The first thing I remember is dying.
Staring up into a mass of shifting, formless shadows. A cold shell. You think you’ll be cold all the way through when you die, but for me it was only on the surface. Deeper down, in my muscles and bones, a feverish pain simmered. And nausea. If I could’ve moved, I would have been sick all over myself.
The smell. Blood... so much blood... heavy, stagnant sweat on skin, and the reek of other people’s vomit as they witnessed the rest of us dying. Mauled to death. Eaten by a true animal. Then came the horrible drip, drip, drip from somewhere in the silent darkness, and soon the invasive whine of curious flies drawn to the dead. I didn’t think of the darkened warehouse where we died as a small space, really, but the flies made it seem so horribly claustrophobic.
How can I be claustrophobic, though? I’m dead, after all. What’s the point?
Though I could see, I couldn’t move my head, my eyes... certainly not my neck, where all the worst of the searing, stinging pain cut across me like a streak of frozen fire.
Going to have to get a scarf, I mused, nonsensically. Can’t go out in public with a gaping hole in my throat. Scare all the kiddies and the poor baristas at Starbucks.
I couldn’t look away when he appeared over me, staring down with his clear, cool green eyes. Furrowing his handsome brow with a grim frown, kneeling to touch my cheek, my lips.
Can’t a dead girl get some space, buddy? Go get your touchy-feelies on with some other corpse.
He said something, but his words sounded garbled and dull in my ears. As if I floated at the bottom of a pool while someone above the surface shouted down.
Now he’s shouting at me? Rude!
No, not really at me, though; even as my vision dulled and turned gray, I could make out the vague outline of him, looking up and away, gesturing adamantly. Who was he shouting at?
Drip, drip, drip...
Yes. The first thing I remember is dying.
Then—because I just can’t catch a break—I’m sitting in a stark hospital room, surrounded by people asking questions I can’t answer.
I fucking hate hospitals.
It’s the smell of antiseptic warring with the smell of sickness. The lowered voices as nurses and doctors confer in whispers about prognoses and mortality. The way the constant hum of machines and the steady beep of monitors fall so naturally into the background. Perfectly normal white noise. As if they weren’t the sounds of people hanging on for dear life.
The girl from the crime scene lay in her hospital bed, one arm flung over her eyes and a scowl on her face. I’d been watching her through the window, marking her as she argued with orderlies and brushed aside nurses.
Only a few hours ago, I’d found her on that warehouse floor, covered in blood, barely breathing, her throat torn open like a wild jackal had gone in for the kill.
I’d seen the gash on her neck with my own eyes, and called for the ambulance that rushed her here.
Now, the doctors told me there was no gash. Never had been. Maybe I’d imagined it, they suggested, in all the horror and shock of the crime scene. This girl—the lucky survivor—well, she hardly seemed injured at all.
What. The actual. Fuck?
According to the nursing staff, she’d thrown a fit when she woke up. She wouldn’t let them cut away her ruined clothes or try to wash off the blood. Trauma response.
But was it really?
She’d come to long before my arrival, while I waded through the waist-high clusterfuck at the warehouse down at the port. Homicide cases in Newport Beach weren’t unusual by any means, but ones of this caliber? Twelve people, butchered, left in an industrial space dressed up like the set of a gothic horror movie. It’d been hard to tell how much blood there actually was, thanks to the ridiculous amount of crimson velvet furniture and draperies and lamps and rugs everywhere. Even the lightbulbs had been tinted a deep, ruby red.
Twelve dead... one alive. I’d started out feeling bad for the poor girl.
Except I knew I’d seen a mortal wound on her throat, and now there was no sign of it.
That stunk to high hell. How did a victim go from the bleeding brink of death, larynx practically severed, to just fine and dandy a few hours later, spitting like a wildcat and pushing away nurses as they tried to check her vitals?
I didn’t imagine it. But I might have missed a ploy.
I thought she was a victim, and who wouldn’t, in that mess? Now, I wondered. I had a file full of dead people in one hand, a single survivor with mysterious disappearing injuries, and a nasty suspicion stirring to life in my gut.
At last, the head nurse finished checking a computer screen full of data and gave me a nod. “You can go in now, Detective Stone. But try not to upset her. She’s been through a lot.”
Tell me about it.
I thanked her and headed for the girl’s room.
The door damper on the room cracked on its piston, sharp as a shotgun blast, when I opened it—someone needed to call a maintenance guy. The sound nearly shook the girl right out of bed, and she stared at me, blinking, as if she couldn’t see me very well.
My gaze flew immediately to the place where her injury should have been. Just like the doctors said: no wound at all. Not even a scar.
Confusion and frustration merged into anger.
“The first thing you should know about me,” I told her as I pulled up a chair beside her hospital bed, “is that I don’t like repeating myself. Are you coherent enough to answer my questions? The nurses said you should be.”
Her startled expression turned grim and petulant. Even covered in copious amounts of dried blood, she radiated an edgy, feral energy that grated on my nerves. Her dark lips twisted into a scowl, her big brown eyes flashing with irritation as she shifted in the bed. Her spine popped as she straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. Her body language spoke volumes before she even opened her mouth.
“What’s the second thing?”
Every bit as riled as the nurses warned me. A light accent coated each word: a rolling cadence evocative of sultry spices. Cinnamon, cacao, cumin. Past the overwhelming scent of blood, I thought I smelled mint and lime wafting from her. The kind of light and lovely fragrance that in any other situation might be intoxicating. Annoyingly intoxicating.
But it was going to take far more than womanly wiles to get her out of this. I hadn’t earned my shield by letting every pair of pretty eyes sway me.
“The second thing is I hate games. So, let’s not play them.”
“Not even a quick round of Uno? You look like the kind of guy who would freak out with a Draw Two or Wild Card in his hand.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I hate them because I never lose. Gets boring. Remember that.”
“How very macho of you,” she replied, giving a delicate snort.
“I’m not into false modesty. Character flaw.”
“One of many, I’m sure.”
I had to fight the urge to slap my hand down hard on the cheap hospital room bed table to rattle her into behaving. “Lady, there are twelve people dead. I don’t have the patience to deal with an insolent brat.”
Her jaw tightened. Beneath her snarky defense, I sensed anxiety and growing confusion. It bled from her pores like sweat, a visceral reaction to the evening’s events. What role had she played in them? That was the part that interested me.
Is she really a victim? Or is there something else going on here? Get to work, Seb. Clock’s ticking.
Digging in my jacket pocket, I pulled out my trusty, worn leather notebook and tossed it on the scratched plastic tray attached to her bedrail, then pulled out a pair of glasses. Vanity kept me from wearing them constantly, but they were an evil necessity when it came to reading. The specs had seen better days: once, they were untarnished, gunmetal grey with perfect angles. Now blemishes dulled spots along the frames, and each arm bowed outward at far greater than ninety degrees. Slipping them on, I opened my notes.
“Says here the name you gave the nurses is Katalina Eleanor Villalobos Ramirez. Is that your full name?”
“You think it should be longer?” She sighed. “Kate. Call me Kate.”
“Kate it is. No personal effects? Nothing was recovered from the scene. No purse or I.D. In fact, none of the victims had any type of identification on them. Any idea why that might be?”
Her eyes shifted left, avoiding mine. “How would I know?”
Offering a noncommittal shrug, I pushed on.
“Care to tell me how, when I first found you, you were barely alive, but now you’re more agitated than a fat bee at a fly swatter convention?”
Her expression grew dark and confused. When she noticed me staring, though, her mulishness returned.
“What can I say? Guess I’m a fast healer.”
“About that.” I scanned the page. “What happened to the wound on your throat?”
Her hands fluttered toward her neck, fingers scrambling across the sticky skin, eyes glazing over for a few seconds. “What wound?”
“When I found you, you were sporting a nasty gash on your neck that made Freddy Krueger look like a nonstarter. Saw it myself. Now, I don’t.”
“Maybe your vision isn’t so good.”
“Look, detective. I don’t remember what happened, okay? I don’t remember any of it.”
What was she hiding? More importantly, why?
I’d find out. One way or another.
A knock on the door interrupted us. I half turned in my chair and called out, “Yeah?”
Sam, the cop who escorted her here in the ambulance, peeked in, made eye contact with me, and shook his head slowly before leaving again. I’d asked him to call into the precinct and find out whether anyone else had miraculously survived like Ms. Ramirez. Evidently, they hadn’t.
Only this ragged, antsy, blood-soaked woman. A woman who was rapidly becoming a strangely suspicious survivor.
They always told us, if you see something, say something. Trust your instincts.
Could I be looking at the next Caril Ann Fugate?
Staring down at my notebook, I glanced over a few notes, little breadcrumbs I hoped would lead somewhere.
Fact: The injury I witnessed upon discovering her prone body should have killed her. I’d believed her to be dead, before I just happened to catch a thready, butterfly pulse and called for a medic.
Fact: The wound was gone. Meanwhile, Little Miss Manners here was popping off an attitude inconsistent with serious and unexpected near-death trauma.
Fact: Someone massacred a dozen people in that warehouse with little to no opposition, a nasty dramatic flair, and a madman’s lust for gory detail.
Madman? Or… madwoman?
Fact: The time between the discovery at the dock and the 911 call logged by dispatch was less than two minutes. The stevedores who stumbled on the scene couldn’t attest to anyone entering or leaving the area between the hours of six and ten. Canvassing of the amassed crowds turned up nothing tangible. Whoever ruthlessly killed those poor people would have to be drenched in blood, but no one reported anything unusual or anyone strange.
So… was the killer still in the building? Or, is our poor, lone survivor really a psycho in disguise?
I spared another glance at Kate. Despite her bedraggled state, her eyes glimmered with life and cunning wariness. Her lithe, petite form, coupled with slender limbs, didn’t exactly scream I’m a sociopath capable of single-handedly killing a dozen folks. Yet, I’d learned things weren’t always as they appeared. It was my job to cut through the illusion and solve the puzzle.
Kate knew more than she let on. But was she a killer?
A sharp clacking filled the air, a staccato beat which grew in volume, echoing off the tiled hallway outside and surrounding me with the frenetic intensity of a magnified heartbeat. Kate stiffened in her bed, a brief flash of fear crossing her face as the door flew open. The shotgun damper cracked. The halogen lights from the hall filtered in, surrounding our new arrival in a shining halo.
It was a woman. A redhead.
The kind of redhead that could slam shut revolving doors.
She didn’t speak at first. Stalking into the room, she circled around Kate’s bed and faced me, like a sentinel taking up guard. Her heels clacked like they meant to chip apart the goddamn floor, and I felt the absurd urge to warn her about damaging hospital property. She wore a dark suit, with her bright crimson hair styled into a smooth, professional bun. Her wide topaz eyes settled on me, regal and self-assured.
Laying an elegant, well-manicured hand on Kate’s shoulder, she smiled.
“Detective Stone, correct? I’m Carmilla Summers, special counsel with the BCA.”
She extended her free hand, a tight smile thinning her otherwise full lips. The lightest of English accents flavored her speech. “My firm represents Ms. Villalobos Ramirez.”
Bewildered but mindful, I took her hand in a firm grip, giving a quick pump which seemed to amuse her, if the smirk on her face was any indication.
I’d never seen Ms. Summers around the station or in the courts before. Who was she? And if this was her lawyer, why did Kate look as confused as a baby in a topless bar? And how did the woman even know where her client was? Kate hadn’t had the chance to contact anyone, so far as I was aware.
“I’m sorry. Your firm? BCA?”
Pulling a vellum card from a suit pocket, Carmilla handed it to me. Balboa Citizen’s Attorneys. It listed an address, phone number, and four names, including Carmilla’s.
At this point in my career, I was aware of almost all the local firms, with very few exceptions. Balboa Citizen’s Attorneys was one of the few.
“We’re fully licensed and listed on the bar. You may not have heard of us, though. Our cases don’t often call us down to your, um… charming little office.”
I cocked an eyebrow and tucked her card into my pocket. Odd... she picked up on my skepticism almost immediately.
“I’m not sure why you came down here yourself, Ms. Summers. Kate isn’t under arrest. We’re just chatting about what happened to her tonight.”
“Oh, is that so?”
If I had an ice pick, I could’ve made myself a nice, frosty drink off the chill in her tone.
“Be that as it may,” she went on, “I think it best my client refrains from answering any questions unless I or one of my colleagues is here to represent her.”
She squeezed Kate’s shoulder, without taking her gaze off me. “Would you give us a moment in private, detective? Go down the hall and get yourself a cup of coffee, perhaps.”
Her stance, her whole demeanor, commanded my acquiescence. My mind struggled for argument, but my mouth went rogue.
“Yes, sure. No problem.”
Carmilla Summers flashed a wide grin as I got to my feet, pocketing my notebook. Kate blinked rapidly—Is she still having trouble seeing?—before casting me a baffled look.
Before I crossed the threshold, Carmilla spoke to me again.
“You made the right decision, detective.”
What an odd thing to say.
I walked down the hall to the elevator bank and a set of vending machines. Plunking a few quarters into the one dispensing coffee, I paused to debate what I wanted. The truth was, I hated coffee. It gave me acid reflux and no amount of cream or sugar could cover the bitter taste of wet beans.
So... why the hell did I come down here?
Staring at the buttons, An ugly sensation crept across the back of my neck. Somehow, I knew, I’d been had.
Forgetting the buck twenty-five I’d just fed into the machine, I whipped around to storm back to Kate’s room. Her lawyer had pulled some sort of Jedi mind trick on me, and I had a furious suspicion things had just gone rotten.
I saw through the room’s window I was already too late. Even so, I burst back inside, startling the lone nurse who stood by the empty bed. Carmilla and Kate had disappeared.
“Where are the women who were in here?” I demanded.
The nurse glanced back and forth, mystified. “I... well, that’s so strange. The woman said everything was in order and Ms. Ramirez had been discharged, but... but that can’t be right. The doctor wanted to keep her overnight for observation.”
She wrinkled her nose, expression baffled. “Why did I let them go?”
With a growl, I stalked out and through the hospital to the Emergency Room exit, bursting out into the chilly night.
They were gone. I could see neither hide nor hair of either woman, in any direction.
“Fuck.” I slammed my fist on the door. “Fuck!”
I told Kate I hated games, and now here I was, played. Fuming, I stepped back inside, heading to the nurse’s station and to Sam, to find out if he’d seen the two women leave. I doubted it, though. Just like I doubted that woman Carmilla was really a lawyer. She slipped in under false pretenses, and then—right under my nose!—snatched up my only witness to the warehouse slaughter and disappeared with her into the night.