I woke to the sound of my cellphone screaming and threatening to vibrate off my night table. Well, really, I woke to my girlfriend’s elbow in the ribs.
“Jill, if you’re going to sleep through the damn thing, at least give the department a less violent ringtone.”
My work ringtone was literally someone screaming. I figured it fit my line of work. I’m a homicide detective. I managed to pick the phone up and hit accept before it went to voicemail.
“This had better be important,” I growled into the phone, expecting the night dispatcher to reply to my admittedly less than witty three a.m. banter.
Instead, my captain growled back. His voice was deeper than mine, so it was more effective. “Hess, get your ass out of bed and listen up. He’s back.”
There was only one he. I sat bolt upright. Carolyn, somewhat more slowly, sat up next to me, turning her bedside lamp on low. From the look in her eyes, she had heard the captain. She knew this perp had haunted me ever since I had failed to capture him three years ago.
It was the Coke Zero Killer!
“Where?” I asked, feet already on the floor, and groping one handed for my pants. I gave up on them long enough to grab the pen and paper I always kept on the night table and wrote down the address. “I’ll be there right away.”
Right away turned out to be forty minutes later. The crime scene was across the city, and I needed coffee. There wasn’t much open that late, but I knew a place. The coffee always tasted a bit like turpentine, but it woke me up like nothing else. I sucked it back on route.
The place was impossible to miss. Red lights flashing and uniforms everywhere. I pulled up in my beat-up Honda Civic, parking it half on the road and half on the lawn.
The cop directing flow in and out of the scene just shook his head. “Jill, you’ve got to learn how to park that thing. It’s not like it needs a lot of room.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that when the bad guys stop dragging me out of bed at stupid o’clock.” I smirked at Phil, a young guy who looked a bit like Donnie Osmond in his younger days. I wondered if Donnie Osmond liked Coke Zero. Probably not.
I ducked under the yellow tape and headed in to join my partner. I knew he had already arrived because I had narrowly missed hitting his car on the way in.
I found Frank in the kitchen, bent over the body — a skinny, middle-aged woman in the remains of what had once been a work casual top and a pair of blue jeans. Right now, they were a tattered mess, full of knife holes, blood, and Coke Zero.
In fact, the entire kitchen was covered in Coke Zero. The killer had found the woman’s entire stash and shaken and then stabbed every can, spraying each and every one all over the victim and the kitchen. It was always the same.
“Who called it in?” I asked, though I knew before he answered.
“Same as always, an anonymous call from a payphone using a voice synthesizer. By the time the uniforms got there, they were gone, and the phone booth was a sticky Coke Zero mess.”
I sighed and bent down beside Frank to see if there might be anything that would lead us to the killer. The body was clean. Or as clean as it could be, covered in Coke Zero.
The print crew was busy dusting everything in sight, which wasn’t easy, given how wet and sticky the crime scene was. I knew they wouldn’t find anything. They never did.
I pulled out a stick of gum and shoved it into my mouth, chewing slowly. I needed to get rid of the turpentine taste. As I wadded the wrapper up into a ball, my eyes tracked a line of Coke Zero out the back door, and that’s when I saw it.
The killer had finally messed up.
He had left a clue. There on the step was a shoe print, perfectly outlined in Coke Zero. A huge footprint. Whoever our perp was, he had Ronald McDonald feet. I did my best to tiptoe around the Coke spatter in my forensic footwear, but it was no use. The paper slippers soaked the stuff up like a Bounty towel. I gave up and walked normally over to the shoe print.
I waved the camera guy over and watched him go through the same routine I had, giving up at just about the same point.
“What can I do for you, Hess?” Karl was an okay guy, if a little dense on the female front. Despite my having been in a committed relationship with another woman for the last five years, he still occasionally hit on me.
“Snap of few of this, will you?” I hauled out my phone and snapped a few myself for good measure. “And get forensics over here to do their measuring and what-have-you.”
I squelched my way back through the mess in the kitchen, removing my now soaked slippers at the door. It didn’t do much good. The brown stickiness clung to my shoes and made a squeaking sound while leaving little spots of wet with every step across the ceramic hallway floor.
Sighing, I looked out the still open front door. The sun had started to peek over the horizon. “I’m going for coffee,” I announced. Anyone interested?”
“There’s a Starbucks inside the grocery store just down a few blocks,” Frank said, looking up from taking a statement from the vic’s housekeeper, who had just arrived. The woman looked about ready to faint dead away.
I didn’t bother questioning how Frank knew about the Starbucks. He was addicted to their coffee. He seemed to know where every one of their stores was located.
I squelched my way out of the house and retrieved my car, much to the Donny Osmond lookalike’s relief. Too bad he didn’t realize I’d be back. I touched bumpers with the squad car behind me before managing to squeeze out of the little bit of space it had left between us while I was busy inside the house. Some people just had no consideration for others.
I drove a few blocks and didn’t see the grocery store, but then spotted it in a plaza across the street. I couldn’t get across to it because of a median, so I pulled a U-turn half a block up, ignoring the horns blasting at me as I did so. I pulled into a parking spot outside the store. A sign at one end announced my dream come true:
Finally, a decent cup of coffee. I made my way into the store and found the Starbucks, right up front. As I waited for the barista to do her magic, I turned to the sound of squelching footsteps. My jaw hit the floor, or at least my gum did as it fell out of my wide-open mouth.
A dark-haired guy, wearing one of those awful t-shirts they make cashiers wear, lumbered toward me, huge feet leaving behind a trail of brown stick. He must have been six-five. Well, crap.
I slipped my badge out of my back pocket, while simultaneously loosing my gun from its holster under my jacket. I had a feeling I was going to be needing it.
“Down on the floor,” I said, holding my badge up in my left hand, my gun in my right. “Palms down over your head, in plain sight.”
To my surprise, the perp did exactly as I had ordered. I approached slowly, but he didn’t put up any resistance. In fact, he seemed relieved. I cuffed him and called for backup.
He didn’t even try to deny it. “You don’t know what it’s like checking them through with their Coke Zero and bags of chips and boxes of Twinkies. Day in and day out. They don’t go together. I mean, they just don’t. “
At least that’s what I thought he said. His voice was kind of muffled on account of his face being pressed against the floor. The uniforms showed up pretty quickly and took him downtown. Frank arrived just as they were leaving.
The barista called over, all nonchalant, like this kind of thing happened here every day. “Hey, don’t you want your coffee?”
Frank and I looked at one another, then back at the barista. “Nah, I said. I’m actually kind of thirsty for something cold. Right about now I could kill for a Coke Zero.”
This story was inspired by my attempt to open a case of Coke Zero with a steak knife. The results were predictable, with Coke Zero arterial spray all over my kitchen. Thus, the Coke Zero Killer was born. Please leave a comment. I love hearing from readers!