Prologue—Belly Up

 

“Ellery, hand me my phone,” Jackson mumbled. “It’s ringing.”

“You’re not back at work yet,” Ellery slurred. “You have two more weeks.”

Jackson rolled over on top of him and then yelped as he reached unwisely for the phone Ellery had strategically put on his own end table. For a moment, Ellery was covered with tense, warm man, and then he shoved Jackson off.

“I’ll get it!” he snapped, officially awake. “Jesus, what in the—”

“It’s Mack’s ringtone,” Jackson defended. “I told him what we were looking for.”

Ellery tried not to roll his eyes. Mack. This was the same Mack who had helped Jackson out when Jackson had wrecked the car unofficially helping Ellery with an investigation.

At the time, Ellery had been so happy to get Jackson back in one bruised piece—and on a plane to somewhere he could rest without incident—that he hadn’t questioned this Mack’s existence. Once he found out that Mack Flanders had been Jackson’s bedmate a few years ago, he’d been irritated but unsurprised.

Now that Mack was calling them in the whore of dawn’s sweaty crack, Ellery wanted to kick him in the balls.

Except….

“Cottage Park, near the outbuilding. Yeah, I got it. There’s a way to get in there, right? I’m not climbing the fucking fence. Of course there’s cops and crime scene tape. That’s not what I’m asking.” The voice on the other end spoke patiently, and some of Jackson’s defensiveness seeped away. “Okay. Thanks, Mack. Owe you another one. No, sorry—told you. Not paying favors that way anymore, but it’s nice of you to ask.”

“God in heaven,” Ellery muttered.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“We’ll be there.” Ellery rolled out of bed and headed for the shower. Thirty seconds to run some soap under his pits and pack a suit for court later that day. He could do it.

“Crap,” he could hear Jackson say as he closed the shower door. “We’ll be there. Thanks.”

Five seconds later, Jackson stepped into the shower with him and grabbed his own shower gel from the corner of the tub. They’d had some nice times in there together—particularly when Jackson was still healing from his gunshot wound and his shattered scapula and needed Ellery’s help.

They’d had a few after that too, but not today.

“Body?” Ellery asked, not really needing confirmation.

“Yeah.” Jackson scrubbed his pits with care but not vigor—moving was still painful and probably would be for a little while. He’d gotten out of the hospital less than six weeks earlier. By all rights he should still be chilling in the fall sunshine, maybe swimming in the pool at the gym—but not Jackson.

Ellery had needed to haul him to San Diego to give himself time to recover.

It was even more infuriating that he was right today. There really was no time to rest.

“Our kind?”

Jackson shook the water from his dark blond hair and squinted at Ellery through eyes as green as bottle glass. “We have a kind of dead body? Most couples just go with favorite song.”

Ellery soaped his hair efficiently. “You know what I mean.”

Jackson grabbed the shampoo. “Yeah.”

Jackson, the private investigator at Ellery’s defense firm, had gotten shot helping Ellery bring down a ring of corrupt cops. They’d put the ringleaders in prison—but one of the underlings had gotten away.

Turned out he was the one the police should have been chasing all along.

“Young,” Jackson said, ticking off items on the list. “This one’s Hispanic. Male, but slender. Recent involvement with drugs. Maybe a week of turning tricks.”

“Dirty pretty,” Ellery confirmed grimly. They had been Scott Bridger’s words, actually, one of the men they’d brought down, to describe the kind of person who had disappeared on his partner’s watch. Gender hadn’t mattered, nor race. Just a little bit of street dirt and some physical beauty.

Tim Owens liked to take the “dirty pretty” ones and make them not so pretty anymore.

“Mack says there’s something new about this one,” Jackson said, stepping in front of him to rinse his hair.

Ellery wasn’t sure why he did it, except it was not yet four in the morning and he and Jackson were naked together, and that wasn’t something he’d learned to take for granted yet.

He wrapped his arms around Jackson’s shoulders and kissed his neck, softly, gently, with just enough tongue and teeth to make Jackson regret they weren’t making love this morning but going to work instead.

Jackson tensed for a moment, probably caught off guard, but then he relaxed into Ellery’s arms and leaned his head back.

“What?” he asked suspiciously.

Well, Ellery had been known to be an autocratic bastard—that was probably warranted.

“Just….” Ellery couldn’t find words. Or he could find words, but neither of them had said the words yet, and you just didn’t spring those words on a guy whose entire life had been an act of insufficient self-protection.

With a sinuous movement, Jackson turned his head and caught Ellery’s mouth, something he couldn’t have done a month ago, something that felt huge and necessary now.

“Don’t worry about me, Counselor,” Jackson said cheekily, pulling away. “But the cuddle was downright friendly.”

Well, sure. Friendly. Just two friendly lovers getting out of bed extra early to go catch a serial killer. Nothing strange about that at all.

“Just be careful,” Ellery said, trying not to sound bitchy or officious and failing. “He’s got your cell phone. You know that, right?”

“Well, he had it for a couple of hours before it got deactivated,” Jackson said. “And yeah—fuck me for owning an Android with the shitty security. Thank you so much for the iPhone, Ellery. Now I am safe from serial killers everywhere.”

The snark in his voice was the only thing that kept Ellery from conking him over the head and tying him to the bed in a completely nonkinky way.

 

 

Mack was still at the scene when they got there—but not for long. Ellery had just enough time to register that the state trooper was older than he’d thought—maybe in his forties—and not particularly handsome. He stood around five six, with a small face that showed signs of childhood malnourishment and acne. He sat comfortably in his skin now, his thinning blond hair cut close to his head and his smile warm and friendly as he shook hands with Jackson.

Ellery abruptly forgave him for sleeping with Jackson in the past—he wasn’t a cover model, he was a human being, and that seemed to be the kind of person Jackson was the most attracted to.

Which gave Ellery hope for himself, because it meant Jackson saw something in him besides the shark he’d honed for so long.

Mack greeted Ellery pleasantly, ushered them both into the crime scene, and left unobtrusively. Jackson gave him a salute as he got into his vehicle—he’d put himself out for them. This wasn’t even his beat. Jackson would—Ellery had no doubt he would—find a way to return the favor.

Twenty minutes later, they stood in the corner of Cottage Park under the emerging sunshine. Jackson wore faded jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, because by October, mornings were getting a little chilly.

Ellery wore slacks and a polo shirt and was grateful.

This little corner of the park had a stream that usually passed through. But the body had been thrown into a bottleneck of the stream, and the entire corner was a swampy, bloody, rotting mess.

Walking into court with that ick on his pant cuffs wasn’t going to win any cases.

Which is what Ellery kept thinking to avoid the thought of the body in the water.

“The knife work is new,” Jackson said, voice cool. Ellery knew he wasn’t unaffected—in a moment of candor, he’d once confessed to bringing Tic Tacs to the morgue for a reason. But he managed to sound composed and ordinary in the face of….

Oh my God.

Ellery fisted his hands in his pockets and tried not to throw up.

“He knew what he was doing,” Jackson said softly, standing well back from the frantic CSIs who were working the case. “He wanted to play with him.”

Ellery actually felt Jackson’s shudder through their touching shoulders.

“Was he raped?” Jackson asked the tech. The CSI officer wearing a white hazmat bunny suit was a familiar face these days—she’d caught a few other cases Jackson and Ellery had investigated. Now she crouched in a bloody puddle, taking samples from the clothes, from the water, from the surrounding area. She was African American, with a bold nose and a strong jaw—strikingly beautiful with just a trace of girlish flirt in her eyes when she smiled at Jackson.

Awesome. Another conquest.

But there was no flirting at all now when she looked up and nodded soberly.

“He’s got DNA all over him,” she said, a soft Southern accent in her voice. “We’ve seen this pattern before, but not the knife work.”

No, all of Owens’s other victims had been beaten and assaulted. This one had been beaten as well, his face almost unrecognizable. His pants had been cut cleanly down the back, and the blood leaking from that quarter of the body was unmistakable. So were the scores along the back, like someone had been bored and doodling with a knifepoint in flesh, probably while, oh my God, in the act.

“Somebody got bored during sex,” Jackson said grimly. “What a douche.”

Ellery nodded. Douchebag. It was a funny word. And so less frightening than monster.

“I know we have other bodies like this,” Jackson said lowly to the tech—Roberta, if Ellery remembered aright. “Have you matched the DNA?”

“We’ve matched it to itself,” she confirmed. “Since you first asked me to keep track of these, this is our third body. They’ve all got the same DNA on them—we just don’t have anyone to match it with in the computers.”

Jackson frowned. “Did you take samples when you searched Owens’s place?”

She gave him a classic What kind of miracle worker do you think I am? look. “We didn’t take samples from Owens’s apartment—we didn’t even know he was a suspect here.”

Jackson let out a little growl. “He’s still not,” he admitted. “But goddammit, he should be.”

Roberta nodded, and Ellery’s respect for her grew when her hand hovered for a moment over the back of the neck. The gesture was human and curiously tender. She saw a person here, not a piece of meat. She would do her job—but her job was, ultimately, to get justice for the human being who’d been discarded like so much garbage.

Whether the police recognized it or not, that was Jackson and Ellery’s job as well.

“Rivers? Jesus—can’t Ellery keep you in a crate or something?”

Jackson growled, and Ellery rolled his eyes. “Down, boy,” he muttered. “He’s just baiting you.”

Golden-haired, blue-eyed, with a cheerleader nose and a superhero jaw, Sean Kryzynski was aiming to be a very young detective, and—at one point—had been aiming to be in Ellery’s bed. Given that Ellery hadn’t had that many offers, he’d been flattered.

Given that Kryzynski had propositioned Ellery when Jackson was being hauled away on a gurney, he was pretty much over Kryzynski before he even opened his mouth. But Kryzynski didn’t see it that way, and judging by Jackson’s growls, reformed tomcats didn’t like to share.

Kryzynski popped his gum and winked. “Don’t worry, Rivers. I can’t take what’s not on the table—whoa!”

Ellery had to stand in front of him and shove him backward.

“There is a boy here at our feet!” Jackson snarled. “And yeah, he was a little bit dirty—but our perp takes the ones on the cusp, see? The ones who could be saved. So this was a kid, and he needs us now when we weren’t there for him when he was alive.” The fight went out of him, and he glowered over Ellery’s shoulder. “Try being an actual cop, a good guy! Not the guy looking to get out of his blues.”

Ellery caught his breath. A vulnerable expression crossed Jackson’s face. He’d said more than he meant to, shown more than he’d planned.

“We need to do something,” Jackson said, looking at Ellery with pleading in his eyes. “Why is nobody listening to us?”

After Jackson had been shot—and Bridger and Chisolm, the guys behind the shooting, had been arrested—law enforcement had declared their jobs done. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Tim Owens had probably been the triggerman behind Jackson’s shooting and clapped themselves on the back.

“Because every case he had, every person he arrested—ever—will be tainted,” Ellery said patiently. They knew this. Neither of them was naïve.

Jackson shook his head. “I think it’s time to tell the boss,” he said after a moment.

Ellery regarded him with surprise. “Contact an authority figure? Jackson, are you well?”

“Ha-ha.” With an irritated one-armed shrug, Jackson broke away from him and prowled around the cops, looking for things forensics had possibly missed while staying out of their way.

Kryzynski walked up to Ellery looking surprisingly contrite. “Look, Ellery… I hope you know we take murder seriously here. It’s just….” He shrugged in apology. “Street people. They die a lot, you know?”

Ellery turned a flat-eyed gaze toward him. “Really fucking sensitive. Do they always die covered in the same guy’s ejaculate?”

Kryzynski recoiled. “They do what?”

“Maybe you should talk to your forensics crew. Roberta there has some shit to teach you.” Ellery took a step toward where Jackson wandered, wanting to do something—touch his hand, reassure him, something. But Jackson’s past was… complicated.

Ellery tried his best to keep things simple. Ellery, friend. The rest of the world? Could fuck off.

That didn’t work when Jackson felt pressured or closed in. Dogs did well in crates, but cats, not so much. If Jackson didn’t have space, Ellery firmly believed he’d scratch at the walls that confined him until he bled to death.

Kryzynski put a hand on his arm. “I’ll talk to my lieutenant,” he said softly. “If the same person did all this, we should be investigating. He’s right—this is awful.”

Ellery nodded. “It is. And it’s escalating. If we’re right, Owens did this once in a while under Bridger—maybe every three, every four months. Since Bridger went away, this is the third body in two months.”

“Were they all found in Arden-Arcade?” Kryzynski asked. “Because that’s sort of hard to hide.”

The Arden-Arcade area was actually pretty nice—lots of parks with dark corners to hide bodies, but it wasn’t exactly a hotspot for street people. A little farther north, to Watt Avenue, and the hunting grounds were richer. Follow Watt down past the freeway and it was beating up stoned fish in a broken concrete barrel.

Reluctantly Ellery shared some information. “Ask Roberta, but we’re pretty sure this is the secondary crime scene—a body dump. He and Bridger used to work District Three—midtown. We’ve been looking over old cases. Six of them are looking like our guy, and they’ve been found on both sides of the freeway, mostly in places like this.” Weekends, after work, they’d looked through morgue records and police reports practically since Jackson had gotten out of the hospital.

Today had been a breakthrough, because today they’d hit a forensics officer who knew Jackson and would share. And also because today, with Kryzynski, they’d managed to catch somebody’s attention.

“Got your own murder board?” Kryzynski cracked.

Ellery gazed at him, the same level look his mother used to employ to get him to admit he hadn’t done his homework.

“Uh, yeah.” Golden Boy looked away uncomfortably. “Why should you have a murder board when we should be doing our job? Hear you.”

“I am so very glad,” Ellery said, smiling. From the corner of his eye, he saw Jackson walking to the playground that stood at the highest point in the park. The playground itself used recycled tires as a thick safety mat under the toys, but it was surrounded by lush grass and soft earth. Jackson was heading for the swings. “Now if you will excuse me—”

“Wait!” Kryzynski looked embarrassed when Ellery turned back around. “How… uh, I mean, how is he? You know when that sort of hospital time happens on the job you have to talk to six shrinks and a shaman to get back on duty. How’s he doing?”

How was he? “He’s fine.” Sure he was. “Wiseass is still a wiseass. He’s like a cat—nine lives.”

Kryzynski grunted. “That bad?”

Ellery closed his eyes, thinking about the car Jackson had wrecked overdoing it too soon and the way he worked, daily, to prove that he could too pull his own weight in the firm, in Ellery’s house.

Ellery’s life.

He kept talking about moving to the duplex when it was finished in two months.

Ellery figured he had until mid-December to convince Jackson that there were no shadows in the corners of Ellery’s house, no scary monsters, no hidden emotional traps.

“If I liked easy, I would have done corporate law,” Ellery said, hoping his mother never heard him.

His mother the corporate lawyer could skin a fish as it swam and eat it raw as she smiled at you. People who thought cast-iron balls were tough had never met Taylor Cramer when she had her hair coifed and her no-nonsense low-heeled pumps ready to roll.

But Kryzynski bled true-blue. As far as he was concerned, criminal law was the only kind that counted.

“Well, you know, if shit gets too hard….” He smiled prettily.

“I’d like a copy of your report on my desk.” Personal time over. “And with your permission, we’ll ask Roberta for her report as well.”

Kryzynski backpedaled, looking confused. “Who in the hell is Roberta?”

“Your forensics officer,” Ellery said smugly. “You really should work on your people skills.”

And with that he turned to get Jackson, who had gone from rocking moodily on the swing to working up quite a head of steam.

Jackson saw him coming and hollered, “Stay there!”

And then, when the swing was at its highest arc, he jumped.

Ellery’s heart caught in his throat as he watched Jackson arch his body impossibly, like one of those kids at the skateboard parks who did stupid shit for kicks. He flew high, then, oh my God, tucked his knees to his chest and flipped.

He extended his arms and would probably have done a creditable roll in the thick grass and spongy ground of the field, but his shoulder gave, collapsed, and he went tumbling down the hill.

Ellery had to dodge out of his way or end up in the free-for-all sprawl Jackson was heading for—and unlike Jackson, if Ellery did that sort of thing, he’d end up with broken bones or worse.

Jackson ended his roll, coming to a stop on his back, arms flung out on either side. He had his eyes closed, like he was trying to figure out if he was in pain or not, and if so, how bad.

Ellery could have answered him.

Jackson Rivers had been in pain since the day he was born.

But he’d go to his grave saying he didn’t feel a thing.

“You going to live?” Ellery asked, keeping the panic out of his voice.

“Did you see that, ma? I went high!”

“How’s your shoulder, asshole? Do we need the brace again?”

Jackson took a deep breath and winced. “Goddammit.”

“Yeah. Here—let me give you a hand up. I’ve got the spare in the back.”

“Fine.”

Jackson took his offered hand but stopped short as Ellery pulled him up. They stood facing each other for a moment, Jackson’s expression hauntingly naked.

“Talk to who you have to,” he said soberly. “The DA, our bosses. This isn’t a pride thing. These kids….” He looked away, probably remembering he’d been two good friends and their mom away from ending up just like these street kids, these young, troubled, beautiful kids who would never live to see if they could turn themselves around.

“Yeah,” Ellery said softly. “Yeah.” He leaned forward then, just barely grazing Jackson’s temple with his lips.

Jackson didn’t flinch, didn’t recoil or pull away. He just gave Ellery a flirty wink and a grin, like that was his payment for affection.

Ellery let him get away with that, and together they trudged to the car.

 

 

Two hours later, Ellery briefed Carlyle Langdon, second chair of Pfeist, Langdon, Harrelson & Cooper, about the work he and Jackson had been doing.

“I thought Rivers was on medical leave?” Langdon said, looking sleek and regal, a silver fox in an amazing gray pinstripe.

“We’ve been working the case together, sir. To keep him from going stir-crazy.”

Would Langdon care about Ellery and Jackson? Probably not. Did Ellery want the whole world knowing his personal life? Definitely, absolutely not.

Langdon smiled sunnily. “You’re a good friend, and I’ll sound out the DA’s office to see if I can get a nibble. But you know how this goes, Ellery….”

Ellery gave a sigh. “Leave the investigation to the pros,” he muttered. Except the pros were usually drowning in legit bad guys, or bureaucracy, or sometimes their own incompetence and/or corruption.

And sometimes people just needed an outside eye to show them where the monsters were.

Ellery and Jackson had done their bit to get rid of the corruption, and neither of them suffered incompetence well. It was the other stuff they were having problems with, and the horrible, godawful fact of the matter was…

More people were going to have to die before somebody besides Kryzynski looked up and saw the monster.

An hour later, after Ellery’s own frustrating call with Arizona Brooks, his contact with the ADA’s office, he wanted to throw the whole of law enforcement in the hole to get eaten.

“Arizona, we’ve got an MO, we’ve got a profile—if you’ll give us a profiler—and we’ve got DNA—”

“But we don’t have it matching a suspect,” Arizona said patiently. Arizona—buzz-cut, gruff Arizona, who was the only woman Ellery had ever seen wear a white power suit to court and make it work—was never this patient.

“Are you getting pressure to ignore this?” he asked point-blank.

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” she said grimly. “Everybody here thinks the Bridger/Chisolm thing is all gone bye-bye now, and the triggerman on your boy’s house just doesn’t matter.”

Ellery growled. “I will inundate your office,” he threatened. “I will send you every scrap of evidence we have, twice, in triplicate, until somebody has to claw their way up from the bottom of the paperwork graveyard just to call the cops and authorize the investigation.”

She sighed. “That was a beautiful threat, Ellery. But until you have the name of the perp, we’re just going to buy some flippers and a snorkel and keep swimming.”

“We have the name of the perp!” Ellery snarled. Oh dear Lord, he was becoming feral, like Jackson. Awesome. “Tim Owens!”

“Well, prove it,” she said patiently.

Patiently.

“I will keep you apprized,” he told her spitefully. “And someday, someday soon, when he kills again, or maybe twice, we’ll find a break in the case. And then we won’t go to the fucking DA or the police department or the sheriff. We’ll go to the press, and you can have the whole almighty world asking you why you didn’t do a damned thing.”

“And we’ll deal with that when it happens.”

She sounded smug, smug and superior, like ignoring dead kids put her on the moral high ground.

Ellery hung up on her.

Jackson, tapping desultorily at the small table in the corner of Ellery’s plain beige-carpeted office, jerked upright.

He’d probably been that close to dozing.

“How’d that go?” He yawned and stretched carefully.

“Like ass. How’s the shoulder?”

Jackson gave a one-armed shrug. “You know—the wound that wouldn’t go away.”

“Well, it needs to. You’re still not okayed for work, and it’s time for you to go home.”

Jackson held up his hands in front of him, puppy-dog style. “Oh, come on, Ellery. Please let me stay!”

Ellery shook his head, feeling like his mother. “Home. Nap. Run. You heard the doctor.”

“Three miles,” Jackson said, his voice assuming a terrifying determination. “And a full range of motion.”

“Amen,” Ellery said brusquely. But Jackson looked so dispirited. “We’ll keep looking,” he said. “Don’t worry, Jackson. You know, this summer, having that all fall out in two days, that was an anomaly—”

“Like us?” Jackson asked, so seriously Ellery’s chest ached.

“We would have happened,” he promised. He had to believe it. “The circumstances—they helped. But we would have happened. This other thing? This is just going to have to rely on the resources we have. They’re not great. But we’re not giving up.”

Jackson managed a bleak smile. Then he straightened his back and raised his eyebrows. “So, Counselor, since you don’t have to be back until court at two, how about a quickie when you take me home?”

Pure bravado, propositioned because Jackson didn’t want to be left alone with his own thoughts.

Well, Ellery would take what he could get.