Lord of the Ravens
"I'm hit! I'm hit! Goddammit, I'm hit!"
"Cap, haul ass! Fuckin' Charlie's all over us!"
Brrrraaaaaappp! Brrrraaaaaappp! Moaning death spewing downward, muttering out from gear-driven, rotating barrels, spent brass chanking against the deflector and out the door.
"Oh . . . oh . . . oh . . . motherfucker . . ."
Dnk! Chnk! Tnk-tcnk, dnk! Bullets punching upward through aluminum. Turbine whine rising. Wop-wop-wop . . . spinning rotors beating frantically against moist jungle air.
Pulling gees. Turning up and away.
Below. Something deadly coming. Crawling on a sinuous twisting tail.
Oh shit! Oh shit!
"Flares, Cap, flares!"
Blinding . . . metal fragmenting.
Oh God, I'm falling! I'm falling! I'm . . .
Drenched in sweat, Father Mike jerked awake, bolting upright in bed. Eyes wide and unseeing. Heart pounding. Breath harsh, gasping. Unformed words battering at his clamped lips. Vague wisps of his dream evaporated into the darkness, fleeing his grasp even as he clutched at them, and he remembered . . .
. . . nothing.
With trembling hand he reached through the night, his fumbling fingers seeking the switch on his bedside lamp, finding it. Click.
The light cast a yellow tinge upon the priest's sparse quarters and found Christ on his cross looking down in sorrow upon this man in his waning, middle-age years.
Swinging his legs over the side of his cot, Gudson sat with his head in his hands, wrung out, weary, remembering . . . remembering . . . nothing . . .
Nothing beyond three months past. . . .
Nothing. . . .
"Nick, it's Isrel. We've got another one."
Faint shouts and a distant clamor sounded tinnily in the receiver.
"Nick? Are you there?"
"C'mon, Nick, wake up."
A spate of rain pattered against the window pane.
Nicholas Rogan slitted his eyes and rolled over to squint at the clock. Two A.M. Beside him, Mariko didn't stir.
"Nick, it's me, Isrel."
Isrel My-mother-can't-spell Jordan?
Somewhere outside lightning flared: the telephone crackled.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm . . ." His words died of their own weariness.
"I said we've got another one."
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
After a moment"Another what? And what th' hell's going on? Sounds like a . . . uh . . ."
"Another pulped skull. And this time he set a fire. The whole block's likely to go."
Nick jerked awake. Another? And a fire? Clearing his throat"Where are you?"
"St. Andrew's. On Fifth. You know it?"
"Yeah." Fumbling at the lamp, hand banging around in the shade, Rogan found the switch and light flooded the room. Closing his eyes against the glare"What's burning?"
Mariko pulled the cover over her head.
"Our Lady of Refuge."
The shelterbattered women, kids. Rogan sat up on the side of the bed."The victim . . . ?"
"One of the firemen. Took it right between the eyes. He must have been looking straight at the bastard."
"Give me thirty, Isrel."
Dropping the handset into its cradle, Rogan ran his fingers through his silver-shot, dark brown hair and groaned to his feet. Why can't anything ever happen nine to five? He lurched toward the bathroom.
Nodding to the officer at the barricade, Rogan clipped his gold badge to his raincoat lapel and trudged up the street flowing with watersome of it from the light rain yet falling, most of it running downgrade. The night was backlit by a lurid cast of fireA big motherruddy orange reflecting from the surrounding buildings and the overcast above. Somewhere in the rain a chopper circled, the wop-wop-wop mingled with the growl of pumpers and a clamor of firefighters and others. Rogan slogged toward the corner ahead, a limp in his stepthe permanent result of a shattered left femur when he was forty-five.
He rounded the corner and came into a blast of noise and light and chaos. An all-alarmertrucks everydamnwhere. Now he could see the fire itself, flames wildly leaping in spite of the rain, the inferno gutting a long, four-storey, brick building, water from hoses arcing through the air. Silhouetted against the rage, firemen ran to and fro, gathering up equipment from the pumpers, racing back on unknown missions. Too, there were children and women wrapped in blankets, moving toward a yellow school busno, three buses altogetherparked in the street. Also in the street, News 13, Eyewitness 9, and StarNews 4 vans sat idling, with their microwave antennas fully extended upward, beaming live feed back to the stations. Damn. If they've gotten wind of the murder . . .
Moving through the acrid odor of an old building burning, Rogan dodged among hurrying firemen and threaded his way 'round ladder trucks and thundering pumpers and stepped over hoses snaking off into the dark, sucking their water from nearby hydrants and others down the street. He passed by the school buses, their diesels clattering, where the stricken women and sobbing children in nightclothes were being shepherded up and in by two grim-faced nuns. Refugees from Our Lady of Refuge.
Rogan stepped clear of the vehicles and paused, his gaze seeking. . . . There! Oh crap! In the churchyard an incandescent area blared, cordoned off by yellow, police-line-do-not-cross tape. The dazzling light came from TV teams, microphoned reporters standing and holding umbrellas and talking to cameras manned by dark silhouettes, rain flashing down through the white brilliance. Two uniformed patrolmen stood guard at the tape, their slickers glinting wetly, their faces washed out by harsh glare. Hold back the hounds.
Passing through the open gate in the wrought-iron fence, Rogan made his way toward the site, with its crime-scene tape strung from a bench to a yard post to a bicycle rack to a trashcan. Squatting in the center was Isrel, next to a glittery something on the ground. Irish Jimmy was there, too, his strobe flashing with each picture taken. As Rogan neared, Isrel raised up a corner of the sparkling thinga metalized Mylar blanketand shined a flashlight under, peering for a moment at a large brownish bundle below; then he let the cloth fall back and jotted in his notebook.
"Look, there's Rogan!"
Rogan winced. It sounded like Cindy Alford.
"Steve, swing the camera around."
A babble of voices . . .
Cameras wheeled and brightness washed over him. He shielded his eyes as he came into the clamor. Three microphones and several small tape recorders were shoved in his face, and questions hammered at him. One voice, Cindy's, rose above the others, demanding: "Inspector Rogan, tell me, is this?"
Rogan shoved out a hand and growled, "No comment at this time," and pressed on through. Bright lights swung after.
Nodding to one of the patrolmen and receiving a murmured "Inspector" in return, Rogan ducked under the crime-scene tape, taking care where he stepped. Damn! Looks like a friggin army marched through here. The soft ground had been churned into muck by milling feet, water pooling in footprints, and the rain still lightly fell. Tiny, numbered flags were jabbed into the ground: Irish Jimmy Flynn's markers, no doubt placed where Isrel had directed. Watching where he stepped, Rogan moved to Isrel's side just as Isrel again raised the blanket and flicked on the flashlight. The brownish bundle underneath was the dead fireman lying on his back, his forehead completely caved in.
Water dripping from the bill of his old X cap, Isrel Jordan glanced up, then stood, the huge black man's six five frame towering over Rogan's five foot eleven. "We've not got much, Nick," he softly said, his voice liquid gold, like that of Billy Dee, singer in Rogan's youth, singer in days gone by. Isrel gestured at the blanket and whispered, "Just like the bum."
"Do you know who he is?"
Isrel glanced at his notebook. "Kenneth Estes, according to Travers." Isrel jerked a chin toward one of the nearby patrolmen.
Isrel shrugged. "I've got officers out canvassing, taking names and writing down license plates . . . the usual. Oh, before you ask, the ones who were evacuated from the shelter"Isrel glanced toward the buses now pulling away"they first took 'em to the church, all but a handful that were still with the EMUs being treated for smoke inhalation or burns. The ones in the church, I questioned them about this: none saw anything. Clay Harris was there, too, asking them about the firewhere it started, what they were doing at the time, whether or not there had been any recent threats from ex-boyfriends, irate husbands, others. He and Joe Johns are looking into the arson aspects. I still have to talk with the ones who were at the EMUs."
Isrel nodded toward Jimmy, adding, "The rest are on the way. But hell, look at this ground; whatever we might have gotten is stomped under or has puddled into mud or has washed away."
Irish Jimmy stepped to their side and waved them back and away from another tiny flagnumber sixteennext to a puddle-filled footprint, then squatted and laid out a ruler alongside and took a shot of it, snorting, "Probably one of Isrel's, from it's great galootin' size."
As Rogan pulled on latex gloves, he glanced across at the looming edifice of the church next to the burning shelter. An aerial ladder leaned high against the roof. Above, a fireman appeared at an eave and shouted something down to a counterpart on the ground. Water poured across the space between, from the church toward the shelter. Rogan looked back at Isrel. "Who was first on the scene?"
Isrel gestured toward one of the two patrolmen guarding the site. "Travers was first, but he got here long after the vic was discovered. If we have our facts straight, the vic was found by a priestwe don't know which onewho summoned paramedics." Isrel gestured toward the milling chaos around the fire. "He had plenty to choose from. Anyway, one of the crews was called over"Isrel glanced at his notes"Danny Farrel, Faye Mason, and Bobby Chavez, it was. They did their best, but . . ."Isrel swerved a thumb at the victim and shrugged"being that it was a homicide, while the priest gave the last rites, Farrel sent Bobby to fetch a copTraversby which time any evidence to be found had long since been churned into the mud by Farrel and Mason and the priest and the friggin' media and who knows how many others in this mob?"
"How about the M.E.?" asked Rogan.
"Chalmers has been here and is gone. A crew is standing by to move the body to the morgue as soon as we release it."
Rogan took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled.
As Irish Jimmy moved away, Rogan squatted at the side of the corpse. He raised the blanket. Isrel handed him the flashlight. Trying to shut out the glare and the questions and the distant struggle at the fire, he surveyed the remains. The dead fireman lay on his back, left leg cocked outward, knee-bent. The right leg also was bent at the knee, but folded under the body. His hands had been bagged by Isrel, to preserve any trace evidence under the fingernails. His turnoutsthe thick, heavy jacket and pants with silvery reflecting stripes sewn into the materialwere scorched and darkly streaked. A yellow-orange glow from the fire danced over the sooty brown fabric, made pale by the glare of camera lights. At hand and lying askew was his helmet, also fire-marked by smoke and soot. He was an African-American, and his forehead was crushed, caved inward, brain matter oozing, and his eyes were wide open and protruding from their sockets in a bizarre look of startled surprise.
Rogan glanced up at Isrel and sighed, and Isrel nodded in unvoiced reply: Just like the bum, they agreed.
As Rogan looked back at the body he called out, "Travers!"
One of the officers glanced at the camera crews, then, taking care to avoid stepping on footprints, moved to Rogan's side and squatted. Rogan looked at the young man. Ah, me, just a loose-ass kid . . . like I was, thirty-one years ago. In a low voice, Rogan said, "Talk to me." As Isrel crouched down to listen, Travers took out his own notebook and, shielding it from the rain, after a glance, closed it and said, "I was fetched by Roberto Chavez, one of the paramedics. I grabbed some tape and followed him. By this time"Travers gave a small jerk of his head toward the bright lights"they were here, trampling everything under." Travers flipped open his notebook and then shut it again. "Faye Mason had covered the victim. I secured the scene and sent Chavez to find another officer"Travers nodded toward his counterpart"John Hammond." Travers canted his head toward the mike on his left shoulder. "Then I called Central."
Rogan frowned. "That's it?"As Travers nodded, Rogan said, "What about the priest who found the vic?"
"He was gone when I got here," replied Travers. "Neither Chavez nor Mason nor Daniel Farrel knew his name, though I do have a description." Travers glanced at the Church of St. Andrew, a writhing orange glow shuddering across the gray stonereflected light of the fire.
"I'll check it out," said Isrel.
Rogan grunted an agreement, then said, "Anything you'd like to add, Travers?"
The young man glanced once again at his notebook, then said, "No sir."
As Rogan sighed, Travers shook his head and said, "It's a shame, Inspector. From what I was told, he saved three kids. He was one of the ladder crew. They say he went in a window and showed up twice, bringing a kid each time. He was back inside when part of the roof collapsed. They thought he'd bought it. But a couple minutes later he popped out an adjacent window where they had another ladder set up, a little kid under his turnout coat. Wrapped the kid up and ran through the fire to that second window and scrambled out and down."
Isrel looked at the young man. "Who told you that? Do you remember?"
Travers nodded. "A battalion chief told me." He flipped open his notebook again. "It was, uh, Battalion Chief Morgan. Chavez fetched him the same time he got Officer Hammond."
Isrel jotted a note.
Rogan cocked an eyebrow. "D'you know who was the last to see him alive?"
Travers shook his head, but Isrel gritted, "The killer."
Rogan turned his attention back to the dun-clad corpse. After a moment he said, "Who the hell would kill someone who walked through fire to save kids?"
Isrel growled and shrugged.
"No wonder his suit is scorched," added Rogan.
"I don't know how long he lay in the rain before they put the blanket over him," responded Isrel. He looked at Travers.
The patrolman turned up a hand. "Faye Mason said she'd covered him when she and Farrel and Chavez arrived and it was clear he was dead. But she didn't know how long it had been he lay unattended."
After a moment"There's blood on the collar and shoulders," added Isrel.
"I saw it," said Rogan. He then turned his attention to the helmet and, without touching it, he looked it over. "Damn! It's slightly melted." Rogan glanced at the inferno. "Still, it shows no sign of being bashed . . . and there's no blood visible. He wasn't wearing it when struck."
Isrel grunted his agreement.
Travers said, "Sir, maybe he was killed because of someone or something he saw, like, say, the person who started the fire."
Isrel glanced with an approving eye at the officer. "Yeah, could be."
Rogan sighed and let the blanket fall back. "Isrel, find out the name of the priest who discovered the body. Get the names of all those at the scene. We'll want to talk with them, get statements. Has anyone notified the family? Did he even have a family?"
Travers cleared his throat. "The fire captain said he'd do it."
"They take care of their own," said Isrel.
Rogan and Travers nodded in silent understanding as Isrel added, "He said an Assistant Chief and the Department Chaplain would see the wife."
Rogan sighed and said, "Yeah. Regardless, we'll also want to talk with the family . . . co-workers, too, and acquaintances. Find out if Fireman" Rogan glanced at Travers.
"Estes. Kenneth Estes."
"Find out if Fireman Estes had any enemies, anyone who wanted him dead."
"Right," said Isrel, then he cocked an eyebrow. "Nick, d'you really think one of his co-workers would do this? Or a member of his family? I mean . . . well . . . this is the second guy who's skull's been so completely caved in as many weeks. And we don't even know the name of the first. Five'll get you twenty the same nut did 'em both." Isrel gestured at the blazing building. "I mean, look at what he's donenot only murder, but arson, too."
Rogan frowned. "Are you saying you don't think we ought to go for a warrant? Estes' house and locker and car?"
Isrel shook his head. "I think we ought to try for informed consent to search those. I mean, with him probably being the second victim of some sicko, the odds of the wife or an acquaintance are nil, unless it's a copy-cat."
Before Rogan could reply, Irish Jimmy cleared his throat. "If you guys'll hold up the blanket, I'll shoot the corpse now."
Travers stood, and, grunting, Isrel and Rogan rose as well. As they moved to the ends to take up the blanket, "Outta the way," called a woman. Rogan turned to see stocky Sheila Geary and Barclay Miller, both of the CSU, shouldering through the press. The matronly redhead stopped at the tape and surveyed the ground and hissed, "Shit." Muttering curses, she ducked under and shoved a grid-camera into Jimmy's hands and then glared at Rogan. "Y' wanna get some elephants and run them through, too? What the hell?"
Rogan held out a hand, quenching her flow of words. "Just get me what you can, eh?"
As he stripped off his gloves, Rogan glanced at Travers. "I want a complete written supplement on my desk by oh eight hundred. Hammond's, too."
Travers took a deep breath, then said, "Yes sir."
Isrel looked at Travers and rumbled, "Tell those TV jerks to turn their cameras off."
"No, wait," said Rogan. He sighed wearily and looked at Isrel. "We're going to need tapes from all of them, just in case there's something to see. Besides, they may be material witnesses, and we need to stay on friendly terms. I'll talk to 'em."
Rogan looked over at Hammond. "As soon as I finish with the media, Hammond and I'll join the folks who are going to see Estes' wife. I need to tactfully see what she might know, and I'll need a uniform on the scene with me. Besides, though I think you're right, Isrel, this is the work of a nut. If I can get her informed consent, he and I'll look around and see what might turn upevidence of the wife having a boyfriend, threatening letters, evidence that Estes himself had a mistress, whatever. "Oh, and we know the M.E. is backed upI mean, they still haven't autopsied the first vicbut, just like we did with him, have Sheila and her CSU go ahead with Estes' body and take the morgue pics and collect the evidencefingernails, hair, clothes, blood, whateverand run it through to see if there are connections."
Whoom! In the distance, a section of Our Lady of Refuge collapsed; a dark wall of choking, rank smoke rolled out; flames roared up.
It was six thirty-two when Rogan parked in his driveway. Grey morning light seeped down through the wet overcast, the rain now stopped. The welcome smell of brewing coffee greeted him as he stepped into the house, and he could hear the shower running upstairs. Mariko starting her day.