Home. But not really. After spending the requisite sixteen hours in the drunk tank/vice hold-up, she'd been kicked out. She needed to find a shelter with a free bed, a miracle at this time of the day. Marie hadn't been inside her real apartment for three months. She missed it. She missed having her own bed instead of a sleeping bag between two buggy mattresses. Sleeping with her shoes left outside the sleeping bag would also have been a great but since the last police raid, she couldn't afford to look for stolen shoes any more. She even missed the damn police station. At least the cells were dry. Even shifted back to her normal appearance, she couldn't risk going back to her real life. A compromise was yet another identity, as one of the legion of anonymous homeless lining the alleys of Brooklyn.
She felt him before she heard him as she walked away from yet another full shelter. Par for the course with Remy Lebeau. "You ain't looking too hot, sha."
"Unless you got fifty bucks and a car with a working heater, I ain't talking to you."
"I got better." He stood in front of her. "How's about hot pastrami on rye, cold cream soda, and an SUV where the backseat folds back into a bed?"
"Creepy, as expected. I'll take it."
"I didn't even offer the fifty bucks yet."
"I know where you keep that fifty." Marie tapped her forehead. With his permission, she had absorbed his memories and powers nineteen months and thirteen days ago to break the Senator Trask-Zif case that had made her career in MacTac and arguably the whole of the NYPD. It left her with cravings for fresh seafood, chicory coffee, and an ethical dilemma the size of an elephant.
Lebeau winced. "That just saps all the magic out of our relationship, sha."
"What's with you and this delusion that we have any sort of relationship?" Marie asked as she took his proffered food. She hid her smile by biting into the sandwich.
"I'm a cynical old man that's seen all and been all. Pissing you off entertains me in a way that titty bars never will again."
"Even more creepy but I really need to sleep on a surface that doesn't have fungus." Marie paused. "Wait, when was the last time got your groin swabbed again?"
Lebeau clutched at his heart. "You wound me!"
"Oh good. My night's looking up. Is that it?" She pointed at a matte black SUV with subtle chrome detailing.
"Your chariot, m'lady." He keyed the doors open. "You're a little young to go undercover as a bag lady."
Marie stuffed her mouth full of sandwich to keep from answering.
"That means I'm right, ain't it? You're undercover."
"Pass the soda."
"Pass the soda, now."
With a shake of his head, Lebeau popped the soda can tab open and took a sip before giving it to her. "Good thing you're cute, sha, 'cause you are a mean-ass bitch."
"Why, Gambit, that's the nicest thing you've ever said about me."
Lebeau drove past the neon monstrosity of Times Square, using the taxi-heavy traffic to give Marie more time to eat, no doubt. He was so odd that way, equal parts gentleman and dickhead. She strongly suspected he wasn't hugged too much as a child, at least not by his mother. Unsurprising considering he was raised to be the "king of the thieves" according to the memories she'd absorbed from him. What kind of deluded fucks raised a kid to be a king of larceny?
As she licked the last crumbs of rye bread off her fingers, Lebeau said, "You're lookin' into those girls that got killed, hein? The mutant hookers."
"You've got nerve asking me about my cases," said Marie. "You stalk me for months, try to bribe me into assassinating a US senator, put my entire city in mortal danger, hang out at my old school, and now this?"
"You mean giving you food and a warm bed for the night? The horror, the horror."
"I'd trust it more if I didn't know you. What's the Guild's angle in this, Lebeau?"
"The Guild's got nothing to do with this."
"You mean you've quit."
He said nothing. Not that Marie was surprised.
"As long as you're with them, the Guild's involved. I know that. You told me that."
"And I thought what we had was an understanding," he said. "You give me a little information, I give you the bad guys all tied up in a pretty bow."
"You are one of the bad guys!"
"But I don't got to be."
This conversation was going nowhere, as always. "Been a slice, Lebeau. I'll take my chances on the street. I'd give you back the sandwich but I have a feeling you won't miss that pocket change." Marie struggled with the door locks.
Lebeau smacked his head on the steering wheel. "For the love of all that's holy, D'Ancanto. Sleep in the damn car. I'll park it up high and leave you alone for the night. Believe it or not, I ain't so hard up for a fuck that I'll risk your mutation or your layers of hard-earned body odour. Look, I'll even give you the keys."
"What's the catch?"
"Call it payback for keeping your end of the deal."
Marie tilted her head to one side. While her hunger had been satiated, her brain couldn't quite access her memories yet.
"For last August," Lebeau explained. "You coulda used what you got from me to take my family down but you didn't."
Marie didn't have the heart to tell him that she fully intended to bring his family-- The Guild-- down. She had a feeling he knew it anyway. "Hit me."
"I need you to drop me off at a police station and with this disguise, I'm going to have to look like I was worked over before I resorted to the cops. So hit me."
Marie threw her hands up. "Come the fuck on! You were happy enough to try to kick my ass last year."
"You hit me first and, as I recall, I did kick your candy ass."
"You wish you could kick my gramma's ass. Look, you want me to punch you first?"
"Woman, you are certifiable!"
Marie decked him in the nose.
Lebeau clutched his face and yowled. "Fucking ouch! Not the face, goddammit! I told you before: you can hit anything but my face."
"Go stick your head outside to cool off. It's not broken."
"It stings," he said archly.
"I can make a few more things sting if you don't give me a nice big face bruise." Marie patted her cheek. "C'mon. Right here, swamp rat. Nothing you do can ever really hurt me."
"'Cause you think so little of me."
"Well, yeah. Also, I have access to some healing powers. Comes in handy."
Muttering something like "had to have been crazy to stay on," Lebeau pulled his arm back and let loose a strike to her right cheek. Marie's head bounced off the car's seat. Warmth bloomed over the one side of her face. That really was going to leave a bruise. She smiled.
Lebeau shook his head. "You're nuts, y'know that, sha?"
"I am what I am. Drop me off a couple blocks away from the nearest precinct. I can catch some sleep in their drunk tank. It's bigger than the one I left."
"A drunk tank over this nice luxury SUV."
"Well, I sure wouldn't want your latest squeeze to get all jealous," she said.
"Sha, I am a married man."
Marie plucked a strand of red hair out of her seat. "Last I checked, your wife was blonde, preferred Chanel No. 5 over BodyWorks Gardenia Valley spray, and would never wear costume jewellery. There's a plastic cocktail ring in the floor of the back seat."
"You're forgetting the only reason Belladonna don't have her usual lover set up in our house is because you threw him out of a helicopter then put him in jail," he said.
"Your twisted definition of marriage don't interest me. It ain't ever gonna happen. Stick it in your spank bank and leave it the fuck alone."
With a sigh, Lebeau started the engine and turned the SUV towards the station for the Thirteenth Precinct. Marie settled into her seat, savouring a few minutes of warmth.
Then Lebeau had to go and say, "But I can put it in my spank bank, hein?"
"Remy, why do you gotta make me hit you?"
The 32nd Precinct in Harlem was just far away enough from both Liz's and Baglady Sue's territories for Marie to be anonymous but not quite gentrified enough that a glimpse of anyone making under six-digits per annum would stick out. One of Marie's many disguise bags lay a block away from the precinct: two industrial garbage bags, one with bland civvie gear and a phone, the other with emergency undercover outfits.
Because the hiding place was close to a police station, she also felt comfortable enough to stash one of her pieces in the alley in a tiny vent shaft twenty feet up. Marie clambered on top of the dumpster, twisted the cover around the one screw that kept the vent in place, then felt around until she found a waterproof bag. Storm would call the gun a crutch due to Marie's rejection of her powers for so many years. Marie preferred to think of her love for firearms as a deep respect for the art of target shooting and the skills of gunmakers. Plus shooting things was ever so much fun.
This particular piece, a Smith & Wesson J-frame wasn't in the standard NYPD arsenal. She had to have it cleared by her captain for undercover work. Hell of a lot of paperwork involved in it, too; technically, the S&W was a concealed weapon. But unlike many mini handguns, it was accurate, reliable, and could take a beating. If Marie had to pick one gun to save her life during this sting, she'd pick this one.
Quickly changing to her civvies, Marie pulled out the emergency phone next. No-nonsense, thirty minutes of prepaid voice, and a few megs of prepaid data. Just enough to check in at the station. Marie dialled Jones' number by heart.
After two rings, Charlotte picked up. "The cheese is old and mouldy but the icebox is empty. Over and out."
"Harty har har."
"How's the glamorous life of a detective second-class? Wanting to kick yourself yet for insisting on this assignment?"
Marie could imagine one Charlotte Jones leaning back on her chair to cross her legs on her desk. She'd abandoned her beaded cornrows for a more "mature" style of curls cropped so close it was practically a buzz cut. She'd been making noises about bringing back rattails from the 80s. Marie hoped she was joking. Despite the fact that Charlotte was ten years older, the mother of a high school junior, and had trained her from the moment she had an inkling of being more than a beat cop, Marie considered herself the mature one in the partnership.
"I think I might be getting close to a break in the case," said Marie. "I'm heading to the 32nd right now. Could you clear me to use their facilities?"
"Just let 'em ring me up. For real though, girl, how're you holding up? The weather isn't getting any better out there."
"Eh, I'm dealing. It's giving me a lot of ideas about what to hand out next time we do a walk through Mutant Town. Did you know once you get your socks wet, ain't nothing in heaven, hell or Australia that can get you warm again? I'd just about kill my momma for a pair of wool socks and waterproof boots."
"I was more thinking about food. You tend to eat like you've got two hollow legs and a vicious case of tapeworm."
"You get used to starving. I remember that much."
Charlotte didn't answer for a full thirty seconds. "That one of the factoids about your mysterious pre-cop life that I'm never gonna get a full explanation about? Like being an X-Man?"
Marie bit her lip. Charlotte was a friend. A good friend. Had been for some time now. But Marie had held her cards so close to her chest for so long, X-Man or no, that opening up didn't come easy. "Nothing too dramatic. You know I came from down south. I just didn't take a 747 business class seat to get up here. It was a longer, less glamorous route."
"Yeah?" Charlotte was quiet again. Marie heard stuff shuffling in the back ground. "Well. Sorry to hear that, D'ancanto."
"It's all right. Made me the well-adjusted person I am today, right?"
"Girl, you're damn well-adjusted for the fucking Brady Bunch. You at the precinct yet?"
"Right. Hey, Marie, cards on the table: how close are you in this case?"
"I think I might have a lead from that party that got broken up."
"Might. So not a sure thing."
Marie tightened her hold on the phone. "What're you trying to say, Jones?"
"You've been out there three months without any solid leads. I have a bad feeling about this op. And I'm worried about you."
"I'm fine." She tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow a cough.
"I'm not. Do what you can for the most recent body but this op's over."
"You can't pull the plug when I'm so close."
"You're not that close and you're getting sick," said Charlotte. "I'm closing the op, D'Ancanto. Take a couple days off and I'll see you at your desk."
Charlotte had already hung up. Marie swore at the dial tone. This conversation wasn't over. Not by a long shot.
Unlike MacTac, the 32nd Precinct actually had a dedicated building. It looked like it might have been made after the Cold War. Marie smashed her phone against the steps of the station so the front pieces fell apart. She stripped the circuits from the casing, pulled out the SIM card, and deposited the plastic remains in a nearby recycling bin. The battery she pocketed; they brought in a few dollars at the recycling depot.
She approached the station desk, smiling like she really meant it. And she did, to come to think of it. Stations felt and smelled alike. This was home sweet home as much as her apartment.
"Hey there. Detective D'Ancanto from MacTac, here to check out a body in your morgue."
The desk jockey looked up. "MacTac, huh? You don't look like a muti--mutant."
Her smiled hardened. "I only pull out my freak during the annual pride parade."
"You can call MacTac. Ask for Captain Charlotte Jones. She'll vouch for me."
"That's pretty irregular, Officer."
"I'm MacTac. We're all pretty irregular. It's what makes me a good detective." Marie bit out. "Now you could call Captain Jones right now, get this all cleared up, and I won't have to contaminate you with my nasty X-genes for any longer than we can both stand. Or I can sneeze. Your call."
The desk jockey punched the number. That poor phone would never be the same. "You're cleared," he said, looking about as pleased as he would were he eating his shoe.
"Thanks again for such fine service. You're a credit to your precinct. And y'know what, because I've been slogging in the field for more than a goddamn week in this godforsaken asscrack weather, I'll also be needing you to get me extra-hot coffee with three sugars and one cream, and a maple-dipped doughnut, reheated, and don't you dare tell me there ain't no more 'cause it's only 9 P.M. and I know the Dunkin across the street always bakes 'em fresh around eight in time for the usual run."
"Who'll man the desk?"
"I will." She plonked her butt on the desk. "Can't be that hard. I've been doing this for coming onto seven years. How long have you been at it--" she peeked at his sleeves for his rank-- "officer?"
"I'll get right on it," growled the desk jockey.
Marie smiled. This time, it was all teeth with zero good feelings. "That's ''I'll get right on it, ma'am.'"
Lieutenant Mudaffer led her to the coroner, much to Marie' relief. She didn't think she could handle talking to Sergeant McDouchenozzle tonight, not after dealing with Lebeau and Officer Dipshit at the desk. And her feet were still cold, goddammit.
"I thought you'd come in earlier," said Mudaffer.
"I had previous engagements," she said. "Ever had one of those lifetimes?"
He grinned. "You chose the wrong profession if you wanted things easy."
"I love my job. I really do. It's just that even with this career, we should have an upper limit of the idiots we're allowed to be exposed to. They're always saying cops are trying to fill quotas right? Well my microphallic ingrate quota has been filled. We need a maximum quota of idiocy. We need to draw a line: this far and no farther. Yea, though I walk through the valley of dickwads, I shall not fear for Legal is behind me and not to fuck my ass sideways."
"Then I'm pretty sure you want to rethink going in the coroner's."
They stopped in front of the double doors. Marie sighed. "I really couldn't've been anything else but a cop."
She gave him a lopsided smile, waved, and pushed through the morgue doors.
The coroner looked up from the stretcher. "Detective D'Ancanto? Jessica Jones."
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Jones."
"Call me Jess."
"Marie." They traded firm, dry handshakes. If the classic Nine Inch Nails playing as background music and the half-empty six-pack of Pabst weren't dead giveaways that she'd like Jessica Jones, that handshake would have sealed the deal.
Jess slid off her stool. "You look like the trustworthy type, Marie. I'm gonna pop outside to grab some cancer. Go ahead and diddle with whatever you want to. Report's on the desk. The vic's on the slab. He came with a bunch of other shit; that's the other slab. If anyone asks, the beers are yours, capiche?"
"And you drank three of them in the five minutes I got here. Gotcha. Go indulge in your disgusting habit."
Jess dimpled her cheeks with two middle fingers. Yep, Marie was really going to like working with her.
On the slab, the body seemed even younger and more vulnerable than before. Half-drained of the Hudson, his body was thinner but not, Marie suspected, at his normal weight yet. Jess had cleaned him well, indicative of her professional thoroughness and the kind of empathy a lot of coroners lost after seeing hundreds of bodies. Regardless, his short fur couldn't hide the Y-incision on his torso.
Marie leaned forward to get a good look at his face. The instrument used to slice off his nose and ears were sharp. The cleanliness of the cut told her the perpetrator had no hesitation doing so; he knew the strength he needed and felt little to no emotion about it. Hesitation usually left jagged edges. Passion wasn't this precise. No, this was a methodical erasure of identification.
"I figured kitchen knife," said Jess.
"What did you do, eat the cigarette?"
"Don't knock it 'til you try it." Jess rubbed alcohol gel on her hands as she re-entered. "If you want to get all professional, the perp used a sharp cutting instrument, twelve to sixteen inches long with a wedge shape and a long handle. Like deboning a turkey. Hold the tip of the nose, find the edge of the nose crest, follow the line down through the cartilage. Similar procedure with the ears. Easier actually."
"Internal exam showed rectal scarring and skin tags typical of past non-consensual anal intercourse. Most recent sexual activity is kinda hard to gauge considering the time of death and the bogginess of the body but I'd wager he prostituted himself regularly."
Marie's throat closed. "Homeless male prostitute. Minor?"
"Maybe, maybe not."
"How old are we talking?"
"Late teens, early twenties. Poor guy didn't have many more years left to him but he definitely was a minor when he was raped and-or started out on the street. Not as malnourished as I'd've thought for his age. Maybe he was a lot prettier before that ass-bastard perp cut his face up." Jess smoothed the boy's hair down. "Incisions removing his penis, fingers, and toes are just as clean. The interesting part is where he's shaved."
Marie's eyes widened. "Shaved?"
"It was hard to tell with all that dirt and the fact that his fur's the same colour as his skin but it's pretty obvious along his back. Help me slide him, will you?"
Marie now knew why Jess used the extra wide slab. Fumbling with the sling would have been more work than it was worth, especially the older model sling in this morgue. Using a plastic sheet and a lot of coordination, she and Jess shifted the body onto its stomach.
Swaths of fur, some six inches in diameter had been shaved none too gently off the vic's back. Some smaller patches even looked torn, like the perp had pulled hair out. The patches had nicks and pinpoint rashes, the kind seen often when dry-shaving. And there was no readily identifiable pattern to the shaving. It just looked like the perp had yanked and shaved wherever his hands landed.
Marie pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Not what you're looking for?" asked Jess.
"Hard to say," she said. "The mutilation style's consistent with my case. Previous vics were all women though. And there was absolutely no signs of passion with the previous killings."
Jess straightened. "Previous vics? How many? Are we talking serial killer?"
"Ugh, don't put it that way. 'Serial killer' sounds too sexy to the damn media."
"Well, hell, not them again."
"And there were four other mutant vics before him. All women until now. Also, until now, the perp was more methodical. Organized thinking, removing all ID markers."
Jessica arched her eyebrows. "Organized like Martha Stewart or organized like pinstripe suits and Tommy guns?"
"That's the billion dollar question." Marie turned her attention to the slimmer table close by. This one held a few dozen items, labelled in Jess' scrawl, and organized presumably from those found at the head of the body to the foot. Various river grunge-- sticks, pebbles, plastic-- were in small piles sprinkled amongst the larger items. The vic's shirt, his only article of clothing, was spread flat, dotted with labelled pins to mark stains or holes. The oversized canvas bag that had held the body on its short trip down the river was also laid flat where the vic's pants would have been. More labelled pins marked areas Marie pegged as bloodstains. They weren't very large considering the amount of mutilation inflicted on the vic. So, the perp possibly cut the body up somewhere else, maybe even leaving it alone for a while before transporting it in the duffle.
She pointed to a small blue doll at the bottom of the table. "What's this?"
"Oh, I found that at the bottom of the duffle," said Jess.
"Rinse, glove, and party on, Wayne. I don't think the ones you have are standard."
"Nope, they're more of a personal preference," said Marie as she pulled her everyday gloves off in exchange for the morgue's disposable version.
Gingerly, she lifted the doll off the table. The doll was made entirely of blue felt with black felt spikes as hair and now-grimy blue eyes. It had pointy blue ears, little pointy fangs, and an arrow-shaped tail. Its hands and feet ended in three digits. Its coat once had sequins, and its striped waistcoat and pants badly needed a wash. Even in this soiled cartoon depiction, Marie instantly recognized who the doll was supposed to be.
Kurt Wagner. Once the Amazing Nightcrawler of the Berlin Circus, now a teacher at Massachusetts Academy, a subsidiary of the Xavier's Institute.