When they finally find her, victim number eight has been there for a while.
Her skin is marbled with burst blood vessels, flesh laden with sunken blisters that show sickly green under the fluorescent lights. There’s a bulge to her eyes, makeup painting her vaguely orange against her body’s insistent decay. The immaculate lacquer on her nails shines a violent red. It doesn’t do a lot to offset the puffiness of her extremities. Rigor has taken its turn and leaves her limp, a puddle of meat and bone more than anything.
Liam notices these things the way others, he suspects, notice the weather. Passive, unimportant. Side notes.
Really, it’s the abdomen that draws focus.
She’s like the others: flesh of her torso neatly parted, folded back and held in place with glasshead pins buried in tidy lines along her sides. Ribs cracked and pushed open to reveal the putrefying organs in her chest cavity.
One of them is missing.
Nelson swoops close to where Liam kneels. She presses out dry little clicks from the camera, focus on the mottling organs. It’s like some nightmarish butcher’s display, Liam thinks, spare and orderly, emphasizing the shape and robust weight of choice cuts carved from flesh.
“Guess they didn’t figure for the long weekend,” Nelson says, breathing through her mouth.
Maybe there’s a response to that, some snappy retort, dry and a tad dark. Liam doesn’t really do those, too locked into his own observational headspace. Sight and smell and even touch, if it’s called for. Not so much quippy one-liners.
They have a guy for that sort of thing.
“Weren’t penciling in a lot of barbecue invites, were they,” Tomlinson remarks. He crouches down on the opposite side of the body, nimble fingers covered in blue latex and hovering over exposed organs. The sleeves of his button-down are cuffed so his tan forearms are left bare. “Jes, you good?”
“One minute...” Nelson hums. A few more rapid clicks of the extended lens, this time focused on the victim’s hands. She stands smoothly, camera bouncing against her sternum when she releases it. “Need air that doesn’t reek. Back in a sec.”
“Righto,” Tomlinson mutters, setting to work. He pulls out the pins holding the victim’s bisected flesh one by one, dropping them into a baggie he’s already taken the time to properly label.
Liam leaves him to it, begins examining the wider area around the victim for hair or tissue or a fiber from a cloth. Anything. “They might be penciling in barbecues,” he notes. ”Could be a proper footie dad.”
“Could be a proper footie mum,” Tomlinson adds, thin lips quirking into a grim smile. He finishes with the pins. “Eighteen total,” he murmurs into his shoulder. Presumably, the iPhone he’s secured to an arm mount catches it.
Liam hears their team buzzing around them, sharp eyes critical on every inch of office space. The low-buzzing fluorescents are starting to give him a headache. It’s nothing new.
Nothing about this is new.
“Got her,” Horan calls from the other side of the room. The pair swivel their heads in unison, eyes finding the peroxide-blond when he peeks over the edge of a cubical.
“And?” Tomlinson asks. His eyes remain trained on Horan while his hand finds a pen peeking out of his trouser pocket.
“Natalie Lightfoot,” Horan recites, reading off of something hidden behind the cubical wall. “Twenty-six last February, apparently.”
Tomlinson relays the information to his iPhone, scribbling down an additional note before beginning on an evidence report for the pins.
He’s lost to his work; Liam tries to follow suit. He spirals out from the body, gaze critical on the hard carpet, the oatmeal-colored cubicles, the worn swivel chairs and tame personal mementos.
When he reaches Horan, writing his own evidence reports hunched over a desk—the victim’s—Liam examines the space intensely.
It's a process that starts with the walls of the cubicle, blanketed with pictures of the woman. Some contain other people. Most do not.
None of them show any signs of holding trace biological evidence.
Still. “Jesy been through?” Liam asks quietly.
Horan grunts an affirmative, still scribbling.
Liam pulls out one of the pins securing a photo. It’s not unlike the ones found on the body, except—ah, there it is. Different width at the head.
“Up for a pint tomorrow?”
Another small noise of assent from Horan, accompanied by a friendly hip-check that Liam sways with gently.
They work in companionable silence for a while. Liam does his best not to look at the eyes of the victim in her many, many photographs. Selfies, she would’ve called them. Pictures of her in swimsuits. Pictures of her in restaurants and at parks and attending what looks to be an opera. Pictures of her in hats and scarves and sunglasses that obscure nearly her entire face. Pictures of her with women, making peace signs, fingers busy with loud rings. Pictures of her with grinning men, jaws square and hands following the soft curve of her shoulder.
Someone will have to tell them all.
The photos from the cubicle walls go into a baggie labeled clinically with the where and when. Next is the desk itself, devoid of nearly anything but a fairly standard computer and a black pen cup. None of the pens are spangly or have fluffy toppers, which is nice.
Victim number three was wearing hot pink scrubs printed with little cats when they found her.
Nelson is back from her breather before Liam thinks to look for her, working on the quadrant near the toilets with Lucas. Lucas is on loan to homicide for the night and remains twitchy as fuck at the worst of the crime scenes, but Liam watches him put on a brave face whenever he thinks Jesy might be looking, expression slackening and gaze taking on a nonchalant air of boredom that really only works on Tomlinson.
Which is probably where he learned it. Tomlinson himself is preparing the body for transport and covering the extremities in plastic, seemingly unfazed by the swollen, gangrenous feet of the victim less than half a meter from his face.
“Payno,” he calls, eyes slicing blue when they find Liam’s, “D’you have the clippers? Need to undo the—”
“Yeah,” Liam says quickly. He weaves through the cubicle farm, pulling the tiny scissors out of his side pack as he goes.
“Can you just do it, actually?” Tomlinson asks, distracted by the act of securing all the victim’s hair inside the plastic bag wrapping her head. “Need to do the hands next. Those rings are gonna be a nightmare this far along.”
It’s not really an excuse, but Liam crouches down next to the body anyway.
“Niall up for pints tomorrow?” Tomlinson asks. He moves dutifully to the victim’s left hand, careful little tugs on her rings to ease them from the bloated flesh without ripping it from the bone.
“When is Niall not up for a pint?” Liam retorts. He clips the twine wrapping the right hand at the cleanest point he can find, leaving the original knot undisturbed. It loosens enough to pry the object resting in her palm out from under the thin, stained rope.
“Heard that,” Horan calls, “and for the record you’re completely right.”
Liam’s nose wrinkles while he takes in the object in his gloved hand. A quick glance affirms Tomlinson agrees. His expression is nearly feline in its distaste as he reaches to his side sightlessly. His fingers search for a baggie to store the note card he's pulled from the victim’s left hand.
“How do you always get me to bag it?” Liam sighs. “Every time, you get me to bag it.”
With a pitying shake of his head, Tomlinson says, “You’re just easy.” He finally gives up on finding a bag by feel, instead turning and locating one directly behind where he kneels. “Hey, do you wanna read this thing? Or are you saving it for later?”
“They’re usually fresher, at least,” Liam muses, staring down at the heart in his hand. To Tomlinson, “Yeah, guess I should, shouldn't I?” He grabs one of his own bags, sliding the putrid organ inside, trying not to think about it. “It’s been waiting long enough.”
In truth, Liam hates that it's been waiting at all. Another thing to not think about.
Horan strides past and winces a little when he sees the gelatinous contents of the bag Liam’s placing gingerly in the cooler. “Let’s make it the last one, eh?” He cocks his hip against the side of a cubicle as Tomlinson passes Liam the card—thick, cream-white card stock, unblemished by even a fleck of blood.
In delicate font, it reads: All my love to Detective Inspector Liam Payne. Thinking of you now and always.
Liam slips it into the evidence bag, fingers cold.
Nothing about this is new.
He begs off for a minute after that. No one seems to mind; Tomlinson is busy coordinating transport of the body to the morgue, most of the scene has been swept, and it’s not like they have something higher priority than “serial murder” brewing at Scotland Yard, anyway.
There’s still a twinge when he pulls a fag from inside his jacket, slipping out the door of the office tower. Liam shakes his head at himself and refuses to feel guilt for needing some sort of stimulant at two in the morning on a Tuesday. Especially after something like the scene upstairs, some intersection of gruesome and mundane.
It’s been nearly a month since the last body. Liam supposes they should have been primed for it. Ready, on any level deeper than procedural.
He wraps his fingers around the lighter in his pocket and remembers the weight of the woman’s heart in his hands. The edges of the note, perfectly crisp like all the others.
Five years into his career in homicide, he knows: it’s impossible to be ready for that sort of thing.
There’s a misting of rain when he steps onto the street, so he shuffles into an alcove near the corner of the building. In another life, it probably housed a phone booth. Now it sits empty and dingy and forgotten with a scattering of cigarette butts that tell Liam he’s not the first person to have this notion. He takes in the quiet of the block, rare in London regardless of hour. The smell of diesel and damp pavement does wonders to clean the smell of decay from his nostrils.
He’s feeling the first good-bad drag of smoke fill his lungs when he hears the voices.
“Don’t fucking lie to me, man—”
“Why would I lie? Why would—”
“I said gimme your fucking—”
That’s all he needs. Groaning, he lets the cigarette slip through his fingers and steps into the alley adjacent to the tower. It’s narrow and dark as anything, this time of night, home to some industrial-sized bins and general grime.
It hosts a predictable scene.
“I really wouldn’t,” he says loudly.
The man in the filthy, patch-covered jacket jumps a little, knife twitching in his hand. The boy pinned to the side of the office tower scowls a little deeper in response. Which, really, strikes Liam as an oddly understated reaction to the situation.
“Ain’t no concern of yours,” snaps the mugger. Now that Liam’s really looking, he seems twitchy in general. On something.
“’S definitely a concern of his, mate,” says the boy pinned to the wall. His eyebrows raise like he’s letting the tweaker in on a secret. He indicates in Liam’s general direction with a minute twitch of his head, careful of the blade pressed to his skin. “Check it out.”
The tweaker turns, knife falling to his side when he takes in Liam’s solid stance and shiny badge, winking in the streetlight where it's pinned to his jacket.
“Shit,” the tweaker spits. His worn boots are moving underneath him before he’s decided which direction to run. Addled indecision costs him; he trips, spilling onto the ground and allowing the knife to clatter out of his grip.
“Yeah,” Liam says sympathetically as he strides over, “shit.”
It’s the space of five minutes to get Lucas down from the crime scene and into a squad car, tweaker cuffed in the back while Liam and the would-be victim watch on.
“That’s so lucky,” Lucas enthuses to the criminal, climbing into the drivers’ side. “And there was a warrant out? You’re so, I mean, you’re just shitting horseshoes, at this point.”
“Stan, don’t antagonize the—never mind, then,” Liam says, watching Lucas’ door slam even as the engine is kicking to life, car off toward the station in moments. He sighs, rolling his shoulders, then pulls another fag from his inner pocket. “Alright,” he mutters, lighting up while he turns to where he instructed the victim to await a brief questioning on the incident, “why don’t we start with a n—are you okay?”
“Uh,” the boy grates out, wiping at his cheeks hastily with hands that quake, “yeah, I’m just. Fuck,” he breathes, exhale trembling like the beat of a sparrow’s wings. “Sorry, I’m—”
“You’re alright,” Liam says quickly. This isn't generally his beat, street crime. Most victims are dead when he meets them. When it becomes apparent the kid isn’t getting his breathing under control, Liam slowly brings a hand up to rest on the boy’s arm. His thumb presses faintly into the material of the boy’s jacket—leather, well-maintained, he notes absently—to offer a grounding point. “He’s getting booked, so—”
“Yeah,” the kid cuts him off with that thick accent, very clearly embarrassed. He leans into the touch, though, even as he presses his fingers over his eyes. “Fuck. One sec.”
Liam shakes his head. “It’s alright. That’s not—sorry, I forget that sort of thing isn’t everyday for most people.”
The kid is taking these long, low breaths, bringing himself under control. “Sounds a bit shit, that as your everyday,” he observes, wobbly tone playing at conversational. He still hasn’t uncovered his eyes.
His words startle a short laugh out of Liam. “There’s…there’s things that might be described as shit, yeah,” he admits. He thinks of the latest victim’s heart, decaying in his palm meters from the space where she’d breathed and worked and surrounded herself with snapshots of happy moments. “That guy wouldn’t make the list, though, actually.”
Finally, the boy’s stabilized himself to a point of marginal dignity, hands dropping from his face. His eyes are a dark amber under the streetlight, lashes casting heavy curtains of shadow over the defined angles of his cheekbones, his narrow jaw.
“One sec,” he repeats, dragging in a final harsh breath though his nose.
Liam looks him over. Takes in the insistent tremble of his frame. He remembers this—being young enough that cutting through back alleys on the way home seemed smart, arrogant enough that nothing felt more humiliating than an admission of humanity. He takes in the defiant pout of the boy’s lips, the stubborn set of his brows.
“Take your time,” he gently tells him.
Biting at his lip, the kid shrugs. Looks away. “That’s a nasty habit,” he mutters off-handedly, indicating where Liam’s cigarette hangs limp between his fingers. “The carcinogens in that aren’t fit for a landfill.”
As if Liam’s never seen a distraction tactic. “I’ll make this quick so you can get home, yeah?” Liam starts, flicking a bit of ash onto the dirty pavement.
With a sigh, the boy starts talking. “Zayn Malik, birthday’s January 12th—age twenty, so you can do the math on that—heading home and wasn’t thinking, I guess—”
“You’ve done this before,” Liam observes.
A cab passes and its light slides over Zayn’s face, throwing one half into shadow for an instant. “I like crime procedurals,” he says flatly.
He doesn’t look familiar anyway, not like the kids who make the station their hapless second home. “Alright, Zayn Malik,” Liam replies, easy notes scribbled into his notepad with the cigarette tucked between his lips. He takes down other basics, mobile number and any prior relationship with the mugger—nonexistent, unsurprisingly. Then, “Said you were heading home, where is that?”
Zayn tells him.
A minute later, Liam is on the phone with Tomlinson, still upstairs at the crime scene.
“You can’t just abandon the scene,” Tomlinson hisses over the line.
“What’s left to close out?” Liam asks. “Actually curious, here.”
“There’s—that’s not—if I’m stuck here at arsecrack o’clock, so’re you,” Tomlinson insists. “Liam, come on.”
“Mmm, I’m case lead, though,” Liam says apologetically. “Don’t have to do what the mouthy pathologist tells me.”
There’s a series of faint squeaking noises, Tomlinson indignant and struggling to find the breath and language to make Liam bend to his will. “But I’m your mouthy pathologist,” is what he decides on.
Liam exhales a laugh. “You’re no one’s pathologist.”
“Well now I’m definitely not your pathologist,” Tomlinson grumbles.
The scuffing sound of leather scraping against concrete has Liam turning to look over his shoulder at Zayn as he slides down the wall to fold up neatly on the ground. His forehead is resting on his knees. They look bony where they peek out from his shredded black jeans. His narrow back heaves with deep breaths, like he’s trying to calm himself again.
Liam turns away. “The kid’s really messed up over it,” he murmurs into the receiver. “Look, the tube’s closed, it’s an hour’s walk, I can’t—”
“We have to get all this evidence down to the station—”
“Louis,” Liam interrupts. “Winston’s not even awake.” Quieter, with another glance at the boy still curled up on the ground, “The body’s been moved, yeah?”
Tomlinson sighs, crisp and defeated through the tiny speaker. “Yeah, it…made it back.”
“And the rest is nonperishable,” Liam verifies.
“Yeah,” Tomlinson admits.
“And Nelson’s back at the station already.”
“And Lucas is back at the station already.”
“I get it,” snaps Louis. Then, “Sorry, just—don’t keep me waiting, alright? I haven’t slept more than two consecutive hours this week. Month, maybe.”
Liam nods pointlessly. “I’ll beat you back.”
“No you won’t,” Tomlinson says, disgruntled expression nearly visible before Liam’s eyes, and the line goes dead.
When Liam nudges at Zayn’s boot with one of his own, the kid looks up. He still has that frightened rabbit air about him, Liam notes, but he doesn’t look as though he’s about to be ill or anything as he raises an eyebrow in query.
“Taking you home,” Liam informs him. “C’mon, then.”
Zayn wobbles to his feet, silent. He places spindly fingers on the wall as he moves his combat boots to support him; Liam resists the thrumming, sudden urge to place a hand at the small of his back to assist.
“Y’know,” Zayn says, shuffling behind him to the vehicle, “generally when guys take me home, their approach has a little more finesse.”
Liam’s hand falters on his keys. “You’re throwing around words like finesse at two in the morning,” he says, pulling on the door handle.
Zayn might snort as he climbs into the car. Liam isn’t paying him any attention. Decidedly.
The drive is twenty minutes and silent for nearly all of them.
“You at the uni, then?” Liam can’t help but ask.
He sees Zayn, slumped slightly against the door, peer over at him. His hair is cropped on the sides and messy at the crown, inky black in the light that filters from the shops they glide past. “Yeah.” The word is heavy with fatigue. Probably on the back end of an adrenal spike from fear.
Liam nods. “And what are you studying,” he asks in wry almost-singsong, determined to keep the boy awake through the drive. He changes lanes, controlled.
Damn. “Ambitious.” He chances a quick glance at the kid. “You think you want to push for advanced study in one of those, or—?”
“I’m in the doctoral program,” Zayn says wearily.
Damn. ”That’s…” Liam shifts in his seat, tongue tracing the backs of his teeth. “Your parents must love that.”
Zayn doesn’t dignify that with an answer.
By the time they pull in front of the flat Zayn specifies, he’s blinking his large eyes like a drowsing owl, exhaustion slackening his features.
And he was going to walk back here. “You alright getting in?” Liam asks. He notices Zayn’s seatbelt, already undone. The detective casts back, trying to remember if the boy had fastened it at all.
“Yes, officer, thank you, officer,” Zayn says, but the sarcastic simper is too rumpled by sleepiness to hold any real sting. He unlocks his door, swaying unsteadily on his feet when he exits. Shrugs his jacket up toward his ears, burrowing in while he walks around to the sidewalk.
Liam feels his lips pulling up at the corners. Exhaustion is taking its toll on him as well, it seems. He leans out his window to address Zayn on the pavement. “Please don’t wander through alleys late at night anymore.”
“Yes sir,” Zayn says dully, swaying where he stands.
“Please don’t wander through alleys at all, actually.”
“Yes sir,” he repeats, eyes verging on glassy.
“You’re knackered,” Liam says quietly. “Alright, get some rest. Off with you.”
Zayn mumbles something that might be another yes sir, body moving with the same tired slur as his speech toward the entrance of the building. It’s set back on a green that shows painfully bright under the well-maintained lighting.
Liam waits until he sees the front door close to move the car out of park.
There’s this thing called the Baader Meinhof Complex. Liam could swear he still has notes on it from some college class tucked in with other adolescent detritus at his parents’ house. It’s the phenomenon of noticing something more when it’s first realized as a reality by the mind. Patterns pulled from thin air, eyes slightly more open.
Not knowledge Liam is asked to call upon with any real frequency, but he’s been thinking of it lately. Of why the brain is the world’s most reluctant spectator, considering only what it’s forced to acknowledge. Believing to see.
There’s a lot he would do to see, right now.
“Again,” he requests, flat and grudging. He twirls his pen in his fingers.
Kloss opens her mouth to protest. Ends up only exhaling in disbelief. Her legs dig a bit more into the table’s edge where she hovers over it, staring down at them all. “We've covered everything.”
“And now I need you to cover everything again,” Liam tells her, maybe a bit impatiently. In response to the unimpressed set of her face, “We're missing something, alright? This is how we’re going to deal with it.”
Kloss' eyes flash with irritation, tan jaw set like she wants to argue the point against her superior. She'd moved to England in her teens but never quite lost the senseless contrariness Liam's come to associate with Americans. An officer had once jokingly referred to her as a Yankee import.
Only the once, though.
“Eight victims as of early Tuesday morning,” she begins, teeth clenching. “First body found December 19th. Victims range from twenty-one to thirty-five years of age, both male and female.” Everyone around the table remains quiet—the only way to take in this sort of information, even when it’s old—as she continues. “All found with their chest cavities bisected, held open with the same brand of pins. All found with ribs cracked to reveal organs. All found with a rather, uh, ardent note card secured in their left hand naming Detective Inspector Payne—that's you, by the way,” she inclines her head to Liam slightly. “All found with their heart removed and secured in their right hand by crafting twine.”
Kloss' posture is straight where she stands and speaks. Militant. Liam spares a nanosecond to be distantly amused by the contrast between her and Detective Sergeant Cabello. The younger woman sits directly to Kloss’ left, slumped in a chair with her pen doodling lazy, meandering spirals as she listens to the grudging recap.
“Due to bruises on the arms and lower legs of the victims consistent with those caused by prolonged restraint, it appears our killer ties them up before making the initial incision to the chest,” Kloss rattles off. “Given the state of the crime scenes—always the last place each victim was seen alive—we can surmise that the killer doesn’t do their work on-location, but rather transports the bodies afterward. The direction of the incisions seems to suggest our killer is right-handed.”
Tomlinson is tapping his fingers gently on his wrist, eyes glazed like he's keeping careful time to a melody in his brain. Delevingne went for a bathroom break fifteen minutes ago.
“The first cut made is a lateral incision with a thin blade, likely a scalpel,” Kloss recites, “after which point the victims quickly bleed out, are cleaned off, and then bisected.”
Horan appears to be writing something down, at least.
Liam leans toward him.
Ah. Just a grocery list, then.
“End of summation,” Kloss finishes, words rolling out like slow wheels on gravel.
Liam casts about the long table. “Any thoughts?” he asks as Kloss sits.
“Seeing as it's the same stuff we've been working with this whole time? No,” says Cabello. Her notebook page is nearly covered in spirals now.
Tomlinson groans quietly, rubbing at his face. “We're sure there's no shared background between the victims?” he asks. It might be the hundredth time.
It feels like the hundredth time.
“No common age, sex, race, ethnicity, orientation,” Delevingne says, striding back from the toilets to flop into a chair. Like Kloss, she tends to extend her legs out under the table. Liam moves his feet to accommodate her stretch. “No common hobby. No common—favorite color, fuck.” A dull bang when her forehead hits the table. “Just nothing.”
Liam nods, dutiful. He knows all of this. They all do; he still can't afford any of his team missing details. Scarce as they are, this far out.
“Tommo,” he says, “any word from the morgue? Anything weird? Or, like,” he blinks to clear his swimming vision under the cheap light fixtures, “new? At all?”
“Not last I checked,” Tomlinson admits. He trades in tapping fingers for a bouncing leg. “They wanted to run some tests on the crawlies we found in the latest vic's chest, though, should be wrapping it up pretty shortly here.”
Cabello's frown deepens, pen digging that much harder into her paper as she scribbles random shapes. If he had to guess, Liam would say it helps her think. “Trying to nail down a location for the actual murder?” she asks.
“Among other things.”
Liam looks at his team, tired and beat down with no new information to sustain momentum. If they were other people, they’d be heading home right now.
The beep of the coffee maker topping off a fresh pot cuts through the contemplative silence. There are handfuls of harrowing crime scene photos and reports scattered down the middle of the table, a reminder of how very unlike other people they are.
It’s paltry material for an investigation of this size. For how richly the murders have sparked the imagination of the usual sensationalist rags, there’s a devastating lack of actual evidence to lead the team. Clues the Met’s brightest can’t seem to find, missteps their killer hasn’t made yet.
They’re six of the smartest people in this building, and they’re at a stalemate with a murderer.
It’s not something they’re publicizing, not something Chief Inspector Winston has shared with the voracious journalists who crowd their press room—for all he lacks the stomach to be involved in the actual investigation, let it never be said their supervisor doesn’t have a shrewd sense of image—but it’s the truth.
Liam casts a look around the office the investigative team has commandeered to serve as their base of operations. Ramshackle setup for food in the corner, dusty old couches by the windows, a shelf of books that have collected here through an unconscious group effort over the last seven months. High ceilings that don’t hold nearly enough light with a central air system rattling on above them.
The detective is starting to know this space better than the walls of his own flat. He tries not to think about it. Tries not to dwell on how he brings Loki here on especially grueling days so the puppy isn’t left waiting for someone who stumbles through the door far too late with an aching body and spent mind and no ability left to show anything approaching affection.
The detective lines the edges of a photo stack up. His mind scans for ways to make tonight’s work productive, prove he earned his place leading this investigation in Winston’s stead.
Ultimately, the solution proves brilliant in its simplicity.
“Everyone go home,” he decides. A chair scrapes against the tile when Cabello jolts in her seat from the noise cutting through the exhausted stillness. Liam receives a few glances verifying that he isn’t joking. “I mean it, go be…not here.” A little exhale, not quite a sigh, falls from his lips as he rubs at his jaw. Sore. He must have been clenching it again. “Just be ready to look at this again in the morning.”
The shuffling to stand is cautious, like Liam might change his mind. He doesn’t. Leads by example instead, grabs his keys from his desk as he strides to the door. There’s a pause while he waits for Tomlinson to retrieve his own scattered possessions and tuck them into the restrictively tight pockets of his jeans.
“Payno,” Tomlinson offers, nudging Liam’s shoulder with his own to get him to start moving.
“Loulou,” Liam simpers for the glare it elicits.
They split off from the rest of the team, shouting a few goodbyes and jostling each other as they meander toward the bank of lifts that lead to the front of the building.
The street welcomes them with summer noise and summer heat, falling sun layered with city smells. Liam breathes deep, tries to hold onto a part of the day he so rarely gets to experience.
He breaks the easy silence to ask, “Yours or mine or the pub?” They shuffle off to the side for a gaggle of teenagers to pass in a cloud of mingling perfumes and colognes—endearingly revolting, Liam thinks, quirking a smile at the one lad who bothers to say excuse us.
“You know, usually I’d say the pub,” Louis muses, louder and a little more Yorkshire now that they’re not in the insular atmosphere of the office, “but I think that’s where the Sergeants were headed.”
Liam understands. “Let’s go to mine, yeah? Get that fried chicken from that place and play video games. Or something.”
“God, yes, please.” Louis kicks at a loose shard of the pavement, watches the cement skitter away from the toe of his trainer. “First one to bring up the investigation loses.”
They’re already in Liam’s car when the detective finally thinks to ask, “Loses what, though?”
“Their life,” Louis mutters darkly, glaring into the passenger side mirror.
And it’s easy, this, familiar and constant like so few things can be. Loki reacts to Louis’ appearance the way he reacts to everything, excited circles around their feet, tongue lolling from his panting mouth.
“Baby’s gotten big,” Louis coos, scooping the puppy up. “Gonna be a right menace for your dad soon, little love?”
Liam drops his bag by the couch, shuffling into the kitchen to seek out the delivery menu he wants. “You wanna take him for a walk?”
“Wanna kiss his little eyebrows,” Louis offers nonsensically, voice still babyish. He drifts into the kitchen doorway, indeed kissing the little beast’s fluffy white eyebrows where he’s cradled to his chest.
Everyone is obsessed with the puppy. Liam doesn’t blame them, fell in love instantly with Loki when the Klee Kai belonging to the girl down the hall had a litter. Still, there’s a sting to the way the people in his life seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief when he announced the pup’s arrival. That’s Liam squared away then, they said without saying.
Which, he’d argue the point—he’s been a little fucking busy to be dating, alright, he’s barely got time to breathe, let alone crave companionship—but hours after Louis has left that night he wakes up in a cold sweat. Before he’s even registered that he’s awake, he’s wiping at his temple, the dampness there. His eyes strain to check, make sure his fingers haven’t come back red.
In these half-real moment, it seems a very valid possibility.
And, Liam admits, it’s nice to be able to place a hand on the dog’s chest, feel his little body move up and down as he dozes. Signs of life, uninterrupted by violence and morbid deconstruction.
Loki breathes; Liam breathes with him. Counts exhales until the sky turns blue and his eyes grow too dry and heavy to hold open.
There’s a phantom at the end of the bar. He’s in rather rough shape.
“What the hell happened?” Liam demands. He’d insisted on grabbing the next round of pints when Tomlinson bet him he couldn’t carry all the glasses back to their table. Which was categorically dumb—their group isn't even large, just the half dozen unlucky sods Winston’s appointed as the serial murder investigation’s core team.
Zayn looks up slowly from the bar, indifference radiating like black light.
“Oh.” And in a blink, the boy’s gaze becomes warm, fully engaged when it meets Liam’s. “It’s you.”
“It’s me,” Liam agrees, off-kilter. He crosses his arms. “What are you doing here?”
The kid smiles, blinding white against the bruise on his cheek. “What do people generally do at pubs?”
“What are you doing here,” Liam specifies. His whole life is observation, for chrissake. He'd have taken note of Zayn's slender build and dark energy and apparently omnipresent leather jacket in the pub down the street from the Yard. “And what happened.”
With a shrug, Zayn says, “Bit of an altercation with a…” he licks out over his busted lip, partially bruised with flecks of blood still clinging to it, “….larger fellow.”
“Altercation,” Liam repeats dumbly. There’s stains like rust on a few of Zayn’s tapered fingers. “Larger fellow.”
Zayn lifts a short glass of something the same honey as his eyes up to his ruined mouth. “Breadth and scope of it,” he murmurs, swallowing down an aggressive mouthful and making himself shudder.
“Were you—are you going to report it?” Liam fumbles. He's admittedly at a bit of a loss, standing at the bar with six draughts growing slippery with condensation by his hand and a boy carrying traces of gravel in his hair in front of him, appearing completely unbothered by it all. “Is that why—? The Met's up the block, you could—”
“Why would I report it?” Zayn asks, tone curious. Sterile.
Liam purses his lips. “You're bleeding.”
“Funny thing, though, no one seems bothered but you,” Zayn notes, quirking one of his thick brows reproachfully. He tips his glass back, draining it with another hearty swallow. “Best be getting back to your mates.” He stands.
Without his express input, Liam's hand lands on Zayn's arm. It's the same spot he'd rubbed circles into that night barely a week ago, some attempt to soothe the boy who had stood there shaking from fear after a near-mugging.
The same boy who stands before him now, haughty and indifferent with blood smearing his face.
Liam has a lot of questions.
“Do you have a safe way home?” is what comes out.
Zayn smiles, placid and loose from liquor. “Do I look particularly interested in what's safe, Detective Inspector?” He pulls out of Liam's grip like silk through careless fingers.
He's slipped out the door before Liam’s got his bearings, before he thinks to ask the kid why. Why—any of it. The questions won’t coalesce, though, intangible as smoke, and they fade as the moment does.
When the detective returns to the table, thoughts foggy and muddled, Tomlinson is holding court.
“And then he looks at me, right, and we both start laughing, 'cause the muffin's in the wall—”
“Is that some weird northern euphemism?” Liam interjects, setting down the sweating beers one at a time as he loosens his fingers from around them. He slides in beside Tomlinson. “Y'owe me a fiver.”
“Fuck o—” Louis begins, but he closes his mouth and shakes his head instead, fishing into his pocket for the cash. “Point is: if I hadn't been so lazy, I would have eaten it and put that shit in my body. Preservatives are basically black magic.”
Everyone laughs. Liam has clearly missed something. The strange, dreamlike moment at the bar has him wondering if that's not a recurring problem.
The topic has moved on to general teasing when Tomlinson's elbow hits Liam just under his ribcage.
He answers Liam's long-suffering glare with, “What was that? With the bloke with the bruises.”
It's quiet, an undertone just for them. Liam's been working with Tomlinson the entirety of his time with the Met. He'll never understand how someone who spends most of their day wrist-deep in human remains can be so perceptive of the living.
“That was...” Liam begins, just as lowly. He pivots in his mind for the right word. “Confusing.”
Tomlinson snorts. “Need to stop letting you hang with Styles,” he mutters into the lip of his glass. “Makes you cryptic.”
Liam's brow pinches. He shakes his head slowly and sips from his own glass. “Dunno what else to call it.”
“You acted like you knew him,” Tomlinson notes.
That comment is a lead. Liam considers it.
The shaken boy huddled into himself on the sidewalk a few days ago. The disaffected kid at the bar, blood drying on his lips.
It's not a lie when Liam says, “I don't.” Soft, sleepy eyes. Blank, burning stare. “I really do not.”
Liam shepherds the group back to the Met after they finish the round. They end up going in a circle around the table, coming up with new angles for the investigation as the day dies outside the windows.
They burn out somewhere between a suggestion that they analyze the font preferences of different socioeconomic brackets and a proposal that they hold an open call for new medical staff specializing in dissections.
“Okay,” Liam concedes over his own rumble of dark laughter. He rubs at his forehead as he says, “Delevingne, Cabello and Kloss, you're free to go. We start again tomorrow at eight sharp; text me if you think of anything. Horan,” he turns to the man next to him. Horan sits with his face resting on the heel of his hand, gaze spacey. His eyes are the color of the sky at noon and just as distant. They focus back in on Liam as he speaks. “You're coming with me to the catacomb.”
Everyone begins packing up, stretching and chatting quietly.
Tomlinson is the exception. “So what, I just hover in stasis until tomorrow? Shröedinger's forensics specialist?”
Liam rolls his eyes, gathering his unnecessary jacket as he does. “Figured you'd tag along. As usual.”
“I don't do that,” Louis denies.
“You do that so hard,” Horan accuses, but there's a smile lighting his eyes.
“I don't do that, and—Niall, shut up—and actually, Detective Inspectors, I have more reason to be there than either of you,” Louis says with a sniff and shrugs into a gray hoodie, sleeves immediately pushed up his forearms.
“Harassing the medical examiner isn't a legitimate reason,” Delevingne calls over her shoulder, ridiculous stork legs taking her out of the building and onto her evening faster than any of them.
“Cara's got a point,” Niall decides.
Louis pushes his messy fringe out of his face with blunt nails. “I'm a fucking pathologist,” he mutters defensively, but lets it drop.
The morgue—the catacomb, as their team has come to call it—is roughly a million floors down from the investigation’s office at the Yard. Liam leans up against the wall of the lift, keeps half an ear to Louis and Niall's chatter as they descend. They’re all close and the sound of them is nearly soothing, how the detective remembers the brook by his childhood home being.
“So you're saying you wouldn't bend him over.”
Well. Soothing. Bit of a strong word.
“I'm saying that this conversation is over, Horan,” Louis retorts.
“And I'm saying you both need to be on your A-game for a minute, alright?” Liam insists. “Lou, this being your playing field and all, I need your eyes keen on whatever they have for us. Mind sharp. You know.”
Louis does. He nods and keeps silent, flicking Niall only once under the eye as they exit the lift and sidle past the sliding glass door of the morgue. Niall squawks, grabbing indignantly for the clever fingers that are quick to move away.
The morgue at Scotland Yard is chilly and oppressively clean and, despite being a couple levels down from his own personal office, one of Tomlinson's favorite places in the building. It hadn't taken anyone who'd been down to the catacomb very long to figure out why.
“Heyyyy,” calls the medical examiner from where he's looking over—something, held in a pair of silver tweezers. As they stride into the room in a cluster, Liam squints at it. Semi-translucent, tiny and curved and sickly white.
“That a maggot?” Tomlinson chirps, already delighted.
Horan shakes his head at Liam's side.
“Pulled off your stiff, yeah,” the examiner confirms in a low drawl. He looks up to smile at Tomlinson, soft, and waves with one gloved hand when he notices Liam and Horan hovering a safe distance away. “Liam. Nialler.”
“Styles,” Liam greets. He looks at the spread of Petri dishes, shades of brown and green and burgundy staining them. “Anything good?”
“Kind of relative, good and bad,” Styles waffles, setting the maggot down on a sterile pad with intense care, “but, like. Yeah.”
Liam's scowl is more habitual than anything. He doesn't mind Styles, really, doesn't know much of his background—Tomlinson might, but if so guards that information jealously—just that he's smart enough to do what he does and sociable enough to make it easier when their paths cross.
An inevitable occurrence, cops and corpses having the relationship they do.
“What've you got?” Horan asks. He has his notebook out, eyeing Styles' spread of sample dishes inquisitively.
Good man, Horan. Diligent.
“Oh,” Tomlinson murmurs, eyebrow arching as he stares down at one of the redder dishes. “Oh.”
“Right?” Styles says, arm brushing the pathologist's when he leans into him. “Had to run it five times before I was sure, the—”
“The cold, yeah,” Tomlinson cuts in. His hip bumps Styles', overly familiar. “How'd you get it to—?
“Gents?” Horan interjects. “Care to share with the class?”
“Speak it like they're five, Haz,” Tomlinson says in an undertone.
Styles opens his mouth. His large green eyes are strange under the unforgiving light, bright against skin made pale by long hours in the lab. “The maggots in your corpse's body came from flies.”
“Imagine that,” Liam says dryly.
“Yeah, well, the flies were attracted by decay, obviously,” Styles continues, tone methodical and unbothered. He's toying with the top of his blue latex glove, gaze sweeping over the row of samples in front of him. “This is the first body you've brought me that was in such an advanced state.”
“Found her in her office building,” Tomlinson explains. “Custodian did, rather. Long weekend.”
Styles winces. “That'd do it.” He looks back up, meets Liam's eye and then Horan's. “What's funny about the particular genus of fly that lays—” he taps the pad with the maggot on it “—these little fellows, is that they only show up after the first...let's say 32 hours of decomposition.”
“Funny,” Horan agrees gamely. “And then what?”
“They lay eggs,” Tomlinson pipes up, “just a bunch of nasty little babies everywhere.” He flickers his eyes between them. “And then the babies eat.”
Gross, but not revolutionary. “I'm not sure why that's...I mean...” The pair of medical professionals stare at Liam with twin expressions, slate-blank as he talks. “So?”
“So when they eat,” Styles says, tone indicating he's trying very hard to speak on their level, “they eat the decomposing flesh. And whatever's in it.”
“Right,” Horan agrees. “Still not—”
“Our bodies hold a lot of hidden chemistry,” Tomlinson supplies. He pokes at the agar on one of the Petri dishes with a pinky. Styles softly slaps him away, hand lingering over top of his. “So, for example, when a vic eats a lot of potassium-rich food, we can trace that in their bodies later.”
“Only, some chemical signatures take time to form, and some dissipate—pretty rapidly, really. Sometimes just a few hours,” Styles mumbles, strange eyes already back on his maggots and samples.
Someone hurries a cart by on the other side of the morgue's doors, a bad wheel squeaking as it goes. It's the only sound while Tomlinson and Styles wait for the Detective Inspectors to put it together.
“So, the maggots...” Horan trails in. His fair brow is creased as he stares hard at the line of samples. “They eat those chemicals that would otherwise...disappear.”
“Dissipate, yeah,” Tomlinson says.
Oh. “So they're like a record of the chemicals decomp would otherwise erase,” Liam surmises.
“Exactly,” Styles agrees, beaming when he looks at Liam. His smile carves a devastating crater of a dimple into his cheek, a compliment to the dark scrollwork of curls that brush his jaw.
So maybe Liam kind of gets Tommo's thing with him.
“Alright then. What showed up?” Horan asks, pen poised over paper once more.
Tomlinson's canines are sharp when he smiles. “You're gonna like this.”
“Smoking dulls mental capability, by the way.”
Liam leans his head back against the wall, exhaling a plume of nicotine. He's supposed to be further from the doors of the Met, ordinances say, but it's late in the evening and who, exactly, is meant to enforce that? Him?
“What a game-changing piece of information.” He inhales another long drag, the cherry of the cigarette burning bright, and doesn't give in to the impulse to look toward the already-familiar voice. “I'd no idea.”
“Mouthy,” Zayn murmurs, sidling up until their arms almost touch. He mirrors Liam, leaning back against the concrete.
“What are you doing here?” Liam asks on an exhale. Why do you keep showing up?
“Out for a walk,” Zayn returns easily. “Not actually all that far from campus, y'know.”
Liam is still deciding whether he thinks that's the truth when Zayn says, “I shouldn't have let you see me the other day. With the—” his hand waves in front of his face. A week later, the bruise marring his jaw seems to have cleared, though the murky lighting makes it hard for Liam to tell. “That was irresponsible.” His face shows no contrition when he says, “I apologize.”
“You—okay,” Liam stumbles. “Apologize for what?”
He senses more than sees Zayn's eye roll. “Showing up in your neighborhood. Making you feel responsible for what I get up to.”
It's maybe a little chilling, how completely Zayn managed to read that brief moment at the pub days earlier. Did he do it all at once? Did he piece it together and come here once he had?
Has it been running through his brain the way Liam can’t seem to stop it from running through his?
“Do you go around picking fights?” Liam asks, voicing a conclusion all his own. He turns fully to Zayn, clad in a Henley that reveals the tips of inky feathers and something red beneath where the buttons clasp. “Is that a thing for you?”
The younger man's brow wrinkles. “A thing,” he muses with the ghost of a smile. “Could be.”
Liam's eyes close against the admission, frustrated breath coming through his nose in a hot stream. “Why?” he asks. “Why were you so shaken up by that mugger, then?”
Zayn's head tilts a little, half gravity and half carelessness. “You're not asking what you really want to know.”
He's so slight where he leans, compact in a way Liam associates with vipers. With pistols.
Lethality contained, but only just.
“You're studying for a...what, a dual doctorate in the sciences, but you're not bright enough to know you should avoid picking fights in alleyways.” Liam means it to be offhand and conversational, but it’s betrayed by the rough timbre of his voice. Disapproval and curiosity, both.
Zayn notices. He would. Liam can tell by the twist of his full mouth, a crooked smirk on glass-cut features. “One can boast a high intelligence quotient and still need a bit of a kick. You know.”
The words burn somewhere in Liam's sternum. “Wouldn't argue 'needing a bit of a kick' is a good indicator of intelligence,” he observes. He drags in another measure of smoke, showy about it for the way it makes Zayn’s expression narrow. “Curious how much your parents had to shell out to make it worth the uni's while for a trouble-seeker like you.” It's a little meaner than it needs to be, colored darker shades by Liam's own tiring day.
Styles is still analyzing soil samples from different areas along the Thames—whatever type of maggot he found on their corpse, it apparently favors river systems—and trying to narrow down possible points along its stretch where the latest victim may have had her life ended. It’s slow going, a lead that’s literally bug-sized. It’s not much to give Winston when he calls Liam up to his office so he can feel involved. Not much to combat the disapproval in his gaze.
And last night was—bad, images of note cards wedged into exposed brain matter jolting Liam awake, so the detective isn’t in the best place for this, another strange interaction with Zayn that on a good day would still only feel half real.
Zayn laughs, though, delight in the squeeze of his eyes when he tilts his head back slightly, and Liam doesn't find himself regretting the bite of his words.
“You're fun,” Zayn says, voice still lit with amusement. “No, though.”
“My parents didn't spend a pound,” Zayn elaborates. He tilts his head toward him where they're staring each other down, still leaning side by side on the wall of the Yard. “Full scholarship, stipend included.” He pulls at his earlobe, the black stud of an earring there, and adds, a touch smug, “Someone thinks I'm plenty worth the hassle.”
“Stipend not afford you cab fare, then?” Liam asks.
There's something satisfying in the way Zayn's expression twists. The way his lips edge toward a pout, not quite getting there before he reigns it back in. “That’d be a waste,” Zayn mutters, eyes dark and not meeting Liam's own.
“Why am I always the one who finds you?” Liam asks, abrupt like the way he thought it.
Zayn’s expression, still indirect, holds a sudden effervescence that shines dark. “What makes you think you're the only one who ever finds me?”
As Liam processes the words, there's a tug of—something, in his chest, seething and hot. He rolls his wrists to dispel the tension in the sinew.
This conversation is a lot of things, intriguing and maddening, addictive in its circular flow, but it’s hardly productive. Liam snubs his fag against the wall behind him, dropping the butt.
“I've got something to get back to,” he mutters, shoulder blades taking the brunt of his weight as he pushes off the wall. “Please don't indulge your—thing, when you head back to campus.”
He's within paces of the entrance when he hears Zayn's response. “Would it bother you if I did?”
Liam wheels, agitated beyond reason. “I'm a cop, mate, so yes.” Then, when all Zayn does is smirk knowingly, “What do you want?” He realizes, belatedly, that he sounds more intrigued than annoyed. There's not much for it.
“Just to see you,” Zayn replies, eyes honey-clear. “I'm simple like that.”
There's no mistaking the flash of heat in Liam's gut this time. “Go study something,” he manages.
“It's summer, Detective Inspector,” Zayn mocks quietly, but he's backing down the block, hypnotic and slow.
Vipers. Pistols. Liam always has been big on metaphors.
Back inside, Cabello looks up from a series of crime scene photos and frowns hard at him. “I might be pointing out the obvious here, but I don't think smoking agrees with you, Payne,” she says. Her eyes flicker back to the images under her splayed hands. “You look peaky.”
“Bad habit,” Liam says absently, drifting toward his own pile of evidence. He feels half blind. “Really, really fucking deadly habit.”