The sharp winter wind whipped across the rooftop, carrying tiny pinpricks of snow. She estimated she had at least two minutes before anyone else would venture through the glass doors into the open air of the rooftop garden. She worked quickly. It was for just such an occasion that she carried spray paint.
"'The fog comes on little cat feet'," she said quietly to herself as she worked, quoting Carl Sandburg. "'It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches, and then moves on.'" She capped her spray paint and dropped it back in her purse, and looked over her work. There was only one person who could understand the message, and no guarantee of that much.
"If you're lucky," she added.
Her high-heeled shoes clacked as she walked away, carefully avoiding the pool of blood spreading across the white tiles of the garden path.
Case 1: Grendel
Item 1: The Fifth Victim
The sky was a March sky, pale blue with swaths of clouds that teasingly hid and unveiled the sun in turns.
Jade shivered and pulled her jacket tighter when she stepped out of the jeep. Half a dozen officers were milling around the crime scene. The overgrown grass and weeds were a sickly brown-yellow, with patches of dirty snow in the shadows. The field had been a park once. The road running by it was cracked and pitted with potholes, with weeds, bushes, and saplings gnawing at its edges. There was a rusted, toppled fence lying along the roadside, only partially visible through the grass.
One of the police officers—a tall, fit man with platinum blond hair and an angular, vaguely feline face—broke away from the others and came toward her.
"Good morning, Detective Marquez," he said in a heavy Russian accent.
"If you want to call it 'good'. I wish you'd told me to wear a thick coat. Isn't this supposed to be spring?"
"Sorry for the oversight. The body was found over here. It has already been taken to the morgue."
"Does it look like the other four?"
"Yes and no. Most of the others were older people. This was a young man, young and healthy."
"So was the last, Carla Weston. The killer's getting bolder."
"Classic serial killer pattern: start with low-risk targets: vagrants, prostitutes, elderly. Do we have the victim's ID?"
"No. He had no wallet, no cards with him. There were no vehicles parked nearby."
"We might get something to ID him from the autopsy."
Jade drifted over to the spot where the body was found. Its location was marked by bent grass and blood staining the ground below it.
She took out her phone and looked at the initial crime scene photos, which she'd only had time to glance through before heading out. The victim had dark hair and tan skin. He was young, clean shaven, athletic. He was found lying supine, sharp force trauma on his arms and chest.
"Kir, was anything found near the victim? Anything he might have been carrying?"
The blond man looked over. "There were a few broken bottles and old pieces of trash nearby, but ambient temperature shows they were already there before the man. First responders were about twenty minutes after death."
"No weapon. That's a little weird. He wasn't carrying a phone or ID; he might have been a vagrant, but walking alone at night in this area, you'd think he'd have a stick at least, for the feral dogs."
"I heard you questioned the witness. Is this true?" Kir asked.
"Yeah. I talked to her last night when she came in to give her report."
"What did she say?"
"Not much that's useful. It was dark, she was freaked out. She says there was just one killer. And she said it was a man, which I'm sorry to say is another strike against your wild animal theory."
"Wild animals also wouldn't have made sense for Weston or Shaw. It was just an idea."
"I'm still not convinced Shaw was a victim of the same killer. She was the only one found inside a house. All the others were outside in the open."
"But otherwise she matches victim profile better than Weston." He looked past her to a police cruiser that was just pulling up. "What is he doing here, I wonder."
Jade shrugged, and walked toward it. "Captain Norgren," she greeted the stocky, brown-haired man as he stepped out of the car. "Impatient for our report?"
"I just wanted to see for myself." He stopped and looked over the field, then focused in on the blood stain.
"We still don't have much to go on," Jade said. "Other than the extreme violence, and that the killer seems to be targeting vagrants and hunts at night, there's no apparent pattern."
"That and the lack of evidence itself." Norgren agreed. "I just got word that Central has now officially designated this a serial killer."
"About time. Do they have a suspect?"
Kir looked down at the crime scene photo still on the screen of Jade's phone. "So since this is now a serial killer case, does Central know of any similar killings elsewhere?"
"If they do, they haven't told me. They're sending an inspector. He should get in tonight.".
"Just one?" Kir added.
"They're stretched as thin as we are. Apparently this guy is a specialist in this kind of thing."
"We can use all the help we can get," said Kir.
"I agree. We're not getting any closer to stopping this killer on our own," Norgren said.
Jade's eyes narrowed. "Yet. We have a witness on this one."
"Which is good, but do you think that will be enough to catch the killer before anyone else dies?"
"I don't see how the CIA could solve it any faster than we could on our own. We've got the highest solve rate in the department for a reason."
"Technically," Norgren said hesitantly, "you don't anymore. These murders drag down your average."
"Dammit," Jade said.
"The decision's been made." Norgren turned and walked back to the waiting car.
Once he was out of view, Jade scowled. "He didn't have to come all the way out here just to break the news in person. We don't need someone from Central looking over our shoulder."
"He knows that."
Jade paced around the perimeter of the crime scene. As violent as the killing had been, there were no bloody footprints or blood drops leading away.
The eyewitness hadn't seen any vehicle. She couldn't tell what kind of weapon the killer was using. She'd been riding her bike home from work in the middle of the night. When she'd seen someone stooped over a bloodsoaked body, she'd started riding faster. As a result, she hadn't gotten a good look at the perp. On the other hand, that action meant she'd survived to describe him at all.
Jade walked around the edge of the field, taking in the surrounding area. The outlines of the foundations of houses long since torn down were visible through snow and debris. There was a lot of thick brush and densely packed trees, plenty of places for someone to hide on a dark night.
In each of the previous four murders, the killer had managed to avoid leaving his own prints, DNA, or footprints. The MO was a mix of forensic sophistication and psychopathic violence. There was no doubt now that they were dealing with a serial killer, but why were there no open cases with a similar MO prior to the finding of their first victim four months ago?
Her phone chimed with a message.
Glancing up, she saw Kir looking down at the spot where the body was found, frowning in thought.
"Hey Kir," she said. "Madison's ready for us in Autopsy. You coming?"
"No, thank you," he replied. "I want to look around here some more. Let's meet up for lunch and catch each other up."
Jade didn't believe in ghosts, but she didn't like the morgue. It was the thought of all those bodies out of sight, tucked away in refrigerated drawers. She was fine when she could see the body; then it was just a body, a piece of dead meat, the leftovers of a person whose murder she had to solve. But out of sight, a body took on a life if its own. She had the same feeling in cemeteries.
"Good morning, Detective. Where's your partner?"
"Still at the scene. What do you got, Doc?"
The medical examiner, Doctor Madison Smith, was a middle-aged woman with short dyed hair—currently green. Her stout stature was offset by her height. She stood at just under six feet, and made Jade feel dwarfed even more than her six-foot-one but slim partner did.
The ME unlocked and drew out one of the doors lining the morgue wall.
"John Doe," she said, "is a mid-twenties biological male with Eastern European and Western Asian genetic markers. Teeth isotopes indicate he moved around a lot, too much to pin down a region of origin. Trace chemicals in his hair indicate he spent most of the past three months in the New York area."
"His prints aren't databased, so he can't be a legal immigrant. Any prior injuries that could help us figure out who he is?"
"A broken wrist in his early teens, three broken fingers on his left hand from two years ago. I don't know if that can help you. There are no matches in US medical records."
Jade was staring down at the man's face. "He doesn't look indigent. How was his nutrition?"
"It was great. Lots of vegetables and fish. I'd say his diet was better than mine. He also exercised regularly, weightlifting and cardio. I agree with you: John Doe is probably not indigent."
"Then why wasn't he carrying money or ID? If the killer took it, it's the first evidence of him taking a trophy."
"I can't help you there. But this attack is different from the others in another way. The other vics were attacked from the back or the side. John Doe's wounds are on the front."
"I noticed that. He fought back."
"Forcefully. He has bruises on his palm that indicate he was holding something with a lot of force when he died." She uncurled the fingers of his left hand, and indicated the marks on his skin, including four crescent-shaped abrasions where his nails had dug in.
"We didn't find any weapon at the scene," Jade said. "Was there any trace in the wounds?"
"No. It's just like the others. Multiple parallel sharp-force trauma with no speck of whatever material it was made of. The blades were extremely sharp. They scraped his ribcage and arm bones without chipping."
"This guy is fit; the killer has to be extremely strong," Jade mused. "Not to mention confident."
"With the amount of force exerted, absolutely. Catch this guy, Jade. I don't want any more of these bodies on my table."
"I'm working on it."
She met up with Kir at their favorite tavern, Cypress Harbor. It was divided into two rooms: a dining area and a bar. Both rooms had a low ceiling with unstained wood rafters, hardwood floor, and low lighting. The resulting ambiance wasn't exactly cozy or intimate, but it had a comfortable sense of coolness and obscurity.
"Good timing," Kir said. "I just got here."
They sat at their prefered table, a booth in a gloomy inside corner. A young, weary-eyed waitress with the word "HAVEN" tattooed in bright blue across her lips came to take their order. Kir ordered a chicken salad, Jade a roast beef au jus. They both got beer.
"Did we learn anything from autopsy?" Asked Kir.
"The kid was mid-twenties, healthy, extremely fit, and possibly from West Asia. He's lived around here for the past few months. He's moved around a lot, and he's been injured before. That plus no record in the U.S. and no ID made me think mercenary."
"Maybe. Most mercenaries, when they leave the wars, don't like people to find them."
"On the other hand, he seems pretty young for a mercenary. He couldn't have been more than fifteen during the Antarctic War. Isn't that where most of the mercenaries in the Asian border wars got their training?"
"Yes, but they do train younger people. Children with no family or no education or opportunities, a lot of them sign up for this army or that army. When one war ends, they go looking for another. It's all they know. Very sad."
"Do you think John Doe could have been a mercenary?"
"It's certainly possible. But the other victims certainly weren't, so I don't know what difference it makes."
"I doubt it would be significant for victimology, but it would show how dangerous the killer is."
Jade poked at her sandwich as she thought about the victims: an elderly homeless woman, two middle-aged homeless men, a prostitute, and possibly a foreign mercenary. How was the killer choosing his victims?
"I'll show his photo around the undocumented quarters," Kir said. "Someone might notice he's missing."
It was late afternoon and growing colder by the minute when Kir made his way through the quiet blocks of the depopulated suburb. To the north, the glass spires of the farm towers gleamed in the sunlight, and behind them lights were visible in some of the downtown skyscrapers.
Many of the immigrant squatters in the area settled in abandoned houses and buildings around Buffalo River, far enough from the officially inhabited city to by and large be left alone by the police, but close enough to participate in the black market economy.
It was a dangerous area, especially for a cop. Some of the undocumented who lived here had criminal pasts, or were wanted for war crimes. Many of them were from areas America considered enemy nations, many others merely didn't have any documents to prove their country of origin or their identities. They were desperate people, people who had lost everything.
It was by lucky chance that Kir hadn't ended up among them. The luck was that his application for political refugee status in the United States had been approved. But he'd lived like them, drifting from one country to the next, for five long years before that point.
Kir knew this area better than anyone else in the Buffalo PD. He had been here undercover for drug busts and looking for fugitives. Being able to speak Russian along with some Farsi and Turkish were helpful, but what helped him the most was not looking like a cop.
The inhabitants of the undocumented quarter were nomadic as a rule. With the constant specter of immigration enforcement, it seemed safer, and with no internal plumbing or garbage collection, it was a practical measure. But there were some things that stayed in one place. One of these was a black market hub specializing in alcohol and cigarettes. It had no name, and was run from what had been a bank, all the better to store the merchandise and the cash.
This was his seventh stop. The regular informants he consulted in the area hadn't recognized John Doe or heard anything about the deaths. He avoided coming to places like this, knowing that if he came by too often asking questions people would get suspicious.
When Kir approached the counter, the two men buying a jug of alcohol looked at him suspiciously. They looked East African, possibly Ethiopian.
The woman behind the counter was dark haired and pale, with a gaunt face and large, hungry eyes. There were two men in the back. Kir assumed they were all armed.
"I'm here to trade," Kir said as the two previous customers left.
"What are you offering?" the woman asked in Russian, with a Ukrainian accent.
He opened his satchel and produced two bottles of decent but inexpensive wine. It was the kind of thing that could only be purchased legally in the United States with ID to prove your age, making it a difficult thing to get one's hands on out here, unlike moonshine.
The woman was careful not to appear interested. "What do you want for them?"
"The first bottle I would trade for some raki if you have it," he answered, also in Russian.
"And the second?"
"Let's worry about the first first. Do you have raki or not?"
She nodded. From beneath the counter she brought out an unlabeled bottle and handed it to him.
He smelled it, then took a sip. It wasn't cold, and he prefered it halved with ice water, but it was raki, which would help establish his bona fides in a place like this, in contrast to his actual drink of choice, créme de menthe.
Drinking the raki also gave the impression he wasn't a cop, at least not a cop on duty. Also, trading over the wine without checking for ID was technically illegal.
He handed over the first bottle.
"What do you want for the second?"
"I'm looking for someone. Maybe you've seen him?"
He took out a photo of John Doe, digitally altered to look alive. Color restored to his face, a gleam carefully added to his eyes, upright, with a building added to the background. Careful examination would show the photo was a fake, but at first glance it looked like a natural picture, albeit of someone in a stiff, unsmiling pose.
"Yes," she said, sounding surprised. "He was here a few days ago. Strange man."
"How was he strange?"
"He came in here asking questions. He offered me money for information. Why are you looking for him?"
"A friend of mine said she needs to find him," he said. "She didn't tell me more than that. What kind of questions was he asking?"
"He was asking if there have been any strange deaths around here, or any strange attacks, people missing, or strange sightings."
"Strange like what?"
"I asked him that, but he just said strange in any way."
"What did you tell him?"
She shrugged. "People die. Around here, when someone dies, we usually know who did them in. I had nothing to tell him."
"What was this man's name?"
"He didn't tell me. I didn't ask. He had a foreign accent. I don't know what it was."
Kir nodded. "So he didn't say anything else? No idea where he might be staying or where he was planning to go?"
"No. He did say..." She frowned and shook her head. "He told me to be careful at night. As if I ever wouldn't be. But it was the way he said it."
"How did he say it?"
"Like there was something to be careful about. Like there was something out there."
Kir blinked. It was an odd thing. John Doe had not taken his own advice about being careful at night, and he'd been murdered.
"Sorry I couldn't be more help," the woman said.
"Thanks anyway." He gave her the second bottle of wine.
"Hey, if he comes back here do you want me to send him your way?"
"I would say yes if I thought there was any chance he'd be back," Kir said as he walked out.