My muscles tensed as the unconscious fight or flight response took over. I instantly flinched, and the action sent a stab of pain through the shoulder that I’d earlier bounced off the doorframe on the van. The sharp ache crawled up my neck and bore straight in to join with the rank and file of my preternatural migraine. It didn’t help either that I immediately followed the wince by jerking my head up from the grisly horror on the autopsy table and shooting a startled glance over my shoulder in the direction of the scream.
At least I thought it was the direction of the scream.
The piercing wail glanced once again from the tiled walls before folding itself into a fading echo that melded with pained whimpers. I twisted slowly around, searching for the source of the noise, but found none.
“What’s wrong, Row?” Ben asked.
“Did you hear that?” I answered, asking the question of myself as much as of him.
“That scream,” I explained. “Someone screamed.”
Under most circumstances, I was perfectly capable of distinguishing between the real and the ethereal, and this scream definitely sounded like the former. However, with no one in the physical realm to whom I could attribute it, and since it was apparently audible to no one else, I could only assume that it had originated on the other side. But, something didn’t feel right about it. I couldn’t explain why, but it didn’t fit. It was just too real.
I shuddered as I tried to wrap my thoughts around it. For a split second it made me itch all over.
“You goin’ Twilight Zone, white man?” he asked with sudden concern as he nudged my wife. “Felicity, do that thing.”
She was still choking back a sob. “What thing?”
“That thing where you make him not ‘zone out,’” he stated urgently. “Ground ‘im or short ‘im out or whatever.”
“Please, Mister Gant,” Lieutenant Albright spat as she tilted her head and shot me a disgusted stare. “Spare us your theatrics. This is neither the time nor the place.”
“I wish I could, Lieutenant,” I answered as I leaned to one side in order to look past her at the door. “But trust me, I’m not that good an actor.”
“Come now, Mister Gant. You have obviously fooled Detective Storm for some time now.”
“Lieutenant,” Ben started. “There’s more to this than you know.”
“I don’t think so, Storm,” she answered without looking at him. “I know exactly what is going on here, and to be honest, it bothers me that an officer attached to my unit can be taken in by such blatant chicanery.”
“I’m not bein’ takin’ in by anything, Lieutenant,” he returned.
“Of course you are, Storm. This man is nothing but a charlatan, and you are blinded by misplaced loyalty. You have been bewitched by his lies.”
“Don’t go there, Lieutenant,” he responded with more than a mere hint of anger in his voice.
Benjamin Storm was capable of taking a level of personal abuse that would set off the most even-tempered of individuals, and yet he would remain perfectly calm. However, he had his own set of triggers, among them being an almost fanatical devotion to his friends and family. Albright’s treatment of me had been wearing on him with each sardonic jibe she made, and it was finally beginning to show.
From the corner of my eye, I happened to catch a thin smirk that passed across the lieutenant’s features and knew that this was exactly what she wanted. Without missing a beat, she seized on the trigger and squeezed.
“How does it feel to be personally responsible for this man’s death, Mister Gant?” she asked.
“Back off, Lieutenant,” Ben instructed before I had a chance to respond.
“It’s okay, Ben,” I said.
She ignored both of us-or pretended to at least. “This is the second acquaintance of yours to meet a violent end, is it not? It would appear that being your friend is rather hazardous.”
“I said, BACK OFF, Lieutenant!” My friend’s voice raised a pair of notches in volume and filled the room to capacity.
“Or what, Detective?” She placed heavy emphasis on his title as she turned to face him.
“Let’s you and me go have a talk,” he instructed, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the door.
“I think perhaps we should,” she retorted. “You seem to be forgetting who is in charge here.”
He stepped back and aimed a hand at the exit. “After you.”
As Albright brushed past him, he turned to the medical examiner who had been shuffling about in silent discomfort during the entire exchange. “You wanna get them outta here, Doc.” The words were more a command than a question. “I think they’ve seen enough.”
Doctor Friedman nodded and muttered a quiet “yes” in acknowledgement. Ben then brought his eyes to rest on us and pointed at me. “You stay on this side of the never-never-land county line, got me?” He shifted his gaze to Felicity without waiting for me to answer. “And you make sure he does. I’ll be with ya’ in a few minutes.”
“Ben, it’s not worth…” I started.
He cut me off as he turned and stalked after the lieutenant. “Just go with the doc, and do what I tell ya’ for a change. This ain’t gonna take very long.”
Ben’s voice carried.
Even with several walls and closed doors between us, it carried, and it did so beyond anything I’d expected. It rode up and down as if someone was repeatedly twisting a volume knob back and forth just to see what it would do. You couldn’t really make out everything he was saying, but at the peaks, you definitely picked up on the expletives. He even used a few that I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard before, but I was positive I wouldn’t be attempting to repeat.
Lieutenant Albright’s stern voice fell into the low volume valleys between, inching up an octave or so in pitch but never even beginning to approach my friend’s elevated level of animated expression. There were enough snippets of both voices to get the general gist of the argument and that it was yours truly who sat at the center of the conflagration. No big surprise there, but still, between the both of them, within the past five minutes my name had been mentioned seventeen times. Actually, a more accurate statement would be that it was mentioned by Ben and taken in vain by Albright.
“He’s screwing up his career.” I tossed the comment out as nothing more than an idle observation. I didn’t really expect an answer.
“Aye, but better him than you,” Felicity replied, giving me one anyway. “At least it is his choice this time.”
We were sitting in the lobby of the medical examiner’s office, occupying a pair of seats against the wall opposite the reception desk. Doctor Friedman had not seemed entirely sure what to do with us once Ben and Albright left, so he had parked us here for lack of a better place.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“It wasn’t all that long ago that you were ready to do it for him, then. Remember the reporters?”
“Oh, yeah, that,” I replied with mild embarrassment in my voice. “I wasn’t really thinking about the various consequences at the time.”
“That would have been manageable, though,” I offered. “He could have done some damage control. Thrown it all on me and distanced himself.”
“Aye, Rowan, we’re talking about Benjamin Storm,” she outlined. “He’d never abandon you like that. The man is more loyal than a Saint Bernard.”
“You’re right,” I acknowledged. “I think he still could have found a way around it though. But this, I don’t know…”
“Aye, maybe so, but I’m betting it’s moot now,” she said.
She tilted her head back and closed her eyes, then let out a heavy sigh. Her face was still flushed from her recent bout of weeping as well as the attempt to contain it. Her composure had returned for now, but the emotional burden remained, for both of us.
“Probably,” I muttered, then finally asked, “So, what about you and me?”
“Aye, what about us?”
“I had the impression that I pushed a button or two earlier.”
“You did,” she acknowledged.
“So, that was before the bitch in the other room got under MY skin.”
“Not wanting to choose between being the pot or the kettle?”
“Aye, let’s just say I gained a thorough understanding of how you felt.”
We fell quiet as the argument down the hall continued for another round. I rolled my arm up and pushed back the sleeve on my coat to glance at my watch. I frowned when I saw that the bezel was shattered, and what I could make out of the display was mostly a darkened splotch where the liquid crystal had cracked and burned out. I looked at it for a moment, puzzled by what I saw. I quietly shifted in my seat, slightly twisting left then right as I mentally reenacted being forcibly shoved into the van.
Without a doubt, I remembered my left shoulder striking the doorframe, but I couldn’t recall anything happening on the right. Still, it was the only explanation, and cliche as it was, it had all happened too fast for me to remember for sure.
“What are you doing, then?” Felicity asked.
She must have sensed my gyrations in the seat because her eyes were still closed.
“Trying to figure out how I broke my watch.”
“Aye, it probably happened when Ben tossed you into the van.”
“That’s kind of what I was figuring.”
She lifted her arm and held it out to me. I reached up, pushed back the cuff of her leather jacket and looked at the timepiece that encircled her delicate wrist. I found myself stopping to think about the jumble of lines on the display before remembering to mentally flip them over. The lack of sleep was catching up with me.
“Remember to subtract fifteen,” Felicity reminded me about her penchant for setting her watch fast, ostensibly so she would always be on time.
I didn’t bother to point out to her that she was still habitually late.
The calculation worked out to the time being 8:15 a.m. It had been a little over four hours since we’d first arrived at the crime scene with Ben, but it already felt like it had been a week. Unfortunately, I knew from experience that it was only going to get worse. One of these days I hoped to be able to experience the other side of that coin-the one where it actually got better after the getting worse part.
I lowered my wife’s arm back to her lap and turned my head to look out the entrance foyer. The sun had officially peeked over the horizon something around an hour ago, give or take a few minutes. Still, the cloud cover that layered itself over the city wasn’t about to relinquish its hold. The muted light that managed to filter downward took on the grey pallor of dusk and oozed in to bring illumination, though not necessarily to brighten the landscape.
I heard my wife rummaging in her pockets as I stared through the windows at a wintry morning in Saint Louis. From where we sat, I could see the upper edge of the city hall parking lot on the opposite side of Clark Avenue. Cars were already filling the spaces as people went about their routines, oblivious to the horror going on behind these walls. To them, Randy Harper was no more than an unnamed victim of an atrocity that had been reduced to a ten-second breaking-story byte-and even that was only for those who actually caught the morning news.
A part of me wanted to be angered by their apathy, but for once this morning logic prevailed, and I knew they couldn’t be blamed. Still, it hurt. It was a throwback to the whole “misery loves company” thing. I was in mourning. In my heart, I wanted everyone else to mourn as well.
What pained me even more, however, was the fact that I wasn’t entirely certain that Lieutenant Albright was far off the mark in hanging me for the crime. Perhaps I was an unwitting accomplice in some bizarre, convoluted sense of the concept. People were dying; friends were dying. Moreover, for all the horrors I saw in my mind, I was powerless to stop it. In fact, I seemed to be at the center of it.
Felicity was still shuffling around behind me, and I finally heard her soft voice filled with deep concern, “Nancy?”
Silence filled the lobby. Even the argument between Ben and Lieutenant Albright had fallen to a level easily muffled by the walls. I could faintly hear the frantic sobbing coming from the earpiece of the cell phone my wife had to her ear.
“I know, I know…” Felicity murmured. “Is someone with you? Good.”
I closed my eyes and slowly massaged my temples while listening to the local side of the conversation. My wife was possessed of an intense maternal instinct. Ever since we had adopted this young Coven, they had become like foster children to us. In many ways, that feeling ran even deeper for her.
“Aye, I know dear, I know. Put Cally on, then,” she continued. “Cally? How are you making it? Is Nancy okay? Aye… Aye… I know. Have you spoken to anyone else? Aye, that’s good. Gather them. She needs her friends with her. Good. Yes. That’s where we are now…”
I looked back over my shoulder to see my wife nodding gently as she spoke, sadness woven through her pretty face and eyes glistening with tears that she was barely holding back.
“No honey, don’t bring her down here,” she instructed, as the gentle nod of her head became a semi-vigorous shake. “Not yet. She doesn’t need to see him like this.”
I reached over, covered Felicity’s free hand with my own, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. I didn’t envy her at the moment, but I respected her devotion to the Coven and loved her even more for it.
“Aye, make her a strong cup of chamomile and willow bark tea. Aye, keep her grounded, and just listen to her… I know… I know… Yes, Rowan and I will be there as soon as we can… I don’t know, dear, I don’t know… Aye, it’s not good, then… Aye, we’ll see you soon, I promise… Remember-just listen to her… Aye, goodbye.”
The phone issued a forlorn peep when she disconnected, and she sat there mutely staring at the device in her hand. A tear broke loose from the well in the corner of her eye and began rolling slowly down her cheek.
“How is she?” I asked.
“Hysterical,” she answered softly. “Cally is with her.”
“Yeah, I kind of picked that up. What about everyone else?”
“On the way. They’d been contacted by the police already, just like Ben said.”
“Good.” I nodded.
She anticipated the question. “Nancy was out of town on a business trip. Training seminar or something like that, then.”
“This is wrong, Rowan,” Felicity made a quiet, almost emotionless declaration. “It is just wrong.”
Silence rushed back into the room, filling the void as the words faded out. I squeezed her hand once again and tried to think of something to say but failed. I knew exactly how she felt, but we had fallen out of sync.
At this particular moment, I was shifting out of the early stages of grief and rushing headlong into anger.