They both stared at the bloody organ, neither of them able to fix its identity or state its exact species of origin. Having followed the blood trail from its initial landing point, a smeared red splat taking the place of the proverbial “X”, they charted its dribbling, meandering course through the sawdust and dirt to its resting place near a ladder and several slabs of sheetrock.
Officer Sarah Hampton hunched down, inspecting the bedraggled chunk of meat more closely. It was maybe seven inches long, with weird folds of flesh at both ends, and covered in blood, dust and plaster powder.
The nose-splint bothered her. Secured to her face by strips of white medical tape, the blasted thing itched like the devil, and her eyes had an annoying way of crossing every time her vision caught an edge of the tape in her line of sight. The beer mug that busted her nose two weeks ago had failed to knock her unconscious, but succeeded in making her lose her temper, something she despised. Wrapping her fist in the double rings of her handcuffs, she’d fractured the drunk’s jaw and sent five of his teeth rolling across the bar room floor like dice from a Yahtzee cup. But now she had to deal with this stupid splint.
Looking at the egg roll shaped object, she prodded it with her nightstick.
“What is it?” asked the lisping property manager of Gatling Gams Strip Bar which was still under construction.
Sarah poked the spongy mass a last time. “Penis.”
She looked at him, then lower. “Penis. You know,” she flipped the baton expertly, bringing it up between his legs to tap his crotch lightly, “as in Mr. Happy, AKA your wang.”
“Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” his voice rose hysterically.
Officer Hampton levered the stick higher making him yelp. She stood, one finger pressed to her lips. “Shhhhh. There might still be someone here.” She pointed toward the door they had come in. “I want you to go outside and wait in your car.” Putting her baton away she unsnapped her holster and pulled out her gun.
One long fingered hand flew to the property manager’s thin throat, the fingers splayed across his unbuttoned shirt, a few links of finely honed gold chain sparked as the rising sun’s rays found their way through seams and partitions of the unfinished structure.
“Oh my goodness!”
Sarah reached out with her free hand and clamped his lips closed with a finger and thumb. “No talking. Understand?” she whispered.
He nodded, eyes as wide as a doper’s pupils; lips still trapped.
“Go out to your car; lock the doors, and wait for me, understand?”
He nodded again. She released his lips and pointed to the exit. He straightened his black, leather coat then turned and ran for the door.
Sarah ignored him and traced back to the beginning of the blood trail. Now that morning had broken, she could see more of the interior. When she’d first arrived, the stars had winked at her from a bruise colored, dawn sky, and she could only see the contents confined within the cone of her flashlight’s beam.
The large room held a mess of scattered tools, bags of cement, buckets, sawhorses, and drywall. Wires and cables hung from the ceiling and snaked along the cement floors. White plaster-dust coated everything like a blanket of December snow. Drills and power saws, nail-guns and levelers, tool-belts and leg-extensions littered the floor like pieces of shrapnel on a battlefield.
The sawdust and plaster had absorbed some of it, but small puddles, still thick and shiny and too fresh to be hidden, dotted the scene. Sarah found small pools in nine different spots, along with spray patterns that stitched the walls and ceiling with crimson graffiti. The trail led to an open doorway at the far, east end of the big room. She listened, standing to the side of the doorway. The chirping of the early birds outside mixed with the awakening roar of rush-hour traffic, lending a surrealistic feel to the already bizarre landscape.
And something else.
From inside the room came a scraping. Not much, just a shifting of debris, but something had caused it. She keyed her shoulder-mic, gave her call sign and requested a cover car. Dispatch confirmed her request, but Sarah knew dayshift would still be in briefing and it would take a few minutes for anyone to get to her. She should wait.
The scraping sound again.
It had been a rough year for Sarah. One thing after another. It started with the death of her father, which left her parentless. Then came the hail storm that trashed her car and her roof in one fell swoop. Next came the twenty-three year old college punk busting her across the face with his beer mug. Add to that her dog, which she had gotten for her twelfth birthday, getting crushed by a car, and her boyfriend dumping her, and just how much could one woman take?
Well, at least she could say adieu to the old year and hello to the new. This one had to be better. Didn’t it?
Holding her gun in a two-fisted grip, she carefully pied the doorway, clearing a wedged shaped section with each sidestep until she passed to the opposite side. Plenty of blood and tools and building materials, but little else. Sarah darted into the room, checking her blind spots with a quick turn of the head, then stopped with her back to the wall, surveying the rest of the expanse. She saw more blood than in the other room and something on the floor next to a cardboard box by the far wall. It looked like a mitten or a glove, but some inner sense told her otherwise. Not as much sunlight made it in here so she took out her flashlight and held it under her gun hand as she advanced. Slowly she walked up on the object, her eyes continuing to scan the room and taking note of the doorway, again at the far east, leading into yet another room. Stopping, nearly on top of the item, her hackles raised another notch and the cold dread of panic beat at her temples.
A human hand sat in the dust, severed at the wrist just below the white outline of a watches’ resting place. A single drop of blood balled neatly on the ring finger.
A crazy thought struck her. What time is it? Well, the big hand is on the floor and where the little hand is…I don’t know.
A laugh born of hysteria tried to bubble up her throat but she fought it down.
The box moved.
Sarah covered it with the muzzle of her pistol. With her lead foot, she tipped the top of the box. A tabby, long and lanky, its fur ratty and matted, one ear torn and a ragged scar bisecting its glowing, almond eyes, jumped out at her.
She almost screamed.
She almost pulled the trigger.
She almost wet herself.
But her training and experience paid off and she did none of those things. Heart racing she watched as the cat left the room in three bounding leaps, a long screech that was half wail, half growl streaming behind it.
It sounded hungry.
Forcing herself to breathe, she trained her light on the far doorway. The body would be in there. Sarah had no doubt of that. Whoever did this had had a fight on his hands. They must have battled all through the place; blood stained everything, everywhere. And Sarah felt certain that anyone losing his hand, his manhood and most of his blood, must also have lost his life. The victim would be in that room. Sarah owned an exceptional sense of spatial dimension and knew, having seen the place from the outside, that this was the farthest reach of the building. So the trail ended there.
In the distance, she heard the lonely wail of a siren; help on its way, and it wouldn’t take long. Nowhere in Gunwood took long to get to. The city was only one point six square miles in its entirety.
For the second time she considered waiting, but there might be someone alive in there. She might be able to save him; seconds could mean the difference between life and death.
Of course, the suspect might be in there too.
Still, she had a gun, a baton, pepper spray, a Taser and a bulletproof vest. What did the victim have? Nada—less than nada—being shy a hand, his manhood and most of his blood.
A few months ago her boyfriend, Daniel, ex-boyfriend now she reminded herself, had brought over the DVD of No Country for Old Men. She thought of how Tommy Lee Jones’ character had faced a similar dilemma when coming up against true evil. In the movie he had chickened out and retired in shame because of it.
The dark hole of the room gaped at her like a hungry mouth waiting to swallow her.
She shrugged her shoulders, easing the tension that was building there. Tommy Lee was a wuss.
Dominic Elkins, Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps—outfitted in desert cammies and Interceptor Body Armor—which were torn and fractured in several places by both bullets and shrapnel—gritted his teeth, clutched his M4A4 stubby nosed rifle close to his chest and allowed his body to fall, head first, down the air conditioning shaft. He’d rather have climbed in the other way around, but he didn’t have the energy and he was loosing blood fast.
It was cool in here, so different from the desert heat of the Afghanistan afternoon outside, a small pleasure he hadn’t expected—but dark and close—claustrophobic. The frightening feeling in the pit of his being as he fell—that light slightly dizzy stomach floating feeling he always got on an elevator or on the downhill slope of a roller coaster—washed over him. He ignored it as just another unpleasantry, one of a thousand that Marines had to endure in combat, and steeled himself for the jolt of impact that awaited him at the bottom. A joke from the past flitted across his mind, ‘Nobody ever died from falling—it’s the sudden stop at the bottom that gets you’. Under other circumstances he would have laughed. But he was in too much pain; besides the thought that he would be too late to save his men ate away at his mind. He had to save them, he had too. It was his fault they were in this mess. He was their leader; he should have seen the danger. That was his job. But he’d failed and now it might be too late—too late for them all.
His shoulders and back brushed against cool sheet metal, a whisper at first that quickly changed to the loud crinkle and clang of denting and flexing metal, as his weight shifted swiftly from one point to another on his downward glide. The angle turned and curved subtly until he was no longer free falling but instead zipping along on a long fast slide that ended smoothly with a gentle upturn that allowed friction to bring him to a stop. Turning to the side, he made out the empty hole where a grate had been but now rested eight feet below on the floor of a lighted room.
Smoke hung heavy in the air and from his location Dominic could hear the frantic chatter of machine gun fire punctuated by grenade explosions.
Someone was still alive and fighting; at least there was that.
Dragging himself a little way farther down the shaft, he swung his legs out the hole and let gravity do its thing. He landed on his feet, but his knees buckled and he crumpled to the shrapnel strewn floor. His Kevlar helmet cracked hard on the tiles making the room spin before his eyes, jarring every wound on his body and tearing open clotted holes and tears. But there was no time to rest and bleed out. He used the butt of his rifle to help gain his feet, staggered to a wall and used it for support as he made his way toward the gunfire. Pulling his M4 to his shoulder, he scanned the way before him with the fitted EOTech sight that painted a perfect red dot showing him his bullet’s exact placement should he fire. He left the room through a pulverized doorway and entered a long dark hall. Bodies littered the way. Civilians. The hostages he and his men were here to save. Some of them had their throats slashed, others had been shot through the head, and a few were decapitated. Dominic almost tripped over a woman staring up at him. There was a bloodless hole in her forehead above her right eye. Her burka was veil-less and her Perahan Tunban was pulled up showing her ankles and calves. If the woman were alive this would have been considered a shameful act according to Sharia Law, but in death there was no pride or shame; only the naked brutality of wanton violence.
The sounds of combat were growing steadily louder. Blood loss and fatigue made him sloppy. He let his tactics slip and staggered across an open doorway. Splinters of wood scattered across his face as bullets ripped apart the doorframe. Dropping to one knee he fired a three round burst into the chest of a Taliban terrorist who was running and shooting at him from the hip. The man’s chest exploded and he jerked to the side and fell twitching. Dominic thumbed the weapon back to single shot.
Dragging himself back to his feet, Dominic saw his own blood spatter big drops on the floor. He took several deep breaths and moved forward through the room. There were more bodies; some civilian, some Taliban and one of his men; Corporal Jarrod Black. Most of Jarrod’s face was gone and his arms and torso were badly burned. Dominic reached down and pulled off one of his dog tags. He tucked it into a pocket and continued on.
His equilibrium was shot and his energy nearly depleted. He sent up a silent prayer asking God for strength and endurance. A sneaky voice from his subconscious spoke up telling him that God didn’t listen to murderers. He shoved the voice aside and pushed through the next two rooms. He rounded a corner; coming up behind a wall of screaming, shouting, shooting men.
They were the enemy and they had his men trapped at the far end of a large, open room, maybe thirty yards long and twenty wide. His men were laying down a steady barrage of gunfire, hiding behind a haphazard barricade of thick wooden tables and toppled metal file cabinets. The Taliban were lined up behind several doorways along a curved hallway that fed into the large room. It was long and rounded and wide. Dominic was less than twenty feet behind the closest and they hadn’t noticed him yet.
That was about to change.