ipad-ebooks-online

1 of 173

2 of 173

Dexter in the Dark

by Jeff Lindsay

3 of 173

IN THE BEGINNING

I T REMEMBERED A SENSE OF SURPRISE, AND THEN FALLING, but that was all. Then IT just waited. IT waited a very long time, but IT could wait easily because there was no memory and nothing had screamed yet. And so IT did not know IT was waiting. IT did not know it was anything at that point. IT just was, with no way to mark time, with no way even to have the idea of time.

So IT waited, and IT watched. There was not a great deal to see at first; fire, rocks, water, and eventually some little crawly things, which began to change and get bigger after a while. They didn't do very much except to eat each other and reproduce. But there was nothing to compare that to, so for a while that was enough. Time passed. IT watched as the big things and the little things killed and ate one another aimlessly. There was no real joy in watching that, since there was nothing else to do and there were plenty more of them. But IT didn't seem able to do anything but watch. And so IT began to wonder: Why am I watching this?

IT could see no real point to anything that happened and there was nothing IT could do, and yet there IT was, watching. IT thought about this a very long time, but came to no conclusions. There was still no way to think any of this through; the whole idea of purpose wasn't quite there yet. There was just IT and them. There were lots of them, more all the time, busily killing and eating and copulating. But there was only one of IT, and IT did none of those things, and IT began to wonder why that was, too. Why was IT different? Why was IT so unlike everything else? What was IT, and if IT actually was something, was IT supposed to do something, too?

More time passed. The countless changing crawly things slowly got bigger and better at killing each other. Interesting at first, but only because of the subtle differences. They crawled, hopped, and slithered to kill one another-one actually flew through the air to kill. Very interesting-but so what?

IT began to feel uncomfortable with all this. What was the point? Was IT supposed to be a part of what IT

watched? If not, then why was IT here watching?

IT became determined to find the reason IT was here, whatever that was. So now when IT studied the big things and the little things, IT studied the ways IT was different from them. All the other things needed to eat and drink or they died. And even if they ate and drank, they eventually died anyway. IT didn't die. IT just went on and on. IT didn't need to eat or drink. But gradually IT became aware that IT did need…something-but what? IT could feel that somewhere there was a need, and the need was growing, but IT could not tell what it was; there was just the sense that something was missing.

No answers came as ages of scales and egg clutches paraded by. Kill and eat, kill and eat. What is the point here? Why do I have to watch all this when I can't do anything about it? IT began to feel just a little bit sour about the whole thing.

And then suddenly one day there was a brand-new thought: Where did I come from?

IT had figured out long ago that the eggs the others hatched from came from copulation. But IT had not come from an egg. Nothing at all had copulated to bring IT into existence. There had been nothing there to copulate when IT first became aware. IT had been there first and, seemingly, forever, except for the vague and disturbing memory of falling. But everything else had been hatched or born. IT had not. And with this thought the wall between IT and them seemed to grow vastly higher, stretching up impossibly tall, separating IT from them completely and eternally. IT was alone, completely alone forever, and that hurt. IT wanted to be a part of something. There was only one of IT-shouldn't there be a way for IT to copulate and make more, too?

And that began to seem infinitely more important, that thought: MORE of IT. Everything else made more. IT

wanted to make more, too.

It suffered, watching the mindless things in their roiling riotous living. Resentment grew, turned into anger, and finally the anger turned into rage toward the stupid, pointless things and their endless, inane, insulting existence. And the rage grew and festered until one day IT couldn't stand it any longer. Without a pause to think what IT

4 of 173

was doing, IT rose up and rushed at one of the lizards, wanting somehow to crush it. And a wonderful thing happened.

IT was inside the lizard.

Seeing what the lizard saw, feeling what it felt.

For a long while IT forgot rage altogether.

The lizard did not appear to notice it had a passenger. It went about its business of killing and copulating, and IT

rode along. It was very interesting to be on board when the lizard killed one of the littler ones. As an experiment, IT moved into one of the little ones. Being in the one that killed was far more fun, but not enough to lead to any real purposeful ideas. Being in the one that died was very interesting and did lead to some ideas, but not very happy ones.

IT enjoyed these new experiences for a while. But although IT could feel their simple emotions, they never went beyond confusion. They still didn't notice IT, didn't have any idea that-well, they simply didn't have any idea. They didn't seem capable of having an idea. They were just so limited-and yet they were alive. They had life and didn't know it, didn't understand what to do with it. It didn't seem fair. And soon IT was bored once more, and growing angry all over again.

And finally one day the monkey things started to show up. They didn't seem like much at first. They were small and cowardly and loud. But one tiny difference finally caught IT's attention: they had hands that let them do some amazing things. IT watched as they became aware of their hands, too, and began to use them. They used them for a great variety of brand-new things: masturbating, maiming one another, and taking food from the smaller of their own kind.

IT was fascinated and watched more closely. IT watched them hit each other and then run away and hide. IT

watched them steal from one another, but only when no one was looking. IT watched them do horrible things to each other and then pretend that nothing had happened. And as IT watched, for the first time, something wonderful happened: IT laughed.

And as IT laughed, a thought was born, and grew into clarity wrapped in glee. IT thought: I can work with this.

5 of 173

ONE

W HAT KIND OF MOON IS THIS? NOT THE BRIGHT, GLEAMING moon of slashing happiness, no indeed. Oh, it pulls and whines and shines in a cheap and guttering imitation of what it should do, but there is no edge to it. This moon has no wind in it to sail carnivores across the happy night sky and into slash-and-slice ecstasy. Instead this moon flickers shyly through a squeaky-clean window, onto a woman who perches all cheerful and perky on the edge of the couch and talks about flowers, canapés, and Paris. Paris ?

Yes, with moon-faced seriousness, Paris is what she is talking about in that far-spreading syrupy tone. She is talking about Paris. Again.

So what kind of moon can this possibly be, with its near-breathless smile and smirking lace around the edges? It batters feebly at the window, but it can't quite get in past all the sickly-sweet warbling. And what kind of Dark Avenger could simply sit across the room, as poor Dazed Dexter does now, pretending to listen while mooning blearily on his chair?

Why, this moon must be a honeymoon-unfurling its marital banner across the living-room night, signaling for all to rally round, sound the charge, once more into the church, dear friends-because Dexter of the Deadly Dimples is getting married. Hitched to the wagon of bliss pulled by the lovely Rita, who has turned out to have a lifelong passion to see Paris.

Married, honeymoon in Paris…Do these words really belong in the same sentence as any reference at all to our Phantom Flenser?

Can we really see a suddenly sober and simpering slasher at the altar of an actual church, in Fred Astaire tie and tails, slipping the ring onto a white-wrapped finger while the congregation sniffles and beams? And then Demon Dexter in madras shorts, gawking at the Eiffel Tower and snarfing café au lait at the Arc de Triomphe? Holding hands and trundling giddily along the Seine, staring vacantly at every gaudy trinket in the Louvre?

Of course, I suppose I could make a pilgrimage to the Rue Morgue, a sacred site for serial slashers. But let us be just a tiny bit serious for a moment: Dexter in Paris? For starters, are Americans still allowed to go to France? And for finishers, Dexter in Paris? On a honeymoon? How can someone of Dexter's midnight persuasions possibly consider anything so ordinary? How can someone who considers sex as interesting as deficit accounting enter into marriage? In short, how by all that is unholy, dark, and deadly can Dexter really mean to do this?

All wonderful questions, and very reasonable. And in truth, somewhat difficult to answer, even to myself. But here I am, enduring the Chinese water torture of Rita's expectations and wondering how Dexter can possibly go through with this.

Well then. Dexter can go through with this because he must, in part to maintain and even upgrade his necessary disguise, which prevents the world at large from seeing him for what he is, which is at best not something one would really like to have sitting across the table when the lights go out-especially if there is silverware present. And quite naturally, it takes a great deal of careful work to make sure it is not generally known that Dexter is driven by his Dark Passenger, a whispery-silk voice in the shaded backseat that from time to time climbs into the front seat to take the wheel and drive us to the Theme Park of the Unthinkable. It would never do to have the sheep see that Dexter is the wolf among them.

And so work we do, the Passenger and I, work very hard at our disguise. For the past several years we have had Dating Dexter, designed to present a cheerful and above all normal face to the world. This charming production featured Rita as the Girlfriend, and it was in many ways an ideal arrangement, since she was as uninterested in sex as I am, and yet wanted the companionship of an Understanding Gentleman. And Dexter really does understand. Not humans, romance, love, and all that gabble. No. What Dexter understands is the lethally grinning bottom line, how to find the utterly deserving among Miami's oh-so-many candidates for that final dark election to Dexter's modest Hall of Fame.

6 of 173

This does not absolutely guarantee that Dexter is a charming companion; the charm took years of practice, and it is the pure artificial product of great laboratory skill. But alas for poor Rita-battered by a terribly unfortunate and violent first marriage-she can't seem to tell the margarine from the butter. All well and good. For two years Dexter and Rita cut a brilliant swathe across the Miami social scene, noticed and admired everywhere. But then, through a series of events that might well leave an enlightened observer somewhat skeptical, Dexter and Rita had become accidentally engaged. And the more I pondered on how to extricate myself from this ridiculous fate, the more I realized that it was a logical next step in the evolution of my disguise. A married Dexter-a Dexter with two ready-made children!-is surely a great deal further from seeming to be anything at all like what he really is. A quantum leap forward, onto a new level of human camouflage. And then there are the two children.

It may seem strange that someone whose only passion is for human vivisection should actually enjoy Rita's children, but he does. I do. Mind you, I don't get all weepy-eyed at the thought of a lost tooth, since that would require the ability to feel emotion, and I am quite happily without any such mutation. But on the whole, I find children a great deal more interesting than their elders, and I get particularly irritable with those who cause them harm. In fact, I occasionally search them out. And when I track these predators down, and when I am very sure that they have actually done what they have been doing, I make sure they are quite unable to do it ever again-and with a very happy hand, unspoiled by conscience.

So the fact that Rita had two children from her disastrous first marriage was far from repellent, particularly when it became apparent that they needed Dexter's special parenting touch to keep their own fledgling Dark Passengers strapped into a safe, snug Dark Car Seat until they could learn how to drive for themselves. For presumably as a result of the emotional and even physical damage inflicted on Cody and Astor by their drug-addled biological father, they too had turned to the Dark Side, just like me. And now they were to be my children, legally as well as spiritually. It was almost enough to make me feel that there was some guiding purpose to life after all.

And so there were several very good reasons for Dexter to go through with this-but Paris? I don't know where it came from, this idea that Paris is romantic. Aside from the French, has anyone but Lawrence Welk ever thought an accordion was sexy? And wasn't it by now clear that they don't like us there? And they insist on speaking French, of all things?

Perhaps Rita had been brainwashed by an old movie, something with a perky-plucky blonde and a romantic dark-haired man, modernist music playing as they pursue each other around the Eiffel Tower and laugh at the quaint hostility of the dirty, Gauloise-smoking man in the beret. Or maybe she had heard a Jacques Brel record once and decided it spoke to her soul. Who can say? But somehow Rita had the notion firmly welded into her steel-trap brain that Paris was the capital of sophisticated romance, and the idea would not come out without major surgery.

So on top of the endless debates about chicken versus fish and wine versus cash bar, a series of monomaniacal rambling monologues about Paris began to emerge. Surely we could afford a whole week, that would give us time to see the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre-and maybe something by Molière at the Comédie-Française. I had to applaud the depth of her research. For my part, my interest in Paris had faded away completely long ago when I learned that it was in France.

Luckily for us, I was saved from the necessity of finding a politic way of telling her all this when Cody and Astor made their subtle entrance. They don't barrel into a room with guns blazing as most children of seven and ten do. As I have said, they were somewhat damaged by their dear old biological dad, and one consequence is that you never see them come and go: they enter the room by osmosis. One moment they are nowhere to be seen and the next they are standing quietly beside you, waiting to be noticed.

"We want to play kick the can," Astor said. She was the spokesperson for the pair; Cody never put more than four words together in a single day. He was not stupid, very far from it. He simply preferred not to speak most of the time. Now he just looked at me and nodded.

"Oh," said Rita, pausing in her reflections on the land of Rousseau, Candide, and Jerry Lewis, "well then, why don't you-"

7 of 173

"We want to play kick the can with Dexter," Astor added, and Cody nodded very loudly. Rita frowned. "I guess we should have talked about this before, but don't you think Cody and Astor-I mean, shouldn't they start to call you something more, I don't know-but just Dexter? It seems kind of-"

"How about mon papere?" I asked. "Or Monsieur le Comte?"

"How about, I don't think so?" muttered Astor.

"I just think-" said Rita.

"Dexter is fine," I said. "They're used to it."

"It doesn't seem respectful," she said.

I looked down at Astor. "Show your mother you can say 'Dexter' respectfully," I told her. She rolled her eyes. "Puh- leeeeeze," she said.

I smiled at Rita. "See? She's ten years old. She can't say anything respectfully."

"Well, yes, but-" Rita said.

"It's okay. They're okay," I said. "But Paris-"

"Let's go outside," said Cody, and I looked at him with surprise. Four entire syllables-for him it was practically an oration.

"All right," said Rita. "If you really think-"

"I almost never think," I said. "It gets in the way of the mental process."

"That doesn't make any sense," Astor said.

"It doesn't have to make sense. It's true," I said.

Cody shook his head. "Kick the can," he said. And rather than break in on his talking jag, I simply followed him out into the yard.

8 of 173

TWO

O F COURSE, EVEN WITH RITA'S GLORIOUS PLANS UNFOLDING, life was not all jubilation and strawberries. There was real work to do, too. And because Dexter is nothing if not conscientious, I had been doing it. I had spent the past two weeks dabbing on the last few brushstrokes of a brand-new canvas. The young gentleman who served as my inspiration had inherited a great deal of money, and he had apparently been using it for the kind of dreadful homicidal escapades that made me wish I was rich, too. Alexander Macauley was his name, though he called himself "Zander," which seemed somewhat preppy to me, but perhaps that was the point. He was a dyed-in-the-wool trust-fund hippie, after all, someone who had never done any real work, devoting himself entirely to lighthearted amusement of the kind that would have made my hollow heart go pitter-pat, if only Zander had shown slightly better taste in choosing his victims.

The Macauley family's money came from vast hordes of cattle, endless citrus groves, and dumping phosphates into Lake Okeechobee. Zander came frequently to the poor areas of town to pour out his largesse across the city's homeless. And the favored few he really wished to encourage he reportedly brought back to the family ranch and gave employment, as I learned from a teary-eyed and admiring newspaper article. Of course Dexter always applauds the charitable spirit. But in general, I am so very much in favor of it because it is nearly always a warning sign that something nefarious, wicked, and playful is going on behind the Mother Teresa mask. Not that I would ever doubt that somewhere in the depths of the human heart there really and truly does live a spirit of kind and caring charity, mingled with the love of fellow man. Of course it does. I mean, I'm sure it must be in there somewhere. I've just never seen it. And since I lack both humanity and real heart, I am forced to rely on experience, which tells me that charity begins at home, and almost always ends there, too. So when I see a young, wealthy, handsome, and otherwise normal-appearing young man lavishing his resources on the vile downtrodden of the earth, I find it difficult to accept the altruism at face value, no matter how beautifully presented. After all, I am fairly good at presenting a charming and innocent picture of myself, and we know how accurate that is, don't we?

Happily for my consistent worldview, Zander was no different-just a lot richer. And his inherited money had made him a little bit sloppy. Because in the meticulous tax records I uncovered, the family ranch appeared to be unoccupied and idle, which clearly meant that wherever he was taking his dear dirty friends, it was not to a healthy and happy life of country labor.

Even better for my purposes, wherever they went with their new friend Zander, they were going barefoot. Because in a special room at his lovely Coral Gables home, guarded by some very cunning and expensive locks that took me almost five full minutes to pick, Zander had saved some souvenirs. It's a foolish risk for a monster to take; I know this full well, since I do it myself. But if someday a hardworking investigator comes across my little box of memories, he will find no more than some glass slides, each with a single drop of blood preserved upon it, and no way ever to prove that any of them is anything sinister at all. Zander was not quite so clever. He had saved a shoe from each of his victims, and counted on too much money and a locked door to keep his secrets safe.

Well really. No wonder monsters get such a bad reputation. It was just too naive for words-and shoes?

Seriously, shoes, by all that's unholy? I try to be tolerant and understanding of the foibles of others, but this was a bit much. What could possibly be the attraction in a sweaty, slime-encrusted, twenty-year-old sneaker? And then to leave them right out in the open like that, too. It was almost insulting. Of course, Zander probably thought that if he was ever caught he could count on buying the best legal care in the world, who would surely get him off with only community service-a little ironic, since that was how it had all started. But one thing he had not counted on was being caught by Dexter instead of the police. And his trial would take place in the Traffic Court of the Dark Passenger, in which there are no lawyers-although I certainly hope to catch one someday soon-and the verdict is always absolutely final. But was a shoe really enough proof? I had no doubt of Zander's guilt. Even if the Dark Passenger hadn't been singing arias the entire time I looked at the shoes, I knew very well what the collection meant-left to his own devices, Zander would collect more shoes. I was quite sure that he was a bad man, and I wanted very much to 9 of 173

have a moonlight discussion with him and give him some pointed comments. But I had to be absolutely sure-that was the Harry Code.

I had always followed the careful rules laid down by Harry, my cop foster father, who taught me how to be what I am with modesty and exactness. He had shown me how to leave a crime scene clean as only a cop can, and he had taught me to use the same kind of thoroughness in selecting my partner for the dance. If there was any doubt at all, I could not call Zander out to play.

And now? No court in the world would convict Zander of anything beyond unsanitary fetishism based on his display of footwear-but no court in the world had the expert testimony of the Dark Passenger, either, that soft, urgent inner voice that demanded action and was never wrong. And with that sibilance mounting in my interior ear it was difficult to stay calm and impartial. I wanted to claim Zander for the Final Dance the way I wanted my next breath.

I wanted, I was sure-but I knew what Harry would say. It wasn't enough. He taught me that it's good to see bodies in order to be certain, and Zander had managed to hide all of them well enough to keep me from finding them. And without a body, no amount of wanting it would make it right.

I went back to my research to find out where he might be stashing a short row of pickled corpses. His home was out of the question. I had been in it and had not had a hint of anything other than the shoe museum, and the Dark Passenger is normally quite good at nosing out cadaver collections. Besides, there was no place to put them at the house-there are no basements in Florida, and it was a neighborhood where he could not dig in the yard or carry in bodies without being observed. And a short consultation with the Passenger convinced me that someone who mounted his souvenirs on walnut plaques would certainly dispose of the leftovers neatly. The ranch was an excellent possibility, but a quick trip to the old place revealed no traces at all. It had clearly been abandoned for some time; even the driveway was overgrown.

I dug deeper: Zander owned a condo in Maui, but that was much too far away. He had a few acres in North Carolina-possible, but the thought of driving twelve hours with a body in the car made it seem unlikely. He owned stock in a company that was trying to develop Toro Key, a small island south of Cape Florida. But a corporate site was certainly out of the question-too many people might wander in and poke around. In any case, I remembered trying to land on Toro Key when I was younger, and it had armed guards strolling about to keep people away. It had to be somewhere else.

Among his many portfolios and assets, the only thing that made any sense at all was Zander's boat, a forty-five-foot Cigarette. I knew from my experience with a previous monster that a boat provided wonderful opportunities for disposing of leftovers. Simply wire the body to a weight, flip it over the rail, and wave bye-bye. Neat, clean, tidy; no fuss, no muss, no evidence.

And no way for me to get my proof, either. Zander kept his boat at the most exclusive private marina in Coconut Grove, the Royal Bay Yacht Club. Their security was very good, too good for Dexter to sneak in with a lock pick and a smile. It was a full-service marina for the terminally rich, the kind of place where they cleaned and polished your bowline when you brought the boat in. You didn't even have to fuel up your own boat; just call ahead and it would be ready for you, down to chilled champagne in the cockpit. And happily smiling armed guards infested the grounds night and day, tipping their hats at the Quality and shooting anyone who climbed the fence.

The boat was unreachable. I was as certain as I could be that Zander was using it to dispose of the bodies, and so was the Dark Passenger, which counts for even more. But there was no way to get to it. It was annoying, even frustrating, to picture Zander with his latest trophy-probably bundled neatly into a gold-plated ice chest-calling cheerfully ahead to the dockmaster and ordering the boat fueled, and then strolling nonchalantly down the dock while two grunting Wackenhuts put the chest on board his boat and waved a respectful good-bye. But I could not get to the boat and prove it. Without this final proof, the Harry Code would not allow me to proceed.

Certain as I was, what did that leave me? I could try to catch Zander in the act the next time. But there was no way to be sure when that would be, and I couldn't watch him all the time. I did have to show up at work now 10 of 173

and then, and make my token appearances at home, and go through all the motions of maintaining a normal-seeming life. And so at some point in the next weeks or so if the pattern held, Zander would call the dockmaster and order his boat prepared, andAnd the dockmaster, because he was an efficient employee at a rich man's club, would make a note of exactly what he did to the boat and when: how much fuel he put in, what kind of champagne, and how much Windex he used on the windscreen. He would put all that in the file marked "Macauley," and store it on his computer. And suddenly we were back in Dexter's world again, with the Passenger hissing certainty and urging me to the keyboard.

Dexter is modest, even self-effacing, and certainly aware of the limits of his considerable talent. But if there was a limit to what I could discover on the computer, I had not found it yet. I sat back down and went to work. It took me less than half an hour to hack into the club's computers and find the records. Sure enough, there was a thorough service record. I checked it against the meetings of the board of Zander's favorite charity, One World Mission of Divine Light, which was on the edge of Liberty City. On February 14, the board was delighted to announce that Wynton Allen would be moving out of the den of iniquity that is Miami and onto Zander's ranch to be rehabilitated by honest labor. And on February 15, Zander had taken a boat trip that used thirty-five gallons of fuel.

On March 11, Tyrone Meeks had been granted similar happiness. And on March 12, Zander took a boat ride. And so it went; each time some lucky homeless person was chosen for a life of bucolic joy, Zander placed a service order on his boat within twenty-four hours.

This was not seeing the bodies-but the Harry Code had been set up to operate in the cracks of the system, in the shadow areas of perfect justice rather than perfect law. I was sure, the Passenger was sure, and this was enough proof to satisfy all of us.

Zander would go on a different kind of moonlight cruise, and not all of his money would keep him afloat.

11 of 173

THREE

S O ON A NIGHT LIKE MANY OTHERS, WHEN THE MOON flung down chords of manic melody onto its happily bloodthirsty children, I was humming along and preparing to go out for a sharp frolic. All the work was done and it was playtime now for Dexter. It should have been a matter of mere moments to gather my simple toys and head out the door for my appointment with the trust-fund troublemaker. But of course, with marriage looming, nothing at all was simple anymore. I began to wonder, in fact, if anything would ever be simple again. Of course, I was building a perfect and nearly impenetrable facade of gleaming antiseptic steel and glass to cement onto the front of the Gothic horror of Castle Dexter. So I was very willing to cooperate in retiring the Old Dexter, and therefore I had been in the process of "consolidating our lives," as Rita put it. In this case that meant moving out of my comfy little nook on the edge of Coconut Grove and into Rita's three-bedroom house farther south, as this was the "sensible" thing to do. Of course, aside from being sensible it was also a Monster Inconvenience. Under the new regime there was no way I could keep anything even slightly private if I should want to. Which of course I did. Every dedicated, responsible ogre has his secrets, and there were things that I did not wish to see the light of day in anyone's hands but my own.

There was, for example, a certain amount of research on potential playmates; and there was also the small wooden box, very dear to me, that contained forty-one glass slides, each with a single drop of dried blood preserved in the center, each drop representing a single less-than-human life that had ended at my hands-the entire scrapbook of my inner life. Because I do not leave great heaps of decaying flesh lying about. I am not a slovenly, slipshod, madly slashing fiend. I am an extremely tidy, madly slashing fiend. I am always very careful indeed to get rid of my leftovers, and even some cruel implacable foe bent on proving me the vile ogre that I am would be hard-pressed to say what my little slides really were.

Still, explaining them might raise questions that could eventually prove awkward, even to a doting wife-and even more so to some fearsome nemesis passionately devoted to my destruction. There had been one such recently, a Miami cop named Sergeant Doakes. And although he was technically still alive, I had begun to think of him in the past tense, since his recent misadventures had cost him both his feet and hands, as well as his tongue. He was certainly in no shape to bring me to well-deserved justice. But I knew enough to know that if there had been one like him, there would sooner or later be another.

And so privacy seemed important-not that I had ever been a show-off where my personal affairs were concerned. As far as I knew, no one had ever seen into my little slide box. But I had never had a fiancée cleaning up for me, nor two very inquisitive kids sniffing around my things so they could learn to be much more like Dark Daddy Dexter.

Rita seemed to appreciate my need for a bit of personal space, if not the reasons for it, and she had sacrificed her sewing room, turning it into something she called Dexter's study. Eventually this would house my computer and my few books and CDs and, I suppose, my little rosewood box of slides. But how could I possibly leave it in here? I could explain it to Cody and Astor easily enough-but what to tell Rita? Should I try to hide it? Build a secret passage behind a fake bookcase leading down a winding stairway to my dark lair? Put the box in the bottom of a fake can of shaving cream, perhaps? It was something of a problem. So far I had avoided needing to find a solution by hanging on to my apartment. But I still kept a few simple things in my study, like my fillet knives and duct tape, which could readily be explained away by my love for fishing and air-conditioning. The solution could come later. Right now I felt icy fingers prodding and tickling at my spine, and I had an urgent need to keep an appointment with a spoiled young man. And so into my study I went, in search of a navy blue nylon gym bag I had been saving for a formal occasion, to hold my knife and tape. I pulled it from the closet, a sharp taste of anticipation building on my tongue, and put in my party toys: a new roll of duct tape, a fillet knife, gloves, my silk mask, and a coil of nylon rope for emergencies. All set. I could feel my veins gleaming with steely excitement, the wild music rising in my inner ears, the roaring of the Passenger's pulse urging me on, out, into it. I turned to goAnd ran into a matched pair of solemn children, staring up at me with expectation.

"He wants to go," Astor said, and Cody nodded, looking at me with large unblinking eyes. 12 of 173

I honestly believe that those who know me would say I have a glib tongue and a ready wit, but as I mentally played back what Astor had said and tried again to find a way to make it mean something else, all I could manage was a very human sound, something like, "He muh whu hoo?"

"With you," Astor said patiently, as if speaking to a mentally challenged chambermaid. "Cody wants to go with you tonight."

In retrospect, it's easy to see that this problem would come up sooner or later. And to be perfectly fair to me, which I think is very important, I had expected it-but later. Not now. Not on the edge of my Night of Need. Not when every hair on my neck was standing straight up and screeching with the pure and urgent compulsion to slither into the night in cold, stainless-steel furyThe situation clearly called for some serious pondering, but all my nerves were clamoring for me to leap out the window and be off into the night-but there they were, and so somehow I took a deep breath and pondered the two of them.

The sharp and shiny tin soul of Dexter the Avenger was forged from a childhood trauma so violent that I had blocked it out completely. It had made me what I am, and I am sure I would sniffle and feel unhappy about that if I was able to feel at all. And these two, Cody and Astor, had been scarred the same way, beaten and savaged by a violent drug-addicted father until they, too, were turned forever away from sunlight and lollipops. As my wise foster father had known in raising me, there was no way to take that away, no way to put the serpent back in the egg.

But it could be trained. Harry had trained me, shaped me into something that hunted only the other dark predators, the other monsters and ghouls who dressed in human skin and prowled the game trails of the city. I had the indelible urge to kill, unchangeable and forever, but Harry had taught me to find and dispose of only those who, by his rigorous cop standards, truly needed it.

When I discovered that Cody was the same way, I had promised myself that I would carry on the Harry Way, pass on what I had learned to the boy, raise him up in Dark Righteousness. But this was an entire galaxy of complications, explanations, and teachings. It had taken Harry nearly ten years to cram it all into me before he allowed me to play with anything more complicated than stray animals. I had not even started with Cody-and although it made me feel like I was trying to be a Jedi Master, I could not possibly start with him now. I knew that Cody must someday come to terms with being like me, and I truly meant to help him-but not tonight. Not with the moon calling so playfully just outside the window, pulling at me like a soft yellow freight train hitched to my brain.

"I'm not, uh-" I started to say, meaning to deny everything. But they looked up at me with such an endearing expression of cold certainty that I stopped. "No," I said at last. "He's much too young." They exchanged a quick glance, no more, but there was an entire conversation in it. "I told him you would say that," Astor said.

"You were right," I said.

"But Dexter," she said, "you said you would show us stuff."

"I will," I said, feeling the shadowy fingers crawl slowly up my spine and prodding for control, urging me out the door, "but not now."

"When?" Astor demanded.

I looked at the two of them and felt the oddest combination of wild impatience to be off and cutting mixed with an urge to wrap them both in a soft blanket and kill anything that came near them. And nibbling at the edges, just to round out the blend, a desire to smack their thick little heads together. Was this fatherhood at last?

The entire surface of my body was tingling with cold fire from my need to be gone, to begin, to do the mighty unmentionable, but instead I took a very deep breath and put on a neutral face. "This is a school night," I said, 13 of 173

"and it is almost your bedtime."

They looked at me as if I had betrayed them, and I supposed I had by changing the rules and playing Daddy Dexter when they thought they were talking to Demon Dexter. Still, it was true enough. One really can't take small children along on a late-night evisceration and expect them to remember their ABCs the next day. It was hard enough for me to show up at work the morning after one of my little adventures, and I had the advantage of all the Cuban coffee I wanted. Besides, they really were much too young.

"Now you're just being a grown-up," Astor said with a withering ten-year-old sneer.

"But I am a grown-up," I said. "And I am trying to be the right one for you." Even though I said it with my teeth hurting from fighting back the rising need, I meant it-which did nothing at all to soften the identical looks of bleak contempt I got from both of them.

"We thought you were different," she said.

"I can't imagine how I could be any more different and still look human," I said.

"Not fair," Cody said, and I locked eyes with him, seeing a tiny dark beast raise its head and roar at me.

"No, it's not fair," I said. "Nothing in life is fair. Fair is a dirty word and I'll thank you not to use that language around me."

Cody looked hard at me for a moment, a look of disappointed calculation I had never seen from him before, and I didn't know if I wanted to swat him or give him a cookie.

"Not fair," he repeated.

"Listen," I said, "this is something I know about. And this is the first lesson. Normal children go to bed on time on school nights."

"Not normal," he said, sticking his lower lip out far enough to hold his schoolbooks.

"Exactly the point," I told him. "That's why you always have to look normal, act normal, make everyone else think you are normal. And the other thing you have to do is exactly what I tell you, or I won't do this." He didn't look quite convinced, but he was weakening. "Cody," I said. "You have to trust me, and you have to do it my way."

" Have to," he said.

"Yes," I said. "Have to."

He looked at me for a very long moment, then switched his stare to his sister, who looked back at him. It was a marvel of sub-vocal communication; I could tell that they were having a long, very intricate conversation, but they didn't make a sound until Astor shrugged and turned back to me. "You have to promise," she said to me.

"All right," I said. "Promise what?"

"That you'll start teaching us," she said, and Cody nodded. "Soon." I took a deep breath. I had never really had any chance of going to what I consider a very hypothetical heaven, even before this. But to go through with this, agreeing to turn these ragged little monsters into neat, well-schooled little monsters-well, I would certainly hope I was right about the hypothetical part. "I promise," I said. They looked at each other, looked at me, and left.

And there I was with a bag full of toys, a pressing engagement, and a somewhat shriveled sense of urgency. Is family life like this for everyone? If so, how does anyone survive it? Why do people have more than one child, or any at all? Here I was with an important and fulfilling goal in front of me, and suddenly I get blindsided by something no soccer mom ever had to face and it was nearly impossible to remember what I was thinking only moments ago. Even with an impatient growl from the Dark Passenger-strangely muted, as if just a little 14 of 173

confused-it took me several moments to pull myself together, from Dazed Daddy Dexter back to the Cold Avenger once again. I found it difficult to call back the icy edge of readiness and danger; it was difficult, in fact, to remember where I had left my car keys.

Somehow I found them and stumbled out of my study, and after mumbling some heartfelt nothing to Rita, I was out the door and into the night at last.

15 of 173

FOUR

I HAD FOLLOWED ZANDER LONG ENOUGH TO KNOW HIS ROUTINE, and since this was Thursday night, I knew exactly where he would be. He spent every Thursday evening at One World Mission of Divine Light, presumably inspecting the livestock. After about ninety minutes of smiling at the staff and listening to a brief service he would write a check for the pastor, a huge black man who had once played in the NFL. The pastor would smile and thank him, and Zander would slip quietly out the back door to his modest SUV and drive humbly to his house, all aglow with the virtuous feeling that comes only from true good works. But tonight, he would not drive alone.

Tonight Dexter and his Dark Passenger would go along for the ride and steer him to a brand-new kind of journey.

But first the cold and careful approach, the payoff to the weeks of stealthy stalking. I parked my car only a few miles from Rita's house at a large old shopping area called Dadeland and walked to the nearby Metrorail station. The train was seldom crowded, even at rush hour, but there were enough people around that no one paid any attention to me. Just a nice man in fashionably dark clothes carrying a gym bag. I got off one stop past downtown and walked six blocks to the mission, feeling the keen edge sharpening itself within me, moving me back to the readiness I needed. We would think about Cody and Astor later. Right now, on this street, I was all hard, hidden brightness. The blinding orange-pink glare of the special crime-fighting streetlights could not wash away the darkness I wrapped tighter around me as I walked. The mission sat on the corner of a medium-busy street, in a converted storefront. There was a small crowd gathered in front-no real surprise, since they gave out food and clothing, and all you had to do to get it was to spend a few moments of your rum-soaked time listening to the good reverend explain why you were going to hell. It seemed like a pretty good bargain, even to me, but I wasn't hungry. I moved on past, around back to the parking lot.

Although it was slightly dimmer here, the parking lot was still far too bright for me, almost too bright even to see the moon, although I could feel it there in the sky, smirking down on our tiny squirming fragile life, festooned as it was with monsters who lived only to take that life away in large, pain-filled mouthfuls. Monsters like me, and like Zander. But tonight there would be one less.

I walked one time around the perimeter of the parking lot. It appeared to be safe. There was no one in sight, no one sitting or dozing in any of the cars. The only window with a view into the area was a small one, high up on the back wall of the mission, fitted with opaque glass-the restroom. I circled closer to Zander's car, a blue Dodge Durango nosed in next to the back door, and tried the door handle-locked. Parked next to it was an old Chrysler, the pastor's venerable ride. I moved to the far side of the Chrysler and began my wait. From my gym bag I pulled a white silk mask and dropped it over my face, settling the eyeholes snugly. Then I took out a loop of fifty-pound-test fishing line and I was ready. Very soon now it would begin, the Dark Dance. Zander strolling all unknowing into a predator's night, a night of sharp surprises, a final and savage darkness pierced with fierce fulfillment. So very soon, he would amble calmly out of his life and into mine. And thenHad Cody remembered to brush his teeth? He had been forgetting lately, and Rita was reluctant to get him out of bed once he was settled in. But it was important to set him on the path of good habits now, and brushing was important.

I flicked my noose, letting it settle onto my knees. Tomorrow was photo day at Astor's school. She was supposed to wear her Easter dress from last year to look nice for the picture. Had she set it out so she wouldn't forget in the morning? Of course she wouldn't smile for the picture, but she should at least wear the good dress. Could I really be crouched here in the night, noose in hand and waiting to pounce, and thinking about such things? How was it possible for my anticipation to be filled with these thoughts instead of the fang-sharpening eagerness of turning the Dark Passenger loose on an oh-so-deserving playmate? Was this a foretaste of Dexter's shiny new married life?

16 of 173

I breathed in carefully, feeling a great sympathy for W. C. Fields. I couldn't work with kids, either. I closed my eyes, felt myself fill with dark night air, and let it out again, feeling the frigid readiness return. Slowly Dexter receded and the Dark Passenger took back the controls.

And not a moment too soon.

The back door clattered open and we could hear the sound of horrible animal noises blatting and bleating away inside, a truly awful rendering of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," the sound of it enough to send anyone back to the bottle. And enough to propel Zander out the door. He paused in the doorway, turned to give the room a cheery wave and a smirk, and then the door slammed shut and he came around his car to the driver's side and he was ours.

Zander fumbled for his keys and the lock clicked open and we were around the car and behind him. Before he knew what was happening the noose whistled through the air and slipped around his neck and we yanked hard enough to pull him off his feet, hard enough to bring him to his knees with his breath stopped and his face turning dark and it was good.

"Not a sound," we said, cold and perfect. "Do exactly as we say, not a single word or sound, and you will live a little longer," we told him, and we tightened the noose just a bit to let him know he belonged to us and must do as we said.

Zander responded in a most gratifying way by slipping forward onto his face and he was not smirking now. Drool leaked from the corner of his mouth and he clawed at the noose, but we held it far too tight for him to get a finger under the line. When he was very close to passing out we eased the pressure, just enough to let him crackle in a single painful breath. "On your feet now," we said gently, pulling upward on the noose so he would do as he was told. And slowly, clawing his way up the side of his car, Zander obeyed.

"Good," we said. "Get in the car." We switched the noose to my left hand and opened the door of the car, then reached around the door post and took it again in my right as we climbed in the backseat behind him. "Drive," we said in our dark and icy command voice.

"Where?" Zander said in his voice, now a hoarse whisper from our little reminders with the noose. We pulled the line tight again to remind him not to talk out of turn. When we thought he had received the message we loosened it again. "West," we said. "No more talk. Drive." He put the car in gear and, with a few small tugs on the noose, I steered him west and up onto the Dolphin Expressway. For a while Zander did exactly as we said. He would look at us in the mirror from time to time, but a very slight twitch of the noose kept him extremely cooperative until we took him onto the Palmetto Expressway and north.

"Listen," he said suddenly, as we drove past the airport, "I am like really rich. I can give you whatever you want."

"Yes, you can," we said, "and you will," and he did not understand what we wanted, because he relaxed just a little bit.

"Okay," he said, voice still rough from the noose, "so how much do you want?" We locked eyes with him in the mirror and slowly, very slowly so he would begin to understand, we tightened the line around his neck. When he could barely breathe, we held it like that for a moment. "Everything," we said.

"We will have everything." We loosened the noose, just a little. "Drive," we said. Zander drove. He was very quiet the rest of the way, but he did not seem as frightened as he should have been. Of course, he must believe that this was not really happening to him, could not possibly happen, not to him, living forever in his impenetrable cocoon of money. Everything had a price, and he could always afford it. Soon he would negotiate. Then he would buy his way out.

And he would. Eventually he would buy his way out. But not with money. And never out of this noose. 17 of 173

It was not a terribly long drive and we were quiet all the way to the Hialeah exit we had chosen. But when Zander slowed for the off-ramp, he glanced at me in the mirror with fear in his eyes, the climbing terror of a monster in a trap, ready to chew off his leg to escape, and the tangible bite of his panic sparked a warm glow in the Dark Passenger and made us very glad and strong. "You don't-there, there isn't-where are we going?" he stammered, weak and pitiful and sounding more human all the time, which made us angry and we yanked too hard until he swerved onto the shoulder momentarily and we had to grant him some slack in the noose. Zander steered back onto the road and the bottom of the ramp.

"Turn right," we said, and he did, the unlovely breath rasping in and out through his spit-flecked lips. But he did just as we told him to do, all the way down the street and left onto a small, dark lane of old warehouses. He parked his car where we told him, by the rusty door of a dark unused building. A partially rotted sign with the end lopped off still said JONE PLASTI. "Park," we said, and as he fumbled the gear lever into park we were out the door and yanking him after us and onto the ground, pulling tight and watching him thrash for a moment before we jerked him up to his feet. The spit had caked around his mouth, and there was some small bit of belief in his eyes now as he stood there ugly and disgusting in the lovely moonlight, all atremble with some terrible mistake I had made against his money, and the growing notion that perhaps he was no different from the ones he had done exactly this to washed over him and left him weak. We let him stand and breathe for just a moment, then pushed him toward the door. He put one hand out, palm against the concrete-block wall. "Listen," he said, and there was a quaver of pure human in his voice now. "I can get you a ton of money. Whatever you want." We said nothing. Zander licked his lips. "All right," he said, and his voice now was dry, shredded, and desperate.

"So what do you want from me?"

"Exactly what you took from the others," we said with an extra-sharp twitch of the noose. "Except the shoe." He stared and his mouth sagged and he peed in his pants. "I didn't," he said. "That's not-"

"You did," we told him. "It is." And pulling back hard on the leash we pushed him forward and through the door, into the carefully prepared space. There were a few shattered clumps of PVC pipe swept off to the sides and, more important for Zander, two fifty-gallon drums of hydrochloric acid, left behind by Jone Plasti when they had gone out of business.

It was easy enough for us to get Zander up onto the work space we had cleared for him, and in just a few moments we had him taped and tied into place and we were very eager to begin. We cut the noose off and he gasped as the knife nicked his throat.

"Jesus!" he said. "Listen, you're making a big mistake." We said nothing; there was work to do and we prepared for it, slowly cutting away his clothing and dropping it carefully into one of the drums of acid.

"Oh, fuck, please," he said. "Seriously, it's not what you think-you don't know what you're about to do." We were ready and we held up the knife for him to see that actually we knew very well what we were doing, and we were about to do it.

"Dude, please," he said. The fear in him was far beyond anything he thought possible, beyond the humiliation of wetting his pants and begging, beyond anything he had ever imagined.

And then he grew surprisingly still. He looked right into my eyes with an uncalled-for clarity and in a voice I had not heard from him before he said, "He'll find you."

We stopped for a moment to consider what this meant. But we were quite sure that it was his last hopeful bluff, and it blunted the delicious taste of his terror and made us angry and we taped his mouth shut and went to work. And when we were done there was nothing left except for one of his shoes. We thought about having it mounted, but of course that would be untidy, so it went into the barrel of acid with the rest of Zander. image

18 of 173

This was not good, the Watcher thought. They had been inside the abandoned warehouse far too long, and there could be no doubt that whatever they were doing in there, it was not a social occasion. Nor was the meeting he had been scheduled to have with Zander. Their meetings had always been strictly business, although Zander obviously thought of them in different terms. The awe on his face at their rare encounters spoke volumes on what the young fool thought and felt. He was so proud of the small contribution he made, so eager to be near the cold, massive power.

The Watcher did not regret anything that might happen to Zander-he was easy enough to replace: the real concern was why this was happening tonight, and what it might mean.

And he was glad now that he had not interfered, had simply hung back and followed. He could easily have moved in and taken the brash young man who had taken Zander, crushed him completely. Even now he felt the vast power murmuring within himself, a power that could roar out and sweep away anything that stood before it-but no.

The Watcher also had patience, and this, too, was a strength. If this other was truly a threat, it was better to wait and to watch, and when he knew enough about the danger, he would strike-swiftly, overwhelmingly, and finally. So he watched. It was several hours before the other came out and got into Zander's car. The Watcher stayed well back, with his headlights off at first, tailing the blue Durango easily in the late-night traffic. And when the other parked the car in the lot at a Metrorail station and got on the train, he stepped on, too, just as the doors slid closed, and sat at the far end, studying the reflection of the face for the first time. Surprisingly young and even handsome. An air of innocent charm. Not the sort of face you might expect, but they never were.

The Watcher followed when the other got off at Dadeland and walked toward one of the many parked cars. It was late and there were no people in the lot. He knew he could make it happen now, so easily, just slip up behind the other and let the power flow through him, out into his hands, and release the other into the darkness. He could feel the slow, majestic rise of the strength inside as he closed the distance, almost taste the great and silent roar of the killAnd then he stopped suddenly in his tracks and slowly moved away down a different aisle. Because the other's car had a very noticeable placard lying on the dashboard. A police parking permit.

He was very glad he had been patient. If the other was with the police…This could be a much bigger problem than he had expected. Not good at all. This would take some careful planning. And a great deal more observation.

And so the Watcher slipped quietly back into the night to prepare, and to watch. 19 of 173

FIVE

S OMEBODY ONCE SAID THAT THERE'S NO REST FOR THE wicked, and they were almost certainly talking about me, because for several days after I sent dear little Zander on to his just reward poor Dogged Dexter was very busy indeed. Even as Rita's frenetic planning kicked into high gear, my job followed suit. We seemed to have hit one of those periodic spells Miami gets every now and then in which murder just seems like a good idea, and I was up to my eyeballs in blood spatter for three days.

But on the fourth day, things actually got a little bit worse. I had brought in doughnuts, as is my habit from time to time-especially in the days following my playdates. For some reason, not only do I feel more relaxed for several days after the Passenger and I have a night encounter, but I also feel quite hungry. I'm sure that fact is filled with deep psychological significance, but I am far more interested in making sure I get one or two of the jelly doughnuts before the savage predators in Forensics shred them all to pieces. Significance can wait when doughnuts are on the line.

But this morning I barely managed to grab one raspberry-filled doughnut-and I was lucky not to lose a finger in the process. The whole floor was buzzing with preparation for a trip to a crime scene, and the tone of the buzz let me know that it was a particularly heinous one, which did not please me. That meant longer hours, stuck somewhere far from civilization and Cuban sandwiches. Who knew what I would end up with for lunch?

Considering that I had been short-changed on the doughnuts, lunch could prove to be a very important meal, and for all I knew I would be forced to work right through it.

I grabbed my handy blood-spatter kit and headed out the door with Vince Masuoka, who despite his small size had somehow grabbed two of the very valuable filled doughnuts-including the Bavarian cream with the chocolate frosting. "You have done a little too well, Mighty Hunter," I told him with a nod at his plundered loot.

"The gods of the forest have been good," he said, and took a large bite. "My people will not starve this season."

"No, but I will," I said.

He gave me his terrible phony smile, which looked like something he had learned to do by studying a government manual on facial expressions. "The ways of the jungle are hard, Grasshopper," he said.

"Yes, I know," I said. "First you must learn to think like a doughnut."

"Ha," Vince said. His laugh was even phonier than his smile, sounding like he was reading aloud from a phonetic spelling of laughter. "Ah, ha ha ha!" he said. The poor guy seemed to be faking everything about being human, just like me. But wasn't as good at it as I was. No wonder I was comfortable with him. That and the fact that he quite often took a turn bringing the doughnuts.

"You need better camouflage," he said, nodding at my shirt, a bright pink-and-green Hawaiian pattern complete with hula girls. "Or at least better taste."

"It was on sale," I said.

"Ha," he said again. "Well, pretty soon Rita will be picking your clothes." And then abruptly dropping his terrible artificial jollity, he said, "Listen, I think I have found the perfect caterer."

"Does he do jelly doughnuts?" I said, truthfully hoping that the whole subject of my impending matrimonial bliss would simply go away. But I had asked Vince to be my best man, and he was taking the job seriously.

"The guy is very big," Vince said. "He did the MTV Awards, and all those showbiz parties and stuff."

"He sounds delightfully expensive," I said.

"Well, he owes me a favor," Vince said. "I think we can get him down on the price. Maybe like a hundred and fifty bucks a plate."

"Actually, Vince, I had hoped we could afford more than one plate." 20 of 173

"He was in that South Beach magazine," he said, sounding a little hurt. "You should at least talk to him."

"To be honest," I said, which of course meant I was lying, "I think Rita wants something simple. Like a buffet." Vince was definitely sulking now. "At least talk to him," he repeated.

"I'll talk to Rita about it," I said, wishing that would make the whole thing go away. And during the trip to the crime scene Vince said no more about it, so maybe it had.

The scene turned out to be a lot easier for me than I had anticipated, and I cheered up quite a bit when I got there. In the first place, it was on the University of Miami campus, which was my dear old alma mater, and in keeping with my lifelong attempt to appear human, I always tried to remember to pretend I felt a warm, fuzzy fondness for the place when I was there. Secondly, there was apparently very little raw blood to deal with, which might mean that I could be done with it in a reasonable amount of time. It also meant freedom from the nasty wet red stuff-I really don't like blood, which may seem odd, but there it is. I do, however, find great satisfaction in organizing it at a crime scene, forcing it to fit a decent pattern and behave itself. In this case, from what I learned on the way there, that would hardly be a challenge.

And so it was with my usual cheerful good spirits that I sauntered over toward the yellow crime-scene tape, certain of a charming interlude in a hectic workdayAnd came to a dead stop with one foot just inside the tape. For a moment the world turned bright yellow and there was a sickening sensation of lurching weightless through space. I could see nothing except the knife-edged glare. There was a silent sound from the dark backseat, the feeling of subliminal nausea mixed with the blind panic of a butcher knife squealing across a chalkboard. A skittering, a nervousness, a wild certainty that something was very badly wrong, and no hint of what or where it was.

My sight came back and I looked around me. I saw nothing I didn't expect to see at a crime scene: a small crowd gathered at the yellow tape, some uniforms guarding the perimeter, a few cheap-suited detectives, and my team, the forensic geeks, scrabbling through the bushes on their hands and knees. All perfectly normal to the naked eye. And so I turned to my infallible fully clothed interior eye for an answer. What is it? I asked silently, closing my eyes again and searching for some answer from the Passenger to this unprecedented display of discomfort. I was accustomed to commentary from my Dark Associate, and quite often my first sight of a crime scene would be punctuated by sly whispers of admiration or amusement, but this-it was clearly a sound of distress, and I did not know what to make of it.

What? I asked again. But there was no answer beyond the uneasy rustle of invisible wings, so I shook it off and walked over to the site.

The two bodies had clearly been burned somewhere else, since there was no sign of any barbecue large enough to bake two medium-size females quite so thoroughly. They had been dumped beside the lake that runs through the UM campus, just off the path that ran around it, and discovered by a pair of early-morning joggers. It was my opinion from the state of the small amount of blood evidence I found that the heads had been removed after the two had burned to death.

One small detail gave me pause. The bodies were laid out neatly, almost reverently, with the charred arms folded across the chests. And in place of the severed heads, a ceramic bull's head had been carefully placed at the top of each torso.

This is exactly the kind of loving touch that always brings some type of comment from the Dark Passenger-generally speaking, an amused whisper, a small chuckle, even a twinge of jealousy. But this time, as Dexter said to himself, Aha, a bull's head! What do we think about that? , the Passenger responded immediately and forcefully withNothing?

Not a whisper, not a sigh?

21 of 173

I sent an irritated demand for answers, and got no more than a worried scuttling, as if the Passenger were ducking down behind anything that might provide cover, and hoping to ride out the storm without being noticed. I opened my eyes, as much from startlement as anything else. I could not remember any time when the Passenger had nothing to say on some example of our favorite subject, and yet here he was, not merely subdued but hiding. I looked back at the two charred bodies with new respect. I had no clue as to what this might mean, but since it had never happened before, it seemed like a good idea to find out.

Angel Batista-no-relation was on his hands and knees on the far side of the path, very carefully examining things I couldn't see and didn't really care about. "Did you find it yet?" I asked him. He didn't look up. "Find what?" he said.

"I don't have any idea," I said. "But it must be here somewhere." He reached out with a pair of tweezers and plucked a single blade of grass, staring hard at it and then stuffing it into a plastic baggie as he spoke. "Why," he said, "would somebody put a ceramic bull head?"

"Because chocolate would melt," I said.

He nodded without looking up. "Your sister thinks it's a Santeria thing."

"Really," I said. That possibility had not occurred to me, and I felt a little miffed that it hadn't. After all, this was Miami; anytime we encountered something that looked like a ritual and involved animal heads, Santeria should have been the first thing all of us thought. An Afro-Cuban religion that combined Yoruba animism with Catholicism, Santeria was widespread in Miami. Animal sacrifice and symbolism were common for its devotees, which would explain the bull heads. And although a relatively small number of people actually practiced Santeria, most homes in the city had one or two small saint candles or cowrie-shell necklaces bought at a botanica. The prevailing attitude around town was that even if you didn't believe in it, it didn't hurt to pay it some respect.

As I said, it should have occurred to me at once. But my foster sister, now a full sergeant in homicide, had thought of it first, even though I was supposed to be the clever one.

I had been relieved to learn that Deborah was assigned to the case, since it meant that there would be a minimum of bone-numbing stupidity. It would also, I hoped, give her something better to do with her time than she had appeared to have lately. She had been spending all hours of the day and night hovering around her damaged boyfriend, Kyle Chutsky, who had lost one or two minor limbs in his recent encounter with a deranged freelance surgeon who specialized in turning human beings into squealing potatoes-the same villain who had artfully trimmed away so many unnecessary parts from Sergeant Doakes. He had not had the time to finish with Kyle, but Debs had taken the whole thing rather personally and, after fatally shooting the good doctor, she had devoted herself to nursing Chutsky back to vigorous manhood.

I'm sure she had racked up numberless points on the ethical scoreboard, no matter who was keeping track, but in truth all the time off had done her no good with the department, and even worse, poor lonely Dexter had felt keenly the uncalled-for neglect from his only living relative.

So it was very good news all around to have Deborah assigned to the case, and on the far side of the path she was talking to her boss, Captain Matthews, no doubt giving him a little ammunition for his ongoing war with the press, who simply refused to take his picture from his good side.

The press vans were, in fact, already rolling up and spewing out crews to tape background shots of the area. A couple of the local bloodhounds were standing there, solemnly clutching their microphones and intoning mournful sentences about the tragedy of two lives so brutally ended. As always, I felt reverently grateful to live in a free society, where the press had a sacred right to show footage of dead people on the evening news. Captain Matthews carefully brushed his already perfect hair with the heel of his hand, clapped Deborah on the shoulder, and marched over to talk to the press. And I marched over to my sister. 22 of 173

She stood where Matthews had left her, watching his back as he began to speak to Rick Sangre, one of the true gurus of if-it-bleeds-it-leads reporting. "Well, Sis," I said. "Welcome back to the real world." She shook her head. "Hip hooray," she said.

"How is Kyle doing?" I asked her, since my training told me that was the right thing to ask about.

"Physically?" she said. "He's fine. But he just feels useless all the time. And those assholes in Washington won't let him go back to work."

It was difficult for me to judge Chutsky's ability to get back to work, since no one had ever said exactly what work he did. I knew it was vaguely connected to some part of the government and was also something clandestine, but beyond that I didn't know. "Well," I said, searching for the proper cliché, "I'm sure it just needs some time."

"Yeah," she said. "I'm sure." She looked back at the place where the two charred bodies lay. "Anyhow, this is a great way to get my mind off it."

"The rumor mill tells me you think it's Santeria," I said, and her head swiveled rapidly around to face me.

"You think it's not?" she demanded.

"Oh, no, it might well be," I said.

"But?" she said sharply.

"No buts at all," I said.

"Damn it, Dexter," she said. "What do you know about this?" And it was probably a fair question. I had been known on occasion to offer a pretty fair guess about some of the more gruesome murders we worked on. I had gained a small reputation for my insight into the way the twisted homicidal sickos thought and operated-natural enough, since, unknown to everyone but Deborah, I was a twisted homicidal sicko myself. But even though Deborah had only recently become aware of my true nature, she had not been shy about taking advantage of it to help her in her work. I didn't mind; glad to help. What else is family for? And I didn't really care if my fellow monsters paid their debt to society in Old Sparky-unless, of course, it was somebody I was saving for my own innocent pleasure.

But in this case, I had nothing whatsoever to tell Deborah. I had, in fact, been hoping she might have some small crumb of information to give to me, something that might explain the Dark Passenger's peculiar and uncharacteristic shrinking act. That, of course, was not the sort of thing I really felt comfortable telling Deborah about. But no matter what I said about this burned double offering, she wouldn't believe me. She would be sure I had information and some kind of angle that made me want to keep it all to myself. The only thing more suspicious than a sibling is a sibling who happens to be a cop.

Sure enough, she was convinced I was holding out on her. "Come on, Dexter," she said. "Out with it. Tell me what you know about this."

"Dear Sis, I am at a total loss," I said.

"Bullshit," she said, apparently unaware of the irony. "You're holding something back."

"Never in life," I said. "Would I lie to my only sister?" She glared at me. "So it isn't Santeria?"

"I have no idea," I said, as soothingly as possible. "It seems like a really good place to start. But-"

"I knew it," she snapped. "But what?"

"Well," I started. And truly it had just occurred to me, and probably it meant nothing at all, but here I was in 23 of 173

mid-sentence already, so I went on with it. "Have you ever heard of a santero using ceramics? And bulls-don't they have a thing for goat heads?"

She looked at me very hard for a minute, then shook her head. "That's it? That's what you got?"

"I told you, Debs, I don't got anything. It was only a thought, something that just now came to me."

"Well," she said. "If you're telling me the truth-"

"Of course I am," I protested.

"Then, you've got doodly-squat," she said and looked away, back to where Captain Matthews was answering questions with his solemn, manly jaw jutting out. "Which is only slightly less than the horsepucky I got," she said.

I had never before grasped that doodly-squat was less than horsepucky, but it's always nice to learn something new. And yet even this startling revelation did very little to answer the real question here: Why had the Dark Passenger pulled a duck and cover? In the course of my job and my hobby I have seen some things that most people can't even imagine, unless they have watched several of those movies they show at traffic school for driving drunk. And in every case I had ever encountered, no matter how grisly, my shadow companion had some kind of pithy comment on the proceedings, even if it was only a yawn.

But now, confronted by nothing more sinister than two charred bodies and some amateur pottery, the Dark Passenger chose to scuttle away like a scared spider and leave me without guidance-a brand-new feeling for me, and I discovered I did not like it at all.

Still, what was I to do? I knew of no one I could talk to about something like the Dark Passenger; at least, not if I wanted to stay at liberty, which I very much did. As far as I was aware, there were no experts on the subject, other than me. But what did I really know about my boon companion? Was I really that knowledgeable, merely because I had shared space with it for so long? The fact that it had chosen to scuttle into the cellar was making me very edgy, as if I found myself walking through my office with no pants on. When it came down to the nub of things, I had no idea what the Dark Passenger was or where it came from, and that had never seemed all that important.

For some reason, now it did.

image

A modest crowd had gathered by the yellow tape barrier the police had put up. Enough people so that the Watcher could stand in the middle of the group without sticking out in any way. He watched with a cold hunger that did not show on his face-nothing showed on his face; it was merely a mask he wore for the time being, a way to hide the coiled power stored inside. Yet somehow the people around him seemed to sense it, glancing his way nervously from time to time, as if they had heard a tiger growling nearby. The Watcher enjoyed their discomfort, enjoyed the way they stared in stupid fear at what he had done. It was all part of the joy of this power, and part of the reason he liked to watch.

But he watched with a purpose right now, carefully and deliberately, even as he watched them scrabble around like ants and felt the power surge and flex inside him. Walking meat, he thought. Less than sheep, and we are the shepherd.

As he gloated at their pathetic reaction to his display he felt another presence tickle at the edge of his predator's senses. He turned his head slowly along the line of yellow tapeThere. That was him, the one in the bright Hawaiian shirt. He really was with the police. The Watcher reached a careful tendril out toward the other, and as it touched he watched the other stop cold in his tracks and close his eyes, as if asking a silent question-yes. It all made sense now. The other had felt the subtle reach of senses; he was powerful, that was certain.

24 of 173

But what was his purpose?

He watched as the other straightened up, looked around, and then seemingly shrugged it off and crossed the police line.

We are stronger , he thought. Stronger than all of them. And they will discover this, to their very great sorrow. He could feel the hunger growing-but he needed to know more, and he would wait until the right time. Wait and watch.

For now.

25 of 173

SIX

A HOMICIDE SCENE WITH NO BLOOD SPLATTERED SHOULD have been a real holiday outing for me, but somehow I couldn't get into the lighthearted frame of mind to enjoy it. I lurked around for a while, going in and out of the taped-off area, but there was very little for me to do. And Deborah seemed to have said all she had to say to me, which left me somewhat alone and unoccupied.

A reasonable being might very well be pardoned for sulking just a tiny bit, but I had never claimed to be reasonable, and that left me with very few options. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to get on with life and think about the many important things that demanded my attention-the kids, the caterer, Paris, lunch…Considering my laundry list of things to worry about, it was no wonder the Passenger was proving a wee bit shy.

I looked at the two overcooked bodies again. They were not doing anything sinister. They were still dead. But the Dark Passenger was still silent.

I wandered back over to where Deborah stood, talking to Angel-no-relation. They both looked at me expectantly, but I had no readily available wit to offer, which was very much out of character. Happily for my world-famous reputation for permanently cheerful stoicism, before I could really turn gloomy, Deborah looked over my shoulder and snorted. "About fucking time."

I followed her gaze to a patrol car that had just pulled up and watched a man dressed all in white climb out. The official City of Miami babalao had arrived.

Our fair city exists in a permanent blinding haze of cronyism and corruption that would make Boss Tweed jealous, and every year millions of dollars are thrown away on imaginary consulting jobs, cost overruns on projects that haven't begun because they were awarded to someone's mother-in-law, and other special items of great civic importance, like new luxury cars for political supporters. So it should be no surprise at all that the city pays a Santeria priest a salary and benefits.

The surprise is that he earns his money.

Every morning at sunrise, the babalao arrives at the courthouse, where he usually finds one or two small animal sacrifices left by people with important legal cases pending. No Miami citizen in his right mind would touch these things, but of course it would be very bad form to leave dead animals littered about Miami's great temple of justice. So the babalao removes the sacrifices, cowrie shells, feathers, beads, charms, and pictures in a way that will not offend the orishas, the guiding spirits of Santeria. He is also called upon from time to time to cast spells for other important civic items, like blessing a new overpass built by a low-bid contractor or putting a curse on the New York Jets. And he had apparently been called upon this time by my sister, Deborah.

The official city babalao was a black man of about fifty, six feet tall with very long fingernails and a considerable paunch. He was dressed in white pants, a white guayabera, and sandals. He came plodding over from the patrol car that had brought him, with the cranky expression of a minor bureaucrat whose important filing work had been interrupted. As he walked he polished a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses on the tail of his shirt. He put them on as he approached the bodies and, when he did, what he saw stopped him dead. For a long moment he just stared. Then, with his eyes still glued to the bodies, he backed away. At about thirty feet away, he turned around and walked back to the patrol car and climbed in.

"What the fuck," Deborah said, and I agreed that she had summed things up nicely. The babalao slammed the car door and sat there in the front seat, staring straight ahead through the windshield without moving. After a moment Deborah muttered, "Shit," and went over to the car. And because like all inquiring minds I want to know, I followed.

When I got to the car Deborah was tapping on the glass of the passenger-side window and the babalao was still staring straight ahead, jaw clenched, grimly pretending not to see her. Debs knocked harder; he shook his head. 26 of 173

"Open the door," she said in her best police-issue put-down-the-gun voice. He shook his head harder. She knocked on the window harder. "Open it!" she said.

Finally he rolled down the window. "This is nothing to do with me," he said.

"Then what is it?" Deborah asked him.

He just shook his head. "I need to get back to work," he said.

"Is it Palo Mayombe?" I asked him, and Debs glared at me for interrupting, but it seemed like a fair question. Palo Mayombe was a somewhat darker offshoot of Santeria, and although I knew almost nothing about it, there had been rumors of some very wicked rituals that had piqued my interest.

But the babalao shook his head. "Listen," he said. "There's stuff out there, you guys got no idea, and you don't wanna know."

"Is this one of those things?" I asked.

"I dunno," he said. "Might be."

"What can you tell us about it?" Deborah demanded.

"I can't tell you nothing 'cause I don't know nothing," he said. "But I don't like it and I don't want anything to do with it. I got important stuff to do today-tell the cop I gotta go." And he rolled the window up again.

"Shit," Deborah said, and she looked at me accusingly.

"Well I didn't do anything," I said.

"Shit," she said again. "What the hell does that mean?"

"I am completely in the dark," I said.

"Uh-huh," she said, and she looked entirely unconvinced, which was a little ironic. I mean, people believe me all the time when I'm being somewhat less than perfectly truthful-and yet here was my own foster flesh and blood, refusing to believe that I was, in fact, completely in the dark. Aside from the fact that the babalao seemed to be having the same reaction as the Passenger-and what should I make of that?

Before I could pursue that fascinating line of thought, I realized that Deborah was still staring at me with an exceedingly unpleasant expression on her face.

"Did you find the heads?" I asked, quite helpfully I thought. "We might get a feel for the ritual if we saw what he did to the heads."

"No, we haven't found the heads. I haven't found anything except a brother who's holding out on me."

"Deborah, really, this permanent air of nasty suspicion is not good for your face muscles. You'll get frown lines."

"Maybe I'll get a killer, too," she said, and walked back to the two charred bodies. Since my usefulness was apparently at an end, at least as far as my sister was concerned, there was really not a great deal more for me to do on-site. I finished up with my blood kit, taking small samples of the dried black stuff caked around the two necks, and headed back to the lab in plenty of time for a late lunch. But alas, poor Dauntless Dexter obviously had a target painted on his back, because my troubles had barely begun. Just as I was tidying up my desk and getting ready to take part in the cheerfully homicidal rush-hour traffic, Vince Masuoka came skipping into my office. "I just talked to Manny," he said. "He can see us tomorrow morning at ten."

"That's wonderful news," I said. "The only thing that could possibly make it any better would be to know who Manny is and why he wants to see us."

27 of 173

Vince actually looked a little hurt, one of the few genuine expressions I had ever seen on his face. "Manny Borque," he said. "The caterer."

"The one from MTV?"

"Yeah, that's right," Vince said. "The guy that's won all the awards, and he's been written up in Gourmet magazine."

"Oh, yes," I said, stalling for time in the hope that some brilliant flash of inspiration would hit to help me dodge this terrible fate. "The award-winning caterer."

"Dexter, this guy is big. He could make your whole wedding."

"Well, Vince, I think that's terrific, but-"

"Listen," he said, with an air of firm command that I had never heard from him before, "you said you would talk to Rita about this and let her decide."

"I said that?"

"Yes, you did. And I am not going to let you throw away a wonderful opportunity like this, not when it's something that I know Rita would really love to have."

I wasn't sure how he could be so positive about that. After all, I was actually engaged to the woman, and I had no idea what sort of caterer might fill her with shock and awe. But I didn't think this was the time to ask him how he knew what Rita would and would not love. Then again, a man who dressed up as Carmen Miranda for Halloween might very well have a keener insight than mine into my fiancée's innermost culinary desires.

"Well," I said, at last deciding that procrastinating long enough to escape was the best answer, "in that case, I'll go home and talk to Rita about it."

"Do that," he said. And he did not storm out, but if there had been a door to slam, he might have slammed it. I finished tidying up and trundled on out into the evening traffic. On the way home a middle-aged man in a Toyota SUV got right behind me and started honking the horn for some reason. After five or six blocks he pulled around me and, as he flipped me off, juked his steering wheel slightly to frighten me into running up on the sidewalk. Although I admired his spirit and would have loved to oblige him, I stayed on the road. There is never any point in trying to make sense of the way Miami drivers go about getting from one place to another. You just have to relax and enjoy the violence-and of course, that part was never a problem for me. So I smiled and waved, and he stomped on his accelerator and disappeared into traffic at about sixty miles per hour over the speed limit.

Normally I find the chaotic mayhem of the evening drive home to be the perfect way to end the day. Seeing all the anger and lust to kill relaxes me, makes me feel at one with my hometown and its spritely inhabitants. But tonight I found it difficult to summon up any good cheer at all. I never for a moment thought it could ever happen, but I was worried.

Worse still, I didn't know what I was actually worried about, only that the Dark Passenger had used the silent treatment on me at a scene of creative homicide. This had never happened, and I could only believe that something unusual and possibly Dexter-threatening had caused it now. But what? And how could I be sure, when I didn't really know the first thing about the Passenger itself, except that it had always been there to offer happy insight and commentary. We had seen burned bodies before, and pottery aplenty, with never a twitch or a tweet. Was it the combination? Or something specific to these two bodies? Or was it entirely coincidental and had nothing whatever to do with what we had seen?

The more I thought about it, the less I knew, but the traffic swirled around me in its soothing homicidal patterns, and by the time I got to Rita's house I had almost convinced myself that there was really nothing to worry about. Rita, Cody, and Astor were already home when I got there. Rita worked much closer to the house than I did, and the kids were in an after-school program at a nearby park, so they had all been waiting for at least half an 28 of 173

hour for the opportunity to torment me out of my hard-won peace of mind.

"It was on the news," Astor whispered as I opened the door, and Cody nodded and said, "Gross," in his soft, hoarse voice.

"What was on the news?" I said, struggling to get past them and into the house without trampling on them.

"You burned them!" Astor hissed at me, and Cody looked at me with a complete lack of expression that somehow conveyed disapproval.

"I what? Who did I-"

"Those two people they found at the college," she said. "We don't want to learn that," she added emphatically, and Cody nodded again.

"At the-you mean at the university? I didn't-"

"A university is a college," Astor said with the underlined certainty of a ten-year-old girl. "And we think burning is just gross."

It began to dawn on me what they had seen on the news-a report from the scene where I had spent my morning collecting dry-roasted blood samples from two charred bodies. And somehow, merely because they knew I had been out to play the other night, they had decided that this was how I had spent my time. Even without the Dark Passenger's strange retreat, I agreed that it was completely gross, and I found it highly annoying that they thought I was capable of something like that. "Listen," I said sternly, "that was not-"

"Dexter? Is that you?" Rita yodeled from the kitchen.

"I'm not sure," I called back. "Let me check my wallet." Rita bustled in beaming and before I could protect myself she wrapped herself around me, apparently intent on squeezing hard enough to interfere with my breathing. "Hi, handsome," she said. "How was your day?"

"Gross," muttered Astor.

"Absolutely wonderful," I said, fighting for breath. "Plenty of corpses for everybody today. And I got to use my cotton swabs, too."

Rita made a face. "Ugh. That's-I don't know if you should talk like that around the children. What if they get bad dreams?"

If I had been a completely honest person, I would have told her that her children were far more likely to cause someone else bad dreams than to get them, but since I am not hampered by any need to tell the truth, I just patted her and said, "They hear worse than that on the cartoons every day. Isn't that right, kids?"

"No," said Cody softly, and I looked at him with surprise. He rarely said anything, and to have him not only speak but actually contradict me was disturbing. In fact, the whole day was turning out to be wildly askew, from the panicked flight of the Dark Passenger this morning and continuing on through Vince's catering tirade-and now this. What in the name of all that is dark and dreadful was going on? Was my aura out of balance? Had the moons of Jupiter aligned against me in Sagittarius?

"Cody," I said. And I do hope some hurt showed in my voice. "You're not going to have bad dreams about this, are you?"

"He doesn't have bad dreams," Astor said, as if everyone who was not severely mentally challenged ought to know that. "He doesn't have any dreams at all."

"Good to know," I said, since I almost never dream myself, either, and for some reason it seemed important to have as much as possible in common with Cody. But Rita was having none of it.

"Really, Astor, don't be silly," she said. "Of course Cody has dreams. Everybody has dreams." 29 of 173

"I don't," Cody insisted. Now he was not only standing up to both of us, he was practically breaking his own record for chattiness at the same time. And even though I didn't have a heart, except for circulatory purposes, I felt an affection for him and wanted to come down on his side.

"Good for you," I said. "Stick with it. Dreams are very overrated. Interfere with getting a good night's sleep."

"Dexter, really," Rita said. "I don't think we should encourage this."

"Of course we should," I said, winking at Cody. "He's showing fire, spunk, and imagination."

"Am not," he said, and I absolutely marveled at his verbal outpouring.

"Of course you're not," I said to him, lowering my voice. "But we have to say stuff like that to your mom, or she gets worried."

"For Pete's sake," Rita said. "I give up with you two. Run outside and play, kids."

"We wanna play with Dexter," Astor pouted.

"I'll be along in a few minutes," I said.

"You better," she said darkly. They vanished down the hall toward the back door, and as they left I took a deep breath, happy that the vicious and unwarranted attacks against me were over for now. Of course, I should have known better.

"Come in here," Rita said, and she led me by the hand to the sofa. "Vince called a little while ago," she said as we settled onto the cushions.

"Did he?" I said, and a sudden thrill of danger ripped through me at the idea of what he might have said to Rita.

"What did he say?"

She shook her head. "He was very mysterious. He said to let him know as soon as we had talked it over. And when I asked him talked what over he wouldn't say. He just said you would tell me." I barely managed to stop myself from the unthinkable conversational blunder of saying, "Did he?" again. In my defense, I have to admit that my brain was whirling, not only with the panicked notion that I had to flee to some place of safety but also with the thought that before I fled I needed to find time to visit Vince with my little bag of toys. But before I could mentally choose the correct blade, Rita went on.

"Honestly, Dexter, you're very lucky to have a friend like Vince. He really does take his duties as best man seriously, and he has wonderful taste."

"Wonderfully expensive, too," I said-and perhaps I was still recovering from my near-gaffe with almost repeating

"Did he?" but I knew the moment it was out of my mouth that it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. And sure enough, Rita lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Really?" she said. "Well, I suppose he would, after all. I mean, it most often goes together, doesn't it? You really do get what you pay for, usually."

"Yes, but it's a question of how much you have to pay," I said.

"How much for what?" Rita said, and there it was. I was stuck.

"Well," I said, "Vince has this crazy idea that we should hire this South Beach caterer, a very pricey guy who does a lot of celebrity events and things."

Rita clapped her hands under her chin and looked radiantly happy. "Not Manny Borque!" she cried. "Vince knows Manny Borque?"

Of course it was all over right there, but Dauntless Dexter does not go down without a fight, no matter how feeble. "Did I mention that he's very expensive?" I said hopefully. 30 of 173

"Oh, Dexter, you can't worry about money at a time like this," she said.

"I can too. I am."

"Not if there's a chance to get Manny Borque," she said, and there was a surprisingly strong note in her voice that I had never heard before except when she was angry with Cody and Astor.

"Yes, but Rita," I said, "it doesn't make sense to spend a ton of money just for the caterer."

"Sense has nothing to do with it," she said, and I admit that I agreed with her there. "If we can get Manny Borque to cater our wedding, we'd be crazy not to do it."

"But," I said, and there I stopped, because beyond the fact that it seemed idiotic to pay a king's ransom for crackers with endives hand-painted with rhubarb juice and sculpted to look like Jennifer Lopez, I could not think of any other objection. I mean, wasn't that enough?

Apparently not. "Dexter," she said. "How many times will we get married?" And to my great credit I was still alert enough to clamp down on the urge to say, "At least twice, in your case," which I think was probably very wise.

I quickly changed course, diving straight into tactics learned from pretending to be human for so many years.

"Rita," I said, "the important part of the wedding is when I slip the ring on your finger. I don't care what we eat afterward."

"That's so sweet," she said. "Then you don't mind if we hire Manny Borque?" Once again I found myself losing an argument before I even knew which side I was on. I became aware of a dryness in my mouth-caused, no doubt, by the fact that my mouth was hanging open as my brain struggled to make sense of what had just happened, and then to find something clever to say to get things back onto dry land. But it was far too late. "I'll call Vince back," she said, and she leaned over to give me a kiss on the cheek. "Oh, this is so exciting. Thank you, Dexter."

Well, after all, isn't marriage about compromise?

31 of 173

SEVEN

N ATURALLY ENOUGH , MANNY BORQUE LIVED IN SOUTH Beach. He was on the top floor of one of the new high-rise buildings that spring up around Miami like mushrooms after a heavy rain. This one sat on what was once a deserted beach where Harry used to take Debs and me beachcombing early on Saturday mornings. We would find old life preservers, mysterious wooden chunks of some unfortunate boat, lobster-pot buoys, pieces of fishnet, and on one thrilling morning, an exceedingly dead human body rolling in the surf. It was a treasured boyhood memory, and I resented extremely that someone had built this shiny flimsy tower on the site. The next morning at ten Vince and I left work together and drove over to the horrible new building that had replaced the scene of my youthful joy. I rode the elevator to the top in silence, watching Vince fidget and blink. Why he should be nervous about facing someone who sculpted chopped liver for a living, I don't know, but he clearly was. A drop of sweat rolled down his cheek and he swallowed convulsively, twice.

"He's a caterer, Vince," I told him. "He isn't dangerous. He can't even revoke your library card." Vince looked at me and swallowed again. "He's got a real temper," he said. "He can be very demanding."

"Well, then," I said with great good cheer, "let's go find somebody else more reasonable." He set his jaw like a man facing a firing squad and shook his head. "No," he said bravely, "we're going to go through with this." And the elevator door slid open, right on cue. He squared his shoulders, nodded, and said,

"Come on."

We went down to the end of the hall, and Vince stopped in front of the last door. He took a deep breath, raised his fist, and, after a slight hesitation, knocked on the door. After a long moment in which nothing happened, he looked at me and blinked, his hand still raised. "Maybe," he said. The door opened. "Hello Vic!" the thing in the doorway warbled, and Vince responded by blushing and stammering, "I only hi." Then he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, stammered something that sounded like, "Er wellah," and took a half step backward.

It was a remarkable and thoroughly engaging performance, and I was not the only one who seemed to enjoy it. The manikin who had answered the door watched with a smile that suggested he might enjoy being in the audience for any kind of human suffering, and he let Vince squirm for several long moments before he finally said, "Well come in!"

Manny Borque, if this was really him and not some strange hologram from Star Wars, stood a full five foot six inches tall, from the bottom of his embroidered high-heeled silver boots to the top of his dyed orange head. His hair was cut short, except for black bangs which parted on his forehead like a swallow's tail and draped down over a pair of enormous rhinestone-studded eyeglasses. He was dressed in a long, bright-red dashiki, and apparently nothing else, and it swirled around him as he stepped back from the door to motion us in, and then walked in rapid little steps toward a huge picture window that looked out on the water.

"Come over here and we'll have a little talk," he said, sidestepping a pedestal holding an enormous object that looked like a giant ball of animal vomit dipped in plastic and spray-painted with Day-Glo graffiti. He led the way to a glass table by the window, around which sat four things that were probably supposed to be chairs but could easily have been mistaken for bronze camel saddles welded onto stilts. "Sit," he said, with an expansive wave of his hand, and I took the chair-thing nearest the window. Vince hesitated for a moment, then sat next to me, and Manny hopped up onto the seat directly across from him. "Well," he said. "How have you been, Vic? Would you like some coffee?" and without waiting for an answer he swiveled his head to his left and called, "Eduardo!" Beside me Vince took a ragged breath, but before he could do anything with it Manny whipped back around and faced me. "And you must be the blushing bridegroom!" he said.

"Dexter Morgan," I said. "But I'm not a very good blusher."

"Oh, well, I think Vic is doing enough for both of you," he said. And sure enough, Vince obligingly turned just as scarlet as his complexion would allow him to do. Since I was still more than a little peeved at being subjected 32 of 173

to this ordeal, I decided not to come to his aid by offering Manny a withering remark, or even correcting him on the subject of Vince's actual identity as "Vince," not "Vic." I was sure he knew the right name quite well and was simply tormenting Vince. And that was fine with me: let Vince squirm-it served him right for going over my head to Rita and getting me into this.

Eduardo bustled in holding a vintage Fiestaware coffee service in several bright colors, balanced on a clear plastic tray. He was a stocky young man about twice the size of Manny, and he, too, seemed very anxious to please the little troll. He set a yellow cup in front of Manny, and then moved to put the blue one in front of Vince when he was stopped by Manny, who laid a finger on his arm.

"Eduardo," he said in a silky voice, and the boy froze. "Yellow? Don't we remember? Manny gets the blue cup." Eduardo practically fell over himself grinding into reverse, nearly dropping the tray in his haste to remove the offensive yellow coffee cup and replace it with the proper blue one.

"Thank you, Eduardo," Manny said, and Eduardo paused for a moment, apparently to see if Manny really meant it or if he had done something else wrong. But Manny just patted him on the arm and said, "Serve our guests now, please," and Eduardo nodded and moved around the table.

As it turned out, I got the yellow cup, which was fine with me, although I wondered if it meant that they didn't like me. When he had poured the coffee, Eduardo hustled back to the kitchen and returned with a small plate holding half a dozen pastelitos. And although they were not, in fact, shaped like Jennifer Lopez's derriere, they might as well have been. They looked like little cream-filled porcupines-dark brown lumps bristling with quills that were either chocolate or taken from a sea anemone. The center was open, revealing a blob of orange-colored custardy-type stuff, and each blob had a dab of green, blue, or brown on top. Eduardo put the plate in the center of the table, and we all just looked at it for a moment. Manny seemed to be admiring them, and Vince was apparently feeling some kind of religious awe, as he swallowed a few more times and made a sound that may have been a gasp. For my part, I wasn't sure if we were supposed to eat the things or use them for some bizarre, bloody Aztec ritual, so I simply studied the plate, hoping for a clue. It was finally provided by Vince. "My God," he blurted.

Manny nodded. "They're wonderful, aren't they?" he said. "But so-o-o-o last year." He picked one up, the one with the blue top, and gazed at it with a kind of aloof fondness. "The color palette really got tired, and that horrible old hotel over by Indian Creek started to copy them. Still," he said with a shrug, and he popped it into his mouth. I was glad to see that it didn't seem to cause any major bleeding. "One does grow fond of one's own little tricks." He turned and winked at Eduardo. "Perhaps a little too fond sometimes." Eduardo went pale and fled to the kitchen, and Manny turned back to us with a huge crocodile smile. "Do try one, though, won't you?"

"I'm afraid to bite one," Vince said. "They're so perfect."

"And I'm afraid they might bite back," I said.

Manny showed off a few dozen teeth. "If I could teach them that," he said, "I would never be lonely." He nudged the plate in my direction. "Go ahead," he said.

"Would you serve these at my wedding?" I asked, thinking perhaps somebody ought to find some kind of point in all this.

Vince elbowed me, hard, but it was apparently too late. Manny's eyes had narrowed to little slits, although his impressive dental work was still on display. "I do not serve," he said. "I present. And I present whatever seems best to me."

"Shouldn't I have some idea ahead of time what that might be?" I asked, "I mean, suppose the bride is allergic to wasabi-basted arugula aspic?"

Manny tightened his fists so hard I could hear the knuckles creak. For a moment I had a small thrill of hope at the thought that I might have clevered myself out of a caterer. But then Manny relaxed and laughed. "I like your friend, Vic," he said. "He's very brave."

33 of 173

Vince favored us both with a smile and started to breathe again, and Manny began to doodle with a pad and paper, and that is how I ended up with the great Manny Borque agreeing to cater my wedding at the special discounted price of only $250 a plate.

It seemed a bit high. But after all, I had been specifically instructed not to worry about money. I was sure Rita would think of some way to make it work, perhaps by inviting only two or three people. In any case, I didn't get a great deal of time to worry about mere finances, as my cell phone began its happy little dirge almost immediately, and when I answered I heard Deborah say, without even attempting to match my cheery hello, "I need you here right away."

"I'm awfully busy with some very important canapés," I told her. "Can I borrow twenty thousand dollars?" She made a noise in her throat and said, "I don't have time for bullshit, Dexter. The twenty-four hours starts in twenty minutes and I need you there for it." It was the custom in Homicide to convene everybody involved in a case twenty-four hours after the work began, to make sure everything was organized and everyone was on the same page. And Debs obviously felt that I had some kind of shrewd insight to offer-very thoughtful really, but untrue. With the Dark Passenger apparently still on hiatus, I didn't think the great light of insight would come flooding in anytime soon.

"Debs, I really don't have any thought at all on this one," I said.

"Just get over here," she told me, and hung up.

34 of 173

EIGHT

T HE TRAFFIC ON THE 836 WAS BACKED UP FOR HALF A MILE right after the 395 from Miami Beach poured into it. We inched forward between exits until we could see the problem: a truckload of watermelons had emptied out onto the highway. There was a streak of red-and-green goo six inches thick across the road, dotted with a sprinkling of cars in various stages of destruction. An ambulance went past on the shoulder, followed by a procession of cars driven by people too important to wait in a traffic jam. Horns honked all along the line, people yelled and waved their fists, and somewhere ahead I heard a single gunshot. It was good to be back to normal life.

By the time we fought our way through the traffic and onto surface streets, we had lost fifteen minutes and it took another fifteen to get back to work. Vince and I rode the elevator to the second floor in silence, but as the doors slid open and we stepped out, he stopped me. "You're doing the right thing," he said.

"Yes, I am," I said. "But if I don't do it quickly Deborah will kill me." He grabbed my arm. "I mean about Manny," he said. "You're going to love what he does. It will really make a difference."

I was already aware that it would really make a difference in my bank account, but beyond that I still didn't see the point. Would everyone truly have a better time if they were served a series of apparently alien objects of uncertain use and origin instead of cold cuts? There is a great deal I don't understand about human beings, but this really seemed to take the cake-assuming we would have a cake at all, which in my opinion was not a sure thing.

There was one thing I understood quite well, however, and that was Deborah's attitude about punctuality. It was handed down from our father, and it said that lateness was disrespect and there were no excuses. So I pried Vince's fingers off my arm and shook his hand. "I'm sure we're all going to be very happy with the food," I said. He held on to my hand. "It's more than that," he said.

"Vince-"

"You're making a statement about the rest of your life," he said. "A really good statement, that your and Rita's life together-"

"My life is in danger if I don't go, Vince," I said.

"I'm really happy about this," he said, and it was so unnerving to see him display an apparently authentic emotion that there was actually a little bit of panic to my flight away from him and down the hall to the conference room. The room was full, since this was becoming a somewhat high-profile case after the hysterical news stories of the evening before about two young women found burned and headless. Deborah glared at me as I slipped in and stood by the door, and I gave her what I hoped was a disarming smile. She cut off the speaker, one of the patrolmen who had been first on the scene.

"All right," she said. "We know we're not going to find the heads on the scene." I had thought that my late entrance and Deborah's vicious glare at me would certainly win the award for Most Dramatic Entrance, but I was dead wrong. Because just as Debs tried to get the meeting moving again, I was upstaged as thoroughly as a candle at a firebombing.

"Come on, people," Sergeant Sister said. "Let's have some ideas about this."

"We could drag the lake," Camilla Figg said. She was a thirty-five-year-old forensics geek and usually kept quiet, and it was rather surprising to hear her speak. Apparently some people preferred it that way, because a thin, intense cop named Corrigan jumped on her right away.

"Bullshit," said Corrigan. "Heads float."

35 of 173

"They don't float-they're solid bone," Camilla insisted.

"Some of 'em are," Corrigan said, and he got his little laugh.

Deborah frowned, and was about to step in with an authoritative word or two, when a noise in the hall stopped her.

CLUMP.

Not that loud, but somehow it commanded all the attention there was in the room. CLUMP.

Closer, a little louder, for all the world approaching us now like something from a low-budget horror movie…

CLUMP.

For some reason I couldn't hope to explain, everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath and turn slowly toward the door. And if only because I wanted to fit in, I began to turn for a peek into the hall myself, when I was stopped by the smallest possible interior tickle, just a hint of a twitch, and so I closed my eyes and listened. Hello? I said mentally, and after a very short pause there was a small, slightly hesitant sound, almost a clearing of the mental throat, and thenSomebody in the room muttered, "Holy sweet Jesus," with the kind of reverent horror that was always guaranteed to pique my interest, and the small not-quite-sound within purred just a bit and then subsided. I opened my eyes.

I can only say that I had been so happy to feel the Passenger stirring in the dark backseat that for a moment I had tuned out everything around me. This is always a dangerous slip, especially for artificial humans like me, and the point was driven home with an absolutely stunning impact when I opened my eyes. It was indeed low-budget horror, Night of the Living Dead, but in the flesh and not a movie at all, because standing in the doorway, just to my right, staring at me, was a man who was really supposed to be dead. Sergeant Doakes.

Doakes had never liked me. He seemed to be the only cop on the entire force who suspected that I might be what, in fact, I was. I had always thought he could see through my disguise because he was somewhat the same thing himself, a cold killer. He had tried and failed to prove that I was guilty of almost anything, and that failure had also failed to endear me to him.

The last time I had seen Doakes the paramedics had been loading him into an ambulance. He had been unconscious, partly as the result of the shock and pain of having his tongue, feet, and hands removed by a very talented amateur surgeon who thought Doakes had done him wrong. Now it was true that I had gently encouraged that notion with the part-time doctor, but I had at least had the decency to persuade Doakes first to go along with the plan, in order to catch the inhuman fiend. And I had also very nearly saved Doakes at considerable risk to my own precious and irreplaceable life and limbs. I hadn't quite pulled off the dashing and timely rescue I'm sure Doakes had hoped for, but I had tried, and it was really and truly not my fault that he had been more dead than alive when they hauled him away.

So I didn't think it was asking too much for some small acknowledgment of the great hazard I had exposed myself to on his behalf. I didn't need flowers, or a medal, or even a box of chocolates, but perhaps something along the lines of a hearty clap on the back and a murmured, "Thanks, old fellow." Of course he would have some trouble murmuring coherently without a tongue, and the clap on the back with one of his new metal hands could prove painful, but he might at least try. Was that so unreasonable?

Apparently it was. Doakes stared at me as if he was the hungriest dog in the world and I was the very last steak. I had thought that he used to look at me with enough venom to lay low the entire endangered species list. But that had been the gentle laughter of a tousle-haired child on a sunny day compared to the way he was looking at me now. And I knew what had made the Dark Passenger clear its throat-it had been the scent of a familiar 36 of 173

predator. I felt the slow flex of interior wings, coming back to full roaring life, rising to the challenge in Doakes's eyes. And behind those dark eyes his own inner monster snarled and spat at mine. We stood like that for a long moment, on the outside simply staring but on the inside two predatory shadows screeching out a challenge. Someone was speaking, but the world had narrowed to just me and Doakes and the two black shadows inside us calling for battle, and neither one of us heard a word, just an annoying drone in the background. Deborah's voice cut through the fog at last. "Sergeant Doakes," she said, somewhat forcefully. Finally Doakes turned to face her and the spell was broken. And feeling somewhat smug in the power-joy and bliss!-of the Passenger, as well as the petty victory of having Doakes turn away first, I faded into the wallpaper, taking a small step back to survey the leftovers of my once-mighty nemesis.

Sergeant Doakes still held the department record for bench press, but he did not look like he would defend his record anytime soon. He was gaunt and, except for the fire smoldering behind his eyes, he looked almost weak. He stood stiffly on his two prosthetic feet, his arms hanging straight down by his sides, with gleaming silver things that looked like a complicated kind of vise grip protruding from each wrist. I could hear the others in the room breathing, but aside from that there was not a sound. Everyone simply stared at the thing that had once been Doakes, and he stared at Deborah, who licked her lips, apparently trying to think of something coherent to say, and finally came up with, "Have a seat, Doakes. Um. I'll bring you up to date?" Doakes looked at her for a long moment. Then he turned awkwardly around, glared at me, and clumped out of the room, his strange, measured footsteps echoing down the hall until they were gone. On the whole, cops don't like to give the impression that they are ever impressed or intimidated, so it was several seconds before anyone risked giving away any unwanted emotion by breathing again. Naturally enough, it was Deborah who finally broke the unnatural silence. "All right," she said, and suddenly everyone was clearing their throats and shifting in their chairs.

"All right," she repeated, "so we won't find the heads at the scene."

"Heads don't float," Camilla Figg insisted scornfully, and we were back to where we had been before the sudden semi-appearance of Sergeant Doakes. And they droned on for another ten minutes or so, tirelessly fighting crime by arguing about who was supposed to fill out the paperwork, when we were rudely interrupted once again by the door beside me swinging open.

"Sorry to interrupt," Captain Matthews said. "I've got some-ah-really great news, I think." He looked around the room frowning, which even I could have told him was not the proper face for delivering great news. "It's, uh, ahem. Sergeant Doakes has come back, and he's, uh-It's important for you people to realize that he's been badly, uh, damaged. He has only a couple of years left before he's eligible for full pension, so the lawyers, ah-we thought, under the circumstances, um…" He trailed off and looked around the room. "Did somebody already tell you people?"

"Sergeant Doakes was just here," Deborah said.

"Oh," Matthews said. "Well, then-" He shrugged. "That's fine. All right then. I'll let you get on with the meeting then. Anything to report?"

"No real progress yet, Captain," Deborah said.

"Well, I'm sure you'll get this thing wrapped up before the press-I mean, in a timely fashion."

"Yes, sir," she said.

"All right then," he said again. And he looked around the room once, squared his shoulders, and left the room.

"Heads don't float," somebody else said, and a small snort of laughter went around the room.

"Jesus," Deborah said. "Can we focus on this, please? We got two bodies here." And more to come , I thought, and the Dark Passenger quivered slightly, as if trying very bravely not to run 37 of 173

away, but that was all, and I thought no more about it.

38 of 173

NINE

I DON'T DREAM. I MEAN, I'M SURE THAT AT SOME POINT DURING my normal sleep, there must be images and fragments of nonsense parading through my subconscious. After all, they tell me that happens with everyone. But I never seem to remember dreams if I do have them, which they tell me happens to nobody at all. So I assume that I do not dream.

It was therefore something of a shock to discover myself late that night, cradled in Rita's arms, shouting something I could not quite hear; just the echo of my own strangled voice coming back at me out of the cottony dark, and Rita's cool hand on my forehead, her voice murmuring, "All right, sweetheart, I won't leave you."

"Thank you very much," I said in a croaking voice. I cleared my throat and sat up.

"You had a bad dream," she told me.

"Really? What was it?" I still didn't remember anything but my shouting and a vague sense of danger crowding in on me, and me all alone.

"I don't know," Rita said. "You were shouting, 'Come back! Don't leave me alone.'" She cleared her throat.

"Dexter-I know you're feeling some stress about our wedding-"

"Not at all," I said.

"But I want you to know. I will never leave you." She reached for my hand again. "This is forever with me, big man. I am holding on to you." She scooted over and put her head on my shoulder. "Don't worry. I won't ever leave you, Dexter."

Even though I lack experience with dreams, I was fairly sure that my subconscious was not terribly worried about Rita leaving me. I mean, it hadn't occurred to me that she would, which was not really a sign of trust on my part. I just hadn't thought about it. Truly, I had no idea why she wanted to hang on to me in the first place, so any hypothetical leave-taking was just as mysterious.

No, this was my subconscious. If it was crying out in pain at the threat of abandonment, I knew exactly what it feared losing: the Dark Passenger. My bosom buddy, my constant companion on my journey through life's sorrows and sharp pleasures. That was the fear behind the dream: losing the thing that had been so very much a part of me, had actually defined me, for my whole life.

When it scuttled into hiding at the university crime scene it had clearly shaken me badly, more than I had known at the time. The sudden and very scary reappearance of 65 percent of Sergeant Doakes supplied the sense of danger, and the rest was easy. My subconscious had kicked in and supplied a dream on the subject. Perfectly clear-Psych 101, a textbook case, nothing to worry about.

So why was I still worrying?

Because the Passenger had never even flinched before, and I still didn't know why it had chosen now. Was Rita right about the stress of the approaching wedding? Or was there really something about the two headless bodies by the university lake that just plain scared the Dark out of me?

I didn't know-and, since it seemed like Rita's ideas about comforting me had begun to take a more active turn, it did not look like I was going to find out anytime soon.

"Come here, baby," Rita whispered.

And after all, there really isn't any place to run in a queen-size bed, is there?

image

The next morning found Deborah obsessed with finding the missing heads from the two bodies at the university. Somehow word had leaked out to the press that the department was interested in finding a couple of skulls that had wandered away. This was Miami, and I really would have thought that a missing head would get less press 39 of 173

coverage than a traffic tie-up on I-95, but something about the fact that there were two of them, and that they apparently belonged to young women, created quite a stir. Captain Matthews was a man who knew the value of being mentioned in the press, but even he was not pleased with the note of surly hysteria that attached itself to this story.

And so pressure came down on all of us from above; from the captain to Deborah, who wasted no time passing it on down to the rest of us. Vince Masuoka became convinced that he could provide Deborah with the key to the whole matter by finding out which bizarre religious sect was responsible. This led to him sticking his head in my door that morning and, without any kind of warning, giving me his best fake smile and saying, firmly and distinctly, "Candomblé."

"Shame on you," I said. "This is no time for that kind of language."

"Ha," he said, with his terrible artificial laugh. "But it is, I'm sure of it. Candomblé is like Santeria, but it's Brazilian."

"Vince, I have no reason to doubt you on that. My question is, what the hell are you talking about?" He came two steps into the room in a kind of prance, as if his body wanted to take off and he couldn't quite fight it down. "They have a thing about animal heads in some of their rituals," he said. "It's on the Internet."

"Really," I said. "Does it say on the Internet that this Brazilian thing barbecues humans, cuts off their heads, and replaces them with ceramic bulls' heads?"

Vince wilted just a bit. "No," he admitted, and he raised his eyebrows hopefully. "But they use animals."

"How do they use them, Vince?" I asked.

"Well," he said, and he looked around my little room, possibly for another topic of conversation. "Sometimes they, you know, offer a part to the gods, and then they eat the rest."

"Vince," I said, "are you suggesting that somebody ate the missing heads?"

"No," he said, turning sullen, almost like Cody and Astor might have done. "But they could have."

"It would be very crunchy, wouldn't it?"

"All right," he said, exceedingly sulky now. "I'm just trying to help." And he stalked away, without even a small fake smile.

But the chaos had only begun. As my unwanted trip to dreamland indicated, I was already under enough pressure without the added strain of a rampaging sister. But only a few minutes later, my small oasis of peace was ripped asunder once again, this time by Deborah, who came roaring into my office as if pursued by killer bees.

"Come on," she snarled at me.

"Come on where?" I asked, quite a reasonable question, I thought, but you would have thought I had asked her to shave her head and paint her skull blue.

"Just get in gear, and come on!" she said, so I came on and followed her down to the parking lot and into her car.

"I swear to God," she fumed as she hammered her car through the traffic, "I have never seen Matthews this pissed before. And now it's my fault!" She banged on the horn for emphasis and swerved in front of a van that said PALMVIEW ASSISTED LIVING on the side. "All because some asshole leaked the heads to the press."

"Well, Debs," I said, with all the reasonable soothing I could muster, "I'm sure the heads will turn up."

"You're goddamned right they will," she said, narrowly missing a fat man on a bicycle that had huge saddlebags stuffed with scrap metal. "Because I am going to find out which cult the son of a bitch belongs to, and then I'm 40 of 173

going to nail the bastard."

I paused in mid-soothe. Apparently my dear demented sister, just like Vince, had gotten hold of the idea that finding the appropriate alternative religion would yield a killer. "Ah, all right," I said. "And where are we going to do that?"

She slid the car out onto Biscayne Boulevard and into a parking space at the curb without answering, and got out of the car. And so I found myself patiently following her into the Centre for Inner Enhancement, a clearinghouse for all the wonderfully useful things that have the words "holistic," "herbal," or "aura" in them. The Centre was a small and shabby building in an area of Biscayne Boulevard that had apparently been designated by treaty as a kind of reservation for prostitutes and crack dealers. There were enormous bars on the storefront windows and more of them on the door, which was locked. Deborah pounded on it and after a moment it gave an annoying buzz. She pushed, and finally it clicked and swung open. We stepped in. A suffocating cloud of sickly sweet incense rolled over me, and I could tell that my inner enhancement had begun with a complete overhaul of my lungs. Through the smoke I could dimly see a large yellow silk banner hung along one wall that stated WE ARE ALL ONE. It did not say one of what. A recording played softly, the sound of someone who seemed to be fighting off an overdose of downers by occasionally ringing a series of small bells. A waterfall murmured in the background and I am sure that my spirit would have soared, if only I had one. Since I didn't, I found the whole thing just a bit irritating. But of course, we weren't here for pleasure, or even inner enhancement. And Sergeant Sister was, of course, all business all the time. She marched over to the counter, where there stood a middle-aged woman wearing a full-length tie-dyed dress that seemed to be made out of old crepe paper. Her graying hair radiated out from her head in a kind of random mess, and she was frowning. Of course, it may have been a beatific frown of enlightenment.

"Can I help you?" she said, in a gravelly voice that seemed to suggest we were beyond help. Deborah held up her badge. Before she could say anything the woman reached over and plucked it from her hand.

"All right, Sergeant Morgan," the woman said, tossing the badge on the counter. "It seems to be genuine."

"Couldn't you just read her aura and tell that?" I suggested. Neither of them seemed ready to give that remark any of the appreciation it deserved, so I shrugged and listened as Deborah began her grueling interrogation.

"I'd like to ask you a few questions, please," Deborah said, leaning forward to scoop up her badge.

"About what?" the woman demanded. She frowned even harder, and Deborah frowned back, and it began to look like we were in for a good old-fashioned country frown-off, with the winner getting free Botox treatments to freeze her face into a permanent scowl.

"There have been some murders," Deborah said, and the woman shrugged.

"What's that got to do with me?" she asked.

I applauded her reasoning, but after all, I did have to play for my own team now and then.

"It's because we are all one," I said. "That's the basis of all police work." She swiveled her frown to me and blinked at me in a very aggressive way. "Who the hell are you?" she demanded. "Lemme see your badge."

"I'm her backup," I said. "In case she's attacked by bad karma." The woman snorted, but at least she didn't shoot me. "Cops in this town," she said, "are swimming in bad karma. I was at the FTAA rally, and I know what you people are like."

"Maybe we are," Deborah said, "but the other side is even worse, so could you just answer a few questions?" 41 of 173

The woman looked back at Deborah, still frowning, and shrugged. "Okay, I guess," she said. "But I don't see how I can help. And I call my lawyer if you get out of line."

"Fine," Deborah said. "We're looking for a lead on somebody who might be connected to a local alternative religious group that has a thing for bulls."

For a second I thought the woman was almost going to smile, but she caught herself just in time. "Bulls? Jesus, who doesn't have a thing for bulls. Goes all the way back to Sumer, Crete, all those old cradle-of-civilization places. Lots of people have worshipped them. I mean, aside from the huge cocks, they're very powerful." If the woman thought she was going to embarrass Deborah, she didn't know as much about Miami cops as she thought she did. My sister didn't even blink. "Do you know of any group in particular that might be local?" Debs said.

"I dunno," she said. "What kind of group?"

"Candomblé?" I said, briefly grateful to Vince for supplying a word. "Palo Mayombe? Or even Wicca."

"The Spanish stuff, you gotta go over to Eleggua on Eighth Street. I wouldn't know about that. We sell some stuff to the Wicca people, but I'm not gonna tell you about it without a warrant. Anyway, they don't do bulls." She snorted. "They just stand around in the Everglades naked, waiting for their power to come."

"Is there anybody else?" Debs insisted.

The woman just shook her head. "I dunno. I mean, I know about most of the groups in town, and nothing like that I can think of." She shrugged. "Maybe the Druids, they got a spring event coming up. They used to do human sacrifice."

Deborah frowned even more intensely. "When was that?" she said.

This time the woman actually did smile, just a little, with one corner of her mouth. "About two thousand years ago. You're a little late on that one, Sherlock."

"Is there anything else you can think of that might help?" Deborah asked. The woman shook her head. "Help with what? There might be some psycho loser out there who read Aleister Crowley and lives on a dairy farm. How would I know?"

Deborah looked at her for a moment, as if trying to decide if she had been offensive enough to arrest, and then apparently decided against it. "Thank you for your time," she said, and she flipped her business card on the counter. "If you think of anything that might be helpful, please give me a call."

"Yeah, sure," the woman said, without even glancing at the card. Deborah glared at her for a moment longer and then stalked out of the door. The woman stared at me and I smiled.

"I really like vegetables," I said. Then I gave the woman the peace sign and followed my sister out.

"That was a stupid idea," Deborah said as we walked rapidly back to her car.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," I said. And it was quite true, I wouldn't say it. Of course, it really was a stupid idea, but to say so would have been to invite one of Debs's vicious arm punches. "If nothing else, we eliminated a few possibilities."

"Sure," she said sourly. "We know it probably wasn't a bunch of naked fruits, unless they did it two thousand years ago."

She did have a point, but I see it as my job in life to help all those around me maintain a positive attitude. "It's still progress," I said. "Shall we check out the place on Eighth Street? I'll translate for you." In spite of being a Miami native, Debs had whimsically insisted on studying French in school, and she could barely order lunch in Spanish.

42 of 173

She shook her head. "Waste of time," she said. "I'll tell Angel to ask around, but it won't go anywhere." And she was right. Angel came back late that afternoon with a very nice candle that had a prayer to St. Jude on it in Spanish, but other than that his trip to the place on Eighth Street was a waste of time, just as Debs had predicted.

We were left with nothing, except two bodies, no heads, and a very bad feeling. That was about to change.

43 of 173

TEN

T HE NEXT DAY PASSED UNEVENTFULLY AND WE GOT NO closer to any kind of hint about the two murders at the university. And life being the kind of lopsided, grotesque affair that it is, Deborah blamed our lack of progress on me. She was still convinced that I had special magical powers and had used them to see straight into the dark heart of the killings, and that I was keeping vital information from her for petty personal reasons. Very flattering, but totally untrue. The only insight I had into the matter was that something about it had scared the Dark Passenger, and I did not want that to happen again. I decided to stay away from the case, and since there was almost no blood work involved, that should have been easy in a logical and well-ordered universe. But alas, we do not live in any such place. Our universe is ruled by random whim, inhabited by people who laugh at logic. At the moment, the chief of these was my sister. Late the following morning she cornered me in my little cubbyhole and dragged me away to lunch with her boyfriend, Kyle Chutsky. I had no real objections to Chutsky, other than his permanent attitude of knowing the real truth about everything. Aside from that, he was just as pleasant and amiable as a cold killer can be, and it would have been hypocritical for me to object to his personality on those grounds. And since he seemed to make my sister happy, I did not object on any other grounds, either.

So off I went to lunch, since in the first place she was my sister, and in the second, the mighty machine that is my body needs almost constant fuel.

The fuel it craves most often is a medianoche sandwich, usually with a side of fried plátanos and a mamey milk shake. I don't know why this simple, hearty meal plays such a transcendent chord on the strings of my being, but there is nothing else like it. Prepared properly, it takes me as close to ecstasy as I can get. And no one prepares it quite as properly as Café Relampago, a storefront place not far from police HQ, where the Morgans have been eating since time out of mind. It was so good even Deborah's perpetual grumpiness couldn't spoil it.

"Goddamn it!" she said to me through a mouthful of sandwich. It was certainly far from a novel phrase coming from her, but she said it with a viciousness that left me lightly spattered with bread crumbs. I took a sip of my excellent batido de mamey and waited for her to expand on her argument, but instead she simply said it again.

"Goddamn it!"

"You're covering up your feelings again," I said. "But because I am your brother, I can tell something is bothering you."

Chutsky snorted as he sawed at his Cuban steak. "No shit," he said. He was about to say more, but the fork clamped in his prosthetic left hand slipped sideways. "Goddamn it," he said, and I realized that they had a great deal more in common than I had thought. Deborah leaned over and helped him straighten the fork. "Thanks," he said, and shoveled in a large bite of the pounded-flat meat.

"There, you see?" I said brightly. "All you needed was something to take your mind off your own problems." We were sitting at a table where we had probably eaten a hundred times. But Deborah was rarely troubled by sentiment; she straightened up and slapped the battered Formica tabletop hard enough to make the sugar bowl jump.

"I want to know who talked to that asshole Rick Sangre!" she said. Sangre was a local TV reporter who believed that the gorier a story was, the more vital it was for people to have a free press that could fill them in on as many gruesome details as possible. From the tone of her voice, Deborah was apparently convinced that Rick was my new best friend.

"Well, it wasn't me," I said. "And I don't think it was Doakes."

"Ouch," said Chutsky.

" And," she said, "I want to find those fucking heads!"

"I don't have them, either," I said. "Did you check lost and found?" 44 of 173

"You know something, Dexter," she said. "Come on, why are you holding out on me?" Chutsky looked up and swallowed. "Why should he know something you don't?" he asked. "Was there a lot of spatter?"

"No spatter at all," I said. "The bodies were cooked, nice and dry." Chutsky nodded and managed to scoop some rice and beans onto his fork. "You're a sick bastard, aren't you?"

"He's worse than sick," Deborah said. "He's holding out something."

"Oh," Chutsky said through a mouthful of food. "Is this his amateur profiling thing again?" It was a small fiction; we had told him that my hobby was actually analytical, rather than hands-on.

"It is," Deborah said. "And he won't tell me what he's figured out."

"It might be hard to believe, Sis, but I know nothing about this. Just…" I shrugged, but she was already pouncing.

"What! Come on, please?"

I hesitated again. There was no good way to tell her that the Dark Passenger had reacted to these killings in a brand-new and totally unsettling way. "I just get a feeling," I said. "Something is a little off with this one." She snorted. "Two burned headless bodies, and he says something's a little off. Didn't you used to be smart?" I took a bite of my sandwich as Deborah frittered away her precious eating time by frowning. "Have you identified the bodies yet?" I asked.

"Come on, Dexter. There's no heads, so we got no dental records. The bodies were burned, so there's no fingerprints. Shit, we don't even know what color their hair was. What do you want me to do?"

"I could probably help, you know," Chutsky said. He speared a chunk of fried maduras and popped it into his mouth. "I have a few resources I can call on."

"I don't need your help," she said and he shrugged.

"You take Dexter's help," he said.

"That's different."

"How is that different?" he asked, and it seemed like a reasonable question.

"Because he gives me help," she said. "You want to solve it for me." They locked eyes and didn't speak for a long moment. I'd seen them do it before, and it was eerily reminiscent of the nonverbal conversations Cody and Astor had. It was nice to see them so clearly welded together as a couple, even though it reminded me that I had a wedding of my own to worry about, complete with an apparently insane high-class caterer. Happily, just before I could begin to gnash my teeth, Debs broke the eerie silence.

"I won't be one of those women who needs help," she said.

"But I can get you information that you can't get," he said, putting his good hand on her arm.

"Like what?" I asked him. I'll admit I had been curious for some time about what Chutsky was, or had been before his accidental amputations. I knew that he had worked for some government agency which he referred to as the OGA, but I still didn't know what that stood for.

He turned to face me obligingly. "I have friends and sources in a lot of places," he said. "Something like this might have left some kind of trail somewhere else, and I could call around and find out."

"You mean call your buddies at the OGA?" I said.

45 of 173

He smiled. "Something like that," he said.

"For Christ's sake, Dexter," Deborah said. "OGA just means other government agency. There's no such agency, it's an in-joke."

"Nice to be in at last," I said. "And you can still get access to their files?" He shrugged. "Technically I'm on convalescent leave," he said.

"From doing what?" I asked.

He gave me a mechanical smile. "You don't really want to know," he said. "The point is, they haven't decided yet whether I'm any fucking good anymore." He looked at the fork clamped in his steel hand, turning his arm over to see it move. "Shit," he said.

And because I could feel that one of those awkward moments was upon us, I did what I could to move things back onto a sociable footing. "Didn't you find anything at the kiln?" I asked. "Some kind of jewelry or something?"

"What the fuck is that?" she said.

"The kiln," I said. "Where the bodies were burned."

"Haven't you been paying attention? We haven't found where the bodies were burned."

"Oh," I said. "I assumed it was done right there on campus, in the ceramic studio." By the suddenly frozen look on her face, I realized that either she was experiencing massive indigestion or she did not know about the ceramic studio. "It's just half a mile from the lake where the bodies were found," I said.

"You know, the kiln. Where they make pottery?"

Deborah stared at me for a moment longer, and then jumped up from the table. I thought it was a wonderfully creative and dramatic way to end a conversation, and it took a moment before I could do more than blink after her.

"I guess she didn't know about that," Chutsky said.

"That's my first guess," I said. "Shall we follow?"

He shrugged and speared the last chunk of his steak. "I'm gonna have some flan, and a cafecita. Then I'll get a cab, since I'm not allowed to help," he said. He scooped up some rice and beans and nodded at me. "You go ahead, unless you want to walk back to work."

I did not, in fact, have any desire to walk back to work. On the other hand, I still had almost half a milk shake and I did not want to leave that, either. I stood up and followed, but I softened the blow by grabbing the uneaten half of Deborah's sandwich and taking it with me as I lurched out the door after her. Soon we were rolling through the front gate of the university campus. Deborah spent part of the ride talking on the radio and arranging for people to meet us at the kilns, and the rest of the ride clenching her teeth and muttering.

We turned left after the gate and headed down the winding road that leads to the ceramic and pottery area. I had taken a class in pottery there my junior year in an effort to widen my horizons, and found out that I was good at making very regular-looking vases but not terribly successful at creating original works of art, at least not in that medium. In my own area, I flatter myself that I can be creative, as I had recently demonstrated with Zander. Angel-no-relation was already there, carefully and patiently looking through the first kiln for any sign of practically anything. Deborah went over and squatted beside him, leaving me alone with the last three bites of her sandwich. I took the first bite. A crowd was beginning to gather by the yellow tape. Perhaps they were hoping to see something too terrible to look at: I never knew why they gathered like that, but they always did. 46 of 173

Deborah was now on the ground beside Angel, who had his head inside the first of the kilns. This would probably be a long wait.

I had barely put the last bite of sandwich into my mouth when I became aware that I was being watched. Of course I was being looked at, anyone on the business side of the yellow tape always was. But I was also being watched-the Dark Passenger clamored at me that I had been singled out by something with an unhealthy interest in special wonderful me, and I did not like the feeling. As I swallowed the last of the sandwich and turned to look, the whisper inside me hissed something that sounded like confusion…and then settled into silence. And as it did I felt again the wave of panicked nausea and the bright yellow edge of blindness, and I stumbled for a moment, all my senses crying out that there was danger but my ability to do anything about it completely gone. It lasted only a second. I fought my way back to the surface and looked harder at my surroundings-nothing had changed. A handful of people stood looking on, the sun shone brightly, and a gentle wind riffled through the trees. Just another perfect Miami day, but somewhere in paradise the snake had reared its head. I closed my eyes and listened hard, hoping for some hint about the nature of the menace, but there was nothing but the echo of clawed feet scrabbling away.

I opened my eyes and looked around again. There was a crowd of perhaps fifteen people pretending not to be fascinated by the hope of seeing gore, but none of them stood out in any way. None of them were skulking or staring evilly or trying to hide a bazooka under their shirt. In any normal time, I might have expected my Passenger to see a dark shadow around an obvious predator, but there was no such assistance now. As far as I could see, nothing sinister loomed in the crowd. So what had set off the Passenger's fire alarm? I knew so little about it; it was just there, a presence filled with wicked amusement and sharp suggestions. It had never showed confusion before, not until it saw the two bodies by the lake. And now it was repeating its vague uncertainty, only half a mile from the first spot.

Was it something in the water? Or was there some connection to the two burned bodies here at the kilns?

I wandered over to where Deborah and Angel-no-relation were working. They didn't seem to be finding anything particularly alarming, and there were no jolts of panic roiling out from the kiln to the place where the Dark Passenger was hiding.

If this second retreat was not caused by something in front of me, then what caused it? What if it was some kind of weird interior erosion? Perhaps my new status of impending husband-hood and stepfather-ness was overwhelming my Passenger. Was I becoming too nice to be a proper host? This would be a fate worse than someone else's death.

I became aware that I was standing just inside the yellow crime-scene tape, and a large form was lurking in front of me.

"Uh, hello?" he said. He was a big, well-muscled young specimen with longish, lank hair and the look of someone who believed in breathing through the mouth.

"How can I help you, citizen?" I said.

"Are you, uh, you know," he said, "like a cop?"

"A little bit like one," I said.

He nodded and thought about that for a moment, looking around behind him as if there might be something there he could eat. On the back of his neck was one of those unfortunate tattoos that have become so popular, an Oriental character of some kind. It probably spelled out "slow learner." He rubbed the tattoo as if he could hear me thinking about it, then turned around to me and blurted out, "I was wondering about Jessica."

"Of course you were," I said. "Who wouldn't?"

"Do they know if it's her?" he said. "I'm like her boyfriend." The young gentleman had now succeeded in grabbing my professional attention. "Is Jessica missing?" I asked him.

47 of 173

He nodded. "She was, you know, supposed to work out with me? Like every morning, you know. Around the track, and then some abs. But yesterday she doesn't show up. And same thing this morning. So I started thinking, uh…" He frowned, apparently at the effort of thinking, and his speech trickled to a halt.

"What's your name?" I asked him.

"Kurt," he said. "Kurt Wagner. What's yours?"

"Dexter," I said. "Wait here a moment, Kurt." I hurried over to Deborah before the strain of trying to think again proved too much for the boy.

"Deborah," I said, "we may have a small break here."

"Well, it isn't your damned pot ovens," she snarled. "They're too small for a body."

"No," I said. "But the young man over there is missing a girlfriend." Her head jerked up and she rose to standing almost on point like a hunting dog. She stared over at Jessica's like-boyfriend, who looked back and shifted his weight from foot to foot. "About fucking time," she said, and she headed for him.

I looked at Angel. He shrugged and stood up. For a moment, he looked like he was going to say something. But then he shook his head, dusted off his hands, and followed Debs over to hear what Kurt had to say, leaving me really and truly all alone with my dark thoughts.

image

Just to watch; sometimes it was enough. Of course there was the sure knowledge that watching would lead inevitably to the surging heat and glorious flow of blood, the overwhelming pulse of emotions throbbing from the victims, the rising music of the ordered madness as the sacrifice flew into wonderful death…All this would come. For now, it was enough for the Watcher to observe and soak in the delicious feeling of anonymous, ultimate power. He could feel the unease of the other. That unease would grow, rising through the musical range into fear, then panic, and at last full-fledged terror. It would all come in good time. The Watcher saw the other scanning the crowd, flailing about for some clue to the source of the blossoming sense of danger that tickled at his senses. He would find nothing, of course. Not yet. Not until he determined that the time was right. Not until he had run the other into dull mindless panic. Only then would he stop watching and begin to take final action.

And until then-it was time to let the other begin to hear the music of fear. 48 of 173

ELEVEN

H ER NAME WAS JESSICA ORTEGA. SHE WAS A JUNIOR AND lived in one of the nearby residence halls. We got the room number from Kurt, and Deborah left Angel to wait at the kilns until a squad car arrived to take over.

I never knew why they were called residence halls instead of dormitories. Perhaps it was because they looked so much like hotels nowadays. There were no ivy-covered walls bedecking the hallowed halls here, the lobby had lots of glass and potted plants, and the halls were carpeted and clean and new-looking. We stopped at the door of Jessica's room. It had a small, neat card taped at eye level that read ARIEL

GOLDMAN & JESSICA ORTEGA. Below that in smaller print it said INTOXICANTS REQUIRED FOR

ENTRY. Someone had underlined "Entry" and scrawled below it YOU THINK ?

Deborah raised an eyebrow at me. "Party girls," she said.

"Somebody has to do it," I said.

She snorted and knocked on the door. There was no answer, and Debs waited a full three seconds before knocking again, much harder.

I heard a door open behind me and turned to see a reed-thin girl with short blond hair and glasses looking at us.

"They're not here," she said with clear disapproval. "For like a couple of days. First quiet I've had all semester."

"Do you know where they went?" Deborah asked her.

The girl rolled her eyes. "Must be a major kegger somewhere," she said.

"When was the last time you saw them?" Deborah said.

The girl shrugged. "With those two it's not seeing them, it's hearing them. Loud music and laughing all night, okay? Major pain in the butt for somebody who actually studies and goes to class." She shook her head, and her short hair riffled around her face. "I mean, please."

"So when was the last time you heard them?" I asked her.

She looked at me. "Are you like cops or something? What did they do now?"

"What have they done before?" Debs asked.

She sighed. "Parking tickets. I mean, lots of them. DUI once. Hey, I don't want to sound like I'm ratting them out or something."

"Would you say it's unusual for them to be away like this?" I said.

"What's unusual is if they show up to class. I don't know how they pass anything. I mean," she gave us half a smirk, "I can probably guess how they pass, but…" She shrugged. She did not share her guess with us, unless you counted her smirk.

"What classes do they have together?" Deborah asked.

The girl shrugged again and shook her head. "You'd have to check like the registrar," she said. It was not a terribly long walk to see like the registrar, especially at the pace Deborah set. I managed to keep up with her and still have enough breath to ask her a pointed question or two. "Why does it matter what classes they had together?"

Deborah made an impatient gesture with her hand. "If that girl is right, Jessica and her roommate-"

"Ariel Goldman," I said.

"Right. So if they are trading sex for good grades, that makes me want to talk to their professors." 49 of 173

On the surface, that made sense. Sex is one of the most common motives for murder, which does not seem to fit in with the fact that it is often rumored to be connected to love. But there was one small thing that did not make sense. "Why would a professor cook them and cut off their heads like that? Why not just strangle them and throw the bodies in a Dumpster?"

Deborah shook her head. "It's not important how he did it. What matters is whether he did."

"All right," I said. "And how sure are we that these two are the victims?"

"Sure enough to talk to their teachers," she said. "It's a start." We arrived at the registrar's office, and when Debs flashed her badge we were shown right in. But it was a good thirty minutes of Deborah pacing and muttering while I went through the computer records with the registrar's assistant. Jessica and Ariel were, in fact, in several of the same classes, and I printed out the names, office numbers, and home addresses of the professors. Deborah glanced at the list and nodded. "These two guys, Bukovich and Halpern, have office hours now," she said. "We can start with them." Once again Deborah and I stepped out into the muggy day for a stroll across campus.

"It's nice to be back on campus, isn't it?" I said, in my always futile effort to keep a pleasant flow of conversation going.

Deborah snorted. "What's nice is if we can get a definite ID on the bodies and maybe move a little closer to grabbing the guy who did this."

I did not think that identifying the bodies would really move us closer to identifying the killer, but I have been wrong before, and in any case police work is powered by routine and custom, and one of the proud traditions of our craft was that it was good to know the dead person's name. So I willingly trundled along with Deborah to the office building where the two professors waited.

Professor Halpern's office was on the ground floor just inside the main entrance, and before the outer door could swing shut Debs was already knocking on his door. There was no answer. Deborah tried the knob. It was locked, so she thumped on the door again with the same lack of result.

flv converter   pdf-to-jpg.org   flash-map-shop.com