Authors: Tom Shutt
A Brooding City Novel
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © by Tom Shutt, 2015
This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission.
The tabby had
a complete and utter disregard for the sanctity of the crime scene.
It avoided the still-damp bloodstains closest to the body, but its tail flicked and papers fell as it jumped to the desk and then the wardrobe, from the top of which it watched the entire room through half-closed eyes.
A steady rain muted the light of the ever-burning streetlamps, its pitter-patter a comforting background noise that drowned out the sounds of the city. It was as if a shade had fallen around the ramshackle apartment.
The corpse reclined on a large, brown leather sofa facing a wall-sized plasma screen. Hooked up to the television were a set of studio-performance stereos and one of the latest generation gaming consoles, an unassuming black box with only a single cable connecting to the screen. A controller lay on the floor by the dead man’s feet. His clothes were thoroughly soaked through with red, and a shallow pool of blood had collected in the seat of the leather cushion.
Detective Brennan flashed his badge to the officer standing guard and carefully ducked beneath the yellow tape that blocked the doorway, balancing two brown cups in one oversized hand as he entered. He replaced the badge in his jacket while he looked over the crime scene, casting a critical eye at the body and frowning at the perched cat. He tried to ignore the strong metallic odor that hung in the air, but it left a coppery taste in his mouth. His partner of several months, Noel Bishop, beckoned him to join her in the kitchen.
“Arthur, over here,” she said.
He nodded in greeting. “Bishop,” he said, handing her one of the coffees. At an easy six-five, Brennan towered over her by nearly a foot.
She took a long sip from her cup and sighed, the tension visibly easing out of her as she drank. It had been a long week for both of them, and Brennan realized that she had probably been on the verge of sleep when the call dragged her from home.
Brennan drank from his own cup and rolled his shoulders. Several joints popped in place. “What do we have here?” he asked.
“Zachariah Nettle. Body was found about an hour ago by the landlord, who was responding to a noise complaint from the tenant downstairs. Time of death is placed at around 10 p.m. No sign of forced entry.”
“So he knew the person, or someone sneaked in.” Brennan rubbed at his scalp. “That doesn’t exactly narrow it down.”
“He was sitting down when it happened,” Bishop said, “and the television was still blaring loud when we got here. It’s possible he never heard it coming.”
“All right, then I’m leaning toward a sneak. And he was playing a video game?”
“Imagine that would be difficult without eyes.” Brennan frowned and walked toward the body. The tabby hissed from atop the wardrobe as he passed. He crouched in front of the corpse; it smelled worse from up close. He looked at the pale face of the late Zachariah Nettle. Rivulets of dried blood trailed from the empty eye sockets. There was some kind of irritation around the dark, sunken holes, and the mouth was agape in a frozen scream. Noel was speaking from somewhere behind him.
“Multiple stab wounds to the chest punctured the heart and both lungs,” she said.
“So why take the eyes afterward?”
“Maybe the killer has a thing for collecting trophies,” Bishop suggested. “A knife wouldn’t cause that kind of irritation around the eyes unless it was coated with something.”
“Did the forensics team find anything?”
“Came up empty on the eyes.” She grimaced at her choice of words. “They took swabs from the chest wounds back to the lab, just to be sure.”
Brennan looked around the small apartment. The stereo systems, the gaming console, the furniture, even the kitchen appliances—they didn’t feel right. It meant something, he was sure of it.
When he was younger, setting off on his own without help from his family, his apartment had been terribly rundown. He could barely afford to live in the city, and it was only once his parents had passed away that he had lived in anything more than a glorified closet. His apartment now wasn’t exactly a palace, but it was nothing to sneeze at. And it had taken him years and some amount of chance to reach that point.
“Bishop, how old was our victim?” he asked.
“Twenty-four,” she supplied. “Why?”
“Because,” he said, gesturing to everything in the room, “I don’t think our victim bought all of this on his own.” As he said it, he felt in his bones that he was right.
And everything in this apartment felt very, very wrong.
The Tower loomed
in the darkness.
Jeremy Scott crouched low, peering from the tall grass just beyond the old fort’s crumbling outer wall. There was no other term for the monument that stood before him. Illuminated intermittently by the moon peeking through the clouds, the Tower appeared black against the already dark backdrop of the mountains behind it. The range of peaks surrounded the entirety of his father’s valley. The central, rounded structure literally towered over the rest of the fort’s meager surviving structures.
He hissed in discomfort as one of the long blades of switchgrass sliced a fine cut along his cheek. Kneeling as he was, his face was in the thick of the slender, dangerous plants. He had worn long sleeves and jeans for the express purpose of pushing the grass away, but he had moved too suddenly without thinking.
He took careful strides through the grass as he made his way toward the fort. It was the closest he had ever been, only ever seeing faint glimpses of it from the trail as he passed by with his father. His birthday had been last week, though, and this was his personal celebration.
In daylight, the fort might have been less intimidating. As it was, the rusted iron bars that rimmed the decrepit entrance looked like grasping metal claws in the moonlight, an image which did little to put Jeremy’s worries to rest. He took a deep breath and grasped one of the metal bars, using it for leverage as he pulled himself up from the ditch that surrounded the fort.
Small rocks crunched beneath his feet as he entered. He squinted to see in the dim glow from the moon; husks of low, squat buildings greeted him from the shadows. The nearest one looked like an old storage shed, with fragments of broken pots and tools lying scattered on the ground. One of its large, wooden support beams had long since fallen, and the structure looked ready to collapse beneath its own weight.
A gust of wind suddenly rose from the west, and Jeremy shied away, covering his eyes from the dirt that swirled in the air. A booming crack resounded from one of the shed’s other support beams, and the stone wall closest to him gave way with a grinding groan of protest. Jeremy jumped away just as the entire building caved in. Dust and dirt threatened to suffocate him, and he coughed severely as he moved away from the cloud that slowly drifted outward from the rubble.
It was a shame nobody had been around to see his nimble dive away from the collapsing shed. Little enough happened in the valley that Jeremy took every opportunity to seek excitement. Their ranch was fine for a weekend getaway from the city, but in the case of staying for the entire summer, he very quickly ran out of things to do indoors. While his sister could content herself with imaginary friends and playdates by the pond, Jeremy needed more activity. It was the very reason that he was wandering around in the valley after dark, very much against his parents’ wishes.
A large figure on horseback was silhouetted against the imposing Tower, and a broken sword was held aloft toward the starry sky. Jeremy slowly approached the stone soldier, admiring the statue even as he paced around it from a wary distance. From hooves to hilt, the statue was nearly fifteen feet tall, and a low, empty basin encircled it. The blade of the sword had broken off and lay in stone shards beneath the horse’s raised forelegs. There was a plaque attached to the statue, but it would have been too dark to read even if the words hadn’t been worn away by the elements.
A soft rain began to fall. Jeremy found it harder to see as the moon and stars were obscured by incoming clouds. He looked up wistfully at the Tower; this was the closest he had ever been, and now a fast and fierce storm was coming into the valley. If he did not turn back now, there was a good chance that he would be caught in the worst part of the deluge.
Reluctantly, he turned away from the Tower and jogged to the fort’s entrance. The ditch that surrounded the fort was now lined with a thin layer of mud at the bottom, and Jeremy realized that it would soon be a full-on moat—without a drawbridge to cross—once the rain started falling in earnest. He slid down the dirt wall and scrambled up the far embankment, spurred on faster as the raindrops grew bigger and more frequent.
Switchgrass tugged at his long sleeves and jeans as he rushed to beat the storm home.
Bishop bridled. “Brennan, little respect, okay?”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Now who’s cursing?”
The weekend had been full of nothing but dead-ends and false leads, and the stress was getting to Brennan. The rain had persisted all throughout, lingering until dawn broke on Monday, clouds parting to reveal a warming early sun hanging low under an azure sky. Of course, the view would have been better from one of the corner offices. The police station had a generally open floor plan, with little regard for the detectives’ personal space. The only divider was a low wall of opaque glass and plaster which separated the working detectives and the hallway along which offices and the elevator were situated. On the other side of the desk farm were separate rooms for interviews and observations.
Ordinarily, Bishop was able to handle a lot more verbal sparring with Brennan, or at least hid her frustration better. Working in the boys’ club that was the Odols Police Department, she had to be thick-skinned to survive. But Brennan recognized that going in on her religion was a low blow; he was backing off just as footsteps approached from the elevator.
Sam McCarthy, a former detective turned private investigator, sauntered into the desk farm at exactly the wrong moment. Lean of build and crowned with a short crop of curly hair, the sharp-tongued redhead put the “ass” in “sass”, and his horribly failed relationship with Noel Bishop had in no way bettered her view of him.
“Morning, Detective,” he said cheerily to Brennan before turning to Bishop. “And good morning to you, too, Detect
Her glare would have warded off a cobra, but Sam’s grin remained intact. “I’ve already had too much masculine bullshit to deal with today,” she scowled. “Why are you here?”
“Language, please,” Sam said, feigning shock.
“I know, right? She’s on a roll with that today,” Brennan remarked. Bishop sent him a dark glare.
Sam leaned a casual hand against her desk. “Can’t a fellow just be courteous and drop by to see his friends at work?”
“If we were friends, I could believe that, but since we’re n—”
“I can’t have other friends in the department? Arthur here, of course, and then there’s the Chief…” He started listing off names, counting one on each finger and cycling through both hands before starting over. “And Wallace, down in the morgue…”
Brennan sighed. “All right, stop antagonizing her, Sam. Were you able to find what I asked for?”
Sam smirked and turned his back on Bishop, who was quickly turning red in the face. The wooden armrests of her chair groaned beneath her white-knuckled grip. “Have I ever failed you?” He dropped a thin manila folder onto Brennan’s lap and casually availed himself of the last stale donut from the box on a nearby desk. He took one bite and scowled, then tossed it clear across the room. It landed in the trash bin with a smooth swish of plastic.
Brennan, meanwhile, looked through the folder. It wasn’t much, but Sam had compiled some useful information on Zachariah Nettle during the weekend. He reached for the donut box only to find empty air, and his stomach gave a loud grumble of protest.
“Hmm?” Brennan looked up and caught Sam’s expectant eyes. “You’ll receive payment the usual way.”
“I always insist on cash, Arthur, you know that.”
“And I always pay by online deposit. Now get out of here before Bishop trades in that grip on her chair for one on your neck.”
Sam glanced back at Bishop, whose poisonous glare had lost none of its bite, and grinned madly. “I miss our little tête-à-têtes, Noel,” he said. “Perhaps we should split a bottle of Chardonnay and smooth things over.”
“Ah, I remember now, you’re a rosé sort of girl. We’ll talk!” He called out that last part as he disappeared behind the partition. A moment later, they heard a ding as the elevator was called for. Bishop turned to level a stare at Brennan. Though it no longer held the vast arctic iciness she held in reserve for Sam, there was still a measure of anger behind those eyes.
“How are you still friends with that pig?”
“He’s not a pig, remember? He left the force years ago.”
She sighed wearily. “God, you two are impossible.”
“Hey, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t take His name is vain. It’s a personal kind of thing for me, you know?”
Bishop’s eyes became harsh slits.
Brennan cleared his throat. “How about we get some breakfast?”
The proposition came unexpectedly, and for a moment Bishop’s anger subsided. “Breakfast?”
“Yeah, it’s something I do most days. Silly little thing, food, but my body seems to like it.” The moment was punctuated by another grumbling of his stomach, louder than the first.
“I know what it is,” she said evenly. “But your impersonation of Sam is improving. For a moment, I thought he hadn’t even left.”
Brennan stood, picking up the folder Sam had given him. “So your answer is…?”
Bishop sighed. “Yeah, I’m coming. I’ll never say no to a free meal.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Who said I was paying?”