They exited the motel on the heels of one another like a pair of bloodied foxes slinking from a henhouse; and there was blood, with the younger-looking man desperate to wipe it from his hands while the other man paid it no mind, and crossed unhurried to the lot at the rear of the administration building, where he unhooked a low-slung chain to let the sign (“Staff Only”) clatter to the gravel. His accomplice froze at the sound, eyes widening, but the man with the burned face just pulled the night attendant’s keys from his pocket and pressed the remote until one of the silent cars flashed.
“Well, shit.” Disgusted, he walked a slow circuit of the ten-year old four-cylinder Toyota parked next to a spanking new F250 and sighed. “How many motherfuckers do I have to kill to get a real car?”
“It’s okay!” the other hissed, “Let’s just get out of here! It’ll be light soon.” There was moisture in his eyes, his jaw mottled purple, swollen from the last time he’d needed correcting. The burned man’s right hand curled instinctively into a fist and his head turned in his partner’s direction, but his eyes remained locked on the vehicle, calculating. He popped the boot and did some further arithmetic, then grunted and nodded his head back toward the motel. “Go get her,” he said.
His offsider froze. “What?”
“The old lady.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fuck sake. You know what I mean, boy. The whore we left back there on the floor. The slut with the big mouth. Go bring her here.”
“Why? I thought we were leaving!”
The burned face snapped toward him now, all blue-eyed balefulness, promising there would be a price to pay for every word repeated by a man with a strong disinclination to repeat himself, a strong disinclination to argue the fucking point at four in the morning in a parking lot behind a cheap motel with three people dead on the floor.
Three dead, one alive.
“We are leaving,” he said, “but not without her.”
“But, but we could be a thousand miles away before she wakes up! Please, Will! We don’t need her … please, we don’t need to—“
Rattlesnake quick, the burned man grabbed Tom Kane by the hair and lifted him from his whimpering crouch to fully erect, and then even a little higher than that, up onto his sneaker-clad toes. Eye to eye now, he said quietly, “Haven’t you learned nothin’ yet? Moment she wakes up, she’s on the phone. You think we can outrun an APB? In a fucking Camry? Shit. We need to buy us some time.”
“Please no, oh please—“ Tom Kane babbled, eyes white and widening. But the burned man just shoved him in the right direction, and as he watched Kane move off, had to remind himself again that there was only two years separating them, and not twenty. Just a fucking kid. When the boy disappeared from sight, he touched a hand to his burned cheek and stroked his scars, centring his thoughts. In his mind loomed the image of a powerful man, six-foot three inches tall, two-hundred thirty pounds of hard-earned meanness. Blonde hair where the burns would let it grow. Dead blue eyes that all the girls seemed to like, or at least the ones looking for a bad boy to piss off their momma’s.
Well momma, bad is what they get, and no mistake.
“Don’t make me get her,” he said to himself, alone now. “You know what’ll happen, boy. Time you got some skin in the game.” The burned man eased himself into the driver’s seat of the Camry and started the engine. Grimacing, he felt the seat cover adhere to his back as if glued by the owner’s sticky residue. The whole cabin stank of cigarettes and musky perfume, like a dog on heat. Now it would also smell of blood.
“Fucking bitches deserved it.”
He felt his loins stirring, remembering the night-attendant more clearly now, an older woman but not too old, she’d slouched behind the counter with her huge breasts resting on top, daring the ugly-handsome stranger to let his eyes go there. She’d been dragging hard on a cigarette, an ashtray overflowing beside her on the wood veneer. The teeth she exposed in a warm Southern smile were stained nicotine-yellow, but the skin of her cleavage, only just beginning to resemble crepe-paper with sun and age, was the colour of honey. He imagined them in his hands, heavy and yielding, her nipples wide as saucers, the aureoles a dusky orange.
I’ll carve them up good.
He would watch her eyes pop when he pressed the knife to her nipple, sawing through them the way you might the stem of a woody pear. His reverie was interrupted when Tommy Kane reappeared, standing in the pool of the headlights, panting, as if he’d been chased a mile. Dangling from his right hand was a long slip of dripping steel, the filleting knife, and the front of his shirt was dark and wet. “She won’t be calling the cops,” was all he said.
A smile creased the burned man’s lips.
“Then it’s time to roll.”
The glass door was, supposedly, soundproof. So either it was installed on the cheap, or the Chief was shouting very loudly, because almost every word of what he said was audible to the whole office. When the walls themselves began to vibrate, half the office went to lunch and the other half went home.
Alison Branch sat at her desk, fished painkillers from her bag and swallowed three dry. Her glutes ached from training, a three-hour session ahead of the kumite at the end of the month where she would defend her title in the Midwest Women’s Open Division against an old rival, Lillian Po from St Paul, plus a bunch of wannabes including an upstart cage fighter from Detroit who called herself “The Hammer of God.“
Branch had seen The Hammer fight, and she was steroid-strong, a natural-born Christian sadist with strong boxing but weak on the mat. The Hammer, whose real name was Hayley Cole, had also been auditioning for film and modelling roles, and her bio on the ‘Model Mayhem’ website listed a number of glamour contracts. Branch had lingered on that web page, drinking in that pretty face almost regretfully. The Hammer would want to protect her meal-ticket, and that explained why Branch had spent three hours that morning kicking a speedball anchored exactly five-feet nine inches from the ground.
That’s why my ass hurts; I wonder how Hansaker’s ass is feeling?
By way of reply, the door to the Chief’s office slammed open, “…and I will personally fit you up for a pair of white gloves if you come to me with this bullshit again! You’ll be standing in the middle of fucking Kedzie and Belmont for the rest of your fucking career! You copy?”
The door slammed shut.
Hansaker stopped outside the quivering glass, adjusted the collar of his jacket with a grunt before aligning his eyes dead ahead and starting for the washroom like a rhinoceros fixated on a waterhole. Branch stood up quickly, moused her computer into idleness and started after him. “So it went well?” she asked.
“Go fuck yourself Branch.”
“Good to go on the supercomputer deal? We paying by cash, or card?”
“Go. Fuck. Yourself.”
“If you want some alone time it’s okay, I can keep myself busy—“
Hansaker crashed through the door into the men’s room, leaving her outside. She considered following, but had seen enough pubic hair and abdominal fat for one day. Shuddering, she returned to the office, squared her shoulders, tilted her head to pop a kink out of her neck and knocked on the Chief’s door.
“..hunnerd forty-thousand motherfu—WHAT?”
When the Captain saw Branch he waved her in and gave her a once-over in the process, his demeanour changing as a slimy smile stretched his face from bulldog to bullfrog. Branch considered the seat opposite his own, a basic cloth-backed office chair selected precisely because it was dwarfed by the enormous vintage leather wingback the Chief occupied. Get your game on, Branch.
“So how you settling in, Ali?”
She flinched but didn’t let it show. Nobody had called her that since her parents died. He’d plucked that one out of his ass, purely by chance, and if she showed him how much it hurt, he’d use it playground-bully style whenever it suited to push her button. Instead, she put on her press conference smile—appreciate your time, thanks for coming, I am but a humble public servant—and stepped up to the plate. “Detective Hansaker is the perfect host, thank you sir.”
“Good! That’s good,” he leered, “Glad to hear it. You know, I wasn’t sure about you and him. He’s a hard nut, plays it too close, uncommunicative bastard. Not like me! If I like you, you’ll know about it. If I don’t—well, you probably overheard our little conversation just then.”
“No sir. Not a word, although Detective Hansaker did seem a little downcast as he walked out.”
“Downcast? Is that right? Downcast, well, he won’t be walking in here looking for a blank check again, that’s for fucking sure. You’re following him on this? This body-parts-spelling-out-a-secret-coded-message-from-the-killer bullshit? What the fuck is that? This is a serial-killer investigation we’re talking about, not a sudoku!”
She rose from the chair, selected a marker from the tray of the whiteboard and began writing. The Chief wasn’t following any of it, his eyes were glued firmly to her ass, so she picked the Black-Scholes equation for the sake of the exercise–no options, no arbitrage–before getting to the point. But before she did, she would have to deflate his antagonism and get him into a more conducive frame of mind. Let that deflate by making something else inflate. Lingering unnecessarily over the final part of the forumula, rising onto her toes to make her calves pop, she underlined it and re-capped the pen before returning it to the tray. When she turned, the Chief was leaning back in his massive leather chair, eyes half-lidded, with both hands out of sight in his lap. Branch smiled thinly, lowering her eyes modestly as if just noticing his interest and grateful for it, when in fact an effulgence of bile seethed in her stomach, threatening the lower reaches of her oesophagus. She kept rising acid-taste from her face, and began her bout with a feint.
“I won’t insult your intelligence or bullshit you, sir, you’d see through it anyway. Hansaker’s code theory is the only genuine lead we have. Cracking it may be the only way we have to quickly identify the killer. But the code is complex, just look at these numbers—so only a supercomputer can do it. Otherwise, we go back to square one and advise the Mayor it could be months before we bring you a name.”
The Chief had heard all this from Hansaker already, and his mouth thinned into a pugilistic frown, his brow furrowed in resistance. But Branch had anticipated this, and segued from problem to solution as slick as a snake-oil salesman.
“With respect, Hansaker hasn’t factored in all of the variables. He hasn’t factored in you, sir, and your pull with Town Hall. You have the Mayor’s ear on this, a direct line to the top. With the Mayor onside putting on the pressure, I’m sure the university would come to the party for a much, much smaller number.”
The Chief’s body language changed immediately. Nodding, he reclined even further in his chair, fat fingers interlaced across his shirt-straining belly, with a look of magnanimity smoothing his features. “You’re damn right about that! Fucking Hansaker, the lone wolf; I’ve told him a hunnerd times to consider all options, but he gets this tunnel-vision thing going, you know? Doesn’t see the big picture like you. This is good work Branch, real good work. Glad we got you’re onboard. I’ll speak to The Man personally.”
Branch smiled appreciatively and returned to her seat, crossing her muscular legs without adjusting her skirt before delivering the coup-de-grace. “That’s lovely, sir. I’m sure the Mayor is anxious to bring the killer to justice. Please reassure him that Detective Hansaker is playing this very tight. We definitely don’t want the media asking why this hasn’t been designated as a serial-murder investigation yet, or why we don’t have full strike-force funding and resources. I’m sure you’d agree that would be a public-relations disaster, especially in an election year.”
By the time Hansaker returned from wherever he had been, there were six detectives standing uneasily around Branch’s desk waiting for a briefing. Within the hour, the university rang to offer the services of their supercomputer, gratis, and for as long as was necessary. Then, at four o’clock, Professor Marty O’Hara stumbled out of the lift looking like he’d been abducted straight out of a lecture, papers leaking out of his satchel. “Apparently,” he said, apologetically, as the detectives all turned as one, “Apparently I’m your numbers man?”
Detective Hansaker grunted, took in his assembled team, lingering on Branch, who refused to meet his eye. “Well, seems we’re all here. Welcome to Op Mantle. I’m Lloyd Hansaker, and this is Detective Sergeant Allison Branch. If you don’t know each other, make it your first priority. Then grab your shit. We’ve been given some real estate.”
Surprised, Branch looked up. “Where are we going?” she asked, her eyes green as Canada jade. Hansaker wanted to say something clever, but, as usual, around women he couldn’t find the right words. How to thank her without giving away the fact that Branch’s meddling had opened a door that should have remained shut. Instead, he made the announcement to the group. “We’ve got space at Crime Labs. A whole floor to ourselves. But there’s a catch. It’s in ‘C’ Wing.”
Some of the older detectives actually swore, and Hansaker nodded, turning back to Branch with a curious, unfathomable expression of unease.
“That’s right. They’re sending us to The Pit.”