Mallory looked around the coffee shop from behind her newspaper as she waited for her boyfriend to stop by during his lunch break. She fanned out the front page, checking her list of suspects once again. Four different coffee shop patrons were listed on her napkin, three others crossed out below. Her pen hovered over the remaining four names. Poking her head out over top of the newspaper, she watched the man by the window stand up, throw a five dollar bill down and walk towards the door. She drew a line next to his name – shifty eyes. She eyed her second suspect, the old man doing the crossword three seats over from her. She crossed his name off her suspect list. He was holding a pen with difficulty and his hand shook when he picked up his mug. She couldn’t fathom him holding a murder weapon steady.
“What are you doing?” Luke asked, coming into the café. He sat down in the seat next to her. “Why do you have all those names—”
“Be quiet!” She waved a hand at him, but her cover was blown. Her three remaining suspects all looked her way. She turned to her boyfriend, folding her newspaper back to its original size. “I was,” she emphasized, “trying to find the murderer. Do you have to be so loud?”
“I doubt that a murderer would be sitting in a coffee shop right across from the police station. There’s no time to enjoy an espresso when there’s people to kill.”
“If I was the serial killer, I would try to blend in. So sitting in the coffee shop across from the police station is exactly what I would do. People don’t expect the murderer to enjoy coffee, so he can hide right in front of them.”
“I don’t think we’re dealing with a serial killer, I told you that. People are going to get worried if you keep saying that.”
“It has to be a serial killer. Three girls killed in eight months? There’s a connection there.” She snuck a glance at her third suspect, a middle-aged man who was reading a book on crime scenes. “See, suspicious behavior. Why would he be reading ‘crime scenes for dummies’ if he wasn’t guilty?”
Her boyfriend took a sip from his newly refilled coffee mug. “If I had to guess, I would say it’s because just two days ago, a woman was murdered only thirty minutes away from here. He’s probably doing research, or figuring out how to stay safe. I told you to do the same thing yesterday but instead you’re spying on townies and trying to figure out who murdered his neighbor. This isn’t one of your shows; you could get in real trouble.”
She looked back down at the front page, covered in details about the murder two nights ago. The young woman had lived alone, and had been stabbed in the chest somewhere around 2:30 in the morning. Mallory’s boyfriend had even given an official statement because he was the detective working on the crime scene. “Can’t you tell me anything interesting? Or do I have to call Samantha?”
“I’m not legally allowed to tell you anything. Stop asking. Read the newspaper. And don’t even think of calling Samantha. She just got promoted don’t get her in trouble because you’re trying to be the next Criminal Minds character.”
She tried to block out the image of her and Samantha being two of the characters from Criminal Minds last Halloween. They had dressed up as pairs from criminal shows ever since the SVU marathon Sam had thrown for Mallory their freshmen year of college. Before that the two girls would dress up as different Tina Fey characters. Sam would show up as Tina’s version of Sarah Palin and Mallory would do her best to pull off the awkward teacher Tina from Mean Girls. But then came the introduction of SVU during a study break and Mallory refused to be anyone but Olivia Benson. After three years and three different Benson hairstyles, Sam insisted she switch it up. And two years ago they both dressed up as Nick from CSI and although Mallory thought she would be the better ‘Nick’ Sam insisted that she was the more convincing of the two with her authentic cop badge and aviators.
Mallory knew that if she could get Sam to dress up as Ice T she could get her to tell her more crime scene information.
But Luke seemed to read her face and stopped her. “Do you really want your best friend to be unemployed because you binge watched CSI: New York last week?”
She dismissed his comment. “I want to know what’s happening.”
“If I could tell you, I would, you know that. We’re not allowed to say anything about the case. It could be dangerous. You’re already looking for suspects in the coffee shop. Telling you anything else would have you chasing people down the street yelling ‘murderer’ at them. I don’t want you to go looking.”
“Hmm, tempting,” she teased and laughed when he frowned. “I promise I won’t go looking for murderers. I just wish we knew more, so this guy could be locked up.”
“I know, and I’m working on it. How about tonight I tell you what I know about crimes in general, and we’ll make a list of suspicious serial killer behaviors.”
“You just admitted it’s a serial killer.” She patted him on the arm when he froze. “Just go back to work. I’ll be fine.”
After he left, she sorted through all the files she had made on the case and compiled a list. She had some of Luke’s case information, stolen from his office the last time she visited him. She spread out the papers in from of her so she could look through them easier. She jotted down the similarities between the cases, mainly that all three women were all under twenty-five and lived close together. And then a second list with all the traits the police believed the killer to have. Luke’s notes said they suspected it was a man, somewhere between thirty and forty. Mallory wouldn’t rule out a woman though, she knew they could be even more dangerous than men. She knew Samantha could be more dangerous than Luke when she was mad. But other than similar victims and a small killer profile she didn’t have anything to work with. She just had what she read in books and saw during one of her many Law and Order: SVU marathons.
Her evidence was lacking, but she wouldn’t stop now that she had real lists. She tried to get in the mindset of Kate Beckett. She knew how to get things done. And according to her boyfriend, if anyone showed an unusual amount of interest in the case, they could be classified as suspect.
Mallory looked around the café once more. The man reading the crime scene book was gone; she would have to watch him more closely tomorrow. Everyone else in the café was reading the same newspaper she had spread across the counter. Everyone in town was going to be interested in this case until it died down. “That doesn’t help,” she murmured as she crossed out that behavior on her list.
The café door opened as a new customer walked in, bringing a gust of wind with him. Mallory tugged her coat closer to her body and looked over at the guest. She realized she had never seen him before. He met her gaze as he waited for his large coffee. She smiled over at him but his face remained impassive.
“Do you know who that is?” she asked the barista when he had left with his coffee.
“His name’s Nicholas, he moved here a couple weeks ago. He comes in everyday for a coffee and leaves. He mostly keeps to himself.” She poured Mallory another cup.
“He moved to town after a murder?”
“No sweetie, he moved here a week before it happened. It’s an unfortunate bit of luck if you ask me. He probably thought he would be safe in a little town like this and a girl gets murdered after the contract is signed.”
“I would just leave again. Why would he stay?”
The barista shook her head. “I wouldn’t know. Tell your boyfriend I wish him good luck on the case.”
Mallory left the café, not sure if she should depend on the barista, one of her main suspects, for information.
A week later Mallory hadn’t made any progress in finding the serial killer. She eliminated half of her neighbors from her suspect list after consulting her stolen information. She spread her map of the town out on the kitchen table and put an X where the last girl had been murdered. Or at least where she thought she had been murdered. She could never be sure when looking at a map. She had trouble finding roads when her GPS told her exactly where they were, and she missed them more than seventy percent of the time. She looked over the map once more. The blue line meant a river. She trailed her finger from the X to her road; only fifteen minutes and a small part of a blue line separated them. Mallory scanned back over the map index. Red lines were the major roads, but there were two major roads next to each other. The second victim’s house was on a street that branched off one of the major highways she was looking at. The only further clue the map gave her was highway numbers. She only knew the names of roads, never numbers. So she guessed it was the left highway and followed a smaller line off the red line. She drew another X on the second victim’s home. She measured with her fingers the distance between the two. The first house was only a few inches away from the second. The two crime scenes were only an hour away from each other. She drew the third X over the first victim’s home. The first victim had lived the furthest away, very far on the left side of the map. However, it wasn’t the first X that scared her. It was the third one. The distance between her town and each crime scene decreased with every X.
She capped her pen before hanging the map up in the living room. It looked a little messy, red X’s overlapping older black ones. Blue sharpie crossed over her misplaced X’s and uneven purple lines connected all the houses.
She ran through her list of suspects. There were a few on her list but only three really stood out. The coffee barista lived within a reasonable distance of all three places. She had been in a very public feud with the third victim for a year before the murder. The barista had started dating the woman’s ex and even though the relationship was short lived, the feud continued on. A year long feud over a four month relationship was enough to make anyone angry. And the barista was known to have a sharp temper that needed only a little bit of prodding to expose. But could a fight between two bitter girls lead to a killing spree? Season ten Olivia Benson had proved that, and so she kept the barista on her list.
The town carpenter that everyone used but feared for his high prices lived two doors down from the first crime scene and everyone knew he had been working on a project for the house where the first victim had been murdered. The woman had complained about the cost of her new kitchen two days before her picture showed up in the newspaper as the next victim. She drew exclamation points next to his name. He seemed like a logical choice, and every book she ever read warned against sketchy construction workers.
After a short deliberation, she added the new guy, Nicholas to her list of suspects. She didn’t know much about him, but based on what the barista said and what she had noticed in the short time, he would be the perfect third suspect. Although maybe the barista was less than trustworthy. But Nicholas was still an option. Moving into the town right after a murder and then another one followed? Definitely suspicious. She made a note to ask Sam about it later.
“Anyone home?” her boyfriend asked and the front door clicked.
She ripped down the map from the wall and crumpled it in her hands. She looked around the small living room, trying to figure out where she could put the map that Luke wouldn’t look. He always looked behind the couch; he knew she liked to hide her things there. He had found failed research papers from college and denied job applications behind there; he would most likely look there again. There was a house plant in the corner that neither of them watered and she crumpled the map further before sticking it under the plant. She used her foot to brush the misplaced dirt under the rug. If Luke noticed she would just tell him it was raining when she got home. He would complain about the weather before handing her a broom and grumbling his way to the bedroom. For now she was safe, no trace of what she was doing in sight. Luke was already aggravated over her interest in the case; he didn’t need to know she was drawing maps to pinpoint suspects.
“You’re back early.”
“It’s been a slow day. Is that a murder mystery book?” He pointed towards the book on the table next to her.
“How is it a slow day with a murderer on the loose?” she ignored his question, closing the book. “People are worried to leave their houses to walk their dogs and you’re coming home early? I feel like the police aren’t even trying to solve this case.”
“I spent all day thinking about this case, can we talk about something else? You’re too invested in this anyway. What did you do all day?”
“Nothing.” She brushed more dirt under the rug before sitting down.
Luke sat down next to her. “I know it’s scary having to deal with this. But we’re trying our best to find the person responsible for these murders. I want you to stop worrying about this, okay?”
“I’m just scared. It’s been over a month since the last murder, what if someone I know is next? I hate having to look over my shoulder when I walk here at night.”
“I’m not going to let anyone hurt you. That’s a promise. I know you want to play detective on this but it’s too dangerous. This guy isn’t just some average bank robber, he’s killed people. I don’t have a problem with you making a list of suspects, but I don’t want you doing anything that could put you in danger.”
Three weeks later and Mallory had narrowed down her search to the barista, the carpenter and the new guy. All her other suspects had slowly been ruled out after a discussion with Sam and the unlikelihood of the cat sitter. Now she was down to just her main three. She sat in the coffee shop, watching Nicholas read the morning’s newspaper. He looked over his shoulder every five minutes as if he knew she was watching him. She made sure to look away when he looked in her direction. She walked up to the counter, passing him slowly to get a good look. She had seen CSI team members do this and find some crucial evidence. He didn’t look up from his reading and she didn’t see any sketchy scratch marks.
She took her seat once again, trying to figure out if his behavior really was suspicious. Everyone in town had been acting the same way, especially after the third murder. Maybe her boyfriend had been right and she needed to back off. She didn’t want to become the fourth girl. She had seen that happen in quite a few movies.
“Hey Mallory! Still playing Law and Order?” Samantha sat down across from her. “Luke’s been telling me what you’ve been doing.”
“And? Did he send you here to tell me I’m being ridiculous?”
“Of course, it’s Luke.” Sam adjusted the badge on her coat. “But I’m not gonna lecture you. Do I think you’re dumb for trying to track a murderer? Yes. But if you want to act out your fantasy of being Olivia Benson then why should I try and stop you? I wanna be your Elliot Stabler.” She stopped and looked around. “Although this isn’t really an SVU case if you think about it. It’s more like CSI. But that show totally dived once Grissom left. So choosing SVU is completely reasonable.”
Mallory sighed. “I hate to interrupt your speech about how Grissom inspired you to join the Police Department but did you have anything to say or do you just want to rant? My number one suspect is sitting over there drinking coffee and looking suspicious. What do you think?”
Samantha looked over to where Mallory’s head was titled. “The new guy? Oh come on, it’s never the most suspicious person! I thought you were better than that.”
“Obviously I’m not. I think he’s hiding something.”
“Then let’s go ask! Maybe he’s got a crazy ex -wife he’s hiding from so she doesn’t hand him their neglected child and then runs off without offering to pay child support. People do that all the time.”
“We can’t just go over there! Luke would have a heart attack. And what if us going over there makes us his next victims? I’m only 24. I’ve only been on one roller coaster, and I haven’t even gone to Spain and I promised my grandmother—”
Samantha was already out of her seat and grabbing Mallory’s hand. “Now’s not the time to wimp out. You’ve been making lists for weeks, let’s do something about it.”
They were almost to his booth when he stood up and walked out. Samantha turned to her friend. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you a real ‘tracking a person of interest’ experience and then when we find out he’s innocent you go back to your apartment, give me all the crap you’ve been working on and then you just start planning your trip to Spain okay? Drop the case.”
Mallory had never seen her friend look so serious. Except when she stood next to Luke during formal police addresses. She nodded her head. “Fine. I’ll drop it if it’s that important to you.”
Samantha smiled and then dragged her out of the coffee shop. Nicholas was barely visible in front of them, just a small smudge in the surrounding landscape. “You have to be quiet and try to blend in.”
“I know. I watched all thirteen seasons—”
“Shush! Let’s go!”
They trailed behind him quietly, making sure they didn’t get too close even when he stopped to look around or tie his shoelace.
“Are you kidding? His shoe wasn’t even untied! This is ridiculous.” Mallory huffed.
They hid behind a tree when he looked behind him. “You’ve got to make your voice lower. How is your talking voice always at a yelling volume?”
Mallory rolled her eyes and looked around the tree. “He’s walking again. We’re good to go.”
“I’m the cop on this mission. Calm down Nancy Drew.”
Mallory turned back toward Nicholas. He turned into one of the housing developments the city had just finished building. Mallory almost followed him into the street but Samantha tugged her back.
“This is as far as we go.”
“What? The trail will cold! We have to scope out the house! You can’t make me Olivia Benson and then tell me no!”
Samantha pulled her back further. Once they were a block away from the developments Samantha tugged Mallory until they were facing each other. “He’s not a suspect. He was ruled out three weeks ago. His older sister was one of the victims, that’s why he’s here. He’s packing up all her stuff and then he’s going to take it back to New York to their parents. People think he’s moved in but he’s really come to move his sister out. Or at least her stuff. Will you leave him alone now? And leave the detective stuff to your boyfriend? Stop listening to the barista and listen to the news. He’s been checked out, he’s good. Now let’s go and get all your shit from your apartment. And you better have my guacamole chips because I’m starving.”
They walked back to Mallory’s apartment slowly, Samantha texting her boss and Mallory thinking back on her lists. She was definitely not a detective.
Mallory turned the key on her door when they arrived and Samantha went right to the couch and leaned over the back, checking behind it.
“What the hell?”
“I’ve known you for 10 years. I know your hiding places. The big things are always behind the couch, the pregnancy tests are always locked in your jewelry box and the Costco size twizzlers are tucked behind the—”
“Okay, thank you for knowing way too much. You creep. Besides, it’s not behind there. I found a better place.”
Sam looked around for a minute. Then she walked over to the plant and pulled the map out from underneath the purple pot.
“How the hell did you know it was there?”
“It’s my job. Oh my god seriously? X marks the spot? That’s how you were doing this?” Samantha had unrolled Mallory’s map and was looking it over. “This isn’t too bad. But you’ve got some of the addresses in the wrong place. No wonder you failed geography in college.” She folded it back up and then took more notes from behind the couch. And the books from the coffee table. “Luke let you keep these around the house?”
“He said reading couldn’t get me in trouble.”
Samantha looked through all of Mallory’s stuff and then laughed. “You’re pretty good at putting things together. Although your geography skills are shit and your suspects are not even feasible. The barista? Really? The only thing killer about her is her coffee.” She paused. “Okay I’m sorry that was horrible and I regret that joke already. But you’re more organized than half the guys on the team, your boyfriend included.” She put all of Mallory’s stuff into her backpack and then kicked it to the side.
“So now that you’ve gone on your mission and your suspect is innocent, no more spy work for you okay? You need to be safe and I can’t help you if you keep prancing after strange men with shifty eyes. The case is almost wrapped up anyway and you just need to lay low and watch CSI rather than act it out okay? Otherwise Luke is going to make me your babysitter and I have better things to do with my life than watch you.”
“Will you still be my Elliot Stabler?”
“Duh! Someone has to protect you from Ice-T and his season 8 hairstyle.”
And Mallory closed the one crime book Sam had left her, making sure that her bookmark was still in the same spot.