TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 4:34 A.M.
Someone had been chewing on the body.
Not something. Something, in the grand scheme of life, seemed like it would be okay. Things—cats, dogs, raccoons: choose your omnivore, I wasn’t picky—were expected to chew on dead flesh. I was no forensics expert, but I’d learned a few basics at police academy. For example, a bear stripped of its skin and missing its skull can so easily be mistaken for a skinned human that the exposed meat has to be tested in order to ascertain what kind of animal it had been. For another example, humans have a very round, even cusp to their bite that most mammals don’t share. So I was pretty confident it was a someone, and not a something, who had eaten part of Charlie Groleski’s left arm.
This was really not how I wanted to start the holiday season.
My partner, a holiday himself—Billy Holliday—swung down beside me. The Christmas carol he was whistling turned into a low long warble of dismay. “Looks like somebody ate him.”
“I’d noticed.” I rocked back on my heels—a dangerous endeavor, since I was halfway up a low cliff, standing on a semi-sheer rock face. I was roped into a harness that was secured at the top of the cliff, but leaning back still felt like asking for trouble. “Tell me something, Billy. How come we get all the exciting cases?”
“We don’t.” Billy crouched beside the body, his own harness squeaking and rattling with the motion. I edged several inches to the side and squinted nervously at the drop immediately to my left. Harsh white searchlights stared back at me, the generators powering them shaking all quietude from the morning. The lights made sharp shadows of our narrow ledge, enhancing my awareness that there wasn’t really enough room for two people on the ledge, much less two people and a corpse. “Daniels, he gets exciting cases,” Billy said. “Drug murders, Mafia turncoats, revenge killings. We never get that stuff.”
“You don’t think half-eaten dead guys stuffed into crevasses are exciting?”
He shook his head. “No. I think they’re weird. We get the weird cases, not the exciting ones.” He pushed up and wrapped a hand around his rappelling line for balance. “Groleski must’ve been dead from the time they called in a missing persons report, maybe before. Too many days. I can’t get anything from him.”
I muttered, “Crap,” and let the Sight wash over me.
Billy was right, if you wanted to get technical about it. He and I constituted Seattle’s only paranormal detective team, a truth which slightly less than a year earlier I would have pulled my tongue out before believing, much less uttering. We got the weird cases, the ones that could potentially have a supernatural element to them.
He saw dead people. Murdered people, more specifically. Their ghosts tended to linger, and he was the man they could turn to, if he got there within two days of their brutal deaths. Unfortunately for Charlie Groleski, that was too short a window to allow him an opportunity to offer insight as to who’d chewed him up and spat him out.
I, thanks to an unpleasant experience which had left me with a choice between dying or life as a magic-user, was a shaman. Once upon a time, my long-term plans had involved maybe opening my own mechanic’s shop. Instead, I was a healer and a warrior up at four in the morning, exhaling steamy breath into an ice-cold Seattle morning, on a case that wasn’t actually in my jurisdiction.
The department—city-wide, not just the North Precinct where Billy and I worked—was being as goddamned quiet about this case as they could. Murders happened. They increased around the holidays. That was part and parcel of modern city life, and had probably been part of every civilization all the way back to Cain and Abel. As far as I could tell, it was one of the things that made humans human.
But there usually weren’t a half dozen bodies found over the course of several weeks, all of them looking like they’d been pre-Christmas-dinner appetizers. Charlie Groleski had been missing for sixteen days, though aside from the gnawed flesh, his body was in pretty good condition. The media had started calling global warming “climate change” instead, and the longer, colder winters Seattle had been experiencing the past few years ran with that appellation. We’d gotten our first solid freeze in mid-November, and nothing had fully thawed out since, including poor dead Charlie.
Billy had his way of looking at a crime scene: through the deceased’s words, if at all possible. Mine was different, and I’d learned early on not to contaminate what my normal vision could see by accessing the Sight right away. Once I saw the world that way, it lingered, influencing everything else.
Winter, viewed through eyes that saw the breath and life pulse of the world, was heart-achingly beautiful. The earth itself lay dormant, a dark forgiving depth scored by brilliant pulses of light that were the living things traveling on its surface. Billy stood out as a flare of fuchsia and orange, and I glanced at my own hands to see familiar silver and blue dancing over my skin. Everyone had an aura, and their well-being could be read through that burst of color.
Whatever colors Groleski had once sported, they were long gone, swallowed by death. I wasn’t looking for them, though. I was looking for marks in the earth: anything that would show me something of the madman who’d killed and eaten half a dozen people in the greater Seattle area over the past two months. It took a god to actively obscure himself from the Sight, but time and the winter season could wipe away the traces a killer might leave behind. I’d never tracked someone in summer, but I had the idea that the softened earth would hold an impression longer. Someday I would probably find out if I was right.
Today, though, all I saw was the calm deep brown of the earth. There were no stains to accompany Groleski’s frozen body; he’d apparently been killed and eaten elsewhere, and only removed to this location afterward. Why anyone would haul a body halfway up a cliff was beyond me, except it was in keeping with the other victims. They were all outdoorsy types. Only one or two had gone missing while hiking or trail-breaking, but they’d all been found in haunts like the ones they’d loved to spend their lives in. Groleski’d been a rock climber.
“Walker?” A man’s voice rose up from below, floodlights too bright to let me see the speaker when I glanced down.
Not that I needed to. I dropped my chin to my chest and took a moment before shouting a response. “Sorry, Captain. I’ve got nothing.”
I was too far away to hear his exasperated sigh, but I felt it ripple over my skin anyway. I was good at disappointing Captain Michael Morrison. Some days it seemed like my only stock in trade. I could have lived with that, but this was the third time in a row I’d failed to come through on this case. At least the other two times he hadn’t been awakened at oh-god-thirty to call a dud shaman to a crime scene: those bodies had been found in daylight. This one should’ve been, too. Nobody in their right mind would be scouring cliffs at three in the morning, but Groleski’s brother had found the body. I guessed a family missing a member wasn’t in its right mind, though.
Billy jerked his thumb, and I leaned back from my stabilizing rope, bouncing the ten or twelve yards down to the ground. The harness became a Gordian knot under my cold fingers and Morrison’s gimlet eye, but the rope began to draw up as soon as my weight stopped holding it taut. The forensics team would be taking our place with Groleski’s body, now that the esoteric detectives had completely failed to see anything untoward. Some good we were.
Morrison waited for me to regain my balance, then folded his arms over his chest in expectation. The searchlights did him no favors, turning his silvering hair white and making the lines of his face deeper and more haggard. Even his eyes were pale and hard, as though deep blue river water had frozen into ice. “Am I wasting time pulling you two out here, Walker?”
Steam clouded around my head as I breathed out, an excellent physical approximation of the exasperation shooting through me. “Not any more than it wastes the forensics team’s time, boss. They haven’t found jack shit, either, but nobody thinks they shouldn’t be here.” I winced, not exactly an apology for my tone, but at least recognition that I should modulate it. I wasn’t at my best at four-thirty in the morning, which didn’t excuse mouthing off to my captain.
Fortunately, almost half a decade of mutual antagonism mixed up with more recent emotional complications had, if not inured Morrison to my smart mouth, at least prepared him for it. He managed to both ignore and respond to me, which took some doing. “Forensics works in this world, Walker. You’re supposed to have some insight into another one.”
I honestly didn’t know which of us was more astounded that he’d be saying something like that. Billy had always been an I want to believe freak, but until recently, all Morrison and I had had in common was a sarcastic dismissal of all things paranormal. Truth was, my boss had come around faster than I had. Less than two months after my first encounter with the world of weird, Morrison had demanded I do what I could with the Sight to help solve a series of ritual murders. I’d kept dragging my feet for months after that, trying to make my magic go away, but the captain had chinned up and expected me to use all the talents at my disposal.
I stood there gazing at him and trying to squeeze that revelation into my rigid little worldview. I’d known he was too good a cop to ignore my skills if they might be useful, but somehow I hadn’t quite grasped the idea that he’d accepted my power before I had. Every smart-ass comeback I had died on my lips. “I’m sorry, boss. Everything’s frozen, even what the Sight can see. I’m not some kind of mystical Indian tracker.”
Morrison gave me a sharp look that I accepted with a groan. Technically, I was some kind of mystical Indian tracker. My dad was Cherokee, and not even I was arguing about the mystical part anymore. The only part where the description fell down was in tracker, which I manifestly was not. I’d proven remarkably poor at hunting down mythical bad guys—at least, poor at hunting them down as quickly as I thought I should—and had no idea if that was because my schooling was incomplete, or if I was just inept. I muttered, “Shit,” and for some reason the faintest smile cracked Morrison’s glower.
Billy rappelled down beside us and got out of his harness with a great deal more grace than I’d shown. He’d lost a good twenty pounds in the last couple months—dropping the baby weight, he called it; his wife had just had their fifth child—and moved more lightly for it, even though he was still taller than both Morrison and myself. “We’ve got to find a way to catch up with this guy faster,” he said.
“Like before he kills anybody else,” Morrison said, so flatly Billy and I both looked at him a moment. I’d heard Morrison’s angry voice plenty of times—usually directed at me—but this wasn’t outrage. It was helplessness, and that wasn’t something Morrison indulged in often.
Billy recovered first, tugging his rappelling rope to let the guys at the top know he was out. The rope and harness rose into darkness as he spoke. “You know the chances are we’re already too late for that, Captain. We’ve got at least two more missing persons reported, and we’ll be damned lucky if they’re still alive. But what I’m talking about is where Walker and I can help. This guy cleans up after himself. We haven’t found any DNA to work with, so Forensics is at a loss, and unless we get to a body faster, Walker and I aren’t much good either. Even my resources outside the department—”
Morrison lifted his hand. “I don’t want to hear about it.”
Billy hesitated, glancing at me, then nodded once. “Yeah. Okay. Look, I’m sorry, Captain. Right now we’re at a dead end.”
I breathed, “No pun intended,” and Billy gave me a dirty look. I mouthed, “Sorry,” then flinched as my hip pocket began to ring. Billy glanced at his watch and arched his eyebrows, and I shrugged, taking a few steps away from my companions to wrestle my phone out. The number was unfamiliar. “Yeah, this is Joanne Walker.”
“Hey, doll. Where are you?”
I pulled the phone away to give it a sideways look, though a smile threatened the corner of my mouth. There was one man on this earth who could get away with calling me doll. “It’s pushing five in the morning, Gary. What do you mean, where am I? Where do you think I am?”
“Well, you ain’t at home, ’cause I called that number twice. And you weren’t sleeping, ’cause you never answer that fast when you have been, and you never sound this awake. You on a hot date, Jo?”
The threatening smile broke and I laughed. “You should be the detective, not me. No, I wish. I’m at a crime scene. Morrison called me a couple hours ago. What’s up? Where are you calling from? I don’t know the number.”
“I’m at dispatch.” For anybody else I knew, that meant the precinct building, but Gary worked part-time as a cabbie. I’d climbed into his taxi almost a year ago, and my life had quite literally never been the same since. Still smiling, I listened to him rattling on, waiting for him to reach the eventual point: “I was gonna cover for Mickey’s shift ’cause his grandkids are coming in today from Tulsa, but one of the other cars just called in, Jo. He found a dead lady at Ravenna Park.”
available June 2010