Freddie has a hunch. But the person he wishes he didn't have to call is the one he must.
| "Who the fuck are you?" snarled Lena Linklater. A small, mousy forty-maybe-fifty-something with a pointed chin, she did not welcome the sight of the heavily tattooed intruder stepping onto her turf.
Dressed in black t-shirt and Doc Martens, he looked like a hip young artist, not someone who had any business anywhere near a crime scene, let alone walking straight into one.
The man's brows twitched but his face remained otherwise impassive, eyes cool and grey beneath a fringe of dark hair, looking first at the angry little man seething in front of him and then through him towards the hall beyond. His nostrils flared. The smell oozed to where they stood: metallic, sweet. Even three doors down the corridor from where two squints in white suits busied themselves with documenting the horror now staining this house.
His eyes didn't come back to meet hers as he took another step towards the scene beyond.
Lena bristled, grabbed at his arm. "I asked you a goddamn question. Who the fu-"
"Cool it, Linklater."
"Sir?" A hand fell on her shoulder.
"It's okay. I asked him."
The stranger's lips quirked and Lena Linklater's eyes flashed. She stood taking in the man for a moment, disturbed by the arrival of an unknown subject. As the detective sergeant, she wanted no blurring of the lines of authority, and this man, with his shaggy hair and ripped jeans, already looked as though he owned the scene. She saw the way he moved to shake DI Delaney's hand, the way he did not acknowledge her and her glower deepened.
"I didn't realise you'd be here so soon." Delaney said. Their handshake was firm.
"Cycled." Those grey eyes roved around the corridor, flitting over the walls and back. His voice was low and rough, the kind of voice that people listened to even though it never raised. "I didn't bring anything."
"It's ok. You signed in?"
"Spoke to the uniform on the door. Good thing I carry I.D."
"Linklater, can you get Dr. Valentine some scrubs, gloves. He'll be helping next door."
She acquiesced but everything in her manner screamed that she was displeased as she left them alone. They waited until her footsteps stomped more quietly before Detective Inspector Delaney stepped closer. Bran Valentine's shoulders tensed before he seemed to forcibly relax them.
"Why did you call me, Freddie?"
"I need to know if what I'm seeing is right."
Their eyes met, grey searching for something that neither seemed to be willing to discuss. The tension in Bran's shoulders was back, the muscles of his neck and arms moving as he struggled to understand why he'd been called here, three weeks too late, and for a reason he almost resented. But this was his job. He understood these places, the evil pooling on the floor, splattering the walls, chilling the air around them. Sighing, nodding, he dropped his eyes and shrugged.
Lena Linklater came back, still scowling but now holding a set of white coveralls and a box of gloves.
"Doctor," he corrected absently, taking them from her with about as much interest as before.
If he'd been looking he might have seen the way her eyes hardened in direct correlation to the way her superior's softened. Delaney knew Bran in a way many never would or could, but he'd still called him here, knowing what would happen, although perhaps not how it would affect him. His hands didn't shake as he turned away.
Minutes later he was back. Efficiency was something Linklater appreciated, though her partner recognised it as the result of years of systematic institutionalisation, and his attitude seemed to have shifted, become edgy.
As he glanced up his eyes were wild. Delaney hated to witness the silent, screaming, desperation in those eyes.
It was the smell of the gloves.
Bran felt misery in the smell of latex, and as he snapped on the gloves, releasing a puff of talcum, he felt the usual twinge of anticipatory anguish. The odour linked back to most unpleasant part of his job even as they offered a meagre barrier between him and the inevitable malevolence of what he did.
"I'll be there every step of the way, Bran. I'll help you."
It wasn't what he wanted to hear. No one could stop the slippery precipice from opening beneath his feet once he stepped into that room. He wouldn't be looking into the abyss anymore then. He'd be tumbling, straight into its mouth to be consumed.
"Hey, easy." Delaney was across the room, hand almost reaching for the younger man, whose towering figure now appeared to be shrinking in front of them. "Breathe with me. Just breath, okay? It's alright."
But Bran jerked himself away, smiling tightly, eyes skittering away. He scrubbed a hand across his face. "Course it is, I mean, just another goddamn dead body."
It was the only crack Linklater had witnessed so far. The hairs on her arms shivered upwards.
His eyes slid closed.
Squaring himself, the man unclenched his jaw, breathed in deeply through his nose, inhaling the sting of blood, raised bright, blank eyes to where Detective Inspector Delaney stood, waiting. And when they shifted away, his gaze landed on Linklater. The chill that ran through her body made all of her previous anger small and fragile and weak.
Bran walked up the hall. He turned into the room where the men in white suits barely noticed him. After all, he was one of them.
Taking a silent step forward, gliding his way across the blood splattered across the floor, he eyed the body splayed across the bed.
What he knew was horror. He knew that the man on the bed, still limply attached to the bars by duct tape, had lived long enough to see his own blood spurt from his neck and hit the wall in a machine-gun spray of red. He had lived long enough to aspirate blood into his severed trachea, to hear it gurgle in his lungs, to cough it out in explosive bursts of crimson phlegm.
He'd been a surgeon; he knew that this victim had lived long enough to know he was dying.
What he didn't know was what happened before. Bran would tell him that. Because if he was right, then this wasn't the first time. It probably wasn't even the second. And at least one other victim was the man whose body they'd met over almost two month's ago in Rotherton.
The victim whose killer had been sending Bran letters ever since.
A moment later, he realised the pathologist was talking. Linklater was at his side and pale, anger fading rapidly as Doctor Bran Valentine took up an initial rhythm.
He explained the blood spatter, the way the man died. He walked to the windows and admitted that it was most likely that the victim knew his killer and let them in the front door. He acknowledged the bruising, the way the victim's genitals were swollen, his thighs scratched and torn. He noted that yesterday, he'd have been considered fit, healthy, strong. That it was likely he was some how overwhelmed by his attacker before any of this happened...
"Knife play, perhaps..."
It was after this that his voice changed, deepened. He fell into the mind of the killer.
"The killer is a classic picquerist..." he murmured. "Someone who uses a knife to achieve secondary or indirect sexual release. He cuts because the knife is an extension of his sexuality, substituting for his own sexual release. He gets a thrill from the terror he inflicts on the victim. On his absolute control over them. He enters, lulls, incapacitates. He relishes the knowledge that they know him, but they never saw him like this.
He stepped around the side of the bed, tilted his head. "He was standing here to begin, before climbing astride to carve these marks into the chest. They're shallow. Lots of pain. No chance of bleeding out.
"The vic cannot move. Cannot scream. He's paralysed but fully aware of everything that happens next."
He breathed in, exhaled. "Layer, by layer, he cuts. The skin. Subcutaneous. The fascia. Into the muscles."
As he spoke, Linklater felt the hairs on her neck come to attention, ice sliding down her spine and melting in her stomach. Frederick Delaney wished he hadn't called. He could see the pallor of Bran's skin and the way he was beginning to withdraw.
"Our killer hates men like your victim. He despises him. He doesn't think a man should submit like this." His voice was no more than a croak. He was staring at the body, drinking in the glassy eyes and the bloodless lips. His hand lifted. "Was there a note? A card?"
Linklater nodded before her superior could find his voice. "Yeah. Small letter card, fancy paper with silver writing: truth or dare."
What little colour was gone from Bran's face. He was staring down at his hands, where his fingers had almost touched the face of the deceased. And then his eyes met Delaney's: wide, lost, blinking against nightmares.
"Why did you call me?" His voice was hoarse. "You must have known?"
He'd had his suspicions but Bran's reaction confirmed it.
"This is the same guy as Rotherton."
Bran sucked in a breath and Linklater was sure he was going to be sick. Instead he rolled his shoulders and in less than a second there was someone else in those shoes. His lips thinned, his desperate gaze now fierce. She shrank away as he stalked towards her boss and then passed him, back out of the room, down the hall.
She heard the gloves snap off his hands. Heard the rip of his overalls as he claws his way out of them.
"Bran, wait!" Delaney was panicked, trying to follow and almost tripping over a squint. He glanced back at Linklater and she ushered him after the man she had been so determined to despise.
Perhaps if Detective Inspector Delaney had known for sure, he would not have made the call. It was because he was desperate. Desperate to know the truth, he told himself. Desperate to see him, was probably more accurate.
Bran was fast, quick to startle into a run, dashing out of the house and down the street. He'd left his bike almost three streets away as he'd tried to compose himself after realising Delaney was on purely business. Now he could hear his breath in his ears, the burning in his lungs as he fought back panic.
Whoever this killer was, he knew Bran Valentine. He wrote him letters. He left him messages.
Truth or dare.
His bike was in front of him but his hands fumbled over the keys.
Footsteps that could only belong to Delaney pounded in his head and he sunk to the ground, put his head between his legs, willed away the burning in his eyes.
"Jesus Christ." He heard Freddie cursing as if through bubblewrap, "Bran..."
"Bran!" Delaney sank down in front of him, hands coming up to grip at those shoulders, wanting to shake them but knowing that was the worst thing he could do. Instead he murmured soft nothings, trying to call the younger man back from wherever his head had gone with apologies and gentling words.
The doctor had been on his mind ever since their last encounter at the club in Soho. His card had mysteriously appeared in the top inner pocket of his jacket, this time complete with an eleven-digit number scrawled on the back. It had been the first time their paths had crossed since the pathologist's involvement with the Rotherton case.
This man had been there. Sweat glistening in the half light of the bar. Tattoos against pale skin, tousled dark hair falling into those goddamn eyes that saw everything and gave nothing away... and he'd been so willing, so ready to submit to whatever Freddie demanded. Watching him yield, seeing him relax beneath his touch, that had done something to him that he had craved longer than he could possibly acknowledge.
Bran had kissed him before he left. Turned the tables so that Freddie had known every act of surrender had been his choice.
Bran had been so alive. Reconciling that man to the cool, clear-headed scientist, who gently analysed the body of Gladbrook Pendle. It was something he could hardly fathom.
Afterwards, he'd done some background. Found out that the pathologist was one of the best in the forensics team, making a name for himself as someone who saw what others could not, or would not, imagine.
Some said it was his degree in psychology, gave him some kind of edge. But at least three of his colleagues were psychology graduates as well and all of them apparently looked at him different too.
And now here was the man he so quickly admired, and perhaps was even beginning to care for, shivering and shaking on the pavement by his bike, and it was his fault. Had this happened after he met him at Rotherton? How could he have known? This was a squint, albeit a good one. Someone was should be used to seeing death as much as he had been as a trauma surgeon in Iraq.
But you knew, said the little voice in his head, you knew that this case was different and that your little hunch could lead to a realisation like this.
The killer of Gladbrook Pendle had struck again, attacking Ivan Mulch with surgical precision. And he was telling Bran something now, with the notes that said truth or dare.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I needed to know and... you know this case."
Bran let out a laugh that sent shivered down his spine, "You knew before I got there."
"I had a hunch."
There was no real accusation. Just fact. They sat on the pavement, their knees touching.
Eventually, it was Bran that stood up, moving to deal with the locks on the bike. The tattoos on his arm moved with the muscles and the xeon lights above them.
"If I'd been sure..." Delaney paused, corrected by the snort Bran couldn't contain. "I won't do it again...?"
"No. Do." Bran shook his head at the half question. "This case is my case too. He's talking to me."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm in this." He swung one leg over the bike. "But next time you just want to see me, do you think you could take me for a drink instead?"
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