The damn alarm system was still going off.
Detective Barnes growled softly to himself and pulled his collar up tighter against himself, as if it would block out the tinny blaring sound of the ancient security system. Why hadn’t they flipped that damn thing off yet? It had been over two hours since the murder.
The gallery was dark and empty at this time of night. The floors that by day saw hundreds of shoes —the sneakers of art students and sensible heels f art curators and floppy sandals of tourists — were now spit-shined to a new polish, prepared in eager anticipation for the dawn when the shoes would come to scuff them up again.
And then there were the bodies.
Detective Barnes liked to think he’d seen the worst that New York City had to offer. After ten years as a detective and another ten before that as a beat cop, he’d seen his fair share of gristly killings, horrific shootouts and heart wrenching suicides. But this was on a whole other level.
He walked over the polished floor to the edge of the pool of blood, noticing with some tiny amount of relief that as he got closer, the cacophony of the alarm grew slightly quieter. He peered at the mess before him.
Two men were dead, apparently by each other’s hands. Barnes wrinkled his nose as he carefully stepped around the crime scene. He’d seen murder-suicides before but those usually involved a gun. Hard to imagine one had been used here.
The bodies were mashed together, as if they had simply rammed each other like bulls and died from the impact. But that didn’t explain the gashes and gouges taken out of each other’s flesh, the huge pool of blood on the floor and the lack of a murder weapon.
Barnes skirted the lip of the pool — not always easy to see in the dim night lights of the gallery — and examined what he could make out of the bodies. Both were museum employees, that was certain. One was a security guard by the color of his clothes and the belt of various tools that he wore. The other was harder to ascertain. Probably an executive or one of the junior curators going by his suit. His entire belly had been slashed open and his innards spilled onto the body of his companion. Barnes closed his eyes at this, memories of dying hogs from his childhood filling his mind. Of his father reaching inside and pulling the guts out of a carcass.
He took a step back, trying to focus on the task at hand so that nostalgia didn’t consume him. He considered the scene before him as objectively as he could:
So one attacked the other…probably the guard in some kind of revenge plot? Maybe he’d been fired? But there’s no sign of a struggle and with this amount of damage you’d think there’d at least be some spattering of the blood.
He glanced around but found no evidence before him to support his claim.
So what? They just tackled each other and tore at each other like animals until they both died?
It certainly looked that way.
Why didn’t the guard go for his gun? Or his baton? Why wasn’t the exec trying to defend himself?
Barnes scratched at his stubble, trying to suss it out. The blaring alarm behind him grated on his nerves. What was with this case?
This whole scenario was bizarre. Normally they’d have the full team down here: forensics, photographer, security cops, ambulance, etc. But this time it had just been him. The Commander had simply given him the address and told him to wait.
But for what? What was the hold up in investigating?
He turned at the voice, certain that his hearing was conjuring up false beings from the assault of the alarm. Barnes squinted into the darkness in disbelief.
A man had entered the gallery, dressed in a long dark coat with his collar turned up and a gray scarf wound around his neck like a noose. With his thin stature and spindly fingers, he called to mind the image of a gaunt Sherlock Holmes.
Barnes approached him, one hand drifting towards his concealed gun. “Sir, this area is in lockdown. I’m going to have to ask you to…” He trailed off, noticing a smaller figure entering the room behind the man.
It was a girl, barely more than seven years old. Her wispy dark hair was loose about her shoulders and her eyes darted about the room, taking in everything except him. Her hands twitch and clutched desperately at each other. She seemed not to hear the alarms.
Barnes tore his gaze away from the child, holding up his hand to stop the progress of the man.
“Sir, please leave this area at once.” He said sternly.
The newcomer chuckled, a dark sound that filled the emptiness of the gallery with echoes and whispers. “We’re who you are waiting for Detective Barnes.” He said, barely raising his voice. “Unless you want to stand here like a fool all night, you’d better let us help you.”
Barnes raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? Who sent you?” He asked, nearly shouting over the alarms.
“Commander Hartlet.” The man replied, calm as a snake. “He said to tell you your package has arrived.”
“Package?” Barnes asked, confused. His attention was drawn to the child again. She was watching the corpses on the floor as if she expected them to stand up at any moment. He took a deliberate step into her line of vision. “Was it bring your daughter to work day?” He asked the man. “This aint the best place for a kid.”
The man barely even shrugged towards the child. “That’s not my daughter. That’s your package.”
Barnes straightened up in surprise. “Package?”
“Tool, interpreter, call her whatever she is to you.”
Barnes was done now, this had to be some kind of joke. “What? Who are you?” He demanded to know, loosening his handgun from under his armpit.
Neither of the other two so much as batted an eyelash. “I’m Mr. Handler.” The tall man replied. “I handle your package.”
Barnes peered at him in the gloom, still unable to trust the man before him.
“Your department hired me.” Mr. Handler said smoothly, speaking so normally that Barnes had to strain to hear him over the continuing screech of the siren. “They wanted a field test. This double murder of a fine upstanding gentleman by his security guard seemed like the perfect opportunity to see his purchase in action.”
His hand slid away from his weapon. “Purchase?” Barnes inquired.
Mr. Handler flapped his coat slightly, his hands curling in the pockets in a gesture of nonchalance. “Your Commander hired my services a little while ago. Now he’s cashing in on them.”
Barnes relaxed slightly. This was less strange. The precinct hired outside help all the time, sometimes bounty hunters, sometimes scientists, sometimes even psychics. “So what are you, a specialist?” He asked. He was willing to bet this man was a real-life Sherlock. Or maybe just a very sneaky journalist.
But Mr. Handler merely laughed again. “Oh no Detective Barnes…I’m merely the organ grinder.” His arm shot out and snagged the girl by the hair. “This is my monkey.”
The child stiffened but didn’t struggle. A flicker of something passed over her features, as if a bad memory had tried to take her and she had forced it away.
“The girl?” Barnes asked, his former apprehensions returning. “What do you mean?” The child had fisted her hands deep into the fabric of the oversized sweater she wore, losing her arms within the material. She looked the very picture of shy and petulant.
Mr. Handler gave her a shake, as one might a ferret they are holding by the neck. “It’s best if you just let me do my work, Detective. Then we can all return to our beds and earn our pay.”
Not removing his hand from the child’s hair, he tugged her towards the corpses.
Barnes made to move forward. “I wouldn’t show her that…it’s quite nasty.”
Mr. Handler raised an amused eyebrow. “She’s seen worse.” He said carelessly.
Barnes decided not to wonder exactly what that could mean.
Mr. Handler bunched up the girl’s hair in his hand and then gave her a shove towards the bodies. She stumbled terribly, struggling to free her hands so she could break her fall. Slowly she picked herself up and faced away from the corpses, her head lowered.
“Go on.” Mr. Handler commanded in a sweet voice. “Touch them my dear.
The child shook her head violently. The man’s gaze clouded instantly. He grabbed her by the wrist. The child didn’t squirm, she just stood completely still like she was trying to will herself to disappear into thin air. Barnes watched, unsure how or if he should interfere. Mr. Handler forced the girl’s chin upwards so that she was looking him in the eye. He glared at her unceasingly, the promise of fury and punishment in his gaze. Finally, the child nodded slightly.
Mr. Handler released her and nudged her towards the bodies again. The child took a deep breath and crouched next to them, stretching one hand towards the body of the dead security guard.
“Hold on…” Barnes spoke up, moving forward. “You cant tamper with a crime scene…”
Mr. Handler blocked his movement with his arm. “Let her work, Detective.” Was all he said. Barnes’ face contorted but he said nothing.
The child stretched her fingers towards the gash on the security guard’s face, her eyes snapping shut as tight as they could go. Blindly, her fingers caressed the open wound, blood gathering on her fingertips.
Her eyes flew open. Her whole body shivered like she was being zapped with a tazer gun. Her breathing increased and her skin grew ashen. With a cry, she ripped her hand away from the skin of the corpse and ran across the room, dry heaving. Mr. Handler was at her side in an instant, thumping her on the back and offering her a handkerchief to wipe her mouth.
When she had calmed down, he led her back to the bodies and nudged her forward again. She didn’t fight this time. Barnes watched, utterly baffled as the process repeated itself several times. She touched the other man’s spilling intestines, the long gash down his chest, the nail marks on the security guard’s cheek, the baton at his belt. Each time, she went rigid and stiff and cried out and ran away. And each time, Mr. Handler brought her right back for more.
Finally, after nearly twenty minutes of her bizarre behavior, she tugged on Mr. Handler’s sleeve and looked up at him with tearful eyes.
Mr. Handler’s eyes gleamed. He drew her close and listened intently as the child spoke in his ear, tears spilling down her face.
When she finished, her left her where she was and came back to Barnes’ side.
“I’ve got your murderer.” He informed the Detective.
Barnes tore his gaze away from the still dry heaving girl and raised an eyebrow. “Really? Who? The guard or the exec?”
Mr. Handler grinned like they were sharing a tantalizing secret. “Neither.” He replied. “It was a tall, thin woman in a red jacket and black high heels, roughly two and a half hours ago. She used to work for the boutique across the way and would come here often. She met the exec guy here at midnight for a regular rendezvous. She took his hand and pulled him close for a kiss, then plunged the knife into his back.”
Barnes felt his eyebrows come together in confusion. “What? What knife? There’s no knife.”
Mr. Handler merely held up a hand. “He shouted as he was dying though, she missed the spot she was aiming for. When the guard came, she panicked. Turned the knife on him and killed him too. But he managed to land a few hits on her shoulders and back, her blood is on his baton. Afraid of what this would look like, she positioned the bodies together, carved a few more scratches on each of them and turned this into a fight rather than a double murder. She hid the knife under the edge of the carpet there and fled.”
Barnes was silent as Mr. Handler explained. The story was plausible. It would certainly explain all the blood and the multitude of wounds. But how…?
“How’d she get all that?” Barnes asked, indicating the girl now staring at the blood covering her hands.
“She touched them.” Mr. Handler said, like it were obvious.
Barnes became angry then. “This is ridiculous.” He shouted over the continuing ringing of the alarm. “I don’t know who you think you are but I know a con when I see one!”
Mr. Handler’s gaze darkened so dangerously that Barnes actually took a step back. Maybe it was the light but this man was terrifying in the din.
Mr. Handler turned back to the child and gestured for her to join them. She did so slowly, her thin arms trembling. Mr. Handler gestured at Barnes with his eyes. “I think this gentleman needs proof of your skills.” He said coldly.
This time the child tried to run. But he was too quick. She had barely gone three paces before he grabbed her and hurled her back towards Barnes. She crashed to a heap on the floor with a cry of pain.
Barnes reached down to help the child up but she flinched away from him as if he’d intended to hit her.
Barnes glared at his companion. “Mr. Handler, I hardly think that was necessary.”
Mr. Handler smiled pleasantly. “Quite right Detective, my apologies. She’s a good girl, she’ll do as she’s told.”
Barnes glanced down at the child, wondering just what she had been told to do.
She stood shakily, her sweater hanging off of her like a baggy pillowcase. Now that he was seeing her up close, Barnes could tell is first impressions had been right. She was at most seven years old but very thin and gaunt. She had a pinched nose, high forehead and a strong chin and cheekbones. Her hair was probably the prettiest feature about her but it snarled and tangled itself together around her head. She looked up at him expressionlessly with gray eyes. Like tiny clouded mirrors foggy with steam.
He stared back, unsure of what to make of her. She did not look to him with fear or plea. She merely looked like she knew what she was about to do and had accepted it.
Mr. Handler spoke. “Give her something, Detective. Let her read it for you.”
Barnes reached for his badge, figuring it was the thing that was easiest to replace if this child robbed him.
“Not that.” Mr. Handler called before he’d even touched it. “Something personal.”
Barnes hesitated now, unsure of what to do. But the girl stared at him unblinkingly. Slowly, she raised one finger and pointed at his breast pocket. The Detective slid his hand inside it, then froze.
Mr. Handler smiled. “She knows what she needs, Detective.”
Barnes withdrew his hand, a small golden locket clutched in his fist. Filled with apprehension, he opened his palm and presented it to the child’s inspection.
She closed her eyes, wiped a single finger on her sweater to remove the blood and very delicately touched only the locket.
Her eyes snapped open and she began to shake again. Barnes stiffened, ready to pull his hand away but transfixed all the same. If he’d thought this was hard to watch from a distance, it was mesmerizing up close. Her eyes had cleared, as if all the fog had been wiped away and her whole body seemed to buzz with energy. She stared right through him and yet seemed to be really looking at him for the first time.
Just as soon as it had started, it ended. She ripped her finger away from his locket and clutched the hand to her as if burned. Barnes put a steadying hand on her shoulder, amazed at just how small and frail she was. His hand could have circled her bicep and then some.
“It was hers.”
Barnes ducked his head slightly to catch her words. Her voice was low and hesitant, gravelly with disuse. She refused to look at him.
“She gave you this.” The child continued. “She was dying, blood covering her hands… and she slipped it into your hand…she told you to remember her…and to care for him…Nathaniel.”
The name stopped his heart. He stared at her in horror now.
“But he died too…” She continued, choking on her own breath. “and all your could do was place a single one of his baby teeth in here to remember them both by.”
Barnes opened the locket clasp, something he hadn’t done in ten years and had told no one about, not even the guys at the precinct. A single pure white baby tooth rolled around on the inside of the necklace.
He let go of her like she’d delivered a powerful electric shock to him. She just stared as he breathed heavily, staring at her and cradling the locket in his palm.
“How…?” Barnes croaked. But he received no answer from the eyes before him. She broke his gaze and tucked into herself, holding her bloody hands away from her sides.
Nodded in satisfaction, Mr. Handler stalked over to the edge of the gallery and pulled at the corner of the carpeting. A small section peeled away like dead skin from a scab. He reached under it and retrieved something Barnes could not make out. Leaving the carpet sticking up in a half-peeled state, Mr. Handler walked back over to Barnes and thrust the object into his hands.
He was so thunderstruck he nearly dropped it. It was a hunting knife, covered in tacky congealing blood and the unmistakable stain of fingerprints.
“I think that should about do it for us here.” Mr. Handler said coolly, wiping traces of blood from his hands with his black handkerchief. “I’ll be in touch with your department about my payment.”
He stowed the soiled cloth within his jacket, snapped his fingers, and turned on his heel. The child followed him, her head low and her thin arms trembling.
Barnes watched them go, holding the bloody knife in one hand and his wife’s locket in the other.
The girl walked with heavy footsteps, as if she now carried the same weight he felt everyday when he recalled that day at the hospital. As she crossed the threshold of the door, she glanced at Barnes over her shoulder. There was no helplessness in her gaze. Only a knowing look. Then she was gone.
The alarms continued to blare away but Barnes heard none of it through the haze of his confusion.