DescriptionA police detective solves a crime...
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Lewis entered his small, smoky apartment with an exhausted sigh. Was this how it was supposed to end? He'd never really wondered what happened at the end of supernatural thrillers, how the camera always dissolved on happy faces of the heroes who'd saved the day. But what about the next day, when they all had to go back to work? Was it even possible to do that, with the experiences fresh in their minds. His week had begun normally--investigating a murder on 57th Street. Standard stuff: stab wounds, blood in little pools, the scent of piss & shit from the bowels evacuating... and a whole bunch of eyewitnesses who "din see nuffin" when it happened. But when Offenbach showed up at the scene he knew something was up. One doesn't see a representative from Special Branch too often unless there's a politician or celebrity involved. Offenbach was a triple PhD in Behavioral Sciences Division--and a big dog in the tri-state area. "What do you think of the situation, detective?" Offenbach had asked. It was a setup question, without a doubt. Probably an attempt to play wise Obi-Wan to his clueless Luke. But there was no way out, so he replied pro forma: "Looks pretty standard," then adding, "until you showed up. Want to tell me what's going on, doc?" When the photographer had finished flashing her camera, Offenbach had passed by the yellow tape and inspected the scene. He lifted the man's head and exposed a section of neck. "See that?" he asked Lewis, pointing at the spot with a pen flashlight. Lewis knelt down to peer at the spot he'd been indicating. The man's neck had a bizarre red and black tattoo just below the collarbone--easily concealed in regular clothing, but also easy to reveal if he needed to on short notice. "It's a tattoo. What's the deal?" he asked. "The deal," Offenbach responded, pulling out a tablet, "is this." He pulled up an image of the bizarre red and black shape, showing it to Lewis in eerie screen glow. It looked like a photo of an old piece of paper or parchment--something he'd see in an archaeology class. "And what's that?" Lewis inquired. "The brand of Ashaii," Offenbach replied. "It's an old cult from the Mesopotamian area, or present-day Iraq. It was recovered from a manuscript by an Egyptian physician living in present-day Syria. And it's a problem." Offenbach lifted himself, with some effort, up to his full height and tucked the tablet away. "Ashaii was a demon spirit which demanded human sacrifices. That was pretty common back then, with Ishtar in Syria being one of the most brutal goddesses of the period--she liked child sacrifices." "I'm an Atheist, you know." Lewis offered. "I don't need to believe an invisible man lives in the sky or another lives under the ground to get through my day. This city is complicated enough without all that crap." "And you're experienced enough to know that personal disinterest in the gods doesn't mean that others don't pick and choose what parts of their holy books will most efficiently feed their need for ego integrity." "Remember the Coker case?" Lewis replied. "The mother kills her kid because she said God talked to her & said she should be the new Abraham; talking about a 'test of faith' that she'd do it. But since no angel interceded, she went ahead & offed her kid." "Streamed it live on YouTube, I remember." Offenbach grimaced, the case from several years ago still stung despite the years. "Then she had a screaming meltdown that God didn't show up to congratulate her. She claimed post-partum depression and got ten years in the loony bin--served three and she was out on the streets again." "A man who kills a kid is a monster who deserves prison and Hell. A woman kills a kid and everybody wonders how society failed her," Lewis added. "I know the spiel." "You got a family?" Offenbach asked. "Ex-wife, but no kids. I got snipped a few years ago. Not interested in long-term commitments. Plenty of those in my wheelhouse already." The older man rubbed his brow in contemplation, "Can't say I blame you. This is no world to bring a kid into. And the last thing this city needs is a resurgence of Ashaii worship," Offenbach finished. "I'll be in touch with you, detective." The two exchanged business cards and went their own ways. Religious guy gets whacked; motive? Who knows. Probably a drug deal gone bad. Lab found illicit substances--nothing specific but just traces of rudimentary chemicals found in half a dozen psychotropic drugs. The guy had been doing something in the past and maybe wanted to score a fix. Or it could have been any of the standard murder motives: money, revenge, infidelity, to conceal another act--and that didn't count the standard crazies who crazied for a living. Lewis's life was not that simple. He learned the next day from Offenbach that at a previous murder site, the investigation team had discovered a tattered old notebook with an inscription in a language Offenbach could read. This bore the prophecy: By unnatural birth will the goddess return, to slake her thirst for the blood of the living. Standard crap, but people bought this bunk and that made his job a lot harder. Over the next several days, he'd worked with Offenbach to uncover the cult within the seedy underbelly of the city. Based out of an abandoned church on the wrong side of town, the group had planned to cut a baby out of a pregnant woman and consecrate it in blood to Ashaii, to bring forth the evil goddess in full form. Ashley Grantman had been a dope fiend for years, selling sex to get her fixes and getting slaps on the wrist from local cops because it was the only way she could make a living. Her pelvis had been misshapen from years of physical and sexual abuse as a child, and her three pregnancies so far had been spontaneous miscarriages. Nobody wanted to spend the money on birthing another kid when the mother's drug history almost guaranteed defects and a life of misery for any potential child. Ashley had been the "perfect" choice. They told her that she would be the mother of a goddess, and that she would be revered just as the Virgin Mary if she would allow them to conceive a child from her womb--counting on her desperation to lead to her desperate action. She knew this was the best she would ever get, and never bothered to think beyond that emotion. In truth, the cult would cut the baby from her womb and cast her aside, raise the child within its own structures and bring forth their goddess. A skilled and motivated SWAT team brought an end to that plan. At the beginning of the ceremony and after the consecration of the dagger, police had invaded the temple and disrupted the ceremony. Worshipers had fought them as best they could, but mere religious fanatics were no match for armed and trained police. The mini-riot was quelled in minutes and the black-robed cultists were face down on the stone floor of the temple, quietly whimpering or loudly cursing the police as Miranda rolled off several tongues. But the lunatics had already performed half of their rite when they began to open her up, and paramedics fought Ashley when she tried to rip open her own belly in a desperate attempt to complete the interrupted ritual. SWAT team members pulled the drug-addled woman off Lewis as she screamed that he had ruined her life. She had spat in Lewis's face--the only attack she could manage when paramedics had strapped her onto the gurney with medical restraints. And not a little spittle, but a full-throated gobbet with no small amount of blood. Offenbach had his medical bag and gave him a tetanus shot, flushing his eyes and nose out in case the woman proved HIV-positive. Luckily she wasn't, and the next day social services arrived to collect her. The attendant social worker assured the men that after discharge from the hospital, she and her newborn would go to be placed in an efficiency apartment at Groverton, the halfway house where abused women and children went. WIC and utility management programs, followed by financial counseling and therapy would follow. Lewis dropped his keys onto the table by the door and gathered up the pile of mail on the floor. Electric bill, water bill, advertisement for penis enlargement--he guessed his ex was still putting his name on mailing lists despite the C&D on her. It wasn't enough that she got the house, both the cars, and half his paycheck for the rest of his life in the divorce. The detective collapsed into a chair in exhaustion. The sense of accomplishment he felt was soured by the vicious response from the woman he'd saved. He clicked on the TV, but everything was rubbish, especially the cop shows with the body models with perfect teeth and hair, who never got dirty or came to work drunk no matter what horrors they witnessed. And the public arrest of high-level city and industry tycoons was just laughable--any real precinct cops who did that would be fired within 24 hours. Lewis dropped the remote onto his coffee table and stood up to see if he had any beer in the fridge. Nights like this required liquid sleep. A sudden, sharp pain raced through his belly, causing him to gasp and cough. His hand pressed to his breastbone as the pain increased, doubling him over. Lewis let out a howl like a wounded animal and sank to his knees on the hard wood floor of his apartment. Something was burning in his chest now, and began to surge up his esophagus. It felt like acid, but it was much more powerful... and it was growing. Lewis felt his gag reflex kick in and he planted his palms on the floor, waiting to vomit. The pain had left his chest and flashed up into his throat and face. His complexion reddened and his eyes bulged, nostrils flaring as he felt like a bowling ball was trying to leave his head through his mouth with a cacophony of sickening, wrenching cracks--his pain and terror were extreme. At last it rose, bursting out of his mouth and nose, taking his philtrum and all of his front teeth in the departure. A seething, wriggling, black and red form flopped wetly on his hardwood floor before him. Lewis balanced on one hand and raised the other to inspect his face. His lower jaw hung loose, detached from the bone and viscera of his mouth and swayed limp with his movements. He looked to the coffee table's glass veneer and saw a spray of blood slash out from where his throat had been. But to his horror, before him on the floor the glob of gelatinous substance had begun to coalesce into something vaguely human. It kicked and squirmed, a slippery, uncoordinated mass slathered in black and red albumen. His mind raced to understand what he beheld, but could find no reference point in all the natural world. Lewis became aware of movement to his side, and turned to see Offenbach standing in his doorway. The man smiled gently, drawing his medical bag from behind him as he knelt by the slowly pulsing, mutating form on the floor in front of the detective. Lewis whimpered, unable to speak and fumbling to stay conscious as his blood drained away. "Unnatural birth," Offenbach said softly. "It had to be a woman, impregnating a man who couldn't make children." Lewis recoiled from the words, trying to raise himself up with what little energy he still had, before he fumbled, and the floor rose up to strike him in the face.