by Patrick Linder
I almost stepped on a piece of skull. My foot neared the ground at the same moment that my mind recognized the silver-white shard for what it was. I short-stepped, shuffling like an old man, to keep my shoe from disturbing the splinter of bone.
I turned to the woman at my side and shook my head to share a moment of exasperation. We were the last ones here, tardy only because it shouldn’t have been our scene at all.
I let out a quick, sharp whistle. “You missed a piece,” I hollered as heads turned our way. I pointed toward the skull fragment I’d almost crushed.
“You Detective Brace?” a gaunt officer asked, annoyance in his voice. He might have been the skinniest guy I’d ever seen. I’m thin as well, but I like to think of mine as athletic-thin. I’m a runner and have the lean body type and ropey muscles that go along with it. He didn’t. His version of skinny made me think of someone too busy to be concerned with eating. Someone who probably didn’t like wasting his time waiting for us.
“That’s right. How you doin?” I replied, hand outstretched as a gesture to smooth things over.
“Be better after I hand this one to you,” he replied. “You must be doing something right. The dead are asking for you by name, calling out especially for the great Marcus Brace.” “I take it they didn’t call for me as well?” the woman next to me asked, pouting slightly and feigning hurt. “Detective Ashlynn Rivers,” she said, extending her hand.
Her coy response bothered me more than the derision dripping from the officer’s words. She did that to me. “Let’s see what we have,” I muttered.
The scene was brutal. The extreme damage done to the woman’s head drew our immediate attention and wouldn’t let us go. Half of her face was missing, the features disappearing where her skull caved in, like an overripe cantaloupe. She had been struck above the left eye, the blow destroying her forehead, the skin collapsing within the hollow, the eyeball flattened into the pulverized socket. Blood had run down her cheek before pooling on the ground beneath her neck, where it matted her formerly straight brown hair to the asphalt. Then I saw it. My business card, with my name circled in blood, had been laced between the dead woman’s fingers, creating a flag for whoever found the body.
Ash turned toward me. “The dead aren’t calling to you. A killer is.”
I looked again at the woman’s flattened face. There wasn’t much to see. What was there didn’t spark my memory. I didn’t recall giving my card to a woman with brown hair in the last week or so. I had absolutely no idea why it was woven into this woman’s fingers.
“Look at this,” Ash said, pulling my attention back to the body. She pointed beneath my business card, to the middle of the woman’s hand. A small, blackened circle stared up at us. “See how precise it is? It’s perfectly centered, both horizontally and vertically, on her palm.”
I looked closely at the circle. “Makes me think it was made postmortem. I can’t imagine her holding absolutely still for it otherwise.” I bent closer. “Any guesses on what made the mark?”
Ash bent closer as well. A wisp of auburn hair escaped from her tight, natural curls and tickled the back of my neck. As she examined the mark, her mouth opened slightly in surprise, then quickly closed. “It’s a cigarette burn,” she concluded, her statement definitive, her voice shaky.
“A cigarette burn wouldn’t be black, would it?” I asked. “A burn would be pink or red. Maybe white with scarring if it’s old.”
“It’s been filled in with something black.” She looked again at the darkened circle. Her eyes flitted from side to side before resettling in the center. “The wound itself is a burn from a cigarette. I’m sure, absolutely positive, of that.” She raised her shirt a few inches to expose a mark on the right side of her belly that was in line with her navel. Her own scalding from a cigarette.
I wanted to ask her about it. It drew a part of me toward her in ways that I had been able to push away before. She was tough and didn’t need me to rescue her, but that impulse stirred in me nonetheless when she showed me the burn. I saw someone else who was in pain, had been damaged by somebody she had probably trusted. I checked myself, realizing that my thoughts said more about the sorry emotional state I was in with my marriage ending than anything the mark necessarily said about her. I fought to push the image of her stomach away and quash a pity party of comparing injuries and licking one another’s wounds.
I shouldn’t have even been at this crime scene. I also shouldn’t have been here with her. My partner, Ryota Hisada, had been gone the last five days on vacation. That part didn’t bother me: Ryota and I didn’t get along all that well and hadn’t exactly gelled as partners. On the other hand, I feared that I got along too well with Ashlynn. We’d danced around each other for months, moved by whispered music that neither of us had ever acknowledged to the other. I looked at her face, transfixed by freckles spaced at random, splashed along high cheekbones that reminded me of apples. Forbidden fruit. I might have been tempted, but I hadn’t yet fallen.
I turned away, moving so my eyes could make a full circuit around the crime scene. We were under the Alaska Way Viaduct, across from the waterfront and a hundred feet or so below the main entrance to Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The body rested in a space comprised of parking spots and the grimy backsides of shops that put their better looking portion forward. Traffic from the viaduct above us brought a constant rumbling, punctuated at regular intervals by the clunk-clunk of tires as they passed over a joint in the roadway. Behind us, the brick wall threw off scars of graffiti, foreign symbols or gang tags that I didn’t recognize. It’s an ugly, liminal space, caught between the water on one side and the tourist-friendly front of the market on the other side. It’s a space that should have been a natural repository for scraps of paper, bottles, cigarettes, maybe even the odd condom wrapper. Nothing.
“Looks like the place has been swept clean, doesn’t it?” Ash remarked.
“Sure does,” I replied. “It’s too thorough.” I paused, processing the cleanliness the killer had left us with. We looked at each other in frustration. We had no name, no history, no momentum to move us forward, nowhere to start. Just a brutally beaten body that the killer then further degraded by turning it into a holder for my business card.
My phone rang, momentarily interrupting my frustration. “This is Marcus Brace,” I said into the phone. I heard only silence in return, as though my words were in a time delay or the other person were trying to figure out if he or she had the right number.
“Marcus,” a gravelly voice finally replied, “it’s Mike. Mike Brey.” I recognized the name but not the voice. Mike Brey had been my best friend growing up. More of a brother, really, than friend. I hadn’t heard from him in years. “My dad’s dead,” he told me as soon as he had identified himself. No small talk, no preliminaries. “He left a few things for you. We need to . . . I need to talk to you. In person. Call me when you get in town. I’ll be at our old house.”
This time it was I who paused in silence, trying to figure out where to go. Mike made the decision for me, hanging up before my mouth could move to respond. I continued to hold the phone next to my ear, shocked. Mike hadn’t been a part of my life for years. He’d disappeared after college. Even his father hadn’t known where he was. The raspy and harried voice that had just spoken to me sounded less like that of the friend I remembered from our youth and more like something that should belong to a recently rescued castaway, someone with sunburned skin and long, straggly hair. Someone who had almost forgotten how to speak.
I brought my phone down in front of me and pushed the end call button. I stood like that for a moment, head down and body frozen except for my thumb, which kept rubbing back and forth over the face of the phone. In my head, I heard the Mike from my youth, the guy who would have given me shit for developing an unhealthy obsession with the feel of my phone’s touchpad. Then he would have punched my shoulder, hard. I forced my head up and put the phone away. I caught Ash watching me, pulling me in to her gaze.
“You all right, Marcus?” Her voice was softer than I had ever heard it. Her hand started to move toward my shoulder as she asked her question. She caught it about a third of the way up and it fell back, lifeless, by her side. Her feet, though, shuffled her a half step closer to me. I wanted to tell her all of the crazy stuff running through my head and let her help me sort it out. Like her arm, though, I only made it about a third of the way there before collapsing back and re-establishing the self-contained state we were each more familiar and comfortable with.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. Just a hell of a day is all. This case dropped on us and I just got a call about a funeral I need to be at. Give me a sec to clear my head.”
Her mouth didn’t change; her body didn’t move. But her slate-green eyes lit up, filled with something simultaneously healing and needy, full of comfort for me and overflowing with what I thought was her own aching and an echo of the pain I saw when she had shown me her cigarette burn. They called to me, and scared me, with their intensity. A contagious desperation sparkled in them, infecting me with its combination of hunger and hurt. I felt something smoldering in the space between, waiting to erupt and burn us, leaving only scorched ground where we once stood. Part of me was willing to burn with her. The last few months, as my own marriage fell apart, I’d had to work ridiculously hard to push aside thoughts of immolation with Ash. I feared that once the flame erupted, I wouldn’t be able to extinguish it. Then it was gone, and her eyes filmed over with the look of the everyday.
“Sure, Marcus. No problem. I’ll double-check with the techs, see if there’s anything else to know.”
I turned, heading for the water. I grew up in Kansas, as landlocked as you can get. Seeing Puget Sound always amazes me, and calms me. Probably because it reminds me that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Insert your own Dorothy joke here.
I looked back to the crime scene. The back of Pike Place Market peeked down at me. Up above, the smells of local produce and fresh fish and stale body odor and greasy floors mingled together in a specifically Seattle stew that visitors could take back home in their memories. Tourists up above, on a different level. I thought of them moving among the vendors, crammed among the stalls, buying flowers and mesmerized by fish flying in front of their eyes.
Seeing the Market and thinking of tourists enjoying themselves up above while a murder investigation took place below made me think of Seattle’s Underground Tour, another big draw for visitors. You move through several blocks of subterranean pathways that sit directly below present-day Seattle. There are spots where you look up and see people walking above you, can holler at them and see if they hear you. It is Seattle history, buried: you move among earlier streets and stores that were, literally, built over to form the Seattle we now know.
I think of it often. It reminds me of my job, walking among the ugly layers that others prefer remain buried and hidden. Days like today, however, allow those layers to burst forth, force you to recognize the voices that drift up from your feet, pleading for you to acknowledge them. We live on top of a palimpsest, choosing to believe that the thin crust on which we walk is all that there is, preferring to overlook what came before us and no longer easily fits within everyday life. We construct our experiences atop buried strata whose origins, we hope, remain obscured. It’s easier, more comfortable, to look around and see where we are than to dig to find where we came from. Surprises wait to burst forth from what we choose to ignore, from layers we don’t really want to uncover.
I reached the end of the pier, the water lapping at the support post beneath me. Even this seemingly absolute margin was a false front, the apparently native Seattle topography shaped by massive early twentieth-century regrades. After the hills were sliced to more manageable levels, the extra dirt had been purged into Puget Sound, forming the boundary I now stood above.
The sun momentarily moved from behind the clouds, replacing the wintry Seattle gray with fractured, diffusive light. Amber skies shined from the direction of the Olympic mountains and purple waves ran toward the pier. Sea salt air hit my nostrils. The mood I was in, I could only think of giant teardrops.
I knew exactly where my next move would take me. The killer might have left a calling card, my business card, but I had to be there for Mr. Brey’s funeral. I owed him that. He was more father to me than my genetic father had ever been. I looked down at the water, the waves moving in toward the pier, then rebounding against the support post and rippling back, with less energy this time, to sea. I needed to get back to the Breys’ house; I needed to get back to Kansas.