MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
December. Monday morning. 6:25 A.M.
“I-I-I won’t diiiiie for you … it’s-a henchman’s foll-ee! I-I-I won’t liiiiie for you … yes, it’s truuuue…”
Deena Pilgrim tapped her fingers in time to the music, drumming against the steering wheel of her SUV. Two teeth bit into her lower lip, boosting her adrenaline as she pressed down on the gas. Shaking her head, short hair whipping this way and that, she flashed the passenger to her left a yes-yes-yes as she dug into the song’s bridge, number fifteen on a list of the forty most popular in the nation. The adjacent driver stared and then rolled her eyes and sped away. Soccer mom, Deena ventured. Soccer Mom can’t understand, she decided with a smirk, rat-tat-tatting her digits on the wheel. This here, sunshine? This is the high point of my day.
The station cut to a commercial, so Deena hit the shuffle to find another. After several fruitless stabs, she landed on classic rock, shrugged, and adjusted her rate of percussion to a mellower groove. She steered the dented SUV through town, heading to a place she didn’t want to go, listening to a song she didn’t want to hear.
Despite the suboptimal soundtrack, Deena did her best to enjoy the moment. Right now, right here; before the day went to hell. Before she got dragged into another bonkers situation beyond her control. That had been happening often these last several years. Over time, she’d made the most of the period allotted between receiving a call and arriving on scene. Unfortunately today, she’d completely lost the vibe—the music wasn’t cutting it, and her thoughts were already down among the bullshit. Deena stabbed the dial and powered down her radio, fingers still tapping a nervous staccato against the wheel.
She focused on the road, trying to put the pain of the last two years out of her mind. Avenues flew past as she navigated on autopilot through the streets, the happy song that had filled her head fading away as the burden of being Deena bullied itself back to the forefront. She rubbed her eyes, trying to wipe her mind, but she could not block out the horrible memories. That, she knew, would take something special. For that, she would need powers or some shit.
Been there, Deena bitterly laughed. Done that, bought the DVD. Didn’t help.
She’d briefly had powers, sure. Unwantedly gifted to her by a scum fuck thug with loose hands and looser genetics. A Powers virus, spread among the populace, designed to impart killer abilities to its user. That would have been bad enough. Deena being Deena had made it worse. She’d isolated herself, threatening relationships at both work and home—relationships she knew would save her from drowning. Her career trajectory had been flushed down the pipeline, and she’d forced herself into exile, leaving the country before eventually returning to try again.
Oh, and she’d been pregnant, if you could believe that. Until she’d lost it during the fiasco in Los Angeles. The debacle with the motherbitching Federal Powers Bureau.
Only a little bit pregnant, she chided herself, laughing at the irony. She had to laugh. If she didn’t, she’d probably cry—or worse: make somebody else cry.
Between the disasters that followed the bureau and what came before—the colossal fuckup in Chicago—truth be told, Deena could trace a direct line to this moment back to her apple-cheeked, potty-mouth beginnings on the homicide beat. Hell, if I’m calling my shot, everything went to shit before I accidentally tore off Johnny Royale’s arm. Right before I found out that Walker had powers.
Walker. As if on cue, her partner appeared in the windshield, big as life and twice the size. He stepped out of a patrol car at 851 Taylor, about to venture inside. Deena pulled up to the curb and rubbed both hands against the vents before exiting the car. She slammed the door and hustled to catch up, blowing into her palms for warmth.
“What,” she opened, “no fuckin’ coffee?”
Walker ignored her pathetic salvo and pressed into the building, shoving aside the usual gawkers. The early ones were mostly neighborhood passersby, but Deena spied familiar bylines circulating throughout the lot, barely restrained by crowd control. Grimacing, wishing she were huddled in front of the SUV’s shitty heater, Deena scrambled up the stoop and followed Walker inside.
Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim had been partnered years ago, right before the unfortunate (and publicly visible) Retro Girl murder—a case that had defined both their careers. The tragic, personal experience had put them on the map. Since then, Deena had done her best to crack the enigma that was Detective Christian Walker, but was no closer now than she’d been years before. Insular and secretive, the broad-shouldered detective hadn’t given Deena much to work with until (after an unauthorized bit of sleuthing) she discovered that Walker had worked the other side of the badge as a masked hero named Diamond. After an illustrious career, Diamond had lost his superpowered abilities. That alone might have engendered crankiness in any human being. But Walker had elevated “bitter and remorseful” into a bravura performance, one that delighted all ages … or at least his long-suffering partner, the spunky detective forced to swallow the man’s grumpy shit on a 24-7 basis. Thankfully, Deena took on similar tread as the years peeled away, keeping pace with her partner’s cycle of nightmares. “Bitter and remorseful” proved kiddie-clown-crap compared to the endless list of shit that had taken its toll on Deena’s once bright-eyed, wise-assed demeanor.
Yet still they expect me to get out of bed. I will admit, she cracked to herself in return, it’s been interesting. And by “interesting,” I mean “exhausting.”
“Which is why,” she concluded out loud, “I asked for the goddamn coffee.”
Walker glanced back from four stairs up. “What was that?”
“Nothing. Keep climbing; I’m enjoying the view.”
“Adding sexual harassment to the list of black marks on your personnel record?”
“One more black mark and I get a free fro-yo.”
Walker didn’t look back. “Barely worth it. The only flavors at the precinct are ‘doughnut’ and ‘dysentery.’ And last I heard, we’re out of ‘doughnut.’”
Trading quips, they climbed the final flight of stairs, arriving at a barrier of police tape that blocked the third-floor landing. Walker tore it aside and beckoned Deena to follow, leading toward the open door of apartment 3A. She hesitated at the threshold. Truthfully, Deena needed a minute before flipping her day on end. A moment existed for every detective in which a single step led from the blissful paradise of ignorance into the harrowing excruciation of purgatory. A twist of the dial, like shutting off a song, that kicked a ladder out from under a detective’s feet, sending him or her down a slippery, dangerous chute. Deena wrestled back her nerves and shook off strangling anxiety.
Not again, she begged to any and all of the powers that be, doing her best to assume a brave face. Please, let this be an easy one. Lob us a softball, okay? Drug addicts. Bangers. Nothing that jams electric death rays up my cooter.
She finished the prayer and steeled her resolve. Painting a smirk across her face, Deena followed her partner into the apartment.
The air felt metallic and cold. Walker had already circumvented a labyrinth of glass and refuse, reaching the far wall of the claustrophobic rental. Sunlight filtered in through torn venetian blinds. Forensic units clomped around, dropping numbers for reference and placing samples into tiny bags.
Deena tiptoed over a pizza box to arrive at Walker’s side. He faced the wall, shoulders blocking the victim from view. His arms were folded and his head slumped; Deena could tell something was wrong. Walker’s body language suggested some kind of emotional blow, confirmed by the pass of a hand over his craggy, chiseled features. She ducked his left arm, grabbing her first, eye-opening look at the morning’s victim.
The dead man had been strapped to a wooden chair. Bound with thick, bloodstained ropes, the corpse had been situated before a window; shards of glass coated both the body and carpet. Cold wind whistled through the broken panes, circulating through the apartment and ruffling the vic’s brittle hair. The deceased wore a shirt and skivvies, the former unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze. Deena’s eyes darted to the man’s legs, charting trails of bile down to a pool of congealed blood. The medical examiner had his back to the detectives, hunkered down while tapping notes into an off-brand, police-issue tablet. Slight and ratlike, stubble covering a protruding overbite, the examiner wore cheap eyeglasses and latex gloves. The knees of his pants were filthy. Deena looked back to the corpse’s face. The victim had been savagely beaten, his features unrecognizable, eyes and mouth a pulpy mess. His teeth littered the floor, yanked and discarded. A technician swept several into a bag with a tiny, sterile broom.
She searched for additional identifiers, hoping to key on any unique items that might stand out. The unit’s walls were free of decoration apart from a handful of erratically tacked posters; any personal photos the man possessed had been removed or jarred loose. Aside from the odd framed newspaper or curious knickknack, Deena could see nothing that spoke to whom the vic might be or what had caused his brutal demise.
That’s when she saw the shield.
She’d been looking for a murder weapon—a hammer or crowbar, say. But then it had caught her eye, partially hidden beneath the garbage. Deena’s jaw sagged, and she tapped Walker. He glanced back, and she noted tears in his eyes. He’d been crying; a bell sounded in Deena’s brain, alerting her to the fact that they’d reached that horrible moment. So long, paradise; have a drink, purgatory. Bound to be a long afternoon.
“Got something?” Walker asked, clearly finished with half-assed banter.
She cleared her throat and thrust her chin at the item—barely visible, obscured beneath trash and damage. Despite that, it was instantly recognizable to both detectives. He nodded as if confirming a notion he’d pieced together. Whatever the shield was doing in this dingy locale, it firmly intersected with the emotional turmoil that had given Walker the feels.
“See it?” she whispered, begging the question as if he didn’t.
“Course I do.”
Deena raised an eyebrow. “And? What are we saying?”
“We’re saying it’s him.”
“Maybe not. People steal shit,” she suggested. “Neighborhood fits. The old man could have boosted it.”
Walker shook his head. “No, that’s Joe. Even with the face, I know it’s him. Though I can’t for the life of me explain what he’s doing here.”
Dammit, she thought. As they’d been talking, one of the technicians had discovered the shield beneath the glass. He barked excitedly and dragged it out. The other officers expressed skepticism; it had to be a replica, a cheap imitation. But the farther they pulled it into the light, the more impressive it appeared. By the time they set the circular shield on an end table, everyone believed it to be the genuine article. Slightly dented, the pitted disc bore signs of rough use—streaks of blood marred its surface, obscuring the cobalt-and-crimson eagle etched over black steel. Nicks and creases lined the edge; someone had used it as a hammer. Or a murder weapon.
“The victim,” the medical examiner droned to Walker, jotting notes in an app as he jabbered away. “His age falls in the eighties, I’m gathering—”
“Hundred and twelve,” Walker corrected, eyes glued to the gouged weapon.
The ME looked up. “You sure?”
“Twelve years ago, I attended his hundredth birthday party. I bought him a ducky tie and condoms. So yeah, Frank. I’m pretty sure.”
Frank, the medical examiner, shrugged. “Fair enough. Hundred and twelve.” He ticked off salient points in a scrolling checklist, tapping his glasses against the tablet for emphasis. “Massive trauma to the skull, knees, and fingers. Multiple fractures at the hyoid, which suggests strangulation. Contusions along temple and heel. Heavy loss of blood due to wounds and chafing—the ropes, of course—and hundreds of abrasions that stem from what appears to be a shower of glass. None of which killed him, though. He’s been beaten to hell and back, but the actual cause of death in my humble opinion? Lack of oxygen.”
He stepped toward the corpse, pointing out highlights. Deena detected a lilt in his voice, as if Frank enjoyed dragging them on a guided tour of a dead man’s wounds. She made a mental note to step on his toes.
“The nose has been irreparably broken,” Frank was saying, “and his lungs have been punctured; note stabs to the back. He’s been attacked with a blunt instrument, mostly around the face and cranium. A hammer, maybe? Need samples, but I—”
Deena coughed, subtly gesturing toward the bloodstained shield. Frank glanced its way and then dove back into his tablet, tap-tap-swiping away.
“Right. That would do it. So bludgeoned with his shield, but the killer had to swing it with considerable momentum to effect this sort of damage. Really bring it down with enough force.”
“So,” Deena summarized, “your expert opinion is that somebody drove a living legend’s nose through his brain with his own heavy, heavy shield. Yes?” A crowd had gathered, listening to the byplay.
Frank’s grin widened. “No, see. You can’t kill a man like that. That’s a myth. The nose is comprised of cartilage, which doesn’t possess tensile—”
“My point,” Deena interrupted, “remains that America’s greatest hero has been tied to an unflattering chair and murdered to pieces on skid row. Possibly by some psycho seeking revenge. That about right?”
“I deal in facts, not guessing games, Detective Pilgrim. Could be a Power. Could just be a bruiser like Walker. A dude that works out, you know?”
Deena interjected before Walker could reply, “You don’t really believe that.”
Frank spread his hands. “Come on, Deena. Everyone knows this guy, even with hamburger for a nose. I’m guessing an archnemesis with a grudge—or government payback. Hell, it might just be the landlord looking to collect.” Frank turned away, preparing to tidy up. “But like I said, I deal in facts. I’ll leave conjecture to you, Detective.”
The knot of cops drifted back to their tasks. Walker remained quiet—more so than usual, and Deena gave him space. She took advantage of the moment to grind her heel into Frank’s left sneaker. The medical examiner squealed in a way that made her feel vindicated. He gathered his kit and hurried far from Deena Pilgrim’s rogue brand of justice, leaving them to the body and their own conclusions.
“You okay?” she asked Walker, concerned. Cases with personal attachments could fuck with a detective’s impartial nature. “I can take this,” she offered. “Just saying, I can gather leads on who iced the Citizen Soldier.”
Walker suppressed a smile, clamping his lips in a way that set Deena on edge. He rested a hand on her arm, the lightest of touches to assure her that everything was copacetic. “I’m fine. And his name was Joe. Joseph Monroe, U.S. Army captain, Fifth Regimental Combat Team.”
“A.k.a., the ultimate boy scout. The thrilla in vanilla—”
“Wait, wait—you gotta do these things in threes or you lose the comic theory. The thrilla in vanilla, aaaand…” She paused for effect, pushing Walker’s patience. “Aaaand…?” She came up blank. “Dammit. I had it. It’ll come to me.”
Deena took a breath. “Okay, so Joe Monroe … seriously? ‘Joe Monroe’?” A look from Walker suggested it might be best to drop the sass. “Fine. Joe Monroe, otherwise known as the Citizen Soldier. The most visible hero in America, on account that he’s won, like, five wars and advises the president. This guy, this magazine-cover celebrity, someone out there got a hard-on for him to die.”
Deena gestured toward Joe’s mashed face. “Killer uses the shield in a fit of irony, caves in skull, leaves him for dead. We make a list of known enemies. SOP.”
Walker set his jaw. “More to it than that.”
“Don’t overthink it, Walker. Even me, with my new-school, sarcastic sensibilities, even I have mad Citizen Soldier knowledge. Could name five suspects just off the top of my head.” She ticked them off with her fingers. “Captain Korea. Boom! One. The Tet Offenders. Zing—that’s two. The Klux Klan Krew, Doctor Diabolical, Ho She Grin … those are just from the comics, mind you.”
Walker ignored Deena and stepped closer to the chair, placing hands on his hips and looking down at the body. “Call back Forensics. Anyone who’s seen this apartment in the last few hours.”
She wanted to scream. “Seriously? Dude, we should run names, get ahead of this before it leaks. Someone will, you know—News 12, Powers That Be. In two hours, every liberal with an Instagram is gonna fill the Web with sensitively filtered memorial memes, and I want to have a suspect before that happens.”
Walker bent his knees and rubbed his chin. He cocked his head and then beckoned for Deena to join him on the floor. Exasperated, she rubbed her eyes. “What—are you kidding me? Look, Walker, come on. This guy’s the example for what it means to have powers. There’s half a dozen suspects we can drag downtown based on fucking history alone. What are we doing?”
He pointed to a tattoo on Joe’s arm. “Look here.”
“Yeah, so? Uncle Sam had a thing for ink. Most old soldiers do.”
“This ink is why we can’t rush this. Why this can’t get out.”
Deena hunkered down, doing her best to keep from kneeling in human detritus, and angled her head to better see the victim’s forearm.
Snakes and bullets. A fist breaking lightning bolts. T.H.F.
She furrowed her brow. “I’ve seen that before. Where?”
“You’ve seen a more stylized version. A logo.”
Deena nodded, intrigued. “Yeah. With the lightning and … but ‘THF’? I don’t … a name? A relative?”
“Nope. Letters go with the fist—and to be honest, the snakes.” He lightly slapped his cheek, grimacing and squinting. “Ah, dammit, Joe. Is this a lead, or you telling us something?”
Deena volleyed between the curious tattoo and Walker’s distraught expression. “What am I missing? ‘THF.’ Tight High Fanny? Terribly Hot Fart?”
“Ah-ah-ah. Rule of threes.”
He dropped both hands between his knees and looked Deena’s way with a tired, expectant stare, waiting for her to finish.
“I got it … I got it—yes! Tense Hero Friend! Boom.” Deena grinned and faced her partner, softening her eyes when she caught his annoyed expression. “Because you’re the friend. This way you’re involved. No, no—don’t thank me.”
“For now. So, THF?”
“The Human Front.”
Suddenly, the logo came rushing back to her—as did the reason for Walker’s reticence. The Human Front. Citizen Soldier.
Deena stood up and patted dust off her knees. This morning’s happy driving song had long been forgotten. This was way past purgatory and out into damnation.
“Shit,” she announced to the room at large. “Merry fucking Christmas. There goes my week.”
Copyright © 2016 by Jinxworld Inc.