Teaser: Pieces of Eight

Here’s a sample chapter from PIECES OF EIGHT, the working-title for the sequel to BLOODLINES. Enjoy!

The red and blue flare of emergency services and law enforcement illuminated the scene as the Police Pod settled to a stop. EVI fed the chatter of the onsite personnel through the internal comm system, but it was background noise to me. I stared out the Pod window at a massive stone edifice, its tall walls lit up from the scurrying activity below.

The Holy Redeemer Church hunkered along Brighton Beach Avenue within a few blocks of the waterfront. Made of thick wood and solid stone, its origin hearkened back to the late nineteenth century, and held a storied reputation in the surrounding community for its educational, social and religious outreach programs.

It was also the home of Father John Davis, a man who had helped shape the paths of hundreds of families over the years, including my own.

“Captain Mahoney is awaiting you,” EVI announced.

She provided me the location of Mahoney as well as a layout of the church, although I didn’t need it. I had attended the Holy Redeemer’s parochial school, thanks to my grandfather’s job as its custodian many years before. Despite my mixed religious heritage, it had been a safe harbor for me, one of the few places where I’d felt welcome.

As for Father Jack, he was family, something I’d had in short supply throughout most of my life.

I shrugged on my blazer and stormed from the hatchway into the frigid early morning, making a bee-line for the main entrance. Despite the cold and the early hour, several uniformed officers had created a cordon to keep the gawkers and media swarm at bay. EVI registered me with the attendance log, but I flashed my badge as I passed anyway. The strange, ambient glow it produced shrouded me in a silver nimbus. No one questioned my arrival, and I was thankful once again for whatever elite status Mahoney had garnered for SCU with Mayor Samson.

But my mind was elsewhere. Heart racing, I crossed the broad steps of the church entrance three at a time and through the double doors, ignoring the looks and questions from the officers on the scene. A small command center had already been established in the vestibule, but I veered sharply to the right, then moved along a broad pillared aisle past the nave toward a flight of steps leading into the basement. The air down here was musty and warm, but I also smelled the sickly-sweet metallic tang of blood. There were no uniforms, and the sounds of activity above were dull and muted by the dense stone of the church.

Mahoney stood in the hallway conversing with a tall, thin man in a heavy winter coat. My heart unclenched at the sight of them, and I let out a long breath.

“Detective,” Mahoney greeted me in his gravelly voice.

The captain resembled everyone’s grandfather everywhere. He was medium height, with close-cropped white hair and deep crow’s feet around the eyes. A twin to the badge I carried rode on his breast pocket. I nodded at him, then turned my attention to the other man.

“You ok?” I asked.

Father Jack had a widow’s peak at both temples, and salty gray hair. His brown eyes, normally filled with good-natured humor, were wide and full of apprehension.

“No,” he replied. “But I am better than poor Gus in there.  He –”

“You should go upstairs,” I interrupted gently. “I’ll be along in a bit.”

I wanted to reach out, provide some sign that everything would be all right.  But I couldn’t. Not in front of the captain. Not while I was on the job.

The old pastor was about to protest, then thought better of it, and excused himself.

I watched him go, crushing my roiling emotions in favor of the need to be dispassionate and professional. I was a homicide detective, with an active crime scene to examine. Worrying about Father Jack would have to wait.

“What do we have?” I asked.

“The room’s clean,” Mahoney began. “Dispatch contacted me after Father Davis made the nine-one-one. The description was, well, you’ll see for yourself. I’ve appropriated it, Tom. I knew you’d want to be here.”

Mahoney’s voice faded as I moved to the open doorway to study the room beyond.

I hadn’t noticed the Insight’s presence until now but realized it had been active the moment I’d stepped inside the church. It seethed around my eyes, its effect tinging everything I saw in a silvery fire. I’ve been told the fickle clairvoyance was a living magic of an ancient order, but I still had no idea where it came from or why it had chosen me. The Insight represented other things too, including a destiny I had no interest in accepting. I tried not to dwell on that either, or Besim, the one who had clued me in on it in the first place.

My vision responded to the Insight’s magic, sharpening in intensity. I saw the current of heated air propelled through the vent on the far wall opposite me, undulating in rhythmic waves.  I knew the thread count on the old sheets of the spartan twin bed. Motes of dust hung in the air, suspended between time. Everything around me slowed to a crawl.

It was a simple room. Bed, footlocker, closet, virtual workstation, chair. One thin window ran horizontally along the upper wall, barred and secured from the outside. Nothing adorned the walls, other than an eggshell coat that had been applied within the past two months. I smelled the paint as if it had been finished that morning.

“Jesus Christ,” I swore quietly.

The body slumped in the chair, arms and legs splayed wide. Blood pooled upon the floor, covering the walls, the ceiling, the workstation, behind the open door and the bed. I couldn’t get too close to the body without stepping in any of it, although my preternatural senses were already swimming in the stuff.

“Stentstrom’s arrived,” Mahoney announced, breaking me from my trance.

“Good,” I said absently, my eyes shifting from the corpse back to the desk.

The workstation was active. A darkened holo-window hung dormant above it. An open book lay atop the desk, but no holo-frames or other personal items.

I needed to get in there.

“Who’s our vic?” I asked instead.

Mahoney hesitated before answering.

“Gustavo Sanarov.”

Something in the captain’s voice made me regard him.

“He was the soup kitchen super for the church,” the captain continued. “Father Davis said he’d only been staying with them for a few months until he could get back on his feet.”

I nodded, and as I did so, the Insight evacuated from me in a rush. I staggered against the wall. Bill stepped forward, but I waved him away.

“I’m fine,” I said, then stood up straight.

Mahoney watched me with wintry eyes. I realized this was the first time he’d seen me under the influence of the Insight. I was about to ask him a question when a sing-song voice greeted us both.

“Ah, Detective Holliday!” gushed Doctor Gilbert Stentstrom, chief medical examiner for Empire City. “A pleasure to see you again!”

The skinny little man was covered head to foot in a bulky white overcoat, gloves and matching ushanka with the earflaps down. He carried a steel briefcase. A sticker was affixed at an angle on one side displaying a symbol of two poodle heads back-to-back, one black and the other white, with the tag-line “Proud member of the PC of EC”.

“Doctor,” I replied with a smile, and we shook hands.

Stentstrom was the only other person inside ECPD that knew the specifics on Special Crimes. He’d been given a crash course while helping me clear the Bloodlines case. I’d known him years before when I was a cadet at the academy. He was one of the good guys, brilliant with a heavy dose of eccentric.

I filled him in on what little I knew. As I did so, his bulbous eyes grew wide with interest.

“Good,” the medical examiner enthused. “Very good. With all the garden-variety murders that have come through my laboratory lately, it will be refreshing to work on something with meat! No pun intended, of course.”

“Glad we can oblige you,” I remarked, my smile faltering.

“Will Mr. Kole and Doctor Saranda be joining us?” he asked, looking around hopefully.

“Umm, no,” I replied uneasily, and exchanged a glance with Mahoney, who raised his eyebrows in silent question. “Not yet, at least.”

“All right,” Stentstrom said, setting his briefcase on the floor. He popped the top, then removed his coat, hat and gloves and placed them down next to it. Inside lay plastic clothing, shoe covers and gloves, as well as a variety of forensic tools. “Detective, Captain. Help yourselves.”

Moments later, Stentstrom and I were bedecked in clear plastic from head to toe. We entered the room, careful to avoid the blood splatter. Mahoney remained behind, an inscrutable look on his worn face.

The Insight returned, simmering on the edge of my senses, present, yet aloof. It hesitated, as if it wanted to come forward, yet held in check by apprehension.

Or fear.

That was something new.

And didn’t bother me at all.

Not one bit.

“EVI, calculate the bloodstain pattern following my POV, and share the results with Detective Holliday and Captain Mahoney,” Stentstrom stated, making a wide circuit around the body in the chair.

Three-dimensional graphs and figures appeared in my visual center, revealing angles, points and areas of convergence as well as the area of origin. As the images cycled, EVI included expected trajectories, and projected heights and distances.

“Well isn’t this interesting,” Stentstrom remarked. He shuffled up beside me with a hop to his step. “Do you see it?”

“It looks like our vic was shot by dozens of small-caliber bullets,” I replied slowly, moving toward the chair. “But I don’t see any stippling or powder burns around the wounds.  And the angles are all wrong. If he’d been shot, there wouldn’t be this much blood spread all over the room. No casings on the floor that I can see, although the murderer might have cleaned those up. And no bullet holes in the wall or ceiling.”

“Precisely, Detective,” Stentstrom said, his voice quivering with anticipation. “What do you think it means?”

“He wasn’t shot,” I answered slowly, feeling like I was a first-year back at the Academy attending my basic forensic science class. “At least, not in the traditional sense. So, what killed him?”

“An excellent question,” the medical examiner said. “Look closer at the blood stains.  Notice their length, the direction of travel. Do you see anything now?”

I frowned, then turned toward the wall near the door to study the stains. The Insight continued to roil behind its self-imposed exile.

“I don’t get it,” I said uneasily. “This is all wrong.”

“Indeed, Detective Holliday,” Stentstrom came up next to me, and pointed at several splotches with his plastic finger. “Here, and here. Note how these stains are inverted as a result of the force which caused them. Now, look at the body. Tell me what you see.”

I moved toward the chair to study the corpse.

Sanarov had been in his late sixties or early seventies, judging from his sallow skin, gray hair and liver spots on his hands, neck and head. He had been tall, an inch or two over six feet, and his body was muscular despite his age. I caught an old faded tattoo on the upper bicep of his left arm around the short sleeve. It was a spider web, with the spider climbing out. Three small bell tattoos were arrayed on the back of his left hand, one along each knuckle.

However, the majority of his body was covered in thumbnail-size wounds. Even his work clothes had holes in them, as if he’d been shot with a high-powered nail gun. But as I looked more closely, I realized the fleshy wounds resembled boils that had burst outward, rather than skin that had been cut or perforated.

“He exploded,” I said, exchanging a stunned look with the little medical examiner.

The Insight released into me as if exhaling. It didn’t come in a rush, as in so many times past, but rather slowly, like a cup filling with water. My senses swelled, and I was drawn to the open book upon the desk.

Even at this distance, I recognized the unmistakable structure and style of the Bible. I couldn’t see which passage, but the pages were marked with crib notes and other scribblings. As my eyes raked across the desk, the holo-screen flickered, as if stirring from a deep sleep. Instinctively, I waved my hand at the screen, expecting nothing since I stood out of its activation radius, and didn’t have Sanarov’s password to reactivate it.

But that didn’t seem to matter.

The screen flared to life.

One line of text appeared in big, bold letters.

I became dimly aware of Mahoney standing in the doorway. I smelled his cologne, and underneath that, stark and painful memories of his past coming back to roost. The Insight gave them clarity, and a distinct bouquet of frustration and loss. Mahoney knew something about the victim. Their paths had intersected at some point.

I stared at the text.

“Why do the righteous suffer?” I read aloud, exchanging a confused look with Stentstrom.

As I uttered the words, the holo-screen shimmered, and the verse changed.

He repays everyone for what they have done. He brings on them what their conduct deserves.

“Detective?” Stentstrom asked, his voice quivering. “What is happening?”

Before I could answer, the words faded to be replaced by a new passage.

“And no creature is hidden from His sight,” I said slowly. “But all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”

“How are you doing this?” the medical examiner whispered.

“I don’t know,” I answered, the hair on the back of my neck standing on end.

More verses appeared.

“For your sins will always find you,” I continued, locked upon the words scrolling across the holo-screen. My heartbeat accelerated. Sweat beaded upon my brow. “Your sins will never forget you. Your sins can never forgive you.”

The screen went dark.

I leaned against the wall, drained from the Insight’s use. With the last vestiges of the magic whispering away, I turned to Mahoney, and saw a younger version of him wearing an ECPD uniform, standing in a dank, dark room that was somewhere else. The stench of blood and gore filled my nostrils. A small body lay at Bill’s feet. Whoever this had been, the head and face had been crushed by a tremendous force. The face was a pulpy mess.

Suddenly, an unbridled outrage and hatred permeated the room in which I stood. It struck me like a blow to the stomach, and I nearly choked on its intensity. I tried clearing my throat several times hoping to wash the feeling away without success.

The Insight finally vanished, enervating me further. My breathing grew shallow. Sweat ran down my face in cold rivulets. The image of the captain and that room dissolved, and with it, the raw emotion I’d just experienced.

Something very bad had happened both here, and in that place from Mahoney’s past. Gustavo Sanarov had been killed in an unnatural manner. Not by a gunshot, or stab wound, but by something far more profound, primal and sinister.

I realized whoever or whatever had done this didn’t just want Sanarov dead.

They had wanted him to suffer until the very end.

2 thoughts on “Teaser: Pieces of Eight

    1. Not sure I agree with that.

      Checked Merriam-Webster, and “harken” is the variant of “hearken”. Where did you see the preferred spelling?

      Like

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