There was a sharp snap next to him as Norman pulled the car into the muddy lot. “Ouch, shit…” Ashley fumbled with her hair next to him, and Norman parked the car in front of a large steel hangar in the middle of a vehicle graveyard. Piles of broken cars created hills into the distance, and a heavy material handler sorted through the empty shells of the cars.
Norman looked sideways at Ashley, and felt a strange twinge in his chest. She was twisted sideways, tugging at the tangled band which had held her hair together in a ponytail. He gazed curiously at her hair which was shorter than he expected, then looked out the window quickly to avoid staring. She grunted again, and when he looked back, she was running her fingers through her hair, her back arched against this seat. This time, he didn’t look away quick enough.
“What?” she asked, gazing sideways at him around her arms. He felt his face heat up, and picked nervously at the steering wheel.
“Nothing.” It was useless to pretend, so he racked his mind for a better answer. “You just… um.” He threw a sideways glance at her. “You look good with your hair down.”
For the first time, Norman was at the end of the awkward silence. The rain tapped against the top of the car, filling the space with a low roar.
“Well, you look good…” Ashley stammered a comeback. “... without a black eye and a nosebleed!” She pulled her hair back, fitting another band over her brown hair.
Norman shook with silent laughter. “Oh, good one. You got me there.” He fitted his firearm under his jacket. “Come on, I think that’s the owner.”
“Wait a second.” Ashley’s voice was muffled a bit as Norman opened the car door. He looked at her as she pressed a thumb to her lip. “Maybe… maybe we shouldn’t let them know we’re the police,” she said.
Norman was silent for a moment, then closed the car door. “Why not?”
“I just... I feel like it’s a bad idea,” she said, pulling Norman’s leather coat over her shoulders. “If you sold a stolen car to the Origami Killer, would you talk to the cops?” She shifted against the seat. “Two people looking for a car to buy are a lot less intimidating than two cops looking for a stolen car.”
Norman absorbed her words. “And if the killer works here and we happen to find him right now?”
Ashley ran a thumb across her lip. “Then… we’ll just… fuck, I don’t know.” She rubbed her forehead. “I just have a bad feeling about this. It’s not like Nathaniel.”
“Well, Nathaniel wasn’t exactly friendly either,” said Norman. “Look, I’ll do all the talking. You just keep one hand on your sidearm, okay?” Ashley nodded, doubt lined in her face. Cherishing the moments that he was dry, Norman opened the car door and stepped out into the mud.
He moved towards the steel hangar, glancing back to be sure Ashley was following him. The interior of the hangar came into view, revealing an empty space bordered by tables and heavy machinery. A small office took up the front corner of the hangar, and Norman stepped towards it cautiously. There was no one inside. He looked out at the materials handler. It appeared the driver was the only man on the property. Norman threw Ashley an optimistic glance and she returned it with a nervous one, tightening her hands on the coat.
Norman walked through the rain towards the heavy tractor. He approached it from the side, and spotted a muscular dark man in the driver’s seat. The man didn’t appear to have seen him, and Norman stood as close as he could to the giant tractor.
“Hey!” He held a hand over his forehead to block the rain as he looked upward. “Excuse me!” The man turned and looked at him, and Norman noticed the intricate tattoos lining the man’s large arms. He felt a nervous tremor as the man turned off the tractor and stood up. This man was huge.
Norman stepped back as the man climbed down from the tractor and landed in the mud, standing to full height so that Norman looked up at him. The man threw his dark eyes to Ashley, then they fell back to Norman. “Whatta you want?” the man asked in more of a growl than a voice.
Norman racked up his courage. “I’m Agent Jayden, FBI, and this is Officer Gibbons. We’re here to ask you a few questions about a car you acquired three years ago.”
The man’s expression didn’t change. “Okay?”
Norman motioned to the hangar. “Can we get out of the rain?”
Without a word, the man stepped past him, heading for the hangar. Norman moved after him, and he felt Ashley bump his shoulder as she walked close to him. He didn’t need to look at her to see the nervous expression on her face. They passed under the curtain of rain and entered the steel hangar which roared from the rainfall.
The man leaned his back against the outside wall of the office, watching Norman with a glare.
“Can I ask your name?” said Norman.
For a while, the man simply glared at him. “Jack.”
“Okay, Jack.” Norman folded his arms over his chest. “We’re looking for a 1983 Chevrolet Malibu that passed through your yard about three years ago. I don’t care if it was stolen, or the fact that fake plates were made for it. I just want to know who owns it.”
The steel creaked as Jack moved off of it, standing inches away from Norman. Though the man was menacing, Norman still only felt a fraction of the discomfort he felt when standing against Blake.
“You think I remember every car that’s passed through my lot in the past three years, legal or not?” said Jack. “I don’t know about your damn car. Now get the hell outta here.” Jack moved away towards the curtain of rain.
“That’s too bad,” said Norman. “Because if you sold the car to the Origami Killer, you’ve aided in six, seven,” Norman ticked his fingers, “eight murders.”
Jack stopped in his tracks, and Norman felt Ashley move closer to him. The man turned, a look of murder on his face. “Good luck proving that, Mr. X-Files.” Jack stepped through the rain.
Ashley let out a long breath. “Well, that got us nowhere.” She flexed her hands on the leather jacket. “Now what?”
“Now,” said Norman, pulling his glasses from his pocket. “We prove it.” Ashley looked around as he pulled the glove over his right hand.
“I highly doubt you’re going to find evidence of a car that was here three years ago,” she said.
“No,” said Norman. “But maybe I can dig up some evidence against Jack to have him brought to the station. He might be more willing to talk there.” He glanced up and saw the materials handler swing into motion. “Why don’t you see if you can find a computer or a log somewhere. Maybe he keeps a history on all the cars he’s sold.” He pressed a finger to his glasses. “ARI recording. Location fix on four seven zero two three. Note date and time.”
Ashley swung the coat from her shoulders, and moved towards the office. With another anxious glance at the tractor, Norman held out his hand and sent a bright beam through the shop. Not surprisingly, a list scrolled endlessly, highlighting key elements such as blood, gasoline, hair, and footprints. Norman highlighted the blood which branched into four different blood types, one of which belonged to Jack’s. It was an auto shop. Blood wasn’t exactly criminal in a place like this.
Norman tapped on Jack’s name, and a quick summary of text appeared. Apparently, Jack had a deeper history than Norman thought. The man was a known car thief, and had spent time in prison for various fraud charges, including license plates. Norman looked around at the hangar. The lot was basically a trading ground for stolen vehicles.
He moved carefully to the office where Ashley hovered over an old computer. “Finding anything?” he asked.
“Nothing yet. He’s had close to two-hundred Malibus come through here. I’m trying to search by sales but it’s so backed up.”
Norman held his hand over the office floor, sending a radial pulse. “I’ll see if he’s got any logs hidden somewhere.” The first list moved over, and a second list scrolled next to it. Coffee mug, dried cannabis, pump-action Remington, Playboy, among other things Norman didn’t care to know about. He pressed a finger against the list. “Text─” He froze suddenly. One of the items on the list highlighted. Skull fragment.
A lump of fear rose in his throat. He tapped the item, and it moved to the center of his vision. Blood was one thing. A skull was something completely different. Norman sent out another wave, and he saw a flash behind him. He turned, and a red square formed over a wide metal sheet on the ground at the other end of the hangar.
He looked back at Ashley who was still focused on the computer. Then he moved toward the metal sheet. He hadn’t expected to find another body in the process of looking for the Origami Killer. As he approached the sheet, a slight hissing rose above the sound of the rain. The sheet covered what appeared to be a long tub built right into the ground. Norman kneeled carefully. He sent out another radial beam which raised another box of text. Skull fragment. Fractured DNA.
With a deep breath, he gripped the metal sheet and raised it upward, leaning sideways to see underneath.
At first it seemed to be a grimy pool of water about a foot deep. Norman leaned forward and held his glove over the water. Red text flashed in front of him. Hydrofluoric acid. He pulled his hand away, heart hammering. Hydrofluoric acid was a lot stronger than the traditional acetic acid that was used in auto shops, unless someone wanted to melt their car. Or...
A small white object captured his attention near the far edge of the pool. The red square narrowed around it. Norman didn’t need to read the text to know what it was. He let the metal sheet slam down.
The sheet metal screeched as Norman was knocked forward onto it. It took a moment for his nerves to register the agonizing pain on the back of his head. As he propped himself up, the metal bent under his weight and the acid rolled forward, lapping against his arm and sending up smoke. He scrambled away from it, shaking the acid off his arm.
Before he could look around him, something grabbed a fistfull of his hair, yanking him back from the acid pool. Automatically he grabbed for the arm with both hands, letting out a hoarse cry as he twisted his body and kicked back with his legs. In a blind panic, he plunged one hand into his jacket and drew his pistol, firing it behind him.
He dropped onto his side, spotting a pair of legs in front of him. Immediately, he swung his gun forward, but shrieked as a dark fist closed over his wrist, pinching hard so that the pistol fell with a clatter onto the concrete. The fist drew up, pulling him with it, and his breath was suddenly choked as a strong arm wrapped around his neck, pinning him to the man behind him.
Norman clenched the man’s arm, struggling to breath. He already knew who his attacker was. Frantically, his eyes darted to the office where Ashley was nowhere to be seen. He felt a desperate hope shoot through him. Ashley had the sense to hide.
“Where you at, Miss CSI?” Jack growled close to Norman’s ear. “You’re slowing the party down. Or do I need to scrub your boyfriend’s face a bit to get you to come out?”
Norman clenched his eyes shut, breathing heavily through his teeth. Every slight movement he made was countered by Jack’s strength, forcing him to stand directly in front of him.
“Do I have to make this clear?” Jack shifted behind him and Norman felt cold steel against his temple. Terror streaked through him. “I’ll let you choose,” called Jack. “A bullet in the head, or a face-full of acid? Personally, I wouldn’t want to melt out those pretty green eyes of his.”
“Get out of here, Ashley!” Norman groaned as Jack’s arm tightened around his neck and the end of the pistol pushed his head sideways. His vision darkened around the edges and his teeth began to tingle.
“We’re gonna play a little game,” said Jack. “I’m gonna count to five, and then X-Files here is gonna take a swim. But don’t quote me on that.” Jack let out a guttural laugh. “My numbers have been known to be off.” Norman pulled against Jack’s arm as Jack hauled him towards the acid. “One.”
“Don’t!” Norman cried as he stumbled. His heart raced painfully and his temples throbbed. Jack laughed as he kicked the metal sheet aside.
Norman thrashed side to side, clawing into Jack’s skin. His vision turned white as a heavy blow struck the side of his head. “Something tells me he don’t want to die!” Jack roared. “Three!”
“You really think you’re gonna get away with this?” said Norman through his clenched jaw. “The police will come looking for us. They’ll find you.”
“That’s what the last cop said before I blowtorched his mouth shut,” said Jack. “I’m running out of numbers, Miss CSI! Four!”
The smoke clouded Norman’s vision as Jack twisted, leaning Norman over the pit of acid. Red text blinked in front of him, warning him of the imminent danger. Norman felt his body go numb. This was really happening.
Norman felt his body drop, then suddenly he was caught mere inches from the frothing liquid. “Well look who decided to show her pretty face.”
Norman was yanked upwards into a standing position. His muscles were on fire, and he felt his heart nearly stop. Ashley stood in the doorway of the office, breathing heavily and pistol held at her side.
Jack laughed behind him. “Lose the gun, sweetheart.”
“Let him go,” said Ashley. Norman could hear the terror in her voice. He flexed his hands against Jack’s arm, wishing desperately that the man would grow just a little bit tired.
“You don’t make the orders around here, princess,” said Jack. The gun tilted against Norman’s head. “You want to see me decorate the shop with his brains?”
Norman watched Ashley desperately through the ARI. She’d already made the mistake of showing herself. If she lost the gun, there’d be nothing to stop Jack from killing them both. Ashley looked at him, and her wide-eyed expression was replaced with a fierce glare of determination. It made his blood run cold. Her fingers opened, and her pistol fell to the floor.
“Jesus woman,” said Jack. “I shoulda just shot you both when you got here if I known it was gonna be this easy.”
“And we didn’t even need the ARI to know you were hiding something.” Ashley’s voice was strange, louder than her normal tone. She glanced between Jack and Norman, her eyes tense.
“The fuck you talking about, ARI?” said Jack through a laugh. “Why don’t you do me a favor and kick your piece this way. Easy.” The steel pressed against Norman’s head. Of all the times he had to be wearing the ARI, it had to be now. He couldn’t signal Ashley with his eyes to not comply.
Ashley pushed the pistol away with her foot so that it spun across the floor. “The ARI can see things that you can’t,” she continued in her strange voice. “That’s how we knew you sold the car to the Origami Killer.” Again, her eyes flashed in Norman’s direction, and it all clicked. She wanted him to use the ARI.
“Put your hands behind your head, bitch,” said Jack. “And get on your knees.” Norman watched as she slowly raised her hands behind her ponytail, and sank to the ground. Apprehension mixed with his terror as he pulled at Jack’s arm. What in God’s name was her plan?
Ashley seemed to have lost her voice, and she stared wide-eyed at Norman. He knew what she wanted him to do, but it’d be a miracle if he could do it. He took a deep breath. In a burst of panic, Norman pushed against the man behind him, and in the second Jack yanked him straight again, Norman sent out a beam of light. It travelled across the floor and over Ashley’s body, and that’s when he saw it. The text pump-action Remington hovering next to her.
He felt a pop in his knee and he spasmed in pain. A loud cry escaped him as he collapsed onto his knees, only to have his head yanked back by the hair again, gun to his ear.
“You think I’m playing around, X-Files?” The gun pressed harder. “Get up.”
Norman caught a glimpse of Ashley’s face as he rose shakily to his feet. The determination had left her eyes, and only terror remained. He had to do something. Anything to get Jack’s attention off of her.
“Why do they call you Mad Jack?” said Norman. He tilted his head slightly. “Did you get that name in prison? That’s not a typical name for someone’s bitch.” He groaned as Jack clenched the back of his neck, forcing his head down towards the acid bath.
“You wanna see what hell looks like without eyelids?” The gun practically drilled into the back of Norman’s head.
“Don’t! Don’t, please!” Ashley’s voice had genuine panic. Norman’s heart raced as he stared at the swirling acid.
“You really have the balls to do it, Jack?” The terror melted away as Norman felt powerful anger take over. He balled his fists, glaring into the acid. “Why don’t you prove it?”
“Oh, I will. I’ll prove it to your sweet girlfriend over there too, don’t you worry.”
Norman clenched his eyes shut, red hot fury flowing through him. “Sorry, but I don’t think she’ll be impressed. Nice magnum by the way. Compensating for something?”
The gun clicked. “Compensate a bullet up your ass, bitch!”
Norman felt the corner of his mouth rise. “You mad, Jack?”
The pressure of the gun moved away.
His elbow was deep in Jack’s gut, and Norman launched himself to the ground before he knew what was happening. As he covered his head, explosive pops echoed around him. Eerie silence fell, and then there was a heavy splash.
It took him a moment for him to breath again. He raised his head and looked behind him. Jack was gone, and a sickening sizzle rose from the vat of acid. The events of the last few seconds caught up to him one at a time, and Norman put it all together. He’d come so close to dying he could almost taste it. A surreal numbness fell over him. He was still alive.
A bolt of panic dashed through him, and he twisted to look at the office door. Ashley’s form had vanished, and then Norman heard a groan. Something moved on floor.
He scrambled onto his feet and sprinted, dropping to his knees at the doorway. Ashley stared up at him, flat on her back with the shotgun held to her chest. Her whole body trembled. Norman thought his heart would burst through his chest as held his hand over her body and sent out a beam of light. He let out the heaviest sigh of his life.
“We did it,” Ashley whispered, and a terrified smile played on her lips. “I had a plan and it worked.”
The office grew brighter as Norman pulled off his sunglasses. “You bet it did,” he said, taking the shotgun from her. He set it to the side and put his hand on Ashley’s shoulder to raise her up.
“I didn’t get us killed,” she said, bracing herself with one hand against the floor and rubbing her face with the other. “And… Jesus, I killed a guy.”
Norman cast a glance at the sizzling vat of acid. “You killed the shit out of him.” His senses came back to him, and he pinched the bridge of his nose as he laughed. Then he collapsed on his side next to her, shaking in uncontrollable laughter.
He rolled onto his back, his laughter breaking as his beaten scalp touched the ground. Gradually he quieted, breaking into a fit of snorts every few seconds. He stared up at the ceiling which was plotted with holes, and ran a hand over his face. It felt good to be alive.
Finally, he sat up, catching his breath. Ashley hadn’t moved, and her face was tense in concern. “Should I be worried?” she asked.
Norman smiled, bringing his knees up so he could rest his elbows against them, forehead in his hand. He nodded towards the acid bath which was still sizzling. "You want to call it in?"
"We can't not call it in," said Ashley. She put her face in her hands. "Not that it will get us anywhere."
"What do you mean?" said Norman.
"I couldn't find anything on a 1983 Chevy Malibu." Ashley closed her eyes as she ran a thumb over her lip. "It wasn't anywhere any of the logs. He probably didn’t keep a record of any illegal sales just in case…” She sighed. “... just in case anyone went looking.”
Norman turned the ARI glasses over in his hands. “I’m really tired of dead ends,” he said. He slipped the glasses over his face, and held his palm outward as a beam of light traveled through the office. The list scrolled next to him. “Filter,” he said. “Text.” The list paused for a second, then a second list appeared.
He was aware of Ashley watching him as he scrolled through the second list. It occurred to him how odd it must look from her perspective. He flicked away the irrelevant items until he had a small list of of unusual books.
Norman stood up, dusting off his suit, and held out his hand for Ashley to grab. “There’s a few handwritten logs in the filing cabinet behind you,” he said as Ashley stood up next to him. “I’m going to check in the desk.” Ashley’s wide eyes filled with focus as she turned away from him, and Norman kneeled in front of the desk as he searched through the drawers.
The desk was filled mostly with magazines and old receipts. Norman pushed aside a glass pipe, rifling through scattered paperwork. It seemed Jack did most of the business transactions himself. A sick feeling past through Norman as he remembered Jack was still dissolving in the acid bath. He rubbed the bruise on the back of his head. Jack could cook a while longer.
Norman glanced up at Ashley who had paused over a thick leather notebook. He stood up and moved towards her, looking over her shoulder. “2005 Toyota Corolla, new tires, paint job, plates…” He turned a page of the notebook, energy flowing through him. “1995 Corvette, Dodge Charger, plates and tags. This is it.” He put a finger to his glasses. “Scan, 1983 Cheverolet Malibu. Ashley, start at the first page and keep turning the pages until I tell you to stop,” he said.
Ashley flipped the pages to the front. Norman focused as red squares appeared over each entry. They rearranged themselves as each page turned. “Quicker,” he said. She put her thumb against the pages and flipped them so that they were nearly a blur. “Stop.” Norman stared at an entry as Ashley held the notebook open. “Okay, keep going.” The air blew against his face as she flipped the pages again. He took note of the years on the entries, gradually heading upward. It would have been anywhere between 2006 and 2011 that the car was sold.
“Stop,” he said. He moved closer to Ashley’s shoulder as he stared at the entry. He pressed his finger against it. “1983 red Chevrolet Malibu January 2007… blue paint job, tires, oil, plates.” His heart quickened as he read the details. “Sold April 2007. Paco Mendez.”
Ashley turned to him, excitement in her eyes. “You think this is the car?”
“This is the car,” said Norman, forming a square in front of him using his hands. “And this could be the killer. Paco Mendez. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” He drew his hands apart, forming a summary with an image of a man in front of him. He scanned the summary, feeling a cloud of dread fall over him. He hadn’t expected this. Scrapyards and mud were one thing, but this…
Norman crossed his arms and pressed a knuckle to his mouth. The more he thought about it, the more he knew he didn’t want to do it. It took him a while to notice Ashley still watching him, the leather notebook closed against her chest. Norman cleared his throat.
“Maybe you should…” He motioned toward the doorway. “You should call that in.”
“Are you sure?” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. “You look kind of sick.”
Norman nodded, adjusting the ARI. “There’s not going to be much left of him if we wait around.” Ashley’s brown eyes clenched shut, and she shook her head as she pulled her phone from her back jeans pocket. She moved out of the office, and Norman turned back to the text.
He flicked through the summary which was much longer than he anticipated. But the more he read, the more he became convinced that Paco was not the Origami Killer. The man was obsessed with two things: drugs and sex, in any shape or form. Besides a brief period in jail for drug trafficking, Paco’s rap sheet was fairly clear. Even Norman could see the man was a pig, not the deeply disturbed killer he was looking for.
Norman swept the summary away and removed his glasses, rubbing his eyes. Origami Killer or not, Paco owned the killer’s car. And that meant there was a fairly good chance he knew the Origami Killer himself.
Norman turned to the doorway, and realized Ashley’s voice was growing louder. He stepped out of the office and moved towards her.
“Wait, what?” Ashley slowly spun in a circle, head tilted sideways against her phone. “No I didn’t hear that!” She looked at Norman, and her eyes grew wide. “That’s… that’s great!” The forced joy in her voice nearly made Norman laugh, and he ran a hand over his mouth to be sure he wasn’t smiling. “Yeah, we’ll be right there.” She straightened and looked at Norman, terror lined in her face. It stopped Norman’s heart cold, and he slowly lowered his hand.
“They tracked Ethan Mars to a motel,” she said. “He’s been arrested.”