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Authors: Robert Pobi

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BOOK: Bloodman
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Jake walked to the bedroom and stopped at the threshold. On the floor were the scabbed skinless sprawled-out figures of Madame X and her little boy. He walked through the door for a second meeting with woman and child. Mother and son.

These are not people
, Jake told himself.

This is not a family.

This is a set of clues.

Left by an artist.

An artist you know.

You’ve seen.

This is his palette.

He stopped just inside the threshold and the jagged peal of the bells of bad memories started clanging away in his head. For an instant he wanted to reach out, to grab something for support, but like his brain, his muscles had frozen, the machine of his body unplugged from his CPU. He stood there, his eyes locked on the bodies spilled out of their skins onto the floor, his lungs cocked in a half-breath.

It is him
, the voice in his head said, matter-of-factly.

And he was surprised that he was calm. That his feet were welded to the floor and that he was stronger this time. He felt Hauser’s presence in the empty space behind him, a cold spot in the room. He could tell that the sheriff was holding his breath.

Jake filled his lungs with the sickly sweet air and for a split second it got away from him and he thought he was going to throw up. He didn’t fight it, didn’t try to suck it back or push it down, just let the feeling rumble around inside him for an instant and then it was gone like he knew it would be and he was back in the room. Back in the here and the now and the bedroom gallery with the art of the dead.

He recorded what he saw, took it down in pixilated form and committed it to the memory banks because this one was—

Him.

—important.

Him
.

Jake didn’t need to see any more to know. He already
knew
. The signature—
his
signature—was all over this place. That’s what the secondary smell had been back in the living room when he had been talking to Hauser: the stench of familiarity.

Madame X was at the end of the bed, slopped all over the floor like a water balloon that had let go. She was facedown on the rug, one of her legs bent at the knee, a bloody foot smeared onto the edge of the mattress. There was a lot of blood on the carpet. On the bed. On the floor. The happy zigzag pattern of a weekend butcher at work.

Him.

“Did you check the drain? Tub and shower?” Jake asked Hauser, who had moved silently up behind him. “Pull the grilles and the P-traps?”

It was Conway who answered in a swish of mint. “Ran a swab down the drain, straight into the septic system. No municipal service out here. Didn’t find a thing.”

Are you sure that it is him?
Hope whispered. But there was no mistaking it. Not this close. Not after everything that had happened. Spencer was right, there are no coincidences.

He squatted down on his haunches and leaned over the body of the woman. He had seen a lot of indignities in his time but the added horror of familiarity somehow made it more visceral, as if it had been meant for him to see.

Even before he examined her, he knew what he’d find.

All the skin had been removed from her body. He twisted his head like a cat going through a fence, peeked between the bloody stubs of her toes, bent down, looked into the crook of her arm, examined the base of her skull, and couldn’t find a shred of skin anywhere. She had been peeled and thrown on the floor. Her flesh was etched all over with crescent-shaped incisions left by the tip of the knife. Without meaning to, he said aloud, “She was skinned with a single-edged knife with a recurve tip. Thick blade. Hunting knife, most probably.” He looked at the work, at the technique, and it all came rushing back.

Him
. It was almost a chime in his head now. A choral mantra.

“Why would he do that?” Hauser asked somewhere between a whisper and no sound at all.

“Do what?”

Hauser licked his lips so that his vocal cords would work this time around. “Um, skin her. Was he trying to conceal her identity?”

Jake shook his head and reminded himself that most people—police included—never get to see something like this. As far as stupid questions went, he had heard a lot worse. “It has nothing to do with that. We have her dental—mostly. And DNA. No, we’ll find out who these people are and he knows it.” Jake looked down at them and realized that he hadn’t answered Hauser’s core question, the big
Why?
“Some take feet. Some take internal organs. A lot take genitals. This guy likes skin. I don’t know the
why
yet, only the
how
. The short answer is simply that it’s his trip, his own little mental toboggan ride, so he sets it up in a way that makes him feel good.” He turned to the woman. “He finds this beautiful.”

The flesh under her face was puckered and cracked like pudding and her teeth were jagged nubs of white that she had gnashed off on the carpet. Her tongue was a few inches from her face; she had chewed it off and spat it out and it looked like a thick meat slug that had died trying to escape a building on fire.

He opened the closet and stopped. The hangers were empty. In the bright beam of the task lighting, Jake saw eight small indentations on the carpet. “Get these. With measurements.”

“Get what?” Conway asked, staring at the rug.

Jake squatted down, pointed in turn to the eight indentations.

Conway squinted. “I don’t see anything.”

Jake pointed them out again. “There, there, there, there. Then again
here, here, here, and here
.”

Conway’s face shifted into puzzlement when he saw them. “Holy shit. What are those?”

Jake tried not to roll his eyes.

“Suitcase feet,” Hauser said from behind.

“Suitcase feet?”

“Someone took two suitcases out of the closet.” Jake raised his finger, pointing at the bar above his head filled with the empty wire hangers. “And all the clothes.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Just take the fucking pictures, okay?”

That was when Jake realized that something else was missing—toys. You didn’t go anywhere with a child that size without toys. Even if you were only going for five minutes.

Jake turned away and went over the room with is eyes, taking in every object, surface, and detail, forming the space into a 3-D model in his skull that he could walk through later when he needed something. He ignored the coppery sweet smell of blood mixed with the bitter gag of feces and the smell of his own fear—ignored that he was in a room where a child had been skinned in front of his mother and she had been taken apart like a bloody present. He dismissed that Hauser’s boys were outside probably contaminating the crime scene. He was even able to forget the photographer, squatting down on his static-free haunches and snapping photos, great drafts of incomprehension coming off him like steam. He was even able to forget the dead.

But he was unable to ignore the little voice that had begun chattering away in his mind like some fevered ghost on speed.
He’s been waiting for you to come home, Jakey. You thought that he was gone. Maybe even dead. Didn’t you?

Well, guess what?

He’s back.

And you, my friend, are fucked.

5

1,260 miles east of Nassau, Bahamas

 

Every now and then Mother Nature assembles a performance to show off a little. Or a lot. Scripture labels it Judgment, usually laid down by a vengeful God to keep Man humble. But through progress made in earth sciences, it is now known that natural catastrophes are nothing more than a synchronous assembly of coincidental atmospheric conditions. All that is necessary is patience and the right combination of events.

In mid-September, roughly 500 miles southwest of the Azores island chain, a massive thunderstorm stalled over the ocean. This stall was precipitated by three storm fronts moving in on one another, and they pinned the thunderstorm in place.

The water that fueled this malevolent beast had been lifted off the ocean by solar heating, driven up into the atmosphere in the form of condensation. The act of evaporation generated energy that quickly increased wind speeds over the tropical waters, and the faster winds caused increased surface evaporation, feeding the thunderstorm with even more condensation. This hoarding of fuel swelled the pregnant belly of the beast and the storm clouds mushroomed into the atmosphere, forcing more condensation to form, and a self-feeding monster was born.

The system, affected by the earth’s rotation, began to spin, a massive heat-engine with an endless supply of fuel. The metamorphosis from large thunderstorm to hurricane was complete.

There was more heat.

More evaporation.

More wind.

More condensation.

More.

More.

More.

Then the atmospheric pressure dropped several millibars.

And the hurricane began to move west.

On its journey its eye dilated to the largest in history, outsizing Carmen by over sixty miles. In the tradition of political correctness, the storm had been identified as male, and given the title of Dylan.

Hurricane Dylan was now surging toward the American coast and the water in its path was hammered into eighty-foot waves by winds that neared 200 miles an hour. And he hadn’t really started putting on his war paint.

He was saving that for landfall.

6

Day Two
Montauk, Long Island

 

Jake stood just above the ridge of foam and seaweed that the Atlantic had spent the night laying across the beach one wave at a time. It was still nice out, the Gulf Stream now bringing up a southern current that pulled the warm air along with it. The whole East Coast was having a good day, one of those fall mornings that let you know that summer was not yet gone. There was no taste of the hurricane that was pushing the warm front north.

He had been up early, and ate a piece of bologna on toast over the sink like he had back in his junkie days. It was funny, even back then, when his mind had been dialed to comatose most of the time, he had never become a slob. The apartment was always neat. Of course that was easy when you didn’t own a second pair of shoes and the big-ticket items in the place were the stainless-steel fork and knife that lay proudly on the cardboard place mat on the kitchen counter. Beside the heat-blued spoon and the surgical tubing.

He had walked across the living room in his bare feet, drinking a cup of coffee out of an ancient A&W paper cup that he had emptied of its paintbrushes. Something about the wax and the heat of the coffee on his fingers and the faint smell of turpentine brought out that the world had changed irrevocably. He hadn’t been here in almost thirty years and now, walking through the bright wedge of space, he realized it was as if he had never really left at all. Because our minds are not built to forget, but to ignore.

The craggy man with the flat black eyes and the tattoo he saw looking back from the big mirror beside the piano was nothing like the boy who had left here all that time ago. Twenty-eight years had been swallowed by the clock and the almost-broken piece of machinery he used for a body had changed its cells a full four times since leaving. Except for the electrical impulses stored as memories, Jake Cole was a different man.

Jake didn’t remember getting the tattoo, or even thinking about it. Back then his money had been spent on coke and heroin; he never would have wasted budgetary considerations on something as inane as a tattoo. But one morning he had woken up in the tiny apartment on Spring Street, four months behind on rent and somehow not evicted. He had come to life in the middle of the kitchen floor, his head pulsing like an infection, shivering in a pool of rusty brown water from an overflowed toilet in the next room. He stood, and when he put his arm out to steady himself on the fridge that was no longer there, he saw it, covering his arm like a black silk shirt. The ink blanketed his entire body. From wrists to ankles, ending in a jagged line just below his larynx. Flat and healed at his feet—puffy, red, and fresh at his neck. And he remembered none of it. Four months erased from his life.

He had stood in front of the mirror for hours, the longest period he had could remember going without the nervous twitches without being high. The script was Italian and after deciphering a few names and phrases, he realized what it was.

The twelfth canto of
Inferno
, the first part of Dante’s
Divine Comedy
. Jake knew the story, of course. When he had been a child, it had been his favorite book in his father’s library. A massive leather-bound tome illustrated by Gustave Doré. He had never made any sort of conscious decision about the best parts, but staring at himself in the mirror, watching the ink that snaked over his frame, he knew that he had made the choice. And when he thought about it, the twelfth canto
was
the inevitable passage. The violent condemned to hell. The story of the Men of Blood. Like the ones he now hunted.

Like the
one
he now hunted.

After all this time. And just like finding himself back home, it all reeked of that fucking word destiny. Because some things were meant to happen. Some places were supposed to be revisited. And with that he realized that he hadn’t yet gone upstairs.

Of course the upper floor was as bad as the downstairs, worse because the rising heat had no place to go and it had baked the smell of dust and dirt and despair into the walls. The floor up here was bare, the hardwood stripping dented and the varnish beaten through to now dirty raw wood. Along with more utility knives, a few miserable blobs of canvases were stacked up here, too, leaning against the wall. He stopped and picked one up, trying to figure out what had happened to his father’s thinking. Were these exercises? How long had he been painting these things? How long had he been sick? Why had no one noticed?

He wondered what his father had been thinking while he had been painting these lifeless chips of noncolor. Jake had stopped caring about his old man years ago, but he had never stopped respecting his mind. Of all the shitty things you could say about Jacob Coleridge—and there were enough to fill a football stadium one filthy vowel at a time—you could not say was that he was talentless. Not like the rest of the hacks who had cashed in on being in the right place at the right time, back when showing up had been half the battle. When you added this hardwired brilliance to the equation the whole process of slapping paint to canvas had become something special to behold.

While the rest of them were measuring their progress with a backward-sliding pencil mark on the door jamb of self-parody, Jacob Coleridge had been reinventing the way people looked at the world. Looked at canvas and crusted pigment. Looked at themselves. He went deep into the arteries of the beast, until he was at its paint-pumping heart, and his work had been the most original and passionate to come out of the East Coast for a long time. Jacob Coleridge had not been a slouch, not even when it had been in style.

So what the fuck had happened to him in the past what—two?—five?—ten? years?

Jake turned one of the asymmetrical canvases clockwise, then counter-clockwise. His father had never believed in modern art, not as a rubric. And he certainly had never believed in the narcissistic self-indulgent crap that his son was now staring at. So what had happened here? Jake leaned the canvas against the wall and walked on down the hall.

His old bedroom and his mother’s old office were both locked. The master bedroom had a pocket door that slid into the wall. It was cocked about four inches and Jake wrapped his fingers around the edge and tried to pull it open. It barely budged, as if it was mired in wet sand. He peeked through the crack, into the room, and saw that the door was barricaded—there was no other word for it. From the tight view he saw a chest of drawers, an old iron architect’s table, and a giant gilded blackamoor pushed up against the panel. How the hell had his father gotten out of the room after doing that? And what had been going through his head when he had piled the furniture up?

Peeking through the gap, he saw more utility knives laid out on all the surfaces, always one within reach. The room smelled worse than the hospital did, and in the dark it was infinitely more gloomy, if that was at all possible. He’d open it tomorrow—or the next day—it really didn’t matter.

After the tour of the upstairs, Jake headed down to the water. He walked barefoot, his tattooed arms almost the same worn blue as his FBI T-shirt with the cracked yellow letters. He held on to the empty cup; he was never able to litter, to leave any of himself behind. In his job, he had seen it get too many people in trouble. Kay always said that after Jake visited a place, it was as if he had never been there at all. He thought of it as simply another occupational hazard.

The cold sand was in direct contrast to the warm wind but he barely noticed. His mind’s eye flicked between the 3-D model of the Farmers’ bedroom and his father’s accident. Coming here to deal with his father and walking into that house up the highway last night were not coincidences. This was bad no matter how he tried to look at it.

Jake walked up the beach, the cool sand squeezing up through his toes like gritty cake icing, the sensation stirring up vestigial memories. The beach had changed in the last quarter-century. A lot, in fact. Like the town itself, the point used to be a community of two distinct groups: the locals and the summer people. The smaller, more modest homes belonged to the locals and the bigger, newer places belonged to the summer people. Gentrification had swallowed all the available real estate in sweeping gulps, and the locals had been pushed farther and farther from the shoreline until the beach was a well-kept line of resort houses devoid of personality and Montauk risked becoming just another eyesore of the wealthy. Desecrated land with preened lawns and three-car garages that owners called
car houses
.

By the time Jacob Coleridge had moved to Montauk he had already made a name for himself. Pollock was dead, Warhol was a firm presence, and there was a huge gaping hole in the progression of American painting. Opposed to Pollock’s color overload or Warhol’s trite packaging, Jacob Coleridge laid down a grim vision in sweeping lines of crusted pigment that critics began to notice. Collectors quickly followed.

Like most artists, Coleridge began as a classicist and was, by the age of eleven, a skilled draftsman. He quickly outgrew the need for people to see meaning in his work and began each painting with a technically breathtaking illustration that he would deftly, and some would say criminally, cover with successive layers of pigment until only a small detail of the original photorealist work was left. Unlike the mass of American painters who wanted their work worshipped, Jacob Coleridge covered up the parts he figured people would want to see. The critics lauded him as the only non-narcissist in American painting. Many collectors had their works X-rayed so they could see what they were missing. Eventually he started painting with lead pigment, grinding it with linseed oil so that an X-ray machine would have a hard time getting through. And the more he told them to go fuck themselves, the more they paid for his work.

Jake edged along the surf line, absentmindedly kicking at the thick line of weeds and flotsam that snarled the shore, his inner detective looking for…what? Sea shells? Pirate treasure? Answers? A spotted sandpiper trailed behind him, picking up early-morning insects that his curiosity dislodged.

He hadn’t come home to work—he had come home because his father had set himself on fire and burned off most of the meat of his hands—little more than charred black hooks now. The short of it was he had come home to set things straight so the old man could be placed somewhere. Then he was going to get back into his car, head for New York, and never come back here. It was a simple scenario when it was put in those terms. Only those terms had been blown to pieces when Hauser had called last night.

The sandpiper off his flank raced in and picked up a sand crab he had kicked up, skedaddling away with the coin-sized animal. The bird dropped it onto the beach and stabbed at its belly with controlled jabs of its beak. For a few seconds the crustacean made a valiant effort but it eventually succumbed to the superior firepower and the bird pulled its guts out in a jet of color.

The lighthouse shone weirdly in the early-morning haze and Jake could see two fishing boats heading around the point, to the lee side of Long Island. He figured that every boat in the area would be somewhere else by nine a.m.

As far as he could see both up and down the coast he was the only one out. He turned his head back toward the house, a geometric wedge of black against a blue-orange sky, as if Richard Neutra had designed the Rorschach test. The light off the water bounced red and orange against the glass and the dark line of the horizon crept down the wall of windows that faced the beach. The house looked like it was rising out of the dune and Jake remembered watching the sun come up on the beach with his mother after a night spent eating Mallomars and watching old movie marathons on PBS.

Why was he unable to focus here? What was scattering his concentration? Was it the mess inside the house coming awake in front of him? Was it the memory of his mother? Was it that fucker who had taken the woman and child apart? Was it those creepy little paintings inside the house? Or was it just the plain old fucking fact that he didn’t want to be here? That he wanted to be back in the city with his wife and son, away from a place he had tried to forget for most of his life. After all, how did he have any responsibility here?

As the sun rose, its light crawled down the dunes and Jake felt the damp start to burn off his body. He stood on the sand, watching the edge of the world somewhere off to the east, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to leave. Not now. Not for a while. I came back to take care of my father’s life, he told himself. And now there’s work to do. There’s a monster here. A monster no one else can handle. A monster no one knows but me. A monster no one else can find.

Skinned.

I came here to help my old man. Not because he deserves it or because I give a shit. But because it is the thing a son should do. And what am I going to do about the past? Nothing. Because it’s not something I can fix.

Skinned.

It’s not a coincidence.

Skinned.

I don’t want it to be
him
.

Skinned.

Not now.

Skinned.

Not after all this time.

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