New York City
I am all.
I am nothing.
I am your brightest, most beautiful dream, and your darkest, most secret desire.
I am the burning golden heat of the sun, and the quiet, silver-blue shadows of the moon.
I am man. I am woman.
I am nothing.
I am all.
There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.
THE phone on the nightstand woke Homicide Detective Artemis Gregory just past 4:00 a.m. Stubbornly keeping his eyes closed despite there being no chance in hell he’d be able to go back to sleep, he grabbed it without fumbling from long practice. “Gregory.”
“We’ve got another one,” his partner, Rachel Wayland, said in her sexy “I don’t smoke but I sound like I do” voice.
Gregory immediately got a picture of her in his mind: tall, slender, long auburn hair always clipped back, warm brown eyes, mobile mouth. She was pretty enough to model but dismissed her good looks, preferring to work in law enforcement. She’d told him more than once how much she enjoyed partnering with him. “I like that you’re gay, Gregory. I like knowing you will never be the slightest bit tempted to hit on me.”
“Is it our moon killer?” This would be the third. First night of each month’s full moon, a young, attractive man was killed. They were hunting another loony tune who possibly saw himself as a werewolf, though this one, at least, didn’t bite off chunks of his victim’s flesh. In fact, they didn’t know how he killed them, only that he fucked them and then they croaked. There had been 536 homicides in NYC the year before; similarities were carefully tracked in all cases, and these deaths stood out because there was no obvious cause for them.
“Initial reports point that way.” She rattled off the address. “Bring coffee, and maybe croissants?”
Grinning, he hung up, stretched, rose, and dressed. Expecting the call, he’d showered before bed, just in case. So far they had lots of DNA, but no matches. The killer’s prints were not listed in IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint ID System), nor had they gotten a hit at CODIS (Combined DNA Index System). After this killing, a task force would be assembled, and someone at ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) would probably get involved. He hoped the FBI didn’t send a complete weenie.
He looked at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. No gray hairs yet in his short black hair, even though being a cop was famous for causing early aging. His brown eyes were still clear, and there were no lines around them or his wide mouth. His tall, tightly muscled body was holding up, too, despite his not having time to visit the gym; mostly he did free weights at home and sit-ups to keep his stomach flat. Not bad for 33. I could get me some, if I had the time. He rinsed and spit, dragged a comb through his hair, and left.
The streets were full of garbage trucks and drunks. In a couple hours, buses and cars would start to move. Humidity was already making the hot summer air worse. He loved this city. He also hated it, having grown up in Michigan. The Upper Peninsula was quite possibly the most beautiful place in the world, if you loved trees and water and more trees. It was a backpacker’s wet dream. But you also had to love winter, because it started early and stayed late. After high school, his family decided they didn’t love it that much anymore and moved to New York, where Artemis eventually attended college before moving on to the police academy. He considered himself a New Yorker now, another denizen of the over-crowded city, but recently he’d been dreaming of trees and water and more trees.
He stopped at a Starbucks on the way to the crime scene. If he forgot Rachel’s coffee, she’d kill him.
Lots of people were milling around the brownstone when he arrived. Someone recognized him and said, “Second floor back.”
Nodding, Artemis galloped up the stoop and through the open door, careful not to spill or drop anything. “Second floor back” was teeming with CSU and other interested parties, but only the ME and CSU were in the bedroom with the body. NYPD threw lots of people at a major crime. Sometimes this worked well. At other times, it merely muddied the waters.
Rachel nodded at him, took her coffee and croissant, and handed him a pair of latex gloves. He slipped them on, gazing at the victim. “Not in here,” he cautioned her.
She rolled her eyes at him. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”
“Uh-uh.” No food or liquid at a crime scene. It could contaminate evidence, and the smell alone might mask other odors. “Who called this in?”
“One of his roommates. You saw him in the other room.”
Artemis remembered. A nice-looking young man with eyes red from crying and wet pants; he’d pissed himself upon finding the body.
Rachel continued. “Came home to quite a surprise. Third roommate is away, visiting his sister in Jersey.”
The victim was young, beautiful, and naked, his limbs spread-eagled on the bed. “He looks arranged, don’t you think?” He eyed the body with interest. The skin was uniformly pale, untouched by the sun. The expression on the dead man’s face was calm, peaceful. His lower legs were covered with scratches, deep enough to bleed. Cameras flashed as CSU took pictures. “Cause of death?”
John Nolan, the medical examiner, swabbed an intimate part of the victim’s body. “Have to wait for the autopsy, but I suspect it will be the same as the other two. ‘No apparent cause of death'.” He frowned. “It’s just not right.”
“Has the victim been ID'd?” Artemis asked. His roommates, family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers would be questioned politely but extensively by the NYPD over the next few days.
“Donny Carlson,” one of the CSU offered. “Found his wallet in the nightstand. He was twenty years old. He had a driver’s license issued in Illinois. Letters from home found near the door indicate he only recently arrived in our fair city. Roommate confirms Carlson moved in a couple months ago.”
Donny probably had parents, maybe siblings. He’d certainly had dreams, and had come here to fulfill them. Artemis waited for Nolan to finish collecting his samples, including scraping under the nails, before doing a quick examination of his own.
On Carlson’s back, Artemis found a small gold-inked tattoo of a bird with outstretched wings. It was beautiful and exquisitely detailed. He’d seen it before on the first victim, only that one had been on a left hip. They’d canvassed some of the shops, asking about it, and tracked it to a place in Times Square named Demon Tattoos. The owner had told them the design was exclusive to that shop and was proving popular with fans of the rock band Phoenix Rising. He’d provided a list of clients who had asked for it, but nothing further had been done with it.
“Nolan? Preliminary findings?”
“Mr. Carlson engaged in anal sex shortly before death. No condom. I got a sample of the semen.”
“As far as I can tell. Minor anal tears, as you might expect, no blood, lots of lubricant.”
Artemis frowned. “Barebacking, just like the first two victims.”
He grabbed his bag. “We done here?”
“For now. Send me the report as soon as it’s completed.”
It was difficult to take his eyes off Donny Carlson. Under other circumstances, Artemis might have ended up with him after meeting him at some bar. Instead, Carlson had gone home with someone inappropriate and been killed. Artemis took pictures with his cell, most of them of the bird tattoo.
Donny was bagged, loaded onto a stretcher, and taken from the room. The CSU swarmed, gathering evidence now revealed by the body’s removal. One of them handed an evidence bag to Artemis. “Take a look at that.”
Inside the bag was a feather about three inches long, gently curved tip to end, the barbs an iridescent gold that flashed red as he turned it under the ceiling light. Below the barbs and above the calamus?the hollow shaft that was inserted into skin?were downy after-feathers. “Did Donny or a roommate have a bird?” he asked the room. Various negative responses came back. He held the bag up. “Anyone know what bird this belongs to?”
Everyone glanced his way, then shrugged and went back to work. Artemis handed the bag back to the CSU; it would go to the lab for study when they returned to headquarters.
He gave Rachel a sharp look. “Demon Tattoos. Let’s go.”