Authors: Claire Stibbe
“He sees you,” Sarge said, peering through a circle he had made with his thumb and forefinger. “Any twitches, any false moves and its curtains.”
Malin felt her stomach crunch with laughter, only she caught herself just in time. Detective Temeke wasn’t a laughing matter. He was clearly the burr under everyone’s saddle.
“And steer clear of Hackett. We call him
behind his back. Got a telescope in that corner office trained on rare birds. He might look like he needs a personal dresser but he drives like a supercar.”
Malin began to grit her teeth. That was two dangerous bears she wouldn’t be poking any time soon. “Lucifer?”
Sarge nodded and tapped his nose. “He roams the earth, the corridors and the toilets. Best keep your phone out of reach unless you want it tapped. Best keep your private life
Malin walked home in her mother’s coat, Sarge on one side and Alex on the other. Their banter reminded her of home and how much she longed for one of her own. Not just any home. A home with a fire in the hearth and a husband of her own.
That night she lay in bed, fur coat bundled beside her like a curled black dog. She listened to the wind soughing in the roof and the creak of branches outside. It sounded like the scrape of dry bones against next door’s window and, from time to time, she imagined a corpse in a wood, arms reaching out from under a pile of broken branches as if pleading to be found.
Temeke squinted at the digital clock on the nightstand. The display read four forty-seven in the morning and, as far as he knew, he’d slept in three-hour increments since the night before.
He was sweating again. It was that darn Albuquerque heat and then he remembered it was December and snowing.
Serena. Her body was on fire.
He remembered the day when she couldn’t lift her arms to use the hairdryer, the day she called in sick. Serena had never been sick in her life, not that he remembered. She soldiered on through colds and flu, mostly coasting in overdrive even in the heat of the summer. She thrived on stress until the depression kicked in, until her hands started to shake.
Four years ago this month, that’s when she left her job, left the rat-race behind. They said it was Graves Disease. Temeke said it was stress. And now a few pills managed the shakes, the sensitivity to heat, allowing her to live a near normal life.
Normal? There was nothing normal about a woman who stared into space, cried when the weather changed, called him incessantly until he got home. She was worried he’d been kidnapped or shot in the line of duty. He suddenly wished he had.
She was worried about his smoking. And as for any intimacy, that had been given life without any chance of parole.
The phone shuddered on the nightstand, a reminder of what had woken him up in the first place. He snatched it before limbering beneath Serena’s leg and rushed into the bathroom.
He muttered his name in the mouthpiece and studied two half-closed eyes in the bathroom mirror. It was Hackett.
“Bad news. Forensics said there was nothing on that wine glass. Nada. And second, I need you down at PNM this morning. Nine o’clock sharp. Warden says Eriksen keeps banging his head against the wall. Says his bed’s not been slept in.”
“My bed’s not been slept in.”
“Becky Moran didn’t come home last night. Probably nothing to worry about. Got a boyfriend apparently. You wouldn’t happen to know his name?”
Temeke felt the tightness in his gut and drew a deep breath. “Why would I know his name?”
“Rumor has it, she’s into older men. Black men. I heard you messed up some evidence yesterday. Sat on a block of wood. Got those pants you were wearing?”
Temeke rubbed his rear end. He’d never get over that one, especially with half of the department listening into this call. “They’re in a plastic bag, sir.”
“Another monumental balls-up! Did it not occur to you…”
Temeke put the phone down on the vanity and began to ferret under the sink for a packet of smokes. But with Hackett cussing like a docker, he reluctantly put the phone back against his ear.
“Just when I thought we’d tied things up with Eriksen,” Hackett shouted. “Better hope Judge Matthews doesn’t get hold of it.”
“Better hope the news doesn’t get hold of it.”
“I want this farce over with, do you hear? It’s a copycat killer. Has to be.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll take a little drive to PNM and tell Erikson the good news.”
“You’ll do no such thing. It was his blood on the Williams girl’s teeth after all. You’ll get down there as soon as possible and you’ll squeeze the bastard until he gives you a name.”
“Talking of names, do we have one for the dead girl?”
“Not yet. And by the way, I’m fed up with you using that elevator. It’s going up and down like a schoolgirl’s skirt.”
Temeke heard the click and shook his head. A diamond-bright moon shone down through a black sky peering through the window with a big round face. He could have watched it for hours, only the doorbell rang and gave him a start. It was too early to be Malin.
Creeping back into the bedroom, he watched the rise and fall of Serena’s chest, the soft purring through an open mouth. Hauling on a pair of pants and grabbing his harness from an ottoman, he sprinted barefoot downstairs. There was a grill in the half-lite door and squinting through the glass, he saw a frosty beam. He pressed one hand against the frame and slowly turned the knob.
An icy wind tore into his chest like a thousand tiny knives. He had to shield his eyes against the glare of headlights from a departing car as it reversed up the driveway and swung out into the road. It was silent for a few seconds before the engine began revving behind a stand of sycamores before the driver hit the gas. Probably two teenagers parked in the front yard having a good snog and a grope.
Temeke thought. He’d string them up next time.
It wasn’t the first time they’d parked under those tall bushy trees, misting up the windows and bouncing the front bumper off the tarmac. But it would be the last.
Only the leaves shuddered in the night breeze and moonlight blinked between the upper branches. He could still see exhaust vapors hanging two feet off the ground like a curl of angry ghosts, and there was another scent, familiar, sickly, like the inside of an old church.
He turned to go, foot brushing against a rolled up copy of the journal. Blimey, he thought. Newspapers were getting earlier every week. Just as he picked it up something slipped out and rattled onto the doorstep.
A charred bone. On his doormat.
Not a dog bone. Much longer than that. The shaft was slender and slightly arched, knuckled on one end and rounded on the other. A thigh bone.
A human bone.
Temeke shuddered as he crouched, heart hammering so hard his vision began to blur. He tried to work up some saliva by sucking on the roof of his mouth, fingers twitching, almost touching. And then he snatched his hand back. Why would kids leave a bone on his front doorstep?
Idiots, that’s what.
He was hoping for a magic flash of inspiration and when none came, he picked the thing up in his fist, stashing the newspaper under one arm, and brought it inside. A macabre image of a corpse popped into his mind, one that was missing a leg, and he nearly dropped the damn thing on the threshold.
I need a smoke
he thought, slamming the door. What he actually needed was a joint. Reaching behind the antique coffee grinder on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, he retrieved a packet of Marlboros and a box of matches. He was startled by the sudden click of a timer at the base of the Christmas tree, lights suddenly winking through the darkness.
The blue numbers on the microwave said it was now four minutes before five, and trudging through the hallway to the kitchen he punched the start button on the coffee-maker, looking forward to that first cup of piñon roast.
First things first.
He placed the newspaper and then the bone on the breakfast table under a pendant cut-glass lamp. Gorge rising and bitter in the back of his throat, he saw no evidence of blood or tissue. The thing was smooth except for what appeared to be a piece missing near the top of the shaft. He couldn’t be sure, but it looked like a gunshot wound.
Wrapping it up in the newspaper, he left it on the chair by the front door. It was a prank. That was all there was to it. But he’d have it examined by forensics just in case.
Taking a ladies coat from the hall closet and an old pair of gardening shoes, he took his coffee outside to a wrought iron table. The snow was just a light dusting of powder now and there was little of it on the patio.
What’s with a bone?
he thought, wondering if the teenagers hadn’t left it after all. Wondering if it belonged to an Alpaca, those hairy goat things that grazed in a nearby meadow.
What if it had been left by next door’s dog? An ornery brown poodle, unclipped and rugged and nothing like his frou-frou cousins. No, Harry didn’t have the clipped yew-hedge look. He even had a full tail.
But would he have left a bone as big as that on Temeke’s front door mat? He’d left other things. A squeaky toy, a rubber ball, three feet of water hose and, come to think of it, a half-eaten bone from the butcher.
It’s just a bone, for goodness sake.
Temeke shook his head and took a sip of coffee. Dark roast, just how he liked it. And then he saw them. A set of footprints neatly carved in the snow and stalking toward the sitting room window. His breath was ragged now, heart-attack breath, and his hand slithered beneath that coat for his sidearm, a 9 mm German semi-automatic.
No one knew about his secret stash in the downspout. No one knew it was wrapped in a Ziploc bag and covered with duct tape. The footprints had to be his. No point in squeezing off a few shots at nothing. He blew out a loud sigh as he replaced the gun in his holster.
Pulling out a cigarette, he let it sag between his lips, mind wandering to the night before. Serena was mad because she’d found another packet of cigarettes in the toilet cistern. Lucky she never found his second stash of weed inside the barrel of her hand gun. Luckier still, she’d never had the occasion to use it.
Scratching a match along the arm of his chair, he cupped one hand around the flame and watched it glow for a moment. The smell of fresh tobacco filled his nostrils and he blew the match out with a lungful of smoke.
The back yard was nothing much, just like the house. There was a block wall and plenty of trees to stop an intruder. The front was a different matter. It was open to everything, even horse manure.
That’s how it was living in the nine hundred block of Guadalupe Trail. Maybe he needed a gate and a big fat padlock. Maybe he needed to get going. He took a few more drags and then ground the remains of the cigarette under his shoe, kicking it into a pile of leaves. Snatching a clean pair of socks and a polo shirt from the laundry basket, he shoved the cigarette packet down a side pocket.
A phone call brought him to the front door. Malin was outside in the Explorer, nodding through a tinted windshield. He waved and flicked up five fingers before grabbing a can of Hawaiian Aloha from the guest bathroom and giving the hallway a vigorous spray.
“Bye, love,” he shouted, pressing his feet into a pair of dark brown combat assault boots.
He could see Serena’s face over the bannisters and that narrow-eyed smile. Silken olive skin behind a satin baby-doll, she’d win Miss America hands down.
“Always in such a hurry to leave,” she said, padding down the stairs. “Pity you can’t stay and enjoy the Christmas tree.”
“We could snuggle together on the couch and watch the lights.”
What the heck was she on about? Temeke hoped she hadn’t found the contraband on the lower tier. The fairy on top had a packet of Marlboros stuffed up its tutu.
“Truth or dare?” she said, head wobbling from side to side.
“If only I had the time, love,” he said, stuffing the pants Hackett wanted in an evidence bag and grabbing the bone in the rolled up newspaper. “I’d be right there like a terrier down a rabbit hole.”
“Happen to know about these?” she said, holding out a box of cards. “Went to play Bridge with the girls and guess what fell out? Not cards. Oh, no!”
Temeke suddenly found the front door of consuming interest. That was a third stash of cigarettes he’d forgotten about. “You don’t have to tell me. I’m getting my sorry ass out of here before I get a walloping.”
“This?” he said, clamping the bone under one arm. “Evidence.”
“Give it here.”
“No, love. Trust me. You don’t want to see this.” He began to back out of the hallway, one hand raised. “Just going to see a dog about a bone. I’ll be back at nine.”
“What’s that smell?”
“Have you been smoking?” That’s how it was with Serena. A quick sniff, an accusing word.
“No, my love. Must be next door, burning leaves again.” Temeke bolted for the door.