Friday, 4 September 2009

Angel of Death by J. Robert King (Excerpt 3)

The angel of death in Chicago oversees all people in the megalopolis, making sure their deaths fit their lives. Though most deaths naturally do, those that result from serial murder do not, so the angel spends much time trailing a serial killer in his patch.

On the trail of one such man, he encounters a cop and falls in love with her. When he is assigned to kill her, though, he has to make a choice between divinity and humanity.

This is the third excerpt from J. Robert King’s new urban fantasy Angel of Death from the HarperCollins new imprint Angry Robot Books.

The excerpts are written for a mature reader.



Burlington, Wisconsin had not had a murder in five years when the headless, handless body was discovered. Despite spitting sleet, the nighttime cornfield was crowded. Detective McHenry, Investigator Leland, Sergeant Banks, Medical Examiner Schmitt, the volunteer fire department, half the staff of the Gazette, a few dozen farmers, and a handful of police scanner jockeys stood in the carnival glare of the three dispatched squads. The body had first been found by Daryl Jamison’s dogs, which had gnawed on it awhile before returning to their owner. Jamison, spooked by the sight of dogs with bloody muzzles, had gotten his brother Carl to go with him. Shotguns in hand, they had walked the fields. They’d followed the dogs’ tracks and found the body soon enough. Daryl claimed he had checked for the man’s wallet and, not finding it or any identification, gone straight away to call the police. The crime scene, though, looked as though Daryl and Carl had held a barn dance around the body, boot prints crushing every bit of soil for a twenty-foot radius. The old farmer had paced around the body, trying in vain to obliterate the tracks of his two unlicensed dogs. It hadn’t mattered. The dogs got loose while he was on the phone and were down chewing on the body when Detective McHenry arrived. To prevent further damage to the crime scene, the detective ordered nearly a quarter mile of road and farm field cordoned off.

Investigator Donna Leland volunteered to set up the roadblock and string the police line. She had seen enough of the ghastly scene. Just now, she wielded her ten pound sledge to drive the last rebar rod into the partly frozen field, and then let the muddy mallet rest in a black furrow.

As she tied the police line, someone in the crowd shone a flashlight toward her. She raised a hand before her eyes and blinked. Who’s shining that light? The old maxim was true: murderers often returned to the scenes of their crimes, wanting to relive the excitement of the moment. Some even injected themselves into their own investigations, monitoring the facts and providing false information to lead police astray. What if this is the murderer?

Leland gripped the sledge haft tightly in one hand and gestured with the other. At last, the light darted downward, becoming a short column of gray.

She finished tying the yellow plastic ribbon to the last crowbar and hoisted the ten pound sledge to her shoulder. It comforted her to carry that sledge. Whatever demon had done this would think twice about coming after her, what with the sledge and her .45.

At five-foot three, Leland was too short to step over the waist-high tape, so she crouched beneath it, making sure to keep the knees of her blues out of the mud. She straightened and tucked her braid into the collar of her jacket. Cops were supposed to be short shorn, like Dobermans, with nothing to grab in a fight. Cops were also supposed to be men, at least in rural Wisconsin, though men had one extremity that begged grabbing during a fight.

With a nervous sigh, Leland trudged across the avaricious cornfield, toward the crime scene. It was a man’s world, and this was a man’s crime.

The brutality alone made it such: a dog with half its head blown off and a dog walker with grisly stumps where hands and head should be. Even in the dark, before the scene was set up, the vertebrae and severed muscles stood clear. Now, though –

Lights glared down on the body – flashlights moving fitfully in the hands of cops and cop buffs, a couple of spotlights glaring from patrol cars on the road, a kind of miner’s helmet on Francis Schmitt, the county coroner, and even the flashes of the cop photographer. The place looked almost like an operating room instead of a lonely stretch of cornfield.

Leland approached, gut turning even as her eyes grew wider, taking in every detail.

The victim had been big, probably two-hundred-twenty pounds. He wore a pair of canvas pants, a T-shirt, and no jacket, though the last day that had been warm enough for such clothes was November 29, five days ago. A leash was found attached to the collar of the dead dog, and bits of tar were stuck to the dog’s pads. Despite the boot prints of the Jamison brothers, the ditch and trees between the road and the body showed no signs that the man had been dragged, nor did his heels or clothes contain any ground-in mud. It was quite clear that this was no mere dumpsite, but also the scene of the murder.

“Mother of God.”

She was close enough now to see the dog-gnawed leg of the man, and the neck and wrist stumps. Francis was leaning beside the body and checking beneath the shirt hem. Despite what must have been massive blood loss from the severed limbs, there had been enough left in the body to create a brown line of lividity on the man’s back.

Another flash went off. Leland turned away, seeing spots. Someone yelled. There was a scuffle. Her hand fell immediately to her gun before she made out what was happening.

Sergeant Banks was wrestling someone – the Burlington Gazette photographer-reporter, Blake Gaines. All she could see was the patrolman’s steel-wool hair and his muscular bulk straining against a scarecrow-thin man.

“Can’t you read? ‘Police Line, Do Not Cross!’ ” Banks growled through gold-capped teeth.

Blake, a gaunt and shaggy young artiste, did not answer, snapping off a couple more shots as he was propelled back toward the road.

The investigator reached the pair, slipped one of her own arms into Blake’s and helped to speed him on his way.

“We’re going to confiscate that film,” Banks warned as two more flashes went off.

“You can’t,” Blake yodeled. “Freedom of the press!”

“We can and will,” Investigator Leland said, “unless you cooperate.”

“I’m going! I’m going,” the bewhiskered man said, trying to break free.

Leland leaned toward him and whispered, “Not that. I want you to take pictures of the crowd. Get everybody you can – faces – but don’t be obvious about it.”

“What do I want with – ” he began loudly, but she broke in. “Get me the crowd, and we’ll let you print what you’ve got. Otherwise, I’m taking your camera now.”

“All right, all right,” he said as they muscled him to the police line and bundled him over. He regained his balance just beyond the tape but rebelliously lingered against it as he checked his camera rig for damage.

Leland turned to Sergeant Banks, poised there like a wolverine ready to strike. She touched his shoulder, meaning to appease, but got a startled jump from him. “Banks,” she said with quiet urgency, “you’d better get back to the scene. They’ll be wanting you on hand.”

The muscle nodded, not even recognizing the flattery. He trotted back to the scene.

Leland turned to the photographer. “Listen, Blake, we’ve got to work together on this.”

“What are you talking about?” the man asked, coddling his camera as though it were an injured baby. “You’re not going to dictate what the Gazette prints – ”

“It’s a lot easier than that,” responded Leland in a hushed voice. “You need good footage to sell papers. We need good footage to catch this guy. Work with us, and I’ll keep you close, on the inside. Fight us, and all your shots will be through fence holes.”

He seemed ready to make a rebuke but blinked it away in uncertainty.

“You get us a shot of the killer, and we’ll tell you. That’s called an exclusive. And a byline.”

Blake nodded, tight-lipped.

“And it’s not just that. I’ll have to talk to McHenry, but if he agrees, we can do some proactive strategies with the paper to flush this guy out. I’m sure the Gazette wouldn’t mind being credited with helping to catch this guy.”

Again, he nodded. A small smile crept onto his face.

“Good,” she said. “Now get at it.”

He loped away among the crowd.

Men knew so little about working with each other. Or, perhaps, they thought it beneath them to play to bruised egos. Better to bruise them some more until it comes to broken noses and black eyes.

No wonder there are no female serial killers, Leland thought.

That was not actually true, but the number of women who committed such crimes was almost statistically insignificant.

Of course, this was a serial crime. The last murder in the Burlington area, five years back, was a similar decapitation and amputation in Bohner’s Lake.

* * * * *

After closing down the crime scene, Investigator Leland returned home, showered, dressed in PJs, and leaned back in her favorite chair. It was a worn and low-slung piece of furniture, what she had considered a couch when she was a kid. Her mother had reupholstered it in bristly curtain fabric and set it in front of the upstairs TV. Then, it had room enough for Kerry and herself, a calico cat, and a Tupperware bowl of popcorn. Now, it was not quite even a love seat, and, crowded in a drafty bay window, was only just big enough for Donna and her books.

She pulled one of the books from the stack, a true crime expose about criminal profiling. Though modern mythology had made FBI profilers into supermen – divining the state of a killer’s underwear and his taste in movies from the position of a shell casing – the science of profiling was still largely unknown in small-town police work. What Donna knew of it was second-hand, pieced together from books by former members of the Quantico Behavioral Science Unit.

By dismembering victims and burying hands and heads separately, organized offenders can make identification difficult. A victim’s identity is a critical piece of evidence for narrowing the field of suspects, determining motive and opportunity, and rallying community assistance in tracking down the killer. The removal of these parts takes time and effort and produces large quantities of blood. It is a technique used almost exclusively by psychopathic personalities.

Donna paused. The dark bay window behind her breathed coldly and she drew up the tattered afghan she kept on the chair arm. Out of old habit, she crossed herself. How could a person think of heads and hands merely as forms of identification? She glanced up at the crucifix hanging above her twenty-four inch TV and reflexively imagined Christ dismembered. She crossed herself again.

By contrast, psychotic personalities engage in dismemberment not to eliminate clues, but for symbolic reasons and to fulfill personal fantasies. Their mutilations tend to center more on genitalia, viscera, hearts, and eyes.

Sickened, Donna closed the book. Sociopaths did what they did by design. Psychotics did what they did by instinct. One group were humans who thought they were gods. The other were humans who thought they were animals. Both were monsters.

Donna stopped that thought. Her hand strayed to a picture on an unvarnished end table. He was a boy. Only a boy. Her twin, Kerry, at fourteen – bright-eyed, hopeful, and human. In her mind, he would never be older than fourteen.

By their fifteenth birthday, Kerry had lost all his friends, dropped out of school, and never came out of his room in the basement. Father John, principal of St. Mary’s, joked about getting an exorcist. By their sixteenth birthday, Kerry was so sedated that he never spoke or even smiled. By their seventeenth birthday, he was institutionalized in Elgin. He didn’t reach his eighteenth, hanged by a noose he had made from his own torn-up shirt.

Kerry had not been a monster. A bipolar schizophrenic, they said, with homicidal fantasies. A manic-depressive with multiple personality disorder. A cyclops. A Grendel. A steppenwolf…

No, Kerry was not a monster. He was a sick boy.

Sighing sadly, Donna set the picture atop her pile of books and leaned back on the seat. Road to Utopia was on tonight. Kerry had loved the road pictures. Donna got up, turned on the set, and moved the rabbit ears to pick up WGN. Then she went to the kitchen.

“I’ve got a bag of popcorn around here somewhere.”

Day Four Excerpt Tomorrow

All Rights Reserved. Angry Robot Books, HarperCollins Ltd.

Publication Date UK/AUS: September 3, 2009
US/Canada – Spring 2010


Gary's third pottery blog said...

holy cats, I guess I could get into that!

Barbara Martin said...

Gary, the author's brief snatches of description provide an indepth view into the narrative. It's very sad and poetic.