Authors: Matthew Storm
Copyright © 2015
Cranberry Lane Press
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This is a work of
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author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual
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Many thanks to
Michele, for reading yet another of my painfully bad drafts.
Also thanks to Banks,
MS MR, S.J. Tucker, Lindsey Stirling, M83, and Kosheen, for the soundtrack.
thinking about killing myself for half an hour when my cell phone rang and
Sarah Winters asked if I’d come out and look at a crime scene. “It might be
she said. I figured I might as well. I could always kill myself later if I couldn’t
come up with anything better to do.
was in Hillcrest, a small neighborhood just north of downtown known for its
restaurants and nightlife. I parked next to an ambulance and got out of my
Mustang, putting a hand inside my black leather jacket to check that my Glock
was still there as I stood up. I’d known it was there, of course, tucked away
in its shoulder holster. It was
there. That knowledge never
stopped me from making sure of it, though. I’d gotten obsessive over it
recently. Not that anyone in their right mind could blame me.
was high and clouds were rolling in from the sea as I locked the Mustang’s door
behind me. The wind felt cool and moist, as if it might rain, but it probably
wouldn’t. San Diego was a tease that way. I loved the city, but the weather was
as predictable as a Swiss watch. There were times I would have killed someone
if it meant we could get a good storm for a change. Well, maybe not
Slapped around a little, maybe. That didn’t seem too unreasonable.
around for a moment before heading for the line of yellow tape that had been
set up to cordon off the alley. A small crowd had gathered nearby and a white
television news van with an array of electronics on its roof had parked just
behind them. A camera crew was already setting up lights and a reporter would
be on camera soon. They couldn’t have much yet, unless they’d been tipped off
to the fact that this might not be just any other murder. If they hadn’t been,
presence here was going to be a big clue as to what was going on. It was still
early enough that they might get their report onto tonight’s ten o‘clock news.
Then again, if this turned out to be what the media no doubt wanted it to be,
they might be willing to break into
America’s Super Teenage Singing
, or whatever it was that people were watching these days. A
serial killer who had gone silent, only to resurface some three and a half
years later, might even get national coverage.
uniforms guarding the alley didn’t bother asking for my ID. I wasn’t a cop
anymore, but there was little doubt every cop in the city would recognize me.
Fame is a funny thing. Cops tended to act like I was some kind of mythological
figure; something people talked about but never expected to actually see. That
could either work for or against me, of course. Plenty of people were probably
happy when Perseus chopped the Medusa’s head off. But others probably thought
Perseus might be a bit of a loose cannon, and wondered when he was going to flip
out and kill
one of the uniforms nodded at me, holding the yellow tape up for me to pass
under. I didn’t bother to correct him. Dan Evans, my old boss, had told me once
a cop, always a cop. I nodded back at the uniform and started down the alley.
was under a white sheet next to an overfilled dumpster. The CSI guys had
finished up, then, and they were just waiting for somebody to come and cart the
body off. But then I noticed two of the medical examiner’s guys waiting a few
yards away next to a stretcher. One of them was smoking a cigarette. I hadn’t
realized anyone in California still smoked. But that meant Sarah had made them
wait for me. That had been sweet of her. Probably unnecessary, but still sweet.
was easy to spot in these surroundings, there being a distinct lack of pretty
blonde women standing around the body. She wore a dark belted coat with boots
of some stylish design I’d never have been able to name. Everything I knew
about style could be written on the back of a postcard and then set on fire for
all I cared about it. She was speaking to a man I didn’t know but left him when
she saw me coming. “Nevada,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”
Sarah,” I nodded. Sarah Winters had been new to the Homicide Division back when
I’d been on the Laughing Man case. She’d been around to see my implosion and
the end of my career. Sometimes I didn’t know why she still talked to me, but
then again, I didn’t really understand why
still talked to me.
Nobody outside of Oscar the Grouch would have called me a ray of sunshine. I
was more the type people crossed the street to avoid.
for coming,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if…” she hesitated and looked at me as if
I was a puzzle she was trying to solve. “I mean, I thought maybe you’d be busy,
need to be Sherlock Holmes to know the question she really wanted answered. It
would probably be easier to show her rather than tell her. I dug into the front
pocket of my dirty jeans, pulled out a small plastic medallion, and handed it
to her. Her eyes widened just a bit as she read the text printed there, and I
allowed myself one brief instant of pride. Just one, though. I managed to catch
the smile that was trying to reach my mouth and pound it back into submission before
months?” Sarah asked. “You’ve got three months?”
few days more, now. One day at a time, as they say.” I hated A.A. clichés. I
hated them even more when they happened to be true.
for her to hand the medallion back, but her lip trembled and then she stepped
forward and threw her arms around me, nearly making me lose my balance. “Okay,
I guess we’re doing this,” I said. Sarah was a hugger. I wasn’t. I patted her
once on the back, thinking that this might be the signal that we were done
hugging now. It wasn’t. She held on for a good ten seconds before letting me
proud of you,” she said, wiping a tear away from one eye.
well…thanks,” I said as she handed the medallion back. “It’s really not a big
big deal,” she said. “I really thought we were going to lose you.”
might,” I shrugged. “The night is young.”
Sarah had been speaking with earlier had been loitering a few feet away. Now he
stepped forward. “You must be Nevada James,” he said. “The prodigal daughter
returns.” He held out a hand to shake.
means?” I asked.
stayed suspended in the air like it was attached to a helium balloon. “Um…it
means the one who left.”
said. “It means wasteful, or extravagant. It could also mean overly abundant.
It’s got nothing to do with me, though.”
said. He put his hand down.
cleared her throat. “Nevada, this is my partner. Brad Ellis. Brad, meet
was about six feet tall and looked like a dumbass Ken doll. Or maybe I was just
annoyed with him. It was definitely one or the other. He had close-cropped
blond hair and I knew he hadn’t bought his sport coat at the Men’s Wearhouse.
It looked like it had been sewn around his body while he stood there and
preened in the mirror. I tried to think of something clever to say, but I’d
worn myself out defining the word
for him. “Nice to meet you,”
he nodded. “It’s going really well so far.”
back at Sarah. “So what have you got?”
vic, Caucasian, early thirties…” Ellis started.
I asked, ignoring him.
shot Ellis a look that said
you should probably shut up now
uncertain terms. “Male victim, Caucasian, early thirties. Single stab wound in
the back of the neck as the cause of death. Looks like it was a small blade,
maybe four inches, but we’ll know more later. It’s consistent with a Laughing
Man kill.” She nodded at the covered body. “Lips and surrounding skin removed
postmortem to make the smile.”
last part was the Laughing Man’s signature mutilation. He’d done it to all his
victims, the last one as I’d watched. I’d seen it more times than I cared to
nodded. “I’m going to take a look.”
the medical examiner’s guys pulled back the sheet when he saw me coming. He
didn’t need to ask who I was, either. A while back he’d wheeled a body out of
my house; there had been a hit out on me and the guy who had come to snuff me
wound up with a broken trachea. I hadn’t meant to kill him. Sometimes shit just
on the ground probably was in his early thirties, but I wasn’t great at
guessing ages. I’d take Sarah’s word for it. He was lying face-up now so I
couldn’t see the neck wound, but that wasn’t what I was here for, anyway. I
knelt down to take a close look at his face. The medical examiner looked away
while I turned the victim’s head so I could see both sides clearly. I’d have
had to admit it was fairly gruesome, but this wasn’t new to me. The man’s lips
had been cut off and a triangle of skin leading back to where his jaw hinged
trimmed away on each side. The exposed teeth gave him the semblance of a wide
grin, although a grotesque one.
all of this I needed to see. I stood back up and nodded at the medical
examiner, who draped his sheet over the body again and stepped away. I took a
look up and down the alley. There wasn’t a great deal to see, other than the
dumpster and the normal trash scattered around that you’d expect. A pile of
flattened cardboard boxes lay not far away next to a shopping cart full of
plastic bags stuffed with God knew what.
a step behind me. Sarah stood there, with Ellis just behind her. Ellis didn’t
look all that pleased with me. He’d probably assumed meeting me would be a
different kind of experience. In all fairness I’d probably been too hard on
him, but I hadn’t cared much for his tone. Prodigal daughter, my ass.
you think?” Sarah asked.
back at the covered body and shrugged. “What do
looked at the covered body for a moment, hesitating, as if she could see it
through the sheet and find the clue she needed to answer me before she spoke.
Then she met my eyes again. “It’s a copycat.”
copycat,” I nodded. “How do you know?”
bit her bottom lip. “The marks on the face aren’t clean enough,” she said. “Not
precise enough, I mean. When we get the report, I’m betting it says the cuts
were made with a knife. Not a straight razor like
I said. “What else?”
Ellis asked. “Fair enough, the cuts weren’t done right, but what else are you
looking for here?”
said. “The Laughing Man is an artist. It’s important to him.”
not really what I’d call art,” Sarah said quietly.
didn’t say I wanted to see it in the fucking
,” I said, “but it’s
still art. This body isn’t posed. There’s no
here. There’s no
story. When the Laughing Man kills someone, that’s just the medium he works in.
You see this?” I nodded at the body. “This is just some trash in an alley.”
Christ,” Ellis said.
hadn’t come out exactly right. “I mean, it’s terrible that a guy died, of
course.” I was perfectly aware of how sincere I didn’t sound, but there wasn’t
much to be done about it. “But whoever did this is just a garden-variety
murderer with delusions of grandeur. He’s just a fan who wants to be the real
thing. It’s not the Laughing Man.”
Nevada,” Sarah said. “I’m sorry we dragged you all the way out here.”
don’t be. It was the right call. I’d have been pissed if you found this and
call me. One of these days he’s going to start the game again. It’s just not
what the Laughing Man had told me when he reappeared in my life three months
ago. He’d missed the game. He wanted a rematch. And I was the only person he
wanted to play with.
I wondered what the hell he was waiting for.
surprised Dan’s not here,” I said. Dan was the captain of the SDPD’s homicide
division, my old boss and probably my best friend. Not that there was a lot of
competition in that department. He took anything potentially involving the
Laughing Man very seriously.
visiting his mother in Santa Fe,” Sarah said. “I didn’t think I should call him
until we knew what we were looking at.”
for the best,” I said. “If he thought the Laughing Man was active again he’d
have run all the way here. Anyway, check with the homeless guy who lives over
there.” I pointed at the shopping cart and flattened boxes. “He’ll come back
eventually. I doubt he saw anything, but you never know.”
notice the shopping cart,” Ellis said.
remember he’s not the
homeless guy,” I said. Ellis scowled at
me. “Oh, come on,” I protested. “That was funny!”
turned and walked away. “Sorry,” I said to Sarah.
it,” she said. “He’s a decent guy, really. He thinks he’s hot shit, though.”
an expression of mock horror. “Sarah! Did you just say
smirked. “I did.”
think I’ve ever heard you swear before.”
not a habit of mine. I do know the words, though.”
back at the body on the ground. They were getting ready to hoist the victim
onto a stretcher and take him away. “I do appreciate the call. When you see
Dan, tell him I haven’t forgotten about him sending over my case files.”