Thunder rumbled overhead, dark and ominous, matching my mood perfectly.
“You think we’ll make it, Flynn?” I asked the rat currently riding shotgun in the basket on my handlebars. “Or are we about to get wet?”
Flynn squeaked, the breeze from our mad pedal along the foreshore ruffling his fur.
“I agree,” I puffed, pedaling harder, my thighs burning as I attempted to outrun the storm. It had been folly to go out at all, but I’d had to leave the house or go crazy, for every little creak and groan of the decrepit old cottage had me on edge. I was jumping at shadows. A bike ride had seemed a good idea, despite the ever-darkening skies. Anything to burn off the restless sense of dread dogging my heels.
The only breeze was that of our own making, the air heavy, oppressive, and still. Sweat soaked my tank and shorts in unflattering patches, but thankfully no one was around to see. One fat raindrop landed on the back of my hand. Then another.
“Brace yourself, Flynn. It’s about to get moist.”
Understatement of the year. The heavens opened in a torrential downpour, soaking us within seconds. On the up-side, there was no need to worry about those unflattering sweat stains anymore. Flynn squeaked and curled himself into a ball in the bottom of the basket, as if making himself as small as possible would prevent the rain from reaching him. It didn’t.
Keeping one hand firmly on the handlebars, I used the other to wipe the rain from my eyes, blinded by the deluge as it fell heavy and hard. I didn’t see the pothole, but I sure felt it when my front wheel bounced into the crater and stayed there, bringing the bike to an abrupt halt and wrenching the handlebars out of my grip.
“Hold on!” I screamed to Flynn as I parted company with the bicycle, tumbling onto the road with the groan of bending metal and the sting of flesh on asphalt. Dazed, I scrambled to my feet, limping to the bike that lay with the front wheel buckled. “Great,” I grumbled, not relishing the walk home. The whole reason I’d taken the bike was because I was still wearing my walking boot, my broken navicular not fully healed.
“Flynn?” I bent toward the basket, hoping Flynn had heard my yell and held on and hadn’t been catapulted onto the road.
The sodden, bedraggled ball of fur was fine. Outraged but fine. Upon seeing me, he unfurled and stood on his back legs, front legs waving as he squeaked up a storm. I figured he was using every cuss word known to man by the way his tirade went on and on and his tail flicked in displeasure. I bit my lips and tried not to smile at the sight he made, one angry, wet, unhappy rat, cussing me out.
“Finished?” I asked when he eventually wound down. He nodded. “Are you hurt?” He shook his head, then pointed to my knee, which was sting
ing like the devil. A quick glance told me what I already knew. Blood mixed with water ran down my shin from a nasty graze.
“Yeah, I know.” I sighed, then showed him my elbow. “Got one here too.”
He made a clicking noise, as if tsking me for my foolishness.
“Yeah, yeah, I know that too. Come on, let’s get home before my luck really does run out and I get struck by lightning.” Reaching down, I scooped Flynn up and positioned him on my shoulder, where he held onto my hair for balance while I picked up the bike. Doris wasn’t going to be happy that I’d wrecked it. She’d lent it to me so I could get around until my walking boot came off.
Despite the bent and buckled front wheel, the bike made a handy crutch as we limped along the shore, heads bent against the rain. I’d yet to see another soul and had resigned myself to the fact that we were going to have to walk the entire way instead of hitching a lift when I saw something that made me pause.
“Squeak?” Flynn tugged on my hair, wanting to know why we’d stopped.
“Someone’s in the rotunda.” I pointed. There was a figure all right, only whoever it was? They were lying on the ground. “Quick, they may be hurt.” I hurried as fast as my broken foot, bent wheel, and the rain would allow.
Who could it be? Someone as crazy as I was to be out in this storm, that was for sure. Maybe they’d been caught in the rain too, and had sought shelter in the rotunda, only they’d slipped, and now lay helpless. Which made me think of Doris. Let’s face it, despite her past life as an SIA agent—now retired—she was a woman in her seventies. It wouldn’t take much to break a hip.
Letting the bike fall to the ground, I used the handrail to haul myself up the steps. Shaking off excess water and wiping moisture from my eyes, I regarded the figure on the ground, goosebumps prickling my skin. It wasn’t Doris. It was Dino Cittadino, and he was very much dead.
Flynn squeaked again and shot down my arm before leaping to the
ground and onto Dino’s leg.
“Flynn,” I warned, but he couldn’t hear me because the rain thundered on the tin roof so loudly my ears hurt. Cautiously, I approached, skirting around the body, examining it from every angle. It wasn’t that I was concerned Dino wasn’t really dead and was about to come at me at any second. I was one hundred percent confident Dino’s heart had been removed, judging by the way his chest had been ripped open. And that was downright concerning.
Wrenching my eyes from the sight, I looked out, first over the ocean and then toward the row of shops directly opposite, not yet open. Squinting through the sheets of rain, I considered my options. I could just leave. Pretend I’d never stumbled upon him. Tempting, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. Which meant I had to alert the authorities and embroil myself in yet another Gravestone mystery. Harding had warned me to lie low. This was not lying low.
Kneeling by Dino’s side, I began patting down his pockets, ignoring the throbbing in my grazed knee and elbow and the fact that I was no doubt leaving blood at the crime scene. Flynn squeaked, head cocked to one side.
“I’m looking for clues,” I shouted, to be heard over the rain. “Because I’m going to have to call this in, and no doubt, Deputy Biden will arrest me for killing him.” It wouldn’t be the first time the overzealous deputy had wrongly thrown me in a cell, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. She was an arrest first, ask questions later kinda law-woman. “We may as well save some time and go about finding his killer ourselves.” Because I was curious. Who’d managed to take down this Tarkath mobster? And more curiously, why? Although that was probably a stupid question. The Tarkaths had enemies. Dino’s death could easily be retribution for some transgression either he or another Tarkath were responsible for.
Flynn considered what I’d said, nodded, and began sniffing at Dino’s clothing. While rifling through his pockets, I examined his face. His skin was gray, lips blue, and placing the back of my fingers against his cheek, I confirmed what I suspected. His body was cold. “He’s been dead for hours. Possibly since last night.” Because why else would Dino Cittadino be in the rotunda other than some clandestine meeting in the dead of night? Heck, Dino didn’t even live
here. Last I’d heard, he’d left Gravestone in his rearview. To find him here, like this, was a shock. Especially given our history.
Turning my attention back to his trouser pocket, I pulled out his phone. The screen was dark, but a swipe of my finger had it lighting up.
“It’s locked. Shouldn’t be a problem though. It uses facial recognition.” I held it up to Dino’s face. Nothing. I changed the angle, first one way, then another. “What do you think, Flynn? Either it doesn’t recognize a dead face or, more probable, his eyes need to be open.”
Flynn stiffened, then shook his head, his ears flattening.
I looked from the phone to Dino. Swallowing, I reached out and, using my forefinger and thumb, pried an eyelid open. My mouth filled with saliva, and I thought I was going to gag. “This is so gross,” I whispered, holding the phone up to Dino’s face once more. It didn’t unlock.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” With my stomach heaving, I reached over and pried open his other eye. “There. Both eyes open. Happy now?” I was, of course, speaking to the phone, which I held up for a third and final time. It did not unlock.
“Gah!” I wailed, nausea burning my throat. Swiping my palm over his eyes to close them, I sat back, gulping in great breaths of air until the impending urge to vomit passed.
Sliding the phone into the back pocket of my shorts, I continued the search. Keys. The remnants of a pack of gum. Nothing remotely interesting, not even a weapon.
“Got anything?” I asked Flynn.
Not knowing if that was a yes or a no, I groaned and hauled myself to my feet, hobbling to Flynn, who was attempting to uncurl Dino’s fingers, which were clenched around a scrap of paper.
“This looks promising.” Lowering myself to the floor, I took over. The scrap of paper was a flyer for a treasure hunt happening in Gravestone this coming weekend. But it wasn’t the flyer that held m
y attention. It was what was carved into Dino’s palm.
“Do you see?” I whispered, and despite the deluge of rain and rumbling of thunder, Flynn heard, for he squeaked a response.
“It’s the same rune.” Flattening Dino’s palm, I pulled out my phone and snapped photos of the rune carved into his hand. It was fresh, the cuts shallow. It was the same rune Denise Hurt used to place a death hex on Seth Saltzman and John Smith. ...