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The City Beneath

The City Beneath

by Melody Johnson


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ISBN-13: 9781601834225
Publisher: Lyrical Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 258
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

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The City Beneath

A Night Blood Novel

By Melody Johnson


Copyright © 2015 Melody Johnson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60183-422-5


Last Monday

I nearly limped right past him, clouded by my own physical pain and the churning unease in my gut, but the rattling hiss that growled from the alley tripped my interest. I stopped walking.

The night was cool and quiet in the aftermath of sirens and flashing lights. My scalp tingled in response to the noise emanating from the alley, and I thought of all the things I should do: I should return to the main crime scene, I should finish my interviews, I should write my story and submit it to print like a good, reliable, by-the-book reporter. The hiss rattled from the alley again, but as I'd never been one to leave questions unanswered, I slipped a can of pepper spray from my brown leather, cross-body satchel and sidestepped into the alley to find the source of the noise.

What I found was a man, and the rattling hiss was his struggling, gurgling, uneven breathing. His entire body was ravaged by third-degree burns. Tucked into a shadowed alley between two buildings on the corner of Farragut Road and East 40th, he was crouched down as if warding off an attacker—perhaps in his case a flamethrower—and not moving. I cringed, thinking about the injury that was blocking his throat to produce such a horrible rattling. Maybe he was crying. Maybe he was just trying to breathe. I couldn't decipher his expression because his burns were so devastating. His face wasn't really a face anymore beyond the rough distinctions of a lump for a nose and a hole for a mouth. The unease churning in my gut all night bottomed out. I wouldn't have imagined that someone so injured could still breathe.

Trading the pepper spray for my cell phone, I dialed for Detective Greta Wahl.

"Wahl here." She answered on the fifth ring, just before I suspected my call would transfer to voice mail. "I already gave you a statement, DiRocco. Let the other sharks have a bite, will you?"

"I found another victim, G," I said without preamble.

"Alive? Where?" Greta asked, snapping from friend to detective instantly.

"A block up Farragut. He's still breathing, but he's different from the others. No bites." I swallowed the bile that clogged my throat like hot ash. "His entire body is burned to charcoal."

"Is he wearing a necklace, like the ones from last week? They were gold with a wolf pendant."

"I remember," I said. "And no, he's not wearing a necklace. And he's not shot execution-style like those victims, either. He's burned. This is probably a different case altogether."

Greta sighed. "Stay with him. I'll send a paramedic to you ASAP. It might be a few minutes, though. We've still got our seven victims being stabilized here."

"Got it. We'll be waiting." I hesitated a fraction of a second before asking, "Any one of our victims talking yet?"

"The few that still have throats haven't said a word. They're all in shock. It's not pretty down here, DiRocco."

"I know. Keep me posted, and send Nathan to me if you can."

"Will do," Greta said.

I ended the call and sat gingerly on the ground next to the man to offer what comfort I could and to give my arthritic hip the rest it needed. Injuries were supposed to heal with time, but the scar buildup on mine had only increased in the five years since I'd taken a bullet. The first stakeout of my career had set a high standard for my field performance, but it had also left a permanent reminder to listen to my gut. My hip ached on a regular basis, and lately, it would click and grind when put to excess use. After an entire day on my feet, interviewing officers and tracking down witnesses, my activities had apparently escalated way past excess.

Once I settled on the pavement, I held the man's left elbow—one of two visible patches of skin not blackened or blistered—and felt an overwhelming, humbling gratitude, no matter my past injuries or current residual pain, that none of these victims had been me.

According to the brief interview I'd snagged earlier in the night from Detective Wahl, my sometimes informant and longtime friend, seven other victims were still alive at Paerdegat Park out of the twelve or so they'd been able to identify. Most of them were in critical condition. I hoped Greta could send one of the paramedics here soon, and preferably my brother, Nathan, because he wouldn't tip my competition. If the victim's harsh, wheezing gasps were any indication, however, sooner rather than later might not even matter. I'd seen a lot of carnage at varying crime scenes through the years, but I'd never reported a recovery from injuries this severe.

My part-time nemesis and full-time boss, Carter Bellissimo, would chew my ass out for stepping away from the scene to comfort one of the victims. I'd have to race back to the paper, sift through my recorded interviews for quotes, slap the copy together, and make it to press before distribution. We'd be working against the wall, as usual, but I'd always adored the race and the adrenaline of breaking news. Meredith Drake, my photographer and sister (in love if not by blood or in-law), thought I was a little sick to enjoy the taste of only just making the wire. She took pleasure in lazily gazing at the world through her viewfinder. Nights like tonight, when the world was writhing and in pieces, I'd rather feel the pressure to write on deadline than capture a close-up of one of those ragged, bloody bite marks.

The victim next to me made another rattling hiss, the same agonized noise he'd been making with every few breaths. He wasn't visibly bitten like the other victims, but his wounds looked wholly more devastating. The only other body part spared from the burns was the left half of his chin, which, ironically enough, bore an old, healed scar. The scar was thin and pink, and it puckered slightly. It tore through his lower lip in a downward pull, and continued diagonally over his chin where it disappeared into the wreckage of his burned flesh.

A paramedic finally jogged to us from around the block, but I didn't recognize him. He was tall and lanky and very young looking—even younger looking than Nathan, which was hard to accomplish—but thanks to Nathan, I knew all too well that young looking didn't translate to incapable.

As the paramedic approached, he absorbed the scene; his eyes flashed over the victim's body and his surroundings, and eventually, his gaze locked on my hand holding the victim's elbow. I resisted the urge to pull my hand away.

"Detective Wahl said you called in a burn victim." The paramedic snapped on a pair of latex gloves.

I nodded. "Yes, that's what it looks like."

The paramedic knelt next to us, hovered over the victim with his ear over the man's mouth, and trained his eyes on the man's chest. He pressed two fingers on his charred neck. I winced. After about fifteen seconds of concentration, the paramedic straightened and sat back on his haunches.

"What the hell is this?" he asked. He didn't make any moves toward actually opening his equipment case. "We have live victims that need tending at the main crime scene."

I didn't like his tone, and on a normal night, I would react with a blast of attitude. My short-person syndrome wasn't becoming any milder through the years. If anything, turning thirty had completely eliminated my ability to tolerate most people. But this wasn't a normal night, so I played nice and swallowed my temper.

"Yes. Greta did mention that you were busy," I responded civilly. "I appreciate you coming away from the main crime scene to tend to this victim."

The paramedic shook his head. "This man's dead. You've got to return to the police barrier with the rest of the media."

The anger I'd doused flared in a sunburst. I took a deep breath against the words I wanted to say and spoke through clenched teeth, "This man is still breathing, and I'm farther behind the police barrier than any of the other reporters. I think I'll stay where I am."

"You know the drill, Miss ..."

The paramedic waited for me to finish his sentence, but I just stared right back. Let him finish his own damn sentences.

He cleared his throat. "Look, I'm needed back at the scene, so if this is all you called me here for, I—"

"Are you going to help this man or not?" I finally snapped.

The paramedic stared at me like I was insane. "I told you; this man is dead."

I blinked at him and then down at the man whose elbow I was still holding. After a moment of silence, I heard it—a faint rattling exhale from a man who didn't have a nose to exhale with anymore. I shook my head. "He's been making noises. He's struggling to breathe."

The paramedic crouched to listen again with his ear over the man's mouth. He placed his index and middle fingers over the man's raw neck for a second time, but after another fifteen seconds of concentration, the paramedic shook his head. "The man is dead. He's probably been dead since before you found him."

"No, I've heard the noises. It's like a strained exhale that—"

The paramedic straightened away from the victim and placed his hand on my shoulder. "They do that sometimes."

I narrowed my eyes on his hand, and he pulled away.

"This man does not have a pulse," he said, sounding defensive. "He's dead."

I shifted my glare to the paramedic's face, but the man didn't so much as squirm. "He's dead," I repeated.

The paramedic nodded.

A rattle hissed from the man's chest again, louder than before. He didn't sound dead. He sounded in pain.

"Listen, I've got to get back to the scene, and I suggest you do the same before the police extend their boundaries and catch you tampering with their evidence."

I pursed my lips. "No problem. Where do we take him?"

"We're saving cleanup for the day shift," he said, already walking away. "We've got to get the wounded to medical as fast as possible, which means leaving the bodies for later, once the police finish processing the scene."

"Wonderful," I muttered, not appeased in the least. My story needed to be submitted by midnight; I had less than two hours until the paper was put to bed. It felt wrong to just leave, but deadlines were deadlines. I squeezed the man's elbow gently before letting go. I hoped the paramedic was right. I hoped the man was dead long before I stumbled upon him, and that he'd found a better place than this.

The man's chest rattled.

I stared at the man, hard. He'd been pronounced dead, and I had a story to write. That alone should have been enough to send me on my way, but staring at the scar on his chin, at the proof of a life lived before this burned hell, I couldn't simply leave him the way I'd found him.

I texted Nathan to bring me a backboard, and he appeared around the corner a few minutes later. His thick black hair was straight and identical to mine except for the cut. Where mine hung past my shoulders and was usually yanked back in a high ponytail, Nathan's was close-cropped at the edges and longer toward the top in a faux hawk. His nose ring glinted in the streetlight as he approached.

"That was fast," I commented.

"You've never texted me at a crime scene before, Cass, and I've never seen you walk away before Meredith was done with her shots. Today you did both. You're damn right I came fast." Nathan frowned. "Is it your hip again?"

"No," I said, which wasn't a complete lie. I'd left the scene because of my hip and my attitude, but I'd stayed away because of the man. "How is it down there?"

"Not good. Have you spoken to Detective Wahl?"

"Yeah, Greta and I had a little chat. If she thought an animal attack in the middle of Brooklyn was crazy, she won't have a clue what to make of him," I said, pointing to the man between us.

Nathan whistled. "None of the other victims were burned. Does he have any animal bites?"

"Not that I could tell, but I need you to take a look. The other paramedic wouldn't treat him, and he's still breathing, Nathan."

He frowned. "I thought that Donavan pronounced him dead."

"That's Donavan? Your partner?" I asked. At Nathan's nod, I snorted. "Donavan can't hear a pulse, but I—"

"If he doesn't have a pulse, then he's not breathing," Nathan said flatly.

"I can hear him breathing," I insisted stubbornly.

Nathan stared at me, hard. I knew that look. He was checking my pupils and watching my reaction, calculating the possibility that I was high. I hadn't abused painkillers in four years, and had, in fact, gritted through my hip pain during occasions when a Percocet was probably necessary because I never wanted to slip down that steep spiral again.

I gave him the look right back, annoyed that even after all this time, even after everything I'd accomplished, my brother was the one who still couldn't forget.

Nathan shook his head glumly and laid the board next to the man. "You know what's more ridiculous than checking the respiration of a man without a pulse?"

I shook my head, knowing he'd tell me with or without my encouragement.

"A trial for whoever is responsible for tonight."

I rubbed my eyes, beyond caring if my eyeliner was smudged to hell if I had to listen to Nathan's vigilante speech again. "Everyone deserves a defense. Everyone, no matter what they've done, deserves to tell their side of the story."

"You think there's another side to this story besides insane hate and violence?" Nathan asked, incredulous. "Someone should hunt these psychos down and tear off their limbs. Disembowel them like they tortured these victims." He glanced at the man between us. "Light them on fire."

"Murder does not justify murder."

"The hell it doesn't."

"Killing a monster isn't justice, Nathan. It only makes you a monster, too." I sighed. "Will you please check his pulse a second time? If you're killing anyone right now, it's me."

Nathan rolled his eyes.

"I know you don't believe me, which is why you're stalling, but like you said, I've never texted you at a crime scene before. I'm only asking for this one favor." I locked my gaze on his. "Please."

Nathan sighed heavily, but nevertheless, he squatted next to the man and pressed his ear to his chest. "If I had the opportunity to confront the people responsible for crimes like this, I wouldn't wait for them to confess their side of the story. I'd make damn sure they never—"

The man exhaled in a high, rattling hiss.

Nathan met my gaze, his eyes rounded with shock. "Oh my God."

"You heard it?" I asked, astounded.

Nathan bounded to his feet and unbuckled the backboard straps.

"I told you he was breathing. I told you that—"

"Fuck, don't just stand there. Help me board him!"

I ignored my hip and helped Nathan clip the man onto the backboard.

"As much as I hate to say it, I can't help you carry him—"


I looked up from the backboard straps and groaned. Donavan was jogging toward us, and if the frown creasing his brow was any indication, he had a temper to rival mine.

"What do you think you're doing? The police haven't processed this scene yet. You can't just—"

Nathan stood to face Donavan, and I finished snapping the buckles on my own.

"He's still breathing," Nathan whispered hotly.

Donavan paused, midrant. "What are you playing at?"

"You take his head. If we can get him back to the ambulance, maybe—"

"He's dead," Donavan said, shocked. "Why would we—"

"No, he's not." Nathan said. "We've wasted enough time, time we could've spent treating him. Help me get him back to the ambulance."

Donavan shook his head. "You're crazy. I checked him myself.

He's been dead for a while, and I—"

Nathan leaned closer, so I had to strain to hear his next words. "Mistakes happen. Sometimes people notice and sometimes people don't. Cassidy and I noticed, but if you help me get him back to the ambulance, no one else has to."

Donavan stared back at Nathan, shock and anger giving way to fear as he realized that Nathan was serious. He looked down at me. I stared back at him, trying to convey that my mouth was a steel trap, but mostly, I felt wary. He looked back at Nathan, and I knew Nathan's expression as well as my own reflection. Even three years my junior, our shared grief and bitterness could line Nathan's face with an identical aged determination.

"He didn't have a pulse," Donavan whispered, but he bent in front of me and gripped the head of the backboard anyway.

Nathan and Donavan hoisted the man between them, and an ambulance met them curbside just as they turned the corner. I watched as the man was packed into its rear, locked in tight, and transported to the hospital in full lights and sirens. I'd originally wanted to achieve some distance from the gore and death—reminders of my parents that seemed everywhere lately—but as I limped back to the main crime scene, both my hip and my spirits only felt more burdened.

Meredith and I made print with an entire fifteen minutes to spare. The article flew from my fingers in hyperdrive, as was usual when faced with a perilously approaching deadline. I included a statement from Greta about the animalistic savagery of the attack, and Meredith found a shot of what nearly looked like a human bite had it not been so inhumanly wide or deep. The eyeteeth broke through the victim's skin, and blood pooled in the center of each impression.


Excerpted from The City Beneath by Melody Johnson. Copyright © 2015 Melody Johnson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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