Detective Robert Johnson gets the weird cases which, if it doesn’t suit him fine, at least fits with is personality and the rest of his life.
When he’s called to investigate a murder at the casino, he enters a whole new level of weird, though. All his senses point to the murderer being a troll, but there’s more involved in the case than he can see, and he’s pretty sure his life is about to get weirder.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
An empty casino is a strange place.
A quiet one is uncomfortable and unsettling.
I never really understood the lure of the machines. Press the button. Wait. Get paid or don’t get paid. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Hours drift by. Days, maybe. There’s no interaction, no skill. You’re just marking off time spent on this side of the grass.READ MORE
But even if I never understood them, the machines were always there. Bells and tones and chimes. Irritating, jingly little tunes. Sometimes even actual music. A blanket of background noise to keep everyone distracted from how much money they were letting slip through their fingers. When there weren’t a lot of players, the machines eventually entered a quieter standby mode.
But this quiet. This level of quiet in a casino was wrong.
Even in the middle of the night on a Wednesday, you couldn’t get anything approaching the silence I walked into on the other side of the yellow tape. The machines had dropped back to not much more than a hum, here and there a recorded voice or jaunty little tune as a machine peaked up out of standby mode to see if anyone might want to play. It didn’t sound like a casino.
But if the quiet put me off, the smell was like coming home. Mostly.
A thousand warm circuit boards and as many stale cigarettes. Body odor and chairs that didn’t get cleaned often enough and swass. Desperation and exhilaration and despair.
But under all of that, the heavy iron stench of drying blood.
And under that, the thick musk of troll.
I didn’t need directions to find the body. Tape marked the way, the normally bright yellow barely noticeable, almost drowned out by the flashing lights and neon and paisley vomit carpet. Still an easy trail to follow and not hard to notice the blood stench getting stronger as you did.
I nodded at the uniform and didn’t bother to read the nametag. If I didn’t know most of the uniforms by name at this point, I should have turned in my badge a long time ago. Not that there weren’t other arguments for that. “Sergeant Hightower. Why do I feel like I’m not going to like this one, and not just because someone’s dead?”
“I have no idea, detective.”
If the scattered chairs and broken slot machines didn’t give it away, the shattered plastic and electronics everywhere underfoot should have been a good clue. But I grunted at the too-young man with the extra stripes, knowing he’d be more than discreet enough for whatever I might have to do next. “Coroner done yet?” A question I already knew the answer to, since I’d seen the coroner’s assistant in the parking lot.
“Just the initial. She’s with the scene boss right now, waiting for your say-so to, um, gather up the body, sir.”
I nodded. The weird stuff had somehow become my specialty. Sometime in the last couple of years’ the crime scene team’s standard procedure had become an initial inspection and, if they decided it qualified as ‘abnormal’ in a particular way, call me before doing more much than sealing off the scene. Lucky me. “Thank you, sergeant. Make sure I have a couple of minutes undisturbed, please.”
As he moved back towards the casino entrance, I ducked under another line of yellow tape, stepped around one slot machine, over another, and found the body in an open space that shouldn’t have been there.
Gather was the right word. Whoever the victim was, he’d been attacked from behind, slammed face first into the hideous carpet, and he’d stayed down while the assault continued, probably long past the point of death.
Assault probably wasn’t the right word, though I didn’t have a better one right at hand. Nothing in this building could have been heavy enough to make a man’s rib cage that flat on its own, not without falling a lot higher than ceiling no more than two stories high. The rest of the body wasn’t in much better shape. All four limbs had somehow managed to stay attached during the brutal encounter, but three of them lay at odd angles and with extra bends. Most of the organs had stayed internal, but the scents of other things mixed with blood, so I imagined that would only last for as long as it took to move the body.
None of that meant things were neat and tidy.
Spray and splatter across everything in sight, and from the dispersion, I’d bet the cleaning team would be working for a long time to get it all, while the casino operator’s management screamed about lost revenue. Which was too bad for them. Ceiling splatter wouldn’t surprise me. If I were still a betting man, I’d bet on two walls, both of them at least thirty feet away.
Crouching down, I balanced with the fingers of one hand touching the carpet, but far enough back to eliminate risk of contamination, and took another deep breath, sucking air as hard as I could, and trying to tune out the blood scent. Closing my eyes, I tried hard to analyze what my nose was telling me, but the same scent stood out strong without me having to think about things too much. Or at all.
But only one, which was a big relief. If this was somehow a territorial dispute, I had more than I could handle, and I’d have to find some way to let them work things out without much in the way of collateral damage. One on a small rampage was bad enough.
I slipped back under the tape before standing. “Sergeant!”
But the voice that responded wasn’t Hightower’s. A very young officer I’d passed on the way in stepped out of the entrance funnel. I drew a complete blank on his name and felt guilty about it for a moment, but I honestly couldn’t remember ever seeing him before. He walked towards me, waiting to speak until he got close enough that he didn’t have to shout. Manners, unlike me. “Yes, detective?”
“Judging by the parking lot, the Twins beat me here by at least half an hour. Where are they?”
He cocked his head to one side, frowning, and I had a sudden vision of a puppy trying to see what I held behind my back. “I’m sorry, Detective. Twins?”
I gave up on my memory and let my eyes flick down to his name badge. Donaldson. Probably one of this year’s class. Younger than he looked, even. I managed not to sigh or roll my eyes. Not his fault, either age or not knowing who I was talking about. “Detectives Merrin and Chong. They are here, are they?”
He nodded, earnestly. “Yes, sir. Detective Merrin is interviewing witnesses, and Detective Chong is in the surveillance room getting copies of the footage from the time of the attack.” Is frowned came back. “Um, Twins, sir? They, well, don’t really look all that much alike.”
I tried to smile, probably failing. “It’s a joke, officer, and not a very good one. An old movie reference.” Two of them, actually. “Their first names are Danny and Arnold.” I tried the smile again.” It’ll make sense if you look it up, see a picture.”
“You can go tell the coroner I’ve got what I need. The body is all hers. She can call my cell if she thinks there’s anything else I should know.”
“Yes, sir.” He moved backward a couple of steps before turning, face almost green in the dim light of the gaming floor, and I wondered for a moment if I should have given him the funnier reference. He’d be far less likely to look up the Corsican brothers, though, or even remember them later.
“Have you ever seen something that wasn’t there?”
Dad had been attacked, jumped from behind by four or five people. They’d broken bones, made a lot of bruises and marks, contusions, burns. The hospital staff tried to be careful when they noticed me, but I overheard words, scary words and phrases. Internal hemorrhaging. Ruptured organs. Too much damage. Mom heard too, but she tried to be strong, for me.
“I don’t know what you mean, dad.”
But he kept talking like he hadn’t heard me, and maybe he hadn’t. The doctors did their best to make him comfortable, and that involved a lot of painkillers. He looked at me, but I didn’t know if you he me. “Something moves in the corner of your eye, but when you turn there’s nothing.” He smiled, and it looked unnatural, a smile dad had never worn before, stretched and flat under watery eyes. “Or, you’ll hear a voice, whispering, the words almost in your ear, almost understandable, but there’s no one there. Sometimes a smell wafts out of nowhere, and it’s gone. Do you know what I mean, Bobby?”
He hadn’t called me Bobby since I turned ten. I didn’t know if dad was in the present anymore, or if he even knew I was there, but somehow I knew what he meant. Thinking about the words, it happened all the time. Or at least often enough that it felt like all the time. “Yeah, dad sort of.”
Is right-hand flashed out, quicker than he should’ve been able to with that much morphine in his system, and he grabbed my wrist, eyes, suddenly intense and serious, locked on mine, smile gone. “It was there. You saw it, heard it, smelt it. It was there.”
His grip relaxed, but he didn’t quite let go. “Yeah, dad, sure. It was there.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but there was the smell of something stale and musty in the hospital room in spite of all the disinfectant. I thought there was.
“Good. Good.” His eyes almost closed as he leaned back and his breathing got shallow, his face slackened. “It’s important. After the funeral, go to Alfred’s Video. Centennial Parkway. Tell Alfred you are… are my son. Important. Got it?”
“Yeah, dad. Got it.” Video rental store, halfway across the city? I wondered what the drugs were doing to his brain to make him think of that, what weird set of memories he was putting together.
Not that he could tell me. He fell asleep then, his breathing slower, relaxed. Eventually, his hand slipped off my wrist. I figured sleep was the thing he needed most. Rest, rest might give him a chance.
He didn’t wake up again before the end.
My meeting with the twins lasted barely a minute.
Merrin closed his notebook. “I think this officially falls under weird happenings. And I’m going to say that makes it your case.”
I sighed. “Thanks so much for the confidence, and the assist.” Yep, it was official. I was that weird guy. Like I’d had any doubt.
With a shrug, Chong stuck his notepad in his pocket along with his phone. “What do you expect? Surveillance footage from every angle shows a man falling to the carpet and slowly beaten flat. Witnesses saw slot machines flying and ran or heard the screams and ran. One guy said he saw a big shadow, but he was running away at that point.”
Chair legs straight across the floor as Merrin stood. “And, unless the coroner has something new in the last 20 minutes, she hasn’t gotten much other than blood alcohol content. Well, and having problems trying to type the guy’s blood. But all the initial tox screens she sent in came back negative. Not that anything could’ve made him do this to himself.”
Chong yawned through a nod. “And it’s late. We’ll help you out some more with this tomorrow. Witness interviews, if you like. But I think this is your baby. My notes say you figure out about half of this weird shit, so you’ve got a better shot than we do.”
My notes said about three quarters, but there was a lot of stuff that I couldn’t put down on paper for real. Not officially. “Fine, I see how this works. As if I don’t have enough work already.”
They both grunted but Merrin shook his head. “Yeah, our caseload is pretty light, too. Sarcasm alert.” They both wished me luck as they move through the door. I didn’t need luck. Well, I didn’t need just luck. I needed help.
And not all of it the kind I could find at the station.