Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 3

A sad endDoria the Faithful, She Who Began the Journey, despaired for all. Neither wonders nor virtues could vanquish the mistrust and needfulness that darkened hearts across the land. So she set out on pilgrimage, seeking the panacea that would heal the wounds of the world. She sought out ever sacred place and holy person, but as the years passed her hope dwindled.

One forsaken night, as the wind howled and lightning menaced overhead, Doria emerged from a thick underbrush only to find that the trail terminated at a perilous cliff with no way to go but back. And as the relentless cold rain stole the warmth from her bones, Doria’s faith faltered. 

“Is this what you want of me” She demanded. “The sacrifice of my fleshTo watch my body break against the rocks Then so be it! 

Doria shed what little she carried and stepped to the edge. A light came from the darkness and held her final stride at bay, then a voice whispered to her. 

Sleep, Doria, for you are weary.” 

Doria fell, not to her death, but unto the grass beneath her feet, like a leaf from a tree, and slept. 

When she awoke the sun shown through a single break in the black clouds, warming her. Despite the heavy rain she was dry as aired laundry. When she stood a voice spoke, and she knew it for The Divine. 

Cast your scrying stones to the winds, and speak of what you see.

Doria obeyed, and when the stones took flight they froze above oblivion, aligned in a pattern that opened the doors to the infinite, unfolding the pattern of time so that it lay bare before her. What Doria glimpsed there drove her too her knees, weeping inconsolably.

“I see suffering piled upon suffering until all love and beauty is forgotten beneath the weight of it. I see rebirths of hope tarnished by inevitable suffering. I see it all in an endless cycle.”

Take strength, Doria, your journey is not over. Seek the very edge of the world without hope of returning. There the weight of the world waits wrapped in a single question. Will you be the one to beget the answer?

-The Lacuna Augury

~~~~~

 

Brandon pulled his cellphone from his coat pocket and pressed it to his ear as he studied the nearest officer posted at the tape perimeter that now surrounded the junior high school.

“What is it, Chris?”

Did you feel that?”

A long silence hung on the line as Brandon pulled a nicotine vaporizer from the breast pocket of his jacket and inhaled on it deeply, the glowing tip bathing the interior of his rental car in red light.“Yeah, I felt it.”

Any idea what it was?”

“You know I don’t like talking about this.”

“I know, I know, but… I mean, you felt it…”

Wish I hadn’t.” Brandon took another drag. “Something happened; something big, something dangerous.”

Is it the Reliquaries? Are they still sealed?” 

Brandon took another long pull and exhaled, catching himself before he tried to knock ash off the plastic tip. “We’ll know if they open. This felt like something else.”

“How are you holding up? How many cases have you had like this one, six?”

“Seven, and you know it doesn’t matter how I’m doing… but alright. Not exactly looking forward to it, though.”

“Has it really been that many? …Well, I’ll still be up if you want to meet at the coffee shop when you get in.” 

“I shouldn’t, I need sleep, but that probably won’t happen, so I’ll see you there. Alright, I gotta work.”

Brandon ended the call and stuffed the phone back in his pocket as he looped his messenger bag over his shoulder and stepped out of the car into the crisp evening air. He pulled a lighter from his pocket, clicking it open and closed, again and again as he waited for a car to pass. The temperature had dropped more than ten degrees in an hour, and the slowly roiling clouds overhead threatened rain.

With the sun at Brandon’s back, the light of twilight bathed the black sheen of the murder of crows which slowly circled above the school in a golden hue, occasional backlit by flashes of silent lightning from the looming storm-clouds. Someone had opened a window they shouldn’t have. It wouldn’t be long now before someone nearby onlooker put the pieces together and the press arrived. This would be all over the news by morning, and certainly wasn’t going to make finding who was responsible any easier.

Brandon turned and scanned the neighborhood of apartments around him, catching a glance at a few of the scared faces that peered out from behind half-shaded windows or from open doorways. The apartments looked about as old as the school itself, making them all under about ten years old, and all well kept up. They weren’t the kind of place you’d go out of your way to gloat about to your friends or pick-up from the bar, but there was a lot of suburban eye-candy littered about the grounds engineered to seduce its tenants into a false sense of superiority.  No doubt that and the proximity to the school made it easier to pluck an extra pair of fifties out of their wallets each month without complaint. All-in-all it wasn’t the kind of place where anyone suspects to find a series of murders being planned. Then again, that was likely the point.

Brandon marched swiftly across the street and made straight for the young officer. He made no effort to conceal his approach, and the officer watched him wearily, talking into the radio on his shoulder before Brandon reached him.

“Sir, I’m going to need some identification.”

Brandon gave the young officer a level stare, pulling the vaporizer from his mouth. “You called in my description to Detective Parkson and she told you to let me inside, so why are you wasting my time?”

The young officer’s eye went wide, but the shock slid away quickly, replaced by narrowed eyes and a tight jaw. Brandon stood steadfast. The young officer silently stepped aside.

“Smart-ass.”

Brandon moved past him, noting the lack of local residents clamoring for information. Likely they’d already heard and seen more than they wanted, and talk of moving was sure to be on the tip of every tongue. It was the same every time. This close to the darkness no one felt safe. There wasn’t a door thick enough to keep out the feelings of vulnerability, or a lock strong enough to stop the paranoia from creeping in. The ordinary citizenry wasn’t equipped to deal with violent aberrations. A yapping dog before sunrise; college kids with their music too loud after ten; a fighting couple with their crying kid two doors down at it again, these were the troubles of suburbia, not… well, he’d find out soon enough.

Brandon opened and walked through the first and then the second airlock door, and as he stepped into  the recycled air a flurry of unbidden memories of his times in junior high swept over him and passed before he could get a firm grip on any of them. Thankfully, given that it was still during the summer months, none of the kids memories would need to include this.

He walked down the wide halls, his shoes on the tile floor the only sound, following the few overhead lights that had been turned on which likely lead to his final destination. Even from this distance the nauseating stench of death hung in the air, and it was getting stronger with each step he took. It shouldn’t have been so bad. How many dead were there?

As Brandon began up a flight of stairs another officer was making his way down, his hand over his mouth and nose. When their paths crossed, the ashen looking officer turned to Brandon.

It’s not pretty in there,” he said.

“It never is,” replied Brandon.

“She’s not going to want you smoking in there, vape or not.”

Brandon nodded, took one last pull, then tucked his vaporizer away too.

“Want some Vicks? You’ll want it.”

He nodded and they parted ways.

A few turns later Brandon could see a female detective along with some CSU standing in front of  classroom door halfway down the hall. She had been watching him since he started down the hallway, and as he neared her he saw an angry heat in her eyes that seemed to rival even the evermore putrid stench. This one was going to be rough. He had to force himself to drop his lighter into his pocket with a final click.

“Agent Sharp, I take it?” said Detective Parkson.

“Brandon.” Brandon badged her with his free hand.

“Not much for conversation, huh? Good, I’m not in the mood for any sharp government wit. Maybe instead you can tell me why I’m cleaning up this mess? I get a call from my captain telling me there’s been a murder, and that the FBI is sending over some agent to assist, all before a single report is filed. Now that sounds to me like this is your mess, and you should be in there cleaning it up instead of me and my men.”

“We became aware of this incident through non-standard channels, but beyond saying that, well, you know how it is.”

“Yeah. I know how it is,” she sneered.

“What I can do is tell you everything I’m at liberty to divulge, starting with that your killer is long gone.”

“You suits are always dumber than you look, If that truly fucked piece of trash in there had been murdered, I’d be searching the streets for someone’s hand to shake instead of trying to sort out the ugliest mess of animal cruelty I’ve ever seen, you,” she poked his chest hard with one finger, “and one very non-murderous suicide.”

Brandon paused to take a deep, calming breath and quickly regretted it, rankling his nose as he managed to keep from gagging. “All the same, I’ll need to see the scene for myself.”

“Suit yourself, suit. I expect watching you lose your lunch all over your shoes will brighten my day considerably.”

Parkson made an exaggerated presentational gesture toward the classroom door behind her. Brandon let the derision slide, not seeing any point in fanning the flames. Easy enough to ignore a sour attitude when distracted by a stench that felt like it was leeching deeper into your skin with each passing moment.

The door had no window to let you see in. Undoubtedly this was yet another pointless effort to make parents feel their kids were safer from school shooting, and Brandon couldn’t help but think how it just made it feel all the more like a prison. He gripped the handle and pulled the door open. The reek of the place knocked him back, and he fumbled with the gel container before finally getting a generous amount smeared under his nose. It didn’t really block out the stench, but it muddled it a bit at least. His stomach held, though only with some considerable effort.

More than a dozen dogs and cats hung from the ceiling, suspended from thin steel wires looped around their necks and illuminated by several bright work lights placed around the room. Tongues hung from agape muzzles, and at least one of the rotting, emaciated frames had a claw hooked under the treacherous wire. Brandon’s jaw clenched tight and he had to force himself to block out thoughts of the last, painful moments these poor pets suffered through and try to focus on the details of the scene. At the center of the innocent hung the guilty, done up the same way, an overturned and soiled chair beneath him. On the inside of his wrists were tattoos of an empty hourglass. The far wall above the teacher’s desk was covered in a disturbing collage of candid pictures, every one of the same frightened woman.

Parkson stood next to Brandon as he tried the light-switch for the classroom lights without success. She looked pretty pale, but marshaled her professionalism to transform it into a derisive and accusatory glare when she saw him looking.

“He removed all the light, and I’m disappointed, suit. I was looking forward to a show, starring your lunch.”

“Were they alive when he strung them up like this?”

Parkson fell silent. Brandon watched her starring at him out of the corner of his eye, but then she too turned to the carnage. “Forensics is saying yes — the sick bastard. No one reported any missing animals or seeing strays around the complex, so we started looking elsewhere. Looks like he hit up every shelter in within fifty miles.

“He was practicing. Getting up his nerve for the real thing, for whoever she is.”

“She teaches chemistry in this classroom, and maybe he was, but like I said before, it’s a suicide. CSU turned up no signs of a struggle, no extra prints, or any evidence that anyone but him has been in here in a long time. He was the summer janitor so we know why and how it happened here, and the rest speaks for itself. You’re in the wrong place, suit.”

Parkson was right, no one had strung him up, but this suicide had had help. As he stared out into that sea of dead eyes, Brandon felt the Æther begin to creep up around him. His vaporizer was almost to his lips before he stopped himself, his shaking fingers squeezed the plastic tube tightly until it creaked under the strain. He let his hand fall away as the Æther rushed in. Grim silence was replaced with a roiling chaos. Unseen knowledge and staggering clarity of awareness welled up from every surface. Every picture plastered on the wall now had a place and date Brandon could see if he managed to focus on it long enough; the animals had names, along with hazy images of games they loved to play; every stain had a story it wanted to tell him, and every dilapidation clamored for his attention.

His pulse raced as he struggled against panic, but still he probed deeper, searching for the memories of what happened here. Finally they came, and he reeled at their sudden impact. He watched as the man who now hung from the ceiling sat as the teachers desk, fingernails presses so hard against his scalp that they drew blood, crying and shouting at the whispers which drowned out even the frantic, choked cries of a thrashing dog. They were relentless, hammering the man with tortuous denigrations, but even more insidious was the ever-present call for suicide woven into them as the sole path to repentance.

Brandon rushed past Parkson and into the hallway before stopping to take deep pulls from his vaporizer between labored breaths as he cradled his head in his other hand. After a few moments he was able to get his breathing under control and the world returned around him. Those whispers were the same ones he’d heard at the the other scenes. He had found what he had came for; no reason to linger around such a god-awful hecatomb. When Brandon finally turned around, Parkson was there in the doorway with a smug grin on her face.

“You suits are all the same. Eggs pretending to be rocks, throwing yourselves against walls and expecting them to chip. You’ve seen the suicide — it’s guilt, plain and simple — now stamp your ass return-to-sender and see yourself out.”

“You’ve got a smart lip,” Brandon panted, “but I’m not sure you’ve a head to match.”

Parkson’s sneer turned murderous, but she spoke calmly. “Get out before I have you removed.”

Brandon sighed. Pulling a tablet from his bag, he opened a program and quickly flipped through a number of pages before offering the device to Parkson. “Just look at this”.

“I said leave. I’m not interested in your book report, suit.”

“Just look, goddamn it!”

Parkson somehow managed to sour her expression further as she snatched the tablet from him.

“It’s six other ‘suicides’ just like yours,” said Brandon, pointing at the screen. “All of them killers in training, preparing for their first kill, all within a few days drive of each other, and all with the same empty hourglass symbol found on them. The rest of the details and crime-scene similarities are highlighted there for you on the right. Photos from the scene and profiles on each of the individuals are attached. You’ll notice how your vic fits right in with all the rest of them.”

Parkson studied the reports in silence.

“Those files are for FBI eyes only, as is what I’m about to tell you, so don’t say I never told you anything, and be sure you forget that I did.”

Parkson eyed him, but signaled the two officers at the door to be elsewhere. When they left, he continued.

“He’s meticulous, as you’ve noticed. No prints, no sign that he was ever here. He’s a comfortable killer. He in seven deep, that we know of — we’re still checking around to see if they have any unsolved cases that match — and he’s gotten more efficient each time. He’s a hunter. We haven’t been able to piece together any connections between the victims beside what’s drawing him to them in the first place. We’re looking into medical records and institutionalization, hoping we’ll find they all passed through the same place or person at one time or another, but so far it’s all been dead ends. He blends in. Given how close he needs to be and how long the murder takes him, he’d stick out too much if he was sketchy. However he does it, he’s done it so well no one we’ve interviewed has been able to think of seeing anyone suspicious.”

“We thought the hourglass mark was some gang tattoo, or something random,” said Parkson without any bite left to her words.

Brandon couldn’t help himself from shuddering, but he tried to pass it off an awkward stretch. He had seen that symbol seven times now. It scared him. When he looked at it through the Æther it appeared as some un-fillable void whispering of inescapable death. Truly frightening.

“How is he killing them?”

“Let’s talk outside. Outside outside.”

 

~~~~~

 

Parkson sent the officer posted at the front entrance indoors and leaned against the inside wall of the concrete entryway while Brandon made a call, leaning against the opposite side. A single recessed bulb lit them as a steady rain fell steadily just beyond the concrete awning . Brandon exhaled a gossamer cloud of vaporized nicotine that quickly dissipated into the rain as he stared out into the night.

“Yes sir, same as the rest…No, nothing yet…I’ll see that they do…Yeah…Yeah…No…Yes sir, will do…Thank you. Brandon hung up the call and looked to Parkson. “Short answer is the FBI doesn’t know how he does it. Just like with your guy, everything at a scene suggests suicide, until you start lining them all up side-by-side.”

Brandon took another drag on his vaporizer. “But unofficially, he’s talking them into it.”

“You’re telling me this guy talked seven killers into making their first kill themselves?”

“I hope the gravity of that isn’t lost on you.”

Parkson’s scowl returned. “I’m not an idiot, suit. A perp who can talk seven men into suicide is dangerous. It’s to charge him with the crime when the murder weapon is the victim’s own hands.”

“Exactly.”

“It’s hard not to feel like he’s doing us all a favor talking scum off cliffs. Hell, if he’d been faster maybe we wouldn’t be pulling all those pets down from the ceiling. Anyway…. What do you need from us?”

“What we need is any leads you can get us. And I mean anything. See if anyone happened to see anyone in the neighborhood. We still don’t have a description, so anything these people can tell us is going to put us ahead of where we are now, which is still several steps behind. See if anyone rented an apartment recently, or if anyone was on a long vacation and had someone watching their house. We don’t know how he sets up shop, but it’s got to be nearby. The people he’s been killing aren’t the terribly social type, and he’d need a lot of saturation time to kill the way he does.”

Parkson nodded. “We’ll get you what you need.”

“Thank you.” Brandon reached out his hand, and after a moment Parkson shook it. “I’ve got a plane to catch. Good luck.”

Brandon pulled his bag inside his coat, then pulled his coat up over his head before walking out into the rain.

~~~~~

 

Brandon stared out the window from first class as the plane’s engines prepared for take-off. When the plane left the runway the grid of homes and cars became like toys, and as the they gained altitude the scene grew vast — A dark sea speckled with streetlamp stars. The Æther loomed on the edges of his consciousness, but was easier to ward off when he didn’t focus on anything in particular or near.

Brandon scowled up at the crossed-out cigarette light, then turned back to the window, rubbing the nicotine patch beneath his jacket. He had little to show for this latest trip except for the promise of more nightmares.

The grisly scene played back again unbidden. He shivered and pushed it away, only to have it replaced by memories of the six other similar scenes. Brandon sighed heavily. At least this time he hadn’t lost any memories. The results of opening himself fully to the Æther had been unpredictable. What he had touched through the Æther at the scene were memories that weren’t his own, and to experience those he had to make them his own. Sometimes they wove in cleanly like any other experience, but other times it was a cognitive train-wreck. The new memory might blend with another, or erase it altogether, and who knew how bad it could get. This time had ended well, but he could have lost the memory of loved one to the dying wails of murdered animals. Just the thought made it hard to breath, and it was getting harder every time to roll those dice.

Brandon reached up and twisted the air nozzle above his head open, struggling to keep the rising panic at bay, wondering how many sane, healthy people thought it normal to lose memories or to see the secret lives of murderer’s play back like a movie.

No.

He couldn’t keep doing this to himself. Parkson saw the pattern too, these murders were real. This wasn’t just in his head…he hoped. Where the hell was the stewardess?

Brandon hastily traded a fist-full of vouchers for their equivalent in novelty-sized liquor bottles and mixers. They were going to yell at him back home for doing this, but he didn’t care. He downed a bland, double bloody-mary and was half way through a more potent screwdriver before his head began to swim and his shoulders relaxed enough to allow his anxiety to wane.

The killer was getting better at what he did, and it was frightening to consider what that might actually be. The whispers had been stronger this time — more focused; more incessant. They weren’t natural, that much he was certain of after hearing them through the Æther’s clarity. Each one like a burr that buried itself into its victim’s consciousness before delving into their memories to find doubts and insecurities to exploit along whatever malicious line of reasoning was a part of its essence. That such things existed was terrifying enough without considering that someone had learned how to wield them effectively enough to drive killers to suicide.

The whole ordeal soured his stomach, or maybe it was the five bottles of miniature, ass-brand vodka on an empty stomach. If he wasn’t just unwittingly losing his mind to undiagnosed schizophrenia, there was someone else out there beside him and Chris who could do things people shouldn’t be able to do, and they were a shit.

Brandon thought about pulling the tablet from his bag and finishing his report of the scene, but decided to rest for just a few minutes first. Closing bleary eyes, he was out as soon as his head leaned back against the seat’s worn leather.

 

~~~~~

 

“Drink.”

Esther set a water and a glass filled half-way with a brownish red liquid rife with suspicious looking globs in front of Brandon. He looked up at her from where he sat in one of the booths in the back of the IHOP, half closing his eyes against the bright florescent above her that made the back of his head pulse with a dull but persistent ache as he drew in a lung-full of nicotine.

“What’s in it it? It looks like death.”

“Not as much as you do. It is an old family curative. When I was a child back in Mexico my mother would make it for my uncle who wasted his life drinking himself into an early grave.”

Brandon didn’t need to look up from the glass to know he would find judgmental disapproval there.

“Drink.”

Brandon pushed the glass away from him. “I’ll pass. How ‘bout some coffee?”

“Coffee will only it worse. I’ll bring you nothing until you finish this.”

Brandon sucked in a long breath and sighed, cringing against the pangs of pain it shot through his head, as Esther turned and walked briskly back into the kitchen. He closed his eye and massaged his temples as the steady stream of clicking laptop keys from the other side of the booth paused.

Chris was wearing a tight hoodie over his skinny frame like always did, his computer screen reflecting in his glasses. They had met back in college through a mutual friend, and their unexplainable talents had seen them stay friends even ten years later.

“Don’t look at me like that, Chris.”

The typing paused, then quickly resumed.

“Your eyes aren’t open,” said Chris.

“Just needed to sleep, I’m not drinking again.”

Chris typed something into his laptop, then turned the screen around so Brandon could see it. It was a scientific study with the headline “Inebriation disrupts and negates the most important portions of sleep.”

“Damn it, Chris, enough already. I can’t handle this passive-aggressive BS right now, alright?”

Chris turned the laptop back around and resumed typing.

Esther leaned her head around the corner. “You be nice to Chris!”

Brandon pointed at her and spoke loudly. “One mother in this lifetime is plenty. Mind your own business.”

Her eyes went wide, then narrowed, deepening her crow’s feet as her lips trembled. She pulled her head out of view.

Damn it. Brandon held his face in his hands, wishing he hadn’t said that.

“That was mean,” said Chris.

Brandon sighed. “I know, I know.”

“You could stop requesting these cases.”

Brandon sighed. “No. I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m the only one who can catch this guy. Not one CSU has had a single suspicion of foul play until I held it under their noses and made them sniff.”

“There are other ways to help people.”

“Not for me. This is what my curse is good for, so it’s what I do.”

Chris deflated a bit. “I don’t think it’s a curse.”

“Inescapable obligation then. Either way, I don’t like talking about this.”

Silence hung in the air.

“I don’t think you did anything wrong. You don’t have to make up for anything.”

“We’re done talking about this.” Chris knew better than anyone besides himself did how deep his debt to the world run. Brandon eyed the malicious looking drink in front of him. He grabbed it and poured it down his throat, emptying the glass in one go. At first he thought he had made a serious error in judgement, but as the raging fire of his throat diminished into a light smoldering, he actually began to feel better. After a few minutes and a glass of water, the sharp pains in his head started fading and his body actually relaxed a bit. “We’re touched,” said Chris, breaking Brandon’s musings.

“What?”

“Touched, that’s what someone I was talking to thought we were.”

“Who were you talking to?”

Christ talked too liberally to far too many internet strangers in his opinion.

Chris shrugged. “No one.”

“You shouldn’t be talking to people about this.”

“I know, I know, they’ll just think I’m crazy, like you say, but…doesn’t that sound better than cursed?”

“Touched by what?”

Chris just shrugged again.

“‘Crazy’ makes more sense,” said Brandon,”but call us whatever you want, just don’t go around telling people. It’s dangerous, and I said I didn’t want to talk about it right now.”

“Sorry. Um…my mom asked if you were still seeing Sarah. I don’t know why, I’ve told her before that ended awhile ago.”

“Maybe she’s worried we’re together.”

“No offense, but ew.”

Brandon chuckled. “Tell her she’ll be the first to know if I ever manage to find someone else, and not to worry about her son dating a drunk.”

“I thought you said you weren’t drinking again.”

“I’m not.”

Chris worried too much about his drinking. It wasn’t a problem anymore. Well, not as bad, anyway, just a few on the flight until the patch could kick in.

“My mom also sent me another podcast from Pastor Levi.”

“I thought you said she stopped sending you things from that bigot. She needs to get it through her head that there isn’t anything wrong with you being gay.”

Chris shrugged. “You want to hear it?”

Before Brandon could say he wanted to do anything but, Chris pressed play, and an emphatic torrent of hate spilled out of the speakers. Brandon reached across the table and clicked the mute button.

“Why do you do that to yourself?”

Chris just shrugged again.

“Real Christians spend their time helping others and making the world a better place for everyone, not trying to guilt people into apologizing to God for being the way he made them.”

Esther appeared at the table. She refiled his water silently and replaced the other glass with his favorite omelet. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look up at her.

“It helped…a lot. Thanks.”

She stopped, and he risked a glance, but her face was unreadable. She set down the pitcher and pulled a pen and pad out of her pocket and placed it in front of Chris.

“Write down your mother’s number. She needs to know that Jesus loves all his children.”

Chris froze and shot a pleading glance at Brandon. Brandon just shrugged as he started eating. Chris slumped in his seat, then scribbled a phone number onto the pad which Esther collected before returning to back of the store. Chris looked stricken and paler than usual.

“Don’t worry about it. Your hick mom could use to hear that all she’s doing is hurting you.”

Chris didn’t seem to find that very comforting. Brandon ate another large bite, washing it down with a lot of water, then took a long draw on his vape before speaking.

As much as Brandon wished he could just forget about what they had both felt, he couldn’t. It was too big, too important, whatever it was.

“So yeah, I felt it too. What do you think it means?”

That got Chris’s attention, and now he was biting his lip and mulling something over.

“Go ahead and show me. I know you want to.”

Chris stated rummaging through his bag. He had a real knack for drawing, but since about the only thing Chris really spent time drawing were his foretellings, it wasn’t exactly anything Brandon was eager to look over. Chris opened his spiral sketch book and flipped through pages until he found the one he wanted, then set it down on the table in front of Brandon. Chris’s art was more impressive than the last time Brandon had seen it.

“I keep seeing a pair of eyes open,”

Chris pointed to the page where a pair of eyes were open and staring upwards at the sun and clouds through a closed window. A tear gathered at the edge of the nearest eye, poised to rain over a hazy, bloodied battlefield. Blood from the battle dripped onto a broken hourglass which straddled a star-filled rift, spilling its contents into the void. Strange sets of eyes stared back from the bottom of the rift.

“There’s pain and joy in there,” Chris continued, “and something that feels like starting again, but also like the past is haunting this moment. I’m not sure what it means, but I know it’s tied with what we felt early.”

Brandon studied the drawing. Every aspect of Chris’s foretellings were meaningful, but it was rare that he fully understood them. Sometimes together, after-the-fact, they were able to glean meaning from the symbolism.

“Perhaps someone is trapped by their present or past, or has almost over come it?” offered Brandon. “Perhaps they started some conflict and want to move past it?”

Chris shrugged. “Could be. But this is important, right?”

“Aren’t all your fore-…drawings important?”

“Well, yeah, but…this is really important. That’s what you told me earlier, right?”

Brandon nodded and looked back at the drawing. He didn’t want to say it, but the fact that he had felt this event, whatever it was, without opening himself up to the Æther scared him.

“I’ve already told you everything I felt, which wasn’t much to begin with, but what I wasn’t sure about until I got back was that it’s near. For some reason I can still faintly feel it, and that’s not all. You hadn’t asked yet, but I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I decided to come back tonight while my case is still open. It’s because the trail I’ve been following ends here. I don’t know how or why, but when I felt whatever it was, I got a glimpse of something else. I couldn’t say why, but I came away with that one certainty.”

Chris’s eyes went wide and looked down at his drawing. “But…this isn’t like your cases. There’s death here, but…I don’t think it’s the same.”

“But can you be sure?” pressed Brandon.

Chris shrugged, starring at his drawing. “I don’t think these two events are one in the same, but it isn’t a coincidence either.”

Brandon nodded. “Whatever the truth is, we need to tread carefully.”

Chris let out the breath he had been holding and nodded, lifting his sketchbook to put it away. Brandon reached out and ran his finger along the ringed spine and the serrated remnant of a torn-out page.

“I’ve never known you to throw away your drawings,” said Brandon. “Were you struggling to get this one right?”

That seemed to fluster Chris, and he quickly put away his sketchbook as he cheeks reddened.

“Just…trying to get better, I guess, “ he said. “Learn anything at the crime scene?”

Brandon thought for a moment.

“Whoever is responsible is getting better at what they do, and possibly stronger. It didn’t take as long this time.” Brandon sighed. “To be honest, all going to this latest scene accomplished was making me questioning myself again. Both of us, actually, and these things we think we can do.”

Chris expression became distraught. “I don’t like it when you say stuff like that.”

“It’s just hard, even now, to believe it’s real. Ignoring that for the moment, think. Whoever’s out there is like us, and killing people with what he can do. Precise, calculated kills of carefully selected targets. With people like this, sanity doesn’t enter into the equation, because what’s important is that they think they’re justified. Whoever’s behind this certainly does. So how do we know we aren’t doing the same thing, or won’t in the end?

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore!”

Brandon scowled and rolled his eyes, taking a pull on his vape, jaw set as he stared at the Chris who was slumped in his seat, not meeting Brandon’s eyes.

“You want to talk, you don’t want to talk. Make up your mind.” There wasn’t any edge to his words. He already didn’t like to see Chris so ruffled, and had no intention to add to it, but his frustration was mounting. Finally, he sighed and opened himself up to the Æther.

Inhibited by the nicotine, the Æther was slow to materialize in Brandon’s mind. When it did it struck him like a clap of thunder, an echo stronger than anything he had ever felt before. His vision rippled and split in the middle, the familiar store pealed away, replaced by a large, unfamiliar building in black and white. A beacon of light, like the after-image from lightning, beckoned him before fading into the black night sky. Gritting his teeth, Brandon sifted through the waves of information the world there overflowed with. He got what he needed, and released the Æther, and in the next moment it all vanished.

Chris watched him shakily bring the vape to his mouth in silence and pull until he physically couldn’t anymore. Exhaling, he spoke.

“Whatever it is, it’s here, and I know where.”