15 Critical

“Of course he is,” Micky said, shaking the man’s hand. “Jim, what happened?”

Jim looked at Pryce, who shook his head at first but at last relented. “We’ve had these weird cases, and me and Aiden caught a few of them. Then Aiden and Tom broke that case with the devil sacrifice people, and the chief asked Tom to help us with our cases,” Jim hurriedly explained, nervous. “So this morning we find a cemetery desecrated, with Tom’s name painted in blood on the wall, so we call Aiden down to see it, and there’s a guy waiting, probably for Tom, with a gun, and….”

“So it’s my fault?” Tom asked, having gone unnoticed. “It should have been me!”

“Tom,” Jim said.

NO! When they didn’t get me, they went after the person I love most! GOD DAMN IT!” he roared and stormed out. At first, no one followed, but then David slipped away.

“That was him?” Aiden’s mother Doreen asked, prompting Jim to nod. The woman smiled sadly and said, “Are you his parents?” the woman asked Walt and Martha.

Martha smiled tensely and nodded, her eyes tearing up, even as Walt shook his head, ‘no.’ “It’s complicated,” Walt explained. “Tom and our son were partners, the most madly in love people you’d ever meet. It nearly tore Tom to pieces when Jamie … died last year.”

Doreen raised a hand to her mouth and lowered her eyes to the ground and whispered, “Good Lord!” Then she too left the group and started down the hall after the man.

When his wife was gone, Micky asked, “The shooter?”

“Downstairs,” Jim said, “courtesy of the chief….”

“Good,” the man said before collapsing into his seat. He’d have to call his sons and daughters soon to give them an update. But first he needed an update.

Doreen turned a corner and saw a chapel. She looked in the window and saw David hugging Tom, who stood limp in his arms. She waited a moment before entering, clearing her throat to announce herself. Tom saw her and whispered something to David. The boy looked concerned but walked out, past the woman.

“One of the boys you saved?” she asked softly.

“David,” Tom said with a nod. “He was still at home with the … with his parents.”

Doreen sat in the pew behind Tom, and Tom sat down too, turning a little so he could see her. “Aiden said you weren’t old, but I still wasn’t prepared for how young you are. The whole professor thing, I guess,” she added with a soft laugh. “And you’ve lost so much.”

“I guess,” he said. “My parents, my grandparents, Jamie….” The woman closed her eyes. She hadn’t even realized the full depth of the young man’s loss. After a long pause, he sighed and said, “When they asked me to help, I never guessed … it would come to this.”

“Aiden’s a cop, Tom. You don’t have to like it, but this kind of thing does happen,” she said uneasily. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat by the door after seeing a news report about a police officer injured on duty….”

“It’s me,” Tom whispered, shaking his head. “People who get close to me get hurt!”

The woman shook her head and sighed, squeezing his shoulders. “Have faith, Tom! Things will be okay,” she replied before returning to her husband, leaving Tom alone.

Tom was restless and didn’t relish further comforted. He wanted to be allowed to wallow in his guilt, so he slipped down to the elevators. Checking the guide, he hit the ‘B’ button. When the door opened, he was underground: The air was cool, a little damp, and the light was entirely unnatural. An arrow pointed his way.

‘MORGUE’ the institutional sign, black letters on silver plate read next to swinging double doors. Tom stepped inside and the air cooled further. “Can I help you?” a tall, wiry man in a white coat, holding a clipboard asked.

“I’d like to see the body that came in this afternoon. Gunshot?” Tom said.

“The body hasn’t been processed,” the man said darkly. “Dr. Spector, County Medical Examiner,” he added, introducing himself. Except for being tall and long-limbed, he didn’t fit the creepy image, and seemed personable enough beneath his official aura.

“Dr. Tom Corman,” he introduced himself, showing his official police consultant’s ID. “I just need to see the body. I won’t touch anything.”

The man put the clipboard down, and led Tom to a gurney. They hadn’t even applied the toe-tag. “What are you looking for?”

“I just need to see his eyes,” Tom answered.

The man looked at him skeptically. “You aren’t a psychic, are you?” implying that if Tom said yes, he’d call security.

“No, I’m a professor at the University. I’m an expert on occult practices,” he said, putting the man more at ease, if only slightly.

The medical examiner pulled back the sheet to reveal an unremarkable man with an unremarkable face. “Doesn’t look the sort,” Dr. Spector mused as he pulled on his gloves and reached for the man’s eyes to pull back his eyelids.

He was surprised when Tom grabbed his wrist and said, “Dr. Spector, be prepared….”

“For what?” the man asked warily.

“Pretty much anything,” Tom replied grimly, and noticed that the man’s hand was trembling a little as he reached out again.

Dr. Spector began to lift the eyelids, which snapped open, leaving the corpse with a startled looking expression. “You never get used to shit like that!” Spector exclaimed.

“That was no death rattle doctor,” Tom said. “Look at the eyes….” The eyes were black – no whites and no color in the irises at all.

“That’s … what is that?” Spector asked. “That what you were expecting?”

“Yeah. I’ve seen that before, a few times. Usually in living people – they usually escape before the body dies,” Tom mused, mostly to himself.

“They? Escape? What the hell is going on here?” Spector asked Tom.

Before he pushed his way through the doors, Tom looked over his shoulder, looking how he felt, and asked, “Do you really want to know?”

The man met his eyes and shook his head. “I’ll pass.”

When Tom entered the waiting room, Peter asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Tom answered. “I just needed to clear my head,” he lied. “Any news?”

“He’s out of surgery,” Peter said. “They said the next twenty-four hours will be critical. They’re still worried about internal bleeding.”

“Are his parents with him now?” Tom asked, and Peter nodded.

“Will you go back when they’re through?” Peter asked.

“They’ll probably say family only, and Aiden never got his paperwork done,” Tom said, sadly. “I guess he didn’t think that anything like this was coming soon.”

Shortly, however, a pudgy nurse entered the room and said, “Tom?” A path opened and Tom approached the woman. “Your mom asked me to bring you back to see your brother,” she said, barely looking up.

When he stood at the door, Doreen smiled weakly up at him and beckoned him inside. Micky, who’d not yet spoken to him, nodded and silently took his leave. Doreen, close behind, shut the door in her wake. Tom grabbed Aiden’s hand and put his forehead on the bed, weeping openly. “Can you hear me? You can’t leave me, Aiden,” he groaned.

“Oh, Tom,” he heard, making him jump.

“How did you get back here, Alasdair?” Tom asked without looking up.

“Easy! No one can see me!” The man said as he stepped up beside Tom and put a hand on his shoulder. “Now move aside.”

Tom moved over and let Alasdair put his hands on Aiden’s neck. The man closed his eyes and said, “He has a strong spirit, Tom, and he has strong connections to this plane. He has no intention of leaving. If they can keep his body together, his soul will do the rest.”

“I could do the,” Tom began.

“That’s foolishness, Tom, and you know it! It would kill you both; if Peter hadn’t truly been dying, you’d both be dead now. And Aiden is not dying right now.”

“Well, can you at least do a rudimentary healing spell?” Tom asked impatiently, knowing it was one of the things the man could do far better than he. Alasdair nodded and fell silent as a soft glow emanated from beneath his hands, which migrated up and down Aiden’s body. “You don’t have to be quite that thorough,” Tom laughed softly as Alasdair’s hand migrated below the proverbial belt.

“You can’t fault a fellow for curiosity,” Alasdair smiled without opening his eyes. “That’s about all for now. I’ll do a little every day to help keep the healing on track. Be sure he has the best doctors.”

“Of course,” Tom said. “Alasdair, the man who shot him was possessed.”

“Are you quite sure?” Tom’s old friend asked, sitting back.

“Positive. I saw his eyes – black as night,” Tom answered.

“Do you think they were after you, or your loved ones?” Alasdair asked.

“I think it was after Aiden,” Tom said, “perhaps hoping it could drive me crazy?”

“If that’s the case, it was a colossal mistake,” Alasdair observed. “What will you do?”

“I’m going to visit Peter’s mother in jail and find a few of these cultists. And they’re going to tell me what the plan is,” Tom said flatly.

“And then?” Alasdair asked.

Tom looked at him pointedly and said, “Some people are going to pay. And some demons are getting their tickets back to hell punched.”

“Need some help?” Alasdair asked.

“You’ve got a baby on the way, Alasdair,” Tom said sternly.

“I know, but,” Alasdair began.

“No! You need to look out for your family!” Tom said, a note of finality in his voice.

“When will you go see her?” Alasdair asked.

“Tonight. Can you stay here?” Tom asked.

Alasdair nodded. “I’ll send Rachael home later.”

“Thanks,” Tom said, and Alasdair silently took his leave, giving Tom some privacy.

About half an hour later, Tom returned to the waiting room. “Thank you,” he said, giving Doreen a hesitant hug. Then he shook Micky’s hand and said, “Sorry we had to meet like this.” The man grunted and nodded. Then Tom turned to the chief and said, “The guy, the shooter … is related to those cases I’ve been working on.”

“How do you know that?” Lincoln asked.

“I went down to the morgue and had a look. He’s one of the cultists. We need someone going over his house with a fine-toothed comb,” Tom said.

“If they get wind that this shooting is related to cult crimes, the FBI’s going to want to take this thing over,” Pryce said.

“Then don’t let them find out,” Tom said. “Right now we’re just searching a shooter’s house. But we know what we’re looking for.”

“Right,” Pryce said, pulling out his phone and calling the crime lab.

Then Tom sat down by himself and away from the crowd. Moments later, David sat next to him, and Sebastien came and gave Tom a big hug before sitting on his leg.

Tom laughed a little and smiled at the boy. “Make yourself at home,” he kidded, and Sebastien laughed and laid his head on Tom’s shoulder. “Did you call your parents?”

“No answer. Cell phones are out of service up at the resort,” he said. “They’ll be on their way tomorrow afternoon, and they’ll get my messages then.”

Tom nodded. “I don’t want you boys to stay at the house alone tonight,” he said.

“Peter will be there, and Billy probably,” David said.

“Still, I’d prefer,” he began, but he realized, with both he and Alasdair at the hospital, his house was probably the safest place in the city for the boys. Looking David square in the eyes to make himself clear, he said, “Lock the doors and, no matter what, stay inside. Understand?” The boys nodded. “Call me if you need anything.” Again they nodded.

He motioned for Peter and Billy to come over. “Could you take these guys home and feed them and keep them out of trouble?”

Peter nodded, and the four boys all hugged him and said their goodnights. Then Tom encouraged Walt and Martha to head home.

“We should stay, dear,” Martha said, full of anxiety.

“Alasdair’s staying, and a bunch of the guys, so I won’t be alone,” he tried to assure her.

She nodded and cried as she hugged him. After she walked away, Walt also hugged him and said, “Don’t do anything stupid.” Tom nodded and the man pursed his lips unhappily before following his wife.

Tom jumped at Rachael’s voice as she observed, from about a foot behind him, “You’ve gotten rid of just about all of us.”

“There’s just you,” he added with a smile.

“I’ll second Walt’s request then,” she said blankly.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Rachael,” Tom said.

“You asked my husband to stay because you intend to leave. Why?” she asked earnestly.

“Getting information,” Tom said.

“How?” she asked.

“Best you don’t know, my dear,” he said, hugging her. “Watch out for this one?” he added, patting her belly. She grumbled at him, but at last, she did leave.

“I guess it’s about that time,” he said to Alasdair. “Don’t leave his side until I get back?”

“Not for a moment,” Alasdair promised.

Approaching Doreen and Micky, Tom said, “I need to get out of here for a bit. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you dear,” Doreen said, and Micky shook his head.

Tom was half-way to the exit before he heard heavy footfalls trying to catch up. “Hold up, boy!” Micky called. “You got something on your mind?”

“I’ve got someone who might be able to tell me who did this,” Tom answered.

“That man in cold storage did this,” Micky said, his eyes narrow as he appraised Tom.

“That man is irrelevant,” Tom said. “Someone else, someone bigger, is behind this. That’s who I want! He and anyone else who helped put this thing together.”

“You’re not going to break any laws are you?” Micky asked, rocking on his heels.

“Would you?” Tom asked and turned his back on the man.

“Don’t get caught,” Micky called after him.

“Nobody’ll see me coming or going,” Tom said.

“Good. Then you never left,” Micky replied, and the men nodded, understanding each other perfectly. When he rejoined his wife, Micky patted her on the leg as he settled into a seat. “I like that fellow.”

“He’s a nice young man,” she agreed. “Where’s he going?”

“He decided to stay. Getting coffee in the cafeteria then back to the chapel. Sort of religious, I guess,” Micky said, picking up his book.

Half an hour later, Tom walked through the front door of the jail, cloaked beneath a powerful glamour. He carefully slipped between the few people who stood in his way. When the night guard went on his rounds, Tom slipped in behind him. He found the woman he was looking for in a private cell. “Hello, Mary,” he said, causing her to jump. “Orange becomes you,” he laughed.

She glared at him and said, “Who let you in here?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Tom said. “You’re the only one who knows I’m here.”

Mary looked into the cell across the way and saw the women looking at her as if she’d gone crazy. “I see. I suppose you want some information. I’m not talking.”

“I rather hoped you’d say that,” he said, slipping through the bars into the cell. “I know I probably don’t look like much, but I haven’t kept myself in shape just for looking at.”

“You wouldn’t,” she sneered. “You do-gooders are all the same. My husband might have bought the tough-guy act, but….” Her rant was cut short by Tom’s slap, hard enough to snap her head to the side.

He leaned down and said, “One of your friends tried to kill my partner today. That might have crippled me, but a year ago someone did kill my lover. I know pain, so I can still function. Demons don’t have families so I can’t exactly return evil for evil, but you’re about as close as it gets to family. So you can tell me who else is in your little group, or I can kill you tonight and no one will ever know.”

Before she could spit out another wise retort, he hit her again, this time not with an open hand but with his fist. “Do the rules about hitting girls apply between gays and murderers?” he asked the shocked woman. “Oh, Mary, THIS IS GOING TO HURT YOU MORE THAN IT IS ME!” he added. Then he put out his hands and looked to the sky, “Darkest night and bitter seas, rancid stench and rotting flesh,” he said, invoking the most putrid metaphoric opposites he could imagine for the magical elements, “I call upon you this hour! Rise up, rise up, rise up and devour!”

“Wait,” she cried as the pain hit her the instant her body literally began to experience a kind of gangrenous living rot. “Wait!”

“No begging, just names, Mary,” he said, sitting down.

To her credit, she did resist, but at last, she gave him six names: “Roger Marx, Dick Fletcher, Bill Stevens, Hal Fuller, Kim Richards, and Helen Demopoulos! That’s all I know. There are others, but they’re the ones I met. My husband could tell you more, but….”

“But what?” Tom asked impatiently.

“Jim died in prison last night,” she said. “Demon got him, I figure. That or one of the prisoners decided we were involved in the sex stuff.”

“Sex stuff?” Tom growled. “You let your sons get molested under your roof, raped hundreds of times!”

“Who cares if I let my son got fucked? Little faggot liked it. And David was too big a wimp to stand up for himself. It started when he was a teenager, for crying out loud. He should have stopped it himself if he had a problem with it!” Mary snarled.

Tom held out a hand and ended his spell, leaving the woman quite healthy. As he slipped out of the bars, he got a feeling for the tenor of the feelings of the women in the jail. “Mary, these ladies don’t share your child-rearing philosophies. These two gals especially,” he said, pointing to the women across the hall. “Good luck with that,” he added, disappearing down the hall and into the night.

These names were the tip of the iceberg, he feared, and if the police pulled them in, the rest would run. Tom went over the list in his head, and none of the names was familiar. He needed to find out what he could without the police.

He pulled out his smart-phone and did searches for all of them. The only small connection he had to any of them was that Kim Richards was a reference librarian at the university library. “That is a place to start,” he said to himself as he entered the hospital.

“Feeling better,” Doreen asked as she looked up from her book.

“A bit,” he said, and Micky nodded at him.

“Would you mind getting you and me some coffee, babe?” Micky asked. “I’d go but my hip is starting to bother me.”

“One more reason you should go,” she said with a smile and got up.

When she was gone, Micky said, “She’s right.” Then he asked, “Get some names?”

“Yep. Problem is, I need to find out all I can about them, but I can’t give the list to Pryce. What would I tell him? I snuck into a jail and illegally interrogated a prisoner?”

Micky looked at Tom with interest now. “I see. You could hire a PI. They can get the info, and the police wouldn’t know why he was looking. Maybe someone out-of-town.”

“If one were to visit a town like Memphis and need the service of a discreet and trustworthy PI, maybe an ex-cop, whom might that person go to?” Tom wondered aloud.

Micky shrugged. “If it were me, I’d probably call up Roy Collins, but that’s because he and I are old friends. A person might want to mention that they knew me.”

Tom nodded as Doreen returned. “How’s Aiden? Any news?” Tom asked.

“Stable,” Doreen said. “They did say his vitals are stronger, if that means anything?”

Tom nodded and smiled. “It means they’re not trying to prepare us for him dying anymore, which is nice.”

Doreen exhaled sharply, visibly relaxing. Micky added testily, “That’s what I said!”

“Well,” the woman huffed, “it’s nice to have independent confirmation!”

“Who are you, Galileo? Independent confirmation! She watches too many Discovery Channel science programs!” Micky teased.

Tom smiled, finally getting to see their personalities emerge from behind their fearful, tense masks. “I’m going back to see him for a minute,” Tom said.

“They said visiting hours were over,” Doreen said.

Tom looked over his shoulder and said, “They can try to stop me,” as he clipped his university ID to his belt like the doctors did. But no one said anything to him. “Mission accomplished. Go home to your wife!” Tom ordered Alasdair as he entered.

Alasdair barely stirred, having fallen asleep by the bed. Tom shook his shoulder and the man woke, groggy. “All done?” he asked.

“Yeah. Now go home!” Tom insisted.

“I can stay,” Alasdair protested. “I just need coffee!”

“Get home to bed. Come see me tomorrow. I may need to call in some of our friends. The cult is big, and they’re working some serious bad juju.” Tom briefly brought Alasdair up-to-date on the fact that there was even a string of crimes meant to occlude the pattern in the legitimate rituals.

“Have you been to see the rabbi? I know Jewish stuff is your bailiwick,” Alasdair said.

“No. I’ve never met the guy. What would a rabbi in the South know about demons and mysticism?” Tom asked.

“You never know!” Alasdair said. “What would a philosophy professor at a local university know about it?”

“True enough,” Tom admitted. “In the meantime, I am calling Avram.”

“Hmph,” Alasdair grunted. Avram Ben-Ami led a mystic circle in Paris and had become Tom’s mentor and friend. Alasdair thought Avram had wanted more from Tom. Of course, Avram might simply have been helping Tom focus less on the unavailable Alasdair and more on the mystic forces he was trying to wield. “Who do you think he’ll send?”

“I hope he’ll come himself,” Tom said.

“Won’t that be a party,” Alasdair groaned as he left Tom with Aiden. Tom sat down on the edge of the bed and held Aiden’s hand until dawn.