This is an extract from HABIT. Not to be reproduced in any form, except with permission of the publisher.
HABIT by T. J. BREARTON
First published 2014
Joffe Books, London
An imprint of Not So Noble Books
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The spelling used is American English except where fidelity to the author’s rendering of accent or dialect supersedes this.
© T. J. Brearton
The baby’s desperate cries could be heard echoing through the building, coming from one of the many rooms. The detective moved along the dark hallway, his weapon drawn. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face. The killer was somewhere in the place with him, behind one of these doors, around the next turn in the corridor.
I was born under the black smoke of September.
His hands shook and his heart slammed against his ribcage. His steps were slow, his legs trembling. He willed that sense of calm to return, that cool head he had worked so hard to cultivate these past days, but the baby’s crying tore through his nerves like a thousand cuts. She was close, he knew she was close, but the wailing echoed through the corridor, past the barren rooms.
He renewed his grip on the .38 Special Revolver. He checked to make sure the safety was off. He inhaled and exhaled through his nostrils. His jaw was clenched shut. He reached a doorway to one of the rooms and made his way towards it close to the corridor wall, constantly throwing glances behind him to see if the killer was there. At the door frame, he held his breath before swinging his arms and his body into the opening, aiming the firearm into the room.
The space was dimly lit, covered in drywall dust. There was plastic on the floor, ladders, scaffolding, and piles of sheetrock. The whole building was under construction. Out the window he could see the lights of the city.
I was born under the black smoke of September. I was born to you, and your infinite forms.
The sound of the baby was muffled as he stepped deeper into the room. She wasn’t in here. He spun back around, his foot catching some of the plastic on the ground so that it made a crisp noise in the gloom. He winced at the giveaway, and his heart seemed to redouble its beats, pounding in his chest, flushing the blood through the channels of his body. He stepped back out into the hallway, swinging the gun left and then right.
Darkness. No lights, no floodlights. Only the illumination of the city outside the building filtered in, fell against the interior walls of the room, and threw long shadows down the corridor. The corridor banked left further down. He started that way, keeping against the wall, unable to ignore the words of the killer in his mind, incapable of escaping the ubiquitous cries of the child, a noise like an alarm, howling down the halls and through the rooms.
Dear God, would someone come? If only some back-up would arrive, and put an end to this nightmare.
But no one would come, and he could not awake from this terrible dream because he wasn’t sleeping. It battened on to him, this terror, refusing to let go. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered that today was his birthday. There was no denying that this was real.
He made the turn in the hallway with a sudden move, his finger tight against the trigger, ready to squeeze. The corridor ran some fifty feet to where it ended in a window. Through the glass he again glimpsed the amber and red lights of the city beyond. He held his breath each time he made a turn or cleared a room. He knew he needed to keep breathing, to be steady. To become a machine. To merely track; he was a tracker.
The detective moved a little faster now. At least the corridor along this wing was lit from the window at the far end. He reached the next room, this time on the left. This room had no exterior window. He made his move and navigated in through the doorway and into the blackness. As soon as he was through the door he let go of the gun with one hand and reached to his right against the inside wall, feeling for a switch. There was none. He changed hands and groped along the wall to his left until he found it. He flipped the toggle up. Nothing. Back down and up again. No lights. The power was completely severed. The killer had seen to that, and emergency lights had apparently not yet been installed. The detective’s flashlight was long gone.
Still in the murk, but the baby’s cries were closer. Weren’t they? Like she was just on the other side of the wall. He was close – she was only one more room away, he was sure of it now. He started to back out of the inky darkness and then turned around.
A figure stood just outside the doorway of the room. Scarcely lit by the one window at the end of the hall, the killer was no more than a sketch in the gloom.
I was born under the black smoke of September, the detective had been warned. I was born to you, and your infinite forms, and now I have come for you.
To steal your children, to break you under the moon.
His breathing stopped again, his body grew rigid, his mind blank as he prepared to meet the man standing before him. Everything gone now, his calm found at last, his heartbeat slowing, his posture taking shape, all growing quiet and far away, except for the baby girl. Her pleading cries now infected everything, becoming a siren wail that liquefied the world into pure ether.
CHAPTER ONE / THURSDAY, 9:02 AM
Brendan Healy wanted a cigarette. It was his birthday in two weeks, and he had vowed to quit smoking when he turned thirty-five. Before getting out of his car and entering the house, he decided to sneak one. He left the car running, lit a Marlboro, and instantly felt nervous.
The house was big, with peeling white paint. In some places the boards were bare, cooked grey from the sun. It was a big three-story farm house with black shutters. Off to one side, a large shed gaped open with no doors. Inside was a tractor, a hulking ghost in the murk. Everywhere else was bright and baked brown. It had been a dry summer, and the grass was parched, worn away completely between the two buildings. Sitting further back on the property was a third structure, a barn as tall as a house, its wood the color of charcoal ash.
Brendan dragged on his smoke, and then mashed it out in the ashtray. Someone rapped on his window and he jumped. He pressed the lever and the window rolled down.
It was Detective Delaney. Delaney was the senior investigator for Oneida County. He was a bald man with a moustache and a round, puffy face.
“Yeah,” said Brendan. His heart started to thump. He fumbled with the button for the automatic window and then turned off the ignition and pulled the keys out. He tossed them onto the passenger’s seat and picked up his notebook, with the pen clipped on the front. He took a deep breath, opened the door, and got out.
The heat was instantly oppressive. He could feel it work into his clothes. He wore a pale gold tie, a navy blue button down shirt, and a dark grey blazer. The temperature was already climbing above eighty, and it was only nine o’clock in the morning. It was hot for this late in the summer.
Brendan and Delaney just stood there not saying anything. Brendan looked at the house, and Delaney looked at Brendan.
“Okay?” asked Delaney finally.
“You’ll do fine.”
Brendan looked at Delaney, his eyes wrapped in crow’s feet, squinting in the morning sun. Delaney’s kids were all grown up; his wife was a part-time realtor. She liked wearing bright colors. It was rumored that Delaney stepped out on her. He was heavy, Irish, and had been on the job for over thirty years.
The two detectives walked towards the house, crossing the dirt dooryard. A Sheriff’s deputy, named Watts, stood just outside the door, which was open.
“Morning,” said Delaney.
“Morning,” said the deputy.
Brendan glanced at him and offered a thin smile. Then he looked at Delaney. “Any forced entry?”
“None. There are two doors. One in front, one in back. Back door was found locked. Front door was unlocked.”
The two detectives entered the house and came upon a foyer, with bare, shiplap floors, dark brown. A hall fed into two rooms on the right. On the left was another doorway, and the foot of the stairs.
They climbed the stairs, not touching the wooden bannister. The risers creaked beneath their combined weight. At the top landing they turned right down a hallway and Delaney lagged back so that Brendan took the lead.
The doorway to the master bedroom was just in front of him. His heart continued to hammer in his chest and he willed himself to calm down. There was a flash from the room as the forensic photographer snapped a picture. The CSI unit had already been on the scene for fifteen minutes.
Detective Brendan Healy entered the room.
The sunlight burned in the windows. The lamps in the room were all dark, and the natural light cast a surreal, almost heavenly glow over everything. There was little room to walk. Three CSIs were already present at the core scene, and the room was in disarray, with potential evidentiary material everywhere. There was a bureau against the far wall with two columns of three drawers. The bottom drawer on each side was fully open. Above these, the two other rows of drawers were slightly ajar. The contents of the bottom drawers – clothing – had been mussed and some garments hung over the lip of the drawers. There was a rumpled bath towel on the floor next to the bureau.
There were three windows in the room. Two were on the wall with the long bureau, which sat in between. The third was over the bed.
The bed was queen-sized, not too big; not too small. There was a rumpled white duvet over light blue sheets. Blood covered much of the linens, with one particular concentration near the rumpled center. Beneath the wad of blankets and blood was the dead woman.
The three CSIs in the room looked at Delaney expectantly. Healy noticed a glance or two alight on him fleetingly, but the senior investigator was who they were waiting to talk to. They were his unit. Brendan recognized the CSI with the camera. His name was Joe Patnode, and he was a crime scene investigator and a forensic scientist whose expertise was in blood pattern identification, trajectory determination, and serology. Patnode was a first responder.
“Morning, Ambrose,” said Patnode. Ambrose was Delaney’s first name.
Detective Delaney waved a hand in the air. He smiled, his eyes glancing around. “Morning. Are we on the pre-determined path here?”
“You’re good,” said one of the other CSIs. The two other CSIs were women. Brendan didn’t recognize them. They were first-responders, too. Delaney trusted them to secure the crime scene if he wasn’t able to be one of the first on-scene himself. He introduced them.
“Alicia, Dominique, this is Brendan Healy.”
They said hello. After this brief exchange of pleasantries, Delaney, standing just behind Healy in the doorway, brushed past him. He took two steps into the room and stopped near the foot of the bed. He looked down at it.
From Brendan’s perspective, he could only see the arm of the victim sticking out of the large bunch of bloody covers. He smelled perfume in the room, and his eyes landed on several bottles on top of the bureau. One had been tipped over. The bureau had a large mirror affixed to the top. The reflection showed the backside of one of the CSIs, the woman standing between that piece of furniture and the bed. She was blocking what might have been a reflection revealing more of the victim.
Healy didn’t scent anything else besides the perfume and faint copper smell of blood. There was no cordite in the air, no lingering odor of gunpowder.
“She was stabbed numerous times,” said the CSI standing between the bureau and the bed, the one Delaney had introduced as Dominique. Delaney peered over the bed. They all looked. Dominique shifted her position a little and revealed the face of the dead woman.
Healy blinked and looked away. His heart was beating so hard he thought it was visible through his suit jacket. His tie must have been thumping. He forced himself to look back at the mirror, at the victim’s reflection.
Her eyes were open. Her mouth was slightly agape. She seemed to be looking at the bureau. Looking right at him via the reflection.
For a moment, he thought he was going to have to back out of the room. His legs felt numb. Brendan was afraid that his muscles were going to betray him and he wouldn’t be able to stand up. He reached back as casually as he could and gripped the door frame to steady himself. Patnode, with the camera in his hand, looked over. Then he looked away.
Delaney addressed the group of them. “Okay. So?” His two words were a question, inviting their initial assessment.
The CSI named Alicia spoke. “We don’t know the extent of the crime scene, but it’s likely the whole house, maybe the yard, the other buildings. She called 911 at eight-eighteen this morning, saying that there was an intruder in the house. Said she got out of the shower and heard someone downstairs as she was coming back into the bedroom.”
“But she’s in bed.”
“That’s correct. At eight thirty-six, Deputy Bostrom arrived at the scene. He knocked on the front door, got no response, entered the home, called out her name, which the 911 operator had obtained, and still got no response. Deputy Bostrom said he drew his firearm downstairs, and did a cursory check of the first floor. He then proceeded up the stairs. He says he got a ‘sense’ of something in the bedroom, and turned and came down into the room. That’s when he found the victim.”
“Maybe he smelled the perfume,” said Delaney.
Patnode spoke up. “Her name is Rebecca Heilshorn. She’s twenty-eight years old.”
“That’s quite a name.”
“Which?” asked Patnode.
Delaney didn’t answer. Brendan thought about the name. Rebecca was typically a Jewish first name. Heilshorn was very likely German. It felt good to think about the name. It was something to focus on. He was starting to feel a little more at ease.
“The bus arrived at eight forty-nine. The paramedics came upstairs and checked the victim’s vitals. It was clear to them that the victim was deceased. We arrived – Dominique and I – less than five minutes after the bus. We dismissed them.” Alicia glanced at her watch. “Fifteen minutes later, and here we are.”
Delaney pointed to the open drawers. “Robbed?”
Alicia nodded, but it was a noncommittal gesture. “Could be. The rest of the house has not been secured. We don’t know what – if anything – was taken.”
“Okay,” said Delaney. “Deputy Bostrom arrived alone and proceeded into the house alone?”
“His back-up arrived just a few minutes after he did. Deputy Lawson. I believe Deputy Lawson was downstairs, too. You didn’t see him?”
“And Bostrom came into the house alone anyway,” said Delaney. It wasn’t a question. Brendan heard a trace of disapproval in the senior investigator’s tone, who put his hands on his hips. “Okay. Thank you,” Delaney said.
“We’ve identified no potential hazards, not at least in the immediate vicinity of the core area,” Alicia offered.
Delaney nodded. “You called Clark?”
Stanley Clark was the Deputy Coroner.
Alicia nodded. “He’s on his way.”
“Get Hai Takai here, too.”
Brendan knew the name. Takai was an expert in footprint analysis.
Brendan glanced at the mirror again. The face of the victim looked back. Her skin was smooth, her face was pretty though it was spattered with blood. He looked at her slightly open mouth. It was as though she had something to tell him.
CHAPTER TWO / THURSDAY, 9:13 AM
Brendan felt a hand on his shoulder. The touch made him jump, as if he’d received an electric shock. He turned and saw Delaney standing behind him. Delaney nodded toward the hallway.
“Step into my office.”
The hall was dark compared to the bright bedroom. It took a moment for Brendan’s eyes to adjust. Delaney’s round face loomed before him. The man was over six feet, and looked down at an angle at Brendan, who was five-foot-nine.
“Let’s find Lawless, and talk to both him and Bostrom in a safe area.”
“We can make the safe area in the grass beyond that dirt patch there, in the front. It’s already been trampled with our feet; I don’t want to contaminate it further. We want to find out what Bostrom did when he came in, where he looked, what he touched. Our deputies are pretty good, but when the heart is pumping adrenaline on a call, they come in, they don’t always think straight. They’re thinking about saving a life, maybe their own. They’re not thinking about lab tests and evidentiary value for the prosecution. I’m not throwing anybody under the bus, but it happens.”
“We need to find out who owns this house. We may need a warrant. You never know who is going to balk about privacy and probable cause, or what defense attorney is gonna cry ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’. The victim is ostensibly the only resident, but that doesn’t mean she owns the house. She could rent.”
Brendan looked away from Delaney and at their surroundings. The hallway was open on one side, blocked with a balustrade that overlooked the foyer, which was a clerestory room in itself. Brendan looked over Delaney’s shoulder, down the hallway, his eyes skipping from doorway to doorway. Brendan knew that somewhere in the opposite direction from the bedroom was the shower, where the victim had come from before calling about an intruder, and then apparently getting back in bed. Where had she made the call from? Right here, where they stood, looking over the hallway railing down into where she heard the disturbance? Did she call from her cell phone?
Delaney continued Brendan’s thought aloud, “Though why anyone would rent a giant old farmhouse like this is beyond me. The heating cost alone in the winter would be enough to send you to the poor house. Taxes out here are higher than you’d think, too.”
“Maybe it’s a summer residence,” said Brendan.
Delaney’s eyes found Brendan’s in the dimly lit space. They searched Brendan, appealing for more. “What do you think?”
Brendan took a breath. His pulse had slowed at last, and his heart was beating a good rhythm.
“The bureau,” he said. He glanced back towards the bedroom. Through the door he saw Patnode moving around the foot of the bed. The rest of it was obscured from view. Patnode held the camera out in front of him and took another picture.
“Only the bottom drawers were open,” Brendan continued. “When you’re robbing a place, and you know what you’re doing, and you’re looking for valuables, you open the bottom drawers first. Then the one above it, and so on, so that they end up all left open. If you go the other way, you’ve got to close each drawer behind you.” Brendan shrugged.
“So we’re looking at an inexperienced robber.”
“Or maybe not a robbery at all. We won’t know until we check the rest of the place.”
Delaney nodded. “Like I said, let’s go see the deps first while my team documents the scene.”
* * *
They spoke with the two deputies in the front yard, beyond the dirt area, as Delaney had instructed. Since they’d been upstairs, two more deputies had arrived. Oneida County was on the big side in terms of geography, and on the small side for population. The Sheriff’s Department had six deputies on the payroll. The Sheriff was always lobbying for more.
The other two deputies hung back where the vehicles, including Brendan’s, were starting to pile up in the dirt driveway near the shed. There was a line of elm trees running alongside the driveway, which was perhaps an eighth of a mile. Route 12 was in the distance. On the other side of it was a field of corn. The corn had trouble during the growing season, and the gossip was that the crop was bunk. The land on that side with the unhealthy corn was part of a different property – that was Brendan’s first guess. No one here grew crops. They may have once, but the place had clearly fallen to disrepair and there were no signs of a working farm. No tillers, no silo, no animals. The only equipment was the tractor in the barn. He needed to get a better look at it, but his gut suggested that it didn’t work. There was just no sense of an up-and-running agribusiness here.
“Take me through exactly what you did when you got to the scene,” said Delaney to Deputy Bostrom.
The deputy described almost exactly what Alicia, one CSI, had reported upstairs.
Brendan thought that the deputy resented Delaney’s questioning. Delaney seemed affable enough, but there was no doubt he had a tendency to take the tough approach. It was also an unusually high-profile case. Likely only one or two of the older deputies in the department had been involved in a murder case before. They felt out of their element. They were used to domestic violence calls and evictions. Brendan knew the beat.
“Have you ever had to draw your weapon before, officer?” he asked unexpectedly.
Delaney and the deputies looked at him. While they all worked for the Sheriff’s Department, they rarely saw one another. And Brendan Healy had only been a detective with Oneida County for two months. He had done road patrol for three years in another department. It was possible there was some resentment because he was new, because he was young, and because he was not a native son.
The deputy then glanced at Delaney. Delaney’s eyes lingered on Brendan, who could feel the senior investigator’s glare.
A vehicle appeared on the road, and turned down the dirt driveway. It came toward them churning up a cloud of dust. The day grew hotter.
“That’s Clark now,” said Delaney. “There’s going to be people here. Next of kin, reporters, rubberneckers. I want them back. Back by the road; put them in that corn if you can.”
“Yes, sir,” said Bostrom. He was blond with a good build, probably approaching forty. Deputy Lawless was dark-haired, about the same age, overweight. Delaney looked at him. “Where were you?”
Lawless opened his eyes wider. “I was at the back of the house.”
“When we arrived? You were at the back of the house?”
“Covering the back door.”
Delaney seemed to accept this. He then turned to Brendan. “Okay. Call the district attorney’s office. Let’s get that warrant and keep our asses covered, homicide or not. Let’s close off this whole site. The house, the outbuildings. Nobody else parks in that driveway. We’ve already lost any tire tracks. How close is the nearest neighbor? That’s the Folwell Farm across the way.” Delaney put his hand to his forehead, like a visor, and scanned the horizon. “His house is, what, down there?”
“The Folwell farmhouse is about half a mile south, yes, sir,” said Bostrom.
Delaney turned back to Brendan. “You’re on eye witnesses. Anybody that saw a vehicle just prior to eight fifteen this morning. Anything unusual. Find out how big this property is, where the boundaries are. Who the neighbors are on this side of the road, that side of the road.”
Brendan swallowed. Despite his initial anxiety, he was disappointed that he wasn’t going to work the crime scene. “Okay,” he said.
“Find out who the house belongs to. Find out everything you can about the girl in there, Heilshorn. If she’s married, got a boyfriend, we’re going to look at them. We’re going to look down their throats and up their asses. It’s someone who knows the victim, nine times out of ten.”
With that, Delaney turned on his heel and started walking towards the coroner, Clark, who was getting out of his vehicle. Clark had grey hair and wore blue jeans and a white button-down shirt.
Brendan looked at the two deputies. They met his gaze for a moment. Bostrom turned and walked away. Lawless gave a short nod to Brendan. “Good luck,” he said, and he followed after the other deputy.
Brendan watched them go. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket, and dialed the district attorney’s office. He put the phone to his ear as the call began to connect. He stood looking at the property. They were five miles outside of Remsen, the nearest small village. Upstate, New York was a combination of resort towns, impoverished villages, and long swathes of farm country. The front yard of the grounds was overgrown. The crickets sang in the high grass; the air seemed to buzz with life. On the phone, a ringing began as the call went through.
Suddenly, there was a loud boom. Everybody jumped, including Brendan, whose nerves had just finally settled. A group of birds erupted from the corn field across the street. The cornfield was the source of the noise, which rolled across the land like thunder.
It was a gunshot.
Brendan went into a crouch. All of the other men on the property did the same, and several ran for cover behind the vehicles.
“Jesus Christ!” someone shouted.
The startled birds took to the air in a spiral pattern, rising up into the pale blue sky. Brendan realized something none of them had considered: the killer could still be at the scene.
A voice on the other end of the call broke in. “District Attorney’s office. Hello?”
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