The two men did not speak as Michael carefully stepped over the puddle of blood. He kept his hand on the rail, making the turn to the next flight of stairs, thankful for something to hold on to when he saw the scene in front of him.

The woman was partially clothed, her tight red dress cut open like a robe, showing dark cocoa skin and a wisp of black pubic hair that had been shaved into a thin line leading down to her cleft. Her breasts were unnaturally high on her chest, implants holding them up in perfection. One arm was out to her side, the other rested above her head, fingers reaching toward the handrail as if her last thoughts had been to pull herself up. Her right leg was bent at the knee, splayed open, the left jutting at an angle so that he could see straight up her slit.

Michael took another step, blocking out the activity around him, trying to see the woman as her killer would have seen her. Makeup smeared her face, heavy lipstick and rouge applied in dark lines to bring out her features. Her curly black hair was streaked with orange, teased out in all directions. Her body was nice, or nicer than you’d expect from what the needle marks on her arms indicated she was: a woman with a habit she fed between her legs. The bruises on her thighs could have come from her killer or a John who liked it rough. If it was the latter, then she had probably willingly endured it, knowing she’d be able to get more money for the pain, knowing more money meant more pleasure later on when the needle plunged in and that warm feeling spread through her veins.

Her eyes were wide open, staring blankly at the wall. One of her fake eyelashes had come loose, making a third lash under her left eye. Her nose was broken, her cheek shifted off center where the bones beneath the eye had been shattered. Light reflected against something in her open mouth, and Michael took another step closer, seeing that it was filled to the top with liquid and that the liquid was blood. The light overhead glinted off the red pool like a harvest moon.

Pete Hanson, the medical examiner on call, stood at the top of the stairs talking to Leo Donnelly. Leo was an asshole, always playing the tough cop, joking about everything, laughing too loud and long, but Michael had seen him at the bar one too many times, his hand a constant blur as he slammed back one scotch after another, trying to get the taste of death out of his mouth.

Leo spotted Michael and cracked a smile, like they were old pals getting together for a good time. He was holding a sealed plastic evidence bag in his hand and he kept tossing it a couple of inches in the air and catching it like he was getting ready to play ball.

Leo said, “Hell of a night to be on call.”

Michael didn’t voice his agreement. “What happened?”

Leo kept tossing the bag, weighing it in his hand. “Doc says she bled to death.”

“Maybe,” Pete corrected. Michael knew the doctor liked Leo about as much as everyone else on the force, which was to say he couldn’t stand the bastard. “I’ll know more when I get her on the table.”

“Catch,” Leo said, tossing the evidence bag down to Michael.

Michael saw it in slow motion, the bag sailing through the air end over end like a lopsided football. He caught it before it hit the ground, his ringers wrapping around something thick and obviously wet.

Leo said, “Something for your cat.”

“What the-” Michael stopped. He knew what it was.

“Lookit his face!” Leo’s shotgun laugh echoed off the walls.

Michael could only stare at the bag. He felt blood at the back of his throat, tasted that metallic sting of unexpected fear. The voice that came out of his mouth did not sound like his own-it was more like he was under water, maybe drowning. “What happened?”

Leo was still laughing, so Pete answered, “He bit off her tongue.”


FEBRUARY 6, 2006

When he had returned from the Gulf War, Michael had been haunted by his dreams. As soon as he closed his eyes, he saw the bullets coming at him, the bombs blowing off arms and legs, children running down the road, screaming for their mamas. Michael knew where their mothers were. He had stood by helplessly as the women banged the closed windows of the schoolhouse, trying to break their way out as fire from an exploded grenade burned them alive.

Aleesha Monroe was haunting him now. The tongueless woman in the stairway had followed him home, worked some kind of magic in his dreams so that it was Michael chasing her up the stairs, Michael forcing her back onto the landing and splitting her in two. He could feel her long red nails sinking into his skin as she tried to fight him off, choking him. He couldn’t breathe. He started clawing at his neck, her hands, trying to get her to stop. He woke up screaming so loud that Gina sat up in bed beside him, clutching the sheet to her chest like she expected to see a maniac in their bedroom.

“Jesus, Michael,” she hissed, hand over her heart. “You scared the shit out of me.”

He reached for the glass of water by the bed, sloshing some on his chest as he took large gulps to quench the fire in his throat.

“Babe,” Gina said, touching the tips of her fingers to his neck. “What happened?”

Michael felt a sting on his neck and put his fingers where hers had been. There was a rent in the skin, and when he got up to look in the mirror over the dresser, he saw a thin trickle of blood dripping from the fresh cut.

She stood beside him. “Did you scratch yourself in your sleep?”

“I don’t know.” He knew, though. He still hadn’t caught his breath from the dream.

Gina wrinkled her nose as she pulled his hand to her mouth. For a second, he thought she was going to kiss it, but she asked instead, “Why do you smell like bleach?”

He’d had to scrub it off him-that smell, that stickiness, that came from being around the dead. Michael didn’t tell her this, didn’t want to open up that conversation, so instead he squinted at the clock, asking, “What time is it?”

“Shit,” she groaned, dropping his hand. “Might as well get dressed. My shift starts in two hours.”

Michael picked up the clock to see for himself. Six-thirty. After processing the crime scene, tossing the woman’s apartment and going through the paperwork, he had gotten maybe four hours of sleep.

The shower came on, pipes rumbling in the wall as the hot water heater kicked in. Michael went into the bathroom, watching Gina slip off the shirt she’d slept in.

“Tim’s already up,” she said, taking off her panties. “You need to make sure he’s not getting into anything.”

Michael leaned against the wall, admiring her flat stomach, the way the muscles in her arms stretched as she took the band out of her hair. “He’s fine.”

Gina gave him a look, noticing him noticing her. “Check on him.”

Michael felt a smile on his lips. Her breasts had kept their fullness after Tim, and his mouth was almost watering at the sight of them. “Call in sick,” he told her.


“We’ll watch a movie, make out on the couch.” He paused, then tried, “Remember how we used to just kiss for hours?” Christ, he hadn’t had more than a peck on the cheek in months. “Let’s kiss like that, Gina. Nothing else. Just kissing.”

“Michael,” Gina said, leaning in to check the water temperature. She stepped into the shower. “Stop leering at me like I’m a hooker and go check on your son.”

She closed the shower door, and he waited a full minute before leaving, watching her silhouette behind the glass, wondering when things had started to go wrong between them.

He had met Gina before his unit left for the Gulf. No one was expecting to get hurt over there, but Michael and his fellow grunts had played it up, getting all the action they could before being dropped in the desert. Ellen McCallum was a petite, bottle blonde, not too bright-just the kind of girl you wanted to remember when you were stuck in some filthy, sand-encrusted tent a million miles from home, telling the guys about the girl back home who

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