Authors: Anthony Flacco
for the magic of believing
I am most grateful for
The Last Nightingale
to be among the works that Mortalis, as a new imprint, has selected for its publication list. The work done there in preparing this book for publication has proved their intention to make Mortalis a house of distinction. Editor Paul Taunton brought his eye for logic and detail to the honing of the manuscript, and the finished book is a better one for his involvement.
Agent Sharlene Martin took my early manuscript to this emerging group, so I thank her for the opportunity to work with such a smart, energetic, and creative publishing team. She and they make for delightful colleagues, because of their shared enthusiasm for building something to be proud of in the publishing world, and their intelligence and dedication in doing so.
Fair mention must be made of my local favorites among the next generation, approaching fast in the rearview mirror and therefore offering me constant inspiration to get it done sooner rather than later: Scott and Jill in Seattle, Nicole in Los Angeles, brave Jordan far at sea, with Matthew and Daniel in San Diego, not far from Drasco and Nikola. These are the good ones. You know the kind I mean, just a few of the many reasons why all the future doomsay-ers may yet turn out to be wrong.
Even if The Last Nightingale could be revived,
How would it tolerate the cure?
Knowing that Life merely awaits
To devour it again.
RESUMED SUICIDE NOTE IN THE POCKET OF
IMBROUGH’S LAST VICTIM,
WASHED ASHORE NEAR THE
did not strain at the long uphill hike, even though the route led from his policeman’s beat in the waterfront district all the way back to the City Hall Station. At thirty-two years of age, he was able to power his long legs up the steep terrain with such speed that he could leave his beat at five in the morning, traverse more than a dozen blocks uphill, plus a few short connecting streets, and still be at his desk with enough time to jot down a brief nightly report and quit the shift by six.
The strenuous hiking routine usually helped to calm him down after a long night. This morning, it barely had any effect. He was coming off of an unusually rough beat patrolling the “Barbary Coast” district, whose grand name was a façade for a strip of bottom-feeder saloons and dead-end flophouses down near the waterfront. The whole night had been filled with more violent rampage and general disturbance than he had ever seen on a single shift. He spent most of his shift dodging punches from drunken gamblers and avoiding knife blades flashed by syphilitic whores. Their mania was contagious among them all night long and more so with every passing hour.
He had never gotten used to the place, even though the dangerous foot patrol assignment was routinely meted out to him by his station chief. Blackburn realized that the continual Barbary Coast
beat was intended as some sort of an ongoing affront to him, and that it was being done for the benefit of the rank-and-file officers. He just didn’t have any good ideas as to what to do about it. His reputation as a widower who was far too obsessive in his police work naturally pleased the upper brass, but it also placed a lot of pressure on fellow officers: men with families, lives away from the job.
Then some bright soul up in the command office figured out that with Blackburn’s overactive code of ethics, he would work just as hard in the dangerous district as he did anywhere else. And so week after week, the dreaded assignments sent a morale-soothing message to the rank and file:
Don’t worry about Sergeant Blackburn,
no matter how much of a fanatic he might be.
Look at where he is.
Nothing matters unless the right people
While he strode along the sidewalk, Blackburn tried to tell himself that the real reason he constantly drew the graveyard shift and the Barbary Coast assignments was because of his superior physical capability. But a voice in his head accused him of being the author of his own predicament. The back of his neck tightened at the unwelcome truth of it.
On any night, it was a relief to leave the district behind at the end of a shift. That was especially true this morning; it had been a real “ladies’ night” along the Barbary Coast, and between the women and the men, the street corner hags were by far the most dangerous. Those bottom-rung females lived in a drunken haze, battered by lives of nonstop torment. He approached every one of them knowing that they would eagerly offer sex to a policeman to buy his tolerance, or just as eagerly snatch away his sidearm and shoot him in the face. Most were prepared to either live or die in the attempt, and it was all the same to them.
Lately while he kept a sharp eye out for their flurries of random rage, he also knew that the Department strongly suspected that at least one of these doomed women had somehow become highly skilled at throwing heavy-bladed knives. Blackburn himself had seen the grim products of the mysterious killer's work. Each of her victims had almost certainly fallen to the same knife, which left identically deep and wide cuts. The crime was always committed as a fast kill, always under cover of darkness. The consistent knifepoint entry at the back of the neck indicated surprise or ambush. The victim's spinal cord was usually split by the thick blade.
Over a dozen such victims had turned up in less than nine months, with never a clue beyond a couple of reported glimpses of a "small-framed woman" seen hurrying away. No one even knew if this woman had any actual involvement in the crimes. That's how thin the evidence remained, after all this time and all those victims.
Blackburn had personally found three of the bodies, on three separate occasions. Every one was castrated with precision and skill, postmortem. Not a single victim was robbed. It seemed as though the taking of the victim's life and the removing of his useless manhood were enough to complete the desired experience— one longshoreman's body was even found with a sizeable wad of cash right inside the vest pocket.
When the press got wind of the story, with macabre humor they dubbed the killer "The Surgeon." The SFPD publicly speculated that The Surgeon was almost certainly a physically fit young woman, probably one who had fallen into ruinous ways. Perhaps she grew up on a farm, where she had learned her skill with the knife. Possibly butchering hogs.
Since then, on most nights along the Barbary Coast, Blackburn had nothing more for company than the inevitable castration jokes that seemed to come from all directions. The night-beat clientele generally agreed that as long as they weren't the ones being killed, the best thing to do was to laugh it all off. And since Blackburn was under Chief Dinan's orders to keep an ear to the street, he had no
choice but to spend his nights asking the same questions about the killings, over and over, and listening to the same handful of jokes in response.
No one actually voiced open approval, but he couldn't help noticing that the sidewalk ladies were uniformly ignorant of any useful facts, free of any helpful theories. None was inclined to so much as guess who the ghoulish killer might be. And while they never went so far as to openly cheer The Surgeon's grisly work, that extra bit about slicing off the cocks of the dead men usually made them giggle whenever the topic came up.
As for the killer—Blackburn still hoped that there was only one. But throughout the past night's shift, with that crazed charge hovering in the air, he had half expected to trip over a collection of bled-out corpses at any moment. He kept fearing that a few of the other violence-prone whores might have started to find The Surgeon's behavior personally appealing.
So tonight he was doubly glad when his shift ended without major trouble. He took extra long strides back to the station, making good time even though the predawn light was absorbed by the fog. With the gas streetlamps still burning at every corner, he could see just well enough to keep up his pace between the isolated pools of weak yellow light while he moved through the chilled mist. The sound of his heavy boot heels ricocheted off the cobblestones and echoed around the silent brick storefronts.
The smell of early morning ham and egg breakfasts floated from a number of homes, tempting him to get back home to a meal of his own. He paused to check his silver pocket watch when he passed through a circle of pale gaslight near the corner post office at Mission and Seventh. He was only a few blocks away from the City Hall station, and it was only twelve minutes past five: record time. He liked that. It was as if more of the night's prickly energy had risen up from the ground and soaked through the soles of his boots with every step, filling him up as fast as he burned it away.
He pocketed the watch and started to take a step outside of the
lamplight, but just as he lifted his foot, the entire street jerked sideways and pulled itself out from under him. His footing vanished with such power that, for an instant, he thought that he had stepped on some drunk's sleeping blanket and gotten it snatched out from under his feet.
Half a second later, the street's cobblestone surface jumped up and hit him with the rude force of a blind-side fist in a bar fight. His body slammed to earth and he took the pavement as a full frontal blow, barely reaching out in time to protect his face from the cold bricks. Spots filled his vision and his head rang with waves of pain that throbbed in time to his heartbeat. He heard his own voice cry out, "It's an earthquake!" even as he fought to avoid blacking out.
Instinct brought him to his hands and knees, moving his limbs with natural magic while the ground shuddered under him. But he remained in place. After a boyhood in Northern California, Blackburn had enough experience with earthquakes to know that it wasn't time to get up yet. He reassured himself that at least he was awake and knew what was happening—he hadn't been ejected out of a warm bed and onto a cold floor, as most of the city's residents no doubt were. And most of whom were probably now lost to confusion and panic.
Until the rattling died down, there wasn't any safer place to go. If he moved out of the range of falling bricks or stones from one building, he would only move into range of another. He thought about taking shelter in a doorway, but rejected that. In the heavy stone buildings that lined both sides of this street, a doorway might only prove to be a good place to get buried alive when the keystones gave way. He knew that if any structural damage had taken place during the bigger shock, then a building might only need another little rattle before coming apart.
He told himself that with any luck, this first shock wave would be the worst of it. But just as he began to rise from his hands and knees, the street began a hard swirl that threw him onto his side. This movement was much stronger, coming not thirty seconds on
the heels of the first shock wave. It rolled with such power that the best he could do was to scramble back down onto all fours and remain there on the ground.
Beyond that, the shuddering earth was already telling him everything he needed to know. That first wave, he now realized with a cold rush, had not been the real earthquake.
It was only a foreshock.
Blackburn did not know if he yelled the words or not.
And then it was more than just the idea of a major earthquake that leaped into his mind. It was all the dire implications that went along with it for a brittle city of bricks and mortar.
They quickly became real. The violent rolling motion of the earth was joined by a vertical rise and fall. The ground dropped out from under him, then slammed back up again. Blackburn found himself clutching the back of a lurching beast. It was all so unreal that the first icy shot of mortal fear had not even hit him yet. All he knew, at that moment, was that he had never been through an earthquake like this one.