Flesh of the Martyr (Part V)

Ever-decreasing Circles

The rain fell from the dark sky in great sheets, like a monsoon. Padre Miguel opened the door to Hector’s apartment from inside and stepped out into it. He was unperturbed by the weather. In fact, he revelled in it. He was an aesthete, an admirer of the beauty and truth of creation. It was the Holy Father’s hand, visible in the material universe. Man was a dirty, sullied thing, a cancer on the world, but at times like this it was all swept clean, like a second Deluge. Miguel held out his arms and let the water soak him to his skin. The symbolism was a little pat, even he had to admit, but he enjoyed it anyway. Rebirth, after each death. It was a heathen notion – true resurrection was the preserve of Christ alone – but the metaphor had hold on the mind of even the good Christian. The symbolic rebirth of the baptism was about making amends for Original Sin. That was why this was so appropriate now, for Miguel had sinned. Yes, it had been in the service of eradicating greater sin, but he did not even have an unblemished soul to offer up in return, so it was a worthy thing he did now.

As he stood in the darkness on the narrow landing, looking down upon the empty street, illuminated only by the fitful sodium glow of a street lamp, he reflected on the life he had led, on the sins he had absolved and committed in turn. In his mind, he imagined a heavenly scale, weighing up his evils against his virtues. He liked to imagine, in his vanity, that the latter outweighed the former, but he knew that to hope for redemption for himself was itself sinful. That was not the path to grace. He must embrace his corruption, as he embraced the greater corruption of mankind. He must not pray for salvation. Salvation was contingent solely upon the will of the Father. That was why he longed to martyr himself on his chosen altar, so that he might throw himself upon God’s mercy, but he knew that he had much work to do until that day came.

He walked slowly down the stairs, squelching in his shoes, shivering in his thin shirt. As a young man, he had swiftly outstripped his tutors in the seminary when it came to matters of theology. In their envy they had accused him of perverting the teachings of the Lord. They had chastised him and attempted to fill his head with their nonsense. He knew better than them. He had been given a great calling by God, which allowed him to see with unerring clarity the truth at the heart of the world. That was when he had begun his great mission, all those years ago, taking the sins of the irredeemable filth that littered human society as his own, embracing them and then making martyrs of them. Such glory, and yet such a burden.

He reached his car and looked up and down the street. He didn’t feel at all tired, and he was beyond such mortal concerns as hunger and cold. He was not so far from another place he would soon have cause to visit. Not all of his great works were carried out opportunistically, like this business with Hector and the one who wallowed in sin with him. Or even like the boy Diego, who had come to him willingly. Sometimes, he had to work for the spiritual rewards. This was as it should be. If grace were easy to obtain, it would have no value. There was a boy he had begun to pursue some days ago. He was older, perhaps eighteen or nineteen. A quiet one, like Diego and the one before, shy and shuffling. Miguel had identified him immediately when he saw him in the street one day. He could just tell. This was a young man in conflict. He had not introduced himself; not approached him at all. There would be no coffee like with Hector, no initial pretence like with Diego. This one he must track carefully, for he knew he would never come to him willingly. But it would not be a simple thing like this evening, clean and clinical. It would be glorious and bloody.

This boy – Miguel had discovered that his name was Rodrigo – lived just a few streets away from this place. He walked to his home, through the driving rain, heedless. He lived in one of the low, single-storey homes that dominated this part of the neighbourhood, with his family. Miguel knew which window was his. He crouched beneath it and thought about the sleeping boy inside. He had not satiated himself with Hector and the other, nameless one, and so he expressed his passion there, crouching in the rain, momentarily losing himself to the throes of lust. It did not give him the full satisfaction he craved, but it was enough to sustain him for now. He fled once it was done, back to his car, smiling to himself. Soon, Rodrigo. Very soon indeed.

He was up early the next morning to the same insistent drizzle. He let it wash him as he stood outside his cabin, naked before the world again. Today, he had work to do. He went down to the city and drove around again, running a few small errands. The more time he spent here, the more faces he began to recognise. While this helped his work, it could also be dangerous. He did not wish to become familiar to these people himself. His destiny was always to be aloof; an outsider. He would never settle in any community. To do so would endanger his holy task. Driving past the nearby police station a little later, he saw a face that was vaguely familiar. Two women – one white, one black – stood talking outside, by the parking lot. The black woman he had seen before, he realised. Where? Ah yes, in the coffee shop, with Hector. Interesting. Perhaps she was a police officer. Like all women, she was unimportant to his enterprises. Women were rarely worthy of his consideration, except when they offered him the opportunity to advance his mission. Philosophically, he was quite clear on their role in creation. Woman had committed Original Sin, but its manifestation was mediated through Man. Woman came from Man, and all that they did, for good or ill, was merely a reflection of Man’s actions. In and of themselves, they were without significance. Matters of redemption did not concern Woman any more than they concerned a dog. Nonetheless, he remembered this woman’s face.

He returned to Southside and waited near Rodrigo’s house. Around midday, the boy came out to go to his job. He was employed working in the kitchen of a restaurant. He was not able to work as many hours as he would like. He was a shy, strange boy, and his employers found him difficult. Perhaps he had some disease of the mind. The priests in the seminary had told Miguel that caring for the sick and needy was a holy task. Miguel had disagreed. Like Woman, the infirm were a curse for Man to bear. Trying to help them was a waste of time. He did not want Rodrigo to be one of those unfortunates. He wanted him to be whole, and therefore capable of being redeemed in the sight of God. He did not want to expend effort needlessly.

Rodrigo got into his car and drove away. Miguel followed him. He had done this a few times now, and Rodrigo had never noticed. He was doubtless lost in his small, sinful thoughts. Miguel knew he would have to spring his trap one day, but he did not want to rely on a physical altercation if he could avoid it. He would have to find a time when the boy was vulnerable. He had an idea about when that might be. As Rodrigo drove into the city, Miguel instead turned the other way at the intersection and went to another place he knew. Although he had been in this city for just a scant few months, he knew his way around, and had reached out in certain key ways already. His name was known. It was on the lips of lost young boys across the suburbs. Even Rodrigo, he suspected. Padre Miguel had the answers, they said. Sooner or later, he would come to him, rather than this harlot.

Yes, he knew this one too. This creature. He parked outside the apartment block, one not unlike Hector’s, and stared up at the door he knew to be hers. This is where Rodrigo came from time to time, to find pleasure in the arms of a thing that was neither Man nor Woman. A homunculus, a parody, a she-devil. To think, she might once have been saved too. If he had found her before she had begun to follow a path from which there was no redemption, she could have joined his choir of martyrs. But it was not to be. Instead, she was an obstacle. She would lead Rodrigo down into darkness. She would endanger his immortal soul. Miguel could not allow this.

His fury built within him as he hands worked on the steering wheel. He had sat here staring for ten minutes or more, feeding his hatred, stoking the fire of dark, terrible rage. He did not kill without purpose. He moved by the will of God. If anyone deserved his wrath, it was this one, but he could not bring himself to offer her soul up. But…but… He almost screamed. He was torn. His good mood had evaporated, just being here, thinking about the whore. He ground his teeth together. They always told him, back in the seminary, that he was subject to mood swings. Well, that was just as well. He must always be ready to carry out the tasks God gave to him. He must be able to change in this manner, from hot to cold, from hate to love. Again, their criticism was motivated by envy of what he represented. He was seized by sudden conviction. Daylight it might be, but perhaps now might be the ideal time to strike. She was a creature of the night, after all. She would sleep by day, hiding her sinful body from the light of Christ. He started to rise from his seat, when another car pulled up and parked just beside him. After a few seconds, a woman climbed out. And not just any woman: it was the black police officer from before. He stared at her. She was walking towards the home of the whore. Could they be connected somehow?

Miguel pondered the wondrous complexity of God’s plan, and his part in it. Now, more than ever, he felt that he crouched at the heart of an ever-decreasing circle of events and people, being drawn together in some holy configuration. He watched her walk up the stairs and, as he had expected, enter the sinful abode. Well then. Well then indeed. This was food for thought. He waited a few minutes more, then drove away.

*

The restaurant was a nice place. Not as nice as she’d feared, but Carter certainly felt underdressed in her crumpled work clothes and her frizzy, hopeless hair. She walked through the doors and looked around. It was quite busy, but she eventually saw Josh sitting in a booth at one side, already perusing a menu. There was a bottle of wine on the table, two glasses, one half-filled. He spotted her and waved. He had a big smile on his face, and that made her feel even more prickly. She walked over to him.

“Hey,” he said as he stood up. There was an awkward moment as he went in to kiss her on the cheek and she pulled away slightly. He wasn’t wearing cologne – but he smelled clean and fresh. He recovered from the small rejection and sat back down with the same easy grin. “I thought you might have stood me up.”

“I almost did.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t joking. She sat down opposite him.

“Oh…”

“It’s not very nice of you to spring this one me.”

His face fell. “I thought you’d find it…charmingly spontaneous.”

She gestured to herself. “Look at the state of me!”

“You look great.”

“Oh come on, Josh. I’ve been at work all day. And look at you, in your jacket and your shiny shoes.”

“I like that you’re not one of those girls who spends a lot of time fussing over her appearance.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I don’t think that’s the compliment you think it is.”

“Okay,” he laughed, “we’ve gotten off to a bad start here. Do you want some wine?”

She eyed the bottle. “Yeah. I left my car in the parking lot at work.”

“Great.” He poured her a large glass. “I’m sorry about how I did this,” he added, belatedly. “I came to the station to find you.”

“I know. I was out.”

“Right, chasing this killer or whatever.”

“Something like that.”

“Any leads?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“Let’s not talk shop.”

“Sure. Sorry. So what made you decide to come here?”

“Pity,” she said over her glass. It was red wine, an earthy, full-bodied number. Just to her taste, oddly enough. “I hated the thought of you sitting her alone, looking like a sad little puppy.”

He laughed. “Nice. Well thanks then, I guess.”

“More to the point, what made you decide to ask?”

“Huh?”

She put her glass down and leant closer, leaning her arms on the table. “Serious question. I met you, what? Three days ago?”

“Uh huh.”

“In that bagel place, with a coffee stain on my shirt. I mean, no wonder you think I don’t care about my appearance. You don’t tell me who you are and then, the other day, you tell me you were hoping to run into me. So what am I to think?”

“I don’t follow…”

“Come on, Mr Writer.” There were breadsticks on the table and she picked one up and snapped it in half. “If you wrote a character doing that kind of thing, what would his motivation be?”

“I don’t know,” he said as he swirled his wine around his glass, “unbridled lust perhaps?”

She pointed with half a breadstick.  “Stalker. That’s the word you’re looking for.”

“Sometimes I can’t tell when you’re being serious and when you’re joking.”

“Some student of human psychology you are.” She bit the end of the breadstick off, just as the waiter arrived.

“Do you know what you want yet?” Josh asked.

“I haven’t even looked at the fucking menu.”

“We’ll…uh…need a couple more minutes,” he told the waiter. He passed Carter a menu. “The salmon’s pretty good here.”

“You’ve eaten here before then?” She flicked open the menu. It was a bit more expensive than she’d been expecting, but this was a date, right? Although, she was a detective and he was…what? An independent director? A writer? How much money could he have?

“Yeah.”

She looked up at him with a slight frown. “Do you live in San Bernardino?” It had just occurred to her that she knew almost nothing about this man.

“No. I’m from LA.”

“Oh.”

“I’m staying in a hotel while I work on this project.”

Well, he must have some source of income then. “So when did you eat here before? Is there were you always take the women you stalk?” She glanced up and smiled to let him know it was a joke this time.

“I was here filming another thing a couple months ago. Came here with a friend.”

“Oh okay. A girl friend?”

“A guy friend.”

“Hm. Must have been very intimate, you and your bro, having a romantic meal together.”

“It was.”

She met his eyes over the menu, but he was betraying nothing. “All right, I’ll have the salmon then.” She snapped the menu shut abruptly.

“Good choice.” The waiter, who had been hovering close by, came back and gave them a questioning look.

“Salmon,” she repeated.

“And I’ll have the steak.” Josh passed the menu over smoothly.

“Oh, you asshole,” she said.

“What?”

“Making me order fucking fish.”

“We can call him back…”

“No, don’t worry about it.” She leant back in her seat. “So, LA, is it?”

“Pretty much.”

“You from LA?”

“No, Portland.”

“Interesting. How’d you end up down here?”

“School. I went to UCLA.”

“What was your major?”

“English,” he smiled.

“Well,” she told him as she leant forward again, “you speak it almost as well as a native.”

“Thank you, Hannah.”

“So what, you graduated and then what?” She sipped at her wine again.

“And then this.”

“Huh?”

“I never had a real job.”

She stared at him. “Uh…how old are you again?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Jesus Christ…”

“What?”

“Nothing. And you just graduated college?”

“I dropped out for a few years.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Long story,” he said dismissively. It was obvious he didn’t want to go into detail. “What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You a San Bernardino girl?”

“No. Bay Area. Little town near Oakland.”

“And you came down here because…?”

“Running away.” She said it with a smile though.

“For real?”

“No, not for real. My folks are, like, academics. Hippies, really. They were in San Francisco in the Sixties. I grew up in a haze of marijuana smoke.”

“So you decided to get into law enforcement?”

“You know that theory about teenage rebellion?”

“Ah, like how Frank Zappa’s daughter is like a lawyer or something?”

She pointed. “Exactly. They say they’re proud of me, but I secretly think they feel betrayed. I’m horrifyingly conventional as far as they’re concerned.”

“What about school?”

She shrugged. “Just community college.”

“And then the police?”

“Pretty much. I was in Vice for a long time.”

“Wow. What was that like?”

“Tough. But rewarding. Like Homicide, really, but different. You know.”

“I bet.” He was refilling her glass, even though it was barely half finished. “I bet you met a lot of interesting people.”

Carter smiled, remembering her long-overdue visit to Carmella earlier that day. “Yeah, one or two.”

“The last time I was here, I moved in some pretty clandestine circles myself.”

She cocked her head. “Oh yeah? No offence, but you don’t look like the kind of guy who spends time with the criminal fraternity.”

“And you don’t look like the kind of girl who catches serial killers.”

“I’m not,” she said, “mostly it’s just dicks who shoot their girlfriends in arguments. So who did you meet?”

“You know Hector?”

“No.”

“From the other morning?”

She shook her head. “Sorry…”

“Oh, I probably didn’t introduce you. I’m always doing that. Um, in the coffee place, yesterday? When we ran into each other and you were running late?”

She snapped her fingers. “Yeah, I remember. Eyebrows, right?”

He laughed. “Yeah, that’s him. My new cameraman.”

“How’d you meet him then?”

“I was doing a documentary about homosexuality in the Hispanic community.”

Carter played with the stem of her wine glass. Her heart had quickened suddenly. She was a detective. She was trained to distrust coincidences. “No kidding.”

“It was interesting. You know, a lot of these families are real conservative. It’s hard for these young guys. A lot of sneaking around.”

“You sure Hector would like you talking to me about this then?”

“Oh,” he said, “Hector’s out and proud. Very much so. He’s a nice guy too. Works in a little studio Downtown, does a lot of work with school kids and stuff.”

“Difficult for a gay man. At least in this community.”

“Times are changing.”

“Hey, you’ll get no argument from me.” Carter had already finished half her wine, and she was conscious that the food was taking a while to arrive and she was drinking too fast. She pushed the glass away slightly, but Josh took it as a cue to top it up again. His own glass remained only about a quarter full. “So this screenplay you’re working on,” she said, changing the subject, “what’s it about?”

“Well, you know, weirdly enough I got the idea from Hector.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He leant in, just as had the previous night when talking about detective fiction. His eyes sparkled when he talked about his work like this. Maybe it was the wine going to her head already, but he looked quite handsome in this light. “He just said this thing when I interviewed him for this documentary, and it sparked off a whole idea. That’s how it always is with me; just one sentence can cause this whole crazy story to unfold in my head.”

“You’re lucky.”

“I guess so. Like I said, I’m really prolific. Like, monstrously.” He laughed a little shortly. “It sounds arrogant to say that, I know. But it’s true. I don’t think anyone writes like me.” He held out his hands. “It just goes from conception to being on the page, like, without going through any intervening stages. Does that make sense? The only limit is the time it takes me to physically tap the keys.” Another laugh, still slightly embarrassed by his own vanity.

“That’s cool. It’s good to have a calling.” She frowned. “Did I say that last night?”

“Maybe.”

“You still didn’t tell me what you’re writing about,” she pointed out.

“Oh right, sorry.” Another lean in. They sat quite close now. “He said this thing. It was like a kind of euphemism, and I thought wouldn’t it be great to personify it somehow?”

“I’m not sure I follow…”

“Okay, you know that phrase ‘friend of Dorothy’?”

Her heart skipped a beat. Slowly, she forced a smile. This was getting too strange now. “I’ve heard of it, yeah.”

“Like how, years ago, gay guys would use that amongst themselves so they could keep it secret? Like a code?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, here, they have their own version. Don’t ask me where it came from. Hector said he’d heard it around Southside. ‘One of Padre Miguel’s flock’. Isn’t that cool? So I thought, what if this Padre Miguel were a real person and…”

“He is,” she whispered.

“…he came here and…what?”

“Josh,” Carter said, “I need to speak to Hector.”

“Huh?”

“Padre Miguel is…I can’t tell you. I wish I could, but it’s to do with work.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Padre Miguel isn’t a code word. He’s real. And I have to find him.”

“Why?”

She shook her head firmly. “I can’t say. Sorry. But I need to speak to Hector about this.”

“Well, sure, I can give you his address.”

She knew that wouldn’t be good enough. Last night, they’d found a second body. There hadn’t been one today, but how long until something turned up? And now another night would pass. Two more bodies, potentially. That was a risk she wasn’t willing to take. “That’s not good enough,” she heard herself say through the wine haze. How strong was this stuff?

“What?” Josh wasn’t looking at her. The waiter was just arriving with their food.

“It might be too late by then.”

“By when?” He looked confused.

“Tomorrow.” She rubbed her temples, trying to clear the muzz. “Sorry, I have to see him now. This is important.”

“You can’t be serious?” He picked up his knife and fork and swivelled his plate around. The steak looked good. She eyed her salmon as it was placed in front of her. It didn’t look as appetising as the menus had made it sound.

“Josh, I think…I can’t explain it. But I need to go and find Hector right now.”

“Well,” he said through a mouthful of steak, “he lives in Southside.”

“I’ll get a cab. What’s the address?”

“You’re not kidding about this, are you?” He put his cutlery down. “Is this about the case? About the bodies that have been turning up?”

“Yes.”

“Right. Well, look, I’ve only had part of a glass of wine. I can drive you.”

“I don’t think…”

“Come on, do you want to be out there in this weather trying to hail a cab?”

She thought about it. What he said made sense, and she was certainly in no fit state to drive herself. God, she should have had more than that carton of noodles for lunch. But she hadn’t expected to be on a date. But she didn’t need Josh there when she was trying to investigate a crime. She rummaged in her bag. “Let me pay for this.”

“It’s fine.”

“No. I’ve ruined this date. I’m really sorry. I’m not even on duty.”

“I get it, Hannah. You can’t just switch it off. Not when lives are at stake.”

“Thanks for understanding.”

“Hey, I know how it works. It’s fine.”

She pulled her purse out of her bag. “How much…”

“Seriously, it’s not a problem.” He took out his wallet and removed a handful of bills.

The food was expensive. She conceded defeat. “Okay, sure. I’m just going to freshen up.” She needed to splash some water in her face, sober up. If she was smart she’d have just called the station and sent someone else to check on this, but Colburn’s warning from earlier came back to her. She needed to get results. She stood up, handbag still open in one hand and walked right into a woman passing by the table. She was more unsteady on her feet than she’d realised and they both fell into one another. The woman’s own handbag fell to the floor by hers and the contents of both went everywhere. “Oh god!” Carter cried. “I’m so sorry!” The woman, a redhead a little on the heavy side, was crouched down, gathering her possessions. Carter did the same, quickly shoving her makeup and purse back in her bag. The note from Josh that she’d brought with her had fallen out too and she grabbed it quickly. “Sorry,” she said again.

“It’s okay,” the woman said.

Carter looked up and met her eyes, then reared back, stunned. Coincidences upon coincidences. It was the woman from the coffee shop the other morning, the one who’d gotten in her face. “Oh!”

“You!”

“Look, hey.” Carter got up to her feet a little unevenly, “I didn’t…I mean…” What could she say to her? This woman had lodged a complaint about what had happened according to Colburn, and now she was here, right in front of her.

“Are you following me? Are you planning to buy me off, is that it?” Carter still had the note in her hand. The woman thought it was a check.

“What? No! I’m just…having dinner…” She pointed at Josh, who had half-risen from his seat. Everyone at the surrounding tables was watching them.

“Oh yeah? How convenient.” Her voice was a contemptuous snarl. Carter could feel the aggression again. “Another man. Is he an author too? You planning to kill him?”

“Actually, I am a writer…”

“Not now, Josh,” Carter snapped. She took a breath, composed herself carefully. “Ma’am, I’m not on duty right now. I’m aware of your complaint and appropriate action is being taken. I’m really not at liberty to discuss it right now, so please…”

“Murdering whore!” She pointed at her and turned to the other diners. “She’s a murderer! She killed Calvin Hammersmith! She fucked him and then burned him alive!”

Carter’s face twitched. It all came rushing back in that instant, the memories of that barn where it had all happened, the stink of rotting timber and filthy straw, burning paraffin, filthy yellow light. She could feel the cords around her wrists and ankles again, smell the sweaty oiliness of Hammersmith, hear his patronising tone, feel his damp, warm hand creeping up her thigh. Her nostrils flared. The woman was still yelling. She had to control this. Her fists clenched. Hammersmith’s voice was in her ear again, telling her what he was going to do to her. She heard his last spiteful tirade. The venom that dripped from every syllable. In all her years of being a cop, no one had ever spoken to her like that. No one had ever hated her so thoroughly.

“I’ll ruin you, Carter. We’ll sue you for damages and take the little that you have and then, when I’m done and you’re destitute and disowned by everyone who once loved you, you’ll wish I’d raped and killed you in this barn.”

Control. It was always about control. Hammersmith had tried to control her too. She didn’t even hear what this woman was screaming at her. Josh was standing up now, trying to calm things down, but looking very out of his depth. The waiter and the maître d’ were both there too. Everyone was staring. The woman pointed right at her and stared at her with wild, frenzied eyes. And that was the moment when Carter lost it. She reared back and swung with all her might. Her punch connected with the chubby woman’s jaw and, as unsteady as she felt, she put a lot of force behind it. She went down hard, colliding with the table and then slumping down to the floor, out cold.

Everything was ominously silent. Carter stared down at the unconscious woman. Josh stared at her, along with everyone else. “Um…Hannah…”

“Take me to your friend,” she said tonelessly, “we need to get out of here.”

“Right.”

They fled into the night, leaving the restaurant to erupt into chaos.

*

In the car, Carter burst into tears. She felt like a little girl. Josh looked at her with concern etched on his face as they set out through the driving rain. Ahead of them, red taillights were blurred through the droplets on the windshield. “It’s okay,” he said quietly.

“Nope,” she replied between ragged breaths.

“She was aggressive. It was self-defence.”

“It wasn’t. She wasn’t a threat to me. I’ve been trained. I’m a…” she sobbed breathlessly, “I’m a cop, for fuck’s sake.”

“What were you supposed to do? Arrest her?”

“I don’t know. I can’t think.” She rubbed at her eyes with the palm of her hand. “Oh god. Colburn was right.”

“About what?”

“About me needing more time. About me not being cool about what happened with Hammersmith.”

“What did happen? The news said…”

“He kidnapped me. You know that bit, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, isn’t that traumatic enough?”

“Did he…did he…?”

“He tried.”

“Jesus.”

She laughed through her tears. “He wasn’t a threat either. But…but…”

“I should take you home.”

“No,” she said firmly, “take me to Hector.”

“You’re in no state to conduct an interview.”

“Doesn’t matter. This can’t wait.”

“So get someone else to do it.”

“Can’t.” As she shook her head, tears fell from her eyelashes and splashed on her pants. She fretted uselessly at the damp marks.

“Why not?”

“Because,” she said, “if I go home, tomorrow I’ll be off the case.”

“Why?”

“Because tomorrow,” she said with another cracked, desperate laugh, “I’ll be off every case.”

“I don’t understand.” He yanked the car around an intersection and manoeuvred through the traffic. He drove a small hatchback, none too clean, inside or out.

“Internal Affairs are already looking into what happened the last time I ran into that bitch. Now I’ll be suspended pending a proper investigation after this. Even if I’m exonerated, it means losing this case.”

“I’m sure they won’t do that.”

“No offence, Josh, but you don’t know shit about how these things work.”

He snorted. “I’m doing my research.”

“For your screenplay?” It was hard not to sound condescending. “This is my life, Josh, not some dumb detective movie.”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.” He sounded pissed off now.

“Sorry. But I need to do this now. I need to have something to pass on to Jones and Beauchamp or whoever they give this to when I’m gone.”

“It’ll be okay.”

“Maybe.” She sniffed expansively, heedless of how gross she must appear. “God, my life.”

“What about it?” They were moving quickly along the freeway now, heading for Southside.

“Just…what are the chances of that woman being there then? And this Hector thing.”

“What’s significant about ‘Padre Miguel’ anyway? You looked like you’d seen a ghost when I said that name.”

“I…” Could she trust him? Well, he was here, and what did she have to lose now? “He’s a person of interest in this case.”

“But I told you, he’s not real.”

“Maybe you didn’t think he was, but it turns out he’s not just a euphemism. He’s a real man.”

“And a murderer?” Josh asked.

“That’s what I need to find out. Hopefully before they send my ass home tomorrow morning.”

“This is crazy,” he said. He indicated to pull off the freeway.

“I know. I feel like my life is spiralling inwards. The walls are closing in around me. I keep running into the same people, hearing the same names.”

“Life does that sometimes.”

“I’ll have to take your word for that.” She looked out through the rain-streaked windows of Josh’s car. Low, dark buildings rolled past. “And now I’m here again. Third time in as many days. Ever-decreasing circles. It’s maddening.”

“I think you need to get your head right, Hannah,” Josh said softly.

“Yes. But that can wait. I have a job to do. For now.”

“We’re here,” he announced as he pulled up to the kerb.

Carter looked out of the window again. An apartment block almost identical to Carmella’s reared up out of the gloom. It had the same exterior stairway and veranda running along the second storey. “All right.”

“C’mon, I’ll walk you up there.”

“You can’t be there when I talk to him.”

“I know.”

Carter felt more sober as she stepped out into the cold night. She breathed deeply. The rain wasn’t falling quite so hard now, but it was an annoying, incessant drizzle. She put a hand against her stomach. She hadn’t so much as touched her salmon. She was starving. She was crazy doing this tipsy, wound up, tearful. She was self-aware enough to know that this was a monumentally bad idea. It was too late now. She was committed.

“Up there,” Josh said, pointing to the first door on the landing of the second floor.

They walked together, but she went first up the narrow stairs, holding onto the railing. She approached the door and then looked down. It was ajar, and the lock had clearly been forced from outside. Her hand hovered.

“You okay?”

“Someone’s broken into this apartment,” she murmured.

“What?!”

Moving like she was in a dream, Carter pushed the door open. It swung inwards silently and she stepped into a narrow hall. She should have called it in right away. This was even stupider than being here in the first place, but maybe the combination of adrenaline and wine was making her fearless. Fearless and foolish. She walked through the cramped apartment. It was sparsely furnished in a modern style. There was no evidence of a burglary. Everything seemed normal. She stood in the small living room. The layout was very similar to Carmella’s home. These buildings were all built to the same basic design, little better than projects. A photo frame displayed a picture of two smiling young men, just visible in the darkness. One of them she recognised as Hector, mostly from the eyebrows, she had to admit.

“Hannah,” Josh whispered behind her, “we can’t…”

He wasn’t supposed to have followed her in. He shouldn’t be here. And yet, she had no strength to tell him to turn back now. She headed for where she knew the bedroom was. The door was very slightly open. Once again, her hand hesitated over the handle. What was she going to find in there? What had happened here? Steeling herself, she pushed it open and walked into a scene of absolute carnage.

She was in a daze, a fuzz of cold, clinical removal from the situation around her. Was it her cop’s instincts again, or the strange fugue state she was in? A combination of the alcohol on an empty stomach, the stress of her situation, the feeling of paralysing fear as her universe began to withdraw into the same shadowy faces and strange names, looming out at her, drawing her deeper into this strange web. She barely heard Josh throwing up behind her. She just stared at the blood, the death, the ruin, the red rage written large on this small, stylish room. And, from deep in her chest, another broken little laugh trilled, desperate and alone in the darkness and horror.

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, Crime, Novella, Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

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