Sunrise Destiny - Excerpt (part 2)
© Mark Terence Chapman
Chapter Two (cont'd)
Weasel gave me the address of an old factory and I drove. I suspected this meeting wouldn’t be as pleasant as the first one.
I was right.
* * * *
“Da... boss... don’... like it... when... people... don’... do... what... he... wants.” Each pause was accompanied by a sock—to the ribs, the jaw, the side of the head, the gut. I was tied to a chair, so I wasn’t going anywhere.
I had long since gotten the message. The continued abuse was overkill. Not that these guys understood the meaning of finesse. Or could spell it.
There were three Tinys to my left and three Weasels to my right. Little stars and pixies twinkled in the air. I tried to make my swollen tongue behave.
“Guys, you can kee-keep beatin’ me al-all night. But that won’ hel’ me fi-fin’ Sara.” I wasn’t sure if they could understand me. Hell, I’m not sure I could understand me.
The trio of Tinys reared back to give me a shot I was certain would separate my head from my shoulders.
“Hold up boys. He’s got a point.”
I recognized the shadowy threesome in the doorway by his voice: Antonio “Tony the Shark” Scarpacci.
“Take him back to his dump. As for you, Sunrise, if you don’t find my Sara in the next two days, or you try to leave town again, I’ll be displeased. Very displeased. You haven’t seen me when I’m displeased. You wouldn’t like me when I’m displeased.”
No kidding. I didn’t like him when he was ecstatic.
“The next time we meet, you’d better have found Sara, or it’ll be sunset for you, Sunrise.”
The two goons on either side of me burst into hysterical laughter. “Good one, boss,” Weasel chortled.
Yeah. Really original. I hadn’t heard that one in, oh, at least two weeks.
“You’ve got until midnight Monday to tell me what happened to my Sara.” He nodded at Tiny.
The human iceberg pulled his fist back and I saw stars, moons, and four-leaf clovers. Then everything went dark.
* * * *
I awoke in my hotel room to bright sunlight, a fat lip, and a throbbing head. It hurt to move, but what choice did I have? It was Sunday afternoon. I had less than thirty-four hours left to find Sara Scarpacci.
I crawled into the shower and winced when the hot spray hit my split lip, but I needed it hot to loosen my muscles. As I sat on the floor of the shower with my arms wrapped around my knees, I mulled over what little I had to work with in the case. There seemed to be no connection between any of the girls, except for the shiny liquid found at two of the scenes. But there had to be more. It was only a matter of putting together the pieces I already had and filling in the gaps.
Yeah, right. “Only.” Easier said than done. What else had I been trying to do for the past five days?
I closed my eyes and let the hot water beat on my head. The pulsating spray seemed to be tapping a message in Morse code on my skull. If only I knew Morse code…
The water acted like a massage for my brain. The water…. The water! My eyes shot open. I struggled to my feet, turned off the jets, and grabbed a towel. I ran into the bedroom and gave the mental commands to my implant to turn on the wallscreen and display the city map containing the locations of all the disappearances. I barely noticed the puddle forming at my feet.
The water. The pieces had suddenly snapped together in my brain. That’s what had bothered me the first time I looked at the map. There was a pattern. Or at least, there seemed to be. I pored over the map again, checking every disappearance against my theory.
Two of the girls lived along different stretches of the Verne River. Another walked home from school by a canal. One worked at a bait-and-tackle shop across the street from Lake Bradbury, while another went water-skiing there and hadn’t returned. One tended bar down at the docks. One worked at the city aquarium. Another worked at a fish farm on the outskirts of town.
Of the twenty-nine girls who’d disappeared over the past two months, it seemed that all but four had spent time within a city block of a large body of water the day they disappeared. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it couldn’t be a coincidence. Not with that many girls.
I quickly toweled off and got dressed. It was time to start canvassing the moister parts of town.
* * * *
I started at the docks. A couple of guys there owed me favors. Without my help a few years back, they’d each be minus a kneecap or two, thanks to a certain loan shark.
Tommy Griswold was first. He was what you’d expect from a dockworker: Big, strong, and tough. Not the kind of guy you’d want to mess with—unless your name is Tiny.
I set my implant to record mode and showed him a picture of the girl who’d disappeared near there. “You ever see her around here?”
“Vanessa? Yeah, sure. She worked over at the Lighthouse.”
That was the Lighthouse Bar & Grill.
“The cops were asking about her a few weeks ago. Not friendly enough for my taste, if you know what I mean.”
His leer made it quite obvious what he meant.
“She have any enemies, anyone who might want to hurt her?”
Tommy shrugged. “Not that I know of. I s’pose she could’ve led someone on and he got pissed off, but other than that…” He finished with another shrug.
“Did anything odd happen here at the docks around the time of her disappearance? Anything strange?”
“Strange? Not that I noticed. It seemed like a reg’lar day ‘round here. Busy and noisy. I didn’t get over to the Lighthouse after work like I usually do. So I didn’t see her that day.”
“Okay, Tommy. Thanks.” We shook hands and he went back to work.
Up next was Jefferson Lincoln. I asked him the same questions and got pretty much the same answers. I turned to leave.
“Oh, wait. There was one odd thing. I almost forgot about it, because it seemed pretty minor. I was working over by Pier 14, and I saw what looked like footprints coming from the water. You know, wet footprints. I didn’t see nobody around, so I didn’t think much about it at the time. I figured some mook fell in and climbed out. That the kind of thing you’re lookin’ for?”
I tracked down Taylor Wiseman, the lifeguard at the beach on Lake Bradbury, where Teraysa Ballance was last seen water-skiing.
“You another cop?”
“Private. So what was your involvement in this, Taylor?”
He shrugged. “Not much. I was working the tower at the north end of the beach. I noticed this hot babe tooling along offshore behind one of those new AutoSki things.” At my puzzled look, he explained. “It’s a remote-controlled watercraft that tows the skier. No pilot needed. The skier controls everything herself.” He continued at my nod. “Anyway, I noticed the AutoSki first, but she was hard to miss in that electric blue bikini and day-glo orange life vest.”
“By ‘she’ you mean Ms. Ballance?”
“Yeah. I watched her come ashore and then lost track of her. There was some commotion in the water and I had to break up a fight. When I looked for her later, she was gone.”
“Yeah, until the cops came around the next day. They found her car a block from here, over there.” He pointed. “I wandered over after my shift ended and they asked me the same questions you did.”
“Anything you thought of later that you didn’t tell the cops?”
“Not really. I kinda wish I hadn’t gone over there, though.”
“Why, the cops give you a hard time?”
“No, it’s not that. When I turned to leave, I slipped on some oil or something on the road, and twisted my knee. I was outa work a cuppla days. No work means no pay.”
“Gotcha. Well, thanks for your time, Taylor. I appreciate your help.”
I moseyed over to the place that Taylor had pointed to. The location of Ms. Ballance’s car was still marked by the temporary spray-paint cops use at crime scenes. A couple of rainstorms had already washed away most of the color, so I didn’t expect to find anything useful there. But you never know until you look.
I circled the area, looking for oil stains. Nothing on the curb. Nothing behind the car. I walked around to where the driver’s door would be.
“Son of a bitch.”
There it was: a small, oval, oily patch on the road. Not the kind of thing you’d normally notice—cars drip fluids all the time. I dabbed a finger at the patch and got a bit of it. Turning my finger in the sunlight, it was quite obvious that the stuff was iridescent and pink. That made at least three victims connected by the same liquid.
Finally, I was making progress. Not fast enough for my liking, though. A little over thirty hours left before Scar sicced Tiny and Weasel on me, and I still had no clue what was going on.
* * * *
I continued to work my way down the list of victims. Now I was annoyed with myself for relying on the police reports for the facts, instead of interviewing the witnesses earlier. That was just plain lazy detective work on my part.
Of course, I hadn’t made the water connection earlier, so it was debatable whether I would have gotten anything useful if I’d I done them before. At least this way I didn’t have to bother the witnesses twice.
The seventeenth witness was Johann Strauss. He worked maintenance on the graveyard shift at an office park down by the waterfront. It was now after midnight. I had less than twenty-four hours to live, unless I found Sara first.
“Mr. Strauss, you told the police you saw the victim walking down the sidewalk over there.” I pointed.
The spot was just past the end of the office park, along the shoreline. The next building was at least a hundred yards away.
“Did you know her?”
He shrugged. “Not really. She works the afternoon shift here, doing housekeeping. She gets off about the time I come in. We say hi, that sort of thing. I think the longest we ever talked was about five minutes. Just chit-chat. The weather, that sort of thing.”
I nodded. “So on the night of the 11th, you said you saw her walking past the end of the park toward the bus stop.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why they put the bus stop in that dark area between the buildings. The light at the stop is always going out and that bench is awfully dark at night. I just knew sumthin’ bad would happen to sumbuddy sumday. There’s too many crazies out there. Why, just last month at my apartment building—”
I cut him off. “Getting back to Ms. Williams, you said you thought you saw a dark figure approaching from the direction of the water?”
Strauss nodded vigorously. “You bet. I swear he came out of the water. But there was sumthin’ wrong with him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure, exactly. But he walked kinda funny, like his legs didn’t work right. Kinda staggerin’.”
“You mean like he was drunk?”
“Uh-uh. Not like that at all. More like he was limpin’ on both legs, or like both legs had fallen asleep, or sumthin’. Just not natural. And hunched over.”
“Hunched over? Like he was sick—or trying not to be seen?”
Strauss shrugged. “Couldn’t tell.”
“Could you make out any details? How tall he was, what he was wearing, race, anything like that?”
Strauss shook his head. “Nah. It was too dark. I just made out a shape. He was kinda short and he weren’t fat or nuthin’. I thought maybe it was a kid at first. Sorry. I really didn’t get much of a look at ‘im.”
“You know, now that I think of it, there might a’ been a second person there, another kid.”
“Two people? Are you sure?”
“Sure?” Strauss shrugged. “Nah. Can’t swear to it. As I said, it was awful dark. Mighta been a shadow or sumthin’.”
“Of course. So, getting back to the attack on Ms. Williams. Did you actually witness it?”
“I don’t rightly know she was attacked. All I know is she was nearly to the bus stop, the guy approached from the water, and I went inside to start my shift. Now I wish like hell I’d stayed outside to watch, or tried to help or sumthin’. She was an awfully nice lady. But I had to get to work. The boss is really strict about the time clock. I can’t afford to lose this job. My old lady said she’d leave me if I lost another one.” He looked on the verge of tears.
“I understand. Don’t worry; we’ll get to the bottom of this. Thanks for your help.”
Strauss nodded and went inside.
It looked like another dead end, but I’d been at this game long enough to know not to give up so easily. I headed for the bus stop. As with Teraysa Ballance’s car, you never knew what you might find.
I nosed around the bench, looking for shiny droplets, bits of foil with mysterious writing on it, and the like. Nothing looked like it might be material to the case. Presumably the police had scooped up anything relevant two weeks earlier.
I wandered down toward the water. Judging by the path worn in the grass, many people frequented the route between the bus stop and the water’s edge. I followed the shoreline north for a good half-mile, away from civilization. There was plenty of trash littering the shallow sandy beach along the shore, including food wrappers, cigarette butts, and several used condoms. It wasn’t hard to figure out what that dark, secluded stretch of beach was used for.
I looked back at the empty liquor bottle I’d fallen over, and rubbed the spot on my chest where the broken neurostim pipe stuck in the sand had tried to gore me. I sighed and regained my feet, emptying the sand from my pants pockets. Then I had to untuck my shirt to brush out the sand that had spilled down inside. Terrific. Just one more annoyance to put up with.
By now it was well past midnight. It didn’t look like I was going to collect my marker and keep my limbs intact. I dropped to the sand again, leaned back against the bank, and closed my eyes. I was still sore from the beating I’d received and running around all day without a break hadn’t helped any. I was exhausted.
Maybe I could get up again and maybe I couldn’t, but at this point I was too tired to care. Let Scar’s goons come and get me. At least I wouldn’t have to stand on my own.
It was a pleasant night—the air was cool and the sand was warm. The water slapped against the now-invisible pier. It was just the kind of peaceful moment I needed to calm my frazzled nerves, so I relaxed and let myself drift off. I don’t know how long I dozed. I didn’t think to check my implant for the time, but it couldn’t have been too long: the moon hadn’t yet risen. In the meantime, the clouds had rolled in and now it was darker than the inside of a kangaroo’s pouch. Other than some boats on the horizon across the bay, there was no light visible anywhere but the distant office buildings behind me, and they were obscured by the sand bank at my back, anyway. Acclimatized as my eyes were to the dark, I spied an incredible number of stars overhead through a few gaps in the cloud cover, just before the last star was blotted out. Pinpricks of light danced on the surface of the waves lolling into shore.
A bit of green phosphorescence flickered in the wake of a passing trawler. Then some more phosphorescence, a deep, dim ruby color this time, slid by beneath the surface. I’d never seen red phosphorescence before. It was just odd enough to hold my attention. What could it be? A fish? No, much too large. A whale? Perhaps, but whales weren’t known to frequent the bay. The entrance was too shallow. Under normal conditions, with more ambient light, I never would have been able to see it.
I couldn’t say why, but something got my hackles up. Something about that light radiated wrongness. Any good investigator develops a gut feel for when something just doesn’t belong, whether it’s a piece of evidence, a face in the crowd, or simply a fact that doesn’t add up. Right then my gut was screaming at me, and it wasn’t from the crappy burritos I’d had for dinner.
I ran up and down the shoreline looking for a boat, any boat—rowboat, canoe, yacht, I didn’t care. Anything that floated. The light was still moving, but slowly, as if it was trying to avoid disturbing the surface.
I trotted along the beach, following it and growing more frustrated by the moment. This was the shore, damn it! Somebody had to have a boat.
I fell on my face again. Cursing, I massaged my ankle and squinted to see what I’d tripped over. An anchor! The anchor was attached to a rope, which not surprisingly was attached to a boat, a small skiff at the edge of the water. I yanked the anchor out of the sand and tossed it into the boat. I shoved the prow toward the water. It wouldn’t budge; it was aground in the low tide. I leaned into it and pushed.
My feet sank into the slurry, sliding backward as I shoved. Then the boat eased back an inch. I gave it all I had and the boat slid another foot. I gave it a final push and jumped in, nearly losing a shoe in the process.
It wasn’t until I was adrift that it occurred to me to check for a motor or oars. Wouldn’t it be pretty stupid to end up floating in the middle of the bay with no way to get around? For thirty tense seconds I berated myself for my haste as I felt around the interior of the boat—until my hand smacked into the outboard motor in the stern. I held my breath as I yanked the pull starter. It choked and sputtered, but caught on the first pull. That proved the motor was in good working order. Now I just had to hope the boat didn’t leak like a screen door.
I turned the prow in the direction of the red light and followed. I didn’t want to go too fast and disturb the water—it was hard enough to follow the faint underwater glow as it was. Gradually, I closed the gap.
The glow and I slowly crossed the bay and approached the far shore. Forty feet or so away, the glowing patch stopped moving. I reversed the motor, but still halved the gap. What now? I waited.
After a minute I realized the glow had grown brighter and larger. Not tremendously so—it was still dim—however it was noticeably brighter.
Something was happening.
The glow increased again. Then a thump rocked the boat. What the hell? I grabbed the gunwale and held on. The prow rose a foot. I peered over the side. The glow was just below the surface of the water. Whatever it was, I was sitting on top of it! A manned submersible? Remembering the conversation with Professor Dumbrowski, I had to wonder. Was this evidence to support the secret government conspiracy or mad scientist theories?
Whether it was that thought or the cool breeze that blew past at that moment, a shiver ran down my spine.
A moment later, a clammy hand closed over my nose and mouth and another wrapped around the back of my neck and pulled me into the chill embrace of the water. Then everything went dark.