It was another hot summer, stinking hot if you asked Jackson Healy, and for the past several months, people had been going missing from Los Angeles and the surrounding counties in slightly higher than usual numbers. There was nothing inherently strange about this in and of itself. These things just happened sometimes, just like how sometimes fewer people than usual went missing. In the end, it all balanced out to the average, because that was how statistics worked. The cops usually didn't bother to sit up and take notice unless the average itself went up, and until such time as the cops took notice, the Nice Guys Detective Agency had been hired to find more than a few of those missing persons.
People went missing for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, the reason for a disappearance came down to situations as simple as a kid running away to shack up with someone their parents didn't approve of, which seemed to happen at least every other month, or once, as happened in one of their early cases notable for its ridiculousness and quick resolution, a person moving to the other side of town without telling their neighbors who they hadn't liked nearly as much as those neighbors had thought. Those sorts of cases were stupid but easy money, and nobody got hurt, at least not physically. There were probably a lot of hurt feelings and recriminations, but that part had nothing to do with Healy or March.
Sometimes disappearances were caused by a serial killer, which was fucked up, but it happened from time to time. Healy and March hadn't run into any of those cases yet, but they knew it was always a slim possibility. A lot of times it was just a regular killer to blame, and Healy and March had dealt with a few of those by now. Holly, who nobody asked but who offered up her opinion anyway, had always insisted that those cases had been plenty fucked up without being serial anything, whereas Healy had always just seen those cases as a result of basic human nature. During such arguments, March tended to make use of what little diplomacy he possessed and refused to take sides in the matter beyond scolding Holly for using the word fuck.
And sometimes people vanished without leaving enough clues to follow. There had been a few cases like that lately, nobody high profile, mostly disaffected teenagers and beach bum surfers, people who had as much chance of having simply hopped a bus or hitchhiked out of town to wherever they thought the living might be a little easier as they did of being the victims of foul play, but there was no way of knowing by what little evidence they had left behind. Once again, these things just happened sometimes, and in those cases Healy and March could only tell the worried clients they'd hit a dead end and couldn't help unless something new turned up.
By the fifth time this happened in as many weeks it didn't take a genius to start seeing a pattern, but there wasn't anything they could act on themselves or take to the cops. All they could do was work their other cases and wait for someone else to go missing.
And then somebody else did go missing, someone who was not a disaffected teenager despite however much he might sometimes act like one when he got drunk enough. In retrospect, it was ironic how they might never have found out about the cult if said cult had not decided to kidnap March. Or maybe kidnap was too strong a word. They were worshipers of Dagon, and even sober March had always had that weird thing about mermaids, so maybe they had just offered him a chance to see the biggest half man half fish of them all and March had gone willingly. Healy wouldn't put it past March to be that stupid. March probably would have said he was being optimistic, but in Healy's experience most of the time it boiled down to the same thing.
Take right now, for example. Two days ago, Healy had been optimistic that he could crack this case before it got any worse. Even just a few hours ago when Healy had gotten the hot tip telling him what the cultists had planned and where they were going to do it, he had been stupid enough to think he could get there in time to stop it. He had been stupid enough to take Holly with him when he went, because she had been with him when he got the tip and he had thought the extra half hour to take her home might have made a difference. Then, after the long-ass drive out to the Salton Sea, he had been stupid enough to think Holly might stay in the car when he told her to. (Also, the cultists were stupid for thinking they could summon an ancient fish god in a landlocked body of water only a few decades older than Healy, but that at least was something he did not need to blame himself for.)
Holly didn't stay in the car, and that half hour hadn't made enough of a difference.
They got there just in time to see the cultists standing up to their knees in the water, trying to entice their god out of the depths with pieces of March like a saner person might try to tempt a kitten out from under a bed using bits of sardine. Holly didn't say anything, just made a little choked whimper of a noise in the back of her throat, like someone had hit her. That was when Healy's rage at the sheer stupidity of the situation boiled over and his vision clouded with red. It was not a blind rage, just the opposite. Healy did not lose himself in it, he became more focused. To an outsider, his violence probably seemed savage, but it was methodical.
First, he strode forward, emptying his little snub nosed revolver as he went. His shots were not random. He put two in the cultist with the fanciest robes, because there was no way that guy wasn't the one in charge. Then, the first three other cultists who reacted to the shots the fastest got one bullet each for their troubles. After that, the gun was empty, but by then Healy was close enough to grab one of their ridiculous fish themed iron torch holders, which turned out to be a lot more awkward to wield than a baseball bat but not awkward enough to keep him from laying waste to every enemy left standing. Even as he killed them, a detached part of Healy's mind kept a running tally in his head, matching newly-battered faces to memories of photographs that had been given to him and March by concerned friends and family members.
Two cases solved. Three cases solved. Five cases solved. Their last memories on this earth would all match: Jackson Healy's angry face and the miasmic stench of dead fish and salt marsh so thick you could taste it as much as smell it.
He never forgot that Holly was watching, but for a little while he didn't care. Then it was just the two of them left standing, him up to his knees in the water (and ankle deep in the stinking mud, and surrounded by dead bodies, and dead fish, and dead pieces he didn't want to think about now or ever again but might see every time he closed his eyes for the rest of his life) where had taken down the last of the cultists and her for once right where he had left her half in the shadows at the edge of the circle of torchlight. For a moment, all they could do was stare at each other, open mouthed. Holly was untouched, physically at least. Healy had a few nicks and scratches but no serious injuries. Even as outnumbered as he had been in the beginning, it had never been a fair fight, not against scrawny teenagers and stoner beach bums like these.
Holly's face was twisted into something unreadable. For all Healy knew, his might be too, but he was not about to ask. He waited for the inevitable, for the recriminations, for Holly to tell him that beating up those men and women would have been fine but he shouldn't have killed them, for her to say that he had crossed the line and she would never speak to him ever again, for her to call him a monster. He knew it was coming. She had to say it, because how could she not? She would say it and mean it, and it would hurt, but he needed her to say it, and he needed her to mean it, because that was the only way he could know that there was anything left in this goddamned world that wasn't completely broken yet.
Holly didn't say anything. All Healy could hear was the sound of his own breathing, marsh flies and mosquitoes buzzing, gentle waves lapping against the shore, and very distant sirens. The nearby resort towns were all dead or dying as the Salton grew saltier and more disgusting with each passing year, but apparently somebody somewhere had heard the gunshots echoing across the water and called up some cops from somewhere. He turned to see if he could catch sight of the cop cars' flashing lights to gage whether they would be heading straight for the scene of the crime or if they had been pointed toward some other location, not that it really mattered either way in the end.
While his back was turned, Holly came up behind him. She still didn't tell him what he needed to hear. Instead, she wrapped her arms around and quietly whispered, "Thank you."
Somehow, that hurt more than anything else she could have said.