Chapter 2: A Change in the Air

The morgue was surprisingly relaxing and comfortable. A small stand of incense burned in one corner, the scent of cedar filling the air. Another corner held a small jade dragon about the size of a large frog. It looked like the kind of cheap piece of junk that he would’ve picked up in a Chinatown souvenir store. Someone had knit the dragon a fluffy little pink sweater out of wool. “We don’t get a lot of call for this sort of thing, you know. There aren’t a lot of deaths in this city, and as for deaths that are taken for murder…” Pearl was silent for a moment.

“Sounds like the coroner’s a bit out of practice. How much do you trust her skills?” Silas asked, as he strode over towards the stack of latex gloves. He frowned down at the extra-small on the box’s label. He pulled a pair on, feeling the latex bite uncomfortably into his wrists. It was like shaking hands with the assistant director. As he looked down at the corpse, he was painfully aware that he was not a trained coroner. Nonetheless, he’d seen enough corpses to learn things about what a body should look like. And then there was the intuition. Sometimes, he felt as though he saw things in their eyes. A clue about what they had seen before they died. The anti-psychotics usually kept it from getting too bad. He tried to ignore those intuitions. If you didn’t, you could start to think that what you saw was really there, and it was everyone else who was crazy. That way madness lies. He carefully pulled the slab out.

The young man was handsome. Dark, ragged, messy hair. And though his skin was pallid, it had once been a rich olive tone. He would have broken many hearts in his time, no doubt. He was dressed in a ragged pair of shorts and a letterman jacket, an odd combination. The body seemed remarkably well-preserved, which was odd. It had been a week, and the body still looked fresh. Pearl sucked a breath in between her teeth, hissing softly. “I’d trust her with my own autopsy. She’s got a lifetime of experience. She wouldn’t make a mistake.” Silas noted that phrasing. Any inaccuracies, then, would be deliberate.

Schizophrenia tended to come with paranoia. The feelings of being watched, of unseen voices speaking, those kinds of things could make a person distrustful. So he knew the symptoms when he saw them in others. Pearl was suspicious. The kid didn’t look to have suffered any particular wounds. Then, Nash’s eyes fell on the boy’s wrist. A pair of puncture marks were visible. “Hmm.” He leaned in closer, staring at them. They were along the central veins. There was a slightly discolored tinge around the veins there. “You know, most wound-related botulism comes from using infected needles. Drug users, junkies, that kind of thing. How’s the chemical situation in Zion?” He had been wondering about the strong stomach comment. Then, the scent hit him. Necrosis. The rotting of flesh. It assaulted his nostrils, death and decay playing havoc with his senses. He bent over the slab, holding back the choking until his stomach settled.

Pearl watched sympathetically until he got himself back together. “Doesn’t smell right, does it? That was the first thing that made me suspicious. A smell like that…” She shook her head, frowning. “Botulism doesn’t cause necrosis that quickly. That smell’s been wafting off of him ever since he was found. He hadn’t been dead an hour when his body was discovered.” She shook her head, frowning darkly. “I don’t like it one bit.”

The first instinct was a mad one. He thought of Jaws. The words, ‘This was no botulism accident’ almost rose to his lips. Then he stared at the young man’s face. His parents would never get to see him grow up. He would never become a pro football player. Never marry, never settle down, never have children of his own one day. All those moments, lost. The joke died in his mind, driven away by shame. It wasn’t a time for jokes. “There aren’t many poisonous snakes in New York State. I mention that because this reminds me of snakebite. Two puncture marks, close to one another. It could be someone’s escaped pet. Barring that, someone stuck him with a syringe, and injected something nasty. Copperheads have a necrotizing venom, but it’s not deadly in more than a handful of cases. Massasauga have a venom that can be nasty, but it’s an anticoagulant, and they’re rare as hell. Timber rattlesnakes are deadly, but they don’t bite much at all. So…” He sighed. “I doubt that this is botulism toxin, though. That means that either your coroner is losing her touch, or she’s got reason to be lying. Who’s close to the victim?”

Pearl gently slipped the slab back into the wall, as Silas removed the latex gloves. Relief flooded him as he removed the latex, and began to massage the life back into his fingers. “Seventeen years old. Kid was the star of our football team, and a pretty nice young man, on top of that. Did a lot of charity work. Meals on Wheels, that kind of thing. Can’t think of anyone who would’ve had a grudge against him. His father, Harry Constantinou, moved here after he met hi second wife. Megara Drakos, local schoolteacher, she grew up here, moved away for a while, came back with him after a few years. He took up a job as a lumberjack here. Dean Constantinou also had a girlfriend. Isabelle Onnashi. Daughter of Irayama Onnashi, the coroner.”

“Hm. That sounds like the beginnings of motive to lie about cause of death to me. But keep going.”

“Body was found by Cassandra Hirosata. Fourteen year old girl. She was out fishing with a friend of hers, and they found the body. She alerted the police right away. She’s a bit of a troublemaker, but we’re talking hookie and a smart mouth, not premeditated murder. There aren’t any bad kids in this town. Hell, she’s better than most.”

“Be a hell of a trick for a fourteen year old to try to get away with murder, but still worth talking with her again, see if she’s got any insights.” He rubbed his hands together. “My car was beaten to hell on the way here. So, if you’ll be so kind, we’ll probably be taking your squad car around to talk to people. Just an informal chat, to start with. Figure things out. Think we can meet with his fellow team-mates on the football team? His coach? Any sign of drug abuse?”

“The coach should be easy enough, since his dad coached for the football team. As to drugs, there’s plenty of alcohol, and tobacco, and not a week goes by where I don’t bust some kid with a misdemeanor quantity of Marijuana,” She pronounced it with a hard J, rather than the soft, he noticed. It made her sound like a 50’s informational video. “But this isn’t a city where people are missing teeth, if you catch my drift.”

Nash nodded. A small town without a meth problem. That was novel. “So, the victim is found, practically still warm, on the beach-side, by a 14 year old girl. No sign of why the hell anyone would want him dead. What have your officers uncovered so far?”

She shook her head. “We’ve been doing some questioning of Isabelle and the family, but they haven’t volunteered much. The best we can tell is that the last time anyone saw him was on the Friday night before he died. That’s two full days with no sign of what might have happened to him.”

“Alright. I’m going to see if I can’t get the body transferred to Buffalo, see about a second opinion from the coroners there. I don’t want to seem like I’m insulting Mrs Onnashi-”

“Miss, actually. Divorced her husband some time ago. She doesn’t like it brought up.” Silas nodded. He bit back the desire to ask how that was relevant. Pearl was clearly strained, and low on sleep. He could forgive the police chief an irrelevant detail.

“All the same, it’s always important to verify these things.” It was an odd sensation, not having to butt heads over jurisdiction. Pearl was, at the last, more flexible than a lot of local law enforcement he’d worked with. “Now. Shall we see the parents first? I’d like to get a feeling for them. It’s hard to imagine they’re involved, but you never know. Now, my car is currently in shit shape, so do you mind if I join you in the police cruiser?”

She smiled. “Not at all. You know, I heard a bit about you from the assistant director. He said you’re a good man.” Silas nearly laughed at this. He didn’t know the AD was such a talented liar. “Yeah, he mentioned that you’d had some difficult times. I heard about the death. From what the assistant director said, and from what I read, you weren’t given a whole lot of choice.” There was sympathy in her eyes. Or maybe it was just pity. He didn’t care for it either way. “Anyone comes at you with a knife, they’re not leaving you many options.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, chief. I don’t talk about it much. It’s not a proud moment for me.” She nodded softly. For a moment, she looked like she wanted to say something, to offer some comfort that he didn’t want or deserve. She thought better of it.

“I understand. I hope that you’ll forgive me for my curiosity. But I’m glad that you’re here. You seem like the kind of person we’re going to need for this case.” She walked along with him, up out of the basement. The back lot had three police cruisers in it, one of which appeared to be purely decorative, the steering wheel missing. And yet…

“This is a very small town to have its own dedicated police department. Shouldn’t you have a sheriff for an area this dispersed?” he asked, frowning.

“Well, like you might have noticed, this place is just a little bit xenophobic. People prefer to trust the officers they know. So, the police are all hired locally.” The afternoon sun burned brightly over the city. It was a glorious day, now that the cloud cover had moved on. He slipped into the passenger seat. “People grumble about the tax burden, but most of the folks around here are actually fairly well off.” She slid easily into the driver’s seat, and the car started with a low rumble.

“Tell me about the Constantinou family.”

“Well, Drakos’ family goes right back to the founding of the town. Her mother, her grandmother, they were all a part of this place. Our last mayor was a Drakos, in fact, but Megara prefers working as a schoolteacher. Really likes kids. She met Harry while she was traveling, about four years ago.”

“So, Dean wasn’t her son?”

“Nope. Harry’s a widower. Used to be real close with his son, until his first wife died. And then Harry met Megara. I won’t lie, the whole town knows that Megara and Dean had some friction.”

“Any chance that conflict could have gotten violent?” The frosty silence was palpable. He glanced at Pearl. Her lips were set in a firm line, her knuckles almost white on the wheel. “Look, I’m sorry if I say some things that offend. But I can’t afford to not ask those questions. People are always insulted if you ask them whether they killed someone. But you still have to ask.”

“No, no. I understand.” Pearl’s fingers unclenched. “I’d eat my own hat if it was Megara Drakos, and I’d be careful of accusing her. She’s a proud woman, and she protects those schoolchildren like they were her very own. She might have had some conflict with Dean. But I can’t imagine she’d kill him. The worst they ever did was argue.”

“How, exactly, did Harry wind up here? Like you said, this place seems somewhat xenophobic. Why would anyone decide to move here?”

Pearl grinned. “Well, just because the people tend to be peeved when strangers come to town doesn’t mean they’re completely unwelcoming. When a stranger comes to town escorted by one of the townsfolk… Well, think of it as a recommendation. If you get along with one of the people of Zion, you get along with all of them. It’s a close-knit community, and it’s welcoming if you’re open to being welcomed by it.”

Nash frowned, staring out the window. The lake was sparkling below under the bright sunlight. “Blooming under sable skies. There my heart forever lies. Brigadoon, Brigadoon.” He became aware that she was looking at him, a smile on her face.

“I appreciate the reference. There is a little of that, alright. Course, people are allowed to leave whenever they like. But it’s an apt comparison.” She smiled softly. “Been working here since I became a cop, been living here since before then. It’s a special place. Just a little bit out of sync with the rest of the world. I sort of fancied that maybe it would always stay this happy little town, free from the corruption of the world. But nowhere’s perfect.” She wasn’t an unattractive woman. That hair was bright. and her features were striking. She still looked tired as hell, though. Maybe it would’ve been better if he felt the same, if he was feeling the same pain and weariness that she was. Being beat up by the darkness around him, rather than simply taking it for granted. Maybe it would be better if he could bring himself to be hurt by the bad things happening to good people. But he didn’t feel much of anything.

“So, what exactly did Harry Constantinou do before he moved here, and started cutting down trees?”

“He was Special Forces. US Ranger. I don’t know much beyond that.”

“Christ. I hope he’s not the killer.” Silas stared out at the windows. Lumberjack. Hard man. Angry father. That sounded like trouble. And yet… “Megara talked a US army ranger into retiring as a lumberjack? I might actually be more frightened of her, in that case.”

Pearl smiled softly. “That might be a wise instinct.”

It was a manor. There wasn’t another proper word for it. Mansion didn’t sound eerie enough. Sitting atop one of the hills, overlooking Lake Ontario, it sprawled across a cleared section of the peak. The road leading up to it was long and winding, but well-cared for. It was a beautiful drive, and ominous as all hell, stark shadows cast by the trees. The car came to a stop in front of the gate. A small foot path led further up, to the door of the manor. The two of them exited the car, and Pearl pressed the intercom set in the gate’s somber stone. Silas took the moment to study the building. Three stories tall, its front was marked by large glass windows giving a perfect view of the lake. It was built primarily out of wood, though the stone foundation was partially visible. It must have been built quite a long time ago, but there was a small satellite dish visible on top. He fancied, just for a moment, that he saw a flicker of movement in one of the windows. A voice emerged from the intercom. Soft, rich, warm. “I am not interested in any company.”

“Mrs Drakos? It’s me, Pearl. I’m here with FBI Special Agent Nash. We’d like to ask you a few questions about the death of your son.”

There was a pause. Then an electric buzz filled the air, and the gate swung open. The two walked up the well-tended path. The shadow of the manor was cast across the green lawn, muting the eye-searingly bright green into emerald perfection. “You weren’t kidding about the money,” he whispered softly, letting his eyes run across the building. “What crime did her family commit to be able to afford a place like this?” No great fortune without a great crime. His psychology instructor at the academy had always reminded him of that. Never trust the rich. Or absolutely anyone else, for that matter.

“Her great great grandmother founded the town. She still acts like it makes her royalty. I’d be polite, she’s a bit touchy.”

The door opened as they arrived. The woman was breathtaking. Her skin was dusky, her features classical in the most literal sense of the word. Nash had seen women like her, carved out of marble. They had never been mortal women. It was the kind of elegant, high-cheekboned face, full of certainty and haughty arrogance, that belonged on the busts of goddesses. It took an actual effort to avoid bowing himself down in front of her in obeisance. “Megara Drakos?” he asked, holding out his badge. “Special Agent Silas Nash, FBI. Do you mind if we come in?” Her hair was dark as pitch, and hung elegantly around her head. Her eyes were a pair of molten chocolate pools. Brown eyes never did much for him, but hers were entrancing, like the heart of the earth, shining up at him. She was several inches shorter than him, and she didn’t show a hint of sorrow. That was suspicious right off the bat.

“Please feel free.” She turned, and swept in. She wore a long skirt, jade green, that hung down to her feet, dragging across the floor, without apparently picking up any dirt. She wore a tight white blouse that exposed her cleavage, and Silas did his best not to look at the delicate golden amulet she wore. It was a losing battle. She walked past a large terrarium. Half a dozen large snakes lounged behind the glass. Thick bodied, brown, with a pattern of triangles on the spine, they seemed to sit up and regard him. “I have some coffee on the boil. Please, join me.”

The three of them took a seat in the kitchen. An elegant copper coffee pot poured out three cups of foamy coffee. Silas didn’t touch his. The snakes had unsettled him. “You have a license for those snakes, Mrs Drakos?” he asked, politely. She turned her head towards him, and smiled.

“Yes. And I do not exhibit them at the school, though I do offer occasional field trips to see the snakes. I don’t let the children handle them, of course. They are docile creatures, but humans can frighten them with their roughness.” She took a sip from her coffee.

“I have to say, for the mother of a boy who was found dead not long ago, you seem extremely calm.”

“I am sorry for the loss of my mate’s child, but I am not a woman prone to weeping. I prefer action.” Megara stated, taking another sip from her coffee. Her body language was predatory. She was studying him, and Pearl, watching for a sign of weakness. He pushed the cup of coffee gently away.

“We have an interest in seeing justice done. Do you know if the boy was having any trouble at school? Was he acting unusually? Any new behavior patterns? Any new friends?”

Pearl was watching him quietly. He noticed she only had one hand on the table, sipping her coffee. The other was out of sight. Megara nodded. “He was turning 18 soon. He was, as usual, somewhat moody with me. He resents me for taking his father away from him, for taking the place of his mother. His girlfriend had been acting particularly nervous. I suspect that she had something that she wanted to tell him. He had been experiencing some highly undeserved jealousy from others on the football team. They resented him for his great talent and thought he was given his position because of his relation to my Harry. He was not.” There was a moment of silence, and just for a moment, Megara’s body language thawed. “He was a very good young man. He had a heroic heart. It was a crime for him to be taken from us.” Her eyes locked with Nash’s. The shadows around them grew deeper, much darker, as her eyes seemed to grow larger, swelling in his field of vision. “Was my son murdered, agent? Was he taken by intent, rather than accident?”

The sensation was bizarre. The world seemed to grow thick and clotted around him, time slowing down. He tried to hedge, and found his mouth refused to form the white lies. “We… think… It may be possible.” He managed, as she kept her eyes locked on his. Her silence was a vacuum, dragging the words from him irresistibly. He swallowed, hard. “There were… possible signs of a snakebite. And-” Pearl’s hand rested on his wrist. He broke out of the trance. The cup in Megara’s hand crunched. The metal bent beneath her fingers, her narrow, delicate, graceful hand leaving a visible imprint in the metal, as hot coffee streamed down her hand.

“Thank you, agent. If I find anything out, I will be certain to share that information with you.” She stood up, and there was the sound of the front door opening. Suddenly, her eyes lit up, bright and warm. Ten years dropped off of her face in a moment. She ran past Silas and Pearl, into the hallway, where the newcomer stood. For a dizzy moment, Silas wondered if a bear had accidentally wandered into the house. Then, Megara embraced the tall, broad-shouldered man.

To say he was tall was an understatement. He must have stood at least six and a half feet. His shoulders were at least twice as broad as Megara’s. He was built like an inverted mountain, broad, brawny, and craggy. He had a smiling face, greeting his wife, and a massive hatchet at his side. Nash remembered the tree, and the great axe wounds in the ancient giant. Harry Constantinou was perspiring, even as his wife drew a handkerchief across his forehead. He bent forward to kiss her, tenderness in his movements as he embraced her gently, slotting the axe into an umbrella stand. When the kiss broke, he looked up. He strode forward rapidly, and grabbed Silas’ hand. The man wasn’t trying to use a crushing grip. He simply didn’t appear to have any kind of ability to moderate his handshake. Nash felt bones grinding under the grip, as the man slapped him on the shoulder bracingly. “You must be the special agent! A man after my own heart, making the world a better place!” Harry Constantinou boomed. He almost certainly didn’t have a volume setting besides ‘booming’. Then the man’s face became firm. “I hope you find the person who did this to my son before I do. I don’t want to think of what I might do to them in the heat of the moment. If there’s anything that I can do to aid you in this task, if there’s anything that we can do for you…” He was quiet for a moment. “I would be very grateful.” His voice, even lowered, even solemn, practically echoed against the walls.

“If I might ask, Mister Constantinou… Where were you, today?” Nash asked, frowning as his eyes flickered down to the axe. The man didn’t even hesitate.

“Going for a hike. Helps to clear the head, and it’s good to keep my eye on things.”

“Do you always go on hikes with an axe?” Nash asked, eyes moving down to the axe again. It had a horrible magnetism. Harry gave a broad grin.

“Of course! Never know when you might run into a lion!” He boomed with laughter, slapping Harry’s shoulder again.

Pearl and Nash were silent as they walked down the path, and out of the open gate. They didn’t speak until they reached the car. “Thoughts?” Pearl asked.

“Harry seems about as earnest a man as I could imagine. He’s special forces, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine a possible motive for him killing his son at the moment. Megara…” He frowned. “Both of them seemed… unsurprised. You know what I mean? Their child just died at the age of 17, and they were keeping it together. I suppose I can see that being possible, but it’s suspicious.”

“Both of them are used to tragedy.” Silas waited to see if she was going to complete that thought. They drove in silence for five more minutes, before he decided she was not.

“I’d love to know where Harry was this morning. That man looked like he actually could’ve knocked down that tree. But he seemed downright happy to see me.” Nash sighed. “This is going to be a hell of a case, isn’t it?” Pearl smiled sympathetically. “Next up, Isabelle and Irayama Onnashi. We’ll probably have to wait until tomorrow to set up an interview with the football team.” He frowned. This city was full of strangeness. He was getting the uncomfortable feeling that unraveling that strangeness was going to be his business. He wondered if he’d be lucky enough to find anything in this city that would be just mundane strangeness. Secrets kept because they were embarrassing, rather than deadly. He decided the chances of that were somewhere from slim to bupkiss. “You mentioned that Irayama was Isabelle’s mother. But Irayama looks ancient, and Isabelle’s presumably around Dean’s age.”

“Good catch. She’s adopted, actually. Isabelle was put up for adoption in China. She got adopted by Irayama. It was a bit of a surprise, really, considering that Irayama’s Japanese, but she seems to care a lot about the girl. Irayama’s husband left her decades ago. She doesn’t speak much about him.” Pearl sighed, as the two of them drove. “The city’s primarily immigrants. There were three big waves. First, the Greek settlers settled down here, in the 1800s. The Japanese came around 1945, right after the war, when immigration opened up again. A lot of them came from internment camps on the west, from what I hear. They were trying to get away from the worst of that behavior, make a fresh start. And then-” She paused. They were coming up to a small suburban lot. A few hundred homes, all put together.

Pearl seemed to know her way through the streets of the endless, eerily identical suburb. They stopped in front of a small blue house, a white picket fence setting it off from the other buildings near them. The two of them got out, walking up the lot. Pearl knocked on the door. It opened almost instantly. Irayama stood in the doorway, two cigarettes in her mouth. She puffed industriously. “Those things are going to kill you someday, Irayama. You mind if we talk with Isabelle?”

Irayama blew a cloud of smoke, slowly, and deliberately. “My daughter is currently somewhat distraught over the death of her boyfriend, as you well know, officer. She was crying for three days straight after the last time you talked with her. I would rather she was not disturbed-”

“Mama?”

The voice was soft, elegant. Standing in the stairwell, a large blanket wrapped around her like a nun’s habit, was a young woman. Isabelle Onashi had pale white skin, and hair the color of silver moonlight. She held the blanket tightly around her, peering at Silas and Pearl. “These people were just leaving, dear. Get back to bed-”

“I want to talk to them.” Her naturally lovely voice cracked a bit, tight with apprehension and a little fear, and more than a little defiance.

“I will not allow-”

“Young lady, are you 18?” Nash asked. The girl nodded. “Then, legally, it is her decision whether she wants to talk with us or not. I’m sure we can give her a moment to get changed?” Isabelle looked down at herself. Red rimmed her eyes. Her hair was in disarray. She was almost certainly a naturally lovely young woman, but she looked as though she’d been through the wringer. Irayama had a foul expression on her face, but Silas was hard-pressed to imagine how she could be any less helpful than she’d already been. The girl, on the other hand, looked like she needed to talk. These two were still his prime suspects, and Isabelle obviously regretted something.

Pearl and Silas stood outside, the young lady standing across from them. Isabelle held an umbrella over her head, keeping her pale skin out of the sun. She was not an albino, her eyes brown and warm, but she was still sensitive to the sunlight. Irayama apparently wanted nothing to do with the two of them, waiting in the kitchen. “Is this about D-Dean?” she asked, her eyes growing moist as she spoke his name.

“Yes.” Silas didn’t find that a particularly suspicious conclusion for her to jump to. When the FBI shows up, it’s a fair guess that it will be about the recent mysterious death.

“My mom said it was an accident, but I just knew. I knew someone killed him. Someone took him away from me…” The girl sobbed softly, rubbing at her red-rimmed eyes. “I love him. He was always so kind to me, and now-” She burst into tears, and Silas felt an awkward pain at seeing it. He wanted to reach out to comfort her, but he wasn’t sure how he could do that. He didn’t feel like a very comforting person, at the moment. Pearl took up the slack.

“It’s alright. Take your time, Isabelle.” The police chief gently stroked the girl’s shoulder, handing her a small handkerchief. Isabelle blew her nose, quite loudly, and brushed the tears out of her eyes. When she had regained her composure, she took a deep breath.

“When was the last time you saw Dean alive?” Silas asked, taking out a notepad.

“It… Don’t tell my mom. But we met, from time to time, at this little shack, out in the woods, near the beach. We’d hang out there over a weekend, have picnics, just be together for a while. We were supposed to meet there this weekend. The last time I saw him was on Friday. I told him that I couldn’t make it, that I’d have to spend the weekend studying, or my mom would go crazy… And… That was the last time I saw him.” She broke down, sobbing violently into her hands. She heaved and wracked with sobs, the girl’s body heaving under the force of the pain. Silas couldn’t watch. It wasn’t a delicate, beautiful pain. It was raw, and fraught, and familiar. “If I had been there with him- Maybe- whatever happened- wouldn’t have-” She was barely coherent, her voice growing thick. Irayama strode out of the building, with the mien of a dragon.

“Daughter! Into your room. I will make you some cinnamon-honey-tea. And as for you two.” The wizened old woman crossed her arms, a foul look on her face. “I am sorry about the unfortunate death of the Constantinou boy. But you two are barking up the wrong tree. There is no sign of foul play. It is botulism toxin. An unfortunate, rare, but nevertheless entirely mundane and accidental method of death. Now, if you will forgive me, I must go tend to my daughter.” Her tone was acidic, her expression sharp, and she slammed the door behind her, leaving Pearl and Nash standing on the lawn.

“Don’t suppose there were any rumors of Dean fooling around? High school football hero, and those two seem to have a slightly unhealthy dynamic. I could almost see the mother doing something crazy if they found he was screwing around behind the girl’s back. She looks like a bit of a social recluse.” Silas and Pearl drove towards the last person on the list for the day. Cassandra Hirosata, living in the same lot of suburban houses. The car rumbled as he tried to sort his thoughts.

“No such luck. As far as I know, he only had eyes for Isabelle. They were kind of a sweet couple. Could be a possibility, though.”

Silas growled. He couldn’t help it anymore. “Nobody we’ve talked to has the kind of motive necessary for murder. Especially not this kind of premeditation. Poison, injections, dragging him out into the middle of nowhere… Whoever did this, they either planned it, or had help.” He frowned. “I’m starting to see why you wanted some backup. We should check out that shack she mentioned. It might have something we can follow up on.” He sighed. “I’ll be honest with you. I’m starting to wonder how much help I can really be for you on this case. We might need to call in more people. I’ll see about getting in touch with the assistant director in the morning, based on how we’re going. But this definitely doesn’t feel right.” He stared at the building they were approaching. “And this town isn’t helping… Deja vu, all over again.”

The two of them parked in front of the small blue house, with its white picket fence. Silas checked the address, just to make sure that they hadn’t driven in a circle. “They didn’t go in big for individual taste with these houses, did they?” He asked, an eyebrow raised. Pearl smiled.

“Most of these places are still the original houses made in the 40s and 50s. There’s a pretty strict homeowner’s association. I understand Irayama acts as the informal head, quite to the contrary of the bylaws that she established herself.”

“Well, we ought to take her in on that basis right now. God forbid she exercises undue influence over the homeowner’s association and gets leave to put a pink flamingo in her yard.” Silas felt a little bad about the sarcasm- Pearl had been making a real effort to be helpful today. But he was fairly certain that no matter how tangled this mess became, homeowner politics were not relevant. He gave her an apolgetic smile, and she gave him one in return.

A couple, in their mid 30s, answered the door. “Mister and Mrs Hirosata? We wanted to ask Cassandra about the death of Dean.”

Mrs Hirosata narrowed her eyes at Silas, an expression of obvious distrust on her face “She’s already talked with you, Pearl. What is all of this about?” She was protective. A loving mother concerned for a wayward child. Odd, especially for a 14 year old girl in a small town.

Silas adjusted his tie, slightly self conscious under the steel glare of the older woman. Mister Hirosata was a big man, brawny, as tall as Silas, and quite calm. He looked to be Japanese. Mrs Hirosata, on the other hand, was apparently Greek, from her tanned skin and dark hair. She also seemed to be constantly waiting for a fight to break out with the universe. She was the kind of person who, if she ever went to bars, would know exactly how to turn a glass bottle into a deadly weapon, and she would eagerly do so at the first chance. Pearl smiled diplomatically “We just want to try to find out if she can remember anything more about the circumstances of his death.”

“Mom. It’s alright.” The young girl slipped through the doorway. Silas started to get a picture of why her mother would be so concerned. Her hair was messy, and her nose was bandaged. She was dressed in a pair of ill-fitting jeans, and a loose, baggy hoodie. “Hey, Pearl.” Her voice was a bit rough, affecting toughness. The girl was clearly used to being pushed around, and pushing right back. He rather liked that spirit.

“Chief Pearl, Cassandra. What happened to your nose?”

“Wrestling with Kintaro, Pearl. Come on, do we have to stand on ceremony? After all this time we’ve known each other?” The girl’s tone was lackadaisical, as she gave Pearl a smile. For the first time, her gaze shifted to Nash, and her eyes widened, any pretense of toughness disappearing. “Are you crazy, bringing him here?!” There was a wild, hunted look in Cassandra’s eyes. Silas stared for a moment. He’d thought he’d gotten used to the strange reactions people were having to him in this town. Abject terror was definitely a new one. He’d never seen someone so frightened of him. It wasn’t just defiance, or anger, or fear of punishment. It was the kind of raw animal panic that people retained for monsters.

“Cassandra, Agent Nash is here to help-” Nash rested a hand on Pearl’s shoulder. This wasn’t going to help matters. And in honesty, he just didn’t have the energy to fight through this particular reaction.

“It’s alright. Cassandra, I don’t know who you’ve mistaken me for, but I’ll wait in the car, alright? But I promise, I am here to help.”

Cassandra’s eyes were narrowed. She glared defiance at him, as though expecting him to draw his gun on her at any moment, but refusing to back down, as though his words had made her angry. “You’re not a hero, you know. You’re a killer. You’re just going to make things worse as long as you’re here. Why don’t you just leave, before everything falls apart?” She spoke in a rush, her shoulders tense, poised between fight and flight. Silas held down the urge to flinch back from her words. How the hell could she know about that?

Silas was many things, but he wasn’t one to stay where he was not wanted. He turned, and walked towards the car. He slid into the passenger seat, and began working on a report of the first day. He was out of his depth, here. If he wanted to get to the bottom of this, he would be swallowing his pride quite a lot. He looked up from the paperwork, thinking about what to write next. And that’s when he saw her. Standing on the corner, two blocks down. A red dress, and red hair, and red trickling down her lips. She smiled at him, and stepped around the corner, disappearing behind the building

He was on his feet in no time, throwing the car door open, ignoring Pearl’s shout and Cassandra’s flinch. He ran hard, his legs pumping. He was in half-decent shape. He made it to the corner in under a minute, sprinting wildly. He looked around. There was no sign of the woman, or the blood that had been dripping off of her lips. He’d taken the pills. He wasn’t supposed to be seeing things. He looked across the rows of doors leading into house after house. For a moment, he considered knocking on each and every one, or maybe knocking them down. Footsteps approached him from behind, and Pearl spoke, concern in her voice. “Agent Nash, are you alright?”

Pearl was frowning, her brow furrowed, concern obvious in her expression. He shook his head. “Sorry. Thought I saw someone I knew.” A dead woman. Someone who couldn’t possibly be there. After all, that was why he took the pills. So that he would stop seeing her. “What was all of that about, anyway? Cassandra was really scared as hell of me.” She had good reason to be. He was seeing things. He was having a psychotic breakdown. The dosage wasn’t enough. The batch was defective. He’d finally lost it entirely and the pills weren’t helping anymore. A dozen nightmares ran through his head as he tried to slow his breathing.

Pearl’s eyes dropped, her arms crossed. She was getting ready to lie to him. “I’m not sure, exactly. I think she was just nervous. She’s a bit of a troublemaker, and she’s not used to having to deal with any real authority.” She looked up. The sun was low in the sky. “Anyway. My offer still stands. Tomorrow morning, tell me whether you still want in on this case.”

He frowned. “I’ll stay, I don’t need to leave things open. Surely-”

She silenced him with a glance. “Just stay the night. By morning, you’ll know whether you should stay here or not.”

The two of them drove in silence, back to the hotel. He forgot about the remark as he caught sight of his rental car, sitting as though nothing had happened, immaculate as the day it had been made, in the middle of the parking lot. “Gene’s got to be a miracle worker,” he muttered softly, staring at the car. It looked good as new. Pearl laughed as she unlocked the cruiser’s doors, and he stepped out into the cool evening air. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Before she drove away, Pearl rolled down the window. “Hey. Get a bite of dinner before you call it a night. You’ve had a long day. Check out that diner, and tell Ariel that I sent you. She should be a little bit nicer.” Then, she was gone in a cloud of exhaust, the old cruiser coughing slightly as it accelerated away. He walked to his small rented hotel room. A letter had been shoved under the door slat. ‘From Gene’ was written on the front, in a delicate calligraphers hand. He opened it, to find the keys to his rental car. He smiled. The day was really looking up. He could almost forget Cassandra’s words. It’s not like she was wrong about him. He’d just have to do his job fast and try not to wreck any more happy lives than he had to.

In the darkness of the hotel room, he shook a couple of the anti-psychotics out of the bottle, and swallowed them quickly with a glass of water. His throat bobbed, and he let out a sigh of relief. He’d probably just been feeling under strain. He should have kept the pills on him, he’d probably let it slip by a couple of hours. It was unusual for the little flashes and visions to kick in so quickly, but the stress no doubt had something to do with that. With his mind temporarily his own again, he headed out to the car. He carefully started the ignition, and pulled out with excessive care into traffic. Gene’s service had been incredible- the car was running smoother than it had before he’d crashed- but he didn’t want to give her more business quite that soon. The damn pills messed with his reflexes something fierce.

The diner was quiet by the time he got there. It was early in the afternoon, apparently before the largest dinner rush. Ariel was standing behind the register, working on receipts, when he entered. Her eyes narrowed. “Oh. It’s you.” Her voice was cold as ice, and he gave her his best apologetic smile. He might as well have flipped her off for the reaction it got from her. “You need something, G-man?” she asked sharply.

“Yeah. Pearl sent me?” Ariel’s expression didn’t soften one bit. “I was hoping to get a bite to eat. It’s been a hell of a day.” She looked him up and down, frowning harder than anyone her age should be able to. Then she sighed.

“Well, never let it be said I am a poor host.” Her eyes ran him up and down a second time, as though weighing him up. “Steak, A-1 sauce but no ketchup on the side, an order of shoestring fries, a Caesar salad with vinaigrette, and a cup of hot herbal tea. Sound good?”

He paused for a moment. Breakfast seemed so long ago. It had been an exhausting day. “That… Yeah. That sounds divine.” He took a seat at the counter, as she bustled into the back. “Ariel, if you don’t mind my asking, what exactly have I done to be getting this treatment? I mean, if Pearl trusts me-”

“I do mind, as it happens. And Pearl’s a risk-taker. I think you’re trouble, G-man. I think you’re a disaster waiting to happen, and I would prefer that the disaster didn’t take us all down.”

He digested that statement for a long few seconds. Twice now. Say one thing for the people in this town, they certainly had his number. “So why even bother serving me?”

She slapped the plate down. “Because I am a damn fine hostess. You don’t turn someone away, no matter how much trouble they’re carrying behind them. Now eat up.” The steak steamed in the air. When he sliced it open, it was just a bit pink on the inside. It tasted perfect. The steak sauce would have been a waste on such a perfect cut of meat. He poured a bit on anyway because some habits are damned difficult to get rid of. And somehow, it made it better.

It was a perfect meal, one of those that lingered in the memory, that he’d tell stories about. He settled down, eating slowly, watching as people came in. He lingered over his food, as the convivial atmosphere filled the diner. It was pleasant, really. With so many people around, he didn’t stand out one bit. Nash ate slowly, and left a couple of bills on the counter. To his great surprise, Ariel was waiting outside when he stepped out. She had her arms crossed, and her eyes were narrowed. “I don’t want you to read into this, G-man. I’m not doing it out of any personal affection for you, or what you stand for. But if I didn’t do this… I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” She took three steps, closing with him. Then, she kissed him.

Her hands rested on his shoulder. She had to stand on her tiptoes and pull him forward slightly just to make their lips connect. It was sweet, and the scent of her body was like the air rushing off of the lake, sweet and fresh. Her lips were firm, but they softened, until he felt as though their skin was mixing together. She broke the kiss after a second, tossing her hair. He gaped for a moment, and frowned. “I’ll… try not to read anything untoward into the fact that you were using tongue.” He was trying to come across as cool and unaffected. The way his voice cracked ruined that. She swept past him, returning to the diner, and he got into his car. Who knew what the hell that was about. The sun was setting, the sky becoming dark purple, shading into pitch black. There were no street lights, and very little light pollution. The stars shone in the sky, and as he returned to the hotel, he was ready for sleep. It had been a long, busy day. He discarded his suit, and carefully hung his shoulder holster up on the coat hook. He sat down, checked the safety, removed the clip, checked its capacity, and did all the little things to relax himself after the strange and unexpected kiss. If someone saw him playing with his gun just because he had been kissed by an attractive young woman, he’d probably never live it down. Eventually, fatigue settled over him, and he lay down to sleep in the warm, stuffy confines of the hotel room. He was asleep within seconds.

One thought on “Chapter 2: A Change in the Air

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