Padre Miguel did not know if it was a dream. He had been awake most of the night and finally fell into his pallet in the cabin high above the city when dawn was already beginning to creep over the hills. He couldn’t have slept for more than an hour or two certainly, and his rest was disturbed by strange thoughts. Never in his life had he worked as prolifically as he had this past week. Six bodies lay in his wake; six sinners, sent where they belonged. What a glorious few days. He was inflamed by holy fervour, driven to even greater extremes of mood. His soul seemed to sing, but his mind was distracted, feverish. He tossed and turned beneath his blanket, never lying quite comfortably, always just on the verge of waking up. So, as the golden sunlight began to shine though the grimy window, the vision began to assail him.
It was certainly dreamlike enough. The door of the cabin seemed to dissolve in the radiance of Heaven and a figure stepped from the dawn. Miguel could only stare in awe, for he recognised the form of Christ, as if He had stepped directly from a stained-glass window. It was hard to focus on the details, and of course Miguel was humbled before the glory and power of the Son. He scrambled from his pallet, naked, terrified, and knelt low. He could not bear to gaze upon this awesome figure.
“Look at Me,” said the voice of God.
Miguel could not. He trembled with fear, keeping his eyes locked on the floorboards beneath him. Obscurely, he focused on a knot in the wood, clinging to this simple symbol of the mortal world. He felt that if he didn’t do this, he would lose contact with the ground and float away into the aether, lost for all time, adrift amongst the stars.
“Do you defy Me, My son?” The voice was angry now, and the rage that reverberated through it was the rage of the Earth itself, the thunder of a volcano, the surging might of the ocean, the wrath of the storm.
Miguel dared to glance up, but he was blinded by the blazing light of Christ. He tried to look away, but now he was compelled, his eyelids forced open, his neck frozen in place. He began to scream, but it only came out as a gurgle. Panic flooded him and he felt his body turn stiff and cold, as if he were already dead.
“Do not be afraid.”
And, all at once, the fear subsided. Miguel found he could look upon the Lord easily. A great calm came upon him and he began to smile. “Lord,” he whispered, “why have You come to me?”
“Because of your mission, Padre Miguel.”
“Have I pleased You, Lord?”
There was a hesitation, and it was if the universe held its breath. “Do you believe that your work has pleased Me, Miguel?”
It was a strange question. Of course, Miguel believed he was doing God’s work. Why should it not please Him. “I…Lord, I do not understand…”
The golden figure advanced on him, and now he was assaulted by a blistering wave of heat that prickled at his naked flesh. “Tell Me of your work, Miguel. Tell Me what you have done in My name these past days.”
“I…I have offered up martyrs to Chr…to You, Lord. I have expunged the sinners. I have delivered this corner of the world from evil.”
“And are you proud of that, My son?”
“Of course, I…” And then his words died on his lips, for he realised his fatal mistake. He grovelled once again before the Lord. “Forgive me, Father, forgive me. I have wallowed in sin. I have taken the vices of this fallen realm as my own. That has always been my mission, Lord. I have always placed my soul in peril and…”
“Vanity. Pride and vanity. And other sins too, My son.”
“In Your name…”
“Nay, for these past two evenings you have engaged in acts of savagery without cause. You did not offer Me martyrs.”
“I sent them to the Adversary, I…”
“Is it your mission to populate Hell, Padre Miguel?”
“For Hector and his life. You looked upon his wickedness with jealously in your heart, did you not?”
He quailed and then was ashamed. He pressed his head to the floor and clasped his hands before him. “Yes, Lord. Yes! I envied him!”
Miguel nodded against the floorboards, now understanding. “I overreached myself. I took too many and, in doing so, exposed myself to suspicion.”
“Indeed. And the rest?”
He began to list his sins. “Gluttony. I allowed myself to take advantage of this city. I ate in its restaurants and drank in its sinful coffee houses. I seduced instead of simply took what was Yours by right. Sloth. I was not vigilant. I took foolish risks with Rodrigo and some of the others.”
Miguel now raised his head. He squinted into the light. “There was no lust.”
“I never wanted them. Not the boys. Not even the chimera. I did what I did out of my love for You, Lord. I have never been stirred by the passion of the flesh as others are. Weak mortals. I transcend their bestial needs.”
“Indeed. But you have sinned, Miguel. You have sinned against Me. Your guilt is writ large upon your body. Is this not what you have always longed for? To repent for your own terrible crimes?”
He wept before the glory of Christ. He felt warm hands upon his cheek, holding him gently. “I…I have not fully embraced the darkness…I am guilty of many things, but not lust, Lord. I am still pure.”
“Are you? Then look upon me, Miguel.”
The light faded, and he saw the body of Christ. Literally. He beheld the perfection of the Godhead rendered in mortal flesh, and he knew then the power of carnal desire. And had that not always been the truth of it? That, as he martyred the sinners and absolved them of their wickedness, he had done so with the love of Christ in his heart? Of course He was the focus of that mortal yearning. And all his sins were wrapped up in this moment, contained as he at last reached the apex of his life. This is what he had longed for since he was a boy; perhaps since he was conceived and set upon his path by the hand of God. He knew he would never surpass the achievements of his stay in San Bernardino. This was his finest hour and, because he acknowledged that in his heart of hearts, he was therefore damned. Any other man might have seen it as cruel irony, but not Padre Miguel.
“The ritual must be completed,” Christ whispered to him, cupping his chin and drawing him close. He could feel the blood of stigmata on his face. He could see Christ’s tortured naked body, twisted by His torment upon the cross and the scourging He had endured at the hands of the Romans. And yet the mutilation was but one aspect of His form, as if He were a multi-faceted crystal and, from a different angle, he shone with the light of perfection. The passion raged strongly in both of them.
“It must be completed,” he agreed hungrily.
“Your life must be completed, Miguel. This is the end of your existence. I created you for a purpose, and now it is fulfilled.”
“I ask only for Your mercy.”
“To ask that is a sin, My son.”
“I am a sinner, Lord.”
“You are. But soon you will be absolved. Soon, you will become a martyr too.”
He felt the body of Christ against his lips, and then in his mouth, and he submitted himself to decadence and defilement. He embraced his own sin, and sought the grace of God through the body of His Son.
Carter’s living room was connected to the kitchen-diner by a large opening in one wall, which is why she’d retreated here, her bedroom, to put at least two solid wooden doors between her and that…thing…on her table. She was sitting on her bed and shivering again, but this time it wasn’t from the cold. Jones was looking around with interest. “Y’know, in all the time we been working together, this is the first time I’ve been inside your house.”
“Sorry about the mess,” she said without bothering to disguise the bitterness in her voice, “but someone left a dismembered corpse in my kitchen.”
Jones gave her a tight smile. She knew he was just trying to keep her distracted. He and Beauchamp had been the ones who answered the call, appropriately, since the Padre Miguel case was now theirs. Very occasionally, the machinery of the law enforcement bureaucracy actually moved as fast as it should. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was connected to the other bodies they’d found. “It’s a nice place,” Jones said.
“It’s fine. I’ll have to fucking move now, of course.”
“It’ll be okay, Hannah.”
She put her head in her hands. She was utterly exhausted, but she’d already seen two mutilated bodies in the last twenty-four hours. To find another one, and in her home too, was enough to break her mind into tiny pieces. She wanted to cry. She wanted to find a hole to hide in and just scream and scream and scream. She hadn’t realised before now how on-edge she’d been, how all the Hammersmith shit was still getting to her. The fears she’d had that she was being followed, that her enemies, gathering in secret online or wherever it might be, were about to pounce on her at any moment. Of course, this was different, but it was still a stark demonstration of how vulnerable she was. She didn’t know why or how Padre Miguel was targeting her, but it was obvious that he was. He’d defiled her own home. He’d broken in and made her part of all this. What sick motivation could he have for that? How was it connected to the killing of young, gay latinos? Or was this just a warning? He obviously knew about Carmella and had tried to eliminate the danger her inquiries to her clients might present. God, one of her friends had nearly been killed today and it wasn’t even in the top three awful things that had happened.
“Some Friday night, huh?”
“What?” She looked up at Jones. He was standing awkwardly near her wardrobe, carefully avoiding looking at the pile of dirty underwear she’d set out to wash two nights ago. Contrasting the small details of her domestic life with the horror she’d witnessed in the other room was making her feel physically sick. “Is it Friday? I don’t even know any more…I was awake all last night…”
“Look, you wanna stay at my place?”
It was a kind offer. “Sure Janice’ll be okay with that?”
“Jeez, Hannah, after what’s happened?
She thought about it. “No, it’s okay.”
“You can’t stay here.”
“No. But I can’t stay with you.”
“Because you’re investigating this case. If I’m there, I won’t be away from this, will I?”
“You want to find this asshole, don’t you?”
Did she? She couldn’t even think straight any more. Just a few hours ago, she’d been absolutely certain that she wanted nothing more than to be the one to crack this case. This was hers. She was possessive about her wins and, somehow, she was certain this would be one of them. She wouldn’t be a detective if she didn’t possess that conviction. But now…now she just wanted it all to go away. “I don’t know what I want. Just to not be here.”
“I mean in the city. I might go back to my parents’ for a while.”
“That might be a good idea,” he admitted.
“I’ve been signed off work for three months anyway. Spangler said I was a liability.”
“Who the fuck is Spangler?”
“Oh. Internal Affairs.”
He looked shocked. “Seriously?”
She realised suddenly that there was no way he’d have known about that. She’d been so mixed up lately that she’d sort of assumed everyone was party to all the same knowledge she had, like they were watching a movie about her, or reading the story of her life. It certainly felt like her head had been opened up for everyone to pick through. But of course Jones wouldn’t know a thing about Spangler, or that woman Windham, except for the first altercation they’d had. “I bumped into that bitch from the bagel place again.”
“I fucking knocked her out.” She actually laughed at that. As shaken as she’d been by it at the time, looking back now it actually seemed funny.
“And they suspended you? After what she said? Assholes…”
“No. Not suspended. It’s medical leave. I gotta see a therapist.”
“Yeah…that might be a good plan…”
She held up a hand towards the door. “And that was before all this shit! Oh god, I’m so fucked.” She buried her face again.
“It’s gonna be okay, Hannah. We’re gonna catch this guy and he’s gonna rot in a cell for a long, long time.”
“I hope he fucking fries.” She meant it too, even though she was normally pretty ambivalent towards the death penalty.
“It’s an injection now,” Jones said absently.
“Chair, gas, injection….even fucking hang the fucker. I don’t care. If you’d seen that apartment, Ray…”
“I know. I get it. Either way, he’ll pay for what he’s done. I promise.”
“Good. Thanks.” It meant nothing, really. There were any number of unsolved murders on the books. This could be another, although normally the serial killers dumb enough to go around taunting the cops trying to catch them weren’t likely to fall into that category. He was bound to slip up sooner or later, and involving her was a sure-fire way to put the whole fucking department on his tail. Every resource they had would be bent to solving this case. But, for some reason, Carter had a feeling it wouldn’t be enough. They still knew nothing about Padre Miguel. They didn’t even know he was the one doing this. There was no hard evidence at all, just a name and a rumour, and Carmella’s incomplete description of the man who’d attacked her. Technically, it could be unconnected. In Carter’s mind though, there was a little Hispanic priest sneaking around doing all this shit. She couldn’t picture that same imagined character standing trial for his crimes. She just knew he’d find a way to evade justice.
“What are you going to do tonight?” Jones asked her.
“You can’t get a flight up to Oakland at this hour.”
“And you can’t stay here. It’s a crime scene.” There was tape and everything. And beat cops and forensics and all the rest of it. Here, in her home.
“You wanna grab a drink?”
She had no idea what she wanted, but as soon as it was suggested, she knew that she wanted to hit a bar. She wanted to drink herself numb. She wanted to be surrounded by noise and people, to seek out some sort of normality in amongst all this bloody madness. “Actually, that’d be good,” she said. “I’ll check into a hotel tonight.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Jones was smiling and he helped her up from the bed.
“Aren’t you on duty?”
“I don’t think anyone’s gonna give a shit in the circumstances.”
“I guess not.”
Normally, when they drank, they did it in a place in Palm Springs, well outside their jurisdiction. It just made things easier. Today, they stayed closer to home and went to a bar just around the corner. Carter didn’t know it too well, but it was a pretty lively place. It was a Friday night, as Jones had reminded her, and there was noise and light and music from a fairly decent jukebox in the corner. No one there knew they were cops, although they must have looked a pretty odd couple – Jones an overweight, sweating white guy with a permanent five o’clock shadow, her a petite black woman who obviously hadn’t slept in about two days. God knows what story the other patrons were concocting about them. She didn’t care. They found a recently-vacated booth and Carter moved the empty glasses and bottles to one end of the table while Jones lumbered off to get them a couple of beers. She sat in silence, letting the sights, sounds and smells of this place wash over her for a moment. People were laughing and happy. There was a TV above the bar showing a football game. She craned her neck to see if the Raiders were playing, then remembered again that it was a Friday and saw it was college teams. She lost interest. Football wasn’t her sport anyway, and a vague interest in her home team was as far as she took it. It might’ve been nice to reconnect though, if briefly. Maybe when she went home she could go to a game.
Jones returned with their drinks. “Nice place,” he said as he squeezed his bulk into the seat opposite her.
“Yeah. Busy anyway.”
“Yeah, this is what I wanted.”
“Good.” He grinned as he took a big gulp of his beer. “So you wanna talk?”
“I dunno. Can’t just sit here in silence.”
“We don’t normally do that when we drink…”
“No, but we always talk about work.”
“Hm. I guess we do.” She liked Jones. She even considered him a friend, whatever that meant, but they didn’t socialise outside of work beyond grabbing a beer on the way home. She’d only met his wife a handful of times, and been inside his house maybe twice. And, as he’d pointed out himself, he’d never been her guest at all. She didn’t know his kids – might have struggled to remember their names, even – but he was the one who’d looked after her tonight. She ought to be able to carry out a conversation with him about something besides work. But nothing came to mind. And, depressingly, she couldn’t think of anyone else she’d be able to do it with either. Her work was her whole life. No wonder all the fucked up stuff that had happened with Hammersmith had sent her a little crazy. Okay, a lot crazy. She had no way of decompressing at all. No other part of her life she could hide herself in. No hobbies, no friends, no boyfriend even. That made her think about Josh. “I need to check he’s okay,” she said to herself.
“Oh, sorry…I was just thinking about Josh.”
“Hey, that’s not work. Let’s talk about that.”
“He was there in Southside with me.”
“He knew one of the victims, actually. He was pretty shaken up.”
She frowned and fiddled with her bottle. She hadn’t taken a drink yet. “I didn’t actually speak to him. It’s been a whole day. I ought to call. Except I don’t even have his number.” She laughed at her stupidity.
“You went on a date with a guy whose number you didn’t have?”
“Well, he left me that note…”
“You like him?” He watched her carefully as he drank again. His beer was almost half finished already.
“I…yeah…I think so.”
“You think so?”
“I dunno.” She shrugged awkwardly. “He’s interesting. Passionate.”
“Oh yeah?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Not like that. Please, we’ve been for coffee and half a date that ended with me stumbling into a brutal crime scene. But I mean about his work.”
“The film stuff?”
“He writes too.”
“Okay. He any good?”
“Fuck knows. He sounded like he might be. He said he was prolific.”
“He could be prolific and shit. He could write thousands and thousands of words of total garbage.”
She laughed at that and finally took a sip of her beer. “Maybe. He seemed to know his shit though. He writes detective stuff.”
“Because he was making a thing about us?”
“Nah, he just looked like the type.”
“In what way?”
“Kind of obsessive. A bit creepy.”
“Well…yeah, I guess he is.”
“Fucking hell, Hannah,” Jones said before pausing to drain his bottle, “you got some shitty taste in men.”
“I won’t deny that.” She swallowed a big gulp in a vain effort to catch up with her partner.
“I can find his number if you want,” Jones offered.
“Yeah, he’ll have some details on file. The department must’ve vetted him first.”
“That’d be good.”
“So what else is new?”
He looked like he wanted to say something. His thick fingers picked at the label on his bottle.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t wanna say.”
“Huh? What’s going on?”
“It’s about the case…”
“Oh. Well…it’s okay.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I think I can handle it. I got a little buzz on.”
“From a quarter of a bottle?”
“You know when I last ate?”
“Me either. Talk.”
“Okay, well, Mort showed me his report today. From the first body, you know?”
She actually had to think about it. “Eddie, right?”
“Yeah. They ran a toxicology test. Turns out he’d been drugged.”
“That’s what he thought about Diego. What was it?”
“A plan old roofie.”
“Hm…well, that makes sense. He slipped something in his drink, shoved him in the back of his car, raped him and killed him.” She winced at how dispassionately she described the horrific crime. Working Homicide could do that to you, but it was more than that. She was numb to the whole business now. After the last three murders, after Carmella, after all of it, the relatively clinical way the first two they’d discovered had been dispatched almost seemed pleasant. God help her.
“Yeah, but here’s the thing: remember Mort’s hunch about the sexual stuff?”
“Oh, he thought it was a red herring, right?”
“Exactly. Turns out nothing like that happened. There were injuries consistent with some pretty fucked up stuff, but he couldn’t find anything else. Word is the second one is the same.”
“He told me that,” she said. She’d almost forgotten it. “So this guy, Padre Miguel or whoever, roofied this kids and then made it look like he fucked them? Why?”
“Fuck knows. Fuck only knows, Hannah.” He was fiddling with his bottle. “You want another?” he asked hopefully.
She kind of did, but unwelcome responsibility kicked in. “You’re driving.”
“I could use a ride.”
“Hotel. You know anywhere?”
“There’s a couple places Downtown. What’s your budget?”
“You know what I get paid. But, honestly, I think I need to treat myself, tonight of all nights.”
“You wanna swing by your place and get anything?”
“Nah fuck it.” She had her handbag. What she was wearing would be fine, even if she hadn’t changed in two days. What did another one matter? She finished off her beer in one long gulp. “Just take me there.”
“You’re the boss.”
She couldn’t afford the place she was staying, not really, but she didn’t give a shit. She checked in, paying on her credit card, and said goodbye to Jones. He seemed reluctant to leave her on her own, but he could hardly sit with her all night. He had a family to get back to. Obviously some protective instinct of his, long dormant, was kicking in. It was sweet in a way. She went up to her room and looked around. It was nice, with a balcony and everything. She threw her handbag on the bed and stood with her hands on her hips. She could order room service. Put the TV on, make an evening of it. But she’d still be alone. She wanted another drink, and she wanted people. Not to talk to, but just voices close by. She wanted to not have to jump at every shadow that moved in the corner of her vision. She grabbed her bag again and went back downstairs to the lobby. She must look and smell disgusting. She hadn’t changed her clothes since she’d been caught in the rain last night. Since she’d run two miles earlier. Whatever. It wasn’t late enough for the bar to be closed, and the guy at the desk showed her where it was. It was very different from the place she’d been drinking with Jones. Upmarket, modern and stylish, with low strip lights along the ceiling. The bar surface itself was illuminated from within. Sparkling glasses were stacked up at the back and the bartender was wearing a vest and a bowtie. “Ma’am?” he asked as she sat down. She could feel him judging her for the mess she looked, but was beyond caring about some snooty hotel guy.
“Get me…” She drank beer almost exclusively. Sometimes wine at home. Champagne at weddings. She hadn’t been to a cocktail bar in years. “I dunno. What do you serve people who are going through some real awful shit?”
He looked a little taken aback. “No one staying here’s like that. I hope…”
“Well, come on, you went to bartender school, right? Can you do all that Tom Cruise shit?”
“What’s the strongest thing on your cocktail menu?”
“Probably the long island iced tea.”
“It’s coke and everything, pretty much.”
“Can you put more everything in it?”
“I can make it extra long.”
“Sounds good. Hit me up with one of those bad boys.”
He grinned. “Yes, ma’am.”
When it arrived, it was pleasingly pale in colour. Carter sipped through the straw and recoiled from the alcohol. “Perfect,” she told the hovering bartender. He looked pleased. She looked around the bar. It was dark, but there were a few other people there, mostly drinking alone like her. They looked like businessmen or something. It wasn’t noisy, but somehow it suited her right then. There was soft jazz playing in the background. She took a long sip of the lethal cocktail. It burned on the way down. She could feel her buzz returning. She didn’t feel scared at all right then. She turned slowly on her stool, surveying the room, and was facing the door as another dishevelled figure entered. Maybe it was the drink, but she was barely surprised to see him. He stared at her.
“Josh,” she said as he walked over to her, “remember what I said about turning around and not seeing you?”
“I think so. Everything’s kind of a blur right now.” He looked as tired as she was and pointed to her drink. “I wish I could say I came here looking for you, but actually it’s for something more like that.”
“Well it’s a good choice.” She sipped again.
“How you holding up?” He took a seat beside her.
“I thought you’d be able to handle all that stuff.” The bartender reappeared and he pointed to the long island iced tea in Carter’s hand. “Another of those, thanks.”
“They put me on medical leave for three months,” she said.
“The problem with being self-employed is you don’t get that kind of thing,” he said ruefully.
“Yeah. Then I went home and there was another body in my kitchen.” It was the booze making her bold enough to announce that nonchalantly. There was a clatter as the bartender dropped the glass he was filling.
“Is that a joke?” Josh asked.
“That’s what I said.”
“And…you’re here because?”
“Because I can’t stay in my house. I didn’t know you were staying here. Sorry. This isn’t some weird tactic.”
“Well good. I don’t think I can handle anything like that right now.”
“You don’t have to sit with me,” Carter told him, “I get it. It’s fine.”
“Why wouldn’t I sit with you?”
“We went on the worst date in the world.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“It ended with us discovering two mangled corpses.”
He blanched. The bartender was looking at them very strangely as he arrived with Josh’s drink. “Maybe we should find a table,” he suggested.
They retired to a darker corner. Carter had already finished half her cocktail. “I don’t know what to do,” she admitted.
“About everything. It’s been the worst day of my life.”
“Even worse than what happened with Hammersmith?” He made a face. “Sorry…that’s the last thing you need to be thinking about…”
“It’s okay. You’re as messed up as me right now. I’m not expecting therapy here.”
“So…there was another body?”
“Yeah. In my kitchen.” It was a very strange thing to say out loud.
“A Spanish kid? Looked like it. Hard to tell. Someone really did a number on him.”
“Jesus. So you think it’s the same guy? This…uh…”
“Padre Miguel? Yeah. Has to be. He tried to kill my friend too.”
“Oh yeah.” She laughed at that. It came out a little manic. “An old friend from when I was in Vice. In Southside. I asked her to look into Padre Miguel for me, since she’d heard of him too. Next thing I know, some priest is breaking into her apartment and trying to kill her.”
“Fuck. She’s okay though?”
“You’d better believe it.” Twenty-four hours ago she’d never have talked about an on-going investigation with this virtual stranger, but now they’d been through something together. They had no secrets, not after what they’d seen. “She took a shot at him.”
His eyes went wide. “Seriously?”
“Hey, she’s a tough girl. As tough as they come, not that you’d know it to look at her. But she’s been through some real shit in her life. No one’s going to break in to her house and leave without a bullet in his leg.”
“He might be dead already then…”
He looked at her. “What? Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud I guess. If she shot him, he might be dead.”
“I hope not. But yeah. I never even thought about it. So much has happened. She said she only got him in the leg, but he was bleeding. He would’ve needed a hospital, I guess.” She held her hands up. “Whatever. Not my fucking problem right now. Seriously.”
“Right. You’re signed off for three months, yeah?” He took a small sip of his drink through his straw.
“Got any plans?”
“Gonna go home. See my folks.”
“I should probably check that with them that it’s okay…”
“I don’t think they’ll mind, in the circumstances.”
“‘Circumstances’…yeah, that’s one word for it.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I don’t know. As soon as possible, I guess. Tomorrow, if I can.”
“Want to stay in town for a couple days?” He was looking at her quite earnestly.
“Why? What did you have in mind?”
“I need to decompress. I want to get out of here, but I want to finish up the stuff I need to do here.”
“You want to go back to the station? After all this?”
He shook his head. “Not that. I don’t think I can do the documentary I was planning now anyway.”
“You know how documentarians aren’t supposed to interfere with their subjects?”
“Well, not only am I now a witness to a double homicide, but I’m also kind of seeing someone in the department I was planning to film.”
“Ah…” She slurped the last of her cocktail. “There is that.”
“There’s still the screenplay though. Although I’m thinking it might be a novel instead now.”
“Right. So what do you need to do?”
“Locations. I want to get up into the hills around the valley. You ever been hiking?”
“The mountains around here are beautiful this time of year. I was planning to get up there tomorrow morning. Find a nice spot overlooking the city. I think it could be a good place to set a few scenes.”
He smiled. “Yeah. Somewhere quiet, out of the way, trees, birds singing, that kind of thing.”
“I don’t even know if it exists yet. But that’s what tomorrow is for. Wanna come?”
She rested her chin on her hand and watched him carefully. He looked tired and haunted. But there was something pleasingly rumpled about him. She didn’t want to be alone tonight. She hadn’t realised quite how strongly she felt about that. She was desperate for any kind of human connection. She was also drunk. The boozy cocktail had gone right to her head, on top of the beer she’d gulped down too fast. And no food. And everything else. She was in some kind of altered state. Heightened awareness, on the edge of total collapse, manic. She was incapable of making a sensible decision. “Sure,” she said.
He seemed relieved. He was hurting like she was. He too wanted to see a friendly face. He’d probably spent the last twenty-four hours alone in his room, trying to put his head back together. “You want another drink?” he asked her.
She looked down at her empty glass. “I do, actually.”
He got up to go to the bar. “No problem.”
“Let’s put it on room service instead.”
“I don’t underst…oh…”
She’d grabbed his hand, and now she twined her fingers around his. “This is a bad idea,” she said.
“You think I’m taking advantage of you?”
“I think I haven’t showered in days and I look like someone found me in a ditch.”
“The shower in my en suite’s pretty good…”
“Now you’re talking,” she said.
The next day was bright and clear. Carter rolled over in an unfamiliar bed and looked out of the balcony door. The sky was an unbroken blue dome, rising about the towers of Downtown. She had a pounding headache, but she actually felt better than she had in a long time. She wanted to get away from all this. She wanted to stop caring. Every cop felt that way sometimes, she figured, when it all got too much. When she was working Vice, she’d had that all the time. The girls she dealt with, the stories she heard, were oppressive. It ground her down, day by day. Homicide was the same in a lot of ways. But, being a cop, she was driven to make these things her problem. Walking away was anathema. Now though, she’d been given leave to go, just step back and let someone else handle it. The bodies could keep piling up and that might eat away at her conscience, but no one expected her to fix it now. Everyone completely understood. Professionally, personally, she had no business dealing with this. It was liberating.
She rolled over. Josh was sleeping softly beside her. His hair was loose and it had gone curly where he’d slept on it wet. The shower was as good as he’d promised, and it’d felt good to wash away two days of sweat and grime. Not sexy, but necessary. The sexy stuff had come a little later when he’d stepped in with her. It had been a long time since she’d done anything like that and it too was liberating. Just giving herself over to another person, even for a night, was more than she’d been able to do in a long time. She didn’t, by nature, rely on others. But she needed to do that now.
He woke up as she moved a hand up his chest. He wasn’t the prettiest guy in the world in the morning light. She’d been surprised at how much body hair he’d had, and he was slim enough but not in particularly good shape. His body was pale and a little flabby. But he’d known what he was doing and he’d been generous and attentive. She couldn’t ask for much more. He was growing on her, she had to admit. “Hey,” he whispered.
“How you feeling?”
“I have a headache.”
He smiled. “Me too.”
They’d made good use of room service. She’d have to pay him back for that or she’d feel kind of weird about it. “What time is it?”
He looked around for his watch. It was lying on the ground in a pile of his clothes. He squinted at it. “Uh? About ten?”
“Wow. Longest lay in I’ve had in years.”
“Even on a Saturday?”
“Cops don’t get weekends. Not like writers anyway.”
“My whole life is one long weekend.”
“It’s okay.” She’d been gratified to see that his room was as messy as hers at home. He lived up to the stereotype of the distracted creative genius. There was a laptop sitting on the desk near the door to the balcony. That was presumably where he did his work. She kind of wanted to read some of it, but she was embarrassed to ask. “You still want to take a walk up into the hills?”
“After breakfast,” she replied as she stretched out in the bed and then moved her body against his, snuggling a little closer.
He put a protective arm around her. “You want to order room service again?”
“Your bill’s gonna be astronomical.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“No, let’s go downstairs. I feel like being sociable.”
“Sure. You want to go back to your room and change?”
“I didn’t even pack any clothes.” It hadn’t seemed like a problem before, but now she regarded her sweaty clothes with a look of disgust.
“I can lend you a shirt.”
“That might be good. You got any women’s underwear hanging around?”
“My Victoria’s Secret collection’s back in LA with my make-up and wig.”
She ran a hand through his hair. “You don’t need a wig. You know, you should meet Carmella.”
“I’d like that.”
“That’s my friend,” she clarified, “the one who shot Padre Miguel.”
He looked momentarily bemused, but then recovered. “Right, sure. I guessed.”
“And she’s…well, you’d have to meet her to understand. She’s had some work done, let’s put it like that.”
“I think I see what you’re getting at.”
“Yeah.” She sat up, self-consciously pulling the sheets across herself, even though they hardly had secrets now. Not about that stuff anyway. “C’mon. I can manage, just find me a clean shirt.”
“I didn’t say it was clean…”
They ate breakfast in the dining room. Carter hadn’t realised quite how hungry she was until the stack of pancakes she’d ordered arrived. She dug into them ravenously, and didn’t surface for about ten minutes. She wiped syrup from her face with her napkin and glugged down a mouthful of coffee. “Sorry,” she said, “not very attractive.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I like a woman with an appetite.”
“Normally I’m not a total pig, just for the record.”
“I know, Hannah.” He’d hardly touched his own breakfast.
“Plus you’re taking me up a mountain, right? I should take in some calories.”
“That’s probably wise.”
Carter lost herself in this strange fantasy of a day. The sun was shining, and the city looked like it had been washed clean by the recent rain. It was glorious and gleaming, almost golden. They walked down the street holding hands like teenagers, her wearing a borrowed shirt with some superhero logo on it and her normal work pants. She probably looked ridiculous, but she didn’t care. Last night had been like a cleansing. In the warm shower, pushing herself up against Josh, kissing him, holding him, probing with fingers and tongue, she’d experienced a kind of baptism, washing away all her accumulated sins. It had been extremely therapeutic. Or maybe it was just the sex. That always helped clear her head. She ought to do it more often. Maybe she would, now.
They got a bus to the edge of town, where the suburbs gave way to the countryside and the land rose up into sparse forest that clung to the mountains. Josh had a pack with some water. He’d insisted she buy some better boots on the way there, since her work shoes weren’t exactly ideal for this kind of terrain. He shoved them in his pack too. She wriggled her toes in the unfamiliar walking boots and looked around. Under that blue sky, everything was heartbreakingly beautiful, green and fresh despite the time of year. She could hear the promised birds tweeting and everything. She took a deep breath. “This is…great…”
“We’re barely out of the city,” he told her, shouldering his pack.
“I can tell the difference already. It gets to you, being surrounded by all that concrete and metal.”
“You live out in the suburbs, don’t you?”
“More or less. But still. I work Downtown.”
“You gotta keep that connection to the real world, I think. To nature, I mean. Feel the seasons change.”
He shrugged modestly. “I guess.”
She took his hand and started to lead him up the narrow track that led up the hillside. “Come on; let’s find your secluded little spot. And maybe if it’s secluded enough, we can stay there a little while.” She smiled impishly at him.
“Wouldn’t that be lewd conduct, Miss Detective?”
“Only if someone sees. Besides, I’m on leave for three months. Who gives a shit?”
“You’re my kind of cop, lady.” He let himself be led and they walked into the woods, ducking beneath overhanging leaves. They were beginning to fade to yellow, not quite turning Fall colours yet, but rich and golden, crisp in the cool, clear air. It was gorgeous and Carter let herself buy into it wholly. She laughed and smiled as they walked, talking total shit about whatever.
Sooner than she expected, they were high enough to get a good view. The trees parted as the trail turned a corner and she could see the whole city spread out beneath them. From here it looked like a toy town. She could imagine all the pain and horror down there, reduced to a tiny scrap of nothing, as irrelevant as an ant’s nest. She felt almost divine then, so figuratively and literally above it all was she. She knew it was just her elevated mood, but it was intoxicating. For the first time she could remember, she actually wondered whether there was something else she could do with her life. A job that let her do this kind of thing. She’d been a cop, or in training to be one, since she graduated college. It had made her hard and cynical. Maybe she should be taking more joy in life, like Josh seemed to. Maybe she needed a dream to follow.
“I like it here,” she said.
“I know. I wonder if they’d let someone build a house up here?”
“Maybe. Why, thinking of moving to San Bernardino?”
“I dunno. Maybe once I know there’s no serial killers stalking the streets.”
That brief mention of the real world was like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Carter felt her good mood start to drift, but she forced her doubts to the back of her mind. She wanted to be happy. She deserved to be happy. She took his hand again. “Where now?”
He turned and pointed to where another track led from this one. It was almost overgrown with trees, but it was wide enough for a car to get down. “Let’s see where that leads.”
They followed it up into deeper forest. The trees became a more oppressive roof above their heads now, blocking the sky from view in places. It was cold in the shadowy darkness. Carter started to feel just a bit uneasy, but she was determined not to let something as small as this ruin the morning. Sure enough, after a few hundred yards, the woods started to open out a little and now they stepped into a clearing on the edge of the hillside. It was like a narrow ledge, giving another superb view of the city far below. She hadn’t seen this from the lower road, and she guessed the angle of the mountain’s rise and the trees kept it out of sight. “Looks like someone already had your idea,” she said, pointing. There was a dilapidated cabin in the clearing with a battered station wagon parked outside.
“Damn. I thought we’d be alone up here. It seems like the perfect spot.”
“Never mind. Let’s go.” She tugged at his hand.
“Wait, I kind of want to look around.”
She eyed the car doubtfully. “I think someone’s home. We shouldn’t disturb them.”
“I can knock on the door, can’t I? It’s perfect.”
Carter felt uneasy again. “Perfect for what?”
“Part of my story.”
He was already walking towards the run-down building. She trailed after him, suddenly feeling very afraid. It took her a second to put her finger on it, but then she realised what it was – the buckling wood on the walls, the obvious state of disrepair, even the general shape if not the size reminded her too much of the barn Hammersmith had taken her to. The one she’d burned down. The one he’d died in. She hesitated. Josh had let go of her hand and he wasn’t stopping. He was transfixed by the strange cabin. Reluctantly, she followed. He reached the door and knocked experimentally. No one answered. “Strange,” he murmured.
“Josh, come on, let’s go.” She was standing on the front porch beneath the sagging ceiling. There were cobwebs clinging to the beams. Even the smell of the rotting wood was bringing back unwelcome memories.
“Just a second.” He tried the handle, and the door swung open.
“Someone might not want to be disturbed…”
“It’s fine. There’s no one in here. It’s just one room.” He walked into the gloom.
Carter dallied on the porch. She was scared. She wasn’t ashamed to admit that to herself. She’d seen a lot of shit in the last couple of days, and it seemed to be whenever she walked into a dark room that it revealed itself. And this place was just too familiar for her to be comfortable. But she was being ridiculous – it was just an old cabin, and the car was most probably abandoned. It looked pretty beat up. She licked her lips and finally stepped across the threshold and ducked into the darkness.
The room was as she’d imagined it would be. Just the interior space of the cabin. A filthy window on the back wall let in a little bit of light. It smelled musty and unused. Again, it was almost exactly the same smell as the barn Hammersmith had tied her up in. That made her feel instantly alert, but somehow she still didn’t notice the obvious. It must have been some kind of protective instinct in her brain. Her eyes roamed across the floor, took in the dirty sheets spread across the rough wooden floorboards, filled with knots, the upturned box with two grimy glasses on it and an empty bottle of cheap tequila, a bag resting against it. And Josh, standing in the detritus of some small, sad life, stock still, open mouthed. Her gaze followed his. An object hung from a beam that stretched across the width of the cabin’s ceiling. No, not an object: a person.
The numbness returned. Carter took in the details automatically, like a cop. Male, Hispanic, perhaps in his forties or fifties, slightly built. He wore a grey shirt with a priest’s collar. His right leg had been badly bandaged and dark blood had soaked through. A gunshot wound. His face was swollen and purple, with his tongue sticking out. Blood had dried on his chin where he’d probably bitten it. He’d been dead for at least a day.
It was the sixth body she’d seen this week, but surely the last for this, she was certain, was the corpse of Padre Miguel.