Date Published: 03-01-2022
Publisher: Barringer Press
Homicide detective John Carver thought he’d seen it all. But when a young woman’s body is discovered floating in the rooftop water tank at a skid-row hotel and a local new-age psychic claims to have seen that young woman moments before her death, he quickly realizes he’s in unfamiliar territory.
Soon he’s thrust into an investigation that makes him question everything he believes in.
Prologue Los Angeles, 3:30 pm., January 27, 2018
The Master of Death
It’s time. The SS bolts on the watch he wore while policing the Sobibor Concentration Camp 75 years ago whisper, the Holocaust Memorial service is starting. He glances down at the lot. Full. The cars that circled the streets on all sides of the temple have parked. Their drivers are inside the sanctuary.
He lives his hiding place, beside a dormer, and scurries crablike across the sloping roof over to the air vent twenty feet away. He wears a state-of-the-art military grade gas mask and carries a lim bag that swings back and forth. He reaches the main air vent, stops, and rubs his fingers over it, savoring the chill of flesh against metal. Now in a borrowed body, he’s flushed, excited. His senses have returned. He feels everything: the quickening of his breath; the infinitesimal widening of an artery; the fevered pulse of elation
He unscrews the vent . He hears a violin playing softly in a minor key. The voice of a frail old man who speaks of suffering. He smiles. Music, memories and prayers won’t help.
The Master of Death is no longer an outcast. Shulamit’s perfumed hair will turn to ashes again.
He unscrews the vent , removes his gift from the bag, and carefully drops the pellets of Zykon B. Flattening his body along the roof, he tries to make himself invisible, and waits for the cries of the dying to reach his ears.
Chapter 1 San Miguel de Allende, Two days earlier Alicia, the psychic
The tile floor is cold on my bare feet and makes my toes curl. I shake off the morning haze and look toward the mountain in the distance. Dress hurriedly, listening to birdsong and telling myself to trust that the day will bring its rewards just as clearly as the birdsong, which suddenly stops in mid-chirp.
Today feels different from all the other mornings I’ve spent here; nothing of the future was contained within them; but today change is in the air.
I’d like to go downstairs and chat with the ice cream vendor, but it’s too early for him to be setting up his tiny stand. I think of the landlord, the way he looks at me, with so much hunger, so little affection. Better to remain celibate. I think of Carver’s slightly too large ears, his spicy scent, his warm but wary eyes. Sometimes I miss him desperately, as a lover should. At other times he’s like a figure of fog and mist. It’s impossible to long for someone that doesn’t exist, isn’t it?
My cuticles hurt. I’ve bitten them down too far again. I don’t know why. My room has a calming effect. It smells like jasmine and eucalyptus. The shower has a cheerful orange curtain; lemon-yellow walls show every insect, however tiny; and the white-and-blue tiled floor has a lovely fleur-de-lis pattern with only one chipped tile under the sink. It reminds me of a child with a cracked front tooth. The neighbors are friendly but not inquisitive. None of them care what brought me here – or imagine the problems I’ve left behind.
An hour goes by. The winter sun casts shadows on San Miguel’s historic district, twenty-four blocks of narrow streets, alleyways and paths. I head down the stairs and pass through the Farmacia on the ground floor, where the proprietor smiles and waves. I smile back but don’t stop to talk. Untethered, I drift out the pale yellow stucco building that has been my refuge for last three months. I glance up at the sash windows and decorative cast-iron balconies and past the red and white umbrella where the vendor will sell goat’s milk ice cream later in the day. I walk four more blocks over cobblestone streets to San Miguel’s traditional food market, the Mercado Ignacio Ramírez to purchase churros, a perfect pick-me-up with Mexican chocolate pot-de-crème.
Life here is more than tolerable.
Mid-afternoon, my steps lead me unexpectedly to San Juan de Dios, a beautiful old colonial cemetery guarded by a rusted gate. Most days it’s triple locked, perhaps to keep out looters, but today the door stands open, perhaps an invitation from an unknown spirit. The graves inside are close together, separated only by ill-tended spikes of grass. Despite the sun’s warmth, my skin prickles; goose bumps form on my arm. I know what’ll happen next. A call will come, as impossible to evade as that rock hidden in the underbrush. I stop to touch my ankle and assess the injury. Bending down, I’m startled to see that the stone is actually a slab of blue marble. Someone’s smashed a tombstone. Suddenly, with a rush of chilly air, a vision sweeps me in, swallows me up, so that I see it all from the inside.
Phyllis bends over, rests her fingers on the floor in a runner’s crouch, every muscle twitching. I slip into her body. Our mouth opens like a panting dog—
quick, shallow breaths. Clammy skin.
Our eyes water. Fear.
A wide-eyed mother reaches for her toddler, pulling the child to her chest but loses her grip and the child slips from her hand and falls floor face up, without expression, a broken toy. A man stumbles over us. His attempt to scream hangs for a split second in the air before it disappears.
Phyllis-and-I pass into a fugue state, shaking, only the insistent life-beat of our heart for company, so loud it sounds several times its size, as big as the temple itself. Something, the cold or the fear siphons our consciousness, pulling us down a dark long, silent tunnel.
Her lungs fail, her heartbeat slows. I scratch like a wild cat, desperate to escape from her body before she dies and takes me with her. As Phyllis succumbs and falls to the floor I float above her. Phyllis is frozen, her lips blue. But her skin is cherry red.
All over the sanctuary people gasp, struggle to breathe, but sodden lungs no longer work. The doors won’t open. Men and women bang until they collapse one by one, overcome by seizures, thrashing,
A father holds the hand of a tiny seraph in a green dress. And prays for her. Parents are all ears, listening to their children’s ragged breaths, to the awful gurgling within their chests. Parents are all eyes, watching the pinkish saliva drool from tiny lips.
Grief flows all around like a silken metal river.
A man with crazed eyes staggers up the raised platform where the sacred scrolls are kept. He pulls the curtain and removes a Torah mantled in silk and draped with a silver breastplate, shoving a frail white-haired man who tries to prevent him from committing a sacrilege. The old man collapses. His head strikes the wooden floor with a thud. The other doesn’t even look down, but races with the scroll in his arms to the windows. He heaves the scroll against glass that doesn’t shatter
Now I’m floating. Outside the building there’s an eerie silence until a Volvo stops in front of the synagogue. Carver? Yes. Get in there. Save them. Of course, he can’t hear me. He lowers black tasseled loafers to the pavement and walks around the car to open the passenger door. He leans in and takes the elbow of an old man, helping him up. Must be his father — the resemblance is unmistakable.
Carver raises his head. He hears the banging, faint now. He sprints to the door. Sees it’s chained. He urges his father back into the car, but his father just screams, “The Nazis! They’re after me again.”
Carver wraps his arms around his father. “Shh. It’s all right. You’re safe” But he can’t calm him, and feels compelled to return to the synagogue. He goes around to the back of the building, looking for another door or a window he can break. When he sees no way in, he pulls out a cell phone and calls for help.
Minutes later sirens scream. A rescue team and an ambulance arrive. Using huge bolt cutters they cut one part of the link at a time, the police open the door.
They wave off the EMS team. “Wait until we give you the all clear.”
In a minute or two, the policemen come out, coughing stumbling, dropping to the walkway. ”You got gas masks, right…?”” an officer wheezed,. “…Use ‘em. I’ve never seen so many bodies.” His eyes close.
An EMS member checks his pulse, desperately starts CPR. Compresses his chest, trying to pump life back into him. He tilts the man’s head back and pinches his nose. But as soon as he breathes into the victim’s mouth, he coughs and pulls away.
“I can’t do this,” he croaks. He lifts his hand to his throat as if it’s on fire .”Get me an AED,”
A stick-thin EMS tech rushes back to the yellow van and returns with an automated electric defibrillator. On his way back, he yells, “Do we have any Class Three masks? Looks like we’re gonna need them.”
A voice answers from the van. “Yeah, two CM-7Ms. When you and Charlie are done helping the victim, come back for them. I’ve called for more ambulances. If all these people are like him –“ He didn’t finish the thought.
Minutes later more teams arrive with stretchers to carry out the dead.. A few – so very few! – show signs of life and are rushed to the hospital.
Carver ‘s father sees all of it. Rocks back and forth and murmurs. Carver’s eyes widen and his jaw drops, as if he’s never heard his father speak in a foreign language. He clasps his hand on the old man’s shoulder, but the old man breaks away from him. Carver shouts something, and wrestles his father into the car, Following the ambulance to the hospital, Carver hopes to find help for his dad.
Sitting next to the shattered grave, I come return to the here and now. Birds chirp, but the dread that rips though me is sharp enough to double me over.
Dear Goddess, Why would someone want to glorify history’s darkest night?
I had received visions of death before. A girl floating in a cistern that supplied drinking water to hundreds of residents and guests in a hotel. But they hadn’t all died, just one of them –stranger, not a dear friend.
I didn’t bring my iPhone; but in my mind I’m typing away on it furiously, warning Phyllis to skip the memorial and warn others as well. To tell her that something terrible was going to happen. But when will it occur? I have no idea –
all the more reason for speed.
Phyllis won’t ignore me. I know too many things. I’m heavy with knowledge. And hate? It will do what it always does – metastasize.
I turned and ran down the cobbled streets towards my room, throw together some essentials and head to the airport.
Chapter 2 Alicia
Blue and gay patterned carpet muffles my steps as I move through Mexico City’s airport. I glance at the faces of people sitting and waiting for their flights. The silent ones with features frozen into stillness, the young mothers following their toddlers up and down the walkway and shooing them from the moving stairs where they’re likely to trip, and the teenagers laughing together with their companions. But I’m alone. The faces I see are the faces of strangers.
Phyllis never texted me back. I fear the worst; that I’m too late, the bombing has already happened. But maybe –
I trip over a duffle bag someone left on the floor. I see a pair of shiny black shoes and black slacks. I look up and see a slender, youngish man with a long black coat, curly sideburns and a wispy beard. He stretches out a pale arm to help me up, but I feel an odd reluctance to take it, a frisson of fear, as if it’s not really flesh and bone.
“Are you all right, miss?” he asks.
“I’m fine. I wonder whose bag this is.”
“No, I mean your friend. You’re returning for her funeral. “
“What?” Oh God. Phyllis is dead. “How do you know?
“The way your eyes stare. And the slant of your shoulders.“
Icy fingers flutter along my spine. “Who are you?”
His eyes shine like lanterns. “Face the future with courage. Great work is ahead that only you can accomplish.”
My mouth goes slack. Why trust the tongue that moves so smoothly from thoughts of death to predictions of greatness?
But then, I think, what’s so great about greatness? I’ve brought a dead man back to life. Fought an immortal demon. And he can’t possibly imagine guess how these memories and responsibilities continue to weigh on me.
I take a deep, cleansing breath..” You don’t know me at all.”
“Not yet.” He smiles. His teeth are pearly white. He winks, turns away, and vanishes in the passing stream of strangers with the luggage I’d tripped on.
He’d stopped me on purpose. But why? He was a messenger without a clear message. He promised great things. Maybe that meant finding out why the attack occurred. Maybe it meant something else. Or maybe it meant nothing at all. Now that he was gone I wasn’t sure he’d even been there. He was less real, less tangible, than Aishe, my spirit mentor.
I adjust the strap of my carry-on bag and continue walking. The faces around me take on a wolfish hue. Even the children. A little girl throws the head of a doll into the air and catches it again and again. A boy with an untied shoelace grinds his sneaker into the carpet, leaving the smudge of a dead insect.
Wickedness walls me in. I walk on, not looking to the left or right, and speed up as if something’s chasing me, hoping the plane to Los Angeles will arrive on time. I pass the endless waiting room, its gray carpet, its round, recessed lights, wishing to be anyplace but here.
To my right is a bank of chairs. A man in jeans reads a newspaper, and I catch a glimpse of the headline. In bold letters it says ISIS attacks U.S Synagogue — Greatest Death Toll Since 9-11.
Hope drains entirely. I’m too late.
About the Author
Stephen Wechselblatt received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Thirty years later he moved to the mountains of North Carolina and began writing
His book of short stories, Diamonds and Moths was published in 2017.
Worse than Murder is his first novel.