An excerpted draft scene from one of the branching stories in our Quondam Series.
The homicide detective studied the woman. A fall of dark lavender-tinted hair covered the right forearm from elbow to hand. From elbow to shoulder, a bouquet of tattooed skulls grew from stems. Nice work, she thought. From what she could see, the rest of the body was untenanted… only the arm with its inert ink. Unlike the skin-rider she carried that twitched and spread tendrils. She tugged down the long sleeves that had crept past her wrists. Emotions stirred it, so she took three deep, steady breaths, and it withdrew further under the fabric.
“She was beautiful.” The medical examiner commented and half-turned toward her.
“Yeah, Bishop, too bad she’s dead.”
She saw his eyes on the Java Joe’s cup in her hand. It trembled, and she willed herself to make it stop. And her tone had been too cold, even for someone with her reputation. That too she needed to rein in, but at risk. She tugged her sleeves down again and knelt beside the body. “Pictures taken?” The first crime-scene rule she’d learned was to touch nothing until the photographer had done their work and documented everything and its position relative to the body.
Squatting next to her, Bishop nodded. “Done.”
The dead woman’s head rested on sheet music and a keyboard. Someone had arranged her long hair and swept it back from her face. The flower over her left ear… maybe was already there. The open eyes were sea green. When she was alive, they had depth and probably changed shade with shifting sunlight. Now, they were shallows, as still as shoal water over coastal muck. Her face… smooth, unlined. Not a hint of a life lived badly… but one that seemed hardly lived at all. “She wanted to sin, but she was too shy.”
“What?” The medical examiner asked, puzzled.
The detective nodded at the woman on the floor. “It’s a line from a song…” She brushed a lock of her hair away from her face and rose from the body. “‘Changing Lights’ by Broken Bells. Well, you want to walk in white, you wanna sin, but you’re too shy… so the candle just keeps burning down on you….” she sang softly and rose from the body. You look innocent, the detective thought, staring down at the woman, lying there… blameless… but many dead bodies do.
“I don’t know if this is about sin, Poe… not yet anyway.” The M.E. stood, but not as smoothly as the detective. Two decades older, with stiff knees. Bishop knew not to call her Penelope, and God save my ass if I slip and call her ‘Bad Penny,’ he thought. Everyone, both in the department and on the street, had learned not to use that old epithet around her. To them—to her face—Penelope Olivia Edgar was ‘Poe.’ He had worked with her for two years since she made detective and still didn’t have a clue what went on inside her head. He’d known many cops over the years, but none like her. But she got results in her heavy-handed, ‘don’t suffer fools gladly’ way.
Poe nudged, with the pointed toe of her boot, the bulky pistol next to the body’s left hand. “Revolver.” She squatted again, rocked forward on her knees, palms flat, lowered her head, and sniffed like a bloodhound on the scent. “Fired recently.” Cocking her head and lowering it, she looked down the barrel. Fat, near the size of her thumb, dull gray lead-tipped bullets filled all but one opening in the cylinder. “One round gone….”
“Not in her, though.”
“No blood, no wound….” Poe glanced at Bishop.
“Nope.” The M.E. nodded.
She studied the scene, a mostly monochrome tableau. White and black keys. Black notes on white paper. Black ink on aged-ivory skin. For color, a flower in the woman’s lavender hair, nail polish, red marks on the sheet music, and a blotch of spilled wine spread like blood at her side. “Any identification?” Poe asked, her eyes going back to the body.
“Not a stitch of clothing around and nothing on her.” The medical examiner’s eyes panned the room. “Nothing in the rest of the apartment… the uniforms checked and Newman double-checked.”
“So only the tatts, a couple of piercings,” Poe pointed at the body’s left ear and nose, “a bracelet and ring.”
“Not much,” the M.E. stretched and stifled a yawn with his hand. “Well, I’m done here. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Bishop, what are you doing here anyway… this is Assistant M.E. hours? Where’s Lohfless?”
“Vacation; she’s back next week.” He gave the body a last glance as he left.
Poe waved over an officer, two new chevrons on his uniform sleeve, standing off to the side. “Newman, you the first on the scene?”
“Don’t give me that department protocol single-sex-uni-gender crap. Call me detective, Poe or ma’am… there’s nothing dangling tween my legs.” She walked to the balcony, pulled the drapes, and stepped out to a striking nightscape of the city’s arc, the areas that never slept freckled with lights. The moon’s reflection, a shimmering ghost on the bay water below. “Whose apartment is this?” She called back to the corporal, who joined her.
Newman didn’t check the notebook in his hand. “Had to do some digging….” The corporal’s eyes shifted back inside toward the apartment’s entry. “Shit,” he mumbled.
Poe’s eyes turned from watching the moon on the water at his muttered curse. “What?”
“The Chief just came in….”
Poe stepped from the balcony and back into the sitting room. “What’s he doing here… outside his ‘impressive’ office?”
Newman rubbed his bristly chin. “Turns out this is the governor’s sister’s apartment.”
“Shit….” The skin-crawl shivered up her back, crept over her shoulders, and then down her arms. Poe slowed her breathing, pulled at her sleeves, and followed the corporal inside. Sing-whispering to herself: “Sometimes you wonder if it’s all another mistake. Why not just walk away. Measure the cost, what’d you gain… what have you lost. The candle’s burning down on me….”