It was strange how everything could look different, even though nothing had physically changed. Outside the cabin, in the same perfect spot, with the same clear sky hanging over the San Bernardino Valley, it was just the same as before from one angle. But tilt the perspective just slightly and the light shone through a different face of the imaginary prism, scattering in a way that was far less flattering. Before, Carter had felt like she was floating on air. She was smart enough to know that elation was as false as the depression that now made everything look grey and washed out. The moment, full of brightness and joy, had been ruined by what they’d found. And she knew she ought to be feeling relief, but something rang false about the whole thing. She was still uneasy, but was unable to explain why.
She and Josh sat on a little rocky outcropping near the edge of the shelf on which the cabin was built. That cabin was now being combed over by cops. More patrol cars and their lights, another ambulance, uniforms plodding around the perimeter. No bystanders or press this time; that was the only difference. She was getting so tired of living this same story over and over. Josh said nothing. Like her, he just watched everything numbly. Jones walked towards them carrying two cups of coffee. One he gave to Josh with a slight nod by way of greeting, and the other he handed to her a little more gently. “I shouldn’t have left you by yourself.”
She took the coffee gratefully and took a sip. It was too hot, but she barely felt it scald her mouth. “I don’t think it would’ve made a difference.”
“You might not have come up here…”
“You think I meant to bring her to this?” Josh’s tone was accusatory. She glanced at him and saw anger in his eyes she’d never expected from him.
“Relax. You guys have been through some shit this week. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Just looking out for my partner.”
Carter rubbed her forehead. “Not what I meant anyway. I don’t think it mattered where I went. I’d have found this anyway.”
“How’s that?” Jones asked with a frown.
“Come on. You’re a cop. Put the pieces together.”
“God knows I’m trying, Hannah.”
“Six bodies.” She counted off on her fingers. “The first, Eddie, in the park Downtown, while I’m in our regular bagel place, closest detective to the crime scene, right?”
“Second, Diego, in the alley right next to the coffee shop I’m actually in at the time. Third and fourth, Hector and his partner.”
“Alex,” Jones filled in.
“Yeah. I actually went to their apartment myself, to question Hector. Then the fifth in my own home. Does that all sound like a coincidence to you?”
Jones looked out across the hillside, his eyes lingering on the cabin for a second. “It doesn’t add up.”
“What makes you say that?”
He pointed. “That guy’s been dead for at least a day.”
“I thought the same,” she said.
“Same with the rest too, right?”
Carter thought about it. So much of the past week was a confused blur now. “Yeah, now that you mention it.”
“So it’s not like he was following you around. The first one, and the one in your kitchen, sure, because those are places you were gonna be in anyway. But the rest? How the heck did he know where you’d be?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe god told him or something? Fuck knows. I’m beyond caring now.” She stood up and shoved her hands in her pockets awkwardly. She felt stupid in her mismatched clothes now that people she knew from the real world were standing around. She started to head for the cabin.
“Hey, where are you going?” Josh asked.
“Trying to figure out who the fuck’s doing this to me.”
Jones puffed up beside her as she strode off. “You’re a witness, Hannah.”
“Fuck that. I want some closure.”
“Well he’s dead.”
“I know. But I have to see if I can make sense of all this. How did this guy know how to find me every single day? How did he know I knew Carmella? How could he have predicted I’d be up here, in a place I never even thought of coming to before?”
“I don’t know.” His expression was helpless and it made her smile, slightly.
“I can’t go home now anyway.”
“To your folks’?”
“No. Like you said, I’m a witness. And something big’s going on here, isn’t it?”
“It was. Like I said, now he’s dead.”
She pushed the door of the cabin open. It really did remind her of her last encounter with Hammersmith, but she refused to be drawn into all that again. Inside a few lamps had been set up to illuminate the scene. Mortimer was crawling over the whole room with his team. She walked carefully around the various bits of equipment strewn around. They’d cut the body down and it was now lying on the ground, covered by a sheet. Beauchamp stood sentry over it all, big arms folded. He acknowledged her with a curt nod. He, at least, seemed to understand her need to be here as more than just another frightened witness now.
“What do you think?” she asked him.
“I think this fucker killed six people and then himself. And good fucking riddance.”
Cop talk. It felt like a familiar blanket. Totally different from what she’d got from Josh last night. The lustre had certainly worn off their encounter anyway. “I can’t believe he got away with it. All those families the bastard tore apart, and they won’t see justice.” It was hypocritical of her to say that after what had happened with Hammersmith, she supposed, but that had been a little different. For one thing, it was more like self-defence.
“Some might call this a kind of justice,” a small voice said from the doorway. It was Josh. She hadn’t noticed him following.
“Justice is a trial, son,” Beauchamp said flatly, “answering for your crimes before a jury of your peers. This is just death.”
“More death,” Carter said, looking down at the covered body again. “Fucking asshole.”
“You ought to be celebrating,” Jones told her.
“Then why don’t I feel like doing that?” She circled the tableaux, dodging past Mortimer as he crouched by the corpse. “Anything?”
He shrugged. “Dead since yesterday morning, I’d say. It was the blood being cut off from his brain rather than strangulation. Would’ve been quicker that way. Shows he knew what he was doing.”
“Asshole,” she repeated. Did she want him to suffer then? Was that justice? After what she’d seen at Hector’s place and in her own kitchen, it was hard to wish a quick, relatively painless death on this monster. “He should’ve been crucified,” she said, with an uncharacteristic snarl in her voice.
“Burned alive.” Everyone looked at Josh. He didn’t seem to realise he’d spoken. “Uh…sorry…I just meant…you said crucified. It made me think of all the martyrs, you know? The Romans burnt them all. It’s a nasty way to go. That’s all.”
“Sounds about right,” Jones said.
“You might want to step outside, kid,” Beauchamp told Josh belatedly. “This is a crime scene, and you’re a witness.”
“That’s different. Don’t be a prick.”
The bluntness seemed to work and Josh shuffled out into the sunlight without saying anything else. “Don’t be too hard on him,” Carter said.
“No offence, Hannah, but I don’t have the first fucking idea who he is.”
“He’s Josh. He was making that documentary and…”
“Yeah, I know his name. But that’s it. I’d like to ask him a few questions.”
She felt a wave of anger. “What? Why?”
“I just wanna know why he brought you up here.”
“We were hiking.” She held one of her feet up to show him the boots she wore. “See?”
“Look, Josh is a much a victim of all this bullshit as I am. He was there at the beginning – he went to the lake when we found Eddie. And he was at the coffee shop with the next one too…uh…Diego. And Hector was his friend. You might have a bit of sympathy for him.”
“I’m a cop,” the sergeant said, “it’s my job to be suspicious of people I don’t know who show up in the same places a lot of times.” He walked past her and out of the door.
Carter watched him go, still feeling pissed off. “Where the fuck does he get off?” she asked Jones.
“You know Rick.”
“Yeah, well. Fuck him.”
“Look, what are your plans for the next couple days?”
“Well, I’m sure as shit not going back to my house.”
“You staying in that hotel Downtown?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay. Just don’t be alone.”
She looked at him. “What does that mean?”
“C’mon, Hannah. Look around. What’s wrong?”
She glanced around the room, at the forensics teams combing for anything they could find, at the lamps showing up every inch of the filthy floor, at Padre Miguel’s body under the sheet. Her eyes travelled up the bare walls and then followed the beam that separated the main room from the roof space, in all its cobwebby gloom. She saw where the rope was wrapped around the solid wood and where it had been sheared through to get the corpse down. Her eyes slid back to the covered shape again. What was Jones getting at? Then it hit her. “No stool,” she said softly.
“Right. Still think we’re done here?” He rubbed her arm gently. “We’re on this, Hannah. Whatever’s going on, you’re at the centre of it, and that shit doesn’t fly with us.”
“Thanks,” she said, patting his hand with something a little like affection. He left her alone with the lab geeks and she stood there, looking at what remained of the creature she knew as Padre Miguel, wondering if it really was all too good to be true.
They went back to the hotel, she and Josh. It was already late afternoon after they’d given all their statements and everything. Unspoken, they’d decided they should stick together, like Jones had suggested. After all, whatever she was involved with he was a part of too. He’d been there, he’d seen it all, except for the one in her kitchen. They were back in his room, and a helpful patrolman had swung by her house to pick up a few things. He’d made up for his lack of skill and insight into a woman in exile’s needs with enthusiasm, and the hastily packed bag had an impressively random plethora of her stuff in it. None of the clothes remotely matched, but it was at least an improvement over what she’d been wearing. “Not even a toothbrush,” she sighed, sifting through her smorgasbord of belongings.
“You can borrow mine.” Josh reclined on the bed beside her. He looked a little shaken up.
“Ew, gross.” She rubbed his leg. “How you doing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really have much experience with this kind of thing, you know?”
“No one does. Or no one should anyway. Was Beauchamp an asshole to you?”
“That the big black guy with the scowl?”
“That’s him. My sergeant.”
He grimaced slightly. “Just the usual stuff I guess. I thought he was accusing me of something.”
“He’s just protective. They all are.”
“It’s okay. I get it. I just…yeah…this isn’t what I was expecting to be involved in.”
“Dragging you into this.”
He looked confused. “What do you mean? Do you really believe this is about you?”
“Well…I don’t know how yet. But yeah. I feel like I’m at the centre of a maelstrom of blood and madness.”
“That’s a good line. You ever think about writing anything?”
“Nope.” She laid her head down on the pillow and looked up at him. “How did we end up here?”
“A week ago, I was fine. I was getting on with my life. Now I have a murderer chasing after me.”
“Had. He’s dead, remember?”
“Maybe?” He smiled. “I’m not the expert, but that sort of thing is usually fatal, right?”
Should she tell him about the inconsistency they’d noticed? That Miguel couldn’t have killed himself? Or would that just worry him unnecessarily? There was a patrol watching the building, keeping them safe. There was nothing for them to worry about. Plus one of the things the beat cop had brought her from home was her gun, along with her cuffs and radio. If anyone was out there, waiting to spring some other nasty surprise on her, it’d be the last mistake he’d make. She was a better shot than Carmella, she knew that. “It’s fine,” she said, “don’t worry about it. I’m just being paranoid. It’s been a shitty few days.”
He lay down beside her. “Not entirely shitty, I hope?”
“No,” she admitted, “there were one or two nice parts.”
“Anything in particular spring to mind?” He ran a hand down her side, over her hips and down the outside of her thigh, very gently. Even through her pants, it tickled.
“I don’t like to kiss and tell.”
“Let’s just kiss then.” He leant in and at first she responded, but then she moved away.
“What is it?” He looked concerned.
“Nothing…I…” She shook her head. “I really want to brush my teeth.” She laughed at her silly vanity. “Sorry. It didn’t seem to matter last night. I was so tired and drunk. But I’m suddenly feeling weird about it.”
“I told you, borrow mine.”
“And I told you, that’s gross.”
“Well…what should we do then?”
She sat up on the bed and rummaged in her bag again. “Would you do me a favour?”
“Depends what it is.”
“I need some stuff. Toothbrush, a few other things. Damn officer didn’t know what he was doing.” She found a notepad and then grabbed a pen from her jacket pocket, lying rumpled on the floor. “Here.”
“You’re sending me to the store with a list?”
“Pretty much.” She scribbled furiously.
“What happened to sticking together?”
“There’s a store on the corner.”
He took the list from her and looked at it. “All right then.”
“I want another shower,” she said.
“And you want to do it alone this time?”
She drew her legs up and rested her chin on her arms. “You’re gonna make me say it, aren’t you?”
“I just want to take a long, decent shower. I feel filthy all over again. And I want to use the bathroom. I want to relax and not have to think about someone on the other side of the door judging me.”
“Jeez, what are you planning to do, Hannah? You do have your own room, you know…”
“And I don’t want to go back there. But give me half an hour or something, okay? Just some time to myself. It’s been a crazy few days.”
“It’s fine.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “I get it.”
“Yeah. You want to be able to be yourself, to have normality. But normality for you is being alone, right?”
“But you don’t want that either.”
She nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. I’m sorry, you must think your girlfriend’s crazy.”
She felt her face turning hot. “I…oh…I didn’t…” she laughed a little desperately. “Shit!”
“It’s fine. I’m okay with it if you are.”
“We’ll talk when you get back,” she said.
“I’m sure we will.” Another kiss on the head and he was up and shoving stuff in his pockets and searching for his jacket in the chaos of the room’s floor. He consulted the list and winked. “I’ll be back soon.”
“I know. Thanks, Josh.”
“For being you. I don’t know why, but you’re what I need right now.”
She felt a pang of guilt about not considering his feelings. He was part of this too, she reminded herself. But he seemed pretty tough, underneath his scruffy, youthful exterior. Sometimes, she sensed something behind his blue-grey eyes, a momentary crack in his otherwise calm façade, but it was always gone as suddenly as it arrived. He was being brave for her, she knew. She liked that.
“Later,” he said with a silly little wave.
“Bye.” And then he was gone, shutting the door firmly behind him. Carter felt relieved, in an odd way. Here in his room, with all the detritus of his haphazard life around, it still seemed like he was there, but she could let herself relax a little, find a way to sort through the confused feelings she had. She went to the bathroom and did what needed doing. As she was washing up, her handbag started to buzz. She stared at it dumbly for a moment before realising it was her cellphone. The only people who ever called her were from work, so she’d become used to hearing nothing for the last day or so. She opened the bag and sorted through all her junk, pulling out the scrap of paper Josh’s message about their abortive date had been written on and placing it carefully to one side with a slight smile. It was a small reminder of a simpler time. When was it? All of three fucking days ago. She looked at her phone. It was Jones. That made her heartbeat quicken. “Ray?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“Hey, I thought I should call. We’re all cleared up at that cabin, and you should know that we ID’d him.”
She felt the coldness that was becoming all too familiar. “What do you mean?”
“We know him, Carter. He’s got a record.”
“What the hell?”
“He’s a local vagrant. Tony Gonzales. Got hauled in for an armed robbery a few years back. Managed to get off on a technicality. He’s pretty well known on the streets.”
“And not a priest, I take it?”
“Not much of anything.”
“What about forensics? Anything to tie him to the murders?”
“Not yet. But he had a bullet in his leg, and we’re pretty sure it came from Carmella’s gun. We’re running the blood we found on her floor.”
“Jeez…what does this mean, Ray?”
“I don’t know.”
She did though. The man they’d found in the cabin was a decoy, even if he had attacked Carmella. “Just…keep me informed, okay?”
“Of course. Where are you now?”
“At the hotel still.”
“Is Josh around?”
She looked around the bathroom guiltily. “Not right now.”
Silence from Jones. “Just…be careful, all right? You want us to send another patrol down, just in case?”
“No. Hey, look, maybe Tony Gonzales is Padre Miguel? We don’t know shit until Mort gets back to us, right?”
“It’s fine. Relax. I’ve been thinking about it, Ray. This guy seems to be following my movements, but he hasn’t done anything to harm me yet.”
“All right, but I don’t think I’m in any danger. He must’ve had plenty of chances to kill me already, and he hasn’t taken them. Why do it now?”
“Good point. Still, watch your back, kid.”
“I always do.”
“Oh, hey, I almost forgot – we got an ID on the body in your kitchen too.”
She felt sick all over again. “Okay…”
“A Rodrigo Diaz. Southside kid. Quiet. You know the story.”
“I do,” she said bleakly.
“If this fucker’s still alive somehow, we’ll catch him, Hannah.”
“I know.” She hung up and held herself steady against the sink. They’d known nothing about Padre Miguel. Nothing at all. Some petty criminal was as legitimate an identity for him as any. But why would a thug like Tony Gonzales suddenly turn serial killer? On the other hand, why would a serial killer send some nobody to do his dirty work at Carmella’s? Neither scenario made much sense. She had to remember that it wasn’t her job to solve this crime. She put her cell back in her bag, and then noticed another note lying at the bottom. She pulled it out, wondering what it was. She didn’t normally keep receipts or anything. She unfolded it and saw it was Josh’s message. There was still another folded piece of paper lying on the bathroom counter though. She looked at it, and then at the note in her hand, and back again. Moving slowly, as if it might bite, she smoothed it out. It was the same, more or less. The same restaurant name, the same time. She placed them side by side. Both were written with Josh’s slanted, bold strokes. Why did she have two almost identical messages from Josh in her bag? She thought back to when she’d last packed her handbag and remembered knocking into the woman, Windham, in the restaurant. The note fell out then, didn’t it?
Her head felt woolly. She couldn’t make sense of simple things in front of her. She wanted to take a shower, but she suddenly felt a little strange about it. Vulnerable. She walked back into the bedroom and put her handbag and the two notes on the bed. She stared around and her eyes alighted on Josh’s laptop, on the desk by the door. She’d been drawn to it before, curious about his writing. Now she felt the same curiosity pulling at her. There was something in the back of her mind, something some part of her was trying to protect her from. There was only one thing all her grisly encounters had had in common this week. One common denominator she hadn’t even begun to consider.
Moving like she was in a dream, Carter took a seat in front of the computer and opened it up. It sprang to life right away – it had just been left on standby. The desktop showed dozens of documents, all with outlandish names. Folders beside them listed months and years, like an archive. She moved the cursor over a few of the files and looked at the date they’d been created. All this month. Josh wasn’t kidding about being prolific. She moved down to the most recent. It was called ‘Flesh of the Martyr’. His strange words in the cabin came back to her. She hesitated, then double-clicked it. A document opened; dense text, tens of thousands of words. A name popped out at her straight away. Miguel. She started reading.
It told the story of a boy growing up in a village in Mexico. He was obviously gay, and struggling with it. The prose was a little flowery for her taste, but the imagery came through okay. She felt the kid’s misery. She read on. It was an obvious story. He tried to find a ‘cure’ for his feelings, then ended up falling prey to an older priest’s unwholesome attention. It was rough stuff. She remembered Josh telling her that he’d been inspired to write something by what Hector had told him. Was this a fictional version of Padre Miguel’s life? What a monstrous coincidence. Of course, Josh hadn’t worked on this since before their ill-fated date. He’d thought Padre Miguel was just a euphemism. This was the story of a priest hiding his homosexuality from the world.
Except, it wasn’t. She skipped ahead. Another name popped out: Diego. He was meeting Miguel, now a priest himself, older, in a community centre in San Bernardino. Here. And there was talk about sins and martyrs, and another sickening sex scene. An older man abusing a boy. Is this what Josh liked to write about? The next scene put Miguel in a cabin high in the hills with Diego, now drugged and insensible. He killed him and then had to dispose of the body in town. He left it in a dumpster in an alley by a coffee shop, and a man called Hector helped him. Carter swallowed as she read on. Diego, Hector. This was no kind of coincidence now. Josh seemed to have been getting his material from the events he’d observed while he was with her. And then a line jumped out at her. A short description of one of the patrons in the coffee shop where he sat with Hector. A black woman, talking to a long-haired man at the door. That was her. When she’d met Josh. Except that was when he’d been with Hector. What was this?
And now Miguel hunted Hector. He broke into his apartment. It was different than how it had played out in real life though. Here, he’d crept silently through a bathroom window and somehow killed them cleanly. In reality, there had been a bloody and brutal struggle. She could only skim this story; it was too long for her to read every word, but as she clicked around she saw another mention of herself. Or a black woman detective anyway. Now she was outside the station, talking to Colburn, it seemed. That had actually happened. She moistened her lips. None of this made sense. She scrolled down a little further. Miguel drove past the scene of his crime and saw her again. But that was just the night before last. How could…
She felt relief as she realised what was going on. She hadn’t been with Josh yesterday. In his traumatised state he must have written all this between Hector’s and finding her in the hotel bar. Yes, it was fucked up that he seemed to be using this to work out his issues, but who was she to judge him? Her pulse rate returned to normal and she tried to read the story with less paranoid eyes. It wasn’t that bad. Although, in the next scene Miguel was going after someone else, someone he described as ‘a chimera’. What did that mean? Wasn’t it like a dragon or something? There was an awful lot of weird stuff about absolving people of their sins. Obviously Josh had some things on his mind. She supposed that was just part of being so incredibly prolific and creative though. Maybe he was a little crazy, but weren’t they all? Miguel killed the chimera woman, whoever she was, and went on his way to dispose of Rodrigo’s body.
She’d already read two more paragraphs before her mind caught up with itself. Rodrigo? That was the name of the victim they’d found in her house. The victim they’d only just ID’d. There was no way Josh could have known that name. No way at all. Unless…
There was a voice in her ear, so close she could feel the warm breath tickling her skin. “I told you it was a headfuck.” A damp cloth smothered her face and then there was nothing but darkness.
Of course she had nightmares about this from time to time. She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t. The sensations had been so strong, and it had been so horrific, there was no amount of therapy that could scrub it from her mind forever. That’s why she assumed she was dreaming at first. She came around in stages, so that bits of the picture seemed to swim into focus at different times. By the time she’d managed to fit it all together, it was like she’d been there for hours, and she knew therefore that she was awake. Awake and living this, again. She let out a low moan and struggled feebly against the rope holding her to the chair.
“Did I get it right?” a familiar voice asked.
She lifted her head slowly and blinked around. She recognised this place, and not from her memory or her nightmares. It was the cabin. Where they’d found Padre Miguel, or whoever he was. The same cabin as the one in the story. It was hard enough to distinguish fantasy from reality as it was without all that confusion. She was tied up and above her head, hanging from the same beam as before, a paraffin lamp. It smelled the same, all of it. She was back there again, like in the barn with Hammersmith. All that had changed was her captor. She stared at Josh as he walked towards her.
“Well what?” she asked blearily.
“Is it right? Is this how it was?”
It was no coincidence. Of course, there were no coincidences. He’d told her that himself, hadn’t he? Like she was in a bad crime novel: the same places, the same people. And you always meet the murderer in the first act. “What is this?” she asked him.
He crouched down in front of her. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Josh Franklin. Your boyfriend.” He pinched her cheek and laughed. She tried to pull away, but just moving her neck made her head swim. Chloroform again. Once was more than enough.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“I feel like I’m living in one…”
“You are. Or you will be.” He straightened and grinned down at her. His eyes were cold and emotionless though. How hadn’t she noticed that before? “Let me tell you about me.” He began to pace around the room, slowly circling her. She didn’t attempt to watch him, just let her chin slump onto her chest. She didn’t have the energy to plan any sort of escape. She just wanted to be anywhere else in the world. She wanted this to be over. “About six months ago, I was just a struggling writer. All I had was a head full of ideas and a seemingly supernatural ability to turn them into stories. I churned out tens of thousands of words a month. I was unstoppable. But I struggled to find an audience. I made my stuff available online for free, I told everyone I knew what I was doing, I sent submissions to agents and publishers. Nothing.”
“You have my sympathy,” Carter said.
“Of course, these things take time, but I knew I had a special gift. I knew I was destined for greater things. I knew, because I’d seen it happen before – Hammersmith.” He turned to her. “I both loathed and envied that man. Loathed him because what he wrote was such obvious trash. Envied him because he wrote so much of it that, by sheer volume of work alone, he couldn’t help but be successful, could he? That’s what I wanted.”
Carter shook her head, moving slowly to stop the room from spinning around her. “He was prolific because he used his crimes for inspiration. The man you envied was a serial killer and a child molester.”
“I know that,” he said dismissively, “that’s not the point I’m making. No, the thing with Hammersmith was that he was brilliant, in his way. And, six months ago, I reached out to him by e-mail. I just wanted to tell him what an inspiration he was. To my amazement, he replied. We entered into correspondence. I even got him to read a couple of my stories. He liked them. He promised to share them with his agent.” He looked up at the ceiling, as if imploring god. “We were collaborating. He wanted to work with me! I still thought he was a talentless hack, but this, at last, was my big break. I had a character, Padre Miguel, who I thought would make a good villain for Red Knight to hunt down. Hammersmith agreed. Something about Miguel’s childhood trauma appealed to him, evidently.”
“I know why it is,” Josh snapped. He advanced on her again. “Trauma fascinates me. The things it does to people. The way it forces them to relive events over and over. Hammersmith was my path to glory, after so long in the shadows. I was finally going to make it. And then…you killed him.”
Carter stared up at him in disbelief. “He was a murderer! A paedophile!”
“But he made millions.”
“I don’t…I don’t get this at all…”
“You stole my destiny from me, Hannah Carter. I was about to realise all my dreams. And, in turn, you robbed the world of my work.”
“This is insane…”
“Rich coming from someone like you. Someone so haunted by their past.”
She pushed feebly against the ropes. “I might not be so haunted by it if people didn’t keep making me go through it all over again…”
“Yes. See, I have to complete Hammersmith’s work now. He was writing one last story, you know – about you, or a version of you.”
“He told me.”
“I’m sure he did. Never the most subtle man, that one. I’ve taken his original manuscript – he was kind enough to make it available to a select few of his close collaborators – and modified it. I’ve introduced my own character, Padre Miguel, and crafted a brand new masterpiece.”
“Why should I care about this?”
“Because, dear Hannah, you’re going to be instrumental in its success.” He took down the paraffin lamp and held it close to her. The light in the small room shifted strangely.
She let out a cracked little laugh. “Oh, is this how it goes? You kill me the way I killed Hammersmith? Is that what you’d call dramatic irony?”
“Ah, so you did kill him…”
“We are way, way past secrets now, Josh,” she spat. Her head was beginning to clear, but she still felt as weak as a baby.
“What good would killing you do, Hannah, when so much evidence links me to all these murders?”
Her mouth felt dry, but it was hard to know if it was fear or the chloroform. “So it was you.”
“Yes. Except for your friend. I sent someone to do that for me. And he botched it.”
“Is that why you killed him?”
“No. He had to kill himself.”
“But he didn’t…”
“Not in reality. But in the story…”
“Fuck the story, Josh! These are real people! This is exactly what Hammersmith did!”
“No,” he smiled, “Hammersmith used his murders as inspiration. They were like his muse. You know, I actually wrote a dramatisation of the events surrounding his death afterwards. It’s only a short novella. I think you’d enjoy it.”
“Hammersmith,” he continued, “killed and then wrote the murders into his books. I’ve done it the other way around.”
“And that makes you better?”
“No,” he replied mildly, “just different. I don’t want to be lumped in with him. I’m in a different category altogether.”
“If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with.”
“Why would I kill you?” He put the paraffin lamp on the upturned box, still with its glasses and empty bottle, and then began to untie her. As the ropes came lose, she slumped down in the chair. She wanted to stand up, to run away, but her legs were like lead. He must have drugged her or something. As she watched, he walked over to the box and kicked it over. The lamp fell onto the sheets on the floor and oil spilled everywhere. Flames blazed up almost immediately. “I spent a long time planning this,” Josh said calmly.
“What?” She tumbled from the chair and tried to claw her way across the floor, away from the fire that now started to lick at the dry wooden floor of the cabin.
“You’re famous, Hannah, in certain circles. They talk about you a lot, in dark corners of the internet. In the places where Hammersmith’s work is still enjoyed.”
“All his books were pulped…”
Josh laughed loudly at that. “Such a twentieth century attitude. What about the electronic copies? The sellers actually tried to remotely wipe people’s eReaders, did you know that? We found ways around it. And some scanned in their physical copies. They couldn’t take them from people’s own bookshelves, could they? They shared what they had. Deep on hidden message boards, an illicit trade in forbidden Hammersmith books continues. And we have his manuscripts too. Things he was working on. In those odd places, I’m famous too after a fashion. After all, I was his protégé.”
The flames were rising high now and Josh stood close by, the light flickering off his face. Carter stared at him in horror. “What are you doing?”
“Securing my legacy. It’s not you that dies tonight – it’s me. Just like Hammersmith.” He looked at her. The fire was reflecting in his cold eyes. “I uploaded my work. It has details of these cases only the murderer could have known. But, when this is done, there won’t be enough evidence left to say for certain what happened. Only the word of one traumatised woman, a woman who had already started a relationship with me. Not exactly a reliable witness.”
She shuddered. “You…you seduced me…”
“I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it, Hannah. I did what Hammersmith never could. Or…did he…?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Josh grinned and held his hands out to the fire as if he were warming himself after coming in from a cold winter’s night. “So. What will be left? A charred corpse, a series of mysterious murders, and an equally mysterious manuscript connected to it. It will become an urban legend, spreading across the internet like…well…like wildfire. Someone once said the best way to get famous was to kill a prostitute. I didn’t quite manage that.”
“Fame isn’t the same as notoriety.”
“It is these days. I’ll forever be linked to this. People will seek me out, find my other work. I’ll be read by millions. They’ll publish me then, won’t they? The guy who might have committed the Padre Miguel murders. The guy who went out in a literal blaze of glory before they could pin anything on him. I’ll be a viral sensation.”
“And that’s worth your life, is it? And the lives of all the ones you killed?” She couldn’t believe she’d let this monster touch her. How hadn’t she seen him for what he was?
“What else is life, but the quest for glory?” The flames were licking around his feet now. “Think of all those martyrs, going to god. Think of what they gained in death by immolation: everlasting life. That’s what I’m looking for, Hannah. Immortality. I will become part of history, a posthumous literary sensation, while you and even Hammersmith will be nothing but footnotes in my epic.”
She managed to pull herself up to her feet. “This ends here.”
“I couldn’t agree more. The door is open. Run.”
He narrowed his eyes. The smoke was filling the air now. The cabin was like kindling and the fire had begun to climb up the walls. The heat was ferocious, but he stood in it, unperturbed. “You know I deserve to die.”
“Maybe. But a court’s going to decide that, not you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Josh Franklin,” she said through coughs, “I’m placing you under arrest. You have…you have the right…” she doubled over, hacking.
She felt him run towards her and then his hands on her, shoving her towards the door. She pulled him down to the ground. They tussled, but she was weak from whatever drugs he’d given her and he easily overpowered her, rolling her onto her back. “This doesn’t work if you die,” he hissed.
“You know what I told Hammersmith before he died?”
“Life doesn’t work like a story.” Her right arm was pressed against her side by Josh’s weight. She could reach her pocket though and she fumbled out what she’d put there earlier, almost without realising. Cop’s instincts. He heard the metallic click and looked down. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said as she snapped the other end of the cuffs onto her own wrist, “Hammersmith made the same mistake.”
Josh pulled his hand up and hers along with it and stared at the handcuffs in dismay. “You’ll die too,” he snarled.
“And like you said, your plan doesn’t work then, does it? Then poor Hannah Carter is a martyr too, right? Suddenly she’s not the evil murderer your little internet friends think she is. And you have the blue fury of the police force coming down on your memory. No one does revenge like a cop. How many books do you figure you’ll sell posthumously in those circumstances?”
“You bitch!” He rolled off her.
She got up to her knees. The fire was raging all around them now. “Don’t call me a bitch, you sick fuck. You killed six people. You hired one of your victims to kill a seventh. And you were going to ruin my life for the sake of a career you weren’t even planning to live to enjoy.”
“So have the decency to kill me,” he spat.
“Nope.” With what little strength she had, she hit him as hard as she could on the jaw. Just like Windham, he went out like a light. She had one hell of a punch, apparently. Shaking her hand, she pushed open the door, letting the choking smoke out into the cool night air and then dragged Josh’s unconscious body outside, to safety. Beneath the stars, handcuffed to a serial killer, she collapsed and finally surrendered to her exhaustion.
“Joshua Franklin.” Spangler slid the file photo over to her. Carter looked at it disinterestedly. Sitting back in the station, in an interview room, wrapped in someone’s coat, frazzled and filthy, she couldn’t even summon the energy to be pissed off. “He was at school in LA. Apparently he was some kind of writing prodigy, but he was obsessive and probably bipolar. One day, he lost it. He tried to kill himself and ended up in a psychiatric institution for a few years.”
“I can believe it,” Carter said.
Spangler gave her a sympathetic look. “Somewhere down the line, he made contact with Hammersmith. He seems to have been something of a fan. We pulled records from the servers of the hosting companies of certain websites where Hammersmith’s creepy fanbase still congregate. It looks like Mr Franklin insinuated himself into his inner circle and was handling some of his social media commitments.”
“He said they were collaborating.”
“That probably depends on your definition. Franklin was something of a fantasist.”
“I can believe that too.”
“Hm. Needless to say, that’s where he met our mutual friend Mrs Windham. We have e-mails between them. He set up both your encounters, as I’m sure you guessed, but was smart enough to make the final arrangements by note.”
“He set up everything,” Carter said. “all week we were chasing a man who never existed.”
“Except in Franklin’s imagination. The whole thing’s very elaborate. Even if forensics doesn’t come through, we’re pretty sure we can secure a conviction. He gave away too much in his little story.”
Carter’s voice was grim. “Good.”
“Six murders, one conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, assault…it’s a pretty damning picture. They might give him the death penalty.”
“I hope not. He doesn’t deserve to be a martyr.”
“I’m inclined to agree.” Spangler sighed. “You’re probably wondering why it’s me debriefing you and not Colburn.”
She hadn’t been, but now it did strike her as unusual. “What’s going on?”
“Hannah, that creep shouldn’t have been able to get within five-hundred yards of you. He was a known associate of the man who tried to kill you three months ago. Someone fucked up somewhere. We at Internal Affairs want to find out who it was.”
“I don’t think I care. Somehow, I think he’d have found a way to get to me whatever happened.”
“Maybe. But we want to get to the bottom of it anyway. And there’s still a lot of work to do around this case. The trial’s likely to be a complex one. Do you think you’re up to it?”
Carter considered. She was the main witness, of course. She’d have to testify. She could do it by video link or behind a screen if it came to it, but even the idea of going through it all again made her stomach feel like it was trying to wriggle out of her throat. “I never want to see him again.”
“I understand that.”
The silence stretched as she thought about what she knew she had to ask. “Should I have let him die like he wanted?”
She looked a little taken aback. “That would be murder, detective.”
“What would you have done?”
Spangler shut the file. “I’d have let him burn,” she said simply.
“Yeah, everyone thinks that. But if you do that, eventually it can come back and bite you in the ass. Just not always in the way you think.” She stood up stiffly and limped out of the interview room. Spangler just watched her go, saying nothing.