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The Zero Hour

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Utahime watched the blood drain from her young partner’s face when her eyes landed on the crime scene. Detective Kasumi was a bright girl, which was obvious from the way she’d made detective at such a young age, but Utahime didn’t think the homicide division was a good fit for her. Honestly, looking over her, she didn’t seem like a good fit for any division on the police force, but Utahime didn’t question her new partner’s decisions.

Still, as she gaped at the horrific murder, Miwa might be questioning them herself.

Allowing the younger detective a little more time to get a hold of herself, Utahime lifted the crime scene tape and slipped underneath. When a beat cop stepped forward to stop her, she flashed her badge, along with a quick smile, and the man backed off. She was fully aware of the fact that she didn’t look like much – short, lithe, and a bit dainty, Utahime looked closer to secretary – but she’d been a cop for ten years, a detective for three of them. She’d tear that idiot apart.

Nonetheless, Utahime knew when it was time to fight and when to be polite. You caught more flies with honey than a swatter, or so she told herself every time she had to bite her tongue over some sexist bullshit that came with the job. She’d probably been held back more than once because of her mouth in her youth, so she’d learned to be more...pleasant. It was annoying, but she’d use whatever was at her disposal to do her job.

And right now, her job didn’t involve getting into an argument about discrimination in the workplace. It centered on the dead woman propped up against a brick wall in an alley. Stopping in front of the body, she glanced up at the apartment building, taking note of the nearest windows to the scene, and then to the sky. At least it wasn’t raining like last time. She used to love the rain as a child, thinking it sounded magical as each droplet struck the roof, but now all she could think about was how much evidence was washed down the sewers.

Pulling a pair of latex gloves out of her pocket, Utahime slipped them on and crouched down to the same level as the body. She made quick, basic observations first: dark hair just past the shoulders, naturally pale skin, probably around her mid-twenties. The woman appeared to be in relatively good shape, save for the fact that she was dead. Her face was clear of makeup, but upon lifting one of her hands, Utahime found that her nails were painted. It looked new, maybe no more than a day or two old, although some of her nails were chipped and broken, like she’d put up a fight.

What stood out the most, of course, were the long deep cuts along the skin, making her look like a cracked porcelain doll. They were sewn up with thick black thread, the stitching uneven, but there wasn’t an ounce of blood on the skin. It was unnerving.

“Any ID?” Utahime asked politely.

The beat cop standing nearby, a seemingly bored Officer Mai Zenin, shook her head. “No, but that figures.”

“She’s a sex worker?”

Mai scoffed. “Well, with that outfit in this area? Of course.”

Utahime frowned up at the officer, and Mai’s face went blank again. She hoped that the female officers in her division would at least be better about such things, but it was a hard ideology to shake, especially when they came from Vice as Mai had. Utahime had come from there herself, having transferred to Homicide when she made detective, but she liked to think she’d learned her lessons.

If she’s a worker, she’d probably have a purse or clutch on her person,” Utahime pointed out, returning her attention to the victim. “It’s not like you can hide money in your bra or underwear if you plan on taking it off with your next client.”

“Don’t need to take off your shirt for a blow job or quickie in a car,” Mai muttered under her breath, which earned her another quick sharp look from Utahime. Assumptions like that were exactly how evidence was missed and cases went unsolved. Mai rolled her eyes and added in a more professional tone, “We haven’t found one yet.”

“Keep looking – stretch out the perimeter if need be,” Utahime ordered as she examined the victim again. “There might be an ID for us to find there or some clue about her most recent whereabouts.”

Officer Mai nodded and left to bark the new orders at other officers. She was good at telling people what to do. She might’ve become something more if she showed an actual interest in anything instead of just contempt for those she protected and served. Utahime sighed, her gaze soft on the woman before her. In truth, she didn’t expect to find a purse belonging to the victim, not when this was clearly a body dump, but it wouldn’t do good to cut corners.

Even worse, it had all the markings of posing.

The very first thing Utahime noticed, above all, was the woman’s face. It stood out clear as day to her. Although the stitching looked messy, it would’ve taken a lot of time to do. Even in a desolate area like this, the killer couldn’t have done that here without being spotted multiple times. A lot of people that lived here worked second and third shifts. Cops weren’t trusted in these parts. She could see people peeking out between the curtains of their windows, not even turning on the lights, but risking interruption or civilian intervention would’ve still been too great.

Plus, her face was so clean, as if she’d been washed after death. A worker would’ve worn some sort of makeup. It was a difficult life, one that revolved around putting a mask to cover up the sins. Where was the bright lipstick and bright eyeshadow to make her look young and vibrant? The dark lipstick and smokey eyeshadow to make her look sultry and tempting? Her skin was too clear. She lacked the lines of someone that worked the streets, the telltale signs that Utahime had learned to memorize when she worked in Vice.

The woman’s clothes didn’t fit either. The short skirt, camisole, glittery jacket, and high heels looked like something a sex worker might wear – in a movie or television show. Winter was still clinging to the city. Sometimes, the rain turned to slush or flurries midway through the day. She wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes out here in that outfit. The women and men that worked the streets this time of year knew how to protect themselves against the weather at least, if not for the people that picked them up.

She carefully picked at the woman’s clothes, opening up the jacket to see if there was anything else hidden on the body, but it appeared clean from what she could see. The pockets were empty, which made sense. If the clothes were put on the victim post-mortem, as they appeared to be since they were so clean and wrinkle-free, then the only evidence left behind would’ve been from the killer, likely on purpose. A price tag would’ve been helpful at this point.

Utahime propped her forearms on her knees and sighed as they gazed at the body, fighting the urge to rub the scar on her face. That habit, one she’d forced herself to drop a few months after receiving the scar, came crawling back ever since the previous victim had been found. This wasn’t going to make it any easier. The precinct psychiatrist would probably want to pull her in for a session or two, but she wasn’t overly fond of the idea, even if she pressed its importance to her younger colleagues.

“Oh, what do we have here? Is that Detective Iori I see?”

Utahime instantly tensed up at the sound of that voice, especially when she heard her own name. She twisted her head around, only to press her lips into a thin line when she caught sight of none other than Satoru Gojo, the last person she ever wanted to see again. His tailored suit, which fit him perfectly, along with the nice watch peeking out from the sleeve of his suit jacket screamed Major Case. He ducked under the crime scene tape and strode toward her with a level of confidence that dove past the line of arrogance, a shit-eating grin on his face.

He looked good, and even worse, he knew it.

“Fancy seeing you here, Utahime,” Gojo quipped cheerily.

Utahime bolted upright. “What’s he doing here? This isn’t in your jurisdiction.”

“Isn’t it?” Gojo tilted his sunglasses down, peering at her innocently, but anyone that wore glasses when it was still dark outside had to be an asshole. “Oh well! Guess I’ll just have to tell the Chief of Detectives that he was wrong.”

Her glare turned more suspicious. “What?”

“I’m sorry!” Detective Miwa burst, appearing from behind Gojo. She looked flustered, her cheeks dusted pink with blush, and her eyes darted from Gojo to Utahime as if she didn’t know where to look. Utahime couldn’t fault her. As much as he annoyed her, Gojo drew everyone’s eyes to him no matter what. “He showed up with his partner and waved his credentials – not that he needs any because he’s Detective Satoru Gojo – and then his partner said they’d been called to the scene.”

“No,” Utahime said flatly. “No, no, get out.” She jerked the latex gloves off her hands with a snap and shoved them into her jacket pockets, stomping toward him as she did so until she was right in front of him. “This is our case! This is not your jurisdiction. Maybe you were Homicide before, but why don’t you go back to playing the mayor’s lapdog, huh?”

“Aw, c’mon, Utahime,” Gojo teased. “Don’t be like that. We can be friends, can’t we?”

Utahime narrowed her eyes. “No, we can’t. You made that very clear.”

“Did I?” Gojo scratched his chin.

Before Utahime could figure out how to skin him alive with her words and get him the hell out of her crime scene, a young man’s voice piped up, “Um, Detective Iori?”

“What?” she snapped, spinning around to find the next person to interrupt her. She softened when she found a young beat cop looking back at her. He’d startled at her snappish response, standing upright with wide eyes. “Oh, you were the first officer on the scene.”

“Yeah, I, um, I found her,” the officer said awkwardly. He looked like a good kid, although it was hard to tell these days. Young, fresh, and judging by the way his eyes darted to the body and then back to them, obviously wounded by this experience. She had planned on searching for him next to pull any details out of him, but Gojo had interrupted her thought process. “About Detective Gojo… We were actually radioed a few minutes ago and told that Major Case would be taking over.”

Utahime stared back at him. “Are you kidding me?”

“Wow, I guess this is my jurisdiction now!” Gojo exclaimed in mock-shock.

“Don’t be so rude,” his partner scolded as he met up with them. Detective Nanami was more formal, his suit less expensive and his shoes more practical. Unlike Gojo’s handsome, windswept hair, his was neatly done, as if he hadn’t been pulled out of bed at such an odd hour. Holding out a hand to Utahime, he continued, “My apologies for my partner’s annoying behavior. He gets a kick out of stealing cases from under people’s noses, but that’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re simply responding to orders that were given to us.”

While she certainly wasn’t happy about it, Nanami’s more professional manners managed to soothe Utahime’s wounded pride, so she shook his hand. “What’s the reason? It’s not like Major Case is called to take over a supposed sex worker’s death. I would’ve expected Special Victims before you all.” Utahime narrowed her eyes and retracted her hand. “Unless she’s tied to someone important. Don’t tell me one of her clients is someone in politics. We don’t even know her name yet.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Nanami explained carefully. “This...isn’t the first crime with this kind of specific MO.”

“I know.” Utahime folded her arms across her chest, looking at both Nanami and Gojo. “I caught the first one four months ago, which is another reason why this is my case.”

“The second one,” Nanami corrected.

That knocked Utahime back for a second. “Second?”

“And this is actually the fourth one of its kind,” Nanami continued. “The fourth in a series of murders that are very likely connected.”

Utahime paled, raising a hand to her mouth. “You’re not suggesting…”

“I am,” Nanami confirmed, nodding solemnly. “We might have a serial killer operating in the city.” His gaze drifted behind her to the victim. Normally, they would’ve been loaded into a vehicle to be taken to the medical examiner’s office, but Nanami must’ve told them to wait. “The first potential case was caught around seven months ago – same MO and everything, down to the stitches and change of clothes.”

“You already noticed that then,” Utahime surmised.

“Just checking all the markers of the previous cases,” Nanami said. “And with the potential for a serial killer, once the Chief was alerted, we were called in.”

Shit. That definitely changed things, but it didn’t change how Utahime felt about this case. She’d been on the force for longer than Gojo and Nanami, and while she might not be a detective in the prestigious Major Case squad, she still felt an obligation to this case. A copy of the file for the previous murder was currently locked away in a file cabinet in her apartment so she could pour over it whenever she struggled to sleep. She didn’t have the same amount of solved cases under her belt as them and currently had a rookie for a partner, but she couldn’t just let it slide.

“You tried your best,” Gojo sighed. “No need to be a sore loser about it, Utahime.”

“This isn’t about winning or losing, you arrogant asshat!” Utahime snapped, that anger bursting to life inside her all over again. “Can you stop being inappropriate for one minute? I don’t expect you to respect me, but please, for the love of God, show some respect for the victim. I don’t care who she was and what she did for a living. She lost her life in a horrific way.”

Gojo held up his hands in surrender. “Of course, of course. This is a tragedy.” He dropped his hands, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “A very interesting tragedy, for sure, but one nonetheless.”

Utahime threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know why I even tried with you. Nothing has changed.”

“Aw, c’mon, Utahime, you know it’s not like that.” Gojo pocketed his hands and rocked on the heels of his expensive shoes, his eyes flickering to the dead woman behind Utahime. “This job is so damn depressing. If I don’t crack some jokes, I might actually lose it. We all handle the stress of the job differently. Where’s your infamous compassion?”

Pressing her lips into a thin line, Utahime stared back at him for a few seconds before she finally conceded. Taking a deep breath, she held up a hand and then turned away, unwilling to look at him a moment longer. Gojo wasn’t wrong. Everyone handled the job differently, even if there were some similarities along the way. The precinct psychiatrist had pointed out more than once that Utahime took to drinking whenever a case particularly rattled her. Seedy bars always brought her back to her Vice days.

For however fucked up they’d been, she had understood her assignment back then. Now that she was in Homicide, she just felt like she was in an endless cycle of death.

“May I?” Nanami asked, nodding to the victim. A handful of techs from the coroner’s office were hanging around awkwardly, not quite sure what to do as the case changed hands.

Utahime gestured vaguely and stepped aside. “No need to ask me anymore, I guess.”

As Nanami made his way to the victim and began to conduct his own examination, Utahime hung back, feeling her heart sink. She could already hear the request to send over her file for the other victim she’d caught four months ago. Some cops were loath to share, feeling territorial, but Utahime had never understood that. The case wasn’t about her; it was about the young woman who hadn’t yet received any justice. She’d do anything to give that to her, even stepping on her own ego.

“You know, this is kind of more your world, isn’t it?” Gojo piped up.

Utahime eyed him sideways. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you worked these streets – as a cop, I mean,” Gojo pointed out. “You’re familiar with what it’s like out here – for the women, the men, the kids. It’s not something that neither Nanami nor I would understand immediately, although I’m sure Nanami is ready to research.”

Planting her hands on her hips, Utahime flatly demanded, “What are you getting at, Gojo?”

“Your input could be valuable to these cases,” Gojo stated, staring down at her without blinking, not even when she widened her eyes in surprise. It wasn’t like Gojo to compliment people. He was a rude, arrogant bastard – and he normally had the right to be so. “Not to mention you’re already involved since you worked the second victim’s case.” He pulled off his sunglasses, twirling them around between his fingers. “I could perhaps see if you the case as a consultant.”

“A partner,” Utahime corrected. “I want to be on equal footing.”

Gojo whistled and leaned back dramatically. “I dunno about that.”

“Fine, whatever, I don’t care,” Utahime said heatedly, stepping closer to him. “I want to remain on the case. Label me as a consultant – don’t even put my name in the documents.”

 “Hm, no, I think you’re worth more than that,” Gojo mused. “I’d hate to waste your talent.”

Utahime resisted the urge to slap him across the face. She knew he was waiting for her to retaliate, as she had done so many times before when they first crossed paths, but she wouldn’t do it. She’d grown since then, hence why she’d been able to make detective and transfer to Homicide. She was worth more than that, and she had to work twice as hard as any man to prove that. She could survive her ego being bruised a little.

And if one thing was for certain, she could survive Gojo. She’d proven that once already.

Gojo held out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”

It was so innocuous, but Utahime felt like shaking his hand might be akin to shaking the devil’s. He was a better man than that, sure, but he was annoying as hell – and she had told herself that she would never deal with him again, much less work alongside him once more.

Nonetheless, Utahime bit her tongue and shook his hand. “Deal.”

A grin tugged at Gojo’s lips. “Together again. I missed this.”

Utahime jerked her hand out of his grip. She hadn’t.