Bzzzzz! Bzzzzz! Bzzzzz!
The vibrating phone fell off the nightstand with a crash loud enough to wake the dead, and Cat certainly felt dead. She groaned and reached for the phone as it started buzzing a second time, not bothering to look as she answered it with a yawn.
“Cat Weaver here. What do you want?”
The voice on the other end was cheery, and Cat’s head throbbed with every syllable. “Cat! Glad you’re awake. I’m calling because a new case just arrived, and I’d like you to look at it. Are you available to come to a briefing this afternoon?”
Cat yawned again. “I dunno. What time is it now?”
The cheery voice took on a scolding tone that reminded Cat of an overprotective mother. “Another late night, huh? Well, it’s half-past-nine. Take a couple of aspirin and a shower and get down here by noon. I’ll have coffee ready for you.”
“Thanks, Sheryl. I’ll see you at noon.”
Cat put the phone back on the nightstand and slumped back into bed. She needed this case badly- the bills were piling up, and the tequila was running out. She hadn’t taken a case in months; not since she sent Charlie Berkley to prison for murder, a case that effectively ruined her career as a Private Investigator when he was later found innocent. The fact that Sheryl was still talking to her, much less offering her a case, was a miracle that Cat was not about to pass up.
Taking Sheryl’s advice, Cat popped a couple of aspirin and stood under the tepid shower water. After a sluggish wash, she stepped from the tub and examined herself in the mirror.
These last five months hadn’t been kind to her. Her face was haggard-looking, her skin was pale, and she’d lost about three dress sizes from a steady diet of tequila and coffee. Her short, black hair was uneven, and her green eyes looked older than her 30 years.
Cat was a mess, and she knew it. That incident with Berkley had taken a toll on her confidence, but Cat was hopeful that this case could bring her back.
Dressed in a pair of jeans and a loose sweater, Cat slipped on her favorite pair of flats and made her way to the police station. As soon as she stepped through the door, Cat was given a large cup of coffee and a bagel smothered in cream cheese.
“Here, eat this. It’ll help with that hangover.”
“Thanks, Sheryl. Sorry, I’m late.”
Sheryl waved her off before pointing her to a seat. “No matter. Here’s the case I told you about this morning. I know you don’t do many missing person assignments, but the family asked for you specifically.”
“Really? That’s a first.”
Cat skimmed the file as she chewed on her bagel. “Hmmm….young man, 30s, hasn’t been seen in a month, last known address is…a hotel? You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you know how hard it is to find clues in a hotel room?”
“Yes, actually, I do. But the room is paid for until October 29th, so it’s untouched. Something must be there. Are you taking the case?”
Cat skimmed the file one more time before sitting upright and looking Sheryl in the eye. “Depends. What’s the pay?”
“The usual forty dollars per hour, plus travel expenses. Also, the family has offered a five-thousand-dollar reward for his safe return.”
Cat sipped her coffee. It had been a while since she’d investigated a disappearance, and the pay was more than she hoped for. She had to take it.
“Sure, I’ll take the case. Expect my first bill within the week.”
Sheryl had Cat sign the legal papers before she left, and, after a quick stop home to gather supplies, Cat was off to the scene of the crime.
The hotel was as run-down as Cat had imagined. The walls were dingy, the roof was sagging, and the neon lights flickered in the gathering darkness. It was straight out of Cat’s nightmare, but she stifled a shudder as she went through the door.
The lobby was surprisingly clean, and the young clerk seemed chipper as Cat approached the front desk.
“Welcome to the Smoky Pines! How many nights?”
“One. And is room 234 available? That’s always been my lucky number.”
The kid (whose nametag read “Jeremy”) quickly typed something on the dinosaur of a computer before shaking his head. “Sorry, but room 234 is booked until October. Can I offer you room 235 instead?”
Cat feigned disappointment as she pulled out the company card. “Sure, I suppose that’s close enough. How much?”
“Sixty dollars for the one night.”
Cat gave him the card before taking another look around the room. “Say, do you know where I can get some food? It’s been a long drive, and I’m starving.”
Jeremy thought a moment before shaking his head.
“There’s nothing here but vending machines, but, if you don’t mind walking, there’s a diner just up the block. They have the best onion rings in the state!”
Cat smiled as she took her card and room key.
“Thanks, Jeremy! You’ve been a big help.”
Room 235 was not nearly as clean as the lobby, and Cat was afraid to touch anything for fear of infection. She gently set her bag on the desk, locked her room, and took her case file to the diner for some well-deserved food.
Photos and paraphernalia covered the walls of the diner as Cat sat down and ordered a burger, some onion rings, and a strawberry milkshake. It arrived in record time, cooked to perfection, and Cat quickly lost herself in the best meal she’d had in ages.
When she finished, Cat wiped her mouth and sat back in the dingy booth to peruse the file. The victim was named Kane Walker, and Cat sipped her milkshake as she read the scare file. For some reason, the name “Kane Walker” gave Cat a severe dose of Deja Vu, but she couldn’t find the source of her familiarity.
Puzzled, Cat walked back to the hotel and thanked Jeremy for his suggestion before retiring to her room. Once inside, she spread the file across the battered desk and began making a list of the inconsistencies into her phone recorder.
“Kane Walker, aged 33, was reported missing on September 26th, 2018. However, this report is incomplete as it lacks any descriptive details about Mr. Walker or his friends and family. All I have is a blurry photo, a receipt from his room at the Smoky Pines, which is booked from September 1st until October 29th, and that his grandmother reported him missing after ‘not hearing from him in two weeks.’ There is a number listed for the grandmother, so I’ll attempt to call her in the morning. However, my gut is telling me that something’s off about this case.”
Turning off her recorder, Cat yawned and decided that a shower would clear her head. It was surprisingly warm, given the condition of the hotel in general, and it was with regret that she left the comfort of the steam and climbed into bed, where she eventually passed into a dreamless sleep.
Cat awoke early and stretched in the dawning light. Her clock read “4:45”, and she knew the hotel would be quiet at this early hour.
She dressed and gathered up some tools for her investigation. Hanging an old Nokia camera around her neck, she slowly crept to the door that separated her room from room 234. Using a lockpicking set she’d found on Amazon, Cat unlocked the deadbolt and cautiously entered the darkened room.
Room 234 was much worse than Cat had expected. Clothes and papers littered every surface, and newspaper clippings covered the wall behind the desk. Cat raised her camera and documented the scene as she went to the desk area and began reading the headlines.
“Let’s see…murder case, murder case, missing person, an odd phenomenon…he’s got quite a collection here.”
She snapped a couple of photos before a headline made her pause and set the camera down. It read:
“Berkley found innocent of murder charges.”
Cat snatched the article and read it.
“Charlie Berkley, 24, was found innocent of the murder of 19-year-old Alice Rodriguez after the Metro Police Department discovered new information about the case. Berkley, who was sentenced to death by lethal injection, was executed at 9:45 am on November 2nd, mere minutes before his innocence was announced. His last words included the phrase: “I swear upon all that is holy that I did not kill that girl. It was all Mother’s doing.”
Jonah Simpson, attorney at Simpson and Meyers, commented that he “was highly disappointed in the people responsible for sending an innocent man to his death.”
One of the people responsible was Private Investigator Cat Weaver, who investigated Berkley’s involvement with a local eco-terrorism group and provided officers with the evidence that led to his arrest. She stated that “Berkley had the motive, means, and opportunity needed to commit this crime. I’m confident that we have the right man.”
Weaver has declined to comment on Berkley’s release, but a source close to her has confirmed that she “feels terrible about the mistake and wishes that she could go back and change things.”
Funeral services for Berkley are Monday, November 9th, 2018 at the Parson’s Parrish in Milltown.”
Cat sank onto the unmade bed as tears trickled down her cheeks. Once she’d heard the news about Charlie’s innocence, she purposely avoided all forms of media as she tried to drink herself to death. Seeing the case now, on paper, made it real.
It reminded Cat of all the reasons she hated herself, and she whispered a heartfelt “I’m sorry, Charlie” as she wiped her eyes and examined the article again. “Mother” had been circled with a red pen, and there was a symbol drawn into the margin that felt oddly familiar to Cat. It looked like an X, but one line was wavy where the other was straight. It also had a tiny dot in each corner.
This piqued her interest, and Cat tucked the newspaper into her pocket as she returned to the wall. The articles reported attacks on oil fields, nuclear power plants, mining operations, and the people who owned them. They also referenced “mother” and had that symbol next to it in red.
“Alright, Kane, what are you playing?” Cat whispered as she took photos of the symbols before her. She then began musing over the case as she turned to the window.
“Ok, so Kane was involved in some cult-like activities. Hmm, I bet his Grandma didn’t know that. Still, it seems harmless enough, but could be the reason he’s gone missing.”
Before she could consider that possibility further, a large hand appeared out of nowhere and clamped itself over Cat’s mouth. She fought back, but her assailant was much larger and stronger than she was. She was put into a headlock and quietly slipped into oblivion.
Part 2 will be posted next week!