Title: Handwriting, Chapter One in The Unusual Suspects
Author: CelesteAvonne
Disclaimer: For Fun and Fun Alone!
Spoilers: References to all 10 episodes of The Unusuals.
Pairing/Characters: All canon pairings, including Shraeger/Davis, Walsh/Beaumont, Delahoy/Crumb, and Banks/Demopolis
Rating: PG13
Word Count: 10,000
Summary: A mugger attacks random disconnected people, leaving clues written on the victim's hands. This starts Shraeger and Walsh on the path to find a killer who seems to know all of Second Squads secrets. Meanwhile, Dr. Crumb decides to take matters into her own hands with Delahoy, wrecking Banks' illusions of a calm, normal life in the process.
Warnings:A plethora of fish puns.


Second Precinct, we have a report of an attempted armed robbery on East Houston. Suspect is described as a middle-aged male dressed as a trout.

Sergeant Brown skirted the semi-conscious drunk in handcuffs and entered the office. Rain spattered in fitful gusts outside, turning the morning into a cold, damp blur. He'd only gotten one cup of coffee before his wife and son got into it, and he'd slipped in a puddle on the way out, soaking his shoes and his pants' cuff. So it was going to be one of those days.

He sank into his desk chair and opened the first file on the stack. He scratched his head.

"Yep," he muttered. "One of those days."

In the hallway, Shraeger and Walsh were dickering over somesuch. He heard mention of Sauron and ring wraiths. His mind reached wistfully toward thoughts of coffee before he interrupted them.

"Got a case," he said, passing the file to Shraeger. "College student, this morning. Assault, attempted mugging. She's in Interview 3."

Shraeger opened the file, scanned it, then said to the Sergeant's retreating form, "How can it be a mugging if he didn't take anyth—?"

The Sergeant raised a hand and disappeared into the break room.

Walsh peered over the folder's edge at the photos inside. "Cynthia Patronelli, age nineteen," he said. "Takes the train to school, same as every morning. Only this morning, masked attacker, 7 a.m., rifled contents of the backpack, but..." He flipped the first photo over to reveal the second. After a moment's study, he stepped beside Shraeger and they held the file between them.

The second photo showed the girl's upturned palm with the number 314 written across it.

Walsh grimaced. "What's that, a Bible reference?"

"No, that'd be 316," Shraeger said. She pulled up the corner of the photo. Shrugged. "314 is Pi. Why would a mugger attack a girl and write the number for Pi across her palm?"

"Guess that's what the boss wants us to find out," Walsh said. He closed the file and gestured down the hall.

Shraeger led the way. After a few steps, she said, "It's unfair to compare Amy to Sauron. She's, like, Little Miss Christian Tinkerbell. And Cole's a good person. Getting hitched isn't gonna twist him into something different."

They paused at the door. Walsh said, "Just sayin', there's something to rings having power. They're the very symbol of change, and Cole will never be the same come Saturday when they exchange those vows."

"Hm," Shraeger said. "Never pegged you as Symbolism Guy."

He said, "I may not have attended five prep schools—" Shraeger pursed her lips. He went on, "But I get that objects can have power."

"And numbers," Shraeger added.

Walsh arched his brows. He knuckled the door, and they went inside.

(break)

Detective Eddie Alvarez stepped into the lobby, shaking his umbrella, muttering to himself, when he looked up to see Detective Beaumont collaring a perp dressed as a fish.

"Nice catch," he said as they mounted the stairs. "Got a license for that thing?"

"No worries," she said, suppressing a smile. "This one's just a fluke."

"Please stop," the fish moaned.

"Probably not a catch and release, then? What's his crime?" Alvarez asked. "Leaning on the scales?"

"Robbed a liquor store," she shot back. "You know what they say about fish and drinking."

Alvarez raised his cocked fingers and pantomimed a shot. "Shore do."

The fish sighed, dejected. "I will pay you to stop."

"With what, sand dollars?" Beaumont snorted.

Alvarez chuckled. "Clams," he said.

The fish gagged.

"Don't give me that," she said. "You're the one wearin' the costume."

"Reminds me of last summer," Alvarez said. "Nicole and I went fishing at Montauk. I caught a fish..." He leaned over and splayed his arms to encompass the fish's whole body. "This big."

"Can't imagine you fishing," Beaumont admitted.

"Oh," Alvarez said, "There's a lot about me and Nicole that would surprise you."

Beaumont's smile faltered. "Those waters are a little deeper than I care to go, Alvarez." She rounded the landing and shoved the perp forward.

"Hey, Beaumont," Alvarez said. "You seen Walsh?"

"Not since this morning," she answered. She disappeared around the next flight up.

Alvarez entered the precinct office to find it empty save for Cole, who was on his cell phone at his desk and Officers Donovan and Dobbs were engrossed in a conversation by the water cooler.

"Cole," Alvarez said, raising his voice. "Where are Banks and Delahoy?"

Cole held up a finger and continued to speak on his phone.

"And Walsh? And Shraeger?" Alvarez said to himself. He went to his desk and, after making a surreptitious scan around the office, pulled out a file. He opened it, jotted a few notes, then slipped it back in place. After several seconds of bouncing on his toes, he went to Sergeant Brown's office to have a little chat.

(break)

"No, I'm not going," Eric Delahoy said as he leaned back in his chair.

"Why not? Could be fun," Leo Banks asked. He peeled the paper wrapper from his chopsticks and stabbed dubiously at his spring roll. "Y'know. Cake. Dancing. Free wine."

"It's a wedding," Delahoy said. The waitress plopped down two bowls of soup between them. "This is the special three-ring gooseneck, right?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I guess."

"She guesses."

Banks gave him a wan smile. "Cole's our friend. We should go."

"Cole's our co-worker," Delahoy countered. "It's probably some big Baptist to-do, which means a two hour ceremony sans dancing and definitely no alcohol. I'm not going."

Banks tested his soup and frowned. "I don't think this is gooseneck—"

"Uh oh," Delahoy said as the front door opened and Doctor Monica Crumb appeared, drenched, irritated, and searching.

"Maybe it's hog's neck masquerading as gooseneck," Banks was saying.

Delahoy scraped his chair back. "No, I mean, uh oh."

Monica sighted him, stalked over, and dragged a chair to the end of their table.

"Monica," Eric said.

"Dr. Crumb?" Leo said.

She brushed them off, annoyed. "Eric," she said. "Since I'm no longer tied to NYPD through my position as Medical Examiner, I see no reason why we can't date."

She stared at him a long while. Banks' mouth hung agape as he looked from her to Delahoy and then back to her.

Then she said, "Also, I'm pregnant."

Banks pushed away from the table. "Whoa whoa whoa, wait." He flicked a glance at Delahoy. "You didn't use a condom?"

"That's what bothers you about this conversation, that we didn't use protection?" Delahoy said.

And Banks said, "What is this, 1985? Who doesn't use condoms?"

Monica stood, took Delahoy's wrist, and hauled him from the table. Surprising to both him and his partner, Delahoy followed.

"Where are you—?" Banks began.

Monica said, "My first act as girlfriend is to take him to a doctor."

"?" Banks said.

"Eric has a tumor the size of a Toyota on his occipital lobe," she told him. "If I'm to carry his child, he should at least be present for its birth."

Delahoy couldn't bring his eyes to meet Banks'. Instead, he snatched his fortune cookie from the table and let Monica lead him out into the stormy New York after noon.

(break)

Cynthia Patronelli nattered at a loose string on the thumb of her fingerless glove. A purpling bruise bloomed over her right temple, disappearing into her hairline. She was a tall girl, with waxen skin and dark, limp hair that hung in her eyes. She appeared like any ordinary college student in New York, right down to the tiny silver stud in her left eyebrow.

Shraeger passed a bottle of water across the table, and the girl took it between her hands. "Miss Patronelli, we realize this is difficult for you, but can you tell us—"

"I'll tell you anything you need to know," Cynthia said, raising her tear-tired eyes to theirs. "Anything to help you catch this creep."

"All right," Walsh said. "Good. So. You were heading for the train this morning. Tell us all you can remember, any detail."

"Well it was raining," she said. "And I was running late. It was really crowded on the street. I was checking my phone when I stepped off a curb and got water in my boot. All I did was move off the sidewalk into the alleyway beside Delancey Produce, and then..." She tugged at the wrists of her gloves, pulling them tighter over her hands.

Shraeger glanced at Walsh. "You told the officer he hit you from behind?" she prompted.

"H-he knocked me down. I dropped my phone," she said. "He told me he had a knife."

"Did you see a knife?" Walsh asked.

Cynthia shook her head vehemently. "I didn't see anything. Just. A mask. He was wearing a blue ski mask. But I only saw that from the corner of my eye. That was right before he –" she took a deep breath " – before he hit me."

Shraeger nodded, giving the girl some time. The EMTs at the scene concurred to blunt trauma to her left temple. Bruising, no concussion.

"Okay, what happened next?" Walsh urged.

Cynthia brushed her hair from her eyes. "He, um—" she cleared her throat. "He held me down and went through my backpack, I thought he was robbing me, and I told him, I said, 'I don't have any money. You can have everything, just don't hurt me.' And he said, 'I'm not here to hurt you. There are bigger things than you and me. I'm here to send a message.' That's when he did this."

She peeled her glove back and showed the thick black numbers written in indelible marker across her palm.

"That's the message?" Shraeger asked.

"Bigger things, huh?" Walsh said. He sat forward. "So he writes this on your hand and then...?"

Cynthia shook her head. "He told me to put my head down and count to sixty or he'd kill me," she said. "So I did. I thought he was going to murder me, so it's probably sick that – I felt relieved. But I do feel relieved. People get attacked every day, Detective Walsh. I felt like I was getting off easy. I mean, that's sick, right?"

"No, it's not sick," Shraeger said. "This does happen, and with far worse outcomes. You did the right thing by keeping your head down."

Walsh nodded. He said, "Have you noticed anything unusual around your home, anyone following you or calling, anyone from work or from school? Does this number mean anything to you?"

"N-no. Nothing," she said.

"Birthday? Apartment number?" he asked.

Cynthia shook her head.

"You got a boyfriend?" Shraeger asked.

"Nathan." She smiled. "We've been together since tenth grade. He's at Berkeley right now, we only see each other on holidays. I texted him after... He's really worried."

"I bet he is," Shraeger said, keeping a soothing tone. "When the attacker told you to put your head down..."

"I did like he said," Cynthia said, her eyes wide now. "I counted to sixty. When I got up, he was gone, and I was dizzy, so I went into the store and called 911. Then there were police and the paramedics so I didn't even realize about the figurine until I got here."

"Wait? Figurine?" Shraeger asked.

Walsh flipped through the file. "Report doesn't mention a figurine."

"That's 'cause I just found it in my backpack. I wanted a cough drop," Cynthia explained. "I've been talking so much, and it's cold, and anyway, this was in my bag." From her lap she brought forth a green glass cat figurine carrying a shield.

Cynthia uttered a baffled laugh. She said, "I mean, what psycho mugger attacks someone, writes on their hand, and then gives them something? It's crazy, right? It's—" The girl began to tremble as she placed the piece on the table before them. "Who does that?"

She dissolved into tears. Agitated, Walsh got up and nodded for Shraeger to follow. At the door, he whispered, "We'll get the photos to the lab, maybe find a match on the handwriting. She's touched the – what is that?"

"I think it's a knight," Shraeger said.

"Well. Whatever. It's possible they could lift the attacker's print."

Shraeger said, "I'll canvass the area, see if anyone saw a man in a blue ski mask. And I'll see if we can connect those numbers to something nearby. Maybe an address? Apartment number?"

"Good," Walsh said. He chewed his lip. "The cat figurine, though."

At the interrogation table, Cynthia stared at it as though she could explode it to bits with her mind.

"I know," Shraeger agreed. "Weird."

"We've got almost nothing," Walsh said. "We'll have to wait for him to move again."

"You think he's gonna?" Shraeger asked.

"Well," Walsh said. He cracked his neck. "He told her he was sending a message. 'Bigger things than you and me.' I think he's just getting started."

"We better order a guard for her, just in case—"

Walsh's brow furrowed. "We'll put a guy on it, but I don't think she's the target." He paused and seemed, for a moment, oddly abstracted. Then he said, "She was picked at random, a delivery girl, and this is just a piece of the puzzle."

Shraeger stared at him. "You all right?"

"Yeah," he said, a little too quickly for her liking. He opened the door but lingered a moment longer. Shraeger thought he wanted to say something else. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. To Cynthia, he said, "I'll get an evidence bag for the cat, and we'll let you know when we find something."

(break)

"So you're not really pregnant," Delahoy said. He sat knee to knee with Monica in a pair of excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs in the front lobby of one Doctor Glenn Kinslow, MD, FACS.

"No, I am," she said. "It's not just a clever ploy to get you here."

Delahoy tittered.

"Doctor Kinslow is a very good neurosurgeon."

"He must be, he has FACS behind his name," Delahoy said. "What does that even mean?"

Monica ignored him. She said, "I sent your MRI ahead—"

"—You said it was incomplete."

"It is. But he'll have something to go on. I also ordered the transfer of your previous medical records from Dr. Keyser, so that Kinslow could get a clearer prognosis."

He stammered.

She said, "That's the power I wield."

Delahoy tugged at his damp coat which clung wetly to his legs and to the chair. He fussed with the sleeves and then with his tie, and finally, he gave up, and got to his feet. "I don't want this," he said.

Monica stared up at him. She was small and bird-like in her dove gray jacket and white pantsuit. She wore tiny black loafers on her tiny feet, and city street grime spattered the hem of her pants. Her hair feathered along her jaw, seeming to accentuate her tough, determined little mouth. She didn't say anything, though; she just continued to watch him with her dark, serious eyes.

"That's really off-putting, you know?" he said.

"You've come this far, Eric," she said. "Why not go the rest of the way?"

He dropped back into the chair. "So many directions to go with that question."

She nodded.

"Huh, you had so much to say back at the restaurant, and now you're all with the cryptic. You're like a fortune cookie."

And she smiled. Actually smiled.

In the short time he'd known her, he couldn't recall a single time he'd witnessed that particular phenomenon. It brought him up short. For a moment, he stepped out of the black irony of his own life and looked down at hers. Here she was, maybe thirty, recently unemployed, horribly lonely, given that two months ago she had desperate supply closet sex with an almost complete stranger who was, in all likelihood, a terminal cancer patient, and with whom she may or may not have conceived a child.

Yeah, he had to admit, her plight was as black as his. Hell, it was worse. He'd made it worse. All this came from a tiny error on her part, which he'd exploited, and she was just trying to help.

Point of fact, she was still trying to help. But, why?

That question stood on the tip of his tongue, when the interior door opened and a nurse stepped into the lobby. "Eric Delahoy?" she said.

His stomach pitched like a ship on rough sea. He was doing this. Really going through with this. On the other side of that door was a Doctor who had seen his MRI and held the answers to the questions Eric Delahoy had fought so hard to avoid.

He couldn't move. Then he remembered the fortune cookie stuffed in his pocket from lunch, the one he'd hastily grabbed from the table as Monica dragged him out to the street.

"Just a second," he told the nurse. He fished the cookie from his pocket and placed it in Monica's hands. "Hang on to that for me, okay?"

She said, "It's a—"

"—I know it is." He chuckled. "Look at that."

Monica cupped it in her hands. She said, "I'll be waiting when you get out."

Delahoy straightened. The urge to run still tore at him, a constant, shrill, insistent banshee of a voice. He clenched his hands and followed the nurse into the office.

(break)

Leo Banks drifted into the Second Precinct. He made it to his desk and collapsed into his chair. He stared blankly at Delahoy's empty spot across from him.

"Hey, you okay?" Cole said, and Banks almost fell out of the seat.

"Sorry," Cole said. "Sorry. Where's—?"

Banks shook his head. He said, "He, um... had a date?"

"Oh," Cole said. "Oh. Does that mean he'll have a plus one for the wedding? 'Cause Amy's giving the final number to the caterer this afternoon."

"I, uh, really don't know," Banks answered. "Sergeant Brown in his office?"

Cole frowned. "With Alvarez."

"Jeeez—suh, sorry," Banks said.

"That's all right, I understand," Cole said. He leaned forward and whispered, "It's not Christianly to gossip, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, Alvarez has got it in for us. He's been keeping track of all the time Beaumont and I spend on our phones—"

Banks was shaking his head. He said, "You know, I knew Eric had been seeing her. I mean, he mentioned it, once—"

And Cole said, "I been plannin' a weddin', and that's maybe not the most professional use of my time – I realize this – but Beaumont's phone usage has only ever been above the board—"

"—But the brain thing," Banks said. "I mean, 'the size of a Toyota,' she said. How could he not bring that up now and then?"

Cole stared at him, puzzled. "Did you say brain thing?"

"Brain thing," Banks said. He hadn't realized he was talking out loud. "Uh. Yeah, you know, Alvarez, he's gotta have something to bitch about." Leo felt a flare of anger churn up inside him. "Alvarez," he said dully. "With his perfect wife and perfect house and his list of perfect commendations. Alvarez, with his sparkling future all laid out for him like a string of jewels. Where the hell does he get off?" Banks glanced at Cole. "Sorry."

"No, it's all right," Cole said, eyeing him warily.

"You know what?" Banks said. "Alvarez wants something to bitch about. I say we give it to him. I say, Eddie Alvarez needs a distraction."

This intrigued Cole. "Yeah, like what?"

"Well—" Banks hadn't thought that far ahead. He was grasping at loose synapses, especially since his mind had been thoroughly Ginsu'd at lunch.

But then he saw it. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Alvarez's cell in the middle of his desk. Banks scurried over, snatched the phone, and brought it back. "You don't have to be part of this," he said. "Plotting revenge isn't very Christian."

"Right," Cole said, returning to his desk.

Banks opened his desk drawer, where he kept rolls and rolls of foam rubber and duct tape. "He wants to mess with us, huh?" Banks muttered as he peeled off a long, curly strip of foam. "Like we haven't got stuff going on in our lives? Like we don't have enough crap to contend with, he feels he needs to add to it. Well, maybe this will keep him busy enough to leave us the hell alone."

Cole swiveled back. "What the heck? I instigated. Might as well bear witness."

"There's a man," Banks said. "Now pass me them scissors."

Turns out, it's what Leo needed, too: A distraction. Until Delahoy came back to explain himself, Banks needed to keep his mind healthily occupied in the task of inconveniencing their co-worker. He ripped off a strip of tape and patiently began to mummify Eddie Alvarez's phone.

(break)

Beaumont pushed the guy in the trout suit into the holding cell and rattled the door closed.

"Hey look," Banks said to Cole. "Now it's a fish tank."

Fish guy crouched in the corner and covered his ears with his fins.

She turned to find them both grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats, and she knew there was more to it than the prospect of an afternoon of fish puns.

"What are you two up to?" she asked.

"Nothin'," Cole said.

"Nothing," Banks repeated.

"Riiight."

The Sergeant came in, then, trailing a hangdog Alvarez. Alvarez picked up his coat and scurried off again without a word.

"Banks, where's Delahoy?" the Sergeant snapped.

"Uh. He had an appointment," Banks said. "Said he'd be back in a bit."

"Good," Sergeant Brown said. "Just caught a case, a snatch-and-grab in Chelsea. I need you two on that."

"Yes, sir, right away," Banks said.

Banks and Cole exchanged a look as the Sergeant returned to his office.

Beaumont folded her arms. "Okay, what's going on?"

At that moment, a four-inch brick of duct tape began to vibrate on Alvarez's desk. It moved in a sluggish circle like a remote controlled car running low on battery.

Cole tried to hide his smile. Banks said, "Ooh, I hope that's not an important call."

Beaumont laughed, both amused and incredulous. "Is that his phone?"

It stopped buzzing. Cole said, "It's all right. They'll call back."

Banks patted his coat pockets and pulled out his own phone. He was muttering to himself as he dialed Delahoy's number. "Appointment, date, whatever, you need to get back here and explain what's going on, oh, and by the way, we have a case..."

The call went to voicemail. Leo shook his head. He was still shaking his head as he went to the front desk to pick up his case file.

Cole turned to Beaumont. "So where are we with Catch of the Day?"

"I'd like to reel him in for a few questions," she said, grinning. "If you can spare a few minnows."

Trout guy said, "This is the worst day of my life."

Beaumont stepped closer to Cole and whispered, "Remember that robbery in Baltimore five months ago? Six guys dressed as mariachi?"

"Yeah," Cole said. He darted a look at the fish. "Four of 'em got away."

She inclined her head.

"You think he's connected?" Cole whispered back.

"He was in the right place at the right time," she answered.

Cole's eyes lit up. "Then let's land 'im."

(break)

"I'm racking my brain here," Walsh said. "I don't think that number is Pi or whatever. I think it's something else. Something closer."

"Like an address," Shraeger suggested.

"No," Walsh said. His brow clouded.

A couple of hours canvassing around Delancey yielded nothing. Nobody had seen anyone in a ski mask that morning, and the security camera at Delancey Produce caught nothing. They'd sent the photos of Cynthia Patronelli's hand to the graphology specialist and were discussing the possibility of grabbing Beaumont and Cole for a quick lunch when Sergeant Brown met them on the stairs.

"Your guy's at it again," Brown said. "The handwriting mugger. Victim's at Memorial with a head wound."

"He did the same thing?" Shraeger asked. "Wrote a message in someone's palm?"

"Get down there. Check it out. This guy's moving fast," Brown said. He continued down the stairs a few steps, then turned back. "Oh, and Walsh. I talked to Alvarez. We need to have a meeting. Soon."

"Yes, sir," Walsh said.

Shraeger waited until Brown was unfurling his umbrella and heading out the door before turning to Walsh. "That sounded serious. What's up?"

"It's not," Walsh said. "If it was, we'd be meeting now. C'mon."

They started back down the steps.

Shraeger said, "But Alvarez is—"

"—a climber," Walsh said. "He's taken it upon himself to keep tabs on us, to distinguish himself. So I've decided..." he opened the door and they stepped out into the rain. "To help him out."

"You're helping Alvarez?" Shraeger said. They darted to the car.

As Shraeger buckled into the passenger seat, Walsh cranked the engine. "It's not a tough nut to crack here," he said. "He wants to climb. We want him off our backs. I figure, Why not help a guy out?"

"What does Sarge think?" Shraeger asked.

"Well, he's listening, so that's something." Walsh said. He angled them into traffic, and they headed uptown.

(break)

It hadn't gone so bad.

These were the first words to cross Eric Delahoy's mind as he re-buttoned his shirt in Dr. Kinslow's office.

Kinslow was young-ish, with bushy eyebrows and a potato-shaped head. Blue eyes. Probably Irish. A picture of his wife and kids propped on the counter. Three kids, all blue-eyed, all with potato heads. Delahoy was receiving life-changing advice from Dr. Potato Head.

Kinslow blathered on about support groups and time lines. He used frightening words like anaplastic and edema and oligoastrocytomas. He mentioned hospice. He scheduled a follow up appointment for the following week. He shook Delahoy's hand, and he thought, See. Not so bad.

Then he went back out into the lobby. He stood before Monica, who stared up at him, still holding the fortune cookie as if it might break.

"Well?" she said.

"Well," he said. "I have a brain tumor." A smile twitched at his lips.

"What did he say?" she asked.

"He asked if I have my affairs in order."

Monica's face was blank. She said, "Eric, I'm so sor—"

"—My affairs are in disorder. Extreme... disorder. My affairs are the French Revolution meets Watergate with J. Edgar Hoover at the wheel. They're a catastrophe. So I'm thinking," he said. "Let's get married."

Her voice dropped an octave. "What?"

"Sure," he said. "Don't you wanna be Doctor Delahoy?"

Monica's eyes flicked a panicked look at the door.

"I'm kidding," Delahoy said. "Mostly kidding." He shrugged. "Actually, no. I'm not kidding."

"We should probably—"

"—Why shouldn't we get married? You're carrying my kid. I'm dying. What could be more perfect?"

"He said you're dying?"

Eric felt his shoulders relax, like he was settling into a new coat. A heavy, ill-fitting new coat, but still...

He'd said it out loud. He was dying. He thought again, It wasn't so bad. Then he thought, Of course it's bad. It's the worse news of my life. I'm dying!

"Eric?"

The others in the lobby glanced uncomfortably at them. Eric wiped at his eyes. "Did I say any of that out loud?"

"Yes."

"How much of it?"

She shrugged.

"Right," he nodded. "So, hey. Let's get food."

"Okay."

"A date, okay?"

Monica swallowed. "Okay." She pocketed the fortune cookie and took his hand.

"Yeah," he said. "We'll save that for later."

(break)

Lupe Carbajal glowered from the edge of his hospital bed. Beside him, his wife fussed over a hospital gown that stretched over his paunch, and he weathered her attention the way a bear might tolerate a swarm of bees. Gauze turbanned his balding head, and the wires from a heart monitor tethered him in place. Otherwise, Shraeger was sure he would have bolted the first time the nurses' heads were turned.

"I'd just gone down to the john," Carbajal was saying. "I'm a coffee and bran muffin kind a guy. Loretta does good by me," he patted his wife's shoulder. "I got a heart condition, she makes sure I eat right. So it was my regular time a day, y'know what I mean?"

Walsh nodded. Shraeger concealed a sneer. Carbajal's wife caressed his hairy forearm.

"We got this port-o-john on site. I went in and when I came out – bam – guy clipped me with a pipe." Carbajal touched the spot on his forehead and winced.

His wife said, "Lupe, stop messing with it!"

He rolled his eyes. "Guy had a good arm, too. One hit, next thing I knew, I'm staring into a rain puddle."

Shraeger said, "Did you get a good look at your attacker, Mr. Carbajal?"

Carbajal's mouth puckered. "Yeah, I saw him, but he was wearin' a mask, like uh, like Spiderman."

"The superhero?" Walsh asked.

"Yeh. Like, red and blue – with stripes on it."

Shraeger and Walsh exchanged a look.

"Then what happened?" Walsh prompted.

"Well, I ain't ashamed to admit, I told the guy to take my stuff. We got three kids, Loretta and me. I ain't about to die for the handful'a crap I got in my wallet. But he says he ain't after nothing like that. He says, and I quote, 'I'm just the messenger and you're the message.' He says, 'There are bigger things than you an' me.' Then he wrote this on my hand—"

Carbajal extended his right hand. Along the length of the man's stubby pointer finger, the attacker had written the number 2153.

"What's that mean?" Loretta said. She huddled closer to her husband. "What kind of message?"

"That's what we aim to find out, Ms. Carbajal," Walsh said. "Now, after the attacker wrote this, did he do anything else?"

"Yeh," Carbajal said. "He went through the pockets of my safety vest." He gestured at the vest, which hung over the back of a chair.

"This vest?" Shraeger said. "Mind if I—?"

"Not at all," Carbajal said. "Waste a time anyway. I don't keep anything in them pockets, but I just kept my mouth shut."

Shraeger pulled on a latex glove and turned out each pocket.

Walsh said, "You did right—"

"—Walsh," Shraeger said. She pulled an object from an interior pocket and rolled it into her palm. It was a wooden pawn from a chess set, painted a dull silver so that it looked like chrome.

"Hey, that ain't mine," Carbajal said. "How'd that get there?"

Walsh put his hands on his hips. He said, "We're gonna find that out, too."

Back in the car, Walsh said, "Okay, let's run this all down."

Shraeger said, "Cynthia Patronelli, 19, student, attacked at 7 a.m. Guy writes the number 314 in her palm, leaves her a cat figurine."

"Then, Lupe Carbajal, 48, construction worker, attacked at 11:45. Guy writes 2153 on his finger. Leaves him a pawn from a chess set," Walsh said.

"Neither victim reports any suspicious activity around their homes. There's no apparent connection between them except for this masked attacker," Shraeger said. "Who may or may not have been dressed as Spiderman."

Walsh drummed the steering wheel with his thumbs. "Patronelli admitted she didn't get a clear look at the mask. But it's the same guy. The handwriting—"

"—it's the same. Don't need a graphologist to tell us that."

"So what's the connection?" Walsh asked.

"Well, you mentioned earlier you thought he'd make another move," Shraeger said.

"And a pawn, that's a definite move."

"You think he's playing chess?" Shraeger asked.

He shrugged. "We'll see if we can get a print off that piece, but I'm betting he's sharper than that. The numbers and figures mean something, though." Walsh squared his shoulders. His jaw tightened.

"You don't like this, do you?" Shraeger said.

"He's leading us," Walsh answered. "Where else would he lead us except a trap?"

Shraeger opened her mouth to respond, but then closed it again. She considered for a long while as Walsh meandered through the rain-hampered lunch time traffic. Then she said, "Okay. We have two minor assaults that were, at first glance, meant to look like muggings—"

This drew a sharp look from Walsh. She understood; the assault on his girlfriend all those years ago had also been meant to look like a mugging.

But then he shook his head, so she went on. "—In each case, the attacker writes a number and leaves an object. Maybe he doesn't injure them too severely because he wants them to be able to talk."

"They have to be able to deliver the message," Walsh said.

"Do you think—" She rolled her eyes. "—Is it a message for us? I mean, the police, us. Not us us."

"I do," Walsh said. He flicked a look in the rearview mirror. "A phone number, maybe? 314-2153?"

"There's no area code, but we'll get a list of phones registered with that number within the area."

Walsh pulled into the parking lot of the Second Precinct. "Yeah, let's do that," he said.

Shraeger's phone rang, then, and she was embarrassed that it startled her, just a little.

"It's just Davis," she told Walsh. He saw that she was rattled, too; Walsh was just better at hiding it. She had to admit she was with him on this – this case gave her the creeps.

Davis slid into the booth of Noodles! Noodles! and folded his coat on the seat beside him. For a moment, he stared at the top of Casey's head as she puzzled over the menu.

Upon closer inspection, he saw it was not a menu but a case file.

Without looking up, she said, "I ordered us spring rolls and tea. Oolong."

"Thanks, Casey," he said. "Any chance I'll see your face or am I dining with The Grudge?"

She glanced up, squinted at him, returned to her file. "Sorry," she said. "You like Oolong, right?"

"Oolong is fine," he said. "You're upset."

"Worried," she said. "It's this case. It's—" She shook her hands. "—bleh, work. Let's talk about you."

"Today Mrs. Tuplantis told me she wants to cut her stepson from the will because he insists on wearing a wig and heels to their neighbor's pool parties in the Hamptons," Davis said.

"Harsh." She smiled.

"Yes," Davis said. "No yacht for Conrad until he grows up and decides to dress like a man. He's forty, by the way."

Casey laughed. "What does a forty-year-old cross-dresser need with a yacht anyway?"

"Exactly," he said. "Casey, I've been thinking."

"Oh?"

The waitress brought their tea and spring rolls. When she asked if they were ready to order, Casey abruptly shooed her away.

Davis grinned. "The other night, when you stayed over..."

"That was a good night."

"An even better morning," he said.

"Wait. Wait," Casey said. "I see where you're going with this, and while I can say that I really like the idea, like I like your apartment and your coffee maker and the way you sing when you're making breakfast—"

"—I... sing?—"

"—Old Boston songs. Adorable," she said.

"But?"

"But I like it for the future," she said. "Not yet. Not now."

"I'm talking about the future, Casey," Davis said. "I'm moving. In January."

Casey blinked. "Moving? Moving where? Not out of the city—"

Davis laughed as if he could never consider it. Much to her relief. "No," he said. "I bought a place from a client. It's on 6th, just below the park. It's one of those obnoxiously expensive places where all the snooty rich people live."

Casey pursed her lips. "You wanna live where all the snooty rich people live?"

"It's a beautiful place."

"There are lots of beautiful, reasonable places."

"You should see the view from the balcony."

"It has a balcony?" Casey opened her menu. "I mean, my place is nice, comfortable, modest. I have a view of a brick wall, but, y'know, it's... cozy."

"Do you even know your neighbors?" he asked.

"I know Mr. Delano," she said.

"Is he the guy in the novelty apron with the strategically-placed hot peppers?"

"No, that's Mr. Bergdorf. Mr. Delano walks around with the plunger and the rubber gloves."

"Right," Davis said. "The guy who yells."

"My building is charming," Casey said. "You gonna order or what?"

Davis suppressed a smile and scanned his menu.

After a moment, Casey said, "You remember I mentioned my friend Cole's wedding on the 24th?"

"I remember."

"You're gonna be my date."

"Can I wear my top hat?"

"You have a top hat?"

"I am filthy rich."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Next time I'm at your place, I'm wearing the top hat."

Davis eyed her sidelong.

"And nothing else," Casey whispered.

"Deal."

"And the wedding?"

"I'm in."

"Then let's eat."

(break)

Leo Banks smoothed raindrops from his pants legs. He squeezed into a kind of cramped breakfast nook piled high with sewing scraps, magazines, and bits of old jewelry. The victim of the snatch-and-grab lilted around the kitchen, pouring tea and arranging cookies on a plate, her patchwork skirt streaming out behind her. She was early 20s, blond, and sported more tattoos than the cast of the Sons of Anarchy, what Eric would call an "earthy" girl.

Banks checked his phone again. No message from Eric. No response to his texts, ditto on the calls. Banks was beyond worried now. He'd moved into full-blown anxiety. He'd already decided to interview this girl and swing by Eric's place to check on him.

This whole situation unnerved him. It was against protocol for Banks to interview this woman alone in her house, but with Alvarez constantly peeking at their logs, Banks felt he had to cover for Delahoy on this one. Actually, now that he thought about it, he'd been covering for Delahoy a lot lately...

"Do you take stevia, honey, or agave in your tea?" the girl asked.

"Uh. None, thanks," he answered. "So Miss..." Banks checked his notepad. "Harper."

"Harper's my first name," she said over her shoulder. "You know, like the author?"

"Right," he said. "So, Miss...?"

"Wrenway." She brought the tray and stacked it on the cluttered table.

"Miss Wrenway," Banks said, scribbling that into his notes. "Report says you had a computer inside a suitcase and someone snatched it?"

She bit her lip. "It wasn't a computer," she admitted. "It was a Golden Retriever. You have nice hands."

Banks stammered, "Uh – Golden Retriever?"

Miss Wrenway sat back and held her mug between her hands. "I've been house sitting for friends who are in Bangkok on business. They had this dog, Elsie, and she was old, really old, like 119 in dog years. I was nervous about caring for her, but they assured me she was just fine."

"But she wasn't fine?" Banks guessed.

"No, she died Sunday night." She sipped her tea.

"It's Tuesday," he said.

"I know." She grimaced. "I didn't know what to do. I wrapped her in some sheets and waited until it was morning in China to call them. They said not to worry, they'd already made plans for her eventual passing, so they gave me the vet's address in Chelsea."

"Oh," Banks said. He was beginning to see where the story was going.

"Elsie was a big dog, Detective Banks," Wrenway went on. "She weighed, like, eighty pounds. I couldn't afford to take a taxi all the way to Chelsea, but how was I going to carry this eighty-pound dog on the subway?"

"So you put it in a suitcase..."

"Exactly. It was on wheels and had a handle." She gave him a thin smile. "So then, this guy on the subway struck up a conversation, guess he thought I was a tourist because he mentioned the suitcase. Well, I couldn't tell him there was a dead dog inside. So I said, 'No, it's a computer. I'm moving it for a friend.'"

"Oh dear," Banks said.

"I should've known. Soon as the train stopped, off he went—"

"—And somewhere in New York, a fence is opening a case containing one deceased canine." He chuckled.

"Oh, it's terrible," she said, trying not to laugh. "You think you'll be able to recover it? My friends love that dog. I mean they did love her. They made arrangements for her burial."

"Well," Banks said. "We'll do what we can. I'll get a description of the bag and the guy who grabbed it."

She was staring at his hands again.

He said, "Miss Wrenway?"

"Sorry. Sorry." She set her cup aside. "I read palms. I could do yours, if you like."

Banks considered. "I don't think so," he said. "I got some place I have to be. But thank you. Another time, maybe?"

"Sure," she said. "I'll just, um, tell you about the guy..."

Through the rest of the interview, the girl kept glancing at his hands, and Leo grew more and more uneasy, and wished, for the thousandth time, that Delahoy was there.

(break)

The door to Monica Crumb's apartment had swelled in its frame. She flounced against it, but it wouldn't budge.

"Here, let me," Delahoy said. He shouldered into it. It squawked, but held firm.

"It warps when it rains," Monica apologized.

"I see that," he said. He slammed into it again. The wood groaned, but stuck. He decided on steady pressure, then, and, gripping the handle, he gave it a good steady push.

She looked worried.

"It's all right, I do this sort of thing all the time," he said.

"I'm concerned you'll break my door," she told him. "I can't afford a replacement."

He smiled through the strain. "Right," he said. Then, with a pop, it opened.

"Milady."

She minced in, moving quickly through the dimly-lit studio, toeing books and scarves and – dishes? – under the velvet settee that crouched in her front room. Eric scratched his head as he followed behind her. She deposited their take-out on a tottery antique table, then turned to him, sweeping her arms wide.

"So, here it is," she said. Then she hugged her arms to her body and bit her lip. "You're my first visitor."

"That's... really?"

She nodded.

He gazed around the dark, cramped space, and nodded appreciatively. She had an impressive number of fairly weighty books piled on makeshift shelves. Several half-melted candles dripped from the squat mantle in her living room. Another low table was stacked with colorful glass bottles and brass figurines. In the corner, he followed the rungs of a questionable looking ladder to the semi-attached loft where he assumed she must sleep.

"So, this is what they call Gothic in all the guidebooks," he said. "You sure you're not the understudy to a guy named Igor?"

There it was again, that smile. It winked out before he was sure he'd seen it, but he found himself watching her, looking for another wisp of it to appear.

"I have wine," she said, going to her pantry, no smile now. "Someone should drink it."

She began to struggle then with the corkscrew. It may have been the cutest thing he'd ever seen, even if it did border on pathetic.

"Again, let me," he said, snatching it from her.

She relinquished the task gratefully and hurried to get the plates and glasses. "We can eat on the fire escape," she said. "I have a nice view of the river. Take off your coat."

"Sure." He peeled off his damp trench and draped it over the back of her settee. "How long you lived here?"

"Three years," she said. She passed him a plate of Szechwan beef, a glass of wine, and chopsticks.

"And I'm the first visitor?"

"Everyone who knows me is related to me, so I see them at my parents' house in Newark," she explained. She led him to the window that opened to the fire escape. She set her plate on the radiator and heaved up the sash. It shrieked like nails on a chalkboard, sending a fresh stab of pain between his eyes. "Sorry," she said.

He blinked back tears. "It's fine." He waved her on. "Go, go."

"Okay." She climbed onto the fire escape, where she had two milk crates arranged around an empty wire spool. He passed her plate through, then joined her. He glanced up to find a canvas awning stretched above them, sheltering them from the rain.

A wide sweep of the river spread out before them, dotted with tugs and tankers and ferries. At night, the view probably went for spectacular.

"So this is your spot?" he said.

Monica had shoveled in a mouthful of noodles, so she nodded fervently.

"Good spot," he said. "See what you mean about the river. Aren't you afraid a seagull might come pick you off? I've seen some big as bicycles..."

She choked on her noodles. He grinned.

Food was still weird to him, so he picked at his Szechwan beef. It was spicy, which helped, but it tasted the way cigarette smoke smells, so... not great.

Monica swallowed. After a moment, she said, "Can I tell you a secret?"

"You have another secret?"

"Yes."

"This one as big as the last one?"

She stabbed at her noodles with the chopsticks. "Maybe?"

"Sure, you can tell me your secret," Eric said. "I might not even blackmail you over it."

"Promise?"

"Pinky swear."

She drew a deep breath. He braced himself. She said, "I hated my job."

"You – you hated your job? That's your secret? That's bigger than 'Surprise, I'm pregnant?'"

"Yes," she said.

"But—"

"I'm Asian!" she said.

"I noticed."

"My parents wanted me to go into medicine," she said. "But I have zero bedside manner—"

"—This I also noticed."

She shrugged. "And I'm good at the forensic part, the whole puzzle of death, you know?"

"Sure, yeah, death's puzzle."

"But I hated the paperwork and the odd hours and the smell and then one night, it came to me, the truth of it all..."

"Yeah, what's that?"

"That we all end up in body bags," she said.

He chuckled dryly. "There's a romantic sentiment."

"Sorry—"

"Nah, don't be," he said. "Anyway, it's not unlike my job."

"But don't you hate it?" she asked.

A faint glimmer lit his eyes. "No," he said. "Sure, long hours, odd smells, and the paperwork, what's to like about those? But I love the job. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a cop. I mean, back in high school, I was the guy who – who kept everyone in the crosswalk, who took everyone's keys at the parties. Like Lloyd Dobler. I was Lloyd Dobler."

"I don't know who that is," she said.

"What?" He sniffed. "Lloyd Dobler. Say Anything." She nibbled a wonton and shook her head. "80s flick, In Your Eyes on the boom box? No?"

"No."

"What are you, fifteen?"

"I'm 28," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Meaning you were born in 1981; there is no excuse."

"Yes, I was born in '81. In Korea," she said.

"Fine, you get the pass. But we're making a list: Things you should see. Fundamental things. Also, things I wanna see, you know, one last time."

She poked through her noodles.

He said, "The Longest Yard, definitely. The Goonies. E.T. – No, not E. T. Too depressing. The Shining. Lethal Weapon." He trailed off, then pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Buddy cops," she said. "Oh." Then, her voice careful and quiet, Monica asked, "Eric, are you here with me because you're avoiding your friend?"

He brought his hands together. "No... No." Then, "Probably, yes."

"He doesn't know."

"Nobody knows," Eric said. "Except us. We know."

She set her plate aside. "What were you going to do? Wait until your brain was riddled with cancerous holes, until you lost control of your major organs and your body finally gave out on you?"

"You paint a real bleak picture, you know that?" he snapped.

Her shoulders sagged. He felt even more wretched. But she was right.

He sighed. "I have to tell him."

"You should," she agreed.

"I don't know how," he said. His throat threatened to close, but he forced himself to continue. "He's my karass."

"He's your what?" Monica asked. She looked cautiously alarmed.

"Karass," he explained, trying not to laugh at her expression. "It's—it's like family, but more than that. Your friends. Your co-workers. People who keep popping up in your life. You, for example. You're my karass, too. We're karass."

"It sounds horrid," she said. Then hastily added, "The word, not the concept."

"Yeah yeah," he said. "I could fall for you, y'know? I mean, if things in my life weren't like a slow motion plane crash—"

She eyed him sidewise. "You're crazy."

"I'm dying," he said. "C'mon. You're exactly my type."

Again, she seemed to sag into herself. A dejected kind of sigh. "I'm nobody's type."

"That's not true." Eric touched her hair.

She angled away from him, and then pulled the fortune cookie from her pocket. She passed it to him; a peace offering.

"Now?" he asked.

She nodded, gravely.

"Okay," he said. "Here goes."

He cracked it open. Read it. Re-read it. Laughed. "Your greatest ally is your own mind," he said aloud. He sniffed. "I think this one must be yours."

She smiled and shook her head. "Maybe it's ours?"

He passed her half the cookie and popped his half in his mouth. It tasted like canned tomato paste. "Yeah," he said. "Maybe it is."

(break)

"Can we get you anything?" Beaumont asked. "Water?"

She smiled at Cole. Cole smiled back. Across the table, the fish stared down at his fins. He looked miserable. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead, and every time he moved the rubber of his suit made embarrassing squelchy noises.

"Look," he told them. "I didn't even mean to rob that store."

"Someone put you up to it?" Cole asked.

"No, nothing like that," the fish said.

Beaumont said, "Then what was it like, Gil? Mind if I call you Gil?"

"My name's Luis."

"I like Gil," Beaumont said.

"Marlin's good, too," Cole said. "We would call 'im that."

"Marlin's a game fish. He doesn't really look like a Marlin..."

Luis the fish threw up his fins. "For the last time, I'm a trout. And my name's Luis. And will you please stop with the damn fish jokes?"

"Oh, look, Cole, he's starting to flounder," Beaumont said.

"Just so long as he doesn't keel over," Cole said.

Luis touched his fins to his forehead. He said, "Here's how it went down, okay. I just got this job at Immanuel's Fish Market. My boss is a funny guy, thought we'd sell more fish if I wore a costume and waved at people on the street—"

"—Waved," Cole said, chuckling.

"Nice," Beaumont agreed.

Luis ignored them. "I went into the liquor store for a pack of cigarettes, and the guy behind the counter totally wigged. He practically threw the money at me. Then he said he had a gun. What was I supposed to do? I ran!"

"What were you supposed to do?" Beaumont balked.

"Probably not take the money," Cole added.

Beaumont nodded. "Might've been wise. Yeah."

Luis was shaking his head. "Next thing I knew police were chasing me through Times Square."

Cole touched Beaumont's arm. "They brought out the big net."

"It was a good haul," Beaumont said. Then she turned serious. "See, Gil, we already read all that here in our report. But certain things just don't line up, if you catch my drift."

Luis looked from Cole to Beaumont then back. "What things?"

"This isn't your first arrest, is it, Gil?" Beaumont asked.

"No," Luis said.

Beaumont opened the file and began to lay out a number of files between them. "Drunk and disorderly. Illegal possession of a hand gun. Theft by check. Forgery—"

"Holy mackerel, Luis," Cole said. "Forgery?"

"Look, I used to run with a bad crowd, but I— I've changed. I got a job and everything. I know it's a dumb job. I wear a fish suit, for Christ's sake, but it brings in money, and I'm trying to go straight." Luis sat back in his chair. His lower lip trembled, like he was about to cry. "Look, I swear."

Beaumont turned to Cole. "You believe this guy?"

"I'm bitin'," Cole said.

Beaumont gave him a surreptitious wink.

"I swear," Luis said again.

"This bad crowd you ran with," Beaumont said. "Were they by any chance interested in, say... Mexican music?"

Luis grew suddenly very still.

There was a knock on the door. Beaumont sent a questioning look at Cole, who responded with the barest of shrugs.

As she got up to answer it, she said, "Take your time. Mullet over." She opened the door wide enough for Alvarez to put his face in.

"You seen my phone?" Alvarez asked.

"You check your desk?" Beaumont snapped.

"Yes," Alvarez answered.

"Well, I haven't seen it," she said.

"Cole—?"

"—is in the middle of an interrogation," Beaumont said, carefully slicing out each syllable.

"Right. Of course. As you were." Alvarez pulled the door closed, and Beaumont returned to the table.

"See," Cole was saying. "In this scenario, you're the little fish—"

"—And the guys you know, your Baltimore friends," Beaumont said. "They're the big fish. We can work a deal here..."

"Kind of a – bait and switch sort of deal?" Luis said hopefully.

"Look at that, Cole." Beaumont smiled. "Now he's speaking our language."

(break)

Leo Banks held the address for Dr. Monica Crumb on a slip of paper between his fingers. After he swung by Delahoy's place and found it empty, Banks began to get desperate, but getting Crumb's information had been simple enough. She was next on his list to contact. He'd done some of the leg work on the Golden Retriever case and was waiting on some calls, but it was clear that it would be a long night.

Another long night.

Right now, he had another call to make. He pressed his phone to his ear while he waited for it to connect. Alvarez came up and tapped on Banks' desk.

"You seen my phone?" Alvarez asked.

Banks swiveled his chair to face the wall as Bridget Demopolis answered on the other end.

Banks said, "Hey, Bridge. Hey – No. No. I'm—" he flicked the paper with his thumb. "I'm not gonna make it tonight." He listened for a minute before cutting back in. "Yeah, no. It's – No, it's Eric. He's MIA." Another pause. "No, it's like him. It's very like him. But – yeah – yes. I know. Thanks. Hm-mm, you too. Bye."

As he hung up, he turned to find Delahoy in the doorway, looking rumpled and contrite.

Banks made a series of miffled noises.

Delahoy said, "Hey."

"Hey?" Banks exploded. "Missing five hours, and you say, Hey? We have a case—"

"Calm down," Delahoy said quietly. "Your eyes are doing that buggy thing. It's creeping me out."

"Oh, calm down, he says. You disappear after lunch, and Dr. Crumb's all like—"

"—Leo," Delahoy shouted. "We need to talk."

Banks froze mid-erratic-gesture. He said, "Yeah. Yeah, okay."

"Not here," Delahoy said. "Get your coat."

"Uh. Sure," Banks said.

(break)

Walsh was on hold with the lab when Banks and Delahoy left. Across from him, Shraeger spoke with a dispatcher who received a call about a suspicious figure wearing a ski mask.

Alvarez hovered near them, attempting several times to get their attention, but they doggedly ignored him.

"Green?" Shraeger said. Walsh, frustrated, tapped his pen on the desk. Shraeger said, "No, no thanks. Our guy is blue and red. More Spiderman, less Ninja Turtle. But thanks again, and let us know if you get anything else."

"Walsh," Alvarez said.

"Not now, Eddie," Walsh snapped. Alvarez held up his hands and headed off to the break room.

"What was that about, with Delahoy and Banks?" Shraeger asked.

"Lover's spat?" Walsh offered.

She nodded, like, That's fair. "Any luck with the lab?"

"Been on hold for—" he checked his watch "—eighteen minutes."

Shraeger blew out a sigh. "I've got a lot of phone work, too. Did you know there are 314 area codes in the United States?"

"Well there's a creepy coincidence," Walsh asked.

"Oh yeah," she said, plucking at the printout on her desk. "I've got all of the greater metropolitan area plus New Jersey here. Gonna be a long night. But the report came in on the cat figurine. No prints, just like you thought, but they set it's part of a set."

"Yeah?" Walsh asked. "Like... bookends?"

"It's the rook of a chess board," Shraeger said.

Sergeant Brown entered and cut across the office like a storm cloud. He leaned over their desks and said, in a heavy, quiet voice, "Your guy again. Victim found at Greenwich and Houston."

Walsh ended his phone call. "Handwriting?" he asked.

"Worse," the Sergeant said.

"You said the victim was found?" Shraeger asked.

"He's in the morgue," the Sergeant said.

"That's not our guy's MO," she said.

"His MO has escalated," Sergeant Brown told her. "Get down to the morgue. Check it out, but keep it quiet, huh? This one's just turned ugly."

"Yes sir," Walsh said, and he and Shraeger headed out as well.

(break)

They entered the morgue to find a young blond man pulling on a pair of latex gloves. He was scruffy in the way of table-top role players, the kind who lives in a basement apartment far from sunlight and subsists on pizza, ramen, and Mountain Dew. He wore a crisp white lab coat and horn-rim glasses. The pin on his lapel read, "Ask me about Zombies!" The body he was about to examine lay beneath a sheet on the metal table, its long, pale feet jutting out at the far end. Instead of a toe tag, a red ribbon had been tied into a bow across the ball of the victim's foot.

Walsh said, "Where's Dr. Crumb?"

The man held up his gloved hands in lieu of a hand shake. "Yeah, Dr. Crumb's been let go. I'm the new guy, Dr. Zimsky. They call me the Zed," he said. He laughed.

Walsh merely stared at him. Shraeger scratched her ear.

"Pulp Fiction," Dr. Zimsky said. "Zed's dead? Nothing?"

"Um, no," Shraeger said. "What's with the ribbon?"

"This place needs some color, dontcha think? I call it the Zimsky Effect. Just because there's doom and gloom up in here, doesn't mean we can't inject a little fun. Amiright?"

"It's a morgue," Walsh said.

Zimsky whistled. "Tough crowd. You must be Detectives Shraeger and Walsh."

Walsh pointed to the body. "That our handwriting victim?"

"Why, yes!" Zimsky said. "Under sheet number one, we have Ross Ryerson. ID lists him as forty-four, a Capricorn, and organ donor. Also, he's survived by no one, so I'm checking dentals to confirm the man was who he said he was."

Shraeger and Walsh exchanged an uncomfortable glance. Shraeger said, "Cause of death?"

Zimsky whipped the sheet back to reveal the body of Ross Ryerson and the quite obvious cause of death. "Gonna take a stab at pointy object to the heart," Zimsky said.

Shraeger sucked air over her teeth. "Wow, that's... impressive."

She looked over at Walsh, who had whitened considerably. She turned back to the body and saw what she'd missed in all of the gaping chest wound.

Carved into the skin above the guy's heart was a three digit number: 7-8-9.

"Walsh?" she said.

He swallowed thickly. "It's a badge number," he said.

"What? Wait. How do you know?"

He gripped the edge of the examining table and blew out a steadying breath. "I know," he said, "Because it's Kowalski's."

END OF PART ONE