Check out Jaime Lee Moyer’s A Barricade in Hell, the sequel to Delia’s Shadow, available June 3rd from Tor Books!
Delia Martin has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with the ability to peer across to the other side. Since childhood, her constant companions have been ghosts. She used her powers and the help of those ghosts to defeat a twisted serial killer terrorizing her beloved San Francisco. Now it’s 1917—the threshold of a modern age—and Delia lives a peaceful life with Police Captain Gabe Ryan.
That peace shatters when a strange young girl starts haunting their lives and threatens Gabe. Delia tries to discover what this ghost wants as she becomes entangled in the mystery surrounding a charismatic evangelist who preaches pacifism and an end to war. But as young people begin to disappear, and audiences display a loyalty and fervor not attributable to simple persuasion, that message of peace reveals a hidden dark side.
Moonlight filled our bedroom with windblown tree shadows and uncertain light that gathered in pools on the carpet. Gabe still slept peacefully next to me, one hand splayed on his chest and unaware anything was amiss.
I envied him that. Nocturnal visitors seldom summoned my husband from dreams.
A ghost, a tiny girl of no more than four or five, stood in one puddle of light. She clutched a well-loved china doll against her chest, the doll’s cotton lawn dress in tatters and painted face near worn away. Her lace-trimmed pinafore was too short to cover her knees, and mud-splattered stockings trailed from a pocket. She was firmly anchored in this world, appearing near as solid as she had in life. Auburn ringlets brushed the small ghost’s shoulders, held back from her face by a cornflower blue satin ribbon. Eyes just as blue regarded me solemnly.
I didn’t think she was my child. Our daughter had been born too soon, cold and ashen, the cord wrapped tightly around her neck, but I’d often dreamed about her growing older. This little girl looked much as I’d imagined my daughter, healthy and strong, with hair the same color as Gabe’s.
Yet I didn’t want to believe the child I’d carried under my heart, felt quicken and move inside, might return to haunt me. Uncertainty kept me from sending the ghost away. I needed to be sure.
The sound of weeping filled the room and gave me an answer. She wasn’t mine. Someone else had loved this child, mourned her and wept as I’d wept for our daughter.
The moon set, taking away the light, the sounds of grief, and the small ghost. Gabe muttered in his sleep, tossing restlessly. I touched his arm. “Shhh… Go back to sleep. Everything’s all right.”
He settled again and I stared at the dark ceiling, wishing I could comfort myself as easily. More than three years had passed since the morning I first woke to find myself haunted by a strong ghost I named Shadow. I’d seen haunts and phantoms since I was a child, but this ghost opened wide a door into the spirit realm that never closed again. Shadow sent me down a dark path searching for answers. Once I’d started, there was no turning back.
I’d learned too much since then and laid far too many wandering spirits to rest to feel at ease now. Some ghosts were unable to find their way to the other side or had things from life left undone, ties to the living they couldn’t sever or wrongs they sought to set right. Others needed help realizing they were dead. Not all of them left willingly.
Our house had been cleansed of lingering spirits before Gabe and I moved in. Now ghosts only came to me for a reason. Awakening painful memories was a cruel purpose, but ghosts were often cruel. If reopening partly healed wounds was the sole reason this lost little girl chose to haunt me, I’d send the ghost on her way with no regrets.
The sound of weeping filled the room again, causing me to wonder if there was more to her visit. A little girl, maybe the tiny ghost I’d seen, sobbed and called out for her mama. Her voice faded and others took its place, men and women, youthful voices and those heavy with years. I couldn’t understand all they said, but each voice carried a share of its own misery and terror. Each called on someone to find them.
My newest ghost shimmered into view again; blue eyes bright even in the absence of moonlight, bringing silence and the disquieting knowledge that she wanted more than just to torment me. I whispered, knowing she’d hear. “Tell me what you want, spirit, or leave my house. I can’t help you unless I know.”
She stared, silent and unreadable, before thinning into a silvery mist that swirled toward the ceiling and vanished. Strong ghosts didn’t just disappear never to return. So I listened, waiting to hear the voices crying out again or for her to give me some other sign of why she’d come. None came, but that brought little consolation.
A foghorn on the bay sounded, each note lingering, and our bedroom filled with cold shadows. I turned toward Gabe, breathing in his familiar shaving soap smell and drawn to his warmth.
Gabe kept me from wandering too deep into the world of spirits, lost in someone else’s past and unable to find my way back. He was my anchor to the living.
Even so, I lay awake a long time. And when I finally fell asleep, it was to dream of a barefoot little girl wading in a sun-warmed stream, minnows nibbling at her muddy toes.
I’d hoped to wake to a sunny day, not overcast skies that promised rain and chill winds. Winter stripped the sunbeams of warmth, but sunshine might help banish the restlessness I couldn’t shake. Strange spirits were common enough in my life, but this little girl’s ghost unsettled me. Not understanding why bothered me even more, distracting me from Isadora’s lessons on poltergeists. I’d spent far too much of Dora’s visit staring out the kitchen window, watching wind herd clouds toward the East Bay hills and brooding.
Madam Isadora Bobet was my teacher, my mentor, and my guide through the confusing world of ghosts and spirits. She was also a friend. Two years before, I hadn’t wanted to believe in spirits that haunted the living. I’d seen strange things since I was a child, but I’d always thought stories of ghostly hauntings a clever charlatan’s device to bilk money from the gullible. Finding myself haunted gave me no choice but to believe.
Now I swam in ghosts. Without Dora, I’d drown.
“Do you need me to go over the different types of poltergeists again, Delia?” I jumped, jarring the table and sloshing cream from the pitcher, ashamed at being so deep in thought, I’d lost track of the conversation. Dora stirred more sugar into her tea and frowned. “I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but they can be dangerous. Cleansing Mrs. Allen’s boardinghouse could prove difficult. It’s best if you know what we might face.”
“No need to repeat the list. Not now.” I flushed, certain her sharp look meant my guilt was plain. Dora was seldom fooled. Still, I felt honor bound to try. “What else do I need to know?”
I made a valiant attempt to focus on Dora’s explanation and stop brooding. My efforts met with limited success. I found myself watching our next-door neighbor instead.
Mr. Flynn sat on his back porch, slowly rocking back and forth in a redwood glider. He was dressed in his best dark suit, a starched white shirt and black bow tie, and with his heavy coat lying across his knees. Each time the glider stopped swinging, he nudged it into motion again. He stared out into the yard, still and quiet and much too pale. I wasn’t sure he truly saw anything.
His son’s ghost stood in the glider’s path, each traverse of the swing passing right through him. Aiden still wore his muddy uniform, the tan-canvas rucksack on his back soaked with blood that would never dry, never change from crimson to dull brown. He watched his father, fingers flexing around the rifle strap slung over one shoulder.
Waiting to be noticed. Wanting to be forgiven.
The unit insignia on his sleeve was partly caked with mud, but recognizable as British. He’d volunteered to fight in the Great War against his father’s wishes. Aiden was buried on a battlefield in France, an unmarked wooden cross at his head. I’d forgotten the memorial service was today.
Isadora rapped on the tabletop with long, lacquered nails, startling me. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Tell me if I’m boring you, Delia. I can call back another time.”
“I’m sorry.” I poured more tea in her cup and mine, added sugar and lemon, and offered her another cookie. We usually spent Dora’s visits sitting at the kitchen table. Even on overcast days, my kitchen was the most cheerful room in the house, a good enough reason to spend time there. But the kitchen had also become my workroom, swaddled in layers of protections to keep spirits at bay. Dora felt more at ease here. So did I. “I’m listening, truly I am.”
She smiled brightly and tucked a strand of bobbed blond hair behind her ear. “No, Delia. You’re not. I don’t think you’ve heard more than ten words since I arrived. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s captured your attention so completely. Then I can go back to explaining what we can do for Mrs. Allen. Assuming you’re still interested.”
“Oh I’m interested. I’m fairly certain all the disruption in Mrs. Allen’s kitchen must be a poltergeist. Gabe is very fond of her and I promised I’d see what could be done.” Very little slipped past Dora, but the way I babbled was a sure sign something was wrong. She raised one perfect eyebrow and continued to smile, waiting for me to sputter to a halt. I squirmed and decided an honest confession was best. “But I am a bit distracted. I seem to have picked up a new ghost, one I can’t easily send on her way.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Dora dug in her handbag, fishing out a tortoiseshell cigarette case and a box of matches. I slid a crumb-dusted saucer toward her for the ashes. She lit the cigarette, taking a long drag and exhaling clouds of blue smoke that wafted toward the kitchen ceiling. “You don’t have as much knowledge yet, but in terms of strength and power, you’re near my equal, Dee. I expect that one day you’ll surpass me. There are very few spirits that you can’t banish by yourself if you set your mind to it. Unwilling and unable are two very different things.”
“For the moment I’m unwilling to banish her. She wasn’t more than four or five when she died. A little girl.” I folded my hands on the table and told Dora about my nighttime visitor. “I haven’t tried to send this ghost on her way. If not for the voices weeping and calling out for help, I might have, but that didn’t feel right. I need to know what she wants before I banish her. I can’t take the chance.”
Dora reached across the table and took my hand. “Not every ghost wants you to right a wrong. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. And there is a possibility that she’s—”
“The baby we lost last summer?” I squeezed Dora’s fingers. “She’s not. I thought of that when I first saw her and I made very, very sure. You don’t have to warn me, it’s not my own grief haunting me. And I know how dangerous strong spirits are… how relentless. I’ve no illusions about how much trouble this ghost can bring me. But you’ve told me time and again to trust my instincts, and sending her away until I know what she wants feels wrong. Don’t worry, I’ll be very careful.”
She sighed and sat back again, letting her cigarette rest on the saucer. “Allow me to worry. Concern for your well-being saves me from a life of idleness. I’d feel better if I saw this haunt manifest myself, but that’s likely too much to hope for.”
“I haven’t sensed her presence anywhere in the house. Once the ghost left our bedroom, she was truly gone. But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking she won’t return.” I toyed with the edge of the old checkered tablecloth, worrying at a frayed spot and no doubt making the damage worse. Annie, the housekeeper who’d helped raise me after my parents died, had given it to me, as she’d given me so many things for our kitchen.
This tablecloth brought back memories of living in the Larkin household and whispering secrets to my best friend Sadie at breakfast. I smoothed the fabric with a fingertip, remembering conversations about our hopes for the future. We’d been closer than most sisters. We still were.
All Sadie’s heartfelt dreams, a loving husband and children, came true when she married Jack Fitzgerald. Her happiness brought me a great deal of joy. She was just as thrilled when I married Gabe, and for a time, it looked as if we’d both gotten everything we wanted.
But not all wishes came true, no matter how often you implored the brightest star. Having children was another piece of the life I’d wanted stolen by my connection with the spirit realm. Dora spent a great deal of time explaining why interacting with the restless dead and laying ghosts to rest made it unlikely Gabe and I would ever be parents.
Gabe refused to believe. But in my heart of hearts, I knew everything Dora said was true.
I tucked my hand into my lap, forcing it to lie still. “I’ve dreamed of this little girl before, Dora. I knew the face I’d see and the color of her hair before I opened my eyes. That must mean something.”
Dora rummaged in her handbag again. She pulled out a silver flask and poured a generous dash of whiskey into her teacup. Engraved with swirls of vines and morning glories, the liquor flask had been a going-away gift from Daniel, her paramour of the last six years. He’d gone home to Portugal, hoping to convince his family to flee the war and come live in San Francisco. Daniel had planned to be gone a month after sailing from New York, but that had stretched into six, then ten. Getting his family out of Europe had proven difficult.
I hadn’t seen Dora without the flask since the night he handed her the slim package wrapped in burnished gold paper and tied with a pale yellow ribbon. Having a ready supply of whiskey at hand wasn’t the sole reason she carried the flask.
She took a long swallow of whisky-laced tea. “I’m impressed, Delia. You have quite the talent for attracting difficult ghosts. How long have you dreamed about this little girl?”
The kitchen was chilly and quickly growing colder. Speaking of ghosts sometimes summoned them, accompanied by all the theatrics strong spirits were capable of displaying. I wrapped both hands around the china teacup, seeking to warm stiff fingers and disguise how they trembled. “The thing is… I’m not sure. I didn’t remember the dreams until I saw her, but now I remember them clearly. She looked just the same each time, a happy little girl carrying her doll and playing in a stream. It might even be the same dream again and again.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the same dream, Delia.” Dora set aside the whiskey and watched me, blue eyes narrowed and her expression intent. “I’ve no doubt that you’re dreaming about the day she died. A healthy little girl playing in a stream is unlikely to have died a lingering death. My guess is an accident killed her, or perhaps something more sinister.”
“A murder?” I stared at Dora, not wanting to believe and praying I’d misinterpreted her meaning. “Who would kill a child?”
She drummed her fingers on the tabletop and crinkled her nose in distaste. “I didn’t say she’d been murdered, but it’s not unheard of, Dee. Not all the monsters of the world confine their hunting to adults. In any case, the more details you can gather from that dream, the more likely we are to find out who she was. Once we know her name, discovering what the ghost wants from you will be miles easier.”
Spirits who suddenly found themselves torn from a world they weren’t prepared to leave were the hardest to deal with. Whether they were old or young when they’d died made little difference. These spirits often haunted those they wanted to stay with, unable to break the tie. Others sought out people such as Dora and me. We could see these lost, woeful souls wandering in search of a way back to life.
Giving them back the life they’d lost was impossible. When luck was on our side, we found a way to stop their wandering.
“And if I can’t find clues as to who this small ghost was in life?” I stood and gathered soiled chintz napkins, the sandwich tray and plates, and stacked them on the drain board next to the sink. “What do I do then? I’m sure you must have a thing or two you can teach me.”
Dora looked up from brushing crumbs off the tablecloth and into her palm, her expression earnest and not a scrap of amusement in her eyes. “I’ve not exhausted my bag of witch’s tricks yet. Just promise me you won’t become attached to this haunt. Remember that no matter what her appearance, she’s still a ghost and may have spent a hundred years harboring malice. Manifesting in the body of a child is no guarantee of innocence or that she lacks ill intent. The fact you’re still grieving for your baby makes me even more suspicious of her motives.”
“I’ll remember.” I leaned back against the edge of the cast-iron sink. “But I heard her mother weep for her, Dora. I find it hard to think badly of a child mourned that deeply.”
“You heard someone weep, Dee. Whether the person crying had any relationship to this ghost or not remains to be seen.” She dumped the crumbs in the ash-strewn saucer and brushed her hands briskly. “I know I sound harsh, but you must take this seriously. I’d rather not watch Gabe mourning you. Now, let’s get back to poltergeists. I promised I’d visit Sadie tomorrow, but we’ll pay a visit to Mrs. Allen’s boardinghouse the day after. We should be able to keep the rest of her crockery intact.”
I poured more tea and sat down to listen. The wind picked up, rocking the tall cedar tree at the side of the house and lashing the windows with small twigs and cedar cones torn loose. Strong gusts keened around corners and under the eaves. Voices rode the wind, mournful and sad, bringing memories of forgotten conversations to my kitchen.
One heartsick voice wept for a lost child—or so I imagined.
A murder investigation was never a good way to start his week.
Gabe perched on the edge of the backseat, peering over Patrolman Henderson’s shoulder and out the front windscreen. Even after twelve years on the police force, there were parts of the city he didn’t know all that well. He’d probably driven or walked down every street in San Francisco with his partner and best friend, Jack Fitzgerald, but there were still districts they hadn’t worked in before or visited often.
The street he traveled now was unfamiliar, a part of the newer neighborhoods built after the 1906 quake and the resulting fire. More than a decade had passed since then, something that still surprised Gabe when he stopped to think about it. The city and people of San Francisco had changed forever that morning, a fact that wasn’t altered by patching over the visible scars.
He still thought of the rebuilt areas as patches, poor replacements for what had been lost. Gabe wasn’t sure what that meant and tried not to dwell on it.
Instead, he paid careful attention to his new surroundings, adding to the living portrait of the city he carried inside. Little things, like whether people stopped to chat with neighbors and pass the time, or rushed about their business without pausing, or the number of children playing from yard to yard, revealed a lot about the character of a neighborhood. The same things told him what he needed to know about the people who lived in the well-kept, brightly painted houses.
Front-step conversations stopped and heads turned to watch his closed car pass, open curiosity on most faces. People who didn’t belong here would be noticed right away. And if he and Jack got a break, remembered.
He settled back in his seat. “One of the neighbors might have noticed strangers or something out of the ordinary late last night. You’ve spent time with the new rookies on the squad, Marshall. Who would you send out to knock on doors?”
“Randolph Dodd’s the best of the new bunch, Captain Ryan. Some of the older men gave him a hard time for being a pretty boy when he first came on, but Dodd’s winning them over. Tyler and Erickson’s instincts are good. They ask the right questions.” Marshall Henderson braked and put the car into a lower gear before he rounded the corner. The engine whined, straining to climb the steep hill. “Those are the men I know best. Lieutenant Fitzgerald might have some ideas about who to send along with those three.”
Gabe rubbed the back of his neck and swallowed a yawn. He hadn’t slept well last night or any night for the last week. Constantly jerking awake from nightmares left his head stuffed with cotton wool, his thoughts dulled and slow. Not being able to remember any of what he’d dreamed somehow made the fog in his head worse. “The lieutenant’s been at the scene for at least an hour. There’s a chance he’s already sent men to question the neighbors. Find him right away and make sure we aren’t covering the same ground twice.”
“Yes, sir.” Marshall hesitated, stealing glances at Gabe’s refection in the driving mirror. “Are you all right, Captain?”
He must look bad if Henderson felt the need to check.
“I’m fine. Just a few too many late nights this week and not enough sleep.” Gabe cleared his throat and pointed down the block. “I think we’ve found our murder scene.”
A knot of black patrol cars clogged the narrow street in midblock, wheels turned toward the curb or parked at an angle to keep from rolling downhill. The white coroner’s van in front further marked their destination, a druggist shop with cheerful blue and white striped awnings over the wide front window. Three flagstone-topped wooden steps led up to the door from the street, a decorative iron railing on the open side opposite the wall.
The shop was located on a main thoroughfare that ran through a narrow maze of side streets and lanes that dead-ended. Most of the lanes were occupied by single-story cottages with red-tiled roofs and small yards. A smattering of larger houses sat at the end of cul-desacs. Neighborhood grocers, small storefronts, and shops occupied the main avenues. Given the number of families living here, merchants would have no shortage of trade.
Another thing went on Gabe’s list of things he wanted to know. Discovering the fastest ways in and out of this tangle of homes and shops might give them an idea of which route the murderer used to escape, and who might have seen.
“Captain, do you want me to leave the car right in front with the squad cars? It’s pretty crowded up ahead and I’d have to block traffic.” Marshall glanced over his shoulder and back to the road. “Otherwise, I’ll get you as close as I can and we can walk.”
“Do what you can without blocking the entire street.” Gabe slicked his hair back and put on his battered fedora. “I’m not the chief. Walking won’t kill me.”
They parked four doors down from the druggist’s shop, blocking the entrance to a narrow lane that ran between a butcher and a milliner’s shop. This lane was only five small brick cottages long, the hedges between their minuscule front gardens frost-burned and winter brown. Marshall came round the car and opened Gabe’s door. Lace curtains twitched on the front window of the cottage closest to where they’d parked, confirming his opinion of the neighborhood’s watchfulness.
“Go on ahead, Marshall. I’ll catch up.” The lanky young patrolman set off at a brisk walk to carry out his orders and find Jack. Gabe got out more slowly, using the time it took to rebutton his overcoat to stand on the sidewalk and look around.
Men from his squad had formed a line to keep curious civilians away, blocking the sidewalk on either side of the druggist shop. A few officers were still mounted on the tall, brown Morgan horses they rode on patrol, using the advantage of height to keep an eye on the crowd. Parked police cars barricaded the curb and spilled into the middle of the road. More well-dressed people gathered on the other side of the street, craning their necks and straining to catch a glimpse of what might be going on.
This was like other quiet neighborhoods he’d worked in, home to bankers and prosperous merchants, full of small storefronts that catered to their well-off clientele. He understood what drove the residents to discover why the police had arrived in force, disrupting their ordered lives. People needed to know if the block where they lived was still a safe place for their children to play or for their wives to walk after dark. Gabe could pick those men and women out of the milling crowd, read the concern and fear on their faces.
What he’d never understand was the desire some people felt to turn tragedy of any kind into a carnival. He could pick those faces out of the crowd as well: eyes too bright, smiles gleeful, expressions harboring no trace of nervousness or fear. Gabe saw those faces at every murder scene, at every raging fire. At times he got near enough to smell their excitement.
Those were the faces he studied and remembered, the faces that held joy where none should exist.
Jack waited for him at the foot of the druggist’s steps, his everpresent moleskine notebook in one hand and a worn pencil in the other. His brown herringbone suit was well pressed, a common occurrence since he’d married Sadie and their housekeeper, Annie, took charge of his wardrobe. The plaid cap perched on top of his red-brown hair did a poor job of containing the unruly mess, but nothing had ever come close to taming Jack’s tangle.
Gabe’s partner looked calm and in charge of the investigation, directing officers to different tasks and taking brief reports of what they’d found before sending them off again. But Jack tapped his pencil against the edge of the notebook, a nervous, staccato rhythm that grew faster as soon as he spotted Gabe.
After being partners for twelve years, they knew each other’s habits and signals. This was a warning. There was more going on here than Gabe knew, something worse than murder first thing on a Monday morning.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what was worse than murder; not that he had the choice.
Gabe ignored the knot forming between his shoulders and kept the public mask he wore while working firmly in place. High-profile cases always drew the press sooner or later. The newspaper photographers with their Speed Graphic cameras mounted on tripods and the reporters scribbling notes were right up at the front of the crowd, positioned so they had a clear view. He and Jack were on display, their every expression scrutinized.
That reporters had beaten Gabe to the scene was another bad sign. “Good morning, Lieutenant. Tell me what you’ve found so far.”
“One victim, Bradley Wells, a twenty-six-year-old white male. The victim’s wife called the Columbus Street station last evening. He didn’t arrive home on time and didn’t answer the telephone when she called the shop. Mrs. Wells got worried and asked the police to check on her husband.” Jack flipped through his notes. The tremor in his hands was slight, but Gabe saw. It gave lie to the flat, professional tone in his voice. “Captain Pearson sent two men from his squad out last night. They poked around the outside of the building, but didn’t find anything suspicious or go inside. A second call came in this morning. This time the patrolmen broke down the back door.”
Gabe, was beginning to understand at least part of Jack’s reaction. If the coroner’s report came back that Wells had been alive when the first call came in, the newspapers wouldn’t hold back. But he knew it took a lot more than fear of bad press to give Jack the jitters. “Where did they find the body?”
“Mr. Wells’s body is in a storeroom. No windows, only one way in.” Jack snapped his notebook shut. “I thought you should see the scene before the coroner moved the body. Follow me, Captain, and I’ll show you.”
He followed Jack up the steps, anxious to get out of public view. With his back to the cameras, Gabe muttered quietly so only Jack could hear. “Bradley Wells… I know that name from somewhere.”
“You should.” Jack held the pine-framed door open and shut it firmly again as soon as they got inside. The shade was pulled over the window in the center, closing them away from curious eyes and cameras. “Bradley Wells is—was—Commissioner Lindsey’s son-in-law. He married Adele Lindsey three years ago.”
Gabe wiped a hand across his mouth. “Christ Almighty. The second phone call this morning came from Lindsey.”
“You got it on the first try. I knew you made captain for a reason.” Jack led the way toward the back of the shop, threading around upturned bins of penny candy and smashed apothecary jars, their contents splashed across polished oak floors. Footprints tracked through crushed peppermints and spilled white powder, spreading it further. “He called Pearson personally and got him out of bed. Lindsey ordered him to get some men over here to break down the door. I gather from the chief that threats were involved.”
Gabe stopped at the back counter, trailing a finger through swirls and drifts of black fingerprint powder. The register stood open; all the money was still inside. He brushed the powder from his hand. “Since Pearson and his men aren’t here, I’d say Lindsey’s threats didn’t work.”
“Pearson didn’t get around to sending any of his men out until after he’d had breakfast. He’s had it in for the commissioner since Lindsey leaked details of a case. When Lindsey found out, he went straight to the mayor. The chief didn’t have much choice but to suspend Pearson.” Jack pulled back a bead curtain hanging over a doorway and waved Gabe through. “And that, Captain Ryan, is how we ended up drawing the short straw.”
The back room was L-shaped, with an empty, narrow passage that ran from the doorway and turned a corner into a deeper, wider room. If anything, the mess here was much worse than out front. Broad wooden shelves against the back wall had been stripped bare, everything on them flung to the floor. Jars, crocks, and canisters lay abandoned, whatever they might have contained carted away.
Traces of chalky powder smudged the floor and trailed back the way they’d come, but Gabe couldn’t tell if his men had tracked it in on their shoes or if the dusting of white had been there all along. Shards of broken glass crunched underfoot. Tiny slivers caught in the dark crevices between floorboards glittered under the single bulb dangling from the ceiling.
Bradley Wells’s body was spread-eagled atop a long yellowedpine worktable in the center of the room. A heavy white cloth trimmed in gold and black braid covered him from shoulders to knees. Lengths of rope looped his chest under the fabric, ends tied to the table legs. His shirt and shoes were missing, but Wells still wore socks and trousers.
Baker had set up his camera to take pictures of the body. Gabe circled around behind the camera to avoid being blinded by the magnesium flash going off. Each burst of harsh light revealed details obscured by the dim overhead bulb: Wells’s peaceful expression, the outline of his hands folded and lying on his chest under the fabric shroud, the way one leg was pulled up slightly, knee bent; the gaping slash across Wells’s throat.
What he saw didn’t make sense.
Patrolman Baker finished with his photographs and began packing his equipment away. Gabe moved closer to the table, hands shoved deep into his coat pockets. “Baker, ask the coroner to wait outside until the lieutenant and I finish. And deliver those photos to my office as soon as they’re ready.”
“Yes, sir.” Baker finished taking apart his tripod and snapped the case closed. He wiped sweat off his upper lip, staring at the body. “I’ve been on the force seven years and this is the strangest thing I’ve seen so far. Got any ideas about what happened, Captain?”
“Not a one.” Gabe grimaced. “Not yet, anyway. Go develop those pictures for me.”
Baker hurried away, leaving them alone with Wells’s body. Jack walked the margins of the room, surveying the damage and nudging empty crocks with his foot. He made notes in his moleskine as he went. “Whatever the senior Mr. Wells kept in the back room was what the killers were after. They didn’t leave anything behind.”
“We need a list of the medicines kept in this storeroom. I want a list of the customers he dispensed them to as well.” Gabe moved to stand at the head of the table. The victim’s skin had the waxy sheen of death, his slightly parted lips unnaturally pale. “Some older druggists are still selling old-style patent medicines without a prescription. People will pay a lot to keep their habits secret, especially in a respectable neighborhood like this. Maybe someone found out and wanted a piece of the old man’s business. Could be Bradley wasn’t the one they expected to find.”
“That might explain the robbery, but not how he was murdered.” Jack whistled through his teeth. “The way Wells is laid out gives me the willies. Murderers don’t usually drape their victims in an altar cloth.”
“I just want to cover all the angles, Jack. Ask the right questions.” Gabe lifted the edge of the cloth, examining Wells’s hands. They were smooth and unblemished, with no scratches or marks to indicate a struggle. Bradley Wells hadn’t put up a fight. He let the cloth drop back into place. “I’d really like to know if Wells was the intended victim or just got in the way. And between you and me, all this makes me nervous too. It reminds me of something Dora told me about. A ritual of some kind, but I can’t remember what.”
“Show Dora the photographs if you think it will help. As long as you warn her first, she’ll be all right. We might get a lead about who to look for.” Jack wiped a hand over a shelf and held it up. “Whoever did this was very careful to tidy up afterwards and not leave anything for us to find. One person couldn’t have done this alone, not and handle Wells too.”
“The way he was murdered is all too tidy, if you ask me. I can’t say the same for the mess they made of the storefront or the floor in here.” Gabe made a sweeping motion with his arm, taking in the empty shelves and Wells’s body. “And you’re right, there had to be at least two people involved, maybe more. Either they’ve been planning this for a long time or they’ve killed this way before. They knew exactly what they were doing.”
The cloth draping Wells’s body was almost pristine, with only the tiniest flecks of rusty brown marring the surface. Gabe glanced at his partner and gestured toward the body. “The killers cut his throat. What happened to all the blood?”
“I asked the coroner that as soon as he arrived. Dr. Gometz said that there’s a slim chance Wells was already dead before his throat was cut. Bleeding would be limited if his heart had stopped.” Jack scratched a few more notes. “But Gometz can’t explain why there isn’t any blood at all. No blood around the wound, no seeping, no blood pooling in the lower extremities or under the body—nothing. He refused to speculate until after he does an autopsy.”
Raised, angry voices came from the front of the store. The bead curtain hanging across the entrance to the back room clattered and banged against the wall. Heavy footsteps stomped on broken glass, and a deep, booming voice shouted Gabe’s name. “Ryan! Where the hell are you?”
He exchanged looks with Jack. “Lindsey’s here. That arrogant son of a bitch thinks he’s going to supervise.”
Robert Lindsey loomed over almost everyone, man or woman. At six foot six, broad across the chest and broader still at the shoulder, he was an imposing figure and wasn’t above using his size to intimidate people. But he’d also honed the art of politics to a fine edge. Lindsey learned early on in his career that being jolly and accommodating was the quickest way to impress those in power.
A former mayor was impressed enough to appoint Lindsey to a five-year term as commissioner of police, an administrative position that required no real experience or training. His appointment had been a huge mistake. Lindsey saw the police, from the chief down to the newest rookie walking a beat, as underlings to bully and use for his own political purposes. The present mayor, a former cop himself, longed for an excuse to fire Robert Lindsey.
Gabe intercepted Lindsey just before he turned the corner into the main storeroom. He put an arm out, blocking the way. “Commissioner, I have to ask that you wait outside. I can’t allow a civilian inside a crime scene. This is an active investigation.”
“Don’t give me that bull crap, Captain Ryan. I’m your boss. I can go anywhere I damn well please.” Lindsey’s face was flushed an angry red, his voice a low growl. He tried to use his bulk to push past. “Now, get out of my way.”
Gabe planted his feet and didn’t budge. “You’re not a cop, Lindsey, but you know the regulations as well as I do. This is my investigation and I’m not letting you inside. Don’t force me to arrest you.”
“Think of the headlines, Commissioner.” Jack stood so that he blocked the rest of the passageway, arms folded over his chest. “ ‘Lindsey arrested for interfering with murder investigation.’ The papers will ask why you tried to force your way in. It won’t take long before they start wondering if you had something to hide. Think of your daughter. You don’t want to put her through that.”
Lindsey glared at the two detectives in turn, shoulders heaving and fists clenching open and shut. Gabe stared back impassively, praying all the while Lindsey wouldn’t force the issue.
Finally, the commissioner took a step back, signaling surrender. He cleared his throat and straightened the lapels of his overcoat, looking anywhere but at Gabe and Jack. “I am thinking of my daughter. You need to understand something, Detectives. Adele is in a delicate condition and the baby could arrive at any moment. The doctor is with her now, but my daughter has always been in fragile health. Doctor Young is worried that the strain—that her upcoming confinement so soon after losing Bradley might be too much for her heart.”
“We do understand, Commissioner. Your daughter has our deepest condolences.” Gabe couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Adele Wells, but the simple truth was that he didn’t trust her father. He stood his ground. “That doesn’t change anything. You have to wait outside.”
“Captain—please.” Lindsey tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling and throat working. His eyes were moist when he looked back at Gabe. “My daughter needs to be certain there hasn’t been a mistake. I promised that I’d identify the body.”
Jack glanced at Gabe, asking permission. His partner possessed more patience and was better at dealing with difficult people, a category the commissioner of police filled to bursting. He nodded and Jack stepped forward.
“Commissioner… have you ever seen a murder victim before? Even if you think you’re prepared, I can promise that you’re not.”
A muscle in the commissioner’s jaw pulsed. “I remember you. You’re Katherine Fitzgerald’s son.”
“Yes, sir, I am. We met when I escorted my stepmother to Adele and Bradley’s wedding. My wife and I have friends in common with Brad and your daughter. We see them fairly often at parties or small dinners. I promise you, there’s no mistake.” If anyone could convince the commissioner to back down, Jack could. He kept his tone calm, soothing and sympathetic. “You don’t want to remember him this way. They cut Brad’s throat.”
Lindsey blanched, rivulets of sweat running down his forehead. He tugged a monogrammed handkerchief from his breast pocket, mopping his face and breathing hard. “I still need to see him. I made a promise.”
Gabe wasn’t entirely sure what made him relent, but he did. That Adele Wells deserved to have her doubts laid to rest was partly a factor; the realization that underneath his bluster and brash manner Lindsey was human another part. He hoped he didn’t live to regret a moment’s compassion. “All right, Commissioner. You can identify the body and then I need you to leave. No statements without my clearing them first or revealing details of what you’ve seen to the press. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Lindsey stood straighter and removed his black bowler hat, visibly steeling himself. “Thank you, Captain.”
Lindsey handled viewing his son-in-law’s body better than Gabe had anticipated. He stood looking down at Wells’s face for a few seconds, silent, shaking hands crushing the brim of his hat. Without a word, he strode back around the corner and sagged against the corridor wall. “Dear God… I can’t tell Adele what they did to Brad. I can’t.”
“I’m sorry, Commissioner.” Jack closed his moleskine and stuffed the notebook into a coat pocket. “But there’s no real need to tell her how he died. Not yet.”
“No… you’re right. Bad enough that I know.” Lindsey mopped his face again, squaring his shoulders and standing up straight. Blotchy pink color returned to his skin and the imperious tone to his voice. “Captain, I’m putting you personally in charge of Bradley’s case. If there’s anything you need in terms of manpower, anything at all, let my office know.”
Gabe nodded. Lindsey sounded sincere. “Thank you, sir. The offer is much appreciated.”
Commissioner Lindsey stuffed the sweat-damp handkerchief in a breast pocket. “My daughter’s waiting for me. Find the men who did this, Detectives. I want to look them in the eye before I watch them hang.”
The coroner’s men appeared at the end of the passageway, canvas stretcher in hand. Robert Lindsey bulled past them and out into the main room of the shop. He slammed the front door on his way out, setting the bell over the door to ringing wildly and rattling shelves in the storeroom.
Jack frowned and glanced at Gabe. “I don’t think we need worry about him making statements to the press. He’s more likely to assault any reporter who gets in his way.”
“You’re probably right.” Gabe took one last look at the storeroom and Wells’s body, setting the scene in his mind. He flattened himself against the wall, making room for the coroner’s men to pass before leading the way into the front. “I never thought I’d see the day I felt sorry for Robert Lindsey.”
“Neither did I.” Jack pointed at the front door. The window shade hung by one bracket, and the glass was crazed with spiderweb cracks. “But don’t worry. That won’t last.”
“As soon as we get back to the office, I want to start calling in favors. Someone on the street will know if there have been other victims in the city who died the same way as Wells.”
Jack’s mouth pulled into a grim line. “You mean unreported murders. Dead vagrants and any John Doe the department didn’t waste time on.”
“Exactly. We’d never hear about those victims unless we went looking for them.” Gabe flipped up the collar of his coat and pulled his hat down low, preparing for the shouts of newspaper photographers and the gawking eyes of the crowd. He couldn’t give anything away if no one saw his face. “We’re looking for them as of now. How much do you want to wager we find more than one?”
“I never bet against you, Gabe.” Jack pulled the door open. He gestured at the crowd of reporters yelling their names. “I leave that to those who don’t know you.”
A Barricade in Hell © Jaime Lee Moyer, 2014