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Chapter 3

“Six Words”

Evening

Los Angeles County Morgue

Alex rubbed his arms and shivered in the frigid storage room. It was located just beyond a pair of swinging doors and a security guard failing at Angry Birds. Despite being in handcuffs and warned to say nothing, he yelled to the guard reclining in a chair, “you gotta wait to split the blue birds until the last possible second!”

As a show of courtesy, and the knowledge that there was a round in the chamber of his .45, he took the cuffs off of his prisoner. It was freezing in the mortuary—much colder than Alex expected. He delighted in muttering curse words and watching them freeze into vapor when they contacted the air around them.

Detective Stack pulled back the sheet on a nearby corpse to reveal the face of Chloe Freimont, or based on recent revelations, one Jeanne d'Arc. He caved backward, hoping to give the kid a moment to soak this in.

Alex recoiled and darted his glance angrily back to Stack. “Warn me before you do that next time. God damn, man.” His eyes dropped back toward the corpse and his face collapsed with woe. “Wow—that’s her.” Looking down upon his deceased ex-girlfriend, he steadied himself against the gurney and forgot his inability to make sense of the evening. In that moment, Alex was a twenty-four year old man longing for another late night game of Scrabble over Cabernet with the woman lying dead on the table. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her eyes for too long, they were traumatized with fear.

“Did she have any birthmarks or tattoos to your knowledge,” the detective asked crudely.

Alex looked back up toward his arresting officer with welled eyes. “Um, yeah. She has a tattoo of Saint Barbara on the inside or her right arm.”

Stack shot up, “you’re kidding me.”

Alex cocked his head in confusion. “No, I’m not. What is she the Saint of?”

The detective lifted the sheet over her right arm and turned it outward to confirm. “Barbara,” he paused examining the tat, “is the Patron Saint of artillery.”

Alex deadpanned, “that would have explained a lot.”

“Well, I’m afraid it explains very little.”

“What was Joan the Patron Saint of again?”

Stack let loose a long lapsed-Catholic sigh, “France, obviously. She was martyred when the English burned her at the stake.”

“How do you know all this stuff about Saints, man?” Alex stared back at the detective inquisitively.

“Spent my entire childhood in a Catholic school, even thought I might go into the Seminary when I got out of High School.” He stopped for a moment to examine dirt under Chloe’s fingernails. “Then I realized I wanted to be a cop.”

“So you switched religions but kept the same profession?”

Stack furrowed his brow. “Yes, in my, dare I say it this way, previous life I was a Presbyterian. What does it matter, Alex?”

“I think for starters, it means we’re both Buddhists; reincarnation and such.”

Detective Stack dropped the sheet and turned back to his young friend. “Let’s assume for a moment that you aren’t completely out of your mind and murdered five people tonight.”

The kid raised an eyebrow. “Thanks for that vote of confidence.”

“Stick with me for a moment. We have to run through as much we as can before I toss your ass in holding.” He waited for an agreeable nod from Alex before continuing through his train of thought. “Let’s also assume for a moment that Joan did not shoot Khan a good thirty minutes after she miraculously murdered herself in an entirely different location.”

Alex held up his hand to stop for a moment. “Wait, you said there were five victims. I only count four: Joan, Tycho Brahe, the Taco Baron manager, and Voltaire.”

Stack smiled. “Good catch. Old cop trick.”

“You’re an asshole! Eliot, who else is dead? Our numbers are dropping here!”

The detective’s smile melted and was replaced by his usual enigmatic lack of emotion. “Einstein.”

Alex’s eyes widened with anger and shock before slamming his hands onto the table. “Albert was only twelve years old! What the hell happened to –“

Stack grabbed the kid by the shoulder and held his finger to his lip to remind him there was a security guard on the other side of the doors. “Alex, calm down.” He made sure to make soothing eye contact to sort him out as much as he could non-verbally. “Okay, that was actually the cop trick. Albert is fine, he’s fine, Alex. I did not want to do that to you, but I had to be positive you weren’t concealing any knowledge about these killings.”

Twenty-four year old Alexander the Great reeled back and punched the thirty-six year old Eliot Ness as hard as he could in the shoulder.

He watched as the detective stumbled helplessly back into a metal case and made quite the racket upon impact. “You just punched an officer!”

“You were being a miserable asshole!” Alex retorted.

“Don’t ever do that to me again.” The detective collected himself from the cabinet and got back to his feet. He began to speak in an urgent whisper. “I had to know for sure. Do you know how much I put my ass on the line just to get you in here for twenty minutes? You were at a murder scene sitting on the floor after tossing the murder weapon into the deep fryer. The victim of the other murder was your girlfriend, and it was at in a location you admitted to being at this very evening! Alex, do you understand how incredibly screwed you are at the moment?”

Alexander stood up straight, careful to lend serious weight to everything his friend was saying. “It wasn’t the murder weapon.”

“What.”

Alex spoke in even tones. “The gun in the deep fryer wasn’t the murder weapon. They’ll match ballistics to the few shots he got off in the restaurant, but the bullet that went through Khan’s skull won’t match.” He paused. “I quite imagine they won’t find that gun any time soon.”

Stack lowered his eyebrows. “Alex, are you sure?”

He shrugged back. “As sure as I am that Joan of Arc shot him in the head.”

“We’ll run the ballistics. I believe everything you’re telling me, but you gotta understand something that I’m going to tell you.”

Alex nodded in his direction, “oh yeah, and what’s that?”

“That whoever has been going around and killing the returners is still on the loose, and it might possibly be more than one person. I can’t even wrap my head around tonight,” the detective trailed off in confusion.

Without warning, Stack spun Alex around and placed the handcuffs back around his wrists. He was about to put him in a twenty-four hour hold back at the station in West Hollywood. With the evidence unable to produce a weapon, an alibi, a fingerprint, or usable ballistics, he could cut the kid loose and get back to finding the real killer. Stack had been doing this for two lifetimes and it was rare that he felt this lost with a case. Not even Al Capone had been this confusing.

The next morning, Alex awoke in a cramped holding cell with a tiny window letting in the barest rays of sunlight. He scratched his head and looked around at three other beds, all completely empty.

There was a piece of paper on top of the pile of his clothes he pulled off to get a good night’s sleep. He let out a yawn and reached down to grab the folded note. There had been no one sharing the cell the night before, and surely he would have noticed if a guard or Detective Stack had come into the cell and left a piece of paper six feet from his face.

Something was wrong.

Alex slowly opened the note and saw six words scribbled in permanent marker that made him freeze as the goose bumps formed on his forearms. Before he could make sense of it, a burst of gunfire rattled off somewhere else in the station.

Instinctually, he crammed the note into the pocket of his jeans and slipped on only his shoes. If he was going to have to run, there was no need for anything else.

He crashed into the door and began to scream. “Help! Hey, help me out in here.”

For a few uncomfortable moments, Alex did not hear anything except for the air conditioning unit cycling on and off in the complex a couple of times.

Then he heard a few muffled voices coming from somewhere in the station. It sounded very much to him like two men arguing back and forth. The muffled shouts of the arguing men continued to escalate over each other until there was they were abruptly cut off and silence once again filled the air.

There was another eruption of gunfire.

Alex shoved off of the holding cell door and looked around for any point of weakness within the room.

The gunfire continued to echo off of every bare cement wall in the strikingly empty holding area. In point of fact, Alex realized that he was the only person in the numerous cells that neighbored his own. What’s the likeliness that even the drunk tank would be empty, he thought to himself.

A door slammed behind him and he heard someone running directly for his cell. Alex spun around just as Detective Stack crashed into the door, fumbled with any number of keys, and ripped the door open.

He was covered in blood, none of it his own, all of it fresh and dripping with immature death.

Stack tossed a police issue semi-automatic pistol to Alex without hesitation. “We’re in trouble,” he coughed out, ejecting shells and popping a speed loader into his own .45. “Do you know how to use that?”

Alex Heton looked over the Beretta, checking the 9mm cartridges in the clip before popping it back in and chambering his first round.

Stack raised his brow; “I will take that for a yes, then.”

“Eliot, what the hell is going on out there?” He asked as they put their backs to a wall looking around for the best exit.

The detective was out of breath and out of shape. His eyes danced around the different doors as he breathed heavily from his mouth. “Ten, maybe in the teens. All masked with fully automatic rifles. Two of them might be dead, at least another wounded.”

“How many did we lose on our side?”

Stack turned back to Alex and gave him a look that read clearly as please don’t ask me questions like that right now. The detective turned back to the door, readying his sidearm to take down whoever was unlucky enough to check the holding area first.

A loud siren began to blast through the hallways of the entire station. Stack could not make sense of what he was hearing until he turned to Alex and saw that he slid down the wall and pulled the fire alarm.

The sprinklers popped on and began to blast the entire station in hundreds of gallons of water. It began to collect on the floor almost immediately.

“Why would you do that?” Stack yelled back to Alex over the cacophony of water and deafening sirens.

The back door swung open—a man dressed in body armor and riot gear readied his weapon as he charged through the doorway.

Alex fired twice into his chest and dropped the man to the ground. He knew the gunman was down because of the ballistic impact on the vest, not an actual wound. He rushed through the water bouncing in every direction, and slammed his tennis shoe onto the riot helmet of the man on the ground. He fired two shots into the unprotected area between the helmet and the vest, directly into the sternum and lower throat of the attacker.

Wasting no momentum, Alex slid his foot down, kicked the helmet off the attacker’s face, and put a third round into his forehead. He pointed the Beretta into the next room and scanned quickly for any further.

Stack came running over, having missed that entire exchange pass by in less than four seconds. Alex grabbed the assault rifle from the ground and tossed it to the detective.

“We got at least three down. Leaving this room or trying to escape means we could take fire from doorways, hallways, windows, and stairwells. There are two points of entry to this room we can both cover at angles they would be unlikely to look first.”

The detective chambered a round in the rifle and yelled back over the noise. “Are you suggesting we stay in this room and wait for them? Alex, we can get out of the window in that room and jump to the roof next door. God dammit, this isn’t our fight.”

Alex pushed the detective into a nearby cell; the two of them were struggling with their drenched clothes as they churned through the two feet of water collecting on the floor. “They’re here for us, Eliot!”

He pulled out the note and held it up in the light from the window. Even though the scribbled marker was running down the page, it was clear what had been written was a message to the returners.

SOME WERE NOT MEANT TO RETURN.

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