Who killed you?
Or, who murdered you?
There was, after all, a distinct difference.
Amos Decker used two fingers to neck-cradle his third bottle of beer of the evening while he contemplated these questions. He knew that most people never thought about these things because they had no reason to do so. Yet answering the latter question accurately constituted a great bulk of Decker’s professional life, which was really the only life he had left.
He was also aware that the difference between the two queries was more complex than some might have believed.
For example, one could kill a person without committing murder.
There was accidental death: Your car inadvertently slams into another with death as a result, or you drop a gun and it goes off and the fired bullet strikes a bystander. Someone was dead but it wasn’t murder.
There was assisted suicide. A terminally ill person is suffering and wants to end it, and you help the person to do so. The practice was legal in some places and unlawful in others. Again, someone was dead and, unlike the accidental death, the death was intentional, but it was not the same as murder, because you weren’t doing it for your own benefit.
There was justifiable homicide, the best example of which was self-defense. There you intended to harm another and you were doing so for your personal benefit, but the law said you had the right to defend yourself, which disqualified it from being murder.
Decker sipped his beer as he went through the logical elements of intentionally ending the life of another. Murder required the specific element of malice aforethought, which was not present with any of the other categories of homicide he’d been considering.
Now, Decker brought this line of thought back to him.
The harshest legal consequences of all were reserved for acts of murder, because what was more precious than human life?
In law enforcement, the best and the brightest busted their professional butts to hunt down those who, with malice aforethought and for their personal benefit, intentionally took another’s life. And that’s what Decker had done almost his entire adult life. And he would continue to do so until he could do it no longer.
He took another sip of beer.
I catch murderers. It’s really the only thing I’m good at.
He stared out at the night sky over northwestern Pennsylvania near the Ohio border in a place called Baronville. He had heard it had once been a thriving mill and mining town, owing its very existence to the eponymous Baron family, which had, long ago, dug the mines and built the mills. However, those engines of commerce were long since gone. What was left wasn’t much. Yet people seemed to be getting by in a variety of ways, and with varying degrees of success. A similar pronouncement could be made on many such places across America.
Inside the house, his FBI partner Alex Jamison was sharing a glass of white wine with her older sister, Amber, and talking to her precocious eight-year-old niece, Zoe. He and Jamison were here on vacation from solving heinous crimes while working on a special task force at the FBI back in Washington. Decker had been reluctant to go with Jamison, but their boss, Special Agent Bogart, had insisted that Decker take some type of a rest. And when Jamison had suggested that he accompany her on a visit to her sister, Decker couldn’t think of a single other place to go.
So here I am.
He took another sip of his beer and studied his size fourteen feet.
When they had arrived here, introductions had been made, hugs given, pleasantries exchanged, bags put away and Jamison had given out housewarming gifts to her sister and niece, because Amber and her family had only recently moved here. Dinner was made and eaten, but long before then Decker had run out of things to say and ideas of what would be socially acceptable to do. And that’s when Jamison, who knew him perhaps better than anyone else, had quietly suggested that he take his beer -- and his awkwardness – outside, so the sisters could catch up in the way that women often did, while no men were around.
The social awkwardness had not always been a part of him. The six-foot-five, three hundred plus -- well maybe more than simply plus – Decker, a former professional football player had once been outgoing, gregarious, a bit goofy even, but fun loving and always ready with a quip.
Then had come the vicious blindside hit on the head on the football field that had changed his life, and who he was, forever. The resulting brain trauma had almost killed him. And while he had survived, the blow delivered on the kickoff of the opening game of the regular season for the Cleveland Browns had forced his brain to rewire itself to circumvent damaged parts and allow healing to occur. This process had left two distinct marks on him.
One was hyperthemesia, or perfect recall. He was the memory man essentially, unable to forget anything. Decker had found it a decidedly mixed blessing.
The second result of the hit was his developing synesthesia. He associated odd things, like death, with a color. In the case of death, the color was a visceral electric blue that could raise the hairs on the back of Decker’s neck and make him feel sick to his stomach.
Along with his brain change, his personality had changed as well. The gregarious fun-loving prankster had forever vanished and in its place -
With his football career irreversibly over, he had gone on to become a cop and then a homicide detective in his hometown of Burlington, Ohio. He had been married to a wonderful, lovely woman named Cassandra, or Cassie as he always called her, and they had had a beautiful child named Molly.
It was all past tense because he no longer had a wonderful wife or a beautiful child.
Who killed you?
Who murdered you?
Well, Decker had figured out who had taken his family from him. And the person had paid the ultimate price.
Yet it was nothing in comparison to the price that Decker had paid. That he continued pay. That he would pay every minute until he drew his last breath.
“Aunt Alex says you can’t forget anything.”
Decker turned from his musings to the source of the query.
Zoe Mitchell, twin blond ponytails, long sleeve pink shirt with flowers on it and white shorts showing off dimpled knees, stared curiously at him across the width of the wooden deck attached to the back of her house.
“My memory’s pretty good, yeah,” said Decker.
Zoe held up a sheet of paper. On it were about thirty very long numbers. She passed it to him.
“Can you remember all these?” she asked hopefully.
Decker glanced at it and then handed the paper back to her.
“Does that mean you can’t remember them?” said Zoe, the disappointment clear on her freckled face.
“No, it means that I already did.”
He recited the numbers back to her, in the same order they appeared on the page, because that’s what he saw in his head: the page of numbers.
She broke into a toothy grin. “That is so cool.”
“You think so?” said Decker.
Her pale blue eyes widened at his remark. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes, yeah. It can be cool.”
He leaned against the deck railing and sipped his beer while Zoe watched him.
“Aunt Alex says you catch bad people.”
“We do it together. She’s got good instincts.”
Zoe looked at him in a puzzled way.
He explained, “She reads people really well. She sees things that others don’t.”
“She’s my favorite aunt.”
“How many aunts do you have?”
She sighed. “A lot. None of them are as cool as Aunt Alex.” She brightened. “She came to visit because my birthday is almost here. I’m turning nine.”
“I heard. We’re all going out to dinner for it.”
Decker looked around awkwardly as Zoe continued to watch him.
“You’re really big,” she observed.
“Not the first time I’ve heard that.”
“You won’t let any of the bad people hurt Aunt Alex, will you?” asked Zoe, her features and tone suddenly turning anxious.
Decker had been about to take a sip of beer. He slowly lowered the bottle. “No, I won’t. I mean, I’ll do my best never to let that happen,” he added a bit lamely.
There was a low rumble of thunder in the distance.
“I guess a storm is coming,” observed Decker quickly, looking for any way to change the subject.
He glanced at Zoe to find her innocent gaze still uncomfortably on him.
He looked away as another guttural growl of thunder was heard.
Summer was over, but the thunderstorms often accompanying the segue into early fall appeared to be fully engaged.
“Storm’s definitely getting closer,” said Decker, more to himself than to Zoe.
He looked at the house behind the one Zoe lived in. It seemed an exact copy. Same footprint, same wooden deck off the back. Same footprint of yard. Same type of maple smack in the middle of the wilting grass.
But there was one difference.
The lights in the other house were flickering now. On, then off. On, then off.
Decker looked to the sky. Despite the thunder, there wasn’t any lightning yet, at least that he could see. Also, the temperature had dropped some, and there was a low fog building, that, along with the gathering clouds, obscured the sky even more.
A few moments later, against this overhead backdrop he saw the reflection of lights zip by overhead. He couldn’t see the plane, but it was no doubt trying to make it in or out before the storm hit full force, he thought.
He glanced back at the house and watched the lights going on and off, almost like Morse code. It might be the humidity, thought Decker. Damp wiring could cause flickering.
He heard a noise somewhere. Then he heard it again. And another time. Repeats of the same sound over and over. It was two distinct sounds actually, one a solid thud and the other like something scraping against something.
Next, a car started up from somewhere. It had to be the street over there, he thought. They’d be driving right into the gathering storm.
A few minutes passed and then came the initial lightning spear. It seemed to disappear right into the earth directly in front of him. It was followed by a much louder boom of thunder. The sky was growing increasingly black and ominous. The upper level winds were pushing the system swiftly across the area.
“We better go inside,” said Zoe nervously. “Mommy says that more people get hit by lightning than you think.”
“Who lives in that house, Zoe?” he asked, pointing to the other house.
Zoe had her hand on the door leading back into her house. She said, “I don’t know.”
Decker’s gaze focused and then held on a sudden spark of light.
It was inside the other house, behind one of the windows. He didn’t know if it was reflecting off the glass or what.
Decker hustled off the deck and his big feet hit the grass.
“Where are you going?” Zoe cried after him; her voice held an element of panic.
“Go inside, Zoe, I…I just want to check on something.”
Another crack of lightning was followed by such a deafening explosion of thunder that Zoe bolted inside, while Decker ran the other way.
Despite his fleshy bulk, Decker had been an elite athlete for many years.
He grabbed the top of the fence separating the two properties, neatly swung over the barrier and dropped inside the other yard.
He hustled across the grass towards the house. He could feel the temperatures plummeting as the storm fully enveloped the area. The wind kicked up and buffeted him. He had grown up in the Midwest and was used to these enormously dangerous weather systems that made the Ohio Valley their stomping grounds, conjuring up and then spinning off tornadoes like a cancer did mutant cells.
He knew the rain would be coming next, probably in sideways sheets.
He reached the house’s pressure treated deck and raced up the steps. He didn’t look back at Amber’s house, so he didn’t see Alex Jamison come out and gaze wildly around for him.
He got to the window where he’d seen the spark. He could now smell it, which confirmed his suspicions.
Electrical wiring had gotten mixed with liquid. He had investigated homicides involving arson and the smell was unmistakable. There was a fire in there.
He put his face to the glass and peered inside. Electrical fires tended to move fast, usually being behind walls where they could spread unseen until it was too late. And the wind would help quickly spread the flames. And the coming rain might not be enough to put it out.
Peering inside he saw a flicker of flames, the rise of smoke.
Then he looked to the right.
And froze at what he was seeing. A moment later, he broke free from the paralysis and ran to the back door. Without hesitating he hit it with his shoulder like he had many football blocking sleds. The flimsy door buckled under the massive impact and fell open.
The storm was screaming overhead now so Decker couldn’t hear Jamison calling to him. She had rushed off the deck and was running to the rear fence when Decker had crushed the door. The rain was falling hard now whipped by the wind into a stinging frenzy, as the storm emptied millions of gallons of water over the extreme western edge of the Keystone State. Jamison had run out of her shoes and was soaked before she was halfway to the fence.
Decker burst into the kitchen and turned right. He had his Beretta out and pointed in front of him. He now wished he hadn’t had all that beer. He might need his fine motor skills to be better than they presently were.
He moved swiftly down the darkened hallway, bouncing off one wall and then its parallel. Something fell to the floor as he brushed against it.
It was a picture.
Decker cursed himself because he had just unduly contaminated what was now a crime scene, an act he would have found unforgivable if someone else had done it. Yet it couldn’t be helped. He didn’t know what was going on here. He knew what he had seen, but that might just be the tip of the iceberg.
He cautiously poked first his gun and then his head around the corner. He cleared the space with two long visual passes and straightened.
Decker now knew what had triggered the spark and the smoke.
And the flickering lights.
Exposed electrical wires had indeed been commingled with liquid.
But it wasn’t water.
It was blood.