"Tick tock, detective. You're running out of time."
Hayden Knight didn't recognize the taunting voice. He couldn't see where it was coming from. As he searched through the dark for it, he knew he wouldn't find it. He was dreaming. Still, the words made his stomach feel sour and heavy.
The lips that brushed against his ear were cold, like marble in shadows. He didn't turn his head. He knew what she looked like. He'd seen her before. Her skin was paper white. Thin blue veins throbbed under the surface. Blood ran from her wide dark eyes, and snakes writhed in her black hair. Her icicle fingers brushed his cheek. Her touch was as devoid of emotion as it was of warmth. Without any breath passing through her mouth, she whispered, "The noise of thunder shall cease."
Hayden woke up, half startled but unable to remember why. Thunder rolled over the noise of raindrops slapping the window behind him. He'd fallen asleep at his desk again. He looked at his wrist, but his watch wasn't there. He didn't remember taking it off.
He wasn't alone in the office. Skylar Dvorak, a thief who had become a more than reliable informant, was drawn up into a chair near the door watching the rain wriggle down the glass. The dark smudges under his eyes weren't just from lack of sleep. "What time is it?" Hayden asked.
Sky pushed up the sleeve of his baggy grey sweater, studied Hayden's watch and announced the time in Russian.
"Can I have my watch back?"
Sky slipped the watch off and pulled his hand back into the sleeve, but Hayden saw the fat purple imprints of violent fingers on Sky's slender, pale wrist. Sky dropped the watch into Hayden's palm and didn't meet his eyes.
"If you don't stop going back to him, I will call the cops," Hayden said.
"It's none of your business."
"Or worse, I'll go see him myself."
"Go to my place and get some sleep."
"All right. But I had to tell you something first. There was ... a body found about two hours ago down by the mineshaft. They don't know what happened, but I think you should go to the station."
Sky turned his eyes away from Hayden and back to the gloom of the morning storm. Something in the set of his mouth and the hard sheen of his eyes made Hayden's stomach feel like blocks of ice had been dropped down his throat. Thunder purred while the rain continued to scratch at the glass.
Tears bubbled in Sky's eyes. "I didn't want to tell you. They were acting weird. I had to see. I knew they wouldn't tell you until it was too late. It was Taren."
Hayden felt cold lips against his ear. He pressed his hand to his mouth. He wanted to call Sky a liar. There was no way Taren was dead. Hayden watched the tears glide down Sky's cheeks.
"I didn't want to be the one to have to tell you," Sky said. He rubbed at his tears and folded his arms across his chest. "You need to get down there. Something's not right about it."
Hayden put his watch on and stared at its white face. He told himself to do something, get up, cry, scream, anything, but his body refused to respond. He couldn't reach for a cigarette. He couldn't pour a drink. Taren was dead.
There was a loud thud against the window. Sky took a step back and banged his hip on the corner of the desk. Hayden looked at the window. Streaks of blood oozed down the glass. Hayden opened the window and looked down. A crow, its neck broken, lay on the ground. Rain and blood glistened in its glossy feathers.
"Just a stupid bird," Hayden said.
Sky nodded and turned for the door.
Hayden closed the window. He wasn't sure he believed the crow had just gotten confused and broken its neck when it hit the window. If it had hit hard enough to break its neck, why didn't the window crack? But he couldn't worry about the crow. Taren was dead.
When Hayden turned away from the window, Sky was gone. Hayden sat down and pulled a cigarette from the crumpled pack. There were two left. He lit the one he put in his mouth but couldn't smoke it. He stabbed it out. He glanced at the window again, and then he got up and ran though the growling storm to the police station.
Hayden shook the rain off as best he could. It clung to him like cobwebs. He rubbed his face and his hair and tried to keep himself from running down the hallway to the homicide division. He felt like a grenade. He passed by, and people exploded into whispers. That alone told him that what Sky had said was true. Taren was dead.
Taren's desk was empty and neat. It was the only thing Taren had ever kept that clean. When Taren was at his desk, its neatness was a tribute to his father, Robert, who had been one of the city's finest detectives and Hayden's mentor when he first got to homicide. In Taren's absence, the neatness felt like death.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hayden saw Lieutenant Kenneth Taylor watching through the blinds on the window as Hayden paused beside Taren's desk. When Kenneth stepped away from the window, Hayden caught a glimpse of Commissioner Patrick Chelios sitting in front of the desk, no doubt wanting to know how Hayden found out about what happened to Taren.
Kenneth sat down behind his desk just as Hayden opened the door.
"When were you planning to tell me?" Hayden asked.
"It just happened. We're trying to get the facts straight," Kenneth said. "Shut the door. Sit down."
Hayden did both and glared at Patrick.
"Right now, it looks like an accident. A really ... terrible accident. There were no witnesses. It just - "
"An accident? At the mine? What the fuck was he doing out there at three in the morning? And how the hell did you know where to look if there were no witnesses?"
"An anonymous 911 call. I haven't heard the tape yet."
"Why was he there? Was it a case he was working on?"
"I ... I don't know, Hayden. I wish I did. Look, I - "
"So why is he here?" Hayden cocked his head at Patrick.
"I'm here, Mr. Knight, to warn you that this case, no matter your relationship to the victim, is not something you need to be involved in," Patrick said. "You are no longer a member of this police force. You don't have the authority to investigate this matter. The best thing for you to do is simply stay out of the way."
Hayden stared at Patrick.
"Do you understand me, Mr. Knight?"
"My squire is dead, and you expect me to do nothing. You expect me to sit here and let you come to the conclusion that it was an accident. That's bullshit. It wasn't an accident. He was murdered, and I'm going to find out who did it. So no. I suppose I don't understand you, Commissioner."
"I assure you that if there is any foul play involved in Detective Chase's death, the people in this department are more than capable of finding the culprit."
"I suggest you watch your tone of voice, Mr. Knight."
Hayden stood up and turned towards the door.
"Hayden, wait a second," Kenneth said. "Don't rush out just yet. The fact is that we don't know yet. It looks like an accident. There were no bullet wounds or knife wounds or anything that we could flat out say was murder. It looked like ... it looked like his heart exploded. But we won't know for sure until the autopsy is done."
"When is it?"
"This afternoon at two."
"Do you mind me being there?"
"Not at all."
"I think I have to disapprove of that," Patrick said.
"Disapprove all you want. I think he should at least be allowed that. And personally, I don't mind a little help from the private sector."
Patrick narrowed his eyes. "This doesn't mean he's involved in the investigation. Provided there is an investigation. I understand that Mr. Knight has a great deal of experience with matters like this, however, I must reiterate that he is no longer a member of this police force and will not be allowed to conduct any kind of investigation on his own."
"Hayden ... "
"Whatever," Hayden said. "Have you told Monica?"
"No. I was hoping ... I mean, since you were close to the family."
"I'm no longer a member of the police force. I thought it would be an officer's duty to inform the family."
"That's mean. You're right. But that's mean. I'll go with you. I was supposed to be off duty five hours ago anyway."
Kenneth stood up and tried to ignore Patrick's glare as he walked to the door. They both knew that Hayden wasn't going to stay out of it. It didn't matter what either of them said. Hayden wouldn't be satisfied with any answers but the ones he got for himself.
"By the way, Mr. Knight," Patrick said as he stood up. There was a smug grin on his face. Hayden wasn't sure if he wanted to punch Patrick or spit on him. Or maybe both. "How did you find out so quickly?"
"I don't have to tell you anything," Hayden said.
"Do you want to lose your p.i.'s license?"
"I don't need a license to - "
"Careful now, Mr. Knight. Don't say anything you'll regret. Who told you?"
"The shadow knows."
Hayden followed Kenneth towards the garage. He paused by the board. Under Taren's name were six names in red. Riley, Stillwater, Portman, Hardy, Bancroft and Osgood. He knew Osgood. Kurt Osgood was a reporter for a tabloid called The Burning Question. Hayden wondered if Osgood had figured something out, but there had been no talk of a serial killer. The rumor was that Osgood's killer was someone he'd written a story about. The police had no suspect, but the city suspected another reporter named Conrad Satan. The two had always hated each other, and Osgood was determined to uncover whatever secrets Satan was keeping. Hayden figured talking to Satan was a good place to start, and even if he didn't know anything, he'd be more than happy to find out. But first, Hayden had to get through the rest of the day. He would have to get through a funeral. He would have to convince himself that no amount of alcohol would bring Taren back. Taren was dead.
Kenneth put his hand on Hayden's shoulder. "Come on, Hayden," he said.
Monica Chase was standing in the doorway when they pulled into the driveway. She already knew her son was dead. They sat in the living room while Kenneth tried to explain to her what had happened and what would happen next. As they left, Monica pulled Hayden aside. "Please tell me you're not going to let this go," she said. "It wasn't an accident. I know that."
"There isn't much I can do right now," Hayden said. "But no, I won't let it go. I'll figure out what really happened."
Hayden hadn't felt sick during an autopsy since the very first one almost twenty years ago. He'd gotten used to the smell of blood and the sounds of flesh and bone being opened. He'd gotten used to seeing bodies on the table. He'd never known any of them, and they had never been anything more than victims to him. It was different when he looked down at the table and knew the face he saw lying there under the lights.
He couldn't bring himself to get closer to the table. Even from a few feet away, he could see that something had torn open Taren's body. There were bits of bone sticking out of his flesh along his right arm and chest. His right arm looked like it had been twisted a full three hundred and sixty degrees and was dangling from damaged tendons at the shoulder and elbow. His right hand was in splinters, and his palm had sustained third degree burns. His left side was damaged almost the same way, though the injuries were nowhere near as severe. The burn on his left hand was a pentagram.
Taren's heart had exploded, tearing open his chest with so much force that his ribs had turned to dust. Several pieces of tissue and bone lay on a tray at the head of the table.
"Cause of death looks to be cardiac failure," the medical examiner, Kate Shannahan, said.
If Hayden hadn't been afraid to open his mouth, he would have argued that cardiac explosion and cardiac failure were very different things and that hearts didn't tend to explode on their own, but he said nothing.
"What causes someone's heart to explode?" Kenneth asked. "This isn't like he just had a heart attack or something."
"Looks to me like he was trying to open something that didn't want to be opened."
"This doesn't make sense."
"I can't say there's foul play here, Lt.. I know you don't wanna hear that, and believe me, I'd rather tell you this was murder. But I can't."
Hayden looked at the burn on Taren's left hand. "What about that?" he asked.
"I don't know. Weird coincidence?"
"He has a pentagram branded into his hand and all you can tell me is weird coincidence?"
"Hayden, I don't know. That's not what killed him. If his heart hadn't exploded, he might have survived these injuries. I'm sorry. I don't know what else to tell you."
"This wasn't an accident."
Hayden left the police station after one more warning from Kenneth to leave the case alone. The warnings weren't going to do any good. Hayden knew in his gut that Taren's death wasn't an accident, and his gut feelings were never wrong.
They were awake. The three women looked at each other and at their hands. Their hands were clean and empty. That was wrong. Their hands should hold brass studded scourges and be red with the blood of the wicked. They had been asleep far too long. The sinners had gone too long without knowing what true punishment felt like.
They listened and heard the screams of the wronged. A wave of blood washed up the temple steps, bathed their feet and stained the hems of their white robes. Then they changed.
Their clothes became rags stained with blood and smeared with dirt. Their bodies grew lean and hard. Blood dripped from their eyes, and black snakes twisted in their hair. They descended the steps of the temple, wading through the blood as it continued to rise and swirl. The sinners ran before their terrifying aspect, but the Furies pursued. This time, they would not be placated.
San Desperado was a city that loved to speculate. When they were given an explanation, they ignored it and came up with more interesting theories. Hayden often wondered if they were just bored or if they were so starved for attention that they'd make up anything to get the nation's eye turned their way. When the news came out that a detective had been found dead near the mineshaft, he refused to watch the news coverage. He didn't turn on the radio. He wouldn't read the papers when the story started to hit the street. He watched the rain, thought about the crow with the broken neck and tried to ignore the nauseating twist in his stomach that told him that Taren was dead and that it wasn't an accident.
By the time the black day had faded into purple evening, the bottle of bourbon Hayden kept in the bottom drawer of his desk was empty. The pack of cigarettes Julian Geiger, his secretary, had gotten him had only a few loose pieces of tobacco stuck in the folds of the foil that lined the box. But he hadn't been able to cry.
Julian had offered to go home with him, but the last thing he needed was to be reminded that there were still people in the world he cared about. So he stumbled home through the rain alone, stopping at the liquor store for more bourbon and cigarettes.
His bed had been slept in but was empty when he got there. He was drunk enough to consider going to pay Sky's lover a visit and making sure the bastard didn't hit Sky any more. He was drunk enough to forget that consideration as soon as he sat down on the couch and opened the bottle.
He sat in the dark, watching the purple lightning throw ghosts around the room. He felt the cold lips on his ear, and the breathless voice whispered, "The noise of thunder has ceased, and you shall be his roar."