’t afford to give it any more time.
So why? Why the sudden vote of no confidence? Who was interested enough in the case to push the department to step up the investigation? And why, for the love of all that was holy, was their solution to the problem Julian Vaughn? The man seemed unable to focus for even a few moments and was far from qualified.
Too many questions and hardly any answers. The bottom line was that Rabbit owed it to William to give Julian a chance, especially in light of the fact that he’d had little luck working on his own. It couldn’t hurt. At the very least, Rabbit would be able to bounce his theories off of someone and see how well they held up. Perhaps Julian had some knowledge of the area that would be helpful; Rabbit was certain he couldn’t be completely useless. At least, Rabbit hoped not. His gut feeling about the man was not very comforting, though. He didn’t need any more distractions and if he had to describe the man sitting in his office the word distracting would definitely be at the top of the list, with flamboyant, gregarious and haughty as its contenders. None of those were traits Rabbit found endearing in a person, especially not one he had to deal with.
“Rabbit, you wanna come in here for a minute?”
Rabbit looked over his shoulder at the door to his cluttered office and felt his face pinch in annoyance. “What do you need?”
“I need you to come back here for a minute.”
Grunting a little as he stood up, Rabbit walked back to his office and moved around behind the chair Julian occupied so that he could look over his shoulder at the monitor. Julian had opened up one of the mapping programs in the SPD software, and little red circles littered a random area in the center of the screen.
“These red dots represent all the blonde victims you think may be related to this case.” Julian pointed them out. “There’s two more or less inside the Core, and the others are scattered along this section of the middle band.”
“I know that. Is that what you called me in here to show me?”
Julian leaned back in his chair. “Pretty much. Geographic profiling indicates that serial killers generally operate in an area that they are familiar with, usually the place where they live and work. If you consider each blond victim in order of their disappearance, you have this killer jumping from the Core to the middle and back again infrequently. There’s also the consideration of what he does with his victims. We know he removes them from the place of abduction because no bodies have been found, but how does he manage to walk around Solace with his victim without anyone noticing? If we go with the theory that he’s dragging them off to his hideaway using the alleys, we’re talking about miles between grabbing them and finally returning to his base of operations.”
Rabbit nodded, rubbing his forehead gently to stave off the headache he knew was coming. “In other words, you don’t think they’re related to William’s case because there is no geographic link.”
“On the contrary, I’d risk my reputation to say you’re one hundred percent correct.” Julian pulled up a series of maps onto the screen, overlaying them with his plotted points. “You know what that is?”
Rabbit’s eyes widened in realization as he leaned down to get a closer look. “That’s the C-22 tramline.”
“And with only two exceptions, each abduction has happened within one mile of a scheduled stop.” The mercenary smiled broadly. “You drag a body down the street and people notice. You sit on a tram with a body propped up beside you or in your arms, most people don’t think twice. A stationary object is less noticeable than one in motion and plenty of inebriated people get helped on and off trams.”
Rabbit nodded, his eyes still glued to the screen. “And the bone evidence indicates that he has a base of operations.”
It hadn’t been a question, but Julian nodded an affirmative. “Absolutely. It takes time and precision to reduce a body to bones. If he is cannibalistic, he’d want to be able to transfer the meat as conveniently as possible--on the body.”
These ideas weren’t totally new to Rabbit; he’d felt them swimming around in his mind before, bumping against other theories and hypotheses as he’d wracked his brain over every detail he could think of. Somehow, he’d missed the tramline, the one piece of evidence that could bring it all together. His insides felt clammy and cold. The system of hanging trams was too extensive to include on street maps so only major stops were represented; a different set of maps had to be consulted to actually see the individual tram routes. Had Rabbit considered checking the transportation maps, he might have already solved the case. If only that had occurred to him, it would already been all over.
“Move over,” he instructed, putting his hands on the keyboard to type his own instructions in to the program.
“What are you doing?”
Rabbit didn’t bother responding to his question--Julian would see. He entered in his parameters and waited while the program processed the request, fiddling with his lip ring. In a matter of seconds, over twenty white dots joined the red ones Julian had plotted on the map, all along the same stretch of the C-22 tramline.
Julian blinked at the map. “What are those?”
“Every missing persons case in Solace over the past ten years.” Rabbit pressed a key and the view of the map zoomed out, showing all of Solace as an overhead view. There were clusters sprinkled over the Fringe, and so many scattered across the city that they hardly showed on the map. The only exception was in the area Julian had drawn his attention to. No other tram line showed so many results; no other sector even came close to the seemingly random abductions along the ten miles on the C-22 tram line were looking at.
“Holy shit. How could this go unnoticed so long?”
“Because they’re not connected. The only thing they have in common is that people disappeared and the tram just happens to run through the area.” Rabbit zoomed in on the area again, selecting only those white dots that seemed to be connected to his case. A list of names and dates came up. “Look, there are no physical similarities in the cases that occurred prior to this year. After that point, all those missing are blonde with brown eyes.”
Julian looked over his shoulder at him. “So does this help prove our theory?”
Rabbit stared past him for a minute more then stood up straight. “It doesn’t. The tram stations have a centralized security system. If this guy took William that way, we can find him in the surveillance records.”
He hardly caught the word as it fell from his lips: he had said “we.” The long-haired distraction seemed to have good instincts; Rabbit could work with him, as long as he continued to make it worth the effort.
After changing his clothes, Rabbit walked with Julian down to his bike. He considered taking the bus, but he was too eager and too close to solving the case to wait for the good, traffic-law-abiding driver to take him there. His way was much faster, even if it did require intimate seating.
He sat on his bike, and couldn’t help reveling a little in the freedom and power between his legs; he still got the same rush of excitement he’d had when he first rode it years ago every time he straddled it. Looking up, he watched Julian pull his hair over his shoulder and began to braid it. Though he was eager to get going, Rabbit waited patiently for him to finish and slide on behind him. A little courtesy on his own part couldn’t hurt, especially if it meant he wouldn’t have to worry about hair snaking up and blinding him from behind. He’d had that issue once with a woman he’d been seeing and had found it to be more trouble than it was worth; the relationship hadn’t lasted long.
“Just make sure that thing doesn’t whip up here and knock me out,” Rabbit warned as he gunned the engine.
Julian wrapped his arms around him and got comfortable, his braid trapped between his chest and Rabbit’s back. “Sure thing.”
Rabbit took off, nearly crashing into an oncoming trash disposal vehicle as he shot out from the alley and careened around the corner. He might have felt guilty for driving recklessly with a passenger if not for the throaty chuckle in his ear. Julian liked the adrenalin rush too, it seemed, and since they were in a hurry Rabbit pushed all concerns other than reaching their destination aside.
The security records for any given tramline were stored on a remote server and could be viewed from any stop along the track that was busy enough to need a security guard on hand. There was no central security hub--that would be inefficient. Necessary action toward disturbances could be taken more quickly by staffing each stop to have a security officer to monitor activity. It was simple, effective and cheap, three things Solace was renowned for, and it made finding a facility to view the security feed from extremely easy. That made Rabbit happy; he was not the kind of man who enjoyed having to sit and wait while his clearance was triple checked and then logged into a database to await clearance in order to secure access to data he would be only be viewing for a few moments.
They stopped just outside one of the larger stations on the C-22 line. Though not nearly as crowded as a Cord station, it was busy and the sweet scents from the shops and cafes inside did little to mask the musky smell of humans crowding together. The smell wasn’t what bothered Rabbit, though. It was the music.
Above the sound of the crowd and vendors he could hear cellos singing a haunting lullaby, wordless and lovely. He walked faster, feeling his chest constrict and his airways begin to close off. He was glad he knew from experience where the security station was located. He nearly ran; slamming his ident badge against the security panel and forcing the door to open faster, he plowed inside the nearly silent chamber. There was only the hum of computers and monitors inside, but he could still hear the music faintly through the open door.
“Close it,” he barked as Julian came in behind him.
Concerned and curious, Julian did as he was asked. The song was blocked out entirely by the heavy door. “What’s up?”
“I just...really hate that song.” Rabbit leaned against the wall, trying to get his heart to stop beating in his ears. This was a quick and embarrassing reminder of why he avoided the trams most days. The fact that someone was there with him and had observed his behavior made him angry at himself and at life in general. “Forget about it. Go tell the security chief we’re here and what we need from him.”
Julian did as he was asked. In his absence, Rabbit took the moment of solitude to breathe deeply, closing his eyes to center himself and keep the demons at bay. There was nothing there to harm him, nothing was lurking in wait for him, he was twenty years old and the past was decaying in his wake. All was well and William Speight was counting on him. All was well.
He pushed away from the wall and walked back into the surveillance room where he could hear Julian making arrangements with the security guard. Things seemed to be going amicably so Rabbit pressed inside to join them. The middle-aged man inside nodded to him in greeting.
“Had a feeling it was you. I thought you told me you were an independent last time you came in here.”
Rabbit shrugged and took a seat in the comfortable chair in front of the expanse of monitors. He knew the system well enough to bring up the data he required on his own. “Yeah, well, shit happens.”
The security guard smirked and shook his head. “I hear ya. Well, if one of you could keep an eye out on the fresh feed for me, I’ll take a break and leave you to your work.”
“I’ve got it. Thanks, Bill.” Julian smiled and waited for him to leave before taking up his post behind Rabbit’s chair. “So, where are we starting?”
“The day William disappeared starting with the time of day he was last seen.” Rabbit pulled up several different files, and each monitor split into fourths, showing each tramcar from two angles: front to back and back to front from opposing corners of the car. It took more than half the wall to view the day in its entirety. Another screen brought up a list of passengers as they boarded. “You said you were acquainted with the SPD programs, correct? Have a seat at the other terminal. I’ll forward the name of every passenger who boards with a male child. Run them through the system, see if we get a bite.”
Julian did as instructed, plopping down into the other rolling desk chair, ready to get started.
It was a nightmare. The summer vacation meant hoards of children William’s age riding the tram, sometimes with their parents or older siblings, which made them subject to the checks Rabbit had set the system to forward to the other terminal. Tram cards appeared under the name of the person who had purchased it, which made it easy enough to figure out who had boarded the tram together even if they did not stand next to each other. It still created a mess of work. William’s card would have gone through the system under his father’s name, but they had done a check for activity on that card the day the case had been opened. That meant the person who had taken him had used his or her own card for William, which would then register twice in the system, linking them together.
Rabbit stared at the screen as time passed by him. His eyes burned with the strain but he didn’t look away. When he felt two strong hands on his shoulders, he jumped slightly, his muscles tensing.
Julian began to massage his shoulders through the material of his jacket, his fingers finding knots with trained ease and working them out with a firm grip. Rabbit tried to shake him off. “Sit back down.”
“You’re all tense. Stop being a baby and let me help you unwind a bit.”
“I said, sit back down. I don’t need you rubbing my shoulders. Thanks, but no thanks.” Rabbit wiggled a little harder, feeling the strong hands released him at length. He leaned forward in his chair to make himself more difficult to reach and resumed his staring.
Julian did not go back to his seat, however, and instead leaned on the back of Rabbit’s. “For a guy who doesn’t like to be touched, you don’t seem to have a problem with me holding on to you on the back of your motorcycle.”
“That’s different. I don’t want you to fall off.”
“That’s nice of you.”
Rabbit shrugged. It wasn’t, really; he just didn’t want to go to jail for vehicular manslaughter. “Shouldn’t you be watching your monitor?”
“I loaded the criminal profile we came up with into the system, so it’s looking for specific criteria. It’ll beep me if it comes up with any matches.”
Rabbit cast a quick glance over his shoulder, eyeing his “partner” for a moment before returning to his task. “Think you’ve got a pretty good idea who the perp is, huh?”
“Yeah, I do.” Julian walked around and sat up on the counter to look at Rabbit while he spoke. “Before I joined the Military Police, I used to work for my dad. Specifically, I was an interrogator. Whenever something went down and no one felt like ‘fessing up, I got called in to wriggle the truth out of someone. You really need to get under someone’s skin though and figure out what you need to say or do to them to get them to cooperate. I got really good at reading people and after dealing with just about every type of low life you can imagine, I’ve got a good idea of the things that run in common with them.”
Rabbit remained silent. He was busy. Perhaps Julian would realize that soon.
Not soon enough, though; he rattled on. “I think we both feel that this has to be a male. Butchering and devouring the flesh of random people doesn’t fit well with a woman. He’s probably very superstitious, a little on the paranoid side. He isn’t resorting to cannibalism as a means of survival--it’s symbolic to him. He feels he’s more important than others--that’s why he has no qualms abducting random people for his uses--which means he‘s probably Caucasian. We’re looking for someone who is probably in their late thirties, early forties, someone still strong enough to abduct and murder healthy individuals. He’s single, lives alone within the area we settled on, and probably has a criminal record of misdemeanors, since laws were meant for the more lowly human beings he hunts.”
“Not bad,” Rabbit admitted. “If it’s a woman though, I get to rub it in your face.”
Julian chuckled lightly. “You might, but not for long. You’re the type who forgives small grievances so as that others will forgive you in turn.”
“Profiling me now? Word of advice: don’t.”
“You’re harder than Mr. Cannibal, though. I enjoy the challenge.” Julian swung his feet a little, enjoying the look of slight agitation that created wrinkles on the other man’s face. “You see, you’re an asshole, but not in that pretending to be cool kind of way. You really are almost misanthropic and untrusting unless you want to be. You have a soft spot for children, though, which is admirable but usually caused by personal neglect or abuse as a child. A person will become a champion for those who can’t fight for themselves in order to heal the pain from no one being there to fight for him.”
Rabbit cast a dangerous look at him, his eyes burning into Julian’s, unwavering and unforgiving.
The terminal on the other side of the room began to beep insistently. Julian looked away from Rabbit and hopped off of the counter to check the monitor. There was a face, a name, and an address. Rabbit rolled over in his chair to look for himself.
Greg Waters. Traffic crossing violations, aggravated assault, and jail time served for gang-related activities. Notes from the prison psychologist mentioned possible schizophrenia and suggested he seek therapy upon release. Symptoms were not seen as severe enough to make the patient incapable of conducting himself on a day-to-day basis once released, however.
Rabbit swiveled back over to his station. He checked the card records for Waters’s name and then backtracked in the surveillance records to the point when he should have entered the tram with his passenger. “Is the time stamp accurate?”
“Should be. Why?”
“I don’t see him.” Rabbit paused the surveillance feed and scanned the monitor carefully. He could see a figure enter with something in his arms and sit, but he couldn’t make out a face. Even when he zoomed in on it, it remained in the shadows.
“Would you be surprised if I told you our Mr. Waters used to work in a station on this line?”
Rabbit wheeled back over to Julian to look at the information himself. Sure enough, he was listed as a maintenance worker who had been fired a few months earlier.
“How much do you want to bet that maintenance has a key to the security office too?” he asked.
“He learned the camera’s blind spots.” Julian’s words echoed his train of thought. “Now why do you think he’d do that?”
Rabbit said nothing. He cleared all the screens and stood up, walking towards the exit at a quick pace. There wasn’t enough substantial evidence to get a warrant, no real evidence to point to him other than suspicion and a gut feeling. If he knocked on Waters’s door, he might end up causing William’s death or becoming a victim himself if he was right. And if the SPD knocked on his door to ask him some questions, it would all be over. He was too close to let this get messed up now.
Julian walked up beside him, matching his steps as he caught up. Rabbit cast a quick glance at him then looked forward again. The tram station was playing a popular song from several years back, a sappy love ballad to calm the restless passengers. Rabbit relaxed. “Thanks for all the help, Julian. I can handle it from here.”
“Bull shit. I’m not dropping out just because you got all you think you can use out of me. I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not. You’ll draw too much attention and blow everything,” Rabbit bit back. “Look, I said thanks. I’ll even give you a ride back home if you want, but this is my case and I’m the one who’s got to save William.”
“I promise I won’t steal your thunder. Just let me come along for the ride.” Julian’s expression was stern but pleasant. He took hold of Rabbit’s sleeve, forcing him to stay close. “I deserve to see how this ends. You can trust me--I won’t interfere unless I have to or you want me to.”
“Define ‘have to.’”
“If your life’s in danger.”
Rabbit considered it for a moment, then, kicking himself, consented. “Alright. But only under those conditions. Otherwise, you stay the hell out of it.”
Rabbit took a deep breath and got back on his bike. Once Julian was settled behind him, he kicked off and sped down the street. The roar of his engine was a warning to anyone who heard it that Rabbit was on his way.