Murder in Color’s main antagonist is a serial killer who has committed a number of murders before the book even opens. This is a bit of a short story/scene about the discovery of the very first victim told from the perspective of a non-character. It doesn’t give a single thing away, so no worries :)
Murder in Color is a gay romance/fantasy/mystery novel (~100k words) coming out Feb 21st, 2017.
“Whispers I couldn’t make out murmured off his lips, like not-quite-silent prayers to the desert rose. Or to me.”
First Victim Falls
Copyright © Emmi Lawrence
That blazing graffiti seemed to mock Mikail as he hurried up to the back door of his restaurant. The black stood in heavy contrast to the beige of the stone walls, the interconnected marks only taking up the width of a woman’s arm and about the same length, yet they somehow drew the eye. Like a stain would.
Mikail licked a finger and rubbed at the edge of the paint, but it stubbornly resisted his feeble attempt to remove it. With a muttered, “I thought I told the closers to take care of this mess,” he pulled free his key and unlocked the back door.
Inside, the kitchen was dark, every window covered tightly. Shadows bounced as Mikail let the door swing as he moved to turn the closest lightstones over in their pocket. Last night’s food trough had been cleaned out to feed local goats and dry rags remained hung above an empty sink. Mikail gave the area a cursory once over to be sure it’d been cleaned properly, then stepped around the partition and into the open kitchen that still smelled heavily of cooked peppers and spice rub.
There he paused when he saw a man sprawled across the floor, the man’s face obscured by his own waterskin. Mikail sighed. “Chava, I told you, you can’t crash here.” Mikail nudged Chava with his foot, then stepped over the man’s extended legs. “I don’t care what’s going on this time, my kitchen isn’t the place…to…”
Mikail slowly crouched by Chava’s lax face and lifted the edge of the waterskin carefully. Shadows couldn’t hide the darkening of Chava’s skin or the bloodshot eyes staring blankly at the lower cabinets. Mikail swallowed hot bile and fumbled away, dropping the edge of the waterskin. The skin slipped off Chava’s face and dragged through his hair. There it sat rocking slightly on its fat bottom, its cord shuddering at the motion and drawing Mikail’s gaze to the grip it held across Chava’s throat.
“Blazing hells,” muttered Mikail as he scrambled away. “Blazing hells.” He kept repeating himself over and over as he half-crawled, half-ran back to the door. He burst out into the morning light and gulped down huge breaths to steady himself, the image of Chava’s bruised neck and dead eyes searing itself into his memory.
“Morning, boss,” said a feminine voice from up the alley. “Heard from the weather crier it’ll be a sand-blasting afternoon and into the night. Lots of wind coming from over the Stormrocks, but since it’s not coming from the desert proper it should wear itself out without becoming a true storm. Mikail? Are you okay?”
Mikail straightened up and squinted at Ollarina, one of his servers, hired more for her looks than her brains. He blocked her from going inside as he shut the door. “I’d like to just dump his body so I don’t have to close today, but with the slaughter rules in place, I don’t dare.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What?” She seemed more confused than shocked.
Mikhail smoothed his loose shirt and lifted his gaze to meet Ollarina’s. He felt better now. Much better. He’ll put feelers out to find another chef and in the meantime he’d just work longer days. He’d be damned if some gambler idiot employee was going to be responsible for his restaurant going under.
He cleared his throat. “No work for the day, but I’ll still pay half your wages if you’d run down to Hangbody Station and let Acasto’s people know I seem to have a murder victim in my restaurant.”
Ollarina squinched up her face. “Can’t I just grab one of the beat walkers? They’re always out and about around this time.” She glanced over her shoulder at the huge Stormrocks rising above the city, their shadowed cliffs and mountainous peaks streaked with shadows while in thin places the early morning light burned between them in a reddish tint. “They’d be closer.”
“Yes, yes, that’s fine,” agreed Mikail. “Just hurry. I don’t want this to drag out for too long.”
He watched her leave, his eyes dropping down her frame before she turned the corner. Then he pulled a tin out of his pocket and rolled himself a smoke to sooth the last of his adrenaline rush.
“It’ll be fine,” he murmured to himself. “It’ll all be fine.” Then he began to put together a mental list of everyone he could speak to about a temporary chef to replace Chava.
By the time the first set of officers returned with Ollarina, Mikail had a plan in place. He scrawled a quick note to a different restaurant owner he’d used to work with—back when they’d both been young—and sent Ollarina out to deliver it on her way home for the day. Then he rattled through how he’d found Chava’s body to the beat walkers as he sucked the last few drags of his smoke and buried it in the sand at his feet.
Then it became a waiting game as the sun ticked higher behind the Stormrocks, the thin shreds of its light between the monoliths becoming less distinctly red. The officers resisted Mikail’s attempts to retrieve his books, citing needing to leave the entire restaurant untouched for the detectives, so Mikail did his best to calculate what kind of damages he might be looking at solely in his mind.
He rounded down and overestimated how badly Chava’s murder might affect his clientele and ended up with a number he didn’t like. But that was how it should be, because low balling his success had always made him want to work harder to make sure that prediction never came true. He’d swing the whole thing as a way to revamp the menu, spend a little to alter décor and clean the place up and make the whole thing look as if he’d been meaning to do a subtle remodel. Yes, that would make a better sign on the door than crime ropes.
“Just the man I wanted to speak to,” said a cheerful voice to his right.
Mikail turned, jarred from his thoughts. The man in front of him had Acasto’s emblem on his shoulder and again on the hilt of his sword. His goatee had been trimmed immaculately and his eyes were bright, the skin around them crinkling in a friendly manner.
“You are the one who found the body, correct?”
“Yes,” said Mikail as he faced the man fully. “I’m the owner of The Floating Palace, Mikail Donadai.” He held out his hand.
“Detective Arman Omisto. Pleasure,” said Omisto as he shook Mikail’s hand, his grip firm and warm, but unaggressive.
“Not exactly, under the circumstances,” corrected Mikail.
“Ah, yes.” Detective Omisto accompanied his nod with a small smile. “Down to business, then. I was told you knew the man inside?”
Mikail cleared his throat to hide his self-consciousness. “His name is Chava Kalotti. He’s a chef of mine, or at least was. A decent one too. He could cook any slice of meat to perfection. And he made a blazing good hot bean salad. That’s what made me hire him. Swept into my kitchen like a sandstorm, but I got to say, despite the mess, he was worth every pence I paid him.”
Omisto listened attentively, his eyes going sharp. “About how long has he been working for you?”
“Oh, a couple years, give or take some time off now and then. He gambles occasionally. The desire comes and goes for him, I think, so when he gets a good win, he’ll take extra time off. Though he always comes back to work sooner than expected because he spends it all.”
“Has he ever spoken about owing people? Any serious debts sitting over his head that might get him in trouble with the wrong sort?”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” hedged Mikail. “He didn’t talk about it if he did.”
“What about other problems he might have had? Relationships maybe?”
“I know his ex-girlfriend came around a couple of times after they broke up. Caught them arguing and told her she couldn’t come around to bother my chef, that they needed to do that shit on their own time.”
Omisto folded open a supple, leather-bound notebook. “You’ve a name?”
“Mina?” Mikail thought for a moment. “Yes, that’s right. Mina Jefaleone.”
“Thank you,” said Omisto.
As he scribbled the name into his notebook a couple other officers strode up, their horses left hitched at the end of the alley. A woman with a large satchel slung over her shoulder accompanied them. She had intricate braids pulled around her front that peeked out from beneath her head scarf and wore a strange belt over her skirts.
“Dana,” greeted Omisto. He waved the hand holding the graphite.
“My body’s inside?” The woman, Dana, Mikail presumed, gestured toward the door as she tugged the top of her scarf off her head.
Omisto nodded. “Yep, looks like a case of strangulation. Tunalti’s in there doing a preliminary search of the place.”
“I’ll get on it,” said Dana. Her layered belt clacked loudly as she pushed the door open. From this close, Mikail thought the belt was made out of bones, but he couldn’t tell for sure before Dana disappeared inside the restaurant.
“Anyone else who might have had problems with Kalotti?” asked Omisto.
Mikail snapped his gaze back to the detective and shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
“No issues among your employees then? Sometimes things we think are simply harmless, but heated, discussions could breed worse emotions.”
“I had some stressful circumstances when I first opened The Floating Palace,” admitted Mikail. He glanced toward the other officers as one hefted a folded stretcher and the other propped the door open with a wedge of beat-up wood. “Mostly people rubbing each other the wrong way. But with experience you get to know how to read people better, to match up personalities so that sort of stuff doesn’t happen. Or happen less often, I guess I should say.”
“So it happens, just less often?” prompted Omisto with a please–go-on circle of his hand.
Mikail shrugged. “Sure, sure. Once in a while I have to resolve something, but I can’t remember anything happening with Chava.”
“Is he well liked then among your staff?”
Omisto nodded sagely. “I get you.” Then he smiled brightly. “Can you walk me through your morning?”
Now Mikail sighed, though he immediately matched Omisto’s friendly expression. No use irritating Acasto’s people, not when they had control over whether he could reopen his restaurant.
“As I’ve already told the other officers,” Mikail said, “I arrived this morning to start getting ready for opening, turned the first lightstones and walked into the kitchen. There I found Chava on the ground. I thought he was asleep at first so I lightly kicked his feet. When he didn’t budge, I went to check on him and saw that he was dead. So I quickly left. Once outside, one of my other employees, Ollarina, came up and I asked her to go fetch you people.”
“Glad you did,” said Omisto as he scrawled something in handwriting Mikail couldn’t read, especially not upside-down. “I’m going to need Ollarina’s information so we can get her statement. Did she go inside?”
Mikail shook his head. From within the building came the sound of conversation and the scraping of something being dragged across the floor. He hoped they weren’t breaking anything…or getting into his books. That was the last thing he needed—Acasto’s men snooping into his finances.
“So she didn’t see Kalotti’s body?”
“No. This isn’t going to keep my restaurant closed, will it? I can’t afford not to run.”
“No,” said Omisto immediately with a reassuring grin. “No, I’m sure we can get to the bottom of this.”
Behind Omisto, another officer stepped through the doorway. The new man was slightly taller and bore none of Omisto’s charm. In fact, he seemed suspicious of Mikail and that made Mikail uneasy.
“Did Kalotti have any vices?” asked the new man, his voice low and somewhat raspy, yet compelling all the same. “Drink, drugs, women?”
“Gambling,” offered Omisto. He waved a hand between Mikail and the raspy-voiced officer. “This is my partner, Detective Jevette Tunalti.” He turned to address Tunalti then. “Mikail’s the owner of The Floating Palace. Said Kalotti has had some ups and downs and likes the…dice? Or is it cards? Do you know?” That last Omisto directed toward Mikail.
“Based on what I’ve overheard, I’d guess cards. But I know he likes to head over to the horse track occasionally.”
“Pour more money into Acasto’s coffers,” said Omisto with a small snort.
Tunalti made an agreeing noise. “Anything else?”
“Like?” asked Mikail.
Tunalti folded his hands over one another as he shifted his stance. “You ever have problems with Kalotti’s performance on the job?”
Mikail hesitated, thinking back to the few times he’d had to reprimand Chava. But it’d been nothing much. There’d been that one day he’d come in with smoke on his breath and he’d confessed that he’d been up all night partying. That’d been a while back though, during the time when his ex hadn’t been his ex.
He settled on a shrug and a “Nothing worthy of letting him go.”
“Why are you asking?” Omisto kept his voice even as he gazed intently at Tunalti.
“Dana found a needle mark. Most likely he’d injected something in pure form.”
“He wasn’t into them that deep,” protested Mikail. “I’d have known. He rarely did more than a smoke or two and like I said before, if he had any vice it was gambling.”
Tunalti hmmed to himself. “Interesting.”
“Couldn’t it have been from his killer?” asked Mikail.
Both detectives stared at him, Tunalti with a narrowed gaze and Omisto with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“What will be interesting is what Dana has to say about him once she gets him back to her lab,” said Omisto.
Tunalti nodded, gave Mikail another glance, then started to turn. He paused, his gaze fixating on the wall. Right at that blazing black graffiti. An eyesore right there.
“Showed up a couple days ago,” said Mikail in explanation. “Damn kids. Told my staff to wash it off last night, but they must have forgotten. It’s an ugly mess, but at least it didn’t appear out front where more people could see. But I do try to keep the alley cleared up since I know a number of people cut through here.”
“A couple days ago?” repeated Tunalti.
“That’s right. Three, maybe four. Once I get inside I forget about it.”
Omisto leaned closer to the wall and put a hand in front of the painting. Then he quickly yanked his hand away. “Topoyi,” he said in surprise. “Would have thought they’d have gone cheaper like most of the pseudo-artistic kids in the city.”
Tunalti chuckled. “Looks like a maze.”
“You think?” asked Omisto, cocking his head. “I thought it looked like one of those shape things, you know how people do those layered pictures with different colors so that they overlap and make new colors.” He held his hands up to indicate different shapes, the pages of his notebook flapping in the breeze.
“Nah,” said Tunalti. “Need more than black for that.” Then he disappeared back into the doorway of the restaurant.
“Whatever it is,” said Mikail with yet another disgusted look at the graffiti. “It’s getting washed off my restaurant before I reopen.”
Omisto turned a bright smile on him. “And let’s makes sure you reopen soon. So about Ollarina’s address? And can I get a list of your other employees? And we’re going to need to know if anything’s been taken, so we can determine whether burglary was a motive here. You don’t keep too much money on hand, right? Any problems with employees skimming off the top?”
Mikail held down a sigh and groaned inwardly, but settled in for a long day with zero sales and a terribly cold kitchen.