Read an excerpt from "One Death at a Time"
They come in the room hot – physically aroused and trailing a parade of pheromones.
He’s excited. He gives off a sharp, animal smell. She’s not excited. Her scent is Chanel No. 5, over muted arousal. He’s drunk and horny. She’s cool and predatory.
He grabs her by the hair and pulls her to him. She grimaces and lets out a short laugh. He growls into her ear and bites her neck, just enough to break her skin, and then drops her onto the bed. She touches her neck, sees tiny drops of blood on her fingers.
He pulls the costumes from the hidden closet behind the mirrored doors. He throws the white dress and blond wig at her. She strips to her underwear in the center of the room and pulls the dress over her head. He moves around her, circling, his blood rising. He pushes her onto the bed, grabs her by the thighs, and slides her dress up to her waist. He enters her with a deep grunt and pins her to the bed with his hips.
Suddenly, the door slams open, they don’t have time to react. Two shots, pop-pop, center mass in the head.
* * *
I stand over them like an angel of death.
The body on the left is Los Angeles Councilman Matt Torres, up-and-coming politico and heir apparent to the shadowy Torres fortune. He’s in a cheap vintage suit from the 60s with a reddish-brown wig falling off his head, its thick straight hair parted to the side. Sprawled next to him is Julie Barnes, UCLA grad student and my current missing persons case. Her wig is blonde and she’s staring up at the ceiling with a half-surprised, half amused smile on her face.
Both of them have been shot once clean through the center of the forehead. I guess my missing persons case is now a double homicide. I hate surprises, but I’ve learned to live with them. As an old junkie once told me, “When one door closes, another one opens. But the hallways are a bitch.” I move in for a closer look.
I’m hit by a wall of rich and heady blood scent, with a pungent note of splattered brain matter. My own blood starts pounding in response, the heat rising in every part of my body.
I am overcome by a familiar feeling of lust and rage, a shrieking need to sink my teeth into soft, blood-filled flesh and taste that sweet release.
Get a grip.
I breathe in. I breathe out.
Easy does it, Jack, easy does it.
The heat in my face decreases, my pulse slows, and my eyes stay blue instead of flaring into red.
“Strayhorn! Get some booties on or get the fuck out of my crime scene!” Detective Robert Himes of the LAPD’s Special Homicide Division has spotted me from across the room and he’s not thrilled to see me.
Cops and crime scene techs swarm everywhere. Himes and his partner Detective Martin Dempsey are giving orders and directing traffic. These two are Abbott and Costello without the laughs. They’re veteran cops with forty years experience between them and there isn’t much they haven’t seen. Himes’s thin, jerky frame circles like a shark while Dempsey, tall, dark and solid, stands big and steady in the center of the room, a quiet, angry mountain.
Himes isn’t my biggest fan – he’s still trying to figure out why I’m allowed to waltz right through police-tape barriers with nothing more than a P.I. badge and a smile. My endearing personality doesn’t help things either.
I look up from the two bodies on the bed and wave at him.
“No problem, Bobby. Thanks for the call.”
“I didn’t call you. And don’t fucking call me – that’s Detective Himes to you!” he shouts.
Dempsey looks across at Himes and frowns. Himes scurries back over to the Crime Scene Unit techs and starts grumbling orders. Dempsey turns the frown on me and I give him a big fake smile. It’s a pretty good frown but I’ve seen worse.
“I think your case is closed, Jack. That’s her, right?” It’s her. Julie Allison Barnes. Twenty-four and single. Good student. Good family. But that was yesterday.
“Yeah, that’s her. I got the job three days ago. I’ll get you the contact info for the parents. The dad’s a big time church official out east. There are five more kids but this one was the favorite.”
“The prodigal daughter won’t be returning. They have any idea what she was up to out here?”
I shake my head.
“Last they heard she was studying for a poli-sci degree and didn’t have time for boys.” The parents are good people who are utterly clueless. I don’t envy Dempsey the call.
Dempsey walks over to me, shaking his head at the bleak remains of two wasted lives.
“What the fuck’s up with the wigs and costumes?”
“Jack and Marilyn.”
Dempsey snorts. “Jesus,” he says, “A Kennedy kink. Behind closed doors, huh?”
Julie’s dress is hiked up around her thighs and her eyes have fallen wide open, a sad mockery of the iconic shot from “The Seven Year Itch.” It would almost be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
“Look, Jack. While you’re here, why don’t you look around? Tell me what you think.” Dempsey doesn’t make eye contact. I make him uncomfortable. He doesn’t trust me and doesn’t understand how I work. He just knows that when I show up to a murder, it gets solved.
Humans think they know what Vampires are – they’re angst-filled, beautiful boys who love nothing more than to brood over virginal young girls. I saw that movie and laughed my ass off. If humans knew the truth about us, they’d hunt us all down and wipe us out.
Because we’re all around you – we’re your neighbor, your co-worker, your favorite barista - and we’re always right on the edge of losing control. We let our guard down for a second and we turn into cold-blooded psychopaths who hunt down our prey with no remorse and no human feelings - only a need to satisfy an ancient, insatiable hunger.
In real life, that shiny boy Vampire would have slashed his girl’s throat with his teeth, drained her blood and torn her apart into tiny bloody pieces. Have you ever seen what a coyote can do to a kitten? You’d be lucky if you found enough of her to bury.
“Alright, Detective,” I mutter, “I can spare five minutes, I guess.” He nods and walks away.
Each Vampire has his own specialty and mine is blood. I am a connoisseur of blood. I can smell all the different notes in your blood and see your death in the air around your body. And once I catch his scent, I can track your killer down like a hellhound.
But it’s a narrow line I walk, and I’m always in danger of losing myself in the hunger and the thirst. The blood tells me its secrets but it’s relentless in its call to feed.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s torture, so why do I do it? You could call it penance for the sins of my first life. You could call it a search for atonement. Or you could just call it same shit, different day.
Turning back to the bodies, I block out the noise and smells of all the living people in the room, and sink into that cold, clinical space in my head. Julie smells young but far from innocent. There's a note of corruption in her blood. Cocaine, booze, anger, and desperate fear. Human bodies are marked by their lives and tell the story of their days. Julie’s exudes the ink and toner, cigarettes and bad coffee of her day job. The classroom beneath that in the notebook paper, laptop, and dry erase boards. Her bottom scent flows beneath the rest like a sewer. It’s the sickly sweet smell of vice: sweat, sex, smoke, and the clawing odor of a hundred nameless men.
Torres is all surface smells, the bright, thin shell of his life. A public façade of tailored silk suits, steak dinners and top shelf liquor, the dusty marble and weathered wood of City Hall, and the expensive leather seats of private power lunches all over town. But all of this sits like a bank of golden smog over something deeper and older. I smell oak and grass, laced with dark drugs and darker magic. The blood splashed around him is red to the eye but doesn’t smell anything like human. It’s crystal instead of iron, with a hint of dirt and rock mixed in.
The scent registers and I smile a greedy, predator’s smile. This crime scene just got interesting. Torres is true Faerie, an honest to God member of the Kingdom of the Sidhe. I lean in close to his body - it’s there, the telltale electric buzz of power, jumping right off his skin. Too subtle for human senses, but as loud as a radio signal to a Vampire. Fae blood is a rare and delicate vintage, not at all like the human varietals. I flick my tongue into the air - it’s not often a Vamp gets a taste of this stuff. The Fae are pretty damned powerful and they’re rather protective of the source.
This has to be handled carefully. With a dead tinkerbell on the scene, trouble is sure to follow. Right about now, his clan is starting to wonder why they haven’t heard from him. And when they find out what happened, they’ll want answers and revenge.
I move on to the killer’s scent. Curious. I can’t pick anything up. I inhale deeply, passing though all the scents I’ve already registered.
Ah, there it is. The killer is cold, a professional, no scent of adrenaline or epinephrine, which means he came in calm and left the same. No accelerated heart beat, no nervous reactions.
But who is he? I move closer to the trail, walk along his steps across the carpet, as close as I can without disturbing any evidence. I see his clothes; leather jacket, wool trousers, soft-soled Italian shoes, plastic disposable gloves – powdered (even the killers take care of their skin in this city). I inhale again for a deeper look.
I stop and try again, but it’s not there. He’s not there. No blood scent, no trail. What the hell? The killer stood in the center of the room and shot two people like he was ordering lunch and left without leaving a goddamn trace.
My pupils dilate and I feel a growl starting in my chest.
This makes no sense. Everybody leaves a trace.
Unless, that is, you’re not human.
I frown and let that last bit sink in. Looks like this is now officially a supernatural crime scene. I glance over at Dempsey and Himes. These two have no idea what they’re in for.
I turn back around and it hits me.
It’s heavy, acrid, and musky. A drug I’ve never smelled before. Julie and Torres are covered in it. It's in their bloodstream and coming out of their pores. I lean in close, inhale long and deep.
It comes on in a wave, building up fast and crashing over me. It’s deep and mellow like a vintage wine, but soft too, and almost seductive. I relax and let the scent all the way in and I’m immediately overcome by an intoxicating blend of joy, expectation, desire, and the overwhelming feeling that every good thing in life is waiting for me right around the corner, all I’ve got to do is run faster and I’ll catch it.
I stand up and shake my head furiously, trying to get myself back into focus. Dempsey looks over, his eyebrows raised in a question. I hold up my hand – everything’s okay, boss.
Still dizzy, I move towards the hallway and the smell of fresh air coming through the front door. A hand grips my arm and shoots back when my muscles tense.
“Whoa, Jack. Where are you going? What have you got for me?” Dempsey is standing next to me. He pulls me out of the room, into a quiet space behind the stairs.
“What have I got? Torres was here for sex, obviously. But Julie wasn’t into it for kicks. She was here on business. They started fucking on the bed and it got kind of rough. Also, they were both high as kites. You’ll run the tox screen and you won’t know what it is. Don’t bother asking, I don’t know either.
“The killer came in that way, got right up on them here, and popped them both. It was quick. They never even saw him. The shooter is a pro. No hesitation, no shakes, no emotion. And he’s clean. No traces and no evidence. You’ll look and you won’t find anything.”
“Watch out for this one. He’s good and he’s ruthless. It’s strictly a job for this guy, so if by some chance you actually find him, don’t fuck around. Throw as many guys as you can at him and don’t give him a shot at you - because he won’t miss.”
There are three things in Los Angeles you should never turn your back on: a brushfire, an angry cop, and a politician with something to hide. The fire will take everything you own, the cop will club you senseless, but the politician will burn you out, beat you down, and then really go to work on you.
Chances are, you got one dead politician, another one is somewhere in the background. I don’t know enough about Torres yet to be sure, but Los Angeles has a lot of shallow graves beneath its shiny, bright streets, full of people who made the right kind of friends and the wrong kind of enemies.
I roll down the twisted avenues of the Hollywood Hills, mulling the case over, such as it is, and letting gravity pull the car to somewhere cleaner, or at least somewhere less dirty.
I wind my way around narrow, circling streets, squeezing past a Porsche, two BMW all-terrain tanks, and one of those wind-up, hybrid electric things. In the hybrid is a guy in coiffed hair and two hundred dollar sunglasses and a woman with enough plastic in her face to make another version of herself. The guy gives me the stink-eye as I wedge my way past him in my giant submarine of a car, as if I'm personally shitting on the environment right in front of him. I look him in the eye and honk my horn. His face gets red and he yells something I can’t make out over all the noise.
I should let it go. Los Angeles has always welcomed the self-righteous rich. They’re a good source of revenue. Call it the guilt tax. Charity minded socialites can guilt them out of half their trust funds in one well-prepared season. They’ll give the other half to whoever keeps up the fence around the ghetto.
Sunset Boulevard opens up before me at the bottom of the hill and I make my way along the Strip for a little sightseeing. It’s all over-priced bistros, glitzy bars, and flashy clothes. Pretty as a Christmas ornament and about as useful.
Last time I was here, this part of Sunset was nothing but sleazy mob hangouts, backdoor whorehouses, and badly hidden bookie joints. It wasn’t yet LAPD territory, so I only came by for a few drinks, a quick lay, and the occasional shakedown. The Sheriff’s boys got all the serious payoffs, but a Los Angeles detective with a loose interpretation of the law was always welcome.
I put away those dark and dirty times and focus on the street and the life around me. I drive on, scoping the foot traffic on the sidewalks. Women in high heels and too much makeup, guys with bad suits and desperate faces - it’s good to know some things haven’t changed.
A short drive down Santa Monica Boulevard gets me to the Formosa Café for a nightcap and some time to think. I luck out and only have to park two blocks away.
The little red building has been on the same corner for over eighty years and is still the preferred pickling barrel for all manner of discontented Hollywood rabble. For me it’s an anchor point in a city that refuses to stop remaking itself.
I push open the door like I’m walking into an old friend’s living room. It’s somewhat drabber than it used to be, and is clearly playing itself up for the tourist trade, but I let that slide because we all have to make a buck. Outside of a few cosmetic touch-ups, the place hasn’t changed in any way. It’s still wall to wall Hollywood-Chinese: gold dragons, black and red enamel, and shitty wontons. I grab a seat at the end of the bar, right beneath Robert Mitchum’s tough guy mug and Susie Wong’s in-joke smile.
The bar is at that late night change point between a thinning hipster crowd and a loyal pack of barflies. There’s a loud couple at the booth behind me. I watch them in the mirror and run the numbers. She’s an innocent twenty-something trying to sip a cosmopolitan without coughing. Mostly vegetarian, spends a lot of time at home, prefers hardback books. He’s a typical Hollywood low-life, a slug in model’s clothing. Dressed up to look dressed down, L.A. casual cool. It’s a pose, right down to the lock of blond hair falling over one eye. I can smell the eightball in his pocket, the sweat and sex someone left on his crotch an hour ago, and the steady diet of vodka and bullshit on his lips. Another made in Hollywood romance in this booth.
The bartender, a busty brunette, comes by and laughs when I order coffee. I get a cup of burnt sludge that looks like the real thing, but her smile is genuine as she pours the stuff in my cup. She’s nearing thirty, doesn’t drink, and I wonder if she’s in the Program. I could probably small talk it out of her, one sober night owl to another. We could shyly admit to membership in A.A. and take turns mocking all the corny slogans and bonding over comic drunkalogues. But I don’t have the mental energy to chase skirt so young. Though I guess from her vantage point, I can’t be more than ten years older than her.
I doctor up the coffee with three sugars and two creams and let my brain start filtering the first impressions of the crime scene. Nothing is as it appears. A good girl moonlighting as a high-class hooker. A Faerie masquerading as a politician. A killer who’s a ghost with a gun and a perfect alibi: he doesn’t exist.
Usually, Human A shoots Human B. And no matter where he’s hiding, I sniff out Human A.
But this time the killer’s invisible and he knows how to hide from a guy like me. Who ordered this hit? Why?
Could be Torres was having differences with members of the Council.
But you don’t hire a shooter like this to settle a trash ordinance dispute. You need serious connections to the supernatural underworld. Could another Fae be behind this?
And what about the shitload of God-knows-what in their veins?
It’s such a cliché in this city – getting snowed up with a hooker in your Hollywood Hills penthouse. But something tells me this is bigger than ordinary dope.
I call up the scent and it hits me all over again, that feeling of overwhelming euphoria. I want to get lost in it, I want to forget about everything else.
Screw this – who cares about two more dead bodies? I want a hit off that bottle up there. I want to sink my teeth into the girl behind me and drink her until I can’t-
I shut down the memory and bring myself back to the here and now. This stuff is too dangerous to even think about.
I take another sip of coffee sludge and shake my head. No, this isn’t for me. I swore off supernatural cases twenty years ago. I tracked down a Werewolf in Miami and it didn’t end well for either of us. I don’t need a repeat.
I’ve got my reasons for being back in this town but solving a supernatural case isn’t one of them. The woman I was looking for is dead, my job is done.
The bartender looks at me as she refills my coffee. Beneath the chatter of the bar, I hear her pulse pick up a little.
“You know, you’re a dead-ringer for the guy from Miller’s Crossing.”
This is the start of a dance I know too well.
“The lead guy? I get that a lot.”
“Yeah, Gabriel Byrne. It’s your eyes.” She looks straight at me. Her eyes start glazing over.
“Want my autograph?”
She laughs. “Okay, that was kind of cheesy. But you looked so serious just now.”
I shrug. “Thinking about work.”
“You must do something important,” she says, leaning over the bar and giving me a generous view of her breasts. Even in the dim light, I can see they’re natural, shaped like teardrops, made for holding.
“I’ve been doing this kind of work for a while. It’s not often I get surprised.”
“And what kind of work are we talking about?” Her face is flush now, and she’s blinking more slowly.
I need to break this before it goes any further. Looking straight in her eyes, I speak to her in the Voice. It’s a low, monotone wave that goes straight to the subconscious.
“I’m an accountant,” I say, “Forensic accountant, actually.”
Her eyes snap open and she stands up straight again, the spell is broken. So much for small talk.
“That’s cool.” Her smile is hanging on but it’s only out of professionalism at this point. She goes off to another customer and I return to my thoughts of murder and mayhem.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s been women over the years. I’m a monster, sure, but not a eunuch. I still crave the feel of a warm body pressed to mine. One I’m not draining of blood. Does that mean some part of me is still human? I don’t know. That kind of stuff is above my pay grade.
Work comes first, just like always. Making cases, cleaning up the mess. I’ve been back here three months and I've already tracked down two shooters, a rapist, and a missing little boy. Before this it was Vegas and before Vegas, New Orleans. And on and on: Miami, New York, Chicago, Detroit, plus a thousand other towns I can’t even tell apart anymore.
Well, New Orleans sticks out.
I upend my coffee and swallow the bitter mess at the bottom of the cup. I leave money on the bar, straighten my tie, and walk out into a city I barely recognize.
Looks like it's going to be another endless night.