I could tell it was serious by the tone of her voice.
Lieutenant Miller called me to her office where Craig Hammond, my old partner, was waiting in one of the chairs. His block head had a little less hair than when we started running homicides together. But other than that he was basically the same.
“Craig.” I shut the door behind me.
“Hari,” he replied. “How’s it going?”
“I suspect you know.”
He nodded once.
Most of the guys I came up with had morals with square edges and were proud of it. Thing is, time on the job tends to beat on square edges. If you’re hollow, you’ll bend and turn crooked. Craig Hammond wasn’t like that. His time on the job hadn’t bent him, just blunted his edges. And rounded his waistline.
I stood behind the remaining open chair as Miller took her seat.
She came right out with it. “I’ve given the tape to Detective Hammond. He’ll be running the case from here.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That was quick.”
“What do you mean?”
“Is this my punishment for the Landry case?”
Lt. Miller sat with excellent posture like she did when she wanted to assert herself without being threatening. I turned to Craig. He was expressionless. I sat down.
“We got the fingerprint report,” she said. “From the tape.”
Normally that stuff goes directly to the officer in charge—namely, me. But these went to my lieutenant first.
I wondered what else was going on behind my back. “And?”
“No matches. However, the return address—”
“Floral Park,” I said.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“It was Alexa Sacchi’s house,” Hammond added. “It’s where the family was living when she disappeared.”
Alexa Sacchi had gone missing at fifteen. It had been seven years since anyone had seen her. It didn’t make any sense. Either she’d sent me—a person she’d never met—a VHS tape out of the blue, or someone wanted me to think she had.
I was scowling. “I worked that case originally.”
“So did Detective Hammond,” Miller said.
“And you trust him to do a better job of executing?”
“Call it professional distance.”
Miller knew I was repeatedly checking out Alexa’s necklace from storage. I could guess how that looked—like I was holding on to the case, as happens to detectives sometimes, and had lost objectivity.
“Craig and his new partner—” She looked to him for the name.
“Rigdon,” he answered.
“—bring the same prior experience but also a fresh pair of eyes. And since you have a full caseload—”
“I’m sure they do, too.”
She just looked at me. She didn’t have to say it. I had blamed my “mishandling” of the Landry case, the Gold Bullet Killer as she was now known, on an overly full plate. Miller wasn’t letting me get away with that. It made her department look bad.
“Clear your Jane Doe. What’s her name?”
“Let go of some of your cold cases. Then we’ll talk.”
I nodded in understanding.
“In the meantime, please brief Detective Hammond on what you have so far. I imagine the two of you have a lot to talk about.”
She said it as if there was more to the comment. Hammond stood and nodded.
I looked between them for a moment. Miller didn’t mean about Alexa Sacchi. She didn’t mean the VHS tape or my being taken off the case. She meant Hammond and I, old partners, needed to talk about my personal situation—the one with Kent Cormack and Dr. More.
I stood and walked out. I wasn’t angry so much as just confused. Well, that’s not true. I was a little angry. But Craig and I knew each other well, and Miller giving the case to him was nothing but a hassle. It didn’t change anything but who did the paperwork. If anything, he got the worse end of the deal.
He followed me in his loping gait down the stairs.
“My treat,” he said.
We walked in silence down the street and around the corner to our favorite little kosher deli. It still had the original 1950s layout, with barely enough room to walk between the long counter, lined with fixed stools, and the narrow two-seaters affixed to the side wall. Each table sported the same cluster of bottles: old-style catsup, spotted mustard in a jar, and the best homemade relish in the city. It was the middle of the afternoon, so there was plenty of space. We sat at the back, near the bathrooms, and ordered coffee.
“Lemme see it.” He smiled at my mouth.
I curled my lip and let him see my missing tooth. I tongued it. First bicuspid, upstairs on the right side.
He chuckled. “Get clocked kickboxing?”
“Rugby,” I said.
“Rugby? But it was kickboxing before, right?”
“It’s called Muay Thai.”
The waitress set the coffees down, spilling a little of mine. I reached for a napkin.
Hammond blew on the hot liquid in his cup. “Ah, right. And what was it before that?” He took a gurgling sip.
I wiped the table and poured the cream. “CrossFit.”
“So what does rugby have that those other things don’t?”
“Who says there has to be anything?”
“You keep cutting your hair shorter.”
I fought the urge to touch it. “Whereas you . . .” I took a sip of my coffee and nodded to his waist.
He patted it. “Excellent detective work.”
It was good to see him. It had been a while.
He could tell I wanted the pleasantries out of the way already. “Go easy on Miller, huh? She’s worried about you. We both are.”
“This about Miller?”
“No. It’s not.” He sat back in his chair as a new patron squeezed past to sit at the counter a few seats down. “But she’s doing you a favor. She made it clear the department’s fixing to hang you out over this thing, if only to cover their ass. You’re gonna hafta fight, Har. Hard.”
“So how bad is it?” he asked.
“She didn’t show you the file?”
He shook his head. “Just a verbal summary. Something about a history of epilepsy. Voices. Hallucinations?” He raised his eyebrows in query. “Miller said there was something about a wolf with three eyes or something like that?” He waited for an explanation.
“It was a long time ago.”
“She said the wolf thing was—”
“I meant the stuff from before. I was never diagnosed with epilepsy. I was never diagnosed with anything. I hit puberty and my body wigged out. I was in a hospital for a while. I was 13.”
He shook his head and sat back. “And then?”
I shrugged. “It stopped. The docs said maybe it was something to do with hormones. Our preacher was sure it was the devil.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I don’t. I don’t think about it. Not any more than I think about pimples or school dress codes. That was almost thirty years ago, man. Men convicted of first-degree murder then are looking to get out soon.”
I could see him studying my face, trying to decide if he believed me.
“No,” I answered the unspoken question. “It never happened again. Not until last year.”
“So it just came from nowhere?”
“Dunno. Gettin’ old maybe.”
“Miller said the doc thinks it was stress.”
I made a face. “Yeah, I heard that. And yes, we were under stress. It was a gang house. Salvadorans. I was there to arrest a suspect I’d been after for two months. Guy was into Santeria in a big way. You should’ve seen what he did to people. But it’s not like you and I haven’t been in half a dozen situations way worse than that.”
He nodded in understanding, looking down at his coffee. “The shotgun.”
Neither of us would ever forget it.
“Honestly, the shit with Cormack was pretty routine,” I explained. “I was at the door. We were about to move. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground, convulsing. Cormack and the others went in.”
I paused. “And I wasn’t there to clear my side of the house. Cormack got shot. Face all messed up. Never gonna walk again.”
Craig let me go at my own pace. He sat there and listened.
“When they found me, I was flat on my back. Did you hear that? Drool on my face.” I took another sip. “I didn’t even remember where I was at first. They said I was speaking in tongues.”
“That’s what they called it. Not baby noises. More like gibberish words. I said I was fine but they took me to the hospital. I saw Kent when they brought him in. They’d tried to stabilize him at the scene, I guess, so I beat him there. There were transfer stains all over from where the techs had gotten his blood on them and then brushed or touched something. With all those little smears, it looked like he’d been run through a wood chipper. He had a plastic breather on his face. Tubes coming out of every orifice. After a while, his wife showed—”
“That’s enough,” he stopped me.
I took another sip. The mug was thin and the coffee was already getting tepid.
He turned his cup in a circle. “You should’ve come to me.”
“And say what? That it’s my fault Kent Cormack won’t ever walk again? You’d just tell me I was full of shit.”
“Because you are.”
The waitress left the bill upside down on the table as she passed.
I shrugged. “See? I wasn’t wrong.”
“No, you’re not wrong, Har. It’s just funny how every time the shit hits it, the best course of action also happens to be the one where you deal with everything completely on your own.”
“Come on . . . I’m not cutting you out of anything here. It’s precisely because we’re friends that I didn’t want to get you involved. Nothing good is gonna come from any of this and you know it. What kinda friend am I if I let any bit of that rub off on you? You have a wife and two beautiful girls whereas I—” I stopped.
“Yeah.” He rubbed both his eyes with one hand. His thumb and forefingers made circles around his lids. “Jesus, same ol’ Hari.” He was almost laughing in frustration.
I took another sip and pushed the cup away. “Miller seems to think assigning the case to you closes me out. That true?”
“Fuck.” He gave me a sarcastic look. “Of course not. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to play this close to the chest. Now is not the time for you to be bucking orders up and down the hall.”
It also wasn’t the time to argue with him. “Fine. So how do you wanna play it?”
“I’ll hafta run point.” He jutted a finger toward me accusingly. “That’s not negotiable. But . . . I’ll tell you whatever I find. And I’ll use you when I can. Fair enough?”
I nodded. He knew I didn’t think so, but there was nothing for me to say right then.
I shifted in my seat so I could get up in the tight space without knocking anything over.
“I was actually thinking about that fucker with the shotgun the other day,” he said, looking at the oblong scar on the back of his hand.
“Oh?” I settled back into my chair.
“I never cared you were gay, you know.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“But lots of guys did.”
“Lots of guys still do.”
“Which makes it a pain in the ass for anyone who has to work with you, you know that.”
I opened my mouth and he raised a hand defensively and cut me off. “I know it’s not the same,” he said. “I’m not saying that. I’m just saying, it’s still shit and I had plenty of reasons for picking someone else. But then there was that guy . . . Christ. Who the hell keeps a shotgun in the bathroom?”
“It’s not like he knew we were coming, right? Couple hours before, we didn’t even know we were gonna be there.” He shook his head. “But out he came. Pants down. Big ol’ beard. Dick still dripping pee. Sawed-off in his hands.” His smile faded and he got serious. “If that had gone any other way, one of us woulda wound up like Kent Cormack.”
“Or worse,” I said.
“Or worse,” he repeated. “I keep thinking about what would’ve happened if the door to the bedroom had been closed. I wouldn’t have been able to dive outta the way. Same for the radiator. It’s not like that drywall woulda stopped anything. Not at that range.”
“You got burned, right?”
He nodded. “There was that chime of metal on metal, and a crack, and a jet of steam hit my hand. Third-degree burn. Boiled in my own skin. And then it was over. Just like that. Seconds.” He snapped his fingers.
We didn’t say anything for a minute.
He sighed and took a drink. “I stepped to the door with my sidearm and peered around and you were already cuffing the fucker and reading him his rights.”
“Why do you think I let you go first?” I joked.
He leaned forward. “You wanna know a little secret?”
“I almost shat myself.”
He nodded with a chuckle. “It’s true. That whole time we were there, I had a turd hanging halfway outta my ass. I had to hold that damned thing for three hours. I couldn’t use the bathroom in the apartment. It was a crime scene. And I knew if I ran off somewhere, you and the other guys would put two and two together. So the whole time we processed everything and the photographers took pictures and we took the suspects downtown and debriefed the captain, I was squishing a little turtle head between my cheeks.”
Now it was my turn to let him go at his pace.
“From then on, as far as I was concerned those fuckers could say whatever they wanted. I wanted you watching my back. Two days later I made the request. And I never regretted it, Har. Never.”
“Why do I feel there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
“But you’re stubborn as shit. And selfish.”
“Yes. Selfish. When did you decide people were a strange conundrum you can’t be bothered to figure out? You spend all your time catching up on . . . on—” He struggled to find the words. “Talismans and voodoo and shit.”
“And don’t tell me that isn’t the pendant from the Sacchi case.” He motioned to the little silver amulet dangling from my wrist.
I moved it under the table. “How does that make me selfish?”
“Look.” He backed off. “I don’t wanna fight. Okay? All I’m saying is, don’t piss away your career for Kent fucking Cormack.” He squinted in disgust. “It was his case and his raid. He should’ve had twice as many guys covering that house and you know it. And you know why he didn’t, too. As far as a lot of us are concerned, that corrupt piece of shit got exactly what he deserved.”
“Maybe,” I said, getting up from the booth. I took out my wallet and laid a ten on the table. “But his wife and kid didn’t.”
rough cut from my five-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. Part One is available now. The epic urban fantasy concludes this spring with Part Two.
cover image by Micah Ulrich