Ray Charles was crooning their favorite song.
“I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine…”
In the dark of the car, Jasper Franklin wept. With a lethargy deep and desperate, he slowly opened the door and pulled his short, muscular frame out, not bothering to turn off the engine. He had all the appearance of a strong man, but he was carrying a heaviness in his soul that was like a lead weight on his back. The car’s beeping clashed with the mellow love song that still played, but it didn’t matter.
A light rain was falling. Jasper stood a moment gazing up at the warm light burning through the raining mist in front of St. Anthony’s. The door was open. To Jasper, it was the door to salvation. Or so he hoped. Slowly, wearily, he stumbled up the stairs and inside.
Evening Mass had already begun. A woman, distracted by the sound of Jasper’s fumbling steps, turned to see who was disturbing the services, ready to quell the infidel with a fierce whisper of protest. Her face quickly transformed to one of fear as she scrambled to the opposite end of the pew, barely managing to muffle a scream. Jasper continued his slow walk up the aisle, his dripping clothes and shoes leaving a visible trail.
Father Templeton was just turning to face the congregation. Seeing Jasper, the words of prayer stopped in his throat. To his horror, he watched as the bedraggled man fell to his knees. In the light of the altar, Jasper Franklin, the deep brown skin of his face twisted with grief and wet with tears, turned repentant eyes to the priest. Fear paralyzed Father Templeton. He could only stare with shock and loathing at Jasper’s clothes, soaked not from the wet of the skies, but drenched in mud and blood. In a grotesque mockery of offering, Jasper raised cupped hands, cradling a knife that still dripped in mute witness to unforgivable sin.
“Forgive me, Father…,”he croaked in a hoarse whisper. The priest took several hasty steps backward, tripping over the hem of his vestments.
“Please…forgive me…for God… God…I have sinned.”
Unable to stand the pain any longer, as if his muscles had given up the ghost, Jasper crumbled to the floor, confession made, the knife clattering to the foot of the altar.
* * * * *
Avalon was a place where things were easily hidden. It might have had something to do with the weather. There were few really clear-sky days in Avalon. Like its mythical namesake, it was often covered in fog. The less romantic residents called it smog. Tina Garth, the local weather girl and born-again pagan, liked the term mist. In any case, it seemed natural to keep things hidden. Secret. Mysterious. The latest secret lay unmoving on the floor of McKenna’s Mystery Bookshop. If one looked closely through the window display from the street, the legs of the body could be seen. But you’d have to look past the display, which simulated a small scale Victorian study, much like 221B Baker Street, although this sitting room advertised the latest in crime fiction with posters and book jackets, daggers and fake blood.
Oblivious to the still secret on the floor, garish music pounded above the bookshop, accompanied by the moans and heavy breathing associated with a wild orgy. The loft seemed oddly sterile, considering the apparent sounds of lascivious behavior. It was decorated in a spotless retro 50's style, with the requisite bar cabinet stocked with a variety of classic single malt scotch whiskies, heavy on the Balvenie, Macallan and Glenmorangie.
The only thing of obvious passion was a stark mural, painted on a wall of exposed brick, of vibrant, swirling colors spiraling toward a center with half concealed images of body parts – eyes, teeth and hands.
Coupled with the intensifying sounds of sex, one would expect to see entwined bodies romping on the carpets. Yet there was only Adam McKenna, a scotch in one hand, the remote in the other, lounging on the sofa. Slightly bewildered, dark brown eyes looked out from a strikingly attractive face. Beside him sat Chloe, a sweet-faced, pixie-ish girl-woman, who stared intensely at the porn video on the flat screen television.
“Stop…yeah…right there. That’s her.”
Adam squinted as he tilted his head to the side.
“Are you sure?”
Chloe jammed her finger at the screen.
“Positive. See that…that’s her birthmark.”
“Got any pictures of her face?”
Eagerly, Chloe removed several photos from her purse.
“You'll find her, right? I mean, I read about you in the paper, you found that little boy.”
“Tell me about Sarah,” Adam coaxed.
“Well, Jerry and me, we just got married, you know. So we're watching this video and like, I couldn't believe it...I mean my sister's been gone for like forever...we thought she was dead. But when I saw her, I said we've got to find her. So, we flew up from Tampa, and we've been here a week but no luck, so I thought...”
Running down, Chloe shrugged as Adam swallowed the last of his scotch.
“What does Jerry think?”
Chloe avoided Adam’s gaze, rummaging around in her purse.
“Listen, Jer's the greatest, but a little stubborn, you know? 'I can do it,' he says. But it's been a week already. So, I say let's get a professional, and that's you.”
“Yep, that would be me.” Crossing to the bar, Adam freshened his drink.
“Awesome. Hey, that article said there's a mystery museum downstairs in the store, with exhibits and stuff? Can I see? Will you show me?”
Rapidly becoming bored, Adam waved her over to a door. “Tell you what...Show yourself.”
Delighted, Chloe practically skipped down the stairs. Adam had just settled down to watch the rest of the video, when Chloe’s scream cut through the climax of the onscreen couple.
“Well, hell,” Adam murmured. Slightly annoyed by the distraction, he reluctantly paused the video and crossed to the stairs.
* * * * *
Avalon’s sparse city skyline was diminished even further by the persistent rain and mist. Drivers on the ribbon of highway that encircled the city caught glimpses of office towers spiraling on the horizon giving it the appearance of a ghost town hovering on the edge of the world.
And if the drivers took time to notice, they would also glimpse several figures moving on the grassy slope on the side of the highway, fading in and out as slips of mist arose and subsided on the currents of air stimulated by the traffic. Spots of bright yellow also dotted the slope, not with spring flowers but with the all too familiar police tape marking a crime scene. A road sign floated above the mist: “Welcome to Avalon.”
The driver of a red Volvo S40 noticed the sign, although her expression did not register a sense of welcome. Detective Lieutenant Clarissa Collins simply shook her head in wonderment.
“Remind me why I came back,” she demanded.
The other occupant in the car, her partner, Terry Brennan, searched a moment for the right response. She slicked back her damp, red-blonde hair, which had curled over her forehead in the rain.
“The weather’s much nicer than L.A.?” she responded. That drew a laugh from Clarissa, bringing warmth to her hazel-brown eyes.
“Oh yeah, that’s right.” In California, those eyes had accented sun-kissed, honey-brown skin. After two months in Avalon, Clarissa felt she was in danger of turning beige. Maybe it was time to get one of those heat lamps that simulated sun.
Clarissa eased the vehicle off the freeway, pulled up behind several police units and an ambulance. Turning off the ignition, she made no immediate move to get out.
“The crops need the rain, I guess,” she sighed finally, and pulling up the hood on her raincoat, she and Brennan slid from the comfort of the vehicle to do the job.
This stretch of highway had been adopted by Avalon’s Daughters of the Lake, a collaboration of women who held fast to the mystery of the city’s ancient namesake. This meant that although the area was cleared of the usual roadside detritus, the landscaping, such as it was, grew free and unhindered by husbandry. Although this was pleasing to the DOLs it made Clarissa’s progress to the crime scene problematic. She maneuvered the near-swamplike terrain, carrying on a measured conversation on her cell. She approached two EMTs working with swift precision on a woman, her chest and arms rudely sliced open, lying amidst the lush grass which was soaked by a small lake of blood.
“Fine. Yeah, Mom, I'll be home soon...Just close the windows if it rains...Love you, too. Bye.” Without skipping a beat, Clarissa holstered her phone and addressed the two men.
“Okay, what's this?” Brennan took notes as one of the EMT’s briefly looked up. His face was a study of angles, his skin a smooth creamery brown. In deference to his heritage, and in defiance of presumed dress codes, he wore his hair in a close-cropped Mohawk. On any non-native it would have looked punkish. On him, it just looked natural…and for Brennan, really hot.
“Female, age 23, multiple knife wounds.” He turned back to the work at hand. “By some miracle, she's still alive.”
Sloshing up to the scene, Detective Ricardo Jennings gave his disgruntled report.
“Yeah, and we've got another walk-in.” Jennings, although still in his early thirties, carried himself like a war torn veteran. His pale skin was pockmarked, but his eyes still held an intelligence and vigor that made him valuable as a detective.
“Over at St. Anthony’s. Man walks right in, drops the knife and asks forgiveness. Just like that.”
“Great. What's that, three walk-ins in three weeks?” checked Clarissa. “Must be some kind of epidemic.” She glanced at the woman, still slightly alive at her feet.
“Who called this in?” Jennings nodded to a nearby uniform, fresh-faced and eager, despite the lousy weather. For some reason, that irritated the lieutenant. She crossed to him with her purposeful cop’s stride. Brennan felt a little sorry for the young man.
“You called in a homicide, Officer?” The uniform snapped to attention, pleased to be acknowledged.
“That's correct, lieutenant.” Clarissa looked at him, unsmiling.
“So...tell me, who's dead?”
He looked at her, puzzled.
“Excuse me?” Stepping closer, Clarissa pointed to the victim in the grass.
“She's not dead. Are there any dead bodies at this scene?”
His posture sagging under Clarissa’s stare the uniform began to stutter a response,
Interrupting with out remorse, Clarissa jabbed a finger at his chest.
“Then why the hell did you tell dispatch this was a homicide? This is what we call an assault, Officer, with a deadly weapon. Now, if that vic dies, then you call for me and my team.”
The momentary silence was cut by the sound of an insistent beeper. Clarissa glanced at the number, then headed for the car, signaling Brennan to follow.
“Now this is a homicide.”
Clarissa stood over the body of a white male, sprawled between the book stacks of McKenna’s Mystery Bookstore. The corpse had a look of surprise frozen on his face, no doubt due to the round, jewel-headed blade that was sticking out the base of his skull.
The crime scene was already crawling with the investigative team, dusting, photographing and collecting minute forensics.
“Do we have an ID on this yet?” Before the coroner investigator could respond, a voice spoke from the other side of the book stacks.
“Anthony Covington, white male, age 33, employee of McKenna's Mystery Books for five years, lives on the east side, Madeira Court. Victim found by one Chloe Richards.”
Clarissa closed her eyes and stood very still.
“Oh, god...it is you.”
“I’m touched that you remember. But you don't have to call me god.”
Clarissa slowly turned to face Adam McKenna. There was recognition in her eyes but no welcome. She was careful about that. He was still lean. Still had the wicked good looks, like some wild Celtic warrior or maybe a sexy pirate. She turned away. He was not a romance novel hero, even if he looked the part. As far as she was concerned he was no hero at all. No way she would make that mistake again.
“I was hoping it was some other McKenna,” she said.
“Don't you read the Sunday papers?” he countered, a slow, and to Clarissa’s thinking, arrogant smile crossing his face.
“I don't read the comics,” she said, returning her attention to the body.
“Still witty as ever” Adam drawled.
“This your boyfriend?” she queried, a sliver of sarcasm slipped into her voice.
Adam glanced down at his late store manager.
“Not that I recall.”
“Hard to keep track, huh?”
Adam studied her with a bemused expression in his eyes. She was still a puzzle.
“Why don’t you like me?” he asked.
Clarissa held his look.
“Because you expect it.”
Something like emotion crossed Adam's face. She always could nail him.
“It’s good to see you, too, Clarissa.” A genuine smile lit his eyes. “Welcome home.”
Clarissa made sure she kept her focus on the task at hand. It wouldn’t be a good idea to get distracted. Really, not a good idea at all.
* * * * *
To be continued...