Authors: Robert Pobi
He went up the center-strung staircase and as he climbed higher, he saw garbage strewn over the top of every piece of furniture in the main room, from empty soup cans and unread copies of
magazine to the more esoteric stripped Barbie doll and an old oil filter. At the top of the stairs he paused, surveying a house that had looked so much larger when he was last here.
The light coming in through the big rectangles of glass that opened onto the Atlantic washed away a lot of sins, blanching dust and debris with a broad stroke of blue-white that made him squint. The Persian carpets, overlaid and crosshatched waffles of color, were plastered over with scraps of life like the rest of the house. Jake saw the charred footsteps his father had left in his Alzheimer’s dance, the winning combination in a Twister game for pyromaniacs, over by the sheet of plywood that replaced the one big pane. Jake unconsciously read their pattern, starting just left of the fireplace, sambaing a good four in front of the piano, then turning quickly right for five steps in a foxtrot, finally lurching left again, spinning in place for the finale, and crashing through the glass and out onto the deck where he had run for the pool, flopping in the sludge like a sick fish. With all the booze in his blood, it was a wonder he hadn’t simply detonated, sending the house up in one white-hot mushroom cloud.
Outside, through the plywood-interrupted view, he saw his father’s studio sitting at the edge of the property, overlooking the beach. The windows were dark, the shingles half gone, the remaining ones blackened and crooked—another component in the heavily stylized mental picture Jake was quickly constructing.
He thought about checking out the rest of the place, then realized that he wasn’t really interested. The dirt and utility knives had been enough. At least for now. He clomped back down the stairs, his harness boots thudding with each heavy step, and realized that he was more tired than he had admitted to Kay. He picked a stack of small canvases off the sofa and leaned them against the coffee table. They looked dark and bloody like the batch in kitchen drawer—gray, unsettling.
Jake took out his firearm, a big stainless Smith & Wesson M500, and slid it under the cushion at the head of the sofa. Then he took off his boots, swung his legs up onto the sofa, and was asleep before his body had warmed the leather that covered the pistol behind his skull.
The shrill chirp of his cell phone jarred him from his sleep and he snapped upright. “Jake Cole,” he said reflexively. His leather jacket was still on and he felt like his head was filled with hot soot. It was dark out and he checked his watch. Eleven thirteen.
“Special Agent Jake Cole?”
He took a deep breath and uh-huhed. Scratched the chunk of scar tissue at the base of his scalp.
“This is Sheriff Mike Hauser, Southampton SD. Got your number from the New York bureau office. Sorry to call at this hour but I got a problem and for some reason you’re five miles from where I need you.” The tone and word choice told Jake a lot about the man at the other end. Trim. Fifty. Flat-top. Sig Sauer P226 for a sidearm. American flag pin on his lapel. Ex-jock.
There was a pause and Jake realized that he was supposed to tell Sheriff Hauser that it was fine that he had called. That sure, he would listen. That, yessir, he was there to help. He reached under the cushion and slid the heavy revolver out. He checked the cylinder—a habit he had learned a long time ago—and tucked it into the pressure holster on his belt. All he said was, “How’d they die?”
The pause dragged out a little longer, and Jake recognized the pregnant silence of a man trying to build up courage. This silence told Jake a lot more about him. Hauser swallowed audibly, then said, “They were skinned.”
And the little current of emotion that he had refused to acknowledge a few hours ago came to the front of everything, blocking out the ocean and the moon beyond. It froze in his head and his blood pressure surged in one electromagnetic pulse that rattled his gray matter.
That old motherfucker fear was coming out to play.
Jacob Coleridge Jr.—now Jake Cole—downshifted from fourth gear into third and hit the gas. The 426 Hemi growled as the legion of water-cooled ponies dug into the asphalt and the ’68 Charger screeched through the corner, launching his pack of cigarettes across the dashboard. As he cleared the apex of the curve, the lights swung out over the shoulder and lit up one of the drift fences stretched across the beach that bordered the highway. There was a bright blue strobe of fence and sand and a brief glimpse of the Atlantic beyond, then the long expanse of his hood was through the corner and he was barreling up 27, almost due east, on his way to see the dead.
It was a weeknight and there was no traffic on the Montauk Highway. The gentle slalom of road brought Jake back to his sixteenth summer, driving up to Billy Spencer’s place in Billy’s ancient Corvette after their shift at the Montauk Yacht Club, pockets filled with two- and three-dollar tips that added up to just enough money to last the weekend. They’d rip up the coast with the torn canvas top folded down, listening to The Clash and smoking weed.
The windows were open and the cool night air buffeted the cabin. The wind that had been chopping up the surf had died down and all that was left was a strong thrum of air that pulsed along the coast like a heartbeat, pumping fresh air in from the ocean. Something metal in the back seat clinked rhythmically, probably the buckle on Jeremy’s baby seat, but the sound was muted by the static of the moment.
Jake was trying to get into character. He did this every time he went to work—every time, in fact, he was forced to face the dead, the mutilated, and the dishonored that made up his clientele.
It was an armoring process, only it was internal. Unlike most of the men he worked with in the bureau, the immediate threat was not to his body. As the first man on the scene of some of the most violent murders on the planet, Jake was continually at risk of being damaged by flak from the bloody human sculpture he decoded. Instead of a Kevlar vest and a riot helmet, he protected himself with a carefully tailored personality shield positioned to prevent the soft parts of his psyche from being damaged. Before Jake walked onto a murder scene, he wrapped parts of himself up and put them away in a secure area of his mind so they wouldn’t be part of a process that both repulsed and fascinated him. And when it was over, when he walked out of work, he was able to function without tension rot getting to him. At least that was the theory.
Lately, getting into the zone took a little force, and tonight the switch-line in his head that he depended on to let him go from a full stop to a full go seemed to be misfiring. With anyone else he would have understood it. Empathized with it. But he didn’t allow these things for himself. He couldn’t. He resented the image of his father, sedated in his hospital bed, contaminating his thoughts; he needed that space right now.
When he thought about it, it wasn’t just his father—it was the entire act of being here. Being
here. Stepping into the house. Seeing that goddamned cracked ashtray with the glued bit still sitting on the floor. Stepping over and around those grim little canvases that a once-great painter had scabbed together during a redline descent into madness. Smelling the ocean. Driving the Montauk Highway. Thinking about Spencer and the old Corvette. The sod in the fridge. The algae-infested pool. All of it.
Jake took a breath and pushed the extra mental inventory aside and concentrated on getting into the zone. He focused on his driving, on the road opening up in the bright glare of the headlights, and on keeping the car between the lines on the pavement. He punched the gas, double-clutched up into fourth, and felt a batch of mice let loose in his stomach as the car crested a small hill on the road that wove up the coast like a black serpent. His body strained against the seat belt as the Dodge peaked, then dropped down into a trough on the snake’s back, pushing him into the leather. He hammered down on the gas and the car lurched forward in a high-pitched wail that converted petroleum into momentum.
A few minutes later he spotted the Christmas-tree pulse of emergency lights up ahead, off the road and partially obscured by the dark teeth of tree trunks. He didn’t ease off the gas until he was a hundred yards from the gate, then rapidly downshifted from fourth to second. He hit the brakes and fishtailed into the entrance, the seat belt digging into his hips, the Hemi angry at the loss of juice to its heart.
Two imposing stone pillars that supported massive wrought-iron gates flanked the driveway. A pair of Southampton black-and-whites guarded the opening, a visual opera of sharp red, white, and blue flashes. Jake swung the Charger through the gate and stopped short as one of the uniformed officers scrambled up to his window, a Maglite hanging loosely from his hand.
Knowing cop protocol, he didn’t bother to look up—an eyeful of flashlight beam could set off one of his headaches.
“You Special Agent Cole?” the unseen officer shimmering at the edge of his peripheral vision asked and Jake’s software pulled up an image to go with the voice. When the beam of the flashlight was off his face he looked up.
“Spencer?” he said, and felt the corners of his mouth curl up with the closest thing to a smile he was capable of when on the job.
The cop took a step back and the flat expression on his face evened out into a question mark that flashed in the cruiser lights. “It’s Officer William Spencer.” And with his last name, the tone dropped off as he recognized Jake in the pulsing blue and red.
“Jakey? What the actual fuck!” The cop’s face switched to smile mode and it was a lot friendlier, even in the alternating Christmas glimmer of the roof rack. His eyes slid over Jake and his mouth managed a pretty good smile, which even after all this time surprised Jake because he had knocked half of it out back in second grade. Spencer swung the flashlight in the car, then over the baby seat in the back.
Jake stopped the emotions he knew he would not be using in the next little while and held up his badge. “Your sheriff sounded pretty grim on the phone fifteen minutes ago.”
Spencer ignored him. “You back about your old man?” Then, after nodding
to himself, said, “What’s with the name?”
Jake drew in a chestful of sea air and let it settle to the bottom of his lungs. This is what he hated about coming back. They asked about his past. “The name Jacob Coleridge was more of an obstacle than a blessing out in the world.” Being the son of the famous painter had come with its own kind of baggage, none of it good. Except maybe the art-school groupies who had slept with him as a way to somehow absorb some good old famous DNA, even if it was once-removed.
Spencer’s smile short-circuited and he nodded like he understood. “You’re the guy Hauser called?” It was worded as a question but meant as a statement.
Jake nodded and stared up at the former oyster-shucker. In the blaring lights of the cruisers his eyes still flashed blue and red, ornaments that couldn’t make up their minds. “I’d hate to be you,” Spencer said.
The pulsing eyes were a little unsettling and Jake turned his focus onto the glowing slant of the roof just over the slight hill of the drive; it was an old Long Island landscaping habit to keep the house hidden from the road with a berm. He watched the slate roof lit up by the lights of the emergency vehicles he knew were encamped in the drive, fanned out in varying degrees of importance. “Where have you put the media?” Jake knew that with the storm rolling in, every national news program would have its people out stalking the coast for impending disaster stories. And they wouldn’t miss a double homicide, no matter how deep the local police tried to bury it.
Spencer shook his head. “No media. Sheriff hasn’t called anyone and I don’t think he’s going to.”
Jake put that down on the list after American lapel pin.
Officer William Spencer tapped his sidearm with the lens of the big flashlight. “Cameraman tries to get in there, I have a trespasser on the premises.”
Jake shook his head. “No, Billy, you don’t. You come get me. We clear?”
Spencer let the question rattle around in the silence for a few seconds before he said, “Sure. Yeah.”
“The media is going to be important with this investigation. We want them working with us, not against us. They show up, you come get me.”
Spencer smiled, and they were good again. “You were called for a reason.”
“I’ve done this before. The bureau was requested by the local SD and the New York office knew I was staying out at the house. I guess the powers-that-be thought I needed to be here.” He turned back to Spencer, whose flashing-ornament eyeballs had somehow become less disturbing. “Just a lucky coincidence, I guess.”
“You’re a smart guy, Jake. At least you used to be.” Spencer’s mouth opened up and his teeth began to flash along with his eyes in the glare of the cruiser. “No such thing as coincidence.” His mouth pursed up and he looked down, as if he was embarrassed. “You know that.”
Jake hated platitudes and clichés, but something about the way Spencer said it raised a flag somewhere in his head. “Drop by,” he said, and roared off down the driveway.
Unlike the Wyeth clan, the next generation of the Coleridge bloodline couldn’t draw a stick figure without fucking it up. Jake was, however, able to do some remarkable things inside his skull. His one true talent—even greater than his father’s gift—was the ability to paint the final moments of people’s lives. And this uncanny and often frightening gift made Jake Cole very good at hunting monsters.
The people he worked with thought of it as an esoteric art form, some sort of weird channeling from places best left alone—deranged, psychotic, tortured places. Jake found the nuances in what made individual crime scenes unique. And in this uniqueness he decoded the stylistic fingerprint—the murderer’s signature. Once this signature was committed to memory, he would recognize it on sight. In the real world art market, if applied to paintings, a gift like his would have been worth millions of dollars a year in the economy of the business. In the search for killers, it was priceless.
He walked through the high arched doorway, intricately carved in a French motif. The house immediately spoke to him. Of wealth. Education. Breeding. Death. And…and? And something else Jake couldn’t quite nail. He had never been here before—he had eidetic memory for surroundings and had no recall of the property—but back, buried behind the personality traits of the home, there was something he knew. A distant chatter that he could not quite recognize.
Sheriff Hauser looked exactly like the mental portrait that Jake had painted in his skull, right down to the American flag pin in his lapel. He stood an easy six three in his engineer boots, weighed in at a healthy two-forty, and had the prerequisite flat-top and bland good looks of his ilk. Although now, standing in the beach house of dead people he had promised to protect and serve, with two bloody skinned human bodies splattered all over the floor, Jake saw stress vibrating beneath the sheriff’s composure. The tight lines of concern looked like fissures in a garden statue that had been left to the elements for too long. Without knowing how he knew, Jake was sure the man had played football; there was something in the way he moved his shoulders, the way he swiveled his head, that said quarterback. But for all his presence, Jake knew that it wouldn’t take much to put a few holes in Hauser’s thin skin of togetherness, and he’d have to go outside to throw up.
Jake pushed into a conversation the sheriff was having with a spacesuited photographer from the Medical Examiner’s Office.
“Sheriff Hauser? Jake Cole.” Jake extended his hand.
Hauser didn’t take it, but looked Jake over. His mouth tightened a little and Jake wondered if he had met another tight-assed small-town sheriff who would end up being his own worst enemy on the case. Hauser surprised him. “Cole? Sure. Sorry. I…” He let it trail off and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I’m not firing on all eight right now. I guess that’s the last thing I should be saying to the FBI, huh?”
“I appreciate the honesty.” He looked over Hauser’s shoulder, at the bedroom door thrown wide, the interior of the chamber lit up in space whites from the utility lights. He told himself to wait another minute, until after Hauser was up to speed on his new PR function. “What are you doing about media?” he asked, skipping small talk.
Hauser shook his head. “No media.”
“Half the news crews in the country are within fifty miles of here. Official FBI policy is to work with the media. Establish a relationship and you’ll be surprised how the news can do more good than bad.”
Hauser pulled off his rubber glove and massaged his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “I don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing.”
Jake gave the sheriff a thirty-second talk on putting together an effective media plan that would be a useful tool in the investigation. He suggested Hauser as the public information officer—as far as PIOs went, Jake thought the man would present well on camera. After his quick lecture and promises of help, Jake pointed at the bright rectangle of utility lights and excused himself.
He slid past Hauser and walked to the door, pushing two of the sheriff’s people out of the way as he moved. No one protested or said a word when Jake was on site—something about him told people to get out of his way.
He saw them on the floor and his brain did what it did, the computational software automatically gathering details and comparing them against the vast databank in his mental vault. The noise in the room stopped. The people moving behind him disappeared. And there was no light save for the harsh truth of halogen on the dead. He stood there for a few seconds that could have been minutes or hours or days and inventoried everything he saw in a mental data download.
Immediately—quicker than immediately if that was at all possible—he knew.
. With a certainty that was as inexplicable as what he did.
Now he understood the background chatter he hadn’t quite recognized when he had walked in. It had been the scent of familiarity. He knew this work. It was him.
Jake stood there, the minutiae of the scene humming in his skull. He knew what had happened. How it had happened. How long it had taken.
The world was gone—just gone—and there was no sound except for the howling of the child. The screams of the woman on the floor. Jake heard the celery-bite crunch when her ribs were kicked in. He heard the snap as her jaw broke when she was hit with the pommel of the hunting knife that would be used to skin her. He listened to her screeching above the sound of her skin coming off her body. And her gurgled intimate prayers for it all to stop. For death to come for her.
And then, just as quickly, it was gone. He was back at the threshold and a voice off to his left made a joke. Someone laughed. Jake was jolted out of his work, out of himself, and he turned.
A big trooper with a shaved head had the tail end of a smile hanging on his lips.
Jake kept himself from yelling but made sure everyone in the house heard him. “Does this look fucking funny to you, asshole?”
The trooper, whose nametag identified him as Scopes, locked his eyes on Jake. The look on his face was half resentment, half embarrassment.
“Do you know what happened here?” He waited, and the house went silent. Everyone stopped what they were doing. “A woman was skinned alive. She was held down, forced to watch a little boy mutilated while the fucking kid probably broke the sound barrier with his screeching. And he bled to death before his murderer was finished with him. He would have twitched a lot at the end. Then the motherfucker dropped the kid to the floor like a broken toy and kicked the woman’s ribs in. While she was gasping like a fish, trying to find some breath to pray or scream for help, he scalped her. Then he probably winded her again, and she almost lost consciousness. And while she was sinking away from the world, he sliced all the meat off of her face. Then he waited. And when she woke up, he probably let her scream for a few minutes so he could get a nice memory-image to jerk off to later. Then, because he liked the sound of her voice too much at this point, he held her down with his foot and sliced all the skin off of her while she went through degrees of agony that would take your brain apart. So if you find something even remotely funny here, I am personally going to take you outside and beat some fucking sense into you and if you think I am not serious,” Jake took a step toward Scopes, a good half-head taller, and easily the biggest man in almost every room he entered, “say something just a little bit stupid.”
Scopes dropped his eyes. “I didn’t—”
“Shut the fuck up. I don’t want an apology. I want you to get the fuck out of my sight. And if you decide to build up enough balls to come after me later, liquored up and full of rage, you have an open invitation. Are we clear?”
“I’m sorry.” His face went a little pale, then shifted to a deep red that showed the veins in his neck.
“Go do something useful and I’ll consider this forgotten.”
Scopes nodded and grudgingly went outside.
Jake turned, looked at Hauser. The sheriff’s eyes were locked on the bedroom door and his skin had gone pale, greenish.
“You okay?” Jake asked, trying to be the other half of his personality.
Hauser still looked green, although he was starting to get his bearing back. The sheriff waved him away. “I’m sorry about Scopes. We all deal with stress in different—”
Jake shook his head. “Forget it.”
Hauser swallowed, his lips a tight line that barely moved when he spoke. He swallowed again, trying to breathe through his mouth. The house smelled of metal, blood, shit, and fear.
Jake wanted to turn back to the bedroom, to the violated bodies on the thick pile rug. Back to the work. But that little voice in his head was chattering away now, rattling off the unifying factors in this case and the other one. The first one. The one that had made him decide to do this.
Hauser cut into his head. “The house is owned by Carl and Jessica Farmer and from what the neighbors tell us, they rent it out when they travel. Right now I assume these, um—” he paused, turned his head consciously away from the room of the dead—“people are—
—renters. We don’t know their names. Not the woman or the child.”
“He’s her son.”
Hauser looked at Jake and his eyes narrowed. “How do you know?”
“I just do.”
Hauser started back up. “According to a neighbor, the Farmers are sailing in the Caribbean. They go every fall and winter and there’s always new people coming and going.”
Jake looked around, took in the art, the antiques, the expensive fabrics. The neat order was in stark contrast to his father’s morbid cave down the beach. “It doesn’t look like they need the money. There’s twenty grand in Aubusson cushions in the living room. Why would they rent it out?”
Hauser shrugged, pulled the back of his hand across his mouth again. “I don’t know. The rich are different.” He paused and looked over Jake’s shoulder, his eyes peering to the bedroom. “So far, none of the neighbors have seen any renters or heard a child playing. Maybe the woman and…her child just arrived. Maybe they were the renters.”
“You checking the Farmers’ bank account?”
The sheriff nodded. “If rent was paid by check we’ll have something tomorrow. Two days if it’s an out-of-town bank.”
“No purse? Mail? Prescription bottles in the bathroom?”
Hauser’s blank expression slid back and forth as he shook his head. “No purse. No wallet. No luggage. Nothing distinguishing, nothing personal found.”
Hauser shook his head. “No kid’s clothes. No clothes for a woman that size. Or age, if you’re right and she is the mother. Without her…skin, it’s hard to tell. Could be his grandma or—”
Jake shook his head. “She’s the right age. Good musculature, not much subcutaneous fat.”
What about the other things you saw?
the little voice asked from the dark.
A woman of about sixty-five, primped and perfect in a once-blonde pageboy haircut, came over. She was thin and wearing one of the antistatic spacesuits that Jake had seen on hundreds of crime scenes. Hauser introduced her as the medical examiner, Dr. Nancy Reagan. “No relation,” he added very matter-of-factly and Jake hoped he wouldn’t turn out to be one of those dumb cops who had somehow slid into the job because of family influence in the area.
“Is the FBI officially involved?” Reagan asked pleasantly, like a snake greeting a mouse.
He thought about the woman behind him, sprawled out and glued to the carpet with her own blood. “Yes.”
The ME’s smile went a little flat and she said, “Do I look incompetent to you, Special Agent Cole?”
“It’s not a question of competence, it’s a question of experience.” Jake slipped back into character. “You mind if I have a few minutes in here with Madame X and the child?” he asked. “By myself.”
Hauser swallowed for what must have been the hundredth time in two minutes and nodded. “Sure. No problem. I give out tickets. Sometimes I see accidents. Drunk kids in fights in town. Killings? Sure, this is America, there’s enough of that shit to go around. Shootings and stabbings and beatings and drownings and suicides. But I have never even imagined that people do this kind of shit to one another. Not once.” He glanced over his shoulder and his Adam’s apple Ichabod Craned again. “Why would anyone skin a child? I can’t…I just…I don’t…”
Jake cut the sheriff off to prevent him from crying in front of his people. “I’d like Dr. Reagan’s photographer to stay with me. Shoot what I ask him to. On my own flash card. You can have copies, of course. I’ll also expect copies of your protocols.” The ME’s office had already gone through the place. Blood spatter patterns had been recorded, the crime scene cataloged by a photographer, and every surface dusted for prints or genetic evidence. But Jake wasn’t looking for the things that the ME would be interested in—or even able to see. What Jake Cole wanted was to reach inside the fear he felt pulsing through the house and speak to the dead with that part of him that he never really understood.
Hauser snapped back to the here and now. “I’m staying.”
“It’s your investigation.”
The sheriff lifted his head. “Everyone outside. Conway?”
A small man in one of the ubiquitous spacesuits with an expensive Nikon dangling from his neck came over, his feet swishing on the carpet. “Yeah?”
“This is Special Agent Jake Cole, FBI. Cole is doing us a favor here, so shoot whatever he tells you—
he tells you. Understood?”
Conway nodded. “No problem, Sheriff.”
The house began to empty, the sheriff’s people filing out with the ME’s people in a silent white-suited crowd. Conway changed memory cards in his camera and adjusted the big Sunpak flash.
When they were alone, Jake leveled his gaze at Conway. “Let me poke around a bit but keep me in sight.”
Conway shrugged like a man used to taking orders and cycled up his flash.
Hauser stepped back like he was at a nature preserve observing wildlife. He cocked his head to one side and watched, hoping that this would somehow put what had happened into some sort of a rational context.