Remington’s head throbbed, his legs were stiff, and his torso felt as if he had been beaten with a sledge hammer. He rose a hand to his forehead, and it came away wet. Everything was dark, still, and quiet. The floor was cold underneath him. When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by indecipherable shapes. Instinctively, his hand went to his side, but his gun was not in its holster.
Grunting, Remington rolled over onto his stomach and looked around. Out front, blue and white patrol lights were filtering in through the windows. He was able to squint enough to bring the world into focus. It looked like the windows were lined with butcher paper.
He was in Steven Vanegas’s antique studio.
Remington groaned. It was the last place that he wanted to wake up in the dark. Rising to his knees and sitting back on his heels, he pressed his palm to the abrasion on his forehead. After a few deep breaths, he began to remember bits and pieces of what had happened earlier that evening: Woodall coming to get him, the sound of paper scraping, a blue tablecloth moving. Everything in-between was still hazy.
Reaching inside his blazer, Remington pulled out his phone. He had three missed calls from Steyer.
Probably on his way with the cavalry, he thought wryly as he called him back.
“What happened?” Steyer asked when he answered. Not Hello? Not his name. A voice full of concern.
“I have no fucking idea,” Remington replied.
The images from Persia Papyrus’s abduction had just returned from the photo lab. Yes, they were sharper, but very little of the Phoenix’s face could be seen.
I can see his haircut, Remington thought wryly. We might as well go to the same barber.
Lowering his head into his hand, Remington considered calling it a night, when he heard heavy breathing at the door. He looked up to find Sgt. Woodall standing there with an alarmed expression, looking around the office.
“Is Agent Steyer here?” he asked.
“He went to get coffee,” Remington explained.
Woodall stared at him for a moment, as if he didn’t believe him.
“Good coffee,” he revised. The stuff they kept at the station tasted burnt and watery.
“The burglar alarm at Steven Vanegas’s studio just went off.”
Remington spent the ride to the studio dialing and re-dialing Steyer’s number, only for it to go straight to voicemail. Sighing, he surrendered with an irritable text message: Alarm @ V Studio. Gt new fking phone. He sent it off before remembering his promise to consider his professionalism, and beat the phone against his forehead.
“Problem?” Woodall asked.
“He’s been having phone issues,” Remington replied, holding back: I’m worried. I want him to like me. We need to crack this fucking case, because I’d rather deliver pizzas again than go back to Organized Crime.
“Usually,” Woodall began, sensing Remington’s anxiety, “when these alarms go off, it’s someone looking to take advantage of the goods left behind, or a short in the wiring, or, Hell, I’ve even had a few raccoons.”
“Yeah,” Woodall chuckled. “Five.”
When they reached the studio, the crime scene seal had been cut through with a small, clean slice. They would not have even been able to see it unless they were looking directly at it. Remington wondered for a moment if Steyer had lied about getting the coffee, and half-expected to find him pouring over the scene when he pushed the door open. Instead, they found an empty storefront, dark except for the light gently filtering in through the butcher paper on the front windows, and spilling in from the back room.
The light was on in the back room.
Remington’s heart began to drum in his chest. When he pulled out his gun, Woodall took the cue to do the same. He gestured for the sergeant to keep an eye on the door as they walk down separate aisles. If they stayed low, they could scan under all the furniture on their way to the back.
As they approached the door to the back room, Remington thought he heard a hollow scraping, as if someone were picking papers off the floor. He held up his hand for Woodall to stop, and listened for a moment, but there was only silence.
The last thing he wanted to do was go back into that room, but he had no choice. There was a chance, however slim, that he could be saving four lives, perhaps countless more. He motioned for Woodall to cover his back.
Remington peered into the room from the side of the door. He did not see anything out of place, but he realized immediately what the scraping sound had been: It was the sound of someone picking up photographs off the floor. There had been so many of them, and Remington had not looked at them long enough to know whether or not any were out-of-place, but the sound fit. Whoever had broken in was attempting to steal evidence of Vanegas’s crimes.
And, Remington concluded, since I heard them pick up the photos, but not open the back door, they are still in this room.
He looked at Woodall, hoping that the gestures he was making and the words he was mouthing would convey this message. Woodall nodded confidently.
Keep it up, kid, Remington thought, not sharing his confidence.
Every table in the back room had a blue tablecloth running all the way down to the floor. Since nothing in the room beyond the blood on the floor was related to The Phoenix, Remington had left looking under them to local PD. He regretted that decision as he entered the room. Since nothing appeared out of place, he was going to have to go over the tables one-by-one.
Pausing a few feet from the front table, under which he had found the camera bag, he gestured to Woodall that he should begin to check the tables against the walls, and he would check the ones in the middle. Woodall nodded. Remington turned back to the table in front of him when he saw it: There had been three pears of agony on the table, small, medium, and large. The one in the middle – Remington assumed it was the medium one – was missing.
Cringing, Remington reached to lift the tablecloth. Just as his fingers touched it, it burst forth. A figure dressed in black collided with him, knocking him to the floor, and barreling past him. Remington’s gun flew out of his hand. He heard a gunshot, a shout, and a sickening crunch in the time it took him to roll over and find his feet. He had just enough time to process that Woodall was on the floor, and the man was running through the studio.
Remington was running after him in a second. With furniture and statuary crowding the aisles, it was difficult to maneuver at a fast pace. He found himself gaining ground on the black-clad intruder. As soon as he was close enough, he reached out and grabbed the hood of his sweatshirt. They both fell to the ground.
That was all Remington could remember.
Watching the surveillance video made Remington’s skin crawl, but Steyer insisted on playing it over and over again. Since the camera only covered the front of the store, it did not offer an explanation as to why Woodall had been on the floor, eyes fixed open, with a crater in his skull. Remington assumed the missing pear has something to do with that.
The camera only caught the escape. The man, obscured by his hood, had feinted when Remington grabbed his sweatshirt. It was a sudden, graceful movement, slipping under Remington’s arm, only to rise back up and tackle him. Remington realized that he felt like he had been hit by a sledgehammer because he and the man exchanged quite a few blows. Unfortunately, Remington had never been in the position to see his face. Somehow, the suspect managed to get on top of him, and slam his forehead into the cement floor. Remington’s body went limp.
It was what happened next that made Remington’s skin crawl.
The suspect straddled his body, and pulled him onto his back. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small flashlight. He proceeded to pull up each of Remington’s eyelids, shining the light into his eyes with broad sweeps.
“He’s already killed one cop,” Remington had grumbled upon first watching the footage. “Why the fuck does he care?”
As if to answer him, the suspect held up the flashlight a bit so that the beam illuminated his entire face, then stroked his cheek. He stroked Remington’s cheek with the back of his hand.
“It looks like someone has a crush,” Steyer said with a mischievous glance.
Remington’s stomach twisted into knots. The tension mounted as the man’s hand travelled down Remington’s chest, stopping just above his navel. The suspect froze for a moment, then reached into Remington’s blazer, and pulled out his phone. It was glowing, most likely from Steyer’s first missed call.
I owe you, Remington thought silently.
The suspect stood, hovering over Remington for a moment, before returning to the back room. He re-appeared in the doorway, holding what appeared to be a few photographs.
“I wonder what he could possibly want those for?” Steyer asked.
“Whatever it is,” Remington observed as the video continued, “he is pissed.”
The suspect paused in the doorway, shuffling through the photos. Slowly, he bent double for a moment. Steyer and Remington exchanged a glance. They turned back just in time to witness the suspect break every piece of glass and porcelain within arm’s length. After the fit, he clutched the door frame, his shoulders heaving. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he made a beeline for the front door, and disappeared.
“Now, that was insightful,” Steyer said.