Jason heaved a sigh of relief as moonlight glinted off the bits of jewelry the big man was wearing. Wet hair perfectly combed, trace of expensive cologne.
"Glad you could make it. Herod tend to spook people."
Homer nodded. "Half an hour since the body was dumped, you say? Do you have a time of death?"
"Not yet. The ME may have it by the time we get there." Jason ducked back into the car. Magana took the front, and Homer squeezed himself into the back. It was a quick drive to the scene. This one was perhaps halfway between the gallery and Homer's apartment. There were multiple squad cars, the ME was just climbing out of his van.
They walked in and got an eyeful, then stood back to let the ME do his thing. Homer looked away as he got out the thermometer. He started walking around, sniffing.
"Your friend, Herod. He was out flying around about that time." Magana was pressing Homer. Jason listened carefully.
Homer frowned, probably searching his memory. "He didn't fly off until one, headed straight up, he likes the cold air. And . . . sexual perversions aren't among his . . . idiosyncrasies."
"But what about that alt of his? If he's not a pervert, maybe the other one is?"
"The other one shares the same body. I know where he was until well after midnight. Let's see what the ME says."
The ME glanced at his watch, then the thermometer. "With tonight's temperatures, I'd put the time of death between eleven PM yesterday and two AM, that is to say, three hours to an hour ago. What dragon is this that you know was flying around from one on?"
Homer sighed. "Lord Herod West Plateau."
The ME's eyebrows climbed. "That's a bit awkward, isn't it?"
"I don't have any doubts about him. We'll just have to find the perpetrator." Homer glanced at the dumpster. "Quickly. It's three days past the full moon. The sun's magnetic field must be revving up strongly."
Jason bit his lip. "Any ideas?"
"I think I may check the tea houses. See if there's any gossip about who's flying around, nights. Or any sightings of dragons flying low. Maybe we can trace him home. You do realize this dragon could live anywhere, don't you? He may not be in my circle. Or his alt might not."
"Yeah. I'll start checking the other dragon groups. Or, maybe I should ask Herod to."
Captain Evens had been talking to the patrolmen. but he must have been listening to their discussion as well. "I don't think that's wise. I don't know Herod, we don't have a track record for him."
Scarlet nodded. "I really need to meet more dragons. Broaden my horizons. I don't have any basis for judging them."
Homer shrugged. "I'll hit the tea houses now, they'll be closing in another hour." He walked off into the night.
The Captain looked after him. "That's going to be a bitch."
Jason shrugged. "There must be over a hundred thousand dragons living in the city, and that's just counting the bodies. No point in focusing on one, when we haven't got a speck of evidence one way or another."
Scarlet looked after Homer and lowered her voice. "Is he going to warn Herod?"
Captain Evens snorted. "Herod knows."
Jason stepped up to the dumpster, climbed up, and took another look.
"We need to find out where the women are being killed. How are we doing on the roof top inspections?" Evens was staying on the ground.
"The papers published our requests that every business inspect its roof. Especially the high ones. We've had no response."
"Damn it. These women are bleeding all over the place. He's ripping major arteries."
The ME added, "A sideways dragon claw swipe like that, as deep as this fellow goes, he'd get sprayed. Not to mention the gut contents. He must reek after a kill. He's got to be cleaning up after himself, somewhere."
"Still a right hand, left to right—her right to left—from the front?"
"Yes, definitely. The thumb is down."
Magana climbed up beside him, and paled.
"It's worse in person. The pictures just don't do it justice." Jason looked down at the wreck of a human being. He didn't know if the fresh blood scent was worse than the three days of decomposition, or not. There were plenty of injuries and blood that had been spilled before the killing stroke. Teeth marks. The punctures of claws holding her arms. The viscera had been piled back into the abdominal cavity, no doubt to make transport easier.
The ME climbed back up. "Now the really fun part." He laid a plastic sheet beside the body and started shifting the intestines. "I'll lay them out and check for missing sections, back at the morgue. For now . . . He caught both the descending aorta and the inferior vena cava with a single claw. Liver is mostly gone, post mortem removal with claws. Uterus is gone, ovaries, gone, vagina gone . . . hang on now. Did the dragon see the witness?"
They all looked at the Captain. "Yeah. He was inside there." He pointed at the warehouse door. "Looked out at the noise, and slammed the door. Locked it. Ran for the phone. He's a wino, but tonight he hadn't had any luck caging a drink, so until he goes into withdrawal, he's a good witness. Why?"
"I think our dragon has made his first mistake. He didn't dump his medical waste on this one."
Trouble hefted the sack of her worldly possessions over her shoulder, and walked out between her parents. Somehow an exemplary report from Homer had combined with a space shortage into an early release.
Sometimes life just wasn't fair.
Less than three months now. And she'd have been free. Instead, she was back with the most dysfunctional family in all creation. At least her collection of half siblings—one older, four younger—had stayed home.
Her mother fussed all the way home, her step father, the third one since she was old enough to remember, was grimly silent. That's all right. I don't want you, either.
And the siblings weren't home. Her half of one room had, of course, been taken over.
"I threw a few things out, and put the rest in the attic, for you." Her mother looked around. The house was small. One bedroom for her and her current husband. One bedroom for the three boys. One bedroom for the three girls.
"I see Alley's out of her crib, now. I don't suppose Gale's married or anything?" Fat chance, with her clothes all over the room.
"I wish. No, she's got a million boyfriends, but none of them is quite good enough for her." Her mother waddled off, without mentioning where Trouble would be sleeping. She eyed her bed, now made up in pink. Well, Alley's small, no problem sharing a bed. Her eyes traveled to her bookshelves. Full of folded clothing, size small. No books to be seen. Her heart shrank. There was a market for used books. She straightened her shoulders. Couldn't take them to the Gold Country anyway. She walked down the hallway and pulled the rope to the folding ladder to the attic. Her clothes were bundled into three grocery sacks. All my worldly possessions. She dropped them down the ladder, and crammed Alley's stuff to one side so she could empty them. She'd forgotten she'd bought that dress for the school dance. She'd never worn it, having been caught by the old shopkeeper the week before the dance. The dress had spaghetti straps. Now she'd never know if she would have had the nerve to wear it, and expose her scaly arms to the whole student body and faculty. She dug, found a hanger in the closet, and hung it, shoving Gale's stuff a couple of inches away from the wall on "her" side. She started on the last bag. At the bottom she found three books. The Thief of Alexandria, The Road to Riches and The Mountain of Doom. Her three favorites. Mom does love me. All her resentment and defensiveness melted. She sat down and wiped away tears before she opened The Thief. She felt like a new person, content. Happy.
Alley got home from school about the time she finished it. The five year old eyed her uncertainly.
"Guess I've been gone too long, huh? And I cut my hair really short."
Maybe it was the voice. Alley lit up. "Tubby! I want a story!" She threw herself into Trouble's lap. Trouble swapped books and started reading Mountain out loud.
An hour later Gale got home. "Well, well, look what crawled back home. Our very own, Jay Dee."
Instant revision to nasty self. "Hi, Ho. Hi ho. It's off to work you go . . . "
Gale colored. "I am a store clerk, and I work very hard. I play on my own money, I don't sell myself. And I don't hurt people."
"I don't hurt people unless they need it. William needed it." And I lost my temper and was completely out of control. Looking back, it doesn't even seem real. The first time I got sent to Juvvie. She looked down at the child in her lap. I'm not that out of control. I'm not crazy, I wouldn't hurt my family. But I do wish I was old enough to go far away. Because it seems to be getting worse, even if I've managed to not hit anyone since. Mostly. I kicked Homer. I don't know why he didn't file a complaint.
"Next time, call a cop." Gale took off her nice dress and put on a robe.
Trouble knew the routine. The dress would be carefully hand washed, hung on the back porch to drip dry. Tomorrow or the next day, depending on how many clothes she had ready to wear, she'd iron everything that needed it. After dinner, she'd swap the robe for something sexy, and go out with her "girl friends" for a drinky. She might get home by one or two. She'd snore if she was drunk enough. Get up at eight, and start all over again.
The boys trailed in, one blonde like the first step father, two redheads, like the second stepfather. Alley had brown hair like the current husband. Trouble dismissed the thought of Gale's father, no doubt another blond like the first step father, or even the man himself. And she'd been told often enough that she was an accident, a brief fling with "I should have known by his coloring." Heaven forbid Mom should remember his name. She ran her fingers through her short auburn hair. Very dark, but still reddish like Mom's.
Something smelled good in the kitchen. Chicken, roast potatoes, peas. This was the home she remembered. Always enough to eat, even if it sometimes lacked meat. If only her family weren't so large, so poor, so noisy, so indifferent to reading . . . so religious. So full of stepfathers. Maybe she could get in trouble, and sent back to Juvie. Except . . . she was so close to eighteen, they could decide to try her as an adult. Last thing she needed was an adult criminal record. When her family drove her crazy, she'd just have to go for a walk. A very long walk.