Landon Clark cracked open an eye, turning his head just enough to scan the half-darkness of his bedroom. He was still mostly asleep, but he was certain he had heard a voice. “You can either tell me who you are and what you want help with, or you can wait until I wake up on my own.”
The voice giggled. “You’re so grumpy.”
Landon pushed himself up on his elbows, brow furrowed. That wasn’t just a voice. That was a child. He rolled over to his back and sat up. Eyes scanning his room, he reached out to turn on the lamp on his nightstand. “Yeah, sorry about that. I, umm, I’m Landon. What’s your name?”
“Eddie. Nice to meet you. Can you come out so I can see you?”
A little boy manifested near the foot of the bed. His shirt was soaked with blood but was otherwise pristine. A deep and bloody cut peeked out from beneath the collar of his shirt. Landon couldn’t help but wonder how far that wound ate into his abdomen to cause as much blood as it had.
Landon cleared his throat. “What’re you doing here, Eddie?”
Eddie lifted his shoulders. “I dunno. A nice lady led me here and said you would help me.”
“What’d she look like?”
“Like you, kinda. Reddish hair. Greenish eyes. Lots of freckles.”
Landon nodded. His sister. She was dream walking again. “That’s my sister. She’s right. I, uh… I’m pretty good at helping kids in your situation.”
Eddie cocked his head to the side. “A dead situation?”
“Oh. Okay, so you know you’re… That’s something. Do you know how it happened?”
“Sorta. Bits and pieces.” Eddie looked down as he ground the toe of his bloody slipper into the carpet. “Do we have to talk about it?”
“Not if you don’t want to.” Landon turned toward his nightstand as his phone rang. “Do you mind if I answer that?”
Eddie shook his head. “That’s okay. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Yeah,” Landon whispered. He grabbed his phone, staring down at Miguel’s name on his screen. Though a phone call or a text from his boss always made him a little warm and giddy inside, he had a feeling the reason for that morning’s phone call was standing at the end of his bed. He glanced back at Eddie before accepting the call and pressing his phone to his ear. “Morning, Miguel.”
“Morning.” Miguel cleared his throat. “I hate to ask on such short notice, but are you busy today?”
“Not really. What’s up?”
“I got called in for work. I, umm… Eliseo needs a sitter for a few hours.”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll be over in… fifteen?”
“Fifteen works. Gives me enough time to shower. Thank you, Landon.”
“Of course. See you soon.” Landon ended the all, unable to help the little smile that came to his face. Despite the fact that it usually meant someone had died, Landon always enjoyed when Miguel called him before he took his morning shower. It almost always meant he’d get a nice look at Miguel’s chest for a minute or two before he got dressed.
Miguel was about twenty years older than Landon and would likely never be interested in him, but that didn’t stop Landon from looking.
“I have a babysitting job to get to. How do you feel about hanging out in the living room and watching as much YouTube as you want? Or as many cartoons? Up to you.”
Eddie smiled, and for a moment, it was almost easy to ignore the blood and visible wounds peeking out from beneath his clothes. It was almost easy to picture him as a lively little boy instead of a dead child. “That’d be cool.”
“Awesome. Come on. Let’s go find you something to watch.”
Scrubbing at his hair with his towel, Miguel headed to the front door. He unlocked the doorknob, a frown on his face. The door only had one lock. When he had lived alone–save for his allotted weekend every month with Eliseo–that hadn’t been a problem. Now, with a three-year-old in the house that could reach the doorknob, it didn’t seem like the safest option. He made a mental note to stop at the hardware store after the crime scene and pick up another lock. Maybe three.
He tacked on a second mental note to make it well-known that the new desire for locks had absolutely nothing to do with the homicide coincidence and everything to do with Eliseo’s safety.
Miguel pulled open the door. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. I wasn’t supposed to work today, but…”
“Crime never stops,” Landon filled in. Not for the first time, those sparkling brown eyes dragged over Miguel’s bare chest before settling on his face again.
It was always a nice little boost to Miguel’s ego, a twenty-something finding him attractive enough to catch his bottom lip between his teeth for a split second as he gave him a nice once-over. Miguel wasn’t exactly oblivious to Landon’s good looks or charm, either, but he had no intentions on acting on it. Truthfully, he didn’t have the balls to. Even after he had admitted to himself he was gay–after the divorce and the fallout that had come with it–he had never worked up the courage to be with a man. He wasn’t sure he ever would.
Landon often made him wish that he would, though.
Miguel cleared his throat. “Sure doesn’t.” He nodded toward the kitchen and stepped back from the door. Landon walked inside, closing the door behind him. “Eliseo’s still asleep. He had another nightmare this morning, so he might be a little jumpy, and he’ll probably be a bit groggy.”
Landon nodded. “Anything we should avoid today?”
“If you happen to know where he heard about Father Whipper, then yeah, avoid that.”
Miguel offered a shrug, hoping it came off as nonchalant as he intended it to. It was nice to pretend that the murder of a three-year-old the same exact morning his son practically predicted it didn’t bother him. It was nice to pretend there weren’t a million questions, what ifs, and concerns swimming around in his head.
It was nice to pretend it was just a normal Sunday in December.
“Father Whipper. He called him some French-sounding name too, but I don’t remember what it was. I was planning on checking to see if that monster show added some new fucked up villain character.”
Landon shook his head. “Not that I know of. I always sit here and watch it with him.” He chuckled. “Their newest villain is actually a nod to the Winchesters from Supernatural. Flannel shirts and everything.”
“It’s good to know that’s a bit more child-appropriate than this Father Whipper thing.” Miguel let out a breath. “Back at square one.”
Landon smiled. “I’ll see if I can get any info out of him today. Sometimes he likes talking about the nightmares while he colors. Maybe I can find out where he heard about Father Whipper.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the hell out of that.” Miguel cleared his throat. “I’m gonna finish getting dressed, and then I’ll be on my way. Hopefully I won’t be gone all day.”
“Well, take your time. I’m here today as long as you need me.”
A smile tugged at one corner of Miguel’s mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard that. It was such a simple phrase, such an easy one to put together, but it felt warm and kind and caring. Especially coming from Landon. “Thank you. Don’t know what the hell we’d do without you.”
“Oh, it’s no problem. Eliseo’s a good kid. The least I can do is try to help take away some of the scariness of the bad dreams.”
“It’s appreciated.” Miguel took a small step back. “You know the drill. Coffee’s in the kitchen, food’s in the fridge. Make yourself at home.”
Landon nodded. “Sounds good.”
Miguel turned and headed back to the bathroom. He closed the door and leaned back against his, dropping his head to it as he closed his eyes. He allowed himself to pray the dead toddler was a coincidence one more time before he went about getting dressed.
While Miguel finished getting dressed in the bathroom, Landon walked back to the bedroom to check on Eliseo. The boy lay sound asleep in the middle of his toddler bed. Landon always found himself surprised that the boy was able to sleep at all. His sister had started seeing things in her dreams pretty early on, and she’d had insomnia practically ever since. But Eliseo took the nightmares in stride and just kept pushing forward. He was a strong kid, that was for damn sure.
“That you, Landon?”
“Yeah, buddy, it’s me.” Landon crossed the room and knelt down beside the bed. “How’re you doing?”
“Okay. Daddy protected me from the bad guys in my dreams.”
“Yeah? Your daddy’s pretty strong like that.”
Eliseo nodded. “He is.” He shoved a little hand under his pillow, eyes meeting Landon’s. “Are you gonna tell my daddy you like him?”
Landon smiled. “Maybe someday.”
“You always say that. It’s code for ‘never’.”
Landon scoffed. “Is not.”
“You’re a chicken,” Eliseo whispered.
“Maybe I am. Or maybe I just like you and your daddy too much to risk my job here.”
“Maybe,” Eliseo agreed with a little nod. “Are you babysitting today?”
“Yeah. Just gonna be you, me, and some cartoons for a few hours. Your daddy got called in for work.” Landon combed Eliseo’s light brown curls away from his forehead. “But if you’re tired, you can go back to sleep for a little while. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“And… you’ll protect me from the bad guys while I’m asleep?”
“Oh, of course. The best I can.”
Eliseo nodded. “Okay. Wake me up when my monster show is on.”
Landon chuckled softly. “You got it, buddy.”
Miguel pulled up to the yellow crime scene tape and shifted into park. He cut the engine in the cruiser and pulled the keys from the ignition, hands falling to his lap. He wasn’t ready for this scene, not really. The mutilated corpse of a toddler wasn’t something anyone wanted to see, something anyone could ever be prepared for, but there was something he had that the other detectives didn’t.
A toddler son at home. A toddler son who most likely knew the dead kid. A toddler son who was most likely friends with the dead kid.
He let out a slow breath, closing his eyes. The longer he put it off, the longer he’d simply build up the dread, the worry, the fear. The longer he put it off, the longer the idea that this wasn’t some kind of coincidence had to ferment in his brain. He didn’t want to allow the thought to take root. He didn’t want his daily decisions based upon some damn legend he’d never even heard of.
Miguel flinched at the knock on his window. He forced his eyes open and turned to the cop standing outside his cruiser. Miguel let out a breath. Might as well get it over with. He pushed the driver’s side door open and climbed out of the car. “Morning, Justin.”
Justin nodded. “Morning.” He cleared his throat. “It’s a real fuckin’ mess in there, Miguel. If you can’t do this—”
“I’ll let you know once I see it. For now, let’s go see if we can’t find anything that tells us who murdered a little boy, okay?” Miguel asked.
Justin nodded. “I-I’ll take you to the door, but I can’t go back in there.”
“That’s fine, Justin. I sure as hell can’t blame you for that.” Miguel pocketed his keys and closed the door. “Take me up.”
Justin turned and headed for the butcher shop. Miguel followed, hands shoved into his pockets. “Watch your feet and all that good shit. We’ve had both of our analysts in there, and neither could handle it. Chief is calling in outside help for it, so… be careful.”
“I will. I’ll just stay in the doorway if I’m worried getting over to the body without stepping in or on something will be impossible.”
Justin reached out with a gloved hand and pulled open the door of the shop. The little bell above the door jingled, celebrating the arrival of a homicide detective rather than a customer.
Miguel stepped through the doorway, avoiding the broken glass on the ground. “Is the broken glass from us or the killer?”
“Us. The door was locked.”
Miguel nodded. “Any idea who Chief is bringing in?” he asked
“Heard her mention Pitman’s name.”
“The one and only.”
Miguel glanced up at the ceiling. “His glory analyst still that Austen guy?”
“I think so.”
“So… Chief’s going to call and ask Pitman to send in a forensic analyst that was in the news, like… last year for being charged with, what, three homicides?”
Justin offered a shrug as he stopped at a door near the counter. “The charges were dropped during the trial. I don’t think Pitman would fire his star dude over a wrongful accusation.”
“Yeah, or Pitman had something to do with his release,” Miguel said.
“Possible. But the guy’s good at what he does. If any analyst is going to be able to stand in there and take pictures… it’d be him.” Justin cleared his throat. “Speaking of, this is as far as I go. Kid’s through that door.”
Miguel stopped in front of the closed door and let out a breath. “Is it bad because it’s a kid, or because of what was done to him?”
“Both, but I’d still have a hard time going in there if it was an adult.”
Unfortunately, Miguel wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than whatever answer he had been expecting. He drew in a breath and held it as he opened the door. The moment his eyes landed on the boy, he averted his gaze, focusing on the floor instead. He watched his step as he made his way over to the body. He stopped at the drain on the floor, unable to draw himself away from the blood that had pooled around it as it slowly dripped through the drainage holes.
Swallowing, he forced himself to lift his head.
The boy hung right side up on a meat hook shoved between his shoulder blades. He’d been cut open from his groin up to his chin. Miguel wasn’t certain of which organs had been left behind and thrown on the table behind the boy’s corpse, but there were at least three of them.
He lifted the back of his hand to his mouth, looking down as he took a small step back. The boy was a kid from Eliseo’s daycare. Eddie Something. They’d had a couple playdates here and there, and Eliseo enjoyed playing make-believe Pokemon games with him.
“Fuck,” Miguel whispered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Pareja?” Justin asked from outside the door.
“Just making sure.” Justin cleared his throat. “How’re you doing?”
“Not great, but I’m managing.” Miguel turned away from the boy and made his way back to the door. He walked into the main part of the shop, and Justin closed the door behind him. “Who found the body? How did they find the body?”
“Somebody heard screaming inside and called us. I and two other patrol cops responded to the dispatch and found, umm…” Justin nodded toward the door.
Miguel nodded. He lifted his hands to his hips as he bowed his head, doing what he could to keep his thoughts strictly case-related. “Do we have the name and address of the caller?”
“Yeah. Gal who owns the bar across the street. She lives right above it, so she was at home when she heard the screams and called us. I’m sure Dispatch has a first name for her.”
“All right. I’m gonna take a little break and then head over there to talk to her. I want the owner of the butcher shop found and taken to the station for questioning. Put him in interrogation three and give him coffee and breakfast. Not the coffee at the station. Actual good coffee. I don’t want him thinking he’s a suspect right now.”
Justin nodded. “Can do, Pareja. See you at the station.”
Miguel offered a terse nod and walked out of the shop. He headed for the cruiser, pulling his phone from his pocket as he walked. He pulled up Landon’s number from his contacts, called it, and pressed his phone to his ear.
“Miguel? Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just need you to, umm, to do a favor for me.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Miguel pressed his free hand to the hood of his car, bowing his head. “Go into Eliseo’s room and check his windows. Make sure they’re closed and locked.”
A pause. “Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Of course. It’s just a little chilly out this morning. Wanna make sure I closed his windows and that he can’t open them.”
“Okay,” Landon said slowly. It took little more than a minute for him to come back with, “All of them are closed and locked.”
“Good,” Miguel whispered. “The front door and the one that leads to the backyard. Locked?”
“I’ll go check.”
“You’re welcome.” Another pause. “Both are now locked.”
Miguel closed his eyes. “Thank you, Landon.”
“I, uh…” Miguel cleared his throat. “I’ll hopefully see you soon to relieve you from spontaneous babysitting duties. Got a couple people to question, but once I’m at the station, I can come get him and have him there with me.”
“No worries, Miguel, seriously. Eliseo’s a great kid, and my day’s free, anyway. I’m here for as long as you need me.”
“Mmhmm. I’ll see you when I see you.”
Miguel nodded, though the younger man couldn’t see him. “See you when I see you.”
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