CHAPTER FOUR - YES OR NO
Jack watched as all the color drained from Rowan’s face as the young man stared at the dagger on the seat beside him. It was as if Rowan hadn’t known it was there before he mentioned it.
Jack guessed from the lack of additional time it had taken Rowan to bring the dagger to him that the young man kept it with him constantly, but hadn’t wanted to admit that. Maybe not even to himself. Jack’s heart hurt at that thought. What pain Rowan must still be in to have his sister’s murder weapon on him at all times a decade after her murder.
“We’ll take good care of the dagger, Rowan,” Jack said gently. “You’ll get it back as soon as possible.”
“And when would that be exactly?” Rowan’s right hand hovered over the dagger, now staring at it as if it had betrayed him somehow. “And what would some low level tech at the FBI consider good care?”
That last statement was said with a touch of acid. Rowan had never suffered fools gladly and, because Rowan was so very gifted at almost everything, most people appeared like fools in comparison to him. But Rowan did pick up the dagger and then fluidly opened the door to the sportscar. Jack had to back away swiftly to avoid being hit by it.
Definitely still angry with me. Very angry, Jack realized.
Rowan might not suffer fools gladly but he didn’t knock people down. At least, he hadn’t been that way ten years ago. But Hemi had said he’d changed. Jack kept his temper though, because he knew Rowan’s anger stemmed from hurt. And Jack had done that hurt. So he deserved this.
Far more than this actually.
Rowan unfolded himself from the low vehicle with cat-like grace. Beneath the open long, black dress coat, Rowan wore a three-piece suit that was expertly tailored to his lithe frame. Despite the hour, the suit looked surprisingly fresh. Jack’s suits by the end of the day were rumpled and looked like he’d worn them for a week. But Rowan appeared as if he’d stepped out of his walk-in closet. Actually, Rowan’s closet comprised several rooms. Regardless, he was beautiful. So beautiful and Jack felt his heart constrict for an altogether different reason than before.
“Your assurances, Jack, mean little to me,” Rowan said. His hand was so tight around the dagger and the cloth underneath it that his knuckles were white. “So let me tell you what I require. I will entrust this dagger into your care for 24 hours starting now.” Rowan checked his watch, an extravagant Patek Philippe Complications with a silver, braided band and hand-engraved decoration. He nodded as he noted the time. “A visual inspection only will be done. There will be no other testing allowed unless I explicitly authorize it. Unless my restrictions are agreed to, I will not give you the dagger.”
Jack stared at Rowan. He felt a mixture of exasperation and amusement at Rowan’s precise instructions. But Rowan had always needed to control everything around him, though this was extreme.
“You know that’s not how this works,” Jack chided gently.
Rowan gave him a razor-sharp smile. “But they do, Jack. Maybe not for normal people, but they do for me. Surely, you realize that all I need to do is to contact FBI Director Lance and your little request dies altogether?”
“I realize your ability to shut this all down, Rowan, but we’re not doing this to hurt you. We’re doing this to keep you safe,” Jack pointed out, his voice dropping to a commanding growl. He was well aware of what Rowan’s wealth and influence could do, but Rowan had never used it to obstruct justice before. And never against him. “If this is the Labrys--”
“It isn’t,” Rowan snapped, his pale cheeks flaring with color at Jack’s comment about keeping him safe. That was too close to what he had said to Rowan all that time ago. But just like then, Jack meant it now.
“You haven’t even looked inside the barn, Rowan,” Hemi said hesitantly. “How can you know?”
“Hello, Hemi. I’m sorry for not greeting you properly.” Rowan swallowed and adjusted his coat, looking slightly uncomfortable.
“No problem, Rowan. This is a hard night,” Hemi said as he scrubbed a hand over the back of his head.
“Yes, it is at that.” Rowan drew in a deep breath. “As to how I know that without looking in the barn, my nose tells me that it isn’t. Or likely isn’t. There’s no smell of burning flesh. That’s the coup de gras of the Labrys’ process to banish the Dark One. Burning the body. Don’t you recall?”
Jack’s stomach flipped. At that moment, he could smell Bella’s burning flesh in his nostrils. Rich, raw, like cooking pork over an open wood fire. It had likely been more than just hers. All of the Labrys’ members' flesh had burned and crisped. Their cloaks and hoods lit up like wicks. He shook himself to stop the images from piling up like a mountain of corpses.
He didn’t want to say what he did next, but he had to, “We know that they set Bella on fire, but it was never clear if that was a part of the ceremony or a desperate act to stop the FBI from understanding what they were doing.”
Rowan’s mouth opened, perhaps to object, but he, surprisingly, nodded curtly. “You’re correct. However, fire is believed to purify in many cultures and religions. It would be consistent for the Labrys to believe this. Yet the burning was never confirmed by my mother. But, then again, she claimed that all of the Labrys died in that self-same fire. So her words or silence are not to be believed.”
“There hasn’t been any Labrys’ activity since you were attacked,” Hemi said, eyes narrowing in confusion. “Maybe she wasn’t lying about that.”
Jack studied Rowan then. The young man had gone still for a moment. Just a moment, but it was enough for Jack to know that whatever Rowan was about to say was a lie.
“Until potentially now.” Rowan shrugged.
So he knows about some activity before now. What kind? When? How? And why has he not reported it?
But Jack already knew why. Rowan had always made it perfectly clear that he was going to take out any Labrys members himself. No chance for a trial. No punishment in a jail cell or a mental institution. Rowan had believed the danger the Labrys posed could not be contained that way.
“They’re true believers, Jack. Zealots. Going to jail is nothing to them!” Rowan had cried. One of his hands had sliced through the air. His chest had heaved with emotion. “Their poison can seep out of prison cells, infect fellow prisoners, and they get out to continue the cycle even if the Labrys member remains locked up. Don’t you remember what Dr. Anand told us about my mother? They have to ensure that she has new staff almost continuously because she influences anyone who is with her too long.”
Jack had rubbed his chin and grimaced. “Wasn’t that a trait that she claimed Dark Ones had? To influence others to do evil?”
“Yes, but people like her project what they do on others,” Rowan had explained. “You have to break the chain of transmission, Jack. Permanently. Completely. Stamp them out. Burn them to the ground. And salt the earth wherever they’ve been.”
So had Rowan been doing that? If he had, surely there would have been evidence of it. Jack prayed that had not been going on. Yet he understood that position. Justice sometimes did not come. And the innocent always paid for it.
“Well, let’s look inside together. That will answer some questions hopefully,” Jack suggested.
Rowan shut the door to the car and turned towards the bar. It was lit up almost dramatically by the klieg lights, looking more like a movie set instead of an old barn in the middle of nowhere. The men and women in the Tyvek suits added yet another layer of unreality.
Rowan took a step towards the barn. Jack gently put a hand on his left shoulder. Rowan spun around so fast that Jack jerked back. Rowan’s eyes were wide and his nostrils flared. He had dropped into a fighting stance. He stared at Jack’s hand that was still raised between them. Realizing he had overreacted to the touch, Rowan slowly unfolded himself and glared at Jack.
This is bad. He’s on a hair trigger. He doesn’t trust anyone. He’s ready to fight.
“What?” Rowan snapped. His cheeks alternately flushed then paled. “What do you want, Jack? I thought we were heading into the barn.”
“The dagger. Since our 24 hours have already started, I’d like to get it into a lowly tech’s hands before we go into the barn,” Jack responded softly.
Rowan reluctantly brought the dagger up between them. Jack took it carefully, almost reverently. He swore that he could feel the dagger’s chill metal through the cloth.
“I’ll get that into an evidence bag and make sure the tech’s know about the limitations,” Hemi offered. “You take Rowan into the barn. Hopefully, we can be done before the press shows up.”
Rowan’s head snapped toward the road. It was still clear, but any moment, headlights could start streaming down the road. Television trucks. News reporters.
“Remember the conditions, Hemi. Twenty-four hours. Visual inspection only.” Rowan turned on his heel and headed for the barn.
Hemi jerked his head after Rowan. “You better go on, Jack. He’s on a mission.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Jack growled.
“Rowan’s always prickliest when he’s feeling fragile. That’s what you always said,” Hemi reminded him.
Jack grimaced. “You’re right.”
“Whether this is the Labrys or not, this is all bad for him, Jack,” Hemi said. “He knows that. And… and he’s got to face you.”
Jack’s shoulders curled forward. “I understand, Hemi. Thanks, brother.”
He thumped Hemi’s massive shoulder and jogged after Rowan’s slender form.
Rowan had already gotten to the barn door. He was sliding on white footies over his shoes. Jack saw that the techs had already cleared a path for them to get to the body. Jack hurriedly put footies on too, but Rowan wasn’t rushing inside. Instead, he was surveying the surrounding area. Jack glanced out too.
There wasn’t much to see. Just night-darkened, fallow fields. The nearest home was over a mile away. It’s lights were faint pinpricks of yellow light over the snowy fields. In summer, the corn would have been so tall that not even Hemi would have been able to see over it. But now with the fields frozen and dead they could truly realize how isolated this place was.
“Who owns the barn?” Rowan asked.
His voice was somehow so unexpected that Jack twitched. He turned his head and found Rowan incredibly close to him. So close that he felt the other man’s body heat. A memory of putting his hands on Rowan’s taut waist and pulling that lithe form against his own had Jack’s pulse quickening and his cock coming alive.
“No one local. A corporation that owns most of the land here. Leases it out to nearby farms,” Jack answered.
“Well, it’s certainly isolated enough that any screams would not have been heard,” Rowan said and pursed his lips as if this was just a fact to be written down and tallied. “I’m guessing our killer knew this place. It wasn’t random.”
“No, it’s not exactly on any map and I can’t imagine scouting out a location with someone tied up in your trunk,” Jack admitted.
“There are few people out here. Strangers likely would have noticed. Strange vehicles would have stood out. I would check with all the neighbors to find out if they noticed anyone or anything out of the ordinary. Not just recently, but for the last few months,” Rowan mused then blinked and focused on Jack. He took a step back as if he hadn’t been aware how close he’d moved towards him. “Not that you need me to tell you how to do your job.”
“No, but I welcome any thoughts you have,” Jack said evenly.
He had already ordered agents to interview all of the locals. But still it felt good to work with Rowan instead of against him.
A half smile curled Rowan’s lips. “Good to know that you haven’t got set in your ways.”
“I strive to keep an open mind,” Jack said.
Rowan’s expression soured. “About your work, I’m sure.”
Jack opened his mouth to answer “no” but Rowan was already turning and walking inside of the barn. The techs hand marked out a two-foot wide path that had already been searched and was safe for them to walk on to the body.
Rowan moved lightly to the corpse without any hesitation. He stood practically next to it and stared down. Jack forced himself to look down as well. He never just saw a body, but a person. He imagined every injury they received, because it was important to understand not just how much they had suffered before they died, but what the perpetrator was capable of.
“The victim appears to be late twenties. White, male, circumcised,” Rowan ticked off. “He was handsome.”
Jack’s eyes had been latched onto the labyrinth design on the young man’s chest. It was so like what was on Rowan’s. But he dragged the eyes to the victim’s face. The body was lean. The face was clean cut with a shock of black hair, dark brows and blue eyes. The lips were parted, showing a snippet of teeth, as if uttering a startled “oh”.
“The gaze is towards the heavens.” Rowan looked up at the barn’s ceiling. “Look. There’s a hole in the roof right above his head. A straight shot. I would have someone go up there and find out if it's new.”
“You mean the killer wanted his victim to see the stars as he carved him up?” Jack’s voice was heavy with disgust.
“Possibly. Likely. Notice the placement of the body. How it’s not quite centered.” Rowan gestured to the width of the barn. “The body was placed precisely so the opening is above his head.”
The interior was empty except for a scattering of old hay and a few rusty farm implements that looked to have been forgotten by a long ago owner. All of those implements would be tested to see if they played any role in the young man’s death. But the dagger--the twin of Rowan’s in his estimation--that was plunged into the victim’s heart was likely the only murder weapon.
“This is different than what happened to you and your sister,” Jack pointed out. “They took you underground. There was no light… no sky…”
“Which is a big sign that this murder is nothing more than a copycat,” Rowan answered with a negligible wave of his hand.
Jack wanted to object, to say, “But what about the dagger?”
Yet he kept silent. Rowan had always been orderly in his thinking. He would have noticed the dagger too, obviously. But he was still cataloging the scene and coming up with his conclusions. Jack might think that Rowan couldn’t be objective about this crime scene, but neither could he or Hemi fully either. Rowan though wasn’t showing as much of an emotional reaction as either he or Hemi had upon seeing the body.
“The Labrys’ sole goal in killing is to trap the Dark One in the current body, to not let it escape to infest another form,” Rowan explained, as much to himself seemingly as Jack. “So the murders were done in places where it was tight. Claustrophobic. Not somewhere the victim could see the sky. That was a way for the Dark One to escape.”
“But it was always the labyrinth they carved on the victim’s chest that truly kept the Dark One from leaving, wasn’t it?” Jack asked.
Rowan got down on his haunches and studied the circular carving. It spread over three-quarters of the young man’s chest and wrapped around his side almost to his back. The cuts appeared to be half an inch deep in most places. Blood had coursed down the victim’s sides, making it appear he was wearing a red shirt. All this blood meant that the victim had been alive when it was done.
“Yes, so maybe…” Rowan chewed his cheek. “I can judge this two ways. The first way is that this person is a copycat, who doesn’t truly understand the psychology of the Labrys, but has desires of their own that they must satisfy. Having their victim look up at the sky, or having a being in the sky look down upon their work matters to them.”
“The second way?” Jack asked.
“That this is a Labrys’ member who wanted to taunt the Dark One. To show them freedom that they could not reach as their form was killed,” Rowan said, standing up and brushing his hands upon his knees.
“The design of the labyrinth is the same as yours, I believe,” Jack said softly.
Rowan gave a brief nod. “Except mine is missing this part.” He indicated the fourth quadrant of the labyrinth on the young man’s lower torso. “But that is yet another mark against it being a true Labrys killing.”
Rowan turned toward him. His shoes made a faint scraping sound on the barn’s floor. He was so near that Jack could see the flecks of amber in his green eyes. “Because the labyrinth on my sister’s chest was different from mine.”
“And a copycat killer would have known yours because of the leaked medical records?” Jack stated more than asked and ran a hand through his thick hair at Rowan’s nod.
“I don’t know what the different labyrinths mean. I did try and question my mother about it, but got little in the way of answers from her,” Rowan answered.
Jack remembered the dozens of times he had taken Rowan to the asylum to speak to his mother. To interrogate her really. It had always led to Rowan being tense and untouchable for hours afterwards. But then it would also lead to the most explosive sex between them as if Rowan wanted to physically merge their bodies together. Again, Jack felt heat course through him as those forbidden memories of their bodies joining and pulling apart flooded his mind.
“I assume you have no idea who the victim is?” Rowan asked and there was the faintest dip in his voice as if he knew where Jack’s mind had gone. Maybe he had gone there too.
Jack shook his head, not trusting his voice at that moment.
Not moving away from him, Rowan turned his head to sweep over the interior of the barn. “No clothes. No ID. No footprints. In fact, it looks rather too clean here. It’s likely been swept. At least around the body. Nice and neat.”
Rowan was looking at him again and Jack had to swallow hard to clear the emotions that wanted to creep up his throat. Desire. Need. Obsession. They surfaced so easily as if just waiting to pop up. Maybe they had been. Ten years and the wounds of leaving Rowan were so fresh that he swore he tasted copper in his throat.
“This doesn’t feel right to me, Jack,” Rowan said simply. “Though the location is remote, it's too exposed. The body should have been burned and, afterwards, it should have been removed. Nothing should have remained for us to find. How did you find it by the way?”
“An anonymous tip to the sheriff. The sheriff called us. Thankfully, she realized what this might be,” Jack said.
“Everyone who was alive back then would recognize it,” Rowan said with a touch of bitterness. “Everyone who studies true crime would.”
What else was there to say? There had been a media feeding frenzy. Everything and anything about Rowan, his family, the cult, all of it had been exposed. It had been a second assault. Would it happen again?
“What about the dagger, Rowan?” Jack finally asked.
Rowan’s gaze lowered to the dagger’s hilt that stuck out from the body. “It looks similar. I’ll give you that.”
“It’s the same.”
Rowan’s head snapped up to his. “I would know better than anyone.”
“You don’t want to see it,” Jack said. The words tumbled out.
“I don’t want to see it?” Rowan’s eyes narrowed and his voice dipped. This was dangerous. Rowan’s temper was like that of a viper’s.
Jack knew he should stop, but he didn’t. He held up a hand as if to stop Rowan’s temper from snapping out at him.
“I know what you’ve said, how much you want answers, and that maybe you even want your father to be alive--”
“Yes, so I could kill him myself!” Rowan hissed. “You think I have feelings for my parents other than hate and loathing?”
“They’re your parents,” Jack said, “and until that day, you loved them and they seemed to love you. If this is a Labrys killing then it all begins again. All the love and hate and fear and pain. It’ll all be back. Front and center. No one would blame you for not wanting that again. For wanting the past to stay past.”
Rowan let out a laugh that caused a chill to run down Jack’s spine. “You really think it ever hasn’t been? God, Jack, between the two of us, there’s only one who is deceiving himself.”
Rowan shouldered past Jack and strode towards the barn’s exit. But when he got there, he abruptly stopped and shrank back inside. Lights--bright lights from cameras--had illuminated the side of his face for a moment.
The press were here.