"Jackpot, damn it where the hell are you? Report!"
"…. Coming out of …. Fuckin' monster … Hawk? Sarge? …."
The screams echoed along the walls of the cave as the rock shifted and moved, tunnels sinking in on themselves and opening anew in a different direction as he ran, boots kicking up dust that coated his goggles, clouded his sight.
The only answers were screams that ended in bloody gurgles.
He jerked awake, sweat pouring off his body, thin scratchy sheets wet beneath his naked back, the heat of the Afghani summer settled in his bones, burning its way back out through his skin. The smell was the last thing to fade – rich metallic tang of blood, stench of rotting flesh, reek of excrement – lingering long after the death rattles had faded from his ears. Sitting up, he pushed away the spike of fear that was pounding in his chest by sheer will alone. Hand dragged through his wet hair, feeling the spikey length he'd let grow, a fuck-you reaction to being discharged just like the goatee. He should shave it all, go back to a buzz cut, but Roger liked the look, said more women were coming into the club to see the new bouncer. God, he'd even let himself get talked into blonde highlights because he needed the damn job; they'd only let him out of the VA if he had proof of employment.
Swinging his legs over the side of the twin bed, he felt the bite of iron from the frame, only a thin mattress separating his ass from the rods that supported him. Everything was cheap, second-hand, most left from the last tenant of this tiny apartment, not more than 200 square feet with a hot plate for kitchen, and a toilet and shower in the corner hidden behind a hanging bed sheet. But it was his, close to work and far away from hospital beds and psych eval couches, and he was going to damn well get past this because that's what he did – Clint Barton was nothing if not a survivor.
The clock read 4:34 a.m., little more than two hours of sleep, and he knew there'd be no more rest tonight, his heart racing, eyes darting to every shadow. Standing, he ran cold water in the miniature sink, splashing it on his face; there was only one thing to do at this point if he wanted to function tomorrow. Tossing his sweaty boxers into the laundry basket under the bed, he dragged on shorts and his USMC t-shirt, tied on his ancient Nikes, and grabbed a few things as he headed out the door. He didn't worry about the noise as he clattered down the stairs; his neighbors mostly worked nights, one of the draws of the building being the location, just on the edge of a good neighborhood, riding the cusp of a more commercial area with bars and nightclubs, not all that far from a darker part of town. In less than fifteen minutes, he could be in the kind of place where people locked their doors as they drove through or jogging past rows of houses with watered lawns and SUVs parked in the driveway.
The first few jolts of his feet against the pavement surprised his body, and then the steady rhythm began to push the panic back into the little box that Clint kept locked and secured right next to what was left of his heart. Each footfall cleared his brain, tension blowing out with his exhales; he didn't listen to music, letting the night and the sounds set the pace for him, sometimes a slow lope that might take him down a sleepy street, sometimes a faster run with cars whizzing on the overpasses above him. That was where he headed, down a street of closed shops, the one 24-hour mini-mart open on the corner, a light on in the bakery where Miguel was already at work baking the day's bread for the local restaurants. Down an alleyway, out along a service street, heading for the darkness of the concrete and overgrown shadows.
Not for the first time he wondered just what the hell he thought he was doing in L.A. It wasn't like he had family to go to, a place that he thought of as home; he could have picked anywhere beside this sprawling collection of elitist phonies with more money than anyone should have and the struggling wannabes who willing sold their souls for a shot at stardom. Oh, there were good people trying to live a normal life, but there was something in the water out here, or maybe in the seemingly perfect weather that was never too hot or too cold, that made even the sanest person a little crazy. So why did he think this was a good idea? His gut reaction when they told him he was getting better, to start thinking about a life beyond guns and killing and dead bodies, was to find a shack in Montana, grow a Grizzly Adams beard and become one of those separatists who mined their property and told the government to shove their tax bills up their ass. But he'd let Sarge talk him into this place with the bronzed skin of plastic bodies and bright red convertibles; he owed Sarge for dragging his sorry ass out of that hellhole of a cavern, and when he'd suggested he move, Clint had moved. He respected the man, the cop who'd enlisted and almost got killed with the rest of the grunts in his company. So here he was, jogging in the wee hours of the morning in an increasingly dicey section of town, completely unfazed by the dangers around him.
Clint knew dangerous, felt comfortable with the prickly hairs on his neck that might mean someone was watching, the solid weight of the illegal pistol he had tucked in the waistband of his shorts, the metal slick now with sweat as it rode up and down against his back, and the shadowy movements in the corner of his eye as he ran past weed infested empty lots riddled with broken bottles and used needles. This side of L.A. – the seedy underbelly was what Michael Connelly called it in the Hieronymus Bosch novels Clint read - felt familiar, like the life he'd thought he'd left behind when he joined the army at 18-years-old, eager to enlist to get the hell out. How easily he'd slipped right back into it, a bouncer a perfect cover for the other 'jobs' Roger had started offering, simple things like guarding a VIP or watching a door or driving him around. Offering money that he could use to get a better place, buy a fucking car that worked since that was a requirement for living in this place – and jobs that would lead to bigger participation in the flow of drugs that Roger managed so expertly.
Even at this hour, the hum of the tires on the concrete towering above his head was steady; L.A. never stopped moving, it seemed, even if the streets closed up in certain areas. The night was just the right temperature; he was sweating, but not overheated, endorphin high making his senses heightened, a pale imitation of the rush he'd feel before battle, enough to convince him he had a handle on himself again. Wiping the salty drops away from his eyes, he noticed a glint of white, pale and out of place, a glimmer of red half-hidden between the massive support pillars. He slowed, registering the details – bare leg, shoeless foot, dainty and small, black sequined dress catching the ambient light, brown hair spread out around her face, glassy eyes staring sightlessly up, red spattered on the wan skin, the outstretched arms, throat torn open down to the spine.
He almost kept going, running away from the body; who was he to get involved? He'd seen enough death to know that wound was fatal. There was nothing he could do for her except tell someone she was there. Stay out of it and go on with his so-called 'recovery.' Yeah, right. Clint had never run from any fight and he couldn't start on this one, not when his brain was screaming at him to get a closer look, to find out if … He stopped but stayed on the sidewalk, not stepping into the weeds because he'd leave a footprint and other evidence, contaminate the crime scene. He didn't spend four years as an MP to not learn a thing or two about forensics. Instead, he used his phone as a light, panning from her feet up to her head.
She was dressed for a club or party, not super-expensive clothing, but nice enough quality, clearly not a hooker with her velvet wrap and black clutch spilling out make up, keys, edge of a driver's license. Scavengers hadn't yet picked her clean, but they would if no one had found her. The wound demanded his attention; long slashes that carved into the skin in even rows, four of them, edges of the skin rolled back to reveal the muscles and tendons below. White bones of the spine buried amid the fleshy pink, red blood congealed and turning to brown. He wondered if rigor mortis had set in – she'd been killed here based upon the arterial spray – and he violently tamped down the memory associated with that knowledge, the helpless blue eyes begging for him to do something, anything, as his friend's lifeblood painted the walls and the front of Clint's camo. Damn it all. Now he had to know, had to find out if he had finally gone crazy because it sure as hell looked like this girl had died the same way Jackpot and C-chord and Jasper had. And that was impossible because they'd gone down in a cave in Afghanistan, not under an expressway in L.A.
Digging his cellphone out of his pocket, he dialed Sarge's home number, one of only two other people who'd understand.
"This is the third one," Detective Amanda Walsh told Angel as she lifted up the crime scene tape to let him cross under. "I'm not ashamed to tell you that it's creeping me out. Looks for the world like something ripped her throat open and … gnawed on her. The powers that be downtown are sticking with the animal attack story, but two bodies are accidents. A third is a serial killer to the media. They'll be all over this. The Party Girl killer; I can already see the headlines."
Angel watched Walsh's face, her weathered brown skin crinkled around her eyes as the crime techs went to work. This working grandmother had been one of his past success stories, a woman who not only had faced down the weirdness of the supernatural world she never knew existed but also stepped up to the plate to help fight it. She callrf him when cases came along that smelled of magic and demons; any number of people in L.A. owed their lives to this petite woman with a massive heart.
"Can you get me close enough to see the body?" Angel knew that Faith was already circling the area, moving through the crowd of onlookers to check them out, see if the murderer was enough of an egotist to stick around. It would be too easy, of course, if they found him hanging out at the crime scene.
"Hey, Joe, you remember Angel? Helped us out with the Cameron kidnapping?" For a tiny thing, she could muscle her way through the men without much effort. "He's going to stand right here and do a look-see for a case he's working on." She parked him close enough to smell the drying blood and see the green of the girl's lifeless eyes. Squatting down, he took his time. The problem was it could be a vampire who played with his killed, any number of demons, and a few minor deities. There were far too many things with claws and teeth that liked to eat their victim. Nothing else pointed to a specific answer. When he rose, he gave Walsh a slight shake of his head, and the hope fell out of her face. "Yeah, too easy, I know. At least this time we got to her faster; we've already traced her movements for the evening thanks to her identification. Carrie Martin, aka Carly McMann, her screen name, aspiring actor … isn't everyone out here? … actually landed some parts in episodic TV and was getting a name for herself. Lived with a roommate, one Beverly Thomas, another starlet. The two went out clubbing with friends tonight. Beverly left early with her boyfriend; last time she saw her, Carrie was dancing with some people she knew from her last job. Looks like she was taken either from the club or on her way home."
"Did the person who found her see anything?" Angel caught Faith's negative sign; nothing unusual around the area. Whoever did this was probably long gone.
"Out jogging, saw her, and called it in." Walsh nodded towards a figure in shorts and loose t-shirt standing with his back towards them, talking to a cop in uniform.
"Jogging at this time of night?" Angel asked skeptically. Only crazy people with a death wish or monsters were out and about in the dark of the morning.
"Served in Afghanistan, from what I hear, with Dee Graham, a good cop out of the 37th. A war hero, it looks like." Walsh heard a voice call her name, and she left Angel standing there as she crossed over to a group of men in suits who had just pulled up in a dark sedan. Angel looked back at the body one last time and then turned his gaze on the jogger, deciding whether he should try to interview him here at the scene or wait until later.
"Well, well, didn't know you appreciated a fine ass as much as me," Faith said as she sidled up next to him. Her eyes did a slow scan of the jogger's backside. "That is a nice view, but I didn't think you swung that way."
The joking was slowly coming back, the banter between them less forced. It had been a while since either of them had the time or the inclination; in the aftermath, they'd been too focused on simply holding on, putting one foot in front of the other to get through each hour. Maybe it was time to move on, deal with the terrible hand they'd been dealt.
"Hey, what makes you think I've never?" Angel even managed a half-hearted smile, and he could see that Faith appreciated the effort.
"Because you, Angel, are so straight that you'd spontaneously combust if you ever even thought about it. And there are many women grateful for that fact." She tossed back a brown curl that had come free in the light breeze. "And I think I just might be happy that I've got a free shot at that."
"Well, since he's the one who found the body …" Angel didn't have to wait for the smile that curled around Faith's lips and the way she sauntered over towards the jogger, taking the lead. Knowing she could handle herself, he stopped to speak to Joe about some details.
Clint watched the busy scurry of the police, eyeing the onlookers for suspicious activity, giving himself something to keep his brain busy and force back the memories that threatened to swamp him. The sweat on his body had dried, leaving his skin clammy as the night lightened around him with the approaching sunrise. He thought of how Roger would react to him talking to the police, if this would screw up his job security, if a thug had such a thing.
"It's okay, Hawkeye. You're not on duty tonight." Sarge laid a comforting hand on Clint's shoulder. "The cops know what they're doing."
"Yeah, I know. Old habits," he laughed, making light of it all, but the Sarge had seen it too, his face showing his surprise when saw the body.
"So, how's the job going?" Sarge asked awkwardly changing the subject to something safer.
"Pays the rent and I have my days free, so I can't complain." Last thing Clint wanted was Sarge to get suspicious; he'd been too good to Clint for him to let him down now.
"Excuse me," the woman interrupted, cigarette in her hand. "You don't have a light do you? I know you're not supposed to smoke at a crime scene, but I'm jonesing something bad. Trying to quit, you know, but it's really hard when you see shit like this on a daily basis. My partner," she jerked her head towards a knot of detectives and cops, "is on a health kick, so I have to hide from him if I want a smoke."
"Sorry," Clint showed her his empty hands. "I don't generally smoke while I run."
Sarge had a lighter, and she drew in as the end turned red, blowing out her first breath of smoke away from them. Dark brown hair, muscular body clad in jeans, t-shirt and leather jacket, she looked far too young to be a detective, but Clint wasn't the best at judging age. Everyone thought he was ten years younger that he actually was, so the woman could easily be in her thirties. Then he really looked into her eyes – and saw a world of hurt there, the kind of sadness that only loss and pain could bring, a coldness he knew lived in his own eyes. Yeah. She'd seen a lot of shit like this.
"You found the body then?" she asked casually, taking another long drag on the cigarette, a satisfied little moan escaping her lips as the taste of nicotine rolled over her tongue. Oh, yeah, that too he could understand. Maybe if Clint hadn't already been messed up because of the nightmare, the dead body, the similarities he might have noticed that the woman's question was a little too casual, her words a little too laced with sex appeal, and the alarms would have gone off in his brain. It could have been that the smell of the smoke stirred his own craving for a drag or that it had been a long time since a woman made him have any kind of reaction; for whatever reason, he ignored all the warnings.
"Just happened to be jogging by." He must have looked too longingly at her because she pulled out a pack of Marlboros and offered them both one; Clint took his but Sarge shook his head no.
"I'm going to step over here and see if you're free to go," Sarge said as he gave Clint a light. "Plus, I don't know if my willpower is up to snuff tonight. Going to run In the face of temptation. The wife will kill me if I come home smelling of smoke anyway."
"So, they're going with an animal attack," she offered after the other man had walked away.
"In L.A.? More likely a deranged werewolf wannabe. Ran into a group of kids who actually thought they were vampires. Real ones. Drank blood and everything." They'd come into the club just three days ago, all dressed in black and red, white makeup, the whole nine yards. What did those brats know about suffering anyway?
"I blame that damn book series, sparkly vampires who are nothing but creepy stalkers. Someone should stake Edward's ass," she laughed at that, some private joke it seemed. At least he knew what she was talking about. Too many references from the past few years sailed right over his head. "You didn't see anything did you? I'd love to catch the bastard who killed these women."
"Sorry, just saw the body and called Sarge." These women? Clint caught the plural and his head spun. There'd been more than one? "I wish there was more I could do to help."
"Hey, Clint," Sarge said, looking up from his confab with another officer. "They said you're free to go. I'll give them your number if they need to call."
Angel gave one last survey of the area before looking for Faith; she was still with the jogger, half-smoked cigarette in her hand, one of her favorite ways to initiate a conversation.
"Hey Clint," a man said. "They said you're free to go. I'll give them your number if they need to call."
The jogger turned, giving Angel a full profile view of his face, and Angel felt like the breath had been knocked out of him. It was impossible. He'd killed Penn himself a few years ago. Watched him turn to ash. But here he was, standing within touching distance of Faith – who'd never had the pleasure – chatting over another dead woman. New name, different clothes, no glasses, but, god, he looked just like him.
Clint nodded goodbye Sarge and took the opportunity to get the hell out of dodge. Something was raising the hackles on the back of his neck, and his brain was screaming at him to get out of there. With a quick thanks to the female detective for the smoke, he started off towards his apartment, jogging slowly as he went. Within steps, he knew he was being followed, the lightest of scuffs and moving shadows betraying that there was at least two of them; he cut through an alley to the busier street, intent on luring them out in the open, his heart beating with excitement at the thought of a fight. He whirled as he heard the sound behind him, lashing out with a martial arts kick that a dark-haired man in a leather coat deflected – he'd seen him at the scene with the cops. He rolled, managing to evade the woman's first rush – the detective? - and then it was a tangle of punches and kicks as they tried to corner him against a dumpster. They worked together as only long time teammates could do, and their strength was amazing, more than human. He held his own as long as he could against them both, but she finally landed a punch that knocked his head hard into the metal side of the garbage bin. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he slid to the ground, unconscious.