It was well past dark by the time he finally located the old abandoned Sweeney brewery. Knowing that it was near Kingsbury and on the shore of the Cuyahoga still left a lot of territory to cover. Most of the buildings in this area were worn out or shut down. Still, Ness reminded himself, he was a trained investigator. Even if he wasn’t in the best possible condition, some things worked instinctively. He tracked it down and confirmed that he was right with a quick phone call.
He considered calling for more officers, but talked himself out of it. It was clear now that there was a leak. Someone was feeding information to the press. Even after he dramatically purged the police department, there was still someone spitting out the skinny on his activities, his hotel room interrogation, the fire warden raids in the Kingsbury neighborhood. He couldn’t take the risk of tipping off the killer-or feeding the press information about yet another failure.
He would go in alone.
He parked well away from the brewery and ran the distance. If he drove anywhere near the brewery itself, anyone inside would hear. It was ridiculously quiet out here, well away from the noise and smoke of the city. A perfect place for someone whose work required privacy.
Slowly he approached the building, careful to make his footfalls light. The gravel on the ground could easily make more noise than he wanted. The windows were all on the upper level and they were indeed boarded up. It was impossible to see inside at any angle, impossible even to tell whether there was a light burning.
On the side facing the river, he found a sliding door unlocked.
Slowly, he depressed the hammer and felt it release. He pushed the door along its runners, slowly, silently. The door did not squeak; it barely made any sound at all.
He entered a dark, cavernous room. The first thing he noticed was the tremendous stench, intense and almost overpowering. The second thing he noticed was that he could not see, not at all, not even an inch in front of himself, nothing. Thank heaven he’d thought to bring a flashlight. He shone it into the bleak darkness. Cavernous wasn’t enough-the room was huge. Once, it had undoubtedly held all kinds of brewing devices, vats and casks and fermenting equipment. He felt disoriented, and it wasn’t simply because of his inability to see anything that wasn’t directly in front of his light. The darkness was so pervasive it took him more than a few moments to figure out what was wrong.
The floor was slanted.
Ness knew why. His experience chasing down rumrunners had given him more than a little information about how alcoholic beverages came to be. The floor was sloped to simplify drainage. He walked to the river side of the room and found what he expected-a removable iron grating covering a tunnel. The tunnel undoubtedly led to the river. A simple and efficient way for a brewer to dispose of waste byproducts.
A simple and efficient way for a killer to get corpses into the river, without any possibility of being seen.
Enough space to do his twisted work. The privacy he required. A way to rinse away the evidence. And when he desired it, a way to dispose of his corpses. Perfect.
Ness knelt down and examined the sloped floor. He found something else with which his years in law enforcement had made him all too familiar. The dark stains were everywhere, and there were splatter patterns on the walls.
Blood. So much blood. More than a single body could possibly contain. More than a dozen bodies could contain. Even if the killer rinsed most of it into the river, the stains remained, seeping into the wooden-plank floor, leaving its indelible reminder of all the lives lost in this sick laboratory.
Ness followed the blood trail to the center of the room, where the stains were darkest and thickest. There were bits of… debris, for want of a better description. Everywhere. Human flesh. Chips of bone.
He hesitantly put a finger down in the center of the largest stain. The blood was still sticky. Fresh.
This was where they had been killed, all of them, perhaps more than he could imagine.
Where was the table? He stood, scanning the room with his light. Dr. Pearce had speculated that the killer pinned the victims down to some sort of chopping block before he decapitated them. But there was nothing in the room, no furniture of any kind, nothing but the smell of blood and rotting flesh and death.
Had the killer moved on? Found another place to operate?
Or had the building been rearranged? Had he changed his operation, found a more efficient or satisfying way to kill? Or perhaps, fixed up the place for company.
Ness’s throat went dry. He needed a drink, any kind of drink. Was it too late to reconsider calling for assistance?
Somewhere farther inside the building, he heard movement.
The short hairs on the back of Ness’s neck stood at attention.
There was a door on the opposite wall, one that undoubtedly led farther into the building. It was a regular door, with a knob, and clear space beneath.
No light was visible beneath the door.
Creeping forward as quietly as possible, Ness crossed the room. He took the doorknob in his hand and gently turned it to the right.
The door opened.
Ness stood behind the door, following standard Treasury agent procedure. Despite the apparent darkness, it was always possible there was someone in that room. He would not make a target of himself.
Nothing happened. But Ness heard the tiniest sound, so quiet it was almost not there at all. Muffled. Indistinct. Were there words? Was it just a humming noise? The wind whistling through a crack in a window?
A floorboard creaked.
Ness put away the flashlight and took his weapon out of its holster. He always preferred to avoid guns. Even when rousting mobsters and rumrunners, even though he was a crack shot, he almost never drew his weapon. Led to more trouble than good, he thought.
This time his gun was going into that room first.
Back against the door, he swung through the opening, his weapon at the ready. He looked left, looked right, saw nothing. The stygian darkness permeated this room just as it had the last. He could see nothing. But there was still that noise…
Slowly, cautiously, he put away the gun, reached for his flashlight, and shone it into the center of the room.
There was a body, a body bound and gagged. Another victim.
Wait-no. He detected movement, squirming. It was hard to see clearly, but that body was still alive. That was a living, breathing person, someone he might still be able to save.
He took three steps forward before he could see clearly enough to make the identification.
Her eyes went wide as soon as she saw him. She rocked back and forth, straining against her restraints. Was she trying to tell him something?
“Sweetheart. My God, what happened?” He grabbed the gag in her mouth and pulled it down to her neck. “How did-”
“Look out!” Edna screamed, shattering the darkness and sending shivers down his spine. “Behind you!”
The blow struck him on the back of the head, hard, delivered by some kind of blunt instrument wielded by someone with enormous strength.
He dropped to the floor, his head aching, confused, disoriented. He rolled over onto his back, squirming.
He saw that hideous face again. Hovering over him. Smiling.
“I thought you’d never get here,” he said, and then he swung the axe handle once again, and then for Ness the world became entirely black, and then it was nothing at all.