From the author: An excerpt from Titanshade (DAW Books, 2019) a noir fantasy thriller set in an oil boomtown where magic is real, disco rules the radio, and good cops are hard to find.
An audio version is available for this chapter.
It was the back side of Friday and I sat at the bar of Mickey the Finn’s. My hands laced around a cup of warm joe as I kept silent time to the jukebox, eyes fixed on the clock where it hung by a single crooked nail above a row of liquor bottles. Its minute hand crept ever closer to that magic hour: the moment when my shift would end, and I’d be free to order something stiffer. I was a few ticks away from paradise when the pager in my coat pocket began buzzing. I fished it out and squinted at the faded green display. The three-digit code read 187. Homicide. I flagged down the bartender and asked for the phone.
He brought it over, untangling the cord and dropping it on the bar top hard enough to jangle the ringer. I spun the rotary dial and waited for Dispatch to pick up.
I jotted the details down in my notepad. Room 430 at the Eagle Crest Hotel. I hung up, dropped enough change to cover my coffee, and with an ache I felt in my bones, pulled myself off the cracked vinyl seat of the barstool.
As I left the Finn’s I paused at the door, my hand over the geo-vent in the floor. Warm air streamed up, tinged with the strong rotten-egg smell of sulfur. I could tell the imps were really giving the big guy hell that day. Though I’d long ago stopped believing he could hear us, I mouthed the traditional prayer of departure.
For your suffering, which brings us safety and warmth, we thank you. My pager buzzed again. Code 21: All available units to report.
Prayer time was over. I walked out the door and onto the filthy streets of Titanshade.
The sidewalks seethed, the customary sea of pedestrians making walking difficult but not impossible. Street traffic was almost standing still, slowed to a crawl by a funeral procession. A long line of Therreau folk trailed behind a wagon-wheeled hearse driven by a team of matte-black horned beetles. The wide-brimmed hats and bonnets of the Therreau shaded smooth faces plucked free of any hair. They were on their way to the Mount, to perform a sky burial. A taxi would only get stuck behind the beetles, and I had hopes of making it back to Mickey the Finn’s that night. So I decided to hoof it, breaking into a fast stroll to cross the street ahead of the procession.
It was winter, and the shortened day was already dissipating into twilight. Although the sky was darkening, the evening air grew warmer as I moved toward the mountain at the northeast edge of the city. I unbuttoned my overcoat and shoved my scarf into a pocket as I dodged panhandlers and slower pedestrians. Other travelers moving mountwise did the same, shedding layers as they walked toward warmer air, while those heading leeward slipped into jackets or zippered sweaters.
The crowd was relatively calm, with only a few obscenities and lewd gestures thrown around as we all jostled for position on the sidewalks. There was a daily chaotic madness to my town, a blue-collar work ethic still visible regardless of how many coats of oil money had been slapped over it the last fifty years.
After a few blocks the pager urged me on once more. I pulled my overcoat off and draped it over an arm, ignoring the aches in my legs and speeding my pace even if I didn’t think it was needed. Dispatch had said homicide, but that was probably an overeager patrolman’s report. A death in the Eagle Crest Hotel was far more likely just another suicide, some middle manager trying to escape the shame of financial ruin as one more oil well ran dry beyond the city limits.
So maybe I didn’t hustle over as fast as I should have. But at the time I had no way of knowing what was waiting for me. If I had, I would have run as far and as fast as I could. Though in which direction, I couldn’t say.
As it was, by the time I arrived at the scene and made my way to the fourth floor Angus was already there, trying to look like he was in charge. He stood outside the door of room 430, hands on hips, suit coat arranged just so, frozen in place like he was hoping the newspaper flaks would suddenly appear and snap his photo.
A born publicity hound, Angus always dressed to the nines. Today he wore a three-piece suit, and the hard, fleshy plates covering his skull had been polished to a reflective shine. He was buttoned up tight, but like all Mollenkampi he wore his tie loose due to anatomical constraints. When he saw me, he jerked his head toward the door, and the oversized, jagged teeth jutting from his biting mouth clattered with the motion. His voice rose from his second mouth, a round void nestled above a shirt collar sharp with starch.
“Go check it out, Carter. But I was on-scene first. My case.” The folds around his eyes crinkled with amusement.
I was too tired to think of something clever and I didn’t give a damn who claimed the case, so I kept my mouth shut and tried to brush past him. He leaned in and grabbed my arm.
“Close the door quick,” he said. “We don’t want any photos hitting the papers.” The slender mandibles on either side of his biting jaw quivered when he spoke, and his grip was tighter than necessary.
I smirked. “Just keep the press back. Give ’em a big smile.” I eyed the rigid plates lining his head and his expressionless biting jaws. “Best as you can, anyway.”
I shook off his grip and entered the room, immediately pulling up short. I almost forgot to close the door after all.
Over two decades on the force and I’d never seen anything like the mess in that hotel room. I muttered a prayer that I wouldn’t have to see something like it again. Then, like the department shrinks taught me, I paused to collect myself, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. That’s when the odor hit me. I stepped back, struggling to reconcile the scene before me with a scent I associated with breakfasts and baked goods.
The murder scene smelled of cinnamon.
That meant the vic was a Squib. I’d seen a few of them before, but only a few. I opened my eyes and began to process the scene. Human-size bipedal frogs, Squibs rarely came this far north. There was no way to tell if this one had been male or female, no way to tell much of anything. The body was . . . well, “in pieces” probably gets the point across. Chunks of the Squib’s skin were underfoot, globs of fat and muscle smeared in the fibers of the carpet and stuck to the wall. The sight was oppressive, but the smell overrode the visuals. I swallowed, distantly surprised that I didn’t have the cotton mouth associated with shock.
I stood still, unable to walk more than a few feet into the room without stepping in viscera. The walls and couch were covered in a berry-jam kind of smear. I took another breath. Now that I’d had time to process it, the smell was more complex than cinnamon. It had undertones of something sweeter, like whipped cream melting into a latte, or the way spices bloom when a pastry is bursting with readiness in the oven. Memories of shepherd’s pie flooded over me as I saw pieces of flesh hanging in the curtains.
My stomach clenched from a combination of revulsion and appetite. I hadn’t been hungry when I walked in, but I was ravenous now.
I tried to look away, but there was nowhere to rest my eyes that hadn’t been touched by the gore. I swallowed again, my head reeling like a rookie on his first day scraping up the remains of joyriders who’d miscalculated one of the hairpin turns on the tight roads up the Mount.
Afraid I was the only person struggling with the scene, I glanced at the other cops in the room. There were a handful of techs stepping carefully through the suite. They wore respirators, but still managed to look queasy.
I swallowed a third time, and I realized my mouth was watering. Disgust at my own reaction hit me hard: standing in the middle of a horror show, I was reacting like a starving man at a buffet.
I must have been visibly struggling, because one of the techs walked over to me, slipcovered shoes squishing with each step.
“You okay, Detective?”
I nodded. “It’s this smell.” I wiped a sleeve across my mouth. I was almost drooling.
The tech stooped to put a tape measure against a smear of blood. “Yeah, I’ve heard of Squib stink before. Never thought I’d get hit with it firsthand, though.”
“Me either.” My head swam, and I focused on what he’d said. Squib blood released a pheromone when exposed to the air, and it had a strange effect on some humans. I was clearly in that population. I felt like punching someone—anyone—and I had a perverse desire to squeeze the viscera between my fingers. I shook my head fiercely, and the tech’s voice grew more concerned.
“Maybe you oughta get a respirator. We got some more coming down with another crew.”
“Reinforcements?” I forced a smile but couldn’t tell if it was returned behind the tech’s mask.
“It’ll take days to process everything,” he said. “The bathroom’s not bad, though the tub’s got some crusty brown residue.”
“Killer washed off?” I asked.
He looked back at the bathroom, as if considering the idea. “Maybe. Doesn’t look like bloodstains, though. We’ll take a sample and see what the lab says.”
I wanted to get a feel for the place before anything was moved, but I couldn’t think straight. I noticed the techs were only snapping photos and taking notes.
“You’re not tagging and bagging.”
The tech shook his head. “Just cataloging. Dispatch says a DO is headed down, and we won’t move anything till she gets here.”
That was good. Sorcery was expensive and most homicides didn’t rate a divination officer on site. But this one . . . this one clearly would.
It was possible that this killing was the start of something bigger. Squib smell was a serious intoxicant for some humans, with no way to determine who was susceptible before exposure. There had even been isolated cases of Squibs being killed and eaten when someone made the mistake of taking them to human-staffed hospitals for minor wounds. My stomach gurgled at the thought, and I spoke up to cover the sound.
“Where’s the rest of the body?” I asked.
The tech swung a hand, twisting at the waist to take in the whole room. “You’re looking at it. Far as we can tell, it was pulverized.”
“Come on,” I said. “The whole body? That’s not possible.”
He shrugged. “Squibs are cartilaginous. No real bones. And with this amount of matter spread around . . .”
Looking away from the tech I got another glimpse of the viscera that marked the room. The image of cherry pie popped into my head and I smiled again, broader this time, my lips pulling back from my teeth uncomfortably. I almost slapped myself.
“I’ll be back after I get a mask,” I said.
Walking away from the nightmare in the hotel room, I slammed the door shut behind me, never so glad to leave a crime scene. In the hall, Angus was waiting for me. The first photographers had shown up, hoping to sell a snapshot to one of the papers. The glare from their flashbulbs lit up the speckled, sea-bass coloration of his skull plates. Angus smirked.
I stared back. I’d seen his discomfort earlier. Angus was spooked, and giving me grief was him trying to reassert a sense of control. Reading him that way didn’t make me hate him any less, but it let me keep my cool.
“I’m going to survey the exterior,” I said.
While I was close, he threw in one more remark the reporters couldn’t overhear.
“No appetite for it?”
Without answering I shoved past him and through the scrum of photographers. Let them get a shot of Angus, the most photogenic cop on the case. I needed to get out of there.
Back on the streets the spires and skyscrapers of Titanshade opened around me, and I could breathe again. At least the bustle of the crowd covered my internal, thrumming voice of self-loathing. The press of bodies rose and fell in waves, punctuated by the rumble of car engines and the blare of horns as drivers bellowed their frustrations into the night. Gradually the fog and noise started to wash away the sickness and shame at my reaction to the murder.
Death bothered me, sure, but it wasn’t the first murder I’d seen and I doubted it’d be the last. But none of them had put me through what I’d just experienced. Angus could have whatever had happened in that hotel room. Let others deal with that nightmare. For once, I’d simply walk away. I wanted no part of it.
Decision made, I felt a great weight drop from my shoulders. I loosened my tie and took a deep breath. It looked like I’d make it back to Mickey the Finn’s after all.
But it was a long walk back through the city and the ache in my leg bones wasn’t going away. Reaching into my inner coat pocket I retrieved a small prescription bottle. A brief struggle with the childproof cap and I had two largish blue pills sitting in my palm. Before I could swallow them, a small car pulled up to the curb, and a square-shouldered woman got out. She motioned the driver to find a parking spot and turned her eyes on me.
I palmed the pills and bottle, dropping them discretely back into my pocket while raising the other hand in a salute. “Hey, Cap.”
Captain Bryyh squinted at the Eagle Crest, deep crow’s feet etching across dark brown skin as she took in the profile of the building. “You been up there yet?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s bad.”
“What are you doing? Scouting the perimeter?”
I considered giving her a line, but it’s always a risky thing trying to pull one past Bryyh. I settled on the truth, as far as it went.
“Sorta. I had to get out of there.”
“Yeah, but . . .” I gave her a hangdog grin. “Don’t go in there without a respirator.”
Her nostrils flared. I wondered if she’d encountered Squib smell before.
“You look like you’re getting ready to go somewhere,” she said.
“Angus is first on-scene.”
“So there’s nothing for me to do.”
She frowned. “You got a page, right? You weren’t ordered here by accident.”
From somewhere came the rattle of wooden cartwheels on cobblestone, threatening to distract me. I ran my tongue over my teeth and chose my words carefully.
“A murder in a pricey hotel means money. The vic is a Squib, and if it turns out they were tied to the wind farms, it means politics. Either way, the press’ll be all over it. You don’t want to see my face on the evening news.”
She pursed her lips, as if considering that. She was a good actor on occasion.
“You finished with the Reynolds case?” she said.
“Handed it over to Kravitz this afternoon.” It had taken me days of nonstop work, but it was done. “He made the arrest this evening. I was waiting on a celebratory drink when I got called up here.”
“So you’re available. And there’s plenty of work here that won’t put you in front of cameras.”
“Alright. But look—”
Bryyh took a step closer, tightening her tone as she interrupted me.
“You seem to think this is a discussion,” she said. “It is not. This is me telling you what’s going to happen. I’ve got every asshole with brass on his shoulder headed this way, and you’re here because I want you here.” The sharp edge faded and she beckoned me toward the crime scene. “Now come on. We’ll find you something useful to do.”
I wiped a hand across my face. The brass was headed in to make their appearance for the cameras. Money and politics.
The sound of rolling carts got louder. Behind Bryyh’s back the Therreau funeral procession approached. They had caught up with me, the shrouded corpse-wagon pulled by slow-moving tibron beetles twice my size. Methodical and never-stopping, they carried their burden to the mountain.
Bryyh headed toward the hotel. I rolled my head in a slow loop, stretching the tendons in my neck. The tension in my shoulders was building back up, and the pain in my bones wasn’t going to go away by itself. But I put one foot in front of another, and walked back inside that hotel.