MURDER IN COLOR
Medical Examiner Salain Dusari doesn’t like chaos. He prefers things clean and uncomplicated, like the dead. Yet, when he discovers a yellow maze painted on one of his corpses, he gets everything but uncomplicated in the form of the Maze Killer–a serial killer reemerged to haunt the city once more. But that’s not the only person returning to haunt Salain. Detective Arman Omisto, Salain’s old lover, and his partner, Detective Jevette Tunalti, arrive to give the case another crack, bringing a desert’s expanse of memories and lust with them. Between the two detectives, only one is truly excited to see Salain. Problem is, it’s the wrong man.
With Jevette seemingly uninterested in smoothing old hurts, Salain doesn’t think he has a chance of convincing him that the one night they spent together had been the real thing. Yet, when the hunt for the serial killer turns deadly and they only have each other to turn to, he thinks they might just find the trust they need in order to risk their hearts all over again. But with danger blowing in like a sandstorm, violent and sudden, neither of them might live long enough for it to matter.
MURDER IN COLOR
The day didn’t get better. Not at all. The chief capitulated where Baino hadn’t and granted Arman and his partner access over the “case of the yellow paint” as he deemed it. I got the distinct impression that he was having a hard time believing it wasn’t anything more than a joke, but that he wanted to cover his ass. Which was probably why he assigned Baino and Rhodes to head the investigation jointly with the other two detectives from my old station.
And all that meant to me was my lab became a breeding ground for officers, as if I’d hauled open the door and shouted up the stairwell that I had free drinks and strippers for all.
“Can’t you base your operations upstairs at your desks?” I demanded when Arman spread out some files on my counter. “Or maybe in one of the conference rooms? Blazes, take over the break room, why don’t you? This is my lab.”
“We will, we will,” said Arman, his voice soothing as he laid a hand against my bicep.
I didn’t exactly brush him off, but I did swallow down the nasty retort on my tongue and spin around, where I almost ran smack into Jevette Tunalti. Unlike Arman, his hands didn’t seem to have the incessant need to grab me as if I couldn’t stay on my own two feet without his guidance. And unlike Arman, he didn’t seem all that excited to see me.
“Salain,” said Jevette in a terse greeting.
He had a deep, raspy voice. The kind that couldn’t shout across a crowded, noisy room and hope to be heard. But then again, he’d never needed to. People listened when Jevette opened his mouth. Even Arman. Maybe especially Arman since the two of them had been partners for at least nine years and counting, despite all my fumbling, accidental attempts to pull them apart.
“Jevette,” I muttered. “Nice to see you.”
I stared at the collar of his shirt in order to avoid his eyes. He always wore it popped up to partially hide that nasty scar he’d gotten from a run-in with a member of the Nattali gang. When he didn’t respond other than to shift out of my way, I cleared my throat and stepped away, heading over to the corpse to set up my materials. I shooed Calvo from where he’d been rifling through the tins, looking for the stash I’d hidden. Then I got to work pretending I wasn’t studying Jevette as he and Arman began to get Rhodes and Baino up to speed on the old cases.
Jevette wore dark shirts, almost as if he wanted to stand out among the sea of lighter shades meant to keep us from baking in the sun. The collar of his shirt was cut at an angle, and he had a small yet wide triangle of skin and a hint of hair showing. His pants were a lighter brown, and the hilt of his blade had been redone to include a flattened, more decorative version of Acasto’s emblem that marked him as one of our governor’s policing force.
Jevette had always been less bulky than Arman, his frame firm and muscled, yet countered with a confident, easy manner that allowed him to smoothly take down men who focused far more on throwing weight around rather than using it most efficiently. That would be how I described him in bed—efficient and confident, easily guiding me in what he wanted without the same eagerness to please that Arman possessed.
The resting lines of Jevette’s face gently pulled at his mouth as if he were perpetually irritated, though I knew from personal experience that it was simply his lack of expression making him cursed with inapproachability unless he went out of his way to smile…which he rarely ever did. He’d told me once that it was a boon in his career—he never had to try to look mean. It just came naturally.
At the time I thought he’d been trying to scare me, so I’d asked him if the attitude came naturally too or if he’d had to adopt it special when he wore Acasto’s emblem. He’d given me a slight smile in return, the first I’d ever seen from him.
“The first case came almost three and a half years ago,” started Jevette, his raspy voice affecting me in a way it shouldn’t have. “We responded to a murder that occurred within the kitchen of a cheap restaurant in the north of our jurisdiction. The victim was Chava Kalotti, a chef who worked there. He was strangled with the cord of his own waterskin, and we found a small needle mark at the base of his neck. He had traces of imported ecorock in his system.”
“To keep him from fighting back,” murmured Baino.
“Exactly. No defensive wounds to speak of, and from what we could gather, he wasn’t normally a user.”
I glanced over to where Calvo was examining the clothes of an assault victim, a woman who we were supposed to be giving priority to since she had affiliations with Acasto and he wanted her attacker brought to justice. She was Detective Gerogiano Viadi’s case, so I’d come in thinking I’d be working on her this morning rather than going over a done-and-done suicide case. Calvo didn’t seem to have even heard Jevette mention the drugs, but in my experience that didn’t mean a whole lot when it came to him.
Jevette continued, “He had vague ties to the Nattali gang, an ex-girlfriend who detested him, and a couple of friends to whom he owed money, but nothing came from any of it. We dismissed the painting that first time—it was this black one here—because the owner of the restaurant claimed he thought it was some kid throwing graffiti on his wall after they’d closed. They just hadn’t gotten around to washing it off yet.”
“So you didn’t check it?” asked Rhodes.
“We did,” interjected Arman. “But we thought it was unrelated because it was put there two days beforehand. We even tried to go back later and check that maze out, but the owner had already scrubbed it clean since it was outside rather than inside where we’d cordoned off.”
“The second murder,” said Jevette, “occurred in the Sunvali Villa. One of Forgali’s lavish women was found sitting on the ground of her private balcony, her head propped up, right underneath a similar painting, this time done in blue rather than black.”
He flipped one of the folders open and spread out a couple of pictures I couldn’t quite see. When he finished, his gaze flicked to mine as if reminding me that he remembered I existed. I quickly bent my head and heard him exhale quietly before continuing to repeat details that had gone vague in my mind during the years since I’d seen the two of them stressing over this case.
“Her name was Anaerilia Bersni. She was one of Forgali’s older, more favored women and the mother of three of his children. She was also strangled with the cord of her own waterskin and had a needle mark on her upper arm. Traces of ecorock in her as well.”
Arman jumped in then. “That was when we realized the paintings probably connected the two murders. We tested the paint, but probably like what you have here, it all ended up being straight out of a factory container.”
“Did you at least narrow down which factory?” asked Baino.
Arman shook his head with a sad smile. “Of the six we traced, four different factories were used, two from the factory in the southwest corner of DaSunder, far from any of the murders. The guy is smart enough not to get caught giving away his position like that.”
“We postulated at one point that the Maze Killer might be someone with experience,” suggested Jevette quietly.
“Inside job,” said Rhodes, sounding a little surprised. “You think someone from our station is responsible?”
“No, no, no,” said Arman. I caught him shooting Jevette an annoyed glance, but his expression immediately smoothed out. “It was just a theory we tossed around.” He shrugged. “Could be someone who’s retired, could be someone from our station.” He nodded to where I stood by Risso’s corpse, and this time I didn’t look away because Arman’s smile was a lot easier to handle than Jevette’s apathy. “The easiest way to get into the station to do this would be to have clearance. We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least look at the possibility.”
Baino grimaced. “I don’t like it, but it is unfortunately the most likely scenario. Otherwise, people would have remembered seeing someone out of the ordinary coming in.”
“We never removed the possibility of there being an accomplice either,” said Jevette, retaining control of the conversation. “The third victim was found only a few weeks later inside a well house. Another set of detectives pulled the case, but handed it over when this was found hidden within the graffiti on the outside of the building.”
Jevette slid over another sketch from the third file. I knew what it looked like, but I almost abandoned Risso’s body in order to go see what Baino and Rhodes were staring at.
“Red,” said Rhodes. “Was every maze done with a different color?”
Jevette shook his head. “Not exactly. Black, blue, red, and yellow. In that order before starting over.” He glanced over at me again, pale brown eyes almost amber conveying something I wasn’t sure how to read, so I ducked my head again.
“His name was Havano Erillo. Drugged and strangled like the rest. We actually thought we’d caught a break in the case because he’d been strung up like a dead goat in a way only a man or a very strong woman would be able to pull off, but we found a pulley system hidden behind some of the sandbags that shot that idea down.
“The fourth victim, Larini Affaro, was found eight days after his death. The maze painting had been done on a tapestry he’d sold as part of a bulk order to one of the vendors who bought his work. The vendor returned it after it had been ruined.” Jevette slid across the next file. “This was the only case where the painting was done in a different location than the murder, though the painting was still there at the scene of the crime at the end. This made us postulate that the paintings are created based on proximity to the target, since our killer could have known about the business relationship between Affaro and the vendor and that the tapestry would be returned. Other than our body paint over there, this was also the only painting done on something that could be easily moved.”
Rhodes looked up from the files and loosely crossed his arms. “What are the connections between all the victims?”
Arman gave an exaggerated shrug. “Blazes if we know. Kalotti and Gaori, the sixth victim, both had ties to the Nattali gang. Misia Fal, the fifth victim, and Jasko Lemo, the seventh victim, had moderate affairs with the Flacini gang. Nothing proven of course. Affaro was a practical recluse and didn’t even get along with his family well enough for them to notice he’d been killed. We got the call because of the smell.
“Two were very well off, Bersni and Lemo. Two were dirt poor; that would be Erillo and Gaori. Kalotti drank too much, Lemo had a passion for high-end whores, and Fal was a thief who got one of her hands lopped off years ago under the slaughter rules. Six were born in DaSunder. Bersni was a transplant from DaLeandor. Erillo, Bersni, and Gaori all had children. The others had none. Kalotti, Affaro, and Lemo were all single, though Kalotti seemed to be a serial cheater and easily could have been between women. All the others had a relationship going on: Bersni with a man who had multiple women, Erillo and Gaori with permanent partners, and Fal had some sort of on-again, off-again relationship.
“Bersni and Lemo knew each other, but only in passing because they walked in the same circles. None of the others knew each other at all as far as we could tell. Seriously, I could go on all day, and we still wouldn’t be able to connect them all.”
Jevette nodded at Arman’s conclusion, and then added, “Some were perfect citizens and had never gotten in trouble with the law before. Some, like Fal, not so much. None of them had any immediate connection with Governor Acasto, though both Lemo and Kalotti had extended family working for him, and Gaori had married into a family with a couple of officers.”
“Nothing but the pictures,” said Rhodes in a low, disbelieving voice. “That can’t be right. He has to be choosing them somehow. Physicality then?”
Jevette started to collect the sketches and documents back into their respective files. “Two females and five males. Bersni and Gaori were both in their fifties. Lemo in his forties. Kalotti, Erillo, and Fal all in their thirties, and Affaro still in his early twenties. All had dark hair, but then everyone in DaSunder has dark hair. Eye colors and clothing ranged. Even vices were different between all the victims. The only thing we can say is that the Maze Killer seems to steer clear of children.”
“That’s a relief,” said Rhodes.
Arman made a sound of agreement. “Hate those. They’re the worst.”
Still organizing the files, Jevette said, “After the second victim, we informed the other stations, and after the fifth we tried to spread the word, carefully, to the citizens. Didn’t help much because we wanted to keep the exact style a secret so we didn’t have copycats, so most of the calls we went on ended up being useless. Unfortunately we didn’t get informed before the sixth victim because Gaori’s wife thought the painting was one of her children messing around, but a maid in Lemo’s villa found the seventh painting the night before his death. She reported it, but since he lives in the southeast jurisdiction, it took until the next day for us to get there, and he’d been strangled while he was still in bed.” He jerked his head my way without looking up. “This will be the best chance we’ve had so far of catching this killer.”
“What about leads?” asked Baino. “Tell me you’ve got something and that this isn’t the case of the worst detective skills in the city.”
Arman’s face twisted in instant defensiveness, and I could almost hear the words about to spill from his mouth. Jevette stopped him with a casual wave of his hand, his expression betraying no irritation in the flicker of a glance he gave her.
“The paintings were what we focused on. The style was similar to a woman who lives near the northern Stormrocks. Shilani Carketti. She had all the paints because she buys the factory remnants from all over the city. Plus, she used to be a heavy user and still likes to use recreationally from time to time, so she had plenty of the drug in all forms. She had a foolproof alibi for one of the murders.” He tapped something before he slid the sketch away. “Erillo’s. Plus there were a handful of witnesses that put her supposedly working during a couple of others. She did not, however, have alibis for when the paintings were done, so our best theory in her case is that she does the paintings and that she has some sort of accomplice who does the actual murders. Though this is just conjecture since we couldn’t find definitive proof that the Maze Killer is two separate people. We weren’t able to break her, and unlike the victims, she had a direct tie to Acasto, so we were forced to set her free.”
Jevette sighed and leaned against the counter, a frail echo of the distress from that day lingering on his face. I remembered how frustrated he’d been at having his hands tied over their best lead. He’d confided in me that night that they could have broken Carketti. Could have stopped the Maze Killer had Acasto not interfered. Jevette hadn’t been himself that evening. He’d been more open. More willing to lean on me.
The kiss we’d shared had been full of rough, unadulterated desire. The sex had been the same, burning hot and rife with unbridled passion that turned me on in ways I’d never felt before. He’d been sure and strong and insistent when he’d grabbed my neck and begun to pop open the buttons on my trousers. I’d sunk into his embrace, desperate to take what I’d been aching for, with little regard for tomorrow’s consequences.
I’d been stupid.
Arman’s voice jarred me from the past straight into the results from that night, for I found Jevette was staring at me, something unreadable but not exactly kind in his expression.
“And then there’s the graffiti artist group that calls themselves the Sundering and likes to pretend they’re a gang while they paint up the Stormrocks in that area,” added Arman. “One of them had a style that Dana—that’s our ME—felt was incredibly similar to our painter, but they wouldn’t tell us which of them had done the paintings. In fact, they shut down pretty quickly whenever we tried to question any of them. And most of them were kids, some of them as young as nine. We didn’t want to think of them being responsible.”
“You couldn’t get it out of them?” asked Baino.
“There was some sort of accident that killed one of the youngsters of their group the day after we first spoke to them. They clammed up immediately after out of fear. They claimed that we were responsible. Can you believe that?”
“The kid who died, could he have been the one?”
Arman hesitated and then shook his head. “No, he wasn’t one of the painters. Much too young to have been capable of strangling a full-grown man either, even if the man was dosed with ecorock.”
“The only other possibility we have is that it’s gang related,” said Jevette. “One of the Nattalis took an interest in Fal’s death and even paid for her cairn, despite the fact that she had vague ties within their rivals, the Flacinis. He claimed he’d loved her once upon a time and thought she deserved to be laid to rest instead of tossed out to get eaten by the desert.”
That was when Jevette finally must have gotten fed up with me because he twisted away from Rhodes and Baino and gave me a look I remembered well. “You ever going to start that mapping, or are you planning on forcing us to send for Dana?”
I scowled at him. “Just refreshing on the case.”
“Not your case.” He pointed at the corpse. “That’s your job. Let us know if anything turns up.” Then he turned his back in blatant dismissal.
“I’ll send up a fucking report if you’d bother to leave my lab and stop distracting me.”
“They’re not bothering me,” said Calvo.
“Nothing bothers you,” I returned.
“Except my stash being stolen.”
“And you’re not getting it back if you side with them.”
“This isn’t about sides, Salain,” said Arman in that appeasing voice I recognized and hated.
That’d been the last straw, my inability to take his need to be protector, lover, and provider all wrapped up in one perfect bundle. A bundle that I hadn’t deserved then, and I certainly didn’t deserve now. And the exact definition of the word deserved could be up for discussion. For while Jevette thought Arman was too good for me, I personally thought I didn’t need to be treated as if I wasn’t capable of taking care of myself, which was exactly what Arman had done the entire time we’d been together.
“I know,” I said. “It’s about paint and death and the fact that people invading my lab need to realize that their welcome has been officially worn out.”
And with that, I grabbed my materials and pressed my hand against the yellow paint on Risso’s corpse. Yet, as I allowed myself to be sucked into the maze, I heard Jevette say, “This is why Dana was assigned the case originally. If you want, we can send for her.”
My throat closed up, and my veins sang with rage. A rage that fizzled and died as I stepped into that topoyi painting, because after all, Jevette had a point: I wasn’t exactly top-notch material. But with the rage gone, all I felt was sorrow over what could never exist between us.