SPONSOR OF THE MONTH: gold star Pete and Karen Smyth

"Born of the Blade" - Part Eight

The Korean taco truck was gone by now so we found a Grill Palace several blocks away, picked up food, and drove back to a spot where we could keep an eye on the White Rabbit.
Popped my optic clock.
Two and a half hours until the White Rabbit opened.
Val had agreed to watch the area on cams and let us know when she had a fix on McCarthy and the Daimyo.
I called Revell and he gave us an update on Specs: he'd pull through. Massive internal injuries but Doc was able to patch him up. He'd be out of the loop for a few weeks. I told him what we needed and he said he'd make the call.
We finished eating ten minutes later and stretched out as much as possible in the Royale's seats to watch the club.
Two hours and we'd have to deal with McCarthy.
A knot formed in the middle of my gut.
"Kat," said Mouse and I heard the tone in her voice.
"I know," I said. "But it needs to be done."
"Agreed," said Mouse.
"And Mouse," I said.
"I need your head in the game."
"What're you talking--?"
"Going back to confront McCarthy in her office?" I said. "Making a move on Chen and the Jade Dragon?" I turned to her.
She was staring at the carpeted footwell.
"I need you to focus," I said.
After a moment she nodded and turned to me. "Got it," she said.
"You did it for me before," I said. "Now it's my turn."
She gave me a sheepish grin. "At least we didn't duke it out like last time."
"At least," I said.
A few moments passed.
Mouse said, "Hey Kat?"
"What we're doing. You think Murphy would...?"
I turned and looked at her.
She was staring out the windshield and frowning.
"I think he'd understand," I said.
She turned to me, the frown deepening. "You sure?"
"I'm sure," I said.
And really hoped that I was.

*   *   *
Ten minutes later, Miss Renée called.
"We can't find Brandi," she said, panic in her voice.
My gut tightened. "Is she working right now?"
"Not usually until 18:00," said Miss Renée. "Sam's at her apartment now and no one's answering. And we haven't been able to reach her."
"What about the other two?" I said.
"Starr and Rhianna are here. They're safe. But Brandi--"
A memory struck.
"We're at the White Rabbit now," I said. "We'll keep an eye out for her here."
"The White Rabbit?" said Miss Renée. "But why--"
"Trust me," I said. "Let me know if you hear from her." I hung up.
"Miss Renée?" said Mouse.
I nodded and told her.
"And you think she'll come here?" said Mouse.
"Absinthe said it's a meet up."
"And you have a hunch."
"I do," I said then frowned.
"No frown," said Mouse. "Frown is not good."
"I'm just hoping we get to her before McCarthy does," I said.

*   *   *

At 19:33, she approached the White Rabbit from 40th Street dressed in a form-fitting, knee-length, silver dress that sparkled under the nearby lights, her hips strutting as she walked.
Olive-skinned. Red-brown hair.
Copper Girl. Just like the trio.
"Kat," said Mouse, tapping me on the arm.
"I see her," I said, pulled out my phone, and dialed Absinthe.
"Kat," said Absinthe.
"One of the Copper Girls is here," I said. "Looks like our girls."
"Wait one," said Absinthe. A radio crackled nearby and she spoke away from the phone. Then: "Marco says it's Brandi. She's with a friend."
"Miss Ren
ée's been looking for her. Get her and her friend under cover."
"Big time."
"Oh it." She hung up.
My phone chirped.
On speaker and in the dash holder.
"Yeah?" I said.
"She's on Mason," Val said. "Passing 44th. Your professor."
Then the back end of the Royale dropped suddenly and the whole car shook.
Started to turn in my seat to look out the back window.
The roof buckled as something--someone--stomped across it, the metal creaking and groaning, and a pair of shoes landed on the hood, bouncing the front end of the car.
Black cloth slip-on shoes.
The owner of the shoes dropped to all fours.
Chinese male.
Mesh shirt over a leanly muscled torso. Red Bandanna.
Meat cleaver in his right hand, streetlight glinting off the blade.
The 108.
A split second later a white paneled van squealed to a stop in the middle of Mason diagonally from us and disgorged three more 108 members, all armed with meat cleavers, twirling them as they approached the Royale.
"This is bullshit!" said Mouse.
"Kat?" said Val. "What's going on?"
"Situation here, Val," I said.
"She's passing 43rd."
The 108 mook on the hood leered at us, swaying from side to side like a cobra waiting to strike.
The other three mooks spread out and encircled the Royale.
One of them stepped toward my door and swung the cleaver in a downward slash. Metal sparked and squealed as the blade carved out a groove in the middle of the door.
I fought the temptation to drop boost.
"You assholes are asking for it!" said Mouse, jabbing a finger at them.
"On your block," said Val.
Spotted the burgundy ToyoHonda Daimyo as it rolled up 41st, then slow to a stop twenty meters away.
Shit shit shit.
Then the Daimyo pulled a U-turn and retreated south.
"Goddamn fucking mooks!" said Mouse "She's rabbiting!"

(to be continued...)

"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 9

"Born of the Blade" - Part Seven

When we stepped inside the elevator and the doors closed behind us, Mouse said, "I hope the book's a quick read."
"We won't need it," I said as the elevator descended. "It's her."
Mouse whirled on me, saucer-eyed, then reached for the door button.
I grabbed her wrist. "Wait."
She gaped at me. "What?"
"Wait," I said. "Car."
Mouse's eyes went to slits. "But--"
"We're still on campus," I said.
Two seconds later, understanding crossed her face. "Shit," she said. "That could've been bad."
"Yeah," I said. "And we'd have given away our advantage."

*   *   *

When we were back in the Royale, Mouse turned to me. "Okay," she said. "You sure it's her? How do you figure?"
"Hunch," I said. "Same hunch I had with Val's stalker."
"Dress-up-as-dead-mom Guy?"
I nodded.
Mouse frowned. "Okay, I'll bite. You haven't been wrong with your hunches. Yet."
"Gee, thanks," I said.
"So how are we playing this?"
"Need to check on McCarthy more," I said, pulling out my phone.   

*   *   *
"Elaine Abberline McCarthy," said Val, her voice tinny on the phone's speaker. "Forty-three, born in Bay City, 1999. Divorced, 26 September 2042."
"Six weeks ago," I said.
"Well, the papers were filed and signed as of the 26th," said Val. "I think it's another six months before it's all final. And get this: she leased a condo on September 18th. West Park Condominiums, over on 40th."
A thought struck.
"Val," I said, "Can you check on a BCU student for me?"
"I can try. You know what I said about their 'jockeys."
"Get whatever you can on a student named Charlene Meyer."
"Wilco," said Val. "Let me call you back."
After I hung up, Mouse said, "McCarthy's girlfriend?"
I nodded. "Another hunch."
"We could just follow her out of campus and take her down then," said Mouse. "Save us all this."
"It's still just a hunch," I said. "Better to make sure."   
"Like we did with Whatshisname. Mr. Dress-up-as-dead-mom."
"Olson," I said.    
"Yeah," said Mouse. "Olson." She nodded. "Okay. We make sure."

*   *   *

When the black and white Campus Security cruiser began to circle our end of the parking lot for a second time, I started the Royale, put her into gear, and pulled out of the lot.
The cruiser followed us onto 34th Street, keeping two car lengths when we stopped at the light on Steiner.
"Still there," said Mouse, flicking a glance at her side mirror.
"I see him," I said, keeping an eye on the rearview.
The signal light turned green and I continued east on 34th.
The cruiser followed.
"Trouble?" said Mouse.
"Hope to hell not," I said, switching glances between the windshield and the rearview.
We crossed Grove Street and were halfway to Mason when the cruiser slowed, made a U-turn in the middle of the street, and headed back toward campus.
I let out a relieved breath.
"That was close," said Mouse, flicking a glance at the side mirror.
"Too close for me," I said, turning onto Mason Street and heading south. "I'll find someplace to pull off and wait for Val's callback."
Ten minutes later, we found street parking a block from the White Rabbit on Grove past 41st and my phone chirped.
I cut the engine, put the phone on speaker, and placed it on the dash holder.
"Woohoo!" said Val. "That was fun. Not."
"Find something?"
"Some basics," she said. "Before a nosy 'jockey got in my face. I think I lost them in London. Idiot."
"What've you got?"
"Charlene Meyer, twenty-three.  Born 2019, San Angeles. Criminology major. Started BCU in '37. Current 3.6 GPA. Dean's List twice in a row. And just withdrew from classes on October 10th. Request form states family emergency."
"Tanya said she hadn't been to class since mid-October," said Mouse.
Tanya's voice echoed in my head: She left her husband when she hooked up with Charlene.
Raya: Charlene left her for another woman.
Then McCarthy: He was really out for revenge.   
My forearms prickled.
I said, "Val, do you have an image of Charlene?"
"Yeah, I do--holy shit."
Mouse and I exchanged looks.
"Sending to you now," said Val amid key taps.
A moment later, my phone trilled.
I checked.
Charlene Meyer looked out at us. Olive-skinned. Round faced. Dark eyes. Shoulder-length red-brown hair.
Our Copper Girls.
"Meter sixty-five tall, right?" I said.
"Yup," said Val.
Mouse sucked in air. "Holy shit."
"Got more on your Professor," said Val. "Her bank account's been drained as of October 16th. Eighty-five hundred and change there one day, gone the next. No savings. She's completely broke. And that condo? Notice of eviction on October 25th. Nonpayment. Insufficient funds."
"That's it," I said. "Charlene's the key. The trigger. She runs off with another woman. McCarthy must've found out. Bad ending. Remember what Raya said?"
Mouse nodded.
I went on: "Then McCarthy's account gets wiped. Val, Meyer's listed as an user on McCarthy's account, right?"
"Yup," said Val. "Authorized user."
"She drained it before she skipped town," I said. "No funds so McCarthy gets booted from her condo. She loses it. Literally. Loses everything. Snaps. Can't take it out on Charlene.  She's gone. So she finds someone else to take it out on."
"Brittany," said Mouse. "Sheena. Eve. Cuz they look like Charlene."
"But why them specifically?"
"She must've fixated on them somehow," I said.
Then a thought struck.
"Jack the Ripper," I said. "His victims were prostitutes. He sliced their throats, slashed their faces. Like the girls. When McCarthy was talking about him, she had an expression on her face like she worshipped him."
"Funny you should say Jack the Ripper," said Val. "McCarthy's grad school thesis was on Jack the Ripper."
"So McCarthy has a mental break," said Mouse, "Loses her shit. Thinks she's Jack the Ripper, and goes after the Copper Girls as revenge for Charlene leaving her."
"Yeah," I said.
"One more thing," said Val. "Should've mentioned this earlier but we got sidetracked."
"What's that?" I said.
"That car from the motel," said Val. "I followed it on street cam feeds."
"On all three dates, the car comes out of the motel lot after each of the girls is knocked down and dragged away. The tags were covered so I couldn't run it but the feeds showed the car logo on the hood. ToyoHonda. And it's the right size for a Daimyo. Guess who happens to own a ToyoHonda Daimyo."
"McCarthy," said Mouse.
"Yup," said Val. "Burgundy. Three years old. I tracked the car from the motel into Southside to Jacques, but I lost the feeds there."
Damn Southside. No cams past Jacques. The punkergangs saw to that. And any that remained were burned-out shells or shattered remnants.
"But on the good side," Val went on, "I did some back checking. I show the same car following the girls and their clients when they drive away from the White Rabbit to the motel."
Things suddenly clicked together.
"It's definitely McCarthy," I said. "She stalked the Copper Girls working the White Rabbit. Targeted the ones who looked like Charlene Meyer. Knew their movements and got to them at the best possible moment."
"Outside the motel," said Mouse. "Like in the feed."
"And at the exact same spot every time," I said. "Pre-planned. We saw it."
"Kat," said Mouse, a frown creasing her face. "Did we just tip her off by talking to her?"
I felt my gut drop.
"Good question," I said. "I don't know." I thought a moment and a memory struck. "Wait. I don't think so."
"You sure?"
"Yeah," I said. "Toward the end she was acting like no one would find out. She said most killers disappear into the crowd and escape capture. And she believed it. That tone in her voice." I shuddered inwardly at the recollection.
"Okay," said Mouse. "Certifiable psycho. Check. This'll be fun. How do we take her down?"
"If she believes she's not going to get caught, she'll probably try again. We'll catch her when she does."
"Hunch again?"
"Yup," I said.
Mouse gave a feral chuckle. "Wiz."

(to be continued...)

"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Part 6 | Part 8

"Born of the Blade" - Part Six

We had just pulled the Royale into an empty slot in one of BCU's parking lots off 34th when the dark green Nissan-Volvo sedan parked in front of us disgorged its occupants and five familiar faces stepped into view.
"If they sing again," said Mouse, "I'm gonna stab them."
"No stabbing," I said.
We got out of the car and Raya, Revell's niece, gave us a puzzled look. "What are you two doing here?" she said.
Martin, still dressed in an untucked red and black flannel shirt, came forward, eyes bright. "Are you guys on a run? On campus?"
Natalie came up beside Martin. "Oh wiz!" she said. "Can we help?"
"Yeah!" said Russ, rolling up the sleeves of his hooded dark blue sweatshirt. "Like last time."
Behind them, I saw blue-haired Tanya shaking her head.
My thoughts exactly.
I looked at Raya. "We're here to see a Professor McCarthy."
Martin, Russ, and Natalie all quirked eyebrows at us and exchanged glances.
I caught the looks.
"What?" I said.
"Minor scandal," said Raya. "She had an affair with one of her students and it went bad."
"How bad?"I said.
"I heard they had a fight in one of her classes," said Martin.
"It was in her office," said Natalie.
"She came at McCarthy with a knife," said Russ.
"Enough, you guys," said Tanya.
"But Kevin told me--" Martin began.
"Kevin's an idiot," said Tanya. "I wouldn't trust anything he says."
"The trusted story," said Raya, raising her voice slightly and glaring at the trio, "is that McCarthy left her husband when she hooked up with Charlene. That's the student. Charlene Meyer. Got a divorce and everything. Then she and Charlene moved in together."
"Condo over in West Park, I heard," said Tanya.
"And then she and this Charlene had a fight?" I said.
"Charlene left her for another woman," said Raya. "They say the two of them left school. And Bay City."
"Charlene was in one of my classes at the beginning of the quarter," said Tanya. "I haven't seen her since the middle of October."
"I heard McCarthy's been living out of a coffin hotel near here," said Martin.
"She's not," said Natalie. "She's been living out of her office. Amber said one of her sorority sisters saw her bringing a bunch of clothes in one night."
"Amber doesn't know squat," said Martin.
"Oh and Kevin does?" said Natalie, hands on her hips.
"Enough!" said Raya, glaring again at the trio.
"I didn't say anything!" said Russ.
Tanya shushed him.
"If they moved into a condo together," I said, "and this Charlene left, why is McCarthy living out of her office?"
The group exchanged looks then shook their heads.
"Don't know," said Raya. "Some students have seen her using the showers at the rec center and getting dressed there. Kinda odd for a teacher."
"Maybe she's working out?"
"Maybe," Raya said with a shrug. "That's the story anyway. So why are you here to see her?"
"It's gotta be a run," said Martin. "Am I right?"
"We just need information," I said. "And shouldn't you guys be in class or something?"

*   *   *

The faculty offices were in a five-story concrete block with rounded corners. We'd been here three months earlier to see a different professor. That meeting hadn't gone so well at the time.
Hopefully this one would be better.
The elevator deposited us on the fourth floor and we followed the signs until we reached her office at the far corner of the building. A pebbled-glass door boasted a placard that read: "E. McCarthy."
I knocked twice.
A voice called out, "Come in."
I opened the door.
The office was small, half the size of the Red Dog's back office, and barely managed to fit a small black leather couch along one wall. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf jammed with books and assorted reference materials occupied another wall and a desk sat against the wall next to the door.
Professor Elaine McCarthy, fortyish, in a gray pantsuit, her brown-blond hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, looked up as we stepped inside and blinked.
"You're not students," she said in a resonant contralto.
"No, Professor McCarthy," I said with a smile. I held out an ID case. "Katherine Browning, executive protection agent, Vanguard Security Services." I gestured to Mouse. "My colleague, Emily Remington."
McCarthy took my ID case, studied it a moment, then handed it back to me. "Bodyguards."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "We're set to take on a principal but we need some intel."
"What would I know about this principal of yours?"
"Not so much about them. More about serial killers."
"Serial killers," said McCarthy.
"We understand you're quite the expert."
McCarthy smiled. "I may know a thing or two."
"Four books on the subject," I said, going off the infodump from Val. "Featured at numerous talks and panels. Consulted with law enforcement agencies. Even here in Bay City."
"You know about me," she said. "I've never heard of Vanguard."
I smiled. "Local firm. Protective detail, armed transport, consultations. Not quite the resources of Excalibur or Valhalla but our clients have been pleased."
"Like whom?"
"I'm afraid we can't say."
"I see," said McCarthy. "You know, I usually charge for something like this."
"We'd be more than happy to compensate you," I said.
"I am on a schedule," she said. "I have a class in forty-five minutes."
"Shouldn't take that long," I said.
"You're paying," McCarthy said. She swiveled in her chair to face us, hands folded in her lap. "So what kind of information do you need?"
I gestured to the couch. "May we?"
She nodded.
We sat down and the cushions squeaked under our weight.
I said, "What can you tell us about serial killers?"
McCarthy smiled. "That's a big subject."
"Anything general?"
"General." She leaned back in her chair. "In general, a serial killer is a person who kills three or more people over a period of more than thirty days with a significant break between killings. Some experts vary the number of deaths between two and four before calling it a serial murder. But most go with three or more."
"Is it always one person?"
"Sometimes. But not always. NorFed Bureau's definition includes the possibility of more than one person committing the crime."
"Why do they do it?"
"Usual motive is abnormal psychological gratification," McCarthy said. "There's also anger, seeking attention, financial gain. And, if you can believe it, demons."
Mouse snorted a laugh. "Are you serious?"
"In the 70s, a killer who called himself the Son of Sam claimed a demon gave instructions through his neighbor's dog to go and commit murder."
"Was he crazy?" I said.
"No," said McCarthy. "Not according to the mental health exams they gave. Three separate ones. Said he was competent to stand trial. He later said the demon thing was a hoax. He was really out for revenge."
"They finally caught him."
"Yes. Two years after the first murder."
"So serial killers can be caught."
"More or less," said McCarthy. "The high profile ones from pre-Collapse were. John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez the Night Stalker, Dennis Rader the BTK Killer. Our own Lakeside Killer, Carl Castle, back in 1987. But some don't get caught. The Zodiac Killer of San Francisco wasn't. Neither was the Axeman of New Orleans from the early 1900s. Countless others who escaped capture. The most famous, of course, was Jack the Ripper."
An odd expression flashed across McCarthy's face and vanished before I could catch on fully.
But the hairs on my nape saluted and I fought down the immediate reaction to go to boost.
"Oh yeah," said Mouse. "Jack the Ripper. He was in that one with the time machine. Travels from Old England to modern day."
"Entertaining but fictional," said McCarthy. "The truth was he committed eleven murders between 1888 and 1891. Victims were female prostitutes. Throats slashed. Abdominal and facial mutilation. Internal organs removed. Five were definitely his. The others were linked to him but the circumstances of death varied from those five."
My forearms prickled under my black leather jacket as McCarthy spoke and I watched her for a moment.
"And he was never caught?" said Mouse.
McCarthy shook her head. "At least twenty-eight named suspects. None ever proved to be the Ripper."
"Damn," said Mouse.
"Can serial killers be women?" I said.
"Oh yes," said McCarthy. "The famous Countess Elizabeth Bathory was said to have killed over six hundred young women in a twenty year period. Rumor had it she bathed in the blood of her victims. Another was Aileen Wournos in pre-Collapse Florida..."
As McCarthy went on, I did a quick scan of her office without turning my head. A garment bag hung off the corner of the bookcase and below that sat a packed duffle. Next to the duffle sat a tall stack of bound papers--print magazines entitled "Ripperologist." A toiletry kit sat on one of the lower bookshelves, the end of a toothbrush sticking out. Tucked under her desk were at least four pairs of shoes.
I turned my attention back to McCarthy.
She continued talking, clearly enjoying her subject matter.
My arms continued to prickle, nape hairs still saluting.
"It didn't work," McCarthy said. "The infants didn't survive the injections."
"How do you identify a serial killer?" I said.
"That can be hard," McCarthy said. "There isn't one inherent characteristic to look for. Some killers are mentally unstable."
"Demon dog guy," said Mouse.
"Yes, that's one. Although he later said it was a lie. Some killers are downright charming. Some look too fragile to be a killer. And still others look like your favorite grandparent. Or the quiet guy next door." She shook her head. "You can't exactly pick them out of a crowd. Most of the time, they disappear into the crowd."
"And they escape capture," I said.
"Correct," said McCarthy.
Something about her tone at that moment sent ice slithering up my spine.
McCarthy pulled back the sleeve of her suit jacket and looked at the tatclock on her inner forearm. "Time's up," she said.
"That's certainly a lot of information, Professor McCarthy," I said.
"That's not even the tip of the iceberg," she said, smiling. "If you like I can give you a copy of my book on the subject. In Plain Sight. " She stood from her chair, crossed to the bookshelf, picked out a thick hardcover, and held it out to me. "Very general information, much like what we briefly covered, with a number of selected cases for illustrative purposes. Or would you prefer the datatab edition?"
"Print copy's fine," I said, rising from the couch and taking the book.
Something clicked in the back of my mind.
McCarthy smiled. "Not many your age still take to print."
"We're not like many our age," I said.
"I can see that."
"Thank you for your time," I said and held up the book. "We'll be reading up on the subject. If we have any questions that need a quick answer, can we contact you?"
"Yes," she said and gave me her email contact.
"Thank you again," I said. "And thank you for the book."
"You're welcome, Miss Browning," said McCarthy. "I hope what little I gave you will help out your principal."
"You've been extremely helpful, Professor," I said. "Now your fee. Will it be cred'chip or wire transfer?"

(to be continued...)

"Born of the Blade"
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Part 7