“Whoa, whoa, whoa; hold up there, sunshine,” the cop said, with a hand on Burke’s shoulder.

He began to reach for his identification, reciting the usual litany. “Felipe Burke, zero-zero–”

“Yes, I know. This case is outside your scope. No admittance.”

“What in the hell–?” Burke exclaimed. “This is the location of the Ralph Morgan murder.”

The officer shrugged. “Well, it’s not much of anything now. I have specific instructions. Apparently this is being treated as a separate arson case.”

“Yes, one that coincided with the torching of six megascreens, all with the same ‘AD’ signature.”

“True,” the cop answered, “but no such mark was found on this building. If you can even call it a ‘building’ at this point. Pile of smoldering rubble and thermite residue, more like.”

Burke and Stover exchanged a dumbfounded look, and the latter decided to give it a go himself. “Larry, you know perfectly well these are all the same goddamed case.”

“Not my call. Someone seems to think a copycat could be responsible. Especially since that ‘AD’ mark has been turning up all over town. We picked up three more fucking kids who were scratching it into every exterior wall they could find, just this morning.”

“Oh, this is ridiculous…” Stover grumbled.

“I’m just doing my job, Stovy,” the other officer said with a smirk. “You know better than most how that works. You’ll have to talk to your precinct captain, or district chief. Or just go straight to a magistrate, but I doubt you’d want the bother.”

Stover sighed and nodded. “Don’t worry about it. Not your call, I know. Take care of yourself, Larry.”

As Stover walked away, the officer’s face registered the guilt he didn’t dare show to his colleague’s face. Then he saw Burke had noticed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help, Zebra,” he muttered.

Burke nodded, gave Larry a sneer and a middle finger, and headed off after Stover, away from scene.

“Think this is McMonagal’s doing?” Stover asked.

“If it is, he’s a fucking good liar,” Burke groused. “Better than I was able to catch.”

“Is that what bothers you the most?”

Burke sighed and looked back at the wreck of the First National, small, isolated pockets of which still hadn’t stopped smoking.

“Stover, tell me,” he said. “You do your job, right? I don’t mean to accuse; just asking. It’s a legit strategy.”

“Yeah? So?” the cop said, squinting.

“So. You ever run into a situation where someone didn’t want your job to get done? Maybe someone important?”

“Never yet. I never had a job that was that important,” Stover said, still trying to figure out where Burke’s questioning was going.

“And what do you think about this case?” Burke asked, lighting two cigarettes and offering one to Stover. “Important enough to make you think? What’s our strategy?”

“Hell,” Stover spat, “I haven’t been able to think about a damned thing else since Ralph Morgan. I mean, whadda we got? A couple of dead perverts and a burned-down cathouse that was trafficking kids? If I had kids I’d be dancing for fuckin’ joy. But I’ve got a job to do, helping you catch the perps and stop this from spinning out of control. Although now it looks like we’re not wanted to accomplish that, probably by someone with the power to royally fuck up my retirement plans.”

Stover took a drag on his cigarette and went on, completely unaware that he was now yelling. “And what if we uncover something even bigger? Something we can’t stop? What if spinning-out-of-control’s exactly what needs to happen here? Nobody gives a fuck about these people Outside. The boys are only good for getting shot-up in Bum-Fuck Egypt; the girls are only– ”

The lump in his throat caught up with him, and he couldn’t squeeze out another syllable. Stover, red-faced, squatted and caught his breath. Burke nodded.

“I know, buddy,” he said. “Just breathe, Stover. We’ve got work to do.”

Stover looked up at him. “What work? What do we fuckin’ do?”

Burke looked off in the distance and sighed. “From this point? Whatever we choose. For now, we’ve got two things to look into. First, try to find out who’s gonna pick up the trafficking business that First National just lost.”

“Yeah,” the officer said, standing. “Yeah.”

“Second,” Burke said with an eyebrow raised, “Larry back there slipped, and I doubt he even noticed. We know now that there was thermite used to bring down the building. It would have had to have been a lot of it, and I bet we’ll find further traces on the screens. Who’s making it? Find those answers, and… well…”

Stover nodded. “And I guess we figure out what to do after.” He took off his cap and rubbed his temples, eyes closed. “Jesus.”


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