Under a Blood Red Moon (1st Chapter in the 10th Circle Project)

The following is the opening chapter of the Aurora-nominated 1st Circle – Under a Blood Red Moon. If you’d prefer to read it on your e-reader, the opening chapters are available on both Kobo and Amazon.

 

Under a blood Red Moon

by Eileen bell and Ryan McFadden

 

Flashing neon bombarded the police cruiser, and Corporal Harry Stafford felt the way he always did when he entered Purgatory: like he’d crossed into some twisted dreamland.

LEDs, LCDs, and neon signs threw rainbow hues across the interior of the car, the brightness belying the fact that it was three AM. He thought briefly about throwing on the overhead lights to clear away some of the street congestion but he doubted they’d even be noticed in this cloud of over stimulation.

“God, I hate this place,” Nathan Rooney, Stafford’s partner, said.

Stafford didn’t reply. He hated Purgatory too, and not just because he was a cop. He felt like an outsider, an alien invader to a thriving eco system of drug dealers, users, johns, pimps, hookers, runaways, Doomsdayers, Rapturists, Unificationists, Nationals, Reformists, and other outcasts.

The problem was, he felt that way about the rest of the City of Hope, too.

“Last time I was here, I almost got shivved,” Rooney continued, motionless in the passenger seat as though hypnotized by the lights. “One of these days the earth is going to open up and swallow this place whole.”

“Let’s hope that’s not tonight.”

“You must’ve really pissed someone off,” Rooney said. “Not only do they stick us in Purgatory, they have us looking for a girl. A girl, in all this.”

“Jimmy Wentworth’s daughter isn’t just a girl,” Stafford replied.

“I don’t care if she is that Mayor’s daughter.  She wouldn’t be here.  Not on this side of the bridge.”

The City of Glory lay across the ravine from the City of Hope. Only a 2500-meter bridge separated them, but Stafford had never been there. Too much paperwork getting across that bridge, just to see how the other half lived.

“I don’t care if she’s the Pope’s daughter. We both know she wouldn’t end up anywhere near Hope, much less in a shithole like Purgatory. And even if she did, she wouldn’t last a night. Look at this place, Stafford. No normal human being comes to this place.”

“Well, we’re here.”

“Yeah, we are, aren’t we?” Rooney looked back out the window at the noise and confusion. The silence between them stretched.

“Bet you wish you’d requested another assignment,” Stafford finally said, and Rooney chuckled, a short, ugly sound.

“Don’t kid yourself—I did,” he admitted. “What did you do, anyway? I heard things, but I thought they were, you know, just rumors.”

Stafford stared at the windshield, hands clutching the steering wheel. He wished he could say it wasn’t his fault that they ended up here in the early hours of a Saturday, on a case that was nothing more than his superiors effectively banishing him—but he couldn’t.

He felt Rooney staring at him, pushing him to tell his side of the story, one more time with feeling. He wasn’t about to do that. He was done telling that story.

He stopped the vehicle in the middle of the street and pointed to the curb occupied by a throng of street walkers. “Let’s start here,” he said.

“I’ll clear them out.” Rooney gave the sirens a quick screech, enough to send some pedestrians scrambling out of their way like frightened chickens. One street walker refused to move.

“Is that a him or a her?” Rooney asked, pointing.

“I think it’s your mom,” Stafford replied.

“Really? You’re going to be that guy?”

“Seems like it,” he said, relieved that he was off the hook for the moment. No more stories about the mighty Harry Stafford and his fall from grace.

They watched impatiently as the gender-ambivalent walker sauntered from the street, his glare so full of malice that Stafford thought the windshield would crack.

The train of cars behind them began honking and flashing their lights. Traffic stretched in both directions, a crawl of over-done aftermarket trimmings: spinning hubcaps, neon running lights, decked-out suspensions.

Stafford pulled over to the curb, finding just enough space to park the cruiser. Before they could exit the vehicle, a man in a tattered jean jacket approached them.

“Any idea who this is?” Rooney asked.

“Yeah, I do.”

Rooney lowered the window and they were assaulted with the cacophony of Purgatory: laughter, preaching, the heavy beat of monotonous dance songs, a scream, the honk of vehicles.

“Hello, Officers,” the man said. Then his eyes widened in surprise. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, grinning. “If it isn’t the famous Stafford and his partner. Didn’t think I’d hear from you again, much less see you in my neck of the woods. That uniform looks good on you.”

The man was missing his front teeth – a new development since Stafford had last seen him. In Purgatory, missing teeth was often a sign of meth use, but Stafford figured that this man had simply been on the wrong end of another fistfight.

“What do you want, Caterwaul?”

Stafford couldn’t remember his real name. Purgatory had saddled him with his nickname when his colleagues discovered that he had a nasty habit of talking to the police. The only reason Caterwaul was still alive was because the information he surrendered was at best useless, at worst misleading. Caterwaul was one of the Nihilists. He also didn’t mind a good beating now and again. He treated his whole life like a game, so in that regard, he was several steps ahead of Stafford.

“Did you see the moon tonight, Guv’ner?” Caterwaul asked.

“What about it?”

“Don’t you ever look into the sky, man?”

“Not tonight. We’re looking for someone,” Stafford said.

“And you think I’m going to snitch, don’t you?” Caterwaul shook his head forlornly, and then glanced around as though checking who on the street had noticed him speaking to the police. When it appeared no one cared, he looked back into the car, disappointed. “Why you gotta think that way?”

“Because that’s the way you are, Caterwaul.”

“Like the scorpion, you mean?”

“Yeah, like the scorpion.” Stafford had no clue what Caterwaul was talking about—no doubt he wanted to expound into one of his numerous philosophical rants.

“Who you looking for?” Caterwaul asked.

“Thought you wouldn’t snitch?” Rooney said.

“I need to know who you looking for before I can decide whether or not it’s worth snitching. Whether you can afford my information. Know what I mean?”

Except Stafford knew Caterwaul never took money. Never took anything. Just played the game.

Rooney produced the full-color glossy. Caterwaul inspected it. “That’s Norma Jean. The other mayor’s daughter. From Glory. She’s some kind of famous over there.” He handed the photo back. “I hate that place.”

Hope and Glory had, for all intents and purposes, been waging their own cold war for the past 60 years. So far, there wasn’t an actual battle front, but there had been bloodshed, and the cities undermined each other at every opportunity. What Stafford had heard, though, was that the City of Glory was everything that the City of Hope was not.

And since he was sure that Hope was hell on earth, he could only assume that Glory was heaven. He knew he wouldn’t make it to that heaven. Not unless he actually found the girl and delivered her back home, safe and sound. Even then, he wasn’t sure they’d let him across the border.

“That’s right. You’ve seen her?”

“What would Norma Jean be doing in Purgatory?”

“Sightseeing,” Rooney shot back.

Caterwaul looked past Rooney to Stafford. “The bigger question might be what you are doing here. You got yourself in some problems, did you, Guv? A bloke like you shouldn’t be in Purgatory at 3AM— unless someone turned on you.”

Rooney went for the door handle but Stafford touched his arm and shook his head. “Have you seen her or not, Caterwaul?”

“She in trouble?”

“You just stringing me along?” Stafford said.

“Nah, just wanting to know why you think little Norma Jean of Glory would be playing in Purgatory on a Saturday evening.”

“She disappeared…and she doesn’t belong, Caterwaul,” Stafford said. “If she’s here, I don’t think she’s playing. You know that as well as I do.”

“See, that’s where I think you’re wrong, Guv. I think she’s another piece of this great big puzzle we’re trying to figure out. Just because she’s young doesn’t mean she doesn’t play. Doesn’t have her uses. The daughter of Glory’s Mayor—she’d be downright valuable. Wouldn’t you say?”

“You know where she is, then?”

“You assume that I have access to higher plans. Schemes and the like. If I did, and I’m only saying if, mind you, then I’m thinking a faction holding her would have some serious juice. Could maybe even use her to touch off another row between us and Glory, if they were so inclined. You know?”

“So a faction has her? What faction? Where?” Rooney asked.

“Oh, I didn’t say that,” Caterwaul replied, leaning in and grinning full into Rooney’s face. “I said that if I had access, that might be what I’d hear. I didn’t say I actually heard that.”

“Christ’s sake, do you know anything?” Rooney asked, his voice dripping frustration.

“Do you want something for the information?” Stafford asked. Monetary payment was never what Caterwaul wanted, but he had to ask. That, too, was part of the game.

“I ain’t misleading you, Guv’ner. I haven’t seen or heard of her being in this particular area at this particular time.” He laughed and took a step away from the patrol car. “I bet you think that if she wasn’t snatched, she must have been banished or some shit like that. I don’t blame you for thinking that. I saw the news. That girl knows how to stir up trouble. Could be something wrong with her brainpan.”

“Listen, jackoff–” Rooney barked, his patience at an end, but Stafford rolled up the window before he could finish. Rooney shot him a questioning look.

“He’s just playing with us,” Stafford said.

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s my CI. Trust me. He’s got nothing we want.”

“What now then?”

“We start looking.”

 

Unfortunately, Caterwaul was the best of a bad lot. While Caterwaul liked to play with the police, the rest of the inhabitants tried to stay far away from the law if it didn’t concern them directly.

Stafford and Rooney canvassed three blocks. A street preacher handing out pamphlets for the Free Birthing Clinic stared hard at the picture.

Looks like Norma Jean,” he said.  “But it can’t be her.”

“Why not?” Nathan asked.

“She’s not the type to be in Purgatory.”

The hookers on Venice Street glanced at the picture, and he thought he saw an occasional glimmer of recognition, but that could’ve been because Norma Jean’s face was splashed all over the tabloids. Inevitably, they shook their heads, already looking past Stafford for their next trick.

When they approached a group of Doomsdayers at the end of the block, things turned nasty and Rooney drew his Glock before the situation defused.

“This is a waste,” Rooney complained as they climbed back into the patrol car.

Stafford didn’t want to feed the negativity, so he remained quiet as he started the car and headed slowly down Brisbane Street, but Rooney was right. This was a complete waste.

First, he doubted Norma Jean was even in Hope—getting across the bridge was a bureaucratic nightmare for a law-abiding citizen—it wasn’t like crossing the border into the US or Canada. Getting a legal visa took months, even for someone like her. Assuming she wanted to come here.

What if she’d been snatched? Smuggled across the bridge and brought into Purgatory, and even now being held for ransom. Because Caterwaul was right—she was important. Important to the Mayor of Glory. Hell, she was the closest thing to a celebrity for that city.

Even here in Hope, the cable feeds sometimes carried her TV appearances. She’d probably be worth a fortune—if the Mayor decided to pay the ransom. Stafford had heard he was a hard ass about cross-border kidnappings, and wondered if it would be the same if it was his daughter.

And what if it had been the Doomsdayers who snatched her? If that lunatic fringe group decided to use the girl for their own ends, it could cause some real problems, because the tension between Hope and Glory already simmered.

Stafford hoped it wasn’t a kidnapping. If the mayor decided to play hardball and the girl died, the temperature between the two cities would heat to a boil, and there would be hell to pay.

But the idea of banishment didn’t ring true. Stafford had seen pictures of the girl. She was perfect. No disfigurement and no problems with her mind, past being rich and spoiled. And the media made it sound like they were one big happy family. There was no way he’d banish her Hopeside.

But if it wasn’t banishment or a kidnapping, what could it be? What could possibly have happened to the media darling of the City of Glory? How could she just have disappeared?

His thoughts briefly turned to the Kammerpolizei—the secret police. Could Norma Jean have been scooped by them? They moved mysteriously, the kind of force that answered to no one: not either mayor, the military, or any police board. They could arrest without publicly reciting charges—and no one really seemed to know the full extent of their scope.

He glanced over at Rooney, but decided against bringing them up. It was best not to speak of them in public, even with one’s partner.

“What the hell is that?” Rooney asked. He’d flashed the spotlight down the alley they were passing. “Stop.”

“You see something?”

“Yeah, not sure…pull over.”

The alley was too narrow for their cruiser so Stafford stopped, turned on the overheads and aimed the spotlight into the darkness. They locked the car behind them, pulled their flashlights free and ran into the alley, careful not to block the brilliance of the spotlight.

At first, Stafford wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Eyes, glowing green. Perhaps, he thought, it’s a cat. Too big for a cat, though. Shape of a man, kneeling, but human eyes didn’t glow green like that.

Some weird contact lenses, he thought. Then he saw the supine woman at the man’s feet. He was mugging her, or worse.

Before either Stafford or Rooney had a chance to identify themselves, the man dashed down the alley, away from them. He wore a cloak, the kind you might see on a monk in a monastery, and it flapped behind him like a cape.

Rooney kept his flashlight beam trained on the guy but lost him when he ducked behind a dumpster.

“You see that guy?” Rooney asked. “You think he’s a Doomsdayer?”

“Doubt it.” Doomsdayers didn’t take to wearing cloaks or freaky eyes. They were more of the skin-head persuasion.

Stafford unclipped his holster and swung the flashlight beam across his path, to make certain the man had been alone, then knelt beside the body of the woman.

He heard Rooney calling in their position and requesting an ambulance as he shone his flashlight over her face. Stafford’s breath caught in his throat and he was afraid he might vomit. This wasn’t a mugging.

His first thought was that they’d found Norma Jean. Same hair color, body shape, height. But her face. Her face had been cut. Horribly cut. It would be impossible to positively identify her this way.

He swallowed bile, and looked down at her body, her clothes. She was fully dressed, but someone the status of Norma Jean wouldn’t wear clothes like these.

These clothes belonged to a resident of Purgatory: red stockings and overdone blue jacket. Prostitute perhaps.

But that was just clothing. She could’ve put those on to blend. Everything else about her did look like Norma Jean. The body shape, the height, the near-perfect skin. Her skin alone would label her as a person from somewhere else.

No scars, no tats, hell, not even much tan. But the skin of her face—that was another matter.

It had been cut in a symmetrical pattern, the three slashes beneath each eye so deep that he saw bone. Her forehead had been carved open and her jaw line sliced. As if someone was trying to remake her face.

Stafford thought she was dead. He hadn’t seen any chest movement, and her eyes looked like glass in her butchered face. But when he reached for the side of her throat to check for a pulse, she coughed and Stafford startled.

“She’s alive,” he said. “Holy shit, she’s alive.”

Rooney’s face blanched as the beam of his flashlight settled on her face. “Dear god…”

Purgatory had its share of perversions. Slavers, flesh traders, meth dealers….but unfortunately this particular torture hadn’t been limited to Purgatory. Stafford had seen this type of mutilation before, though thankfully only in crime-scene photos.

“The Satin Veil Killer,” Stafford said.

“Shit.”

“Her pulse is weak. How long for that ambulance and back up?”

Rooney relayed the question into his lapel microphone. The answer came immediately through their in-ear monitors, “Six minutes.”

They glanced at each other. If they both waited six minutes, any chance of catching the Satin Veil Killer would be gone.

“I’ll stay,” Rooney said.

Stafford took off down the alley, knowing that his chances were already remote.

He ran out of the alley and onto Brisbane Street, pushing through the crowd that seemed to thicken around him as his urgency grew.

“Police! Out of my way!” he yelled. He knew they thought they were shielding one of their own, and not the infamous Satin Veil Killer, but he still had to work hard to keep his gun holstered. “Move! Move!”

He was sure he was losing ground. He clicked the button on his radio hooked to his utility belt. “1P10 to dispatch. Need assistance—Frontenac and Brisbane. Suspect average build, wearing a monk’s cloak. Eyes…sparkly.” Sparkly? How else could he describe it? “This is the guy. The Satin Veil Killer. Is anyone else in the vicinity?”

The reply came through his earpiece. “Negative. All available units have been diverted to the crime scene. You’re on your own.” The voice at the other end was Steven Harvard.

“Damn it,” he cursed, “I’m on foot, Dispatch. I need assistance.”

The silence from Dispatch stretched. His breathing became labored as he ran down Ryerson to Batterer’s Row. He thought he saw a glimpse of a cape, and surged through the crowd.

“There are no units in your vicinity, 1P10. I repeat, you’re on your own.”

“I need a car!” Stafford bellowed, causing two women to shriek and leap away from him as though he was insane. He ignored them. “Now!”

“Stafford,” Rooney’s voice came through his ear piece. “The ambulance and back up have arrived. I’m on my way.”

“Head to the Glory end of Batterer’s Row,” Stafford puffed.

Rooney met him three blocks later in the patrol car. Stafford jumped in.

“Any sign?” Rooney asked.

“Nothing,” Stafford said, trying to catch his breath. Half was the run, the other half was the massive adrenaline dump.

“We had him. We fucking had him.”

They knew the Killer could hide in any one of the myriad shuttered warehouses that had been turned into a squatter’s kingdom in Batterer’s Row.

“Did she make it?” Stafford asked.

“Too soon to tell. She’d lost a lot of blood. They think he might’ve drugged her first—and that might’ve saved her life.”

If this girl lived, she’d be the first to survive the Satin Veil Killer.

Over the past three years, he had murdered at least seventeen people. Their top profilers couldn’t seem to get a read on him. His killing cycle appeared random, which in itself was a clue, but then he altered that pattern and his murder frequency began following a mathematical sequence called the Lucas numbers. After six kills the pattern changed again. The Violent Crimes unit sent out a request to the top mathematicians but the sequence was lost. Sometimes the murders were well organized: a well-choreographed abduction with the victim snatched in one location, murdered in another and dumped elsewhere. Sometimes it appeared random.

There were so many changes to the MO that the Violent Crimes unit began thinking the Killer was somehow embedded in the police, or more specifically, the Behavioral Crimes division. The only thing that was consistent was the satin veil he placed over the victim’s faces.

“Head for the bridge,” Stafford said.

“Why?” Rooney asked. “Last place in the world he’d go. It’s an armed fortress—both sides. He’d be a fool to try crossing.”

“Call it a hunch.”

“Okay, I’ll bite.”

“What if the Killer is from Glory, not Hope?”

“Impossible.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, it is. No one’s getting across that bridge without a damn good reason. And all his kills have been this side of the river. Where did you get this hunch?”

Stafford remained quiet but realized if he wanted Rooney onboard, he had to be up front.

“Caterwaul.”

“Caterwaul? The crazy bastard?”

“It’s all we’ve got.”

Rooney tapped his hands on the steering wheel as he digested this bit of information. “What the hell,” he said.

“Up on the curb,” Stafford said. Miraculously, a strip of sidewalk had opened up for them. Rooney cursed but steered the cruiser to the right. The front wheels hit with such force that they heard part of the suspension crack. “Up along Trebeck street.”

Rooney hit the gas, the emergency lights flashing and the rumbler siren sounding out shock waves. Pedestrians might’ve ignored them earlier, but a police cruiser roaring down a sidewalk got everyone’s attention. Once past the congestion, he bounced back over the curb, and hit the gas hard.

They ripped through five city blocks, the suspension bottoming out on some of the more aggressive valleys in the road.

“There he is,” Rooney said. The Killer was on the bridge, jogging along the pedestrian crossing. “He’ll never make it—the Legion will stop him.”

“Unless his papers are in order,” Stafford said.

“Christ.”

“He’s going to make it across.”

“Dispatch, this is 1P10. Clear our way across the checkpoint. We’re approaching fast. You copy, Dispatch?”

A multitude of car lanes fed into Hope’s checkpoint. Rooney veered left, took the lane designed for pre-authorized travelers. Even their flashing overhead lights wouldn’t be enough to get them through.

“Dispatch?” he said again.

The Krypteia Border Security agents watched them with bored expressions, one of the men leaving his post to approach their car slowly, laden with navy-blue body armor, a helmet with bullet-resistant visor, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

“Identification,” the KBS agent said.

“Christ’s sake, man. Raise the fucking barricade.”

The man’s expression was hidden behind the red-and-blue reflection on his visor, but he remained motionless.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Damn straight, there’s a problem. You ever heard of the Satin Veil Killer? He’s on that bridge.”

“It’s not on the latest transactions.”

“Of course it’s not on the latest transactions. He’s on the bridge. Now.”

“Yeah.” The agent straightened, glanced around but was in no rush to hurry them through. “Can’t let you through. You know how this works, right?”

“Dispatch?” Stafford said again into the radio.

“Raise the barricade,” Rooney insisted.

“Yeah,” the agent said again. He turned and walked back to his kiosk, chatted with the others. They laughed, and Stafford had a terrible suspicion the agent planned on leaving them waiting.

“Christ,” Rooney cursed. The car idled, Rooney twisting the wheel in his hands in frustration.

“1P10,” Dispatch said. “We’ve cleared you for the bridge.”

The agent must’ve been receiving the identical instructions as his gaze drifted back to them. He shrugged to no one in particular and sauntered over to their patrol car. “Okay, clear to proceed.” The barricades lifted. “Have a good day, Gentlemen,” he said.

“Jack-off,” Rooney mumbled, hitting the gas hard. They accelerated past the toll booths and onto the ramp. They hit the bridge at eighty, their whooping siren sending cars veering from their path. They flew down the middle of the road, mirrors clearing cars on both sides by inches.

They weren’t going to catch the Killer; they had lost too much time at the border.

“Son of a bitch,” Rooney muttered.

“Follow him,” Stafford said.

“Are you crazy? They’ve militarized the border. They’d hit us with everything they got.”

“He’s right fucking there!” Stafford picked up the radio. “1P10 to Dispatch—get us clearance into Glory. Do you copy? Dispatch?”

The radio screeched, then, “1P10—trying to get this under control on our end.”

“Did you hear me? We’re going into Glory.”

“You don’t have authorization.”

After last month’s unauthorized cross-border raid by Hope’s KBS Forces to snag the infamous Genovese, tensions were like an energized copper wire. If they crossed without authorization, the cities could quickly escalate into armed conflict.

“Call ahead, Dispatch. We’re in pursuit of the Satin Veil Killer, and we believe his last victim was Norma Jean Wentworth. Tell them he tried to kill their mayor’s fucking daughter!”

They roared past the midway point of the bridge. Now they were in no-man’s land, since neither city owned the bridge. Technically, they were already out of their jurisdiction, however, the Glory border was landside. The checkpoint reminded Stafford of Germany pre-unification. Guards with automatic weapons, dogs on heavy chains, barricades, spotlights.

The Legion, Glory’s Border Police, were highly trained and consulted by other border agencies for their expertise across the world. Unlike the KBS who preferred brute force tactics, the Legion were a lightly armored, mobile, quick-response team, preferring the surgical strike to Hope’s mass-casualty approach.

“Stafford,” Dispatch said, dispensing with the formal call signs, “it’ll take hours to go through the proper channels. Break off pursuit. I repeat, break off pursuit.”

“He’s almost through,” Rooney said. The Killer shed the cloak and tossed it over the side of the bridge.

“He’s about to enter Customs,” Stafford said, unconsciously pressing his foot to the floor on the passenger side as if he could somehow accelerate their car. As it was, he knew that Rooney was already playing their speed beyond his reflexes. All it would take was one car to move three inches into their path. “Get someone to pick him up…to hold him.”

“I’ll check on it,” Dispatch replied and the radio went quiet.

There wouldn’t be time. “He always was an asshole,” Rooney said as Stafford threw down the radio in disgust. “But he’s right. You know how these things work.”

The Satin Veil Killer disappeared into Customs. Rooney began decelerating.

“You need to go through,” Stafford said.

“What?”

“If we want him, this is our last chance. I didn’t get a look at him, did you?”

“They might’ve got him on camera.”

“You want to risk letting him get away?”

Their cruiser had slowed to a crawl. The Glory border checkpoint was only twenty-meters distant.

“Do you want to risk getting shot?” Rooney replied.

“They won’t shoot us. They see us coming. We’re in a patrol car.”

“Shit.” Rooney gripped the wheel so tightly that sweat bubbled between his fingers.

“If we’re going to do it, we need to do it now,” Stafford insisted.

Rooney stomped on the gas and they shot forward. “God damn!”

Two Legion guards aimed their weapons, and before Rooney had a chance to brake, their muzzles flashed followed by the powerful retort of automatic weapons.

Rooney and Stafford flinched but their windshield didn’t explode in a hail of bullets and glass. The guards had fired above their heads.

Stafford held his breath, gripping the dashboard to brace himself. They hit a speed bump, the car bottomed out with an angry rash of sparks, and they lurched forward and hit the barricade. The wood barrier snapped and they flew through the checkpoint. The guards had their weapons trained but none fired.

Their police cruiser exploded into the City of Glory. Only a bridge separated the two cities but they were a world apart. Where Hope had shuttered houses, abandoned warehouses, and places like Purgatory, Glory had a wide boulevard with trees—real trees—and the soft lighting of old-fashioned street lights.

Rooney exhaled the same time Stafford did. Perhaps he had also thought that one of their snipers might’ve decided to take them out with a well-aimed bullet.

“Jesus, we made it,” Rooney said.

“There, there, there!” Stafford pointed at their suspect, sauntering down the street past the checkpoint, hands in pockets, head bowed—unrushed. Perhaps the Killer was hoping to blend. Or maybe he was hoping some bureaucratic law would save him. Stafford didn’t care. Didn’t care about his spiraling career or what was going to happen when he headed back to Hope. He had lost so many battles in the last two years, but he wasn’t going to lose this one.

Rooney threw on the brakes and Stafford was out of the car and running, Glock drawn.

“Down! I said down!”

The man turned, smiling, as if he could read Stafford’s thoughts. “Not today,” he said.

The eyes. Not human. The face was nondescript but the eyes weren’t normal, and he knew that they weren’t contacts.

Looking at him, Stafford’s resolve solidified. He was going to put down the Satin Veil Killer. No doubt, no remorse.

He squeezed the trigger, once, twice. Recoil followed by the shattering of glass. And then—

The killer was gone.

Stafford blinked and took a shambling step forward. The Satin Veil Killer hadn’t dodged or tumbled out of the way, because there was no place to hide. He was gone, as if the hand of God had reached down and plucked him away.

“What the…?” He lowered his gun, staring at the plate-glass window his shots had punctured, and then turned to Rooney standing by the patrol car. “Did you see that?”

“Where the hell did he go?” Rooney asked. “He—he just disappeared.”

Then the earth bucked, tossing Stafford into the air, then he smashed to the pavement, his gun skittering from his hand and his left arm twisting awkwardly beneath him. His head bounced off the ground and his vision flashed.

The world didn’t stop moving, twisting, shaking. Through the haze of disorientation, he saw soldiers, who must’ve been running to intercept them, also flung to the ground. Trees swayed dangerously. A power line snapped, the live wires whipping like snakes from Medusa’s head. Beneath them, a water main broke and a geyser sprayed through a man hole.

Stafford tried to get his feet underneath him, but when he was cast down for the third time, he lay prone, hoping that the snapping street lamps wouldn’t crush him.

The world rumbled again, then fell quiet. He lay there, his lungs not drawing air, and he felt that irrational spike of panic as if he would never breathe again. However, if he could’ve spoken, he would’ve exclaimed “What the fuck?”

His mind reeled, trying to digest what had just happened. He had the Satin Veil Killer dead to rights. There was no escape. Then he was gone. No poof of smoke like a parlor trick. Just gone. And when that happened, the earth went mad.

The two events couldn’t have been related, but they happened so quickly, one after the other, that he couldn’t separate them.

When he finally drew a full breath, he rolled onto his back, eyes closed, and listened to the gentle city of Glory go mad. Wailing sirens, rushing water, the screams of disorientation, car alarms, and the sound of heavy boots on pavement.

The boots were coming for him.

He opened his eyes, and looked up at the muzzle of a rifle.

“You are in contravention of the Non-Aggression Border Agreement, Section 7—entering the City of Glory without authorization,” the soldier standing over him said.

He was hauled to his feet. The soldiers ignored his cries when they grabbed his injured left arm and secured his wrists behind his back. He saw Rooney spread over the hood of their police cruiser as soldiers searched him, removed his weapons and utility belt, and secured nylon flexicuffs on his wrists.

“What the hell where you thinking?” the closest soldier said. Stafford saw the Captain’s stripes on his uniform and assumed he was the ranking officer. “I had every right to have you shot. You realize how lucky you were?”

Stafford didn’t feel lucky. His head swam and he tasted blood in his mouth. He’d need stitches to stop it. His tongue checked his teeth for signs of cracks but found none. His left shoulder throbbed and yet when he tested it, found it still had mobility. Maybe he had dislocated it initially, then popped it back in when he was thrown to the pavement.

Then he saw he had bigger problems. The city of Glory’s police remained beyond the barricades, content to watch the scene unfold like the other civilians. That meant that this was a Legion investigation. With the military in control, Stafford and Rooney would have no rights, no ability to communicate with Hope. Stafford now believed that when they had entered Purgatory that they had indeed entered Hell. He had had the Satin Veil Killer in his sights. Impossibly, the Killer disappeared, called back to whatever nightmare he had materialized from.

Before he had time to consider it further, two soldiers marched Stafford to the military patrol car and guided him roughly into the backseat. Stafford saw Rooney in the back seat of second patrol car. Their gaze met, briefly, and Rooney looked away. If they ever got back to Hope, he had a suspicion that Rooney would be doing everything he could to get a new partner. Stafford sighed.

As they drove away, Stafford leaned his head back on the rest, and finally saw the moon. It seemed twice as large as normal, a massive full disk in the sky.

It was the color of blood.