Remember those places called Bookstores? There used to be a lot of them. Not so many anymore. I’d go multiple times a week when they were plentiful, and one of the great things about browsing for books was picking one up and reading the first few chapters before deciding to buy.
Today, in our digital age, you can sample at any major online retailer that sells eBooks. And you can also sample right here 🙂
Below are the opening chapters of my novel Cop Killer, the first book in the District One thriller series. If you enjoy it, I hope you’ll pick up a copy by following the links at the end of the sample.
A fat jogger found the first victim.
He was halfway through his morning run, huffing hard as he approached the bridge over the creek that cut through Willmore Park, chilled breath billowing from him like steam from an ancient, rasping locomotive. When his feet slapped the first boards of the wooden span he was determined to not slow. Had told himself there would be no respite until he reached the gate at the far side of the park.
But a few yards onto the creaking structure he was at a dead stop, grabbing the rail, ample upper half leaning over it as he sucked great gulps of air. His head hung, gaze fixed on the rippling water a dozen feet below, flotsam generated upstream drifting past. Wispy sheets of skim ice ripped from the shore by the steady current. The last of autumn’s deadfall, tawny leaves and snapped twigs.
And a half-naked man, face down, the swift current dragging him fast toward the shallows ahead.
The jogger bolted upright, gasping, eyes locked on the sickening sight. He backed away from the rail, shaken and stumbling, then found his footing and raced off the bridge, disappearing into the park at a dead run.
That was the first thought that raced through Jack James’ head when he felt the void next to him. It was an irrational consideration, no problems in their fourteen year marriage even hinting at the possibility, but that dread still throttled his heart in the instant before he heard the sound of water from the next room.
He opened his eyes and rolled to look beyond the empty space in the mattress, through the open door to the master bath, fixing on the opaque glass shower wall, Olivia’s muted form shifting almost rhythmically beneath the steaming spray. She was a vision he’d been blessed with. A prize he had no right claiming. So far out of his league it was laughable. She’d joke on occasion that he was still on the good-looking side of forty, and he knew that she meant it. The mirror still looked back at him with a slightly aged version of the college athlete he’d been. A little grey at the temples. A bit more sore in the knees.
Just a few years separated them, yet Olivia wore that extra time so much better than he did. She owned it. Store clerks, usually college kids trying to sprout a passable goatee, still carded her for that bottle of chardonnay, but rewinding the clock to be young again held no allure for her. She’d been there, done that, and had, as she put it, graduated to a place of contentment. With him. Because of him. Accepting that reality had brought him great satisfaction. Great strength. An abundance of thankfulness.
He would do anything for her. Anything to provide for her. To craft the existence she deserved. To protect her and the life they’d made. All were unspoken promises that he knew she had never doubted. Had never questioned. So it was beyond silly that he would think she might be gone, even in the fleeting space between sleep and the waking world.
Jack eased himself up, legs over the side of the bed, gaze lingering on her foggy figure as he sat there.
“Are you just going to look?” Olivia said, head turning beyond the misted glass, her words more invitation than question as she faced him.
Jack stood slowly. Marveling for a moment at the obscured definition of her body as she inched toward the glass. The curves of her hips, the rise of her breasts, the flow of her motion. But he could look only so long. He needed to touch. To feel. To embrace and kiss and savor with abandon. Two steps took him to the doorway that separated bedroom from bathroom, and another three would carry him to the wide shower entrance where they would lose themselves, entwined, forsaking inhibition.
But that was not to be. He drew no closer to the shower. No nearer to her. His cell buzzing on the nightstand behind ensured that.
He hesitated in the doorway, letting it sound through two grating rings, wishing it would stop. Such a brief attempt at contact signaling certain unimportance. Something that could wait.
But it rang a third time. And a fourth.
“You have to answer it,” Olivia said, still and magnificent beyond the glass.
Jack said nothing, nodding as he turned and crossed to the nightstand. Snatching his cell up on the sixth ring.
“Yeah?” He listened next, a focused surety about him, mental registers seizing on the minutia of what he was being told. Committing details to memory. “Okay. Thirty minutes.”
He ended the call and put his cell down. Glanced back to the shower again, Olivia tipping her head back beneath the rain of water from above, long black hair cascading over her shoulders.
“Shit,” Jack muttered to himself, then reached to the nightstand drawer and slid it open, holstered pistol within, gold detective shield gleaming atop it.
The real world beckoned.
The bus lumbered away from the curb, spitting a cloud of exhaust that billowed around Danny Owen as he watched from the sidewalk. When it was lost in traffic a quarter-mile down the boulevard he didn’t move. Just stood in the chill and the stench of diesel and stared at where it had been.
It was cold. January cold. The four layers above his waist—old flannel, older sweatshirt, worn hoodie, and surplus field coat—did little to keep the chill at bay. It bore through, digging at his bones. A penetrating ache that he embraced. Wanting to feel it. To feel anything except the throb hammering behind his eyes.
He’d woken with it. Again. After a night of deep sleep and dark dreams. Visions where he screamed at his sister and reveled in watching her collapse into a heap of tears as twisted hands reached up from below and grabbed her. Inhuman appendages that pulled and dragged her wailing into a gash opened in the earth. He’d laughed as she disappeared and the hole closed around her like a wound scabbing over.
That wasn’t the worst he’d dreamed of Jen. His sleep had raged with thoughts of her for months now, and he’d begun to wonder if the headaches were punishment for playing host to creations so vile. Could the onslaught of pain be some sort of penance? His due to pay the piper?
“Screw it,” Danny muttered to himself, squinting as a bolt of sun sliced through the overcast and throttled the pain in his head until it was pure fire. He turned from the harsh slap of brightness. Toward the building behind, five floors of apartments topping the bodega, bright advertisements plastered inside its front windows promising the best prices on beer, wine, snacks, cigarettes, none of which he wanted right then.
An electronic bell wired to the door chirped cheerily as he entered, ignoring the Korean clerk as he made his way to the cold cases at the back of the store, suspicious eyes following him as he passed shelves of chips and candy and toothbrushes and tampons. He scouted the beverage offerings behind glass, finding what he wanted, what he needed, opening the case and plucking the tall can of energy drink. It was some brand no different than the others, something called Noize, little more than sugar and caffeine in quantities meant to jolt one’s system. He popped it open and guzzled half the contents, pausing to wipe his lips with the back of his sleeve and toss a glance at the rigid clerk fixed hard on him. Revulsion in the gaze. Distrust. All masking what Danny knew the man truly felt—fear.
Screw it, Danny thought this time, and walked up the aisle, grabbing a bottle of aspirin and aiming himself at the front of the store. The clerk, name badge pinned to his shirt branding him Cho, moved not an inch. Not toward the register next to him. Nor toward the pistol hidden on a shelf just below the counter top. Only his eyes appeared to shift. Tracking Danny as he swung left at the end of the aisle, heading for the door.
The clerk’s singular challenge stopped Danny like a tripwire, some explosive danger just a poorly-chosen word from being triggered.
“You gotta pay.”
Danny turned toward the clerk and approached the counter, standing with the narrow slab of worn wood between them. He reached into his pocket, the clerk seeming to lean back a barely perceptible inch at the move, the instinct to recoil in contest with some determined stoicism. When his hand came out it laid flat upon the counter, something beneath it.
“You wanna make something of this?” Danny challenged the man. “With me? Today you’re gonna make your stand?”
The clerk didn’t answer. Had no time to craft a reply, of either bombast or acquiescence, before a short blast of siren sounded from the street outside. Danny ignored the electronic scream, but the clerk’s gaze angled to the front of the store. Just beyond the glass a plain blue sedan was nosed sharply at the curb, red and blue lights pulsing briefly behind the grill before going dark, driver just a silhouette at the wheel.
Danny held his hand in place for a moment, gaze fixed hard on the clerk as the man looked back to him, then eased it aside to reveal the detective’s shield and its black leather holder.
“Is there a problem?” Danny asked, knowing the answer already as the clerk stared at the badge, jaw quivering despite his best efforts. “Is there?”
The clerk looked to Danny and shook his head. “No problem.”
Danny pocketed his badge and made his way out of the bodega, the bell chirping merrily as he left.
Danny stopped just outside the bodega and looked to the car, glimpsing the face over the slate-grey hood and through the gleaming glass that jail trustees polished every day without fail. He drained the rest of his drink and tossed the can into the gutter as he went to the car and slipped in next to Jack James. The unmarked sedan whipped left as soon as the passenger door closed, one tire skipping over the curb as it accelerated into traffic.
“Littering is a crime, sunshine,” Jack said, tossing a glance at his partner. He expected the quip to elicit no greeting in return and wasn’t disappointed.
Danny popped the lid of the aspirin and dry swallowed a pair of the tablets. They sizzled in his mouth as he chewed, clamping his eyes shut as he forced them down.
“Was there a problem back there?” Jack asked, eyeing his partner with an expression that was south of worry, north of annoyance.
Jack had seen, Danny realized. Or had seen enough to warrant a question. He was entitled to ask. Maybe even inclined to.
But query did not guarantee reply.
“What’re we rolling on?”
So the subject was changed. Or avoided altogether. Jack had no problem with that. Unless it became a problem. He steered onto Bay Highway and began weaving through the thinning morning traffic.
“You got the same call I did.”
“I wasn’t taking notes,” Danny said, his narrowed gaze cast right, out the passenger window and across the sliver of ocean half swallowed by the quirks of geology. Past freighters and fishing vessels moored and moving. To the far shore where another side of the city lay squat and dim, a darkness seeming sprinkled in permanence from above on the squalid slice of metropolis. It was easily a dozen miles distant, but its failings radiated with brutal clarity. Danny need only troll his memory a few months back and he was there, vaulting back alley fences, kicking doors, tackling dope dealers. On this side of the bay a percussive crack in the dark was a car backfiring—not some fifteen-year-old kid taking another’s life with a wild spray of nine mil. Here people walked the street at night for recreation or exercise. There, nightfall ushered in the realities of an urban jungle, where the fittest ruled, thrived, survived, and all others cowered, or subjugated themselves. Or died in futile efforts to remain decent.
“Floater in WillmorePark,” Jack said.
Danny puzzled at the statement for a moment, then looked to his partner, mildly incredulous. “A body? A dead body? In District One?”
Danny half chuckled, thin humor at best in the expression.
“I thought all you guys had here were suicides and bad smells from the house next door where some old lady died alone, and the neighbors were too busy with their kids’ soccer games to notice she hadn’t been out in a while.” He shook his head at the traffic and stared ahead for a moment. Until the thick silence drew his attention to Jack, odd smile crooked on his face. The expression brimming with prelude. “What?”
Jack took a sweeping turn off the highway, heading inland now, concrete and glass giving way to low suburban roofs backed by thickening stands of pine and fir. “You transferred in three months ago and it’s still ‘you guys’?”
It was more statement than question, and Danny could have responded. Could have offered an answer. But there was little point. He simply looked away from his partner and thought of the hellhole across the bay. A world apart from District One. Danny knew this. Better than most. And still he wanted to be there more than here. More than anywhere.
Across the water was home.
Geography defined Port Riggs. Wind waves lapped at the shore to the east, and snow capped a pair of peaks to the north six months of the year. To the west a collection of stone and glass towers stepped slowly down to a juxtaposition of suburbs and slums separated by the split of ocean that spawned the burg’s name. The southernmost reach of the city spread out as old farmland that had been gobbled up by developers during boom times, but which now sat barren, fading ‘For Sale’ signs planted every so often on the vast acreage in hopes that the bust would soon end. The MorrisRiver, wide and slow, spilled lazily into the bay, countless smaller tributaries crisscrossing the landscape to feed into it.
Willmore Creek was one of these, bisecting its namesake park north of downtown, a bucolic swath of greenery spat with ugliness this morning, police cruisers and Medical Examiner’s van pulled onto the browning grass, yellow crime scene tape racetracking the area from tree to light pole to tree. A trio of uniformed beat cops tended this perimeter, keeping onlookers and media at bay as they softly stomped their feet against the chill and hand-hugged steaming cups of coffee. None reacted with any alarm when a sedan pulled fast up, nosing through a knot of reporters and photographers and stopping with its hood half under the banana tape. They saw who was at the wheel.
Calling Jack James a legend was hyperbole. Calling him a badass was accurate. He was a District One lifer, from walking a downtown beat to detective working major crimes, busting up crews trying to expand their reach from the department’s other districts and rolling on the occasional homicide. His geographic slice of the department, stretching generally from the bay to the northern burbs, was regarded as the tamest. Many attributed that to demographics and economics. Those of a more observant nature knew that halcyon atmosphere existed because of a very few cops like the one just arrived.
Jack stepped out of the car and ducked under the crime scene tape, Danny following as a uniformed sergeant approached, trudging up the gentle, damp slope that meandered down toward the ripple of sloshing water and the flash of a camera strobe.
“How’s your morning, Clay?” Jack asked, retrieving a pair of blue rubber gloves from a pocket and slipping his hands into them, snapping the fingers taut.
“Mud up to my ankles,” Sergeant Clay Petty answered, gesturing to the cakes of wet earth on his shoes and the hem of his blue uniform trousers. “That’s how my morning is.”
Jack smiled. “Walk us through what we’ve got.”
Petty gave Danny a quick glance. He’d seen him a few times at the station, a couple more in the field. He was the new guy. Transferred in from District Three, bang-bang central, where he’d done eight years, the last two out of the blue suit working narco and gangs. Word was he was wild. First through a door or over a fence. Not above applying a little ‘motivation’ to a suspect when needed. He had that wound-up look about him, Petty thought. With twenty years on the force he’d seen cops like that, most popping an aneurism by the time they were fifty or eating their gun after a swig of whiskey and penning a fare thee well letter to the wife that left them years earlier.
This one, though, someone upstairs had decided to pair him with Jack James. Mr. Cool. Methodical. He’d go through a door if he had to, but he’d just as soon figure a way to get the scumbag inside to come out, hands up. Maybe the brass downtown thought Jack could tame his new partner. Maybe Jack saw something in the kid.
“Male, forty to fifty, face down in the muck on the bank down here.” Petty led them down the slope, past a pair of technicians from the Medical Examiner’s office waiting to bag and transport the victim. Beyond them the photographer from Forensic Investigations was giving his Nikon a workout, snapping shots of the body from every angle, strobe flash reflected harsh off the man’s pale ass and legs.
“Where’d this guy’s pants go?” Jack asked, stepping close, taking out his notebook and pen.
“Came off in the stream somewhere?” Petty theorized.
Danny moved even closer than Jack and crouched near the man’s feet. Heavy boots laced tight. “Pants aren’t coming off over these.” He dipped his finger in the water and quickly shook it off. “Ice cold. Liver temp will be all out of whack.”
Close to Jack the camera strobe flashed three times in rapid succession. He grimaced and glared at the photographer. “Can you give it a rest for a minute?”
“Not a problem,” the photographer said, sheepishly backing away to give the detective some space.
“Side of the leg at the knee,” Danny said, pointing, extended finger inches from a long scratch on the pallid skin, straight and even. “Someone cut his pants off. Sliced right up the leg with a scissors. Maybe a knife.”
“That didn’t happen in the water,” Jack agreed. “Too uniform to be from debris.”
“And down here.” Now Danny directed attention to the man’s lower legs, just above the lip of his sodden boots. “Ligature abrasions. Deep ones. Someone bound him tight and cut half his clothes away.”
“Hands will be the same,” Jack said, fixing hard on the body. The shape of the head. Cut of the matted hair. Something…familiar in what he saw. Maybe.
“Been a while since we had one of these,” Petty commented. Even though rare, one could imagine finding a woman assaulted and killed this way, even in District One. Predators chose easy prey. Weak. Vulnerable. The near three-hundred-pounder beached on the creek bank wasn’t anything close to that. What he was, other than dead, for the moment, was anonymous.
Jack looked back to the ME’s techs. “Let’s roll him.”
The pair approached, Danny rising and stepping clear as the techs gripped the man’s far arm where it flopped in the water and rotated the whole of his girth, front side displayed to the gray sky now, caked with mud from brow to boots, save a sliver of belly where the shirt had slid upward as his roll was completed. Skin there was drained of all natural color, just the unnatural remaining—a pair of talons inked on the flesh, crudely crafted claws of some beast mostly hidden beneath the soaked shirt above.
“Prison tat,” Petty suggested.
“Yeah,” Jack said, the concurrence mostly breath. Telling. Obvious. Some connection made. He looked to Danny. “You recognize him?”
Danny studied what he could see of the face, mud mask over gaping mouth. “Should I?”
For a moment Jack let his gaze linger on his partner, harsh appraisal flashing. He crouched and slid the shirt higher on the body, revealing the rest of the tattoo, a snarling eagle, wings spread across the man’s abdomen. “Now?”
Danny felt Petty’s judging stare as he met his partner’s. It was high school all over again, history teacher calling on him with a question about the chapter he’d had a week to read, digging for some factoid about Mesopotamia or Robert E. Lee or the fate of Rudolf Hess. He wasn’t a great student then, and, despite three months and change under his belt in District One, wasn’t one now, either. That appeared to be the gist of his partner’s probing. “Is this a fucking test?”
Jack let go of the shirt and stood. “Where’d this guy start swimming, Clay?”
“Jogger spotted him at the footbridge half a mile upstream.” Petty aimed a biting smile at Danny. “Already in the water.”
The message wasn’t loud, but it was clear—grunt work was waiting. Danny glanced to the bank at his feet, icy water babbling. “Anybody wants me I’ll be ruining some shoes.”
He turned and headed upstream, hugging the sloppy shore.
“Nice pup, Jack,” Petty said when Danny was out of earshot.
“Yeah,” Jack said absently, his attention fixed on the body. Mental gears working overtime behind his stare.
A gust of wind tossed a series of small waves against the body, threatening to dislodge it. One of the techs grabbed it by the arm and held tight. He looked up to Jack, expecting some direction, to either bag the poor sap or back the hell off, but all he saw was the detective’s gaze locked on the body. “So you knew this guy?”
The answer was easy enough, Jack knew. But still it took him a few seconds to swat the memories aside and give it voice. “Once upon a time.”
* * *
Three times the saturated bank nearly collapsed beneath Danny’s feet. And that was in the first hundred yards of his trek upstream. Eventually he decided on a path of lesser resistance and climbed through a tangle of vegetation to a narrow trail worn through the brush that paralleled the creek. He reached the footbridge ten minutes later, an officer standing watch there, cruiser pulled close, man in the back seat wrapped in a blanket but still shivering. It wasn’t from the cold, Danny knew. That kind of shake was born deeper. From being witness to the terrible. This was the jogger. The first to see their victim.
Correction, Danny reminded himself—the first after whoever had done the deed.
“He have anything useful to say?” Danny asked the officer.
“Before or after he puked in my car?” the officer asked in reply. Translation—I’m freezing my ass off, so wrap this scene up already.
Danny didn’t bother with a response. The jogger would be useless, and the cop not much more than that. Neither surprised him. The latter, especially, he’d come to understand since transferring in. Hell, beat cops here spent a good chunk of their time setting out flares for fender-benders and taking reports from Joe Suburbia about the theft of his lawn mower from his open garage. Few had ever drawn their sidearm during a shift, he was certain. Fewer had actually pulled the trigger anywhere but the range.
District One, Danny had already discovered, was where cops came to die of boredom.
He moved past the footbridge and along the trail. The narrow way forward faded as he progressed up the creek, until he was bushwhacking through trees and shrubs, climbing over fallen logs, passing the occasional collection of beer cans left by partying teens. That probably warranted a three page report, crime scene photos, and a helicopter covering the perimeter, but he pressed on. Soon he was so deep in the thicket he couldn’t see the stream anymore. Could only hear the current flowing lazily over rocks. Veering left, pushing through that tangle of foliage, he caught sight of the stream once again, a good ten feet below. Thin twigs and barren branches clawed at his hands. Whipped against his face. Scratching his skin. Laying welts upon his cheeks. It seemed pointless to continue.
Until he heard it. Beyond the wet rustle of water rippling past. A sound not of nature, but of man. Traffic. One vehicle, actually, passing fast on the far side of the creek, tires humming on asphalt. There was a road. Over there. Close.
Danny forced his way between the thorny lace of foliage and down the steep embankment, reaching a flat bar of silt piled by an eddy in the current. In the natural hush he stood for a moment, listening. Waiting through the near silence. Chilled air wrapping him. Each breath jetting misty white.
Then it came again. Another car. Whipping past. His gaze tracked the sound, and through the trees atop the far bank he saw a flash of cherry red paint, roof rack and antenna racing by.
A dead tree laid across the water, felled by some long-ago storm, natural bridge to the opposite side, rotting and split along its length. Danny hopped atop the log, its festering wood crunching under foot as he moved awkwardly across, hopping off and onto the shore, muck there swallowing him up to the ankles.
He shook what he could of the thick mud from his shoes and pulled himself up the higher bank, using roots for handholds, animal burrows as steps. Finally he reached the top, the screen of trees and brush thin there, and emerged just in a wide swath of damp earth, road just beyond the turnout.
An SUV came fast around a turn and flew by, disappearing as the two-lane strip of blacktop twisted into the woods to the right. Danny eyed the road, and the turnout, then glanced behind toward the creek. The triad of proximity piqued his curiosity. It was easy access, and easy egress. Someone could pull off the road, unload a body, and push it through the meager brush. There was little chance anyone would see the event on the sparsely traveled road. Stop, dump, splash, and the deed would be done.
But the simplicity of something happening did not equate to surety that it did. Danny crossed the turnout and moved along the edge of the roadway, looking for more than what was theoretical. A scrap of clothing. Dropped candy wrapper. Or…
Tire tracks. Parallel indentations in the soft, gravelly earth, running from asphalt almost to where the turnout was overtaken by leafy growth, then angling sharply back again to rejoin the road. Danny walked along the twin impressions, stopping where they matched the line of brush. He crouched, examining the ground, his gaze fixing on other marks upon the earth. Two gouges from dead center between the tire tracks, crossing one and disappearing into the trees.
Danny stood and took out his phone, speed dialing a number. It rang against his cheek as he stared down at the unmistakable evidence. Jack answered almost immediately.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you are?”
“I’m on a freaking road,” Danny answered, exasperated. “Have dispatch track my phone and send forensics over here.”
“I’ve got drag marks.”
Danny hung up and crouched again, surveying the fragile evidence as it began to snow.
* * *
Jack took the curves along Anders Road fast, wipers swatting flurries from the windshield. Through the early season dusting he saw the turnout ahead and slowed, pulling in behind a white Forensics van, its hazards blazing pulses of amber. Just ahead Danny was directing the two techs, pushing them to cast impressions before the weather obliterated their evidence. He saw Jack and met him as he stepped out and into the settling snow.
“You can’t see the creek from this bend, but it’s the only place that runs close.” Danny turned and led Jack to where the techs were hustling, mixing plaster to fill the tire tracks. He pointed to the drag marks that crossed one of the deeper tire impressions. “Killer pulls the body out of the trunk, drags him through the trees, and into the drink he goes.”
The logic was unassailable. The evidence supportive. But all that Jack could manage was a mild nod, his tepid enthusiasm for the discovery anything but covert. Danny noted it immediately. Knew his partner was unimpressed. But Danny knew something beyond that—he wasn’t done.
“This road is lightly traveled,” Danny began. “Who would know that? The creek is hidden from view. Who would know that?” He paused, pleased with himself. “No one passing through with a body in the trunk would randomly pick this spot. Our killer’s a local.”
“So’s our vic,” Jack said.
Danny brushed a layer of snow from his shoulders. “Who?”
“Edgar Coleman,” Jack explained. Behind Danny the techs were filling a section of the tire track with plaster, one holding an umbrella above to ward off the weather. “He was mob muscle. Worked a few crews. Mostly out of town, up toward Kellerton. In and out of prison. Almost went down for life on a rape five years ago.”
Jack nodded and turned his collar up. The storm above was working toward a full dump of winter.
“Why did he walk?”
For a moment Jack looked to his partner, just looked, smiling lightly, more bemused than amused. Then he turned and headed back toward his car, Danny puzzled by the disengagement.
“Hold on,” Danny said, moving to keep up with his partner, not willing to concede the question he’d asked to perpetual ignorance. “Why did his case get tossed?”
Jack made it to the driver’s door and stopped, the wisp of smile gone, quiet irritation flaring in its place. “Bad evidence.”
The hood of the car between them, Danny absorbed that, his own frustration rising. “Bad evidence. Okay. Thanks for that gem.”
The flurries thickened, a wash of icy white settling from the sky. Jack opened the driver’s door and stood between it and the warm interior. “Look, if you want to stand in the snow working for a piece of crap like Coleman, have a cruiser bring you in.”
What the hell…
He didn’t give the sentiment voice as Jack James slipped behind the wheel and closed the door, but Danny Owen thought it. Embraced it, even. The exchange as alien a moment as he’d ever had with a partner. Any partner.
A throaty rev shook the accumulated snow from the windshield as Jack started the car, wipers still for the moment. As was the car. It was the closest thing to an invitation Danny was going to get. He opened the door on his side and took the seat next to Jack. The idling engine rumbled, heater spewing hot air.
“Fifty guys have reasons to pop Coleman,” Jack observed. “And the one who did it didn’t blast a crowd up to get him like those bangers in your old stomping grounds would.” He flipped the wipers on and dropped the car into reverse, backing away from the Forensics van, techs scrambling to load their gear and castings as the world turned icy white. “When we find the guy who offed Coleman, we thank him before we arrest him.”
A single car ploughed through the whiteout, driver laying on the horn as Jack swung a u-turn from the turnout and cut across both lanes of Anders Road and accelerated down the hill toward the city.
The screen fuzzed and froze. Again and again. He’d get to a new case file, all the particulars on the flat screen monitor offset to the left on his desk, then the cursor would freeze, text and pictures jittering.
“Come on…” Danny implored, thumping the side of the thin display with the heel of his hand and jabbing random letters on his keyboard in clearly fruitless efforts to get the information unstuck.
“Not gonna work,” Jack said from a few feet away, his desk just across the carpeted walkway in the open bullpen area of District One’s smallish Detective Section.
“The monitor is, what, a month old?” Danny knocked the display again. It tipped, threatening to topple until he grabbed it roughly and repositioned it.
“But the computer it’s hooked to is ten,” Jack reminded him, observing, “Your tax dollars at work.”
Danny got up and moved around his desk, tracing the cables from the monitor to the beige computer case tucked behind a stack of boxes on the floor, fiddling with the connection between the two, making sure all were secure until one snapped off in his hands, bare strands of wire spat from the end like stiff, multicolored noodles. “Wonderful.”
Jack watched as Danny tossed the severed cable aside, monitor dead black now, his gaze also catching sight of the unit’s door swinging open and a familiar face entering, plain file folder in hand.
“I’ll be in the basement with the rats,” Danny groused, heading away from his desk and toward the door, almost colliding with the man who’d just arrived. He stepped aside and eyed the young detective as he pushed through the door.
“What’s the bug up your partner’s ass?” Web Paulsen asked. He was Chief Deputy Medical Examiner, a position that mandated he wait for the Chief Medical Examiner to retire, die, or get caught in unnatural acts with a corpse if he was to advance within the department.
There was no answer to the question other than the obvious, that Danny Owen was one unhappy sonofabitch, so Jack didn’t engage in it. “What are you here on, Webster?”
The Chief Deputy groaned audibly at Jack’s intentional formality before handing over the file folder he’d brought. “Edgar Coleman.”
The detective opened it and scanned the contents, a preliminary autopsy report.
“Olympic swimmer he is not,” Paulsen said.
“So he drowned,” Jack observed, but Paulsen nodded only slightly. A partial concurrence.
“Most certainly. But not in that stream.” Paulsen almost chuckled at what he had to say next. “Unless someone spiked it with piss.”
Jack closed the folder and set it on his desk, leaning back in his chair as Paulsen went on.
“His lungs had water and traces of urine that was not his. I’d say someone took a leak and then shoved Mr. Coleman’s head in the can. And held it there. The ratio is a bit off, though, if you know what…” Paulsen’s recitation of fact and conjecture trailed off as he noted Jack’s gaze shift off of him and harden, as if some troubling thought had seized him. “Something wrong?”
He could have answered in the affirmative, but the concept of ‘wrong’ had little import in the possibility he was considering. ‘Right’ had even less.
“He had other injuries, Web. Didn’t he?” Jack asked, looking back to the Chief Deputy, the certainty in his eyes, his tone, almost erasing the fact that this was a question.
Paulsen nodded. “He did.”
* * *
It was the dungeon of a digital world. A place where paper came to die. Where bagged evidence sat lost and forgotten in boxes on shelves, its usefulness as a physical object almost entirely replaced by networked photographs and extracted DNA profiles saved to a central server.
Danny sat on a wobbling chair amidst the collection of case files, a selection arrayed around him on the dusty concrete floor. Fluorescent lights glowed white and harsh overhead, humming in the chill as he pored through the records. A near lifetime of records in cop years. As many as he could find relating to Jack and his former partner. The man Danny had replaced.
Mike was his name. Mike Vance. He had a few years on Jack and had, from what Danny could gather, taken him from adequate beat cop to stellar investigator. They’d teamed for a dozen years, something unheard of in most departments. Detectives moved up, moved on, or moved out. Not Jack and Mike. Even in District Three the two of them were known badass case breakers, their longevity as partners allowing stories to spread, true and embellished.
But one truth did them in as a team. No one talked openly about it with any specificity. All that was officially said was that Mike Vance, barely pushing fifty, was retiring on a medical. Unofficially, though, the word could be heard, and it was far from some bum knee allowing the man to enjoy his retirement pulling trout from a stream upstate. Whatever retirement Mike Vance had been granted was being measured in months, not years, thanks to the Big C. Some sort of tumor deep in his brain with a name seemingly longer than the alphabet. A time bomb already set to ticking. Ready to blow and send him to meet his maker.
His leaving opened a slot in the District One detective roster. Several prime investigators from throughout the city had tried to fill the void. Had tried to meet the expectations of the position as defined by Jack James. None had made it past a month. Until Danny. He was passing three months in District One, but despite that promising sign of longevity one thing rang truer and clearer each day he spent paired with Jack.
He was harsh in his observation of self. Possibly. But the cold fact was that when Jack had tested him mildly the day before as Edgar Coleman’s body was rolled face up, Danny had blown it. He knew at the very instant that he couldn’t provide even a hint of who he was looking at. The tattoo should have been a dead giveaway. Inked skin was like a barcode that criminals wore. A good cop’s eyes were the scanner reading it. And Danny hadn’t. He’d blinded himself with detachment.
So he was making up for lost time. Or trying to. Doing what he should have when first being assigned to work with Jack James—avail himself of all information buried in his and Mike’s old case files. Scanning the summaries. The crimes. The places. The players. Victims. Family members. Suspects. Women and men. Upstanding citizens and punks mixed together. The living and the dead. Guilty, exonerated, and those caught in the half-world between those absolutes where culpability was known, but could not be proved. Names like Halloway, Jergen, Rodarte, Peel, Ortiz, Meyers.
And Ellery. Stephanie Ellery.
Danny set the other files aside and kept hers on his lap, flipping through, past evidence photos of the young woman’s bruised face, her torn underwear recovered from the crime scene, strips of duct tape used to bind her. While he’d allowed himself to casually study the other crimes worked by Jack and his former partner, it was this one which had simmered low in his thoughts. He’d pried the name of Edgar Coleman’s victim out of Jack as they drove back to the station from the turnout on Anders Road, the record of her violation open before him.
Alleged violation, that automatic voice in the back of his cop brain reminded him.
“Bullshit,” he said aloud, contradicting it. The law might grant Edgar Coleman that consideration, but he wouldn’t. He doubted that Jack would, either. Shitheaps like Coleman, if what Jack had shared was even half accurate, existed in a realm of guilt that transcended legality and its checks and balances. The Colemans of the world committed their crimes out of sight, in the shadows, away from cameras and cops, among those who would never talk. Or would pay dearly for doing so. For every hundred crimes Edgar Coleman might have under his sizeable belt, maybe two were subjected to enough light that suspicions might fall upon him.
Yet here, that shouldn’t have happened. This case should have been where karma played its hand. Where the odds finally caught up with Edgar Coleman. There was a witness statement from the victim identifying Coleman and there was physical evidence. DNA evidence. Everything pointed to the fat ass who’d washed up on the banks of Willmore Creek.
“What the hell happened to the evidence?” Danny thought aloud.
“B sample was broken in transport.” Danny looked up to see Jack standing near the bottom of the stairs. “The A sample matched Coleman, but felony convictions require the B sample to be tested at a neutral lab. The vial it was in arrived broken.”
Danny nodded. “And there went your case.”
Jack eyed the file in Danny’s hands, remembering. He took a breath. “After Coleman raped her, he pissed on her.”
He wasn’t just assaulting her, Danny thought, then observed, “He was sending a message.”
“Delivering a message,” Jack corrected. “Stephanie’s big brother, Irving, had a habit of not paying his debts. The people he owed wanted to teach him a lesson.”
Danny understood. “They sent Coleman after his baby sister.”
Jack took the file from Danny and closed it. He held it, like some forgotten talisman. A bit of the past, his past, dredged to the here and now. “Coleman’s lungs had traces of urine. And he was raped with a foreign object. Baseball bat, the Chief Deputy thinks.” He tucked the file back into the evidence box. “Fat end first.”
A picture was forming, painted by Jack, with blacks of death and yellows of cowardice and reds of vengeance. The imagery was stark and subtle at the same time. A man dead, violated as he had violated, by an unknown.
Or by a known unknown.
“You think Stephanie might have arranged for some ultimate justice here?” Danny theorized. “Revenge is as good a motive as any.”
“Unless she orchestrated this from Westside Cemetery, you’re on the wrong trail,” Jack said. “She was a serious junkie. Overdosed six months after Coleman walked. Her number was up long before he attacked her.” He offered no more right then, waiting as Danny chewed on what he’d said. Wondering if he’d follow the logical trail of circumstantial bread crumbs to where Jack had already planted his suspicion.
His wait was just seconds, Danny looking up from a thought that had seized him. “Tell me that big bro Irving is still around.”
Jack nodded, the barest grin curling his lips.