After killing Sebastian Shaw, Erik had found himself at a crossroads. He had honed himself into a weapon – but had no one left to kill. Now he was waiting for a war.
New York City seemed a likely place to find one.
From the city he needed many things. A way to protect himself, and others like himself, when the time arose. Ways to vanish into the crowd that would make him invisible in plain sight. Means of transferring money, weapons, and people out of sight of prying human eyes – not so much for now, but for the unforeseeably dark future. Erik needed New York’s underbelly, that nexus of the illicit, and he intended to learn the many ways he could turn it to his own advantage.
He could learn them best with a badge.
“Christ, look at this one,” Mulroney said as they stepped past the boundaries set up by the beat cops and walked into the rocky terrain of Inwood Park. “Looks like a goddamn butcher shop.”
“He’s been flayed.” At Mulroney’s flat bewilderment, Erik used a simpler word: “Skinned.”
Even his assessment that this was a he, rather than a she, was a guess; the corpse had slid downhill and settled into a posture that hid the genitalia, or whatever remained of them. It lay face down, hands spread wide, as if in supplication. But that was accident, no more. This one would have died long before the body was brought here.
He said as much to Mulroney, who said, “How do you know it wasn’t done here?”
“Takes time to skin a man, and just off Broadway, even up here, the killer couldn’t have known he wouldn’t be spotted. More likely this was done elsewhere, and the body merely dumped in the park.”
Mulroney sucked on his cigarette. “Helluva mess.”
“That it is.” The musculature, exposed raw to the chill air, gleamed wetly, as did the viscous pockets of fat. Although Erik was hardly squeamish, he wasn’t sorry that he couldn’t see this one’s face. The insects would have been at the exposed eyeballs already. Erik’s knifepoint gaze followed a trail up the hillside – places where the leaves were pushed aside from rain-soft earth. “Up there. He would have thrown the body from up there. Tell them to seal it off.”
“Yeah, we oughta do that. Guess if the killer took his skin, he wasn’t nice enough to leave the wallet lying around. IDing this one is going to be a job of work.” With that, Mulroney began digging through the nearby leaves, searching for clues – thoroughly enough, in his way. But obviously it would be up to Erik to secure the entire crime scene. He neither resented this nor did it gladly; Mulroney was just one of the things he had to put up with to study the power of the state from the inside out.
They were officially partners at the moment, though Erik’s partners tended not to last long. He wasn’t difficult to work with, they’d say – Erik knew this – showed up on time, had good instincts, but there was something uncanny about the man. He never went out for drinks, never got to know anybody’s family. Nothing ever seemed to get to him. Cops wanted a partner they could be friends with, whose weaknesses they understood. This was why Erik had a new partner every six months or so.
As he hiked up the steep hill, in the odd patch of wilderness at the top of Manhattan known as Inwood Park, Erik kept his eyes on the ground rather than the storm-gray afternoon sky. The problem wasn’t the lack of debris but the surplus of it – even here, probably the least-traveled square inches of the entire city, countless people would have passed by today. Cigarette butts and pop tops littered the pathway. Bottlecaps. A used rubber. One razor blade too small to have been employed in the gory work below, probably used to cut drugs and then abandoned.
How would he ever pick out anything useful from all this?
Now, if the killer had been fool enough to drop anything made of metal, that might be different. But this one – this one, Erik thought, was careful.
Finally he reached what had to have been the spot from which the body was dumped, or very near it. The spotty rain would have long since washed away any shoe impressions. Without a murder weapon at hand – without any resonance of metal on the flayed corpse – he would find little of use here. Erik swore under his breath.
As he looked down at the body, lying pitiful and bare among a ring of gum-smacking cops, he thought of other corpses he had seen thrown away like garbage. Piled like cordwood. Remembered digging through their teeth for gold fillings, the only parts of them the Nazis thought had value. His gut tightened, and he jammed his fists into the pockets of his trenchcoat. At least Mulroney wouldn’t see him like this.
“I’m sorry,” said a quiet voice from behind.
Erik turned, startled; very few people could sneak up on him. The man who stood there was shorter than he, dressed in the same sort of dark suit and ordinary trenchcoat, though his tie was a deep cerulean blue – calling attention to his eyes, which were the same shade. Unlike most men, he did without pomade and let his brown hair fall loosely around his face. It was long enough that he might have passed for a poet from the Village, save for that suit. On his face was a look of such compassion that Erik first had the absurd idea that this man knew what he’d been remembering and pitied him for it. But of course, it was the dead body he pitied.
“This area is being closed off,” Erik said. “Police business.”
“I should hope so.” The man reached into his pocket; Erik tensed. Instead of a weapon, however, he pulled out his own badge. “Charles Xavier. Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
“Why is the Bureau tied up in this? Is Hoover interested in random homicides now?”
Xavier’s face took on an odd sort of weariness at the mention of J. Edgar Hoover; Erik had always heard the man was little beloved even within the Bureau, and this seemed to confirm it. “Would that it were random. But I’m afraid it fits a certain pattern.”
“Are you familiar with the term ‘serial murderer’? ‘Stranger killer’? Or perhaps ‘pattern killer’?”
The phrases were only distantly familiar. Something they’d gone over in training, but briefly – nothing they were ever likely to see. “You mean – like Jack the Ripper.”
“He’s the archetypal one. But they are more numerous than is generally realized. And I believe you now have such a killer in New York City. Some past murders here, plus a couple in New Jersey – they have too much in common.”
Thus the Bureau’s involvement. Erik didn’t relish the idea of having more than one partner to work with; maybe the FBI might end up taking over from here. “The victims have all been skinned? Like this one?”
“The means of death has been different in each case. It isn’t how he’s killing them; it’s who he’s killing. And that affects both of us quite directly, I’m afraid.”
It was as if he’d known that Erik was hoping to ditch the case. He frowned. “What do you mean?”
Charles Xavier looked down the hill at the dead body; strands of his hair were dark and heavy with rain. “The killer is targeting mutants. Like me. And like you.”