Today's Reading

The last week in March—officially springtime—but it was already dark, and a sleety rain spattered the windscreen as they turned right, joining a slow-moving stream of commuters heading home. The first mile along the riverfront was travel-brochure glossy, lit in a carefully chosen palette of blues, orange, and gold. But just past the honey-lit façade of the Liver Buildings, the road darkened, their view of the water barred by a fifteen-foot wall. A mile farther on, Ruth glanced across at her boss; his eyes were closed.

"It must be coming up soon," she said.

Detective Chief Inspector Carver checked his smartphone and directed her into a narrow, unlit street, hemmed in on both sides by crumbling nineteenth-century light-industry units. A large storage warehouse loomed at the easterly end. Crossing a busy arterial road, they dipped down into Stone Street. A brand-new commercial unit took up a sizable plot on the corner, the rest was a huddle of ancient lockups in danger of collapse. They trundled toward a railway arch, passing an abandoned car. Every window had been smashed, the wheels stolen, the roof caved in by a chunk of concrete, no doubt dumped off the railway bridge.

"You sure about this?" she said.

He frowned. "Yes."

"Any clue what we're looking for?"

"The message said follow the lights."

Ruth noticed the slight evasiveness in his words. Carver didn't want to preempt the facts, but he was expecting something bad. She ducked her head, trying to squint up at the buildings, but the street was too narrow to see beyond the ground floor, and sleet blurred the view. "I'll have to park," she said, glad she'd used a fleet car—and one of the low-end models, too. Even so, she rolled forward until they were under the railway arch. No point in taking chances.

They walked on for twenty yards, collars turned up against a biting northeasterly.

"See that?" Carver asked.

"I see it," Ruth said.

Colored lights pulsed up ahead.

Twenty yards on, they came upon a three-story 1960s commercial building. Set back from the road behind aluminum fencing, it was braced by scaffolding and swathed in plastic and tarps. Behind the sheeting, the lights phased from red to green, through blue, to purple. On the first stage of scaffolding, a twelve-by-ten-foot section of tarp had been cut down to reveal a large wooden packing crate, open at the front. Inside the crate, they saw that the source of the light was a continuous strip of colored LEDs. Suspended from thin wires attached to the roof of the casing, three gleaming disks of plexiglass twisted in the wind.

"Gate's open," Ruth said.

They moved inside the perimeter fence and took a closer look.

Embedded in each disk was a flat, oval shape, convoluted at the outer edges, with a void shaped like a cat snout in the center.

Carver said, "Jesus—is that—?"

"Sections of brain—human, I think."

"Is it real?"

"I don't know..." Lake blinked against the disorientating flicker of the lights and the icy sting of sleet. The sections looked ominously organic. "Yeah," she said. "I think it's real."

Carver called out, announcing their presence. No reply. He started toward a stepladder at the end of the scaffolding.

"Greg," Ruth said.

His shoulders tensed and he turned a little too loosely, compensating with a slight sideways step to right himself. "I'm fine," he said.

That was debatable, but she let it go. "If it 'is' real, the victim is way past help," she said. "We need to preserve the scene."

The tension in his shoulders relaxed a little. "Okay."

While Carver called in Scientific Support, Ruth Lake headed back to the car to pick up a roll of crime scene tape. Ahead, a figure appeared out of the shadows of the railway arch and Ruth felt a prickle of unease. This was the kind of street that would be quiet even during the day; at night, it became a no-man's-land, where only the foolhardy and the wicked would venture. Her first thought was a local scally, sizing up their car for salable items to scavenge.

"Police," she yelled. A second figure joined the first, then another. She glanced over her shoulder toward the easterly end of the street. Five or six were heading toward her from that direction. Two more rounded the corner, and Ruth called to Carver. "Boss, you might want to draft in some uniforms. We've got company."

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