San Francisco, 2002, The Last Chapter

Detective Grimes skidded up to the door, almost stumbling as she entered the office. Steyer and Remington turned to her with expressions of surprise.

“Where’s the fire, detective?” Steyer asked, sipping his coffee.

“Montara,” she panted, bending to catch her breath.

Remington turned to Steyer with a raised eyebrow. His partner’s wide-eyed expression made him realize that she was not joking. They were out the door in a matter of seconds.

 

Steyer stood, hands in his pockets, on the shoulder of Route 1, watching the firefight. Next to him, Remington scowled. He had his back to the remainder of the structure, finding it difficult to watch.  Although the majority of the fire had been knocked down with a portion of the house still standing, they were still likely to find four bodies inside.

“This is my fault,” Remington said as the heat of the fire gave way to the cold ocean air.

“This is not your fault,” Steyer assured him.

Remington shook his head, turning to the fire, then away again. “I shouldn’t have engaged him,” he explained. “I freaked him out–got too close. I should have waited for back-up. He couldn’t have killed all of us. And now all of them are dead.” He waved a hand back toward the house.

Turning, Steyer grabbed the younger man’s shoulders and forced him to face him. “Special Agent Remington, this has nothing to do with you,” he said. “It’s been over three weeks. It was time.” Remington looked askance, but Steyer grabbed his chin. He did not let go when Remington tried to pull away. “This man murdered my partner, not three feet from me. I’ve wrestled these demons, agent. It took me a long time to realize that, given the circumstances, the same thing would have happened to anyone: Fire marshal, local PD, anyone. Not just me. Not just you.”

Remington stared at him, shocked by this lapse in Steyer’s cool and professional demeanor. Steyer released him, nodding. Remington stared, letting Steyer’s words sink in before nodding.

“Now,” Steyer’s matter-of-fact tone returned as he straightened his jacket, “fire’s out. Let’s go see if we can gear up and get in.”

 

 

Remington was kicking through debris. Steyer had been called over to see if he could make a tentative ID on a partially-charred corpse. The sun was crawling out from behind the ocean behind the house, threatening a deceptively-beautiful sunrise.

The phone in Remington’s pocket began to buzz. Stepping over a wall, he cleared the debris and pulled it out of his pocket. It was from a local number.

“Remington,” he answered.

“Agent Remington,” a man replied in a breathy voice.

The muscles along Remington’s spine knotted at the sound of it. “Who is this?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know you better.”

Remington took a deep breath to keep himself from screaming into the phone. He turned slowly, studying the people picking through the sight. When he caught Steyer’s eye, he spread his arms and dropped them. “Who–”

“I’m leaving now, Agent Remington, but I look forward to seeing you again next time. I might even finish what I started.”

“What do you mean, finish what you started?”

Adieu, mon putain.” The phone clicked, leaving Remington alone with the flaming sunrise.

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 13

Steve-V was curious when he heard the front door slam with the sound of cracking glass. This was followed by the sound of thunking and crashing, as things were thrown across the living room. A scream of rage. A table being over-turned. By the time Lark’s footsteps reached the hall, Steve-V wasn’t so sure he wanted a visit right now. His heart throbbed against his ribs as he waited. He remembered with no little amount of regret that there was no one else left in the house but him.

When the door to the room was thrown open, Lark stared at Steve-V with such a cold, seething rage that his throat constricted. He found it hard to breathe. Dangling from the man’s fingers was a medium-sized pear of anguish, and he also held what looked like a few photographs.

Oh, Steve-V thought, taking a deep breath. “Pr-problem?”

“Sit. Down,” Lark growled.

Putting his hands up in surrender, Steve-V obeyed. Lark didn’t bother to close the door behind him. He crossed the room in a few broad strides, brandishing three photos in front of him. Steve-V would have smiled proudly had he not been paralyzed with fear. With several deep breaths, Lark appeared to be about to speak, but could not. His face flushed with pent-up rage.

“I – I’m just like you,” Steve-V said softly. He realized the next second that it was the wrong defense strategy.

With another scream of rage, Lark punched him in the face. The blow flattened his nose, knocked his front teeth askew, and threw him to the floor.

“I. Don’t. Touch. Children!” he screamed. “No. Children!”

He punched him with each word. Grabbing him by the hair and an arm, Lark pulled him back into his seat. Steve-V opened his mouth to plead, but only a spray of blood emitted from it.

Taking the photos, Lark stuffed them one-by-one into Steve-V’s mouth. “Here!” he screamed with each jab. “Here!”

Steve-V tried to stop him by grabbing his wrists. Lark took his right hand, crushing it and twisting his wrist until he heard it crack.

“And you don’t seem to know how to use this properly,” Lark yelled, holding up the pear. “Let me educate you!”

Steve-V turned his head from side to side, clenching his jaw, as Lark attempted to shove the round end of the implement into his mouth. Lark grabbed his face where his nose had been, slipped two fingers where his front teeth had been, and used the pear to help pry his jaw open. The photos were shoved deeper into his throat as he shoved the pear in, choking him. But when Lark began to turn the pin spreading the quarters, the photos shifted, and Steve-V could get some air. Denied the mercy of suffocation, Steve-V screamed and whimpered as the pressure split his jaw.

Any minute now, Steve-V thought desperately. Any minute now, I’m going to die. It’s going to be over. Dear Lord, have pity. Be merciful.

But the Lord was merciful.

Lark stopped turning the pin when he was satisfied that Steve-V would not be able to remove the tool. With a sigh, he stood back. When Steve-V raised his left hand to the pin, Lark broke it as well.

As Steve-V whimpered unintelligibly, Lark turned away from him and left the room. Steve-V struggled to pull the pear out with his broken hands, but failed. Falling out of the chair, he cried on the floor, jerking painfully at the heavy, lead tool in his mouth.

Lark returned with a jug in his hand, full of yellowish-brown liquid. Unscrewing the lid, he tipped it over on the man lying on the floor. Steve-V squirmed in vain.

Although Lark was tempted to spend the entire jug on the bloody mess in front of him, he showed restraint. He poured only enough to soak Steve-V’s robe. Placing the jug well out of the way, Lark pulled a box of matches out of his pocket.

“I’m glad,” he said, striking one, “I can take a moment to enjoy this this time.”

Steve-V stared up at Lark with terror in his eyes. He was confused by the last words that came out of the man’s mouth. But, of course, there was no way he could ask him to repeat them.

“Good-bye, Jed,” Lark muttered, letting the match fall.

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 12

Remington’s head throbbed, his legs were stiff, and his torso felt as if he had been beaten with a sledge hammer. He rose a hand to his forehead, and it came away wet. Everything was dark and still. The floor was cold underneath him. When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by indecipherable shapes. His hand went to his side, but his gun was not in its holster.

Grunting, Remington rolled over onto his stomach and looked around. Out front, blue and white patrol lights were filtering in through the windows. He was able to squint enough to bring the world into focus. It looked like the windows were lined with butcher paper.

He was in Steven Vanegas’s antique studio.

Remington groaned. It was the last place that he wanted to wake up in the dark. Rising to his knees and sitting back on his heels, he pressed his palm to the abrasion on his forehead. After a few deep breaths, he began to remember bits and pieces of what had happened earlier that evening: Woodall coming to get him, the sound of paper scraping, a blue tablecloth moving. Everything in-between was still hazy.

Reaching inside his blazer, Remington pulled out his phone. He had three missed calls from Steyer.

Probably on his way with the cavalry, he thought as he called him back.

“What happened?” Steyer asked when he answered. Not Hello? Not his name. A voice full of concern.

“I have no fucking idea,” Remington replied.

***

            The images from Persia Papyrus’s abduction had just returned from the photo lab. Yes, they were sharper, but very little of the Phoenix’s face could be seen.

I can see his haircut, Remington thought. We might as well go to the same barber.

Lowering his head into his hand, Remington considered calling it a night, when he heard heavy breathing at the door. He looked up to find Sgt. Woodall standing there with an alarmed expression, looking around the office.

“Is Agent Steyer here?” he asked.

“He went to get coffee,” Remington explained.

Woodall stared at him for a moment, as if he didn’t believe him.

“Good coffee,” he revised. The stuff they kept at the station tasted burnt and watery.

Woodall started as if remembering why he was there. “The burglar alarm at Steven Vanegas’s studio just went off,” he said.

***

            Remington spent the ride to the studio dialing and re-dialing Steyer’s number, only for it to go straight to voicemail. Sighing, he surrendered with an irritable text message: Alarm @ V Studio. Gt new fking phone. He sent it off before remembering his promise to consider his professionalism, and beat the phone against his forehead.

“Problem?” Woodall asked.

“He’s been having phone issues,” Remington replied, holding back: I’m worried. I want him to like me. We need to crack this fucking case, because I’d rather deliver pizzas again than go back to Organized Crime.

“Usually,” Woodall began, sensing Remington’s anxiety, “when these alarms go off, it’s someone looking to take advantage of the goods left behind, or a short in the wiring, or, Hell, I’ve even had a few raccoons.”

“A few?”

“Yeah,” Woodall chuckled. “Five.”

When they reached the studio, the crime scene seal had been cut through with a small, clean slice. They would not have even been able to see it unless they were looking directly at it. Remington wondered for a moment if Steyer had lied about getting the coffee, and half-expected to find him pouring over the scene when he pushed the door open. Instead, they found an empty storefront, dark except for the light filtering in through the butcher paper on the front windows, and spilling in from the back room.

The light was on in the back room.

Remington’s heart began to drum in his chest. When he pulled out his gun, Woodall took the cue to do the same. He gestured for the sergeant to keep an eye on the door as they walk down separate aisles. If they stayed low, they could scan under all the furniture on their way to the back.

As they approached the door to the back room, Remington thought he heard a hollow scraping, as if someone were picking papers off the floor. He held up his hand for Woodall to stop, and listened for a moment, but there was only silence.

The last thing he wanted to do was go back into that room, but he had no choice. There was a chance, however slim, that he could be saving four lives, perhaps countless more. He motioned for Woodall to cover his back.

Remington peered into the room from the side of the door. He did not see anything out of place, but he realized what the scraping sound had been: It was the sound of someone picking up photographs off the floor. There had been so many of them, and Remington had not looked at them long enough to know whether or not any were out-of-place, but the sound fit. Whoever had broken in was attempting to steal evidence of Vanegas’s crimes.

And, Remington concluded, since I heard them pick up the photos, but not open the back door, they are still in this room.

He looked at Woodall, hoping that the gestures he was making and the words he was mouthing would convey this message. Woodall nodded.

Keep it up, kid, Remington thought, not sharing his confidence.

Every table in the back room had a blue tablecloth running all the way down to the floor. Since nothing in the room beyond the blood on the floor was related to The Phoenix, Remington had left looking under them to local PD. He regretted that decision as he entered the room. Since nothing appeared out of place, he was going to have to go over the tables one-by-one.

Pausing a few feet from the front table, under which he had found the camera bag, he gestured to Woodall that he should begin to check the tables against the walls, and he would check the ones in the middle. Woodall nodded. Remington turned back to the table in front of him when he saw it: There had been three pears of agony on the table, small, medium, and large. The one in the middle–Remington assumed it was the medium one–was missing.

Cringing, Remington reached to lift the tablecloth. Just as his fingers touched it, it burst forth. A figure dressed in black collided with him, knocking him to the floor, and barreling past him. Remington’s gun flew out of his hand. He heard a gunshot, a shout, and a sickening crunch in the time it took him to roll over and find his feet. He had just enough time to process that Woodall was on the floor, and the man was running through the studio.

Remington was running after him in a second. With furniture and statuary crowding the aisles, it was difficult to maneuver at a fast pace. He found himself gaining ground on the black-clad intruder. As soon as he was close enough, he reached out and grabbed the hood of his sweatshirt. They both fell to the ground.

That was all Remington could remember.

***

            Watching the surveillance video made Remington’s skin crawl, but Steyer insisted on playing it over and over again. Since the camera only covered the front of the store, it did not offer an explanation as to why Woodall had been on the floor, eyes fixed open, with a crater in his skull. Remington assumed the missing pear has something to do with that.

The camera only caught the escape. The man, obscured by his hood, had feinted when Remington grabbed his sweatshirt. It was a sudden, graceful movement, slipping under Remington’s arm, only to rise back up and tackle him. Remington realized that he felt like he had been hit by a sledgehammer because he and the man exchanged quite a few blows. Remington had never been in the position to see his face. Somehow, the suspect managed to get on top of him and slam his forehead into the floor. Remington’s body went limp.

It was what happened next that made Remington’s skin crawl.

The suspect straddled his body, and pulled him onto his back. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small flashlight. He proceeded to pull up each of Remington’s eyelids, shining the light into his eyes with broad sweeps.

“He’s already killed one cop,” Remington had grumbled upon first watching the footage. “Why the fuck does he care?”

As if to answer him, the suspect held up the flashlight a bit so that the beam illuminated his entire face, then stroked his cheek.

He stroked Remington’s cheek with the back of his hand.

“It looks like someone has a crush,” Steyer said with a mischievous glance.

Remington’s stomach twisted into knots. The tension mounted as the man’s hand travelled down Remington’s chest, stopping just above his navel. The suspect froze for a moment, then reached into Remington’s blazer, and pulled out his phone. It was glowing–Steyer’s first missed call.

I owe you, Remington thought.

The suspect stood, hovering over Remington for a moment, before returning to the back room. He re-appeared in the doorway, holding what appeared to be a few photographs.

“I wonder what he could possibly want those for?” Steyer asked.

“Whatever it is,” Remington observed as the video continued, “he is pissed.”

The suspect paused in the doorway, shuffling through the photos. Slowly, he bent double, hands on his knees. Steyer and Remington exchanged a glance. They turned back just in time to witness the suspect break every piece of glass and porcelain within arm’s length. After the fit, he clutched the doorframe, his shoulders heaving. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he made a beeline for the front door and disappeared.

“Now, that was insightful,” Steyer said.

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 11

Lark sincerely believed that after everything he had seen and done, he was beyond feeling anything resembling shock, surprise, or disgust. Yet, when he visited Brandy’s room for the last time, he experienced all three.

The rank smell of waste hit him as soon as he opened the door. It turned his stomach. Staring at Brandy, he took a moment to get himself under control before he spoke:

“That’s… disgusting.”

Brandy was sitting at the foot of the bed, hugging her knees to her chest. Lark had confiscated her robe, towels, and sheets – anything she could wear – for her repeated rebellions. She had retaliated by smearing herself, head to toe, with feces. His utter disgust was only diminished by the awe he felt at her gall.

But he had to punish her somehow. He could not just leave and let her win. When the solution flitted through his head, he began to chuckle.

“Don’t move,” he told her, holding up his finger. As if leaving were an option.

When Lark returned, he was not alone. He opened the door wide and ushered Steve-V in. Although the man looked curious, he also looked eager for whatever Lark had in mind.

“This seems right up your alley,” Lark said. He remained in the doorway, not wanting to get any closer to the smell.

Nodding, Steve-V gave him an appreciative glance. Something about Steve-V’s placid expression terrified Brandy far more than Lark had. Her eyes went wide and she began to tremble.

(Absolutely disgusting…)

There were some lines even he would not cross, but he expected to be amused by Steve-V’s complete lack of boundaries.

“No…” Brandy breathed when Steve-V disrobed. She glanced from Lark to the naked man walking toward her, and her calm broke. “No!” she shrieked, jumping off the bed, putting it between them.

Steve-V was quite the showman. He was all smiles as he jumped up on the bed. Brandy moved to run around the end, but he shifted in that direction. Realizing that she would not be able to get around the bed, she darted instead for the bathroom door. Leaping after her, Steve-V caught her around the waist with a triumphant cry. Swinging her around, he threw her into the footboard so hard, the headboard cracked the wall.

“Don’t hurt her too much,” Lark warned. “I want her in usable condition after I hose her off.” Despite his words, he was in the process of deciding if she was worth the effort of keeping around. She had been a fun challenge, but now she had gone too far.

Not even bothering with the bed, Steve-V pinned Brandy to the floor. He did not appear to have heard what Lark said. Brandy screamed, first in fear, then in pain. Her cries cut off with a strangled gag.

“No choking!” Lark called. If Brandy was going to die, he should do it himself. But Steve-V blatantly ignored him, and her fight for air continued. With a sigh, Lark finally entered the room. Picking up the discarded robe, he looped it around the man’s neck, and yanked backwards. Brandy coughed as Lark pulled them apart.

Steve-V glared up from where Lark had dragged him, a demonic rage in his eyes. Lark pretended that he was not momentarily taken aback by the ferocity of has gaze.

“I said, ‘No’!” Lark gave him a sharp, back-handed slap.

Seeing the predators at odds, Brandy found her feet and made a run for the bedroom door. Without thinking, Lark shot toward her. Tackling her, he threw her back to the floor at the foot of the bed. Steve-V grabbed her by the hair, dragged her onto his lap, and put her in a headlock.

Lark’s arms, chest, and even his face were streaked with brown. He fought the urge, but could not restrain himself from gagging.

“Fuck!” he cried, trying to flick it off his hands. “Fucking cunt!” Brandy stared up at him in wide-eyed horror, struggling in vain to escape Steve-V’s grip. Steve-V broke into a smile again, hoping for what would happen next. “Have her!” Lark yelled, gesturing at her dismissively. “Whatever the fuck you want! Just make sure she’s dead when I get back.”

“No! No, Lark, please!” She howled in despair as he turned his back on her. He attempted to shake the shit from his hands before slamming the door behind him.

Brandy’s screams resonated through the house. They lasted for hours.

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 10

Lark had to force himself not to run or the door, but as soon as he reached the hallway, he shot to the garage. It was not until he tore open the back of the Jeep and pulled out a black doctor’s bag that he paused. A battle began in his mind.

I can fix this, I’ve done it before.

            You don’t have the tools for this.

            How long can he last untreated? What did you feed him today? When?

            How is his blood pressure?

            You can’t do this here. Just let him die.

            When will he start vomiting?

            You need to treat him, now.

            Now.

            NOW!

“Stop!” Lark cried, breathing hard. He looked around, as if there could be someone to hear. Taking a deep breath, he whispered, “Just… stop.”

He opened the bag. Even though he couldn’t see the contents, he could have located each one blind-folded. (You need to handle this just like you handled Persia.) He took another deep breath, forcing the urgency and concern away. He could fix it, yes, but he didn’t have to. That wasn’t what Sabbatical was for.

Snapping the bag shut, he carried it back into the house. Depositing it next to Steve-V’s door, he ducked back into Bryce’s room. The boy was still curled up on the bed, but no longer crying. He was pale and shivering. He wasn’t vomiting yet, which was a good sign.

The boy started when Lark ran a hand through his hair. He regretted cutting it like he had, but he forced that down as well.

“I’m going to take care of him now,” Lark whispered. “If you’re very quiet, you’ll hear it. Listen closely.”

Bryce nodded weakly.

As Lark left the room, he grabbed the ropes that had been used to bind Bryce’s arms and legs. He forgot, however, the rope that had been used to gag him, which had been tossed negligently to the other side of the bed.

****

            Steve-V had been sitting on the edge of the bed, and stood when Lark opened his door.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Lark replied. There was a desk pushed against the wall next to the door. Lark pulled it from the wall and checked its stability. It would do.

Steve-V looked as if he were trying not to appear smug as he tilted his head with polite curiosity. Lark wiped the smug look off his face when he crossed the room and punched him, knocking him to the floor. Before he could recover, Lark looped the rope around Steve-V’s neck and dragged him over to the desk. When he paused, Steve-V managed to pull the rope off, but Lark grabbed his hair and slammed his head into the floor until he stopped struggling.

“I didn’t hurt him,” Steve-V whimpered, clutching his head. “I just – I just had a bit of fun with him!”

“What makes you think,” Lark demanded, “that you could take liberties with him?” Lark forced him to his feet. “You are mine. Get it out of your head that you are ever going to be anything else. He is mine, and he has certainly endeared himself to me far more than you.”

Shoving Steve-V backward onto the desk, Lark forced him to lie prone. When he struggled, Lark slammed his head back again.

“Just lie still,” he said. “You might enjoy this.”

Although on the verge of tears, Steve-V took several deep breaths and fell still. Imitating the rope-binding Steve-V had used on Bryce, he coiled the rope several times around the man’s wrists and ankles, lashing him tightly to the desk. He cut several lengths with his hunting knife, and decided to forego Steve-V’s artistic knots with his more practical – more secure – military knots. He also bound Steve-V’s hips tightly to the desk.

“I don’t want you to be able to move that,” he explained, grabbing Steve-V’s penis roughly. “You might throw me off my game.”

“What are you going to do?” Steve-V asked with an edge of panic in his voice.

“I am going to give you a gift,” Lark said. Steve-V raised his head to stare at him, trying to determine if he was joking. “You are out of control, Steven Vanegas. I am going to give you the gift of control.”

Steve-V furrowed his brows quizzically. Lark reached into the hall and picked up his black doctor’s bag. He plopped it on the desk between Steve-V’s legs.

“Now,” he said, rummaging through the bag, making the tools clink loudly, “there are two… well, three hang-ups for this procedure: this is certainly not the most ideal set-up. In fact, this is just about the least ideal set-up, but I’m going to have to make do.” He spread out a cloth out between Steve-V’s feet, and placed upon it a scalpel, some surgical scissors, and a few clamps. Steve-V’s breathing became quick and panicky. “Second,” Lark continued, “I’ve never actually performed this procedure; I’ve only cleaned up if one went wrong… or if it was done by accident… or involuntarily…” He trailed off as he pulled out a pair of nitrile gloves, a suture kit, and a small basin.

“And third?” Steve-V asked in a small voice.

“Third…” Lark thought for a moment, looking over this improvised work station. “Oh, yes! Third: I’m going to have to save the anesthetic for Bryce, to repair the damage you did.”

“Huh?”

“You shouldn’t have taken liberties,” Lark said. “Fortunately, when I’m done, you shouldn’t feel the need to do so.” Smirking, he pulled on the gloves.

“No,” Steve-V breathed, realizing what was about to happen. “No! Please – don’t!” He began to struggle, attempting to kick. Lark’s tools almost rattled off the desk.

“Oh, now, that won’t do,” he said. Taking the hunting knife, he cut another length of rope and bound his knees tightly to the table, forcing them apart.

“Anything!” Steve-V begged. “I’ll do anything – I’ll give you anything you want.”

Lark shook his head, trying to focus on finding the appropriate incision point.

“Bryce!” Steve-V suddenly screamed, turning to face the wall. “Please don’t let him do this! Tell him it wasn’t anything – Tell him you’re OK! I didn’t mean to hurt you, please…” Realizing the hopelessness of his situation, he began to sob. “Please, make him stop…” He began to slam his head into the desktop in a last-ditch effort to escape his fate.

Sighing, Lark leaned back up. “You might want to stop moving,” he suggested.

****

            Bryce could hear the screaming in the other room. Since Lark had left, he had started to feel increasingly nauseous, but he did not move, overwhelmed by pain, shame, bitterness, and fear. When Steve-V stopped yelling, Bryce closed his eyes. They shot back open when the house echoed with flesh-rending, wordless screams.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Bryce could make out two things: the white tile beyond the bathroom door, and something white on the floor by the bed. It was a small bundle of rope.

Although it hurt to move, Bryce inched off the bed. Grabbing the rope from the floor, he hobbled into the bathroom.

****

            Steve-V had drifted in and out of consciousness as Lark sliced through his skin and detached his testicles. He was surprised at how straight-forward the procedure was, and felt pretty smug at how natural it looked after the excess skin was cut away and the incision closed. Lark slapped a 4 x 4 Band-Aid over it, and declared the surgery successful.

“Wakey, wakey,” Lark said, smacking Steve-V’s face with a bloody glove.

Groaning, Steve-V’s eyes cracked open. He was sweating and pale. Lark was surprised he hadn’t gone into shock.

“Would you like to eat these?” Lark asked, holding up one of the testicles. “I can fry ‘em up real good. Seems right up your alley.”

Steve-V turned his face away. His body began to shake with sobs.

“They’re a bit small anyway,” Lark observed, turning it in the light, then dropping it back into the basin. “It’s a shame. I make a mean Rocky Mountain oyster.”

Lark rolled his bloody tools into the cloth and placed it into the basin, then placed his bag back outside the door. Before he left, he took the hunting knife and cut through the ropes biding Steve-V to the desk.

“I would give you some Aspirin,” he said, as Steve-V slowly unwrapped himself, “but that would be bad for your blood pressure. Shock and all, you know.”

Wincing, Steve-V rolled onto his side. As soon as Lark left the room, he curled into the fetal position, hands between his legs, and began to cry.

****

            To unwind, Lark took his time cleaning his tools. Bryce had several hours – at least – before he became critical, and that was if he really had a perforated colon. Although Lark was confident in his assessment, he had no way of being able to confirm the diagnosis outside of a hospital. Only time would tell.

As Lark waited for the water on the stove to come to a boil, he heard a thunk! from one of the bedrooms. He paused to listen, recalling the sound from a distant memory that eluded him.

Lark turned off the stove and picked up the hunting knife. He peered into Steve-V’s room, finding the man where he had left him on the desk top. Closing the door, he went across to Bryce’s room. The boy was no longer on the bed. There was a thudding coming from the bathroom.

The image of a young woman in a pink robe flitted through his mind. He had thrown her over a bannister, using her robe belt as a makeshift noose. The belt made that noise as the weight of her body pulled it taut. Lark realized what he would find as he came to the bathroom door.

Bryce was not as fortunate as the young woman, who had already been dead for several hours. He had tied some rope to the shower head, leaving only a short distance for the fall. Too short to break his neck, but not long enough to him to get his feet under him. His face was turning purple, and he clawed helplessly at the rope. He’d decided he didn’t want to die like this.

Lark stared at him from the bathroom door. The boy needed to die. Even this would be more merciful than the fate Steve-V had created for him. But when the boy reached out to him, he recalled their laughter on the porch of the apartment. Sighing, Lark entered the bathroom. Standing on the edge of the tub, he sliced through the rope and caught Bryce as he fell.

The boy coughed and sputtered, gasping for air. Lark cut the rope from his neck. Lying back in the tub, he wrapped an arm around Bryce’s shoulder and held him against his chest.

“It just –” he coughed, “It just hurts so much.”

“I know,” Lark said.

“Please,” Bryce begged. “Please, can’t you just let me go? I just wanna go home.”

“I will.”

“Yeah?” There was no disbelief in his voice, only hope.

“Yeah,” Lark replied.

Taking the boy’s chin in his hand, he dragged the knife across his throat, making sure to cut long and deep. Bryce only struggled for a few seconds, the blood pouring out, spilling down onto Lark’s body. The warmth of it felt good, but Lark laid there until it was cold and sticky.

Sniffling, he shoved the body off of him and turned the shower on.

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 9

Steyer looked around at the collection in the back room, trying not to describe the way he felt as impressed. He observed Remington’s expression of disgust.

Welcome to the world of Violent Crimes, he thought.

Steyer browsed the tools and implements around the perimeter and hanging on the walls, while Remington stepped up to the tables in the middle of the room.

“Do you think our Phoenix had any idea what he was looking at?” Steyer asked, running his fingers over the dust covering the spoke of a wheel.

“I don’t even know what I’m looking at,” Remington replied. He wrinkled his nose as he lifted a pair of clamps. “But I can guess,” he added.

As he made his way along the front table, his foot scraped against something. There was a camera bag tucked just under the table.

“God knows,” he said, kneeling by the bag, “he’s probably into this kind of stuff.” Shaking his head in disdain, he opened the bag. It contained an expensive-looking Canon digital camera, and two lenses. A stack of photos was tucked between the lenses and the edge of the bag. As he fished them out, Steyer spoke.

“The Phoenix seems more like a hands-on kind of guy to me,” he observed, taking down a Spanish tickler and turning it in his hands. At least, the bodies in Phoenix reflected that mentality; there had not been enough left of the Detroit bodies to make any assumptions.

Nodding absently, Remington turned his attention back to the stack of photos in his hand. One glance, and he jumped back, dropping them and jerking his hand away as if they had burned his fingers. Steyer spun around. Remington looked up at him with a hurt and lost expression. The senior agent crossed the room in a few quick strides to find the photos now littering the floor around the camera bag.

“Oh, God,” Steyer murmured, covering his mouth with a hand. The upturned photos held images of children. Some were streaked with blood, others with feces, all with tears. Steven Vanegas posed with a few of them on his lap or clutched to his chest, displaying a few of the devices that surrounded them. Some of them were before use, but most of them were during.

Steyer did not close his eyes quickly enough. His stomach churned, making him regret taking cream in his coffee. He could hear Remington behind him, attempting to gain control over his breathing. He heard the sound of stretching latex as the younger agent tore his gloves off and threw them to the floor.

****

            Lark left Brandy’s room, his arms full of every textile in the room: sheets, towels, curtains, even her robe, anything she might be able to wear. Screaming a slew of insults after him, her fist hit the door as soon as it was closed. He debated for a moment going back in and slapping her around for a bit, but a sound from the front of his house drew his attention. Frowning, he dumped the pile against the wall and padded soundlessly to the end of the hall.

“What the fuck are you doing?” He spoke before he could consider whether it was the best decision.

Steve-V was sitting at the dining room table with Lark’s bag open in front of him. The contents of the bag were spread about before him: his phone, his autographed copy of Persia’s book, his notepad, the hunting knife, the keys to the Jeep and Brandy’s car, and his wallet. The wallet was open, and Steve-V was currently shuffling through all of his ID’s.

“These are really well-done,” Steve-V said, flipping open one of the two passports. “I was just wondering which one is the real you.” He leaned the chair on its two back legs. “Lark, Jay, Scott, Avery? No… since these two match, I think it’s one of these.” He held up the passports with two of the driver’s licenses. “So, is it Wren or Thaddeus? My money is on Thaddeus, because you sure don’t sound Greek to me… Doctor.”

As Steve-V spoke, burning rage bubbled up from Lark’s chest and into his face, but something akin to terror crawled up the back of his neck. When he saw the Greek passport, explicitly tied to the actions he used it for, he was suddenly fifteen again, seeing that expression of abject disappointment on his father’s face. It crushed him.

Without a word, Lark bounded forward, kicking the legs out from under the chair. It fell backwards, Steve-V’s head hitting the floor with a loud thud! The ID’s clattered to the floor around him. Grabbing the knife, Lark straddled him.

“No – wait!” Steve-V cried as Lark raised the knife above his head. “I have a proposition for you!”

“What?” Lark bellowed.

“I think we should team up,” Steve-V said quickly.

“What?” Lark asked, more incredulous than interested.

“You like – you like the hunt,” Steve-V explained, “and – and the challenge of security. But I, I was never any good at that. I… I like the fruit. If you help me… hunt, I can expand your horizons, make things more interesting for you.”

Lark lowered the knife to a more neutral position. It was obvious that Steve-V’s deviant interests were far more sophisticated than his own.

“Like what?” he asked.

“Like Bryce,” Steve-V replied, nodding his head toward the boy’s room.

Looking up, Lark was filled with uncharacteristic concern. He pulled Steve-V to his feet and shoved him into the hallway. Unable to shake the feeling that he was walking into a trap, he pressed his ear to the door of Bryce’s room and listened carefully. He was sure that he could hear the boy whimpering within, but there was only one way to be sure. Slowly, he opened the door.

As soon as he heard the door open, Bryce attempted to cry out, but he was gagged by several lengths of rope. He was bent over the footboard of the bed, and almost every inch of his arms and legs were wrapped in tightly-bound rope. His arms had been forced to an almost-90 degree angle from his back. Lark had seen similar images in Japanese bondage photos. Bryce appeared to be in a great deal of pain.

“See?” Steve-V said, pushing past him. Bryce attempted to scream at the sight of him. He grabbed the boy’s hair and pulled his head back. “He can’t struggle, can’t escape… he can’t even move. He’s all yours.” He ran a hand down the length of Bryce’s back. “Though… I did take some liberties with him.”

“I can see that,” Lark observed. There were red and brown stains running down the ropes across the back of Bryce’s legs; It appeared that Steve-V had cleaned up the actual mess. “Where’d you get the rope?” he asked. He was not entirely interested in the answer, but wanted to distract Steve-V as he examined the damage. It was extensive – far worse than Lark had intended for the boy.

“Out in the garage,” Lark replied. “There’s, like, hundreds of feet in there, a lot more than just this.”

Lark nodded, trying not to let his face betray his thoughts. The garage… he had not thought to secure the garage. All any of them had to do was hit the button to open the door, and they would be free. He would have to fix that, but first…

“Do you like the knots?” Steve-V asked eagerly, pointing to the decorative knots he had tied the rope off with. “I’m very good with knots; I can teach you.”

“Go to your room,” Lark said coldly. The smug expression disappeared from Steve-V’s face, but he recovered it gracefully, shaking his head.

“I don’t think you un –”

Lark cut him short by shifting the knife in his hand. Steve-V cowed back, putting his hands up. Nodding, he backed to the door.

“You’ll like it, I promise,” he said. “Just – just give it a try.”

He closed the door behind him. Lark stood in silence, listening carefully. Only when he heard the door to Steve-V’s room close did he begin to untie the boy. Bryce’s entire body began to shake with sobs.

“Don’t move,” Lark murmured. “I’ve got you.”

Gently, he lifted him off the footboard, which must have been cutting into the boy’s torso for hours, and placed him onto the bed. Curling into the fetal position, Bryce clutched his aching shoulders.

“I –” he sobbed, “I hurt – inside – it burns.”

Lark took a deep breath. Climbing onto the bed, he put a hand on the small of Bryce’s back. “Here?” he asked. When the boy nodded, Lark moved his hand around to the front, pressing gently under his navel. Bryce cried out weakly. Lark frowned. Steve-V’s attack must have perforated his colon. It required immediate attention. He could fix it, but he didn’t have the tools.

“How could you let him do that to me?” Bryce demanded.

Lark shook his head. “I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t know, but I’ll take care of it.” He stroked the boy’s hair for a moment. “I’ll take care of him,” he added.

 

San Francisco, 2002, pt. 8

Persia was fierce. Every time Lark opened the door to her room, she barreled into him in an attempt to get out. He began to soften his steps, and gradually mastered the art of opening the door without making a noise. Not only did it reduce Persia’s bids for freedom, he was able to use it to startle the others as well.

Lark must not have been as quiet as he believed himself to be. Either that, or Persia countered his silence by lying constantly in wait. He opened the door silently. He was so focused on holding the doorknob just so that he did not notice Persia crouched by the door until she collided with him. They both hit the door, knocking it wide, and falling to the floor. Lark grabbed for her, but she rolled out of his reach and shot out the door.

“No!” he bellowed, jumping to his feet and running after her.

(What if I left the knife out?)

It was a straight shot from the hall to the door.

(What if I didn’t secure the door?)

Persia was so focused on her destination that she didn’t see the step down at the end of the hall. Stumbling, she fell into a table. It toppled over on her. She attempted to dart forward again, but fell back to the floor. Lark tackled her, turning her onto her back and straddling her torso.

Whimpering, Persia made a weak attempt to push him off. She seemed disoriented. He took her wrists in his hands, but she pulled them to her chest and let them rest there.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he murmured. Releasing her, he ran his hands over her head. She winced when he found the spot, just above and behind her right ear, where she had hit the table. “Oh, Lioness…”

Slowly, Persia broke down. She tried to shake his hands away, but he placed them firmly on either side of her head. When she realized she was not going to escape, he was not going to let her go, she began to cry.

 

When Lark returned to Persia’s room with lunch, he found her huddled against the headboard. Her face was pale, and she was cradling her head. She was uncharacteristically still.

“Migraine?” he asked, placing her plate on the bedside table.

Persia nodded. She looked like she was about to cry. Seeing her so humbled was disarming.

“Lioness…” he murmured, crawling onto the bed and sitting in front of her. He took her face in his hands. “Let me see. You may have gotten a concussion from your little escape attempt.”

With a sigh, she turned her face up to him. Her cinnamon eyes were full of pain. Her pupils were dilated, despite the low light, and she had trouble keeping them focused on him. His brow furrowed. She closed her eyes and lowered her head again. Brushing back her dreadlocks, he found a clear fluid gathering in her right ear. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“What?” she asked.

“It looks like a concussion,” he lied. His hands drifted to the back of her neck, and he began to rub the muscles on either side of her spine. Not surprisingly, they were as tight as twisted wires. Persia winced at first, but after a moment, she began to relax.

“Here, let me…” he began, moving around behind her. He had to be perfect, precise. He began massaging her shoulders and the base of her neck.

“Persia,” he whispered, “would you do something for me?”

“Hm?”

“The poem you recited at the bookstore. The one about the hogs. Would you recite that poem for me?”

Taking a deep breath, her muscles slowly began to relax under his hands. When she spoke, her voice was not hard and assertive, as it had been when he met her, but soulful and convicted.

“If we must die—let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe;

Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but –”

 

Before she could finish the line, he took her chin in his hand, and twisted her head violently. Even he was shocked by the force with which he did it. From behind, he met her cinnamon-eyed gaze before releasing her head. Slowly, her limp body fell on its side.

If he had not been perfectly precise, she could still be alive – even though only for a few increasingly agonizing hours. It was the first time he had attempted that maneuver, and he wasn’t convinced that it was as easy as it looked in the movies. His hand shook slightly as he lowered it to her throat. He told himself it was from the adrenaline. He could not find a pulse. Holding a hand – still shaking slightly – over her face to block the light, her pupils did not respond.

With a sniff, he left the bed. He tugged at the hair on the back of his head as he crossed to the door. He was still shaking – from the adrenaline. Pausing by the door, he had to resist the temptation to turn back and look. With a deep breath, he swallowed, forcing down his thoughts, forcing down the adrenaline. After a moment, the tremor stopped.

Returning to the bedside, Lark picked up the plate. He pulled a grape off the vine and bit it in half. He left the room, popping a few more into his mouth.