Authors: Tim Stevens
Copyright 2014, Tim Stevens
This ebook is licenced for your personal enjoyment only. If you would like to share it with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the work of this author.
Cover by Jane Dixon-Smith at
JD Smith Design
ale Fincher had seen a candle burning before. Of course he had.
But he watched this particular one, a mere two feet from his eyes, with particular absorption, because he knew it was the last one he’d ever see.
Around the flickering yellow flame, with its core of red and black, the darkness was absolute.
Slowly, as if bleeding through the blackness, a face appeared alongside the candle, rendered rosy in the light cast by the flame.
The eyes, so familiar, looked as pale as ever. The pupils were close to the candlelight and therefore hadn’t dilated, which allowed the irises that were such a mild gray they were almost white to predominate.
The lips parted beneath the perfect nose.
“Dale,” Sal murmured.
The face hovered closer. Dale could see now the body to which it was attached, dressed in black. He felt the warmth of another human presence, the silken whisper of Sal’s breath against his face.
Despite the terror that gripped Dale like hooks from within, clawing at his chest and trying to drag its contents down into his belly, his instincts and his training kicked in.
He took stock of his situation.
When he tried to move his arms, he realized they were secured at the wrists. The bindings were thin and tough and hard, with a degree of flexibility which suggested they were plastic ties rather than handcuffs. His arms were spread out and angled slightly upward so that his hands were at the level of his head.
Against his back and neck and head, he felt the plump softness of pillows.
Dale was sitting up, his back inclined at perhaps twenty degrees from the vertical. His legs were stretched out before him. He shifted them, gently, testing, and felt the heavy clink of chains, and the cold press of metal against his ankles.
He was naked.
From the sensory data, the pillows behind him and the soft yielding of the surface below him, Dale understood he was on a bed, his hands secured to the headboard, his ankles to the posts at the other end. He deduced from the way the mattress sagged slightly to one side of his hips that Al was kneeling there.
Sal’s face was close to his, just to the left, and Dale turned his head to stare into the eyes.
He felt a hand move slowly down his bare chest. Not a hand so much as the fingertips, caressing lightly, fluttering over his belly, but stopping there and moving away.
“So beautiful,” breathed Sal.
Dale swallowed. His throat felt like two layers of sandpaper rubbing against one another. He’d drunk a hell of a lot of beer, and then wine, and he hadn’t refuelled his body with water afterward, as he normally did immediately after his rare boozing sessions.
How long had passed?
It was clearly the dead of night, judging by the utter darkness. Three a.m, maybe. Though under January’s blanket, it was hard to tell the hour.
Would the guys come looking for him?
Of course they wouldn’t. And for a very obvious reason.
The flame flickered nearer. Dale understood that Sal was holding the candle.
Beside the flame, alongside Sal’s face, a photo appeared.
It was a printed hard copy, the resolution sharp. It showed a slightly built man in his early to mid-thirties, with fair hair, in jeans and a sweater and narrowing his eyes at the camera as though the sun was behind whoever took the picture.
Dale’s eyes darted to Sal’s.
Yes, I know,
he communicated silently, because the words wouldn’t come.
The photo disappeared with a conjuror’s flourish, to be replaced by a second. It showed the same man, but he was...
Dale gaped. Of course, he understood what he was looking at, but...
. It was jarring to be confronted with the evidence.
A third photo revealed what Dale assumed to be the man again, though his face wasn’t in the picture. The details were repellent, the kind of thing Dale expected to see on a battlefield.
Or in an abattoir.
Sal made the photo disappear.
Dale was aware of the face looming closer, so much so that his eyes couldn’t focus without squinting.
He saw a fourth photo hovering close to the candle’s flame, and turned his gaze to it.
There was nobody in the picture. Instead, it showed a building.
Dale didn’t understand.
He became aware of a smell, then. Not an unpleasant one. It was something he was familiar with, the aroma of gunmetal after a shooting session on the range.
He stared at the candle flame. An object turned this way and that in its flickering light.
The object was small, maybe two inches tall, and made of metal. Dale knew this because of the way it glowed in the heat, and didn’t combust.
He recognized it, vaguely. It was a symbol. Something ancient. Maybe Hebrew, or Indian.
The orange image lifted free from the flame and levitated through the darkness toward him.
As it drifted closer to his forehead, Dale tried to cry out.
And realized that the reason he couldn’t speak wasn’t just that his throat was so parched.
He had a lump in his mouth, prizing his teeth and lips apart and secured tightly by some kind of band around his head.
A ball gag.
The symbol pressed against his forehead, numbing cold at first. A low-pitched sizzling filled his ears.
The smell hit next: he was instantly put in mind of a cookout, at the moment the meat was thrown on the grill.
Then the cold gave way to heat, a fire so unbelievably intense and painful Dale thought he would dislocate his jaw stretching it to scream.
He heard his wailing, muffled past the gag, barely audible above the boiling churn of hot steel violating flesh.
Sal’s eyes were right in front of Dale’s now, blurring through the film of tears that spilled over his cheeks and were immediately replenished.
Sal’s lips were moving rhythmically. Dale couldn’t read them, or hear the words that were passing between them.
But he got the impression of a chant.
The hand holding the metal object which had seared Dale’s forehead pulled away and Dale heard a clatter. The object was gone, but the agony continued, ravening across his face and through his skull.
Sal’s other hand held the candle steady.
By Dale’s ear, Sal’s voice whispered: “You still don’t understand, do you?”
Dale nodded vigorously.
Yes. Yes, he understood.
He just couldn’t say it.
He watched the pale eyes search his own. Then his face, his lips.
Sal gave the gentlest shake of the head.
“No. You don’t.”
The tone wasn’t gloating. Just deeply sad.
From somewhere in the darkness nearby, beyond the field of his vision, Dale heard the scrape of something metallic.
He watched, transfixed, as the glinting tip of the blade appeared before him, positioned precisely between the candle flame and Sal’s eyes.
The final moment was curiously painless.
Dale, if he’d lived a few seconds longer, would have registered the terrible shock of the entry wound, would have felt every nerve end jangling and screaming as the sharp steel ripped through skin and flesh and blood vessels and, eventually, bone.
With his military training, he’d have appreciated the inevitable fatality of the strike, based on the nature of the weapon and the point at which it had violated his body.
He might even have admired the skill Sal displayed.
But Dale knew none of this. There was only the metal before his eyes, and Sal’s soft breath, and then a flood of chilly numbness.
Then Dale’s life winked out, far more suddenly than it had begun.
eneath Sally-Jo’s feet, a subway train click-clacked its way through the bowels of Manhattan in time to the rhythm of her heels on the sidewalk. Steam rose from a grille up ahead, and the street flickered in a sputter of red and blue neon from a faulty sign above, like she was walking through an urban landscape in some hackneyed noir B-movie.
The cold of the January night numbed her face and halted the tears on her cheeks in mid-crawl.
Sally-Jo’s apartment was on East 20
, near Gramercy Park, a straight walk from the hotel in Chelsea she’d just left. But she decided not to go home right away. Instead, Sally-Jo turned south down Tenth Avenue, wanting to take a walk alongside the Hudson River, to feel the icy breath from its surface.
Her apartment was cosy but small, and she didn’t want to feel confined right now. Plus, she wouldn’t be alone there.
Frank would be home, and he’d have all sorts of awkward questions for her.
The bitterness of the cold matched her disappointment, her sense of utter emptiness. Just for once, she’d been hoping for the spark of connection, the flash of a sense that she was doing something meaningful.
Instead, when she’d rammed the icepick through the soft flesh beneath Dale’s jaw and up into his brain, it was as though he’d receded from her immediately. Inconsiderately, even. One moment he was there, terrified and raw and sweaty and alive. The next, he’d flown away, leaving her alone in a void.
Why hadn’t he understood?
He, of all of them, was intelligent. Sally-Jo knew this to be the case. Why, then, had he failed to grasp what she was trying to tell him?
She’d shown him the photos. Of Frank, before and...
. Dale had seen the blood, the carnage, the violation wreaked upon the hapless body. For a moment, Sally-Jo had fancied that she’d seen a glimmer of comprehension in Dale’s bloodshot, staring eyes. She’d felt almost embarrassed showing him the final photo, as if it was too clumsily obvious a clue.
But his face had revealed nothing except bafflement as he’d stared at the picture. Maybe Sally-Jo had muddied the waters with it. Maybe she shouldn’t have shown him a church. A mosque might have been better, or a synagogue. She knew Dale was a Baptist, and he might have taken the image in the photo too literally.
, she thought as she wound her scarf more tightly around her neck, and pretended not to notice the slightly tipsy man in an overcoat who turned to gape openly at her as she passed him by,
you’ll just have to try harder next time, girl. Pick somebody more intelligent. More... perceptive.
And there was going to be a
. Sally-Jo was as certain of that as she was of the return of the dreams tonight. The ones that would jerk her awake, screaming, the sheets wadded in her wet fists.
The Hudson loomed before her, lapping dark and angry between the confines of its twin banks.
oe Venn had never quite gotten used to morgues.
He’d visited plenty of them in his time as a detective lieutenant in Chicago and, more recently, here in Manhattan. The bodies themselves had never bothered him particularly. Cadavers in drawers and on tables were like waxwork sculptures. You could look at the most horrifically damaged victims and feel nothing but a mild distaste.
No. The problem Venn had with morgues was that they were always so claustrophobic. The ceilings were always so low, the shadow in the corners so deep. The people who worked there looked furtive, compressed, like troglodytic beings who’d forsaken daylight and had adapted to a subterranean existence. Venn was a big man, six-three and 215 pounds at his fighting weight. But he felt able to move more freely, felt less hemmed in, in a cramped police interview room than he ever did in one of these body shops.