Chapter One – The Detective

Toronto 8.30pm Current Day.

The alley was dark and wet from the rain storm which, though still raging above, failed to hide the acrid smell of old takeout, vomit and urine. Piles of trash and a couple of rusting dumpsters provided an obstacle course of the worst kind, but she didn't care. It was a place of sanctuary that removed her from the street and put her out of sight. She staggered forward. Her hand pressed tight to her side, her foot dragging behind her. Running was not an option.

A cluttered doorway, hidden behind an overflowing trashcan gave some shelter from the rain. She shoved rotten cardboard boxes to one side and allowed herself to slide down to the ground, her back against the door. Panting, she glanced again at her side and closed her eyes against the pain, rain drops collected in her hair, blackened by dirt, and rivulets of dirty water streaked down her face. As she opened her eyes again, her free hand reached inside her clothes and felt for the reassuring rectangle tucked within her bra. Satisfied, she closed her eyes and was still.

Toronto 11.00pm Current Day.

Blue and red lights flashed in the puddles and reflected from every wet surface. The steady thunder of rain on brick and metal was broken by the bray of sirens and somewhere in the near distance, a radio buzzed with a dispatcher's voice.

"All units, 10-45 confirmed. Corner of Hamilton and West 5th. Officers and Coroner en route."

A car door squeaked open and a foot stepped out in to a deep puddle. There was a soft curse.

"For you, sir." A young voice insisted holding out something blue and plastic to the car's occupant. There was no verbal response, just a disbelieving stare. The young constable's offering was ignored, but from the other side another hand swiped the object, dismissed its giver and chucked it at the new arrival who showed no sign of leaving the dry interior of the car.

"Put 'em on, D. It'll save that Italian leather." The speaker was matter of fact.

The car driver grunted.

"Bit late for that." and he stretched down to pull the blue bootees over his damp shoes. His companion obligingly held an umbrella over both of them whilst the task was completed.

"We'll get you following procedures yet." The voice continued and there was just the tiniest trace of amusement, reined in because of the circumstances.

Detective Sergeant Derek Venturi unfolded himself from the driver's seat and straightened up. In a movement, so routine he no longer realised he was doing it, he reached into his leather jacket and drew out his detective badge, clipping it to the belt of his black jeans. At 28, tall and athletic in appearance he was still an attractive man, popular with all, although some of the class clown manner of his teenage years had disappeared and his eyes spoke of a hard road travelled.

"What have we got?" He asked without emotion. His partner adjusted the umbrella and shrugged.

"Female, Blonde, late 20s. Exactly your type."

"Jazz…" Derek warned, his head jerking to a group of young police constables nearby. His companion got the message and sighed.

"Dead a couple of hours, the Coroner reckons. COD not certain but there's a stab wound to the side and the right ankle appears broken. Restaurant owner found her when he closed up for the night at about 10.30pm"

Derek shivered and pulled his jacket closer as they approached the alley. God awful weather!

"Primary scene?" He asked glancing around him as they walked.

Jazz shook his head. "We've had some heavy rain tonight, but even I can tell if the assault had happened here there would have been more blood.'

They reached the end of the alley, taped off and floodlit now, two white-suited Scene of Crime people working further in, one providing further illumination with the flash of a camera. Derek and Jazz paused.

"Can we do something about that?" Derek asked with a sharp gesture at the sky. Jazz nodded back towards the street they had just come down.

"Tents have just arrived. But it's been so long, the blood trail out of the alley has washed away. I've asked the local lot to round up the CCTV footage. Maybe we can get a direction of travel from that."

Derek nodded. "Do you think she walked here under her own steam? Or was it a dump?"

His companion weighed the possibility in his own mind before speaking. "That's one for the Coroner, I think. There are bloody smears on the cardboard that she was found under, however. It looks like she may have pulled it over her as a shelter."

"I concur". A voice said from the alleyway. They turned as a woman of fifty or so, dressed from head to toe in a disposable suit approached.

Derek nodded to her in recognition, yet he said nothing.

"If you pushed me, I'd say she got here under her own steam – and then ran out of it, or rather she ran out of blood."

Derek nodded. "Anything firmer on the COD, Marian?" He asked the duty Coroner more in hope than expectation.

Marian Lowe shrugged. "Like I said, signs point to blood loss, I'm guessing from the stab wound. BUT, don't go taking that as gospel until I put it down in writing and sign my name to it. I'll know more when I get her out of this piss-awful night and back to the lab."

"Any ID?" Jazz asked, knowing that it would be a while before anyone else got close to the body. "Wallet?"

Marian smiled and held out a plastic evidence bag. "I'll let your labs handle this because I'm far too good to you." She said, teasingly. Jazz grinned and blew her a kiss.

"You're an angel, Marie. A pure angel."

Derek snorted. "Wouldn't that make her an angel of death?"

Toronto 2.57am.

Jazz was reclined with his feet on the desk when Derek entered their office later that night. Or rather, early that morning. Outside in the main office, the room was buzzing with officers all processing the minutiae of information gleaned from the investigation so far.

"Wallet's a bust." Jazz announced, reaching out for one of the coffees Derek was carrying. The damp weather had soaked through their clothes and into their bones, leaving both of them chilled. It made the cheap coffee a necessity.

Jazz continued. "Money, door key, but no cards and no ID. We're going to have to run her prints through the system to find out who she is. That's going to take some time as the crime scene is too wet, apparently. The fingerprint reader shorted and her fingers are too wet for the old-fashioned method. It will be done on the table when they've dried her body."

"Figures. If this case was going to be easy, the alley would have been on CCTV." Derek sat down in his own chair and adopted a similar pose to Jazz. Four hours into the investigation and very little to go on. Out in the rain uniformed officers were canvassing, but with few residential properties in the area and the rain dampening everyone's enthusiasm for a night out, the streets had been pretty empty since dusk fell. The scene would be processed, the surveillance cameras within a five-mile radius would be checked, but everything else would have to wait until the morning. He thought about home and how he had been less than ten blocks from his front door when the call came in. It was going to be one of those nights.

"Flip you for the autopsy?" Jazz suggested. Derek regarded him over his cardboard cup.

"What time is it slated for?"

Jazz shrugged. "9am."

Derek laughed. "You never could do mornings, could you? 9am isn't that early, Jazz."

"It is if you don't get to bed before six." Derek's partner pointed out. "Besides, you're better at them than me. You don't barf as much." He sipped his coffee.

"I don't barf at all." Derek objected. Which was true. For blood, gore, and man's inhumanity to man in general Derek had developed a strong stomach. High School hockey games were a different thing altogether. Derek glanced at his watch. It was 3am.

"Look. There's no point in both of us sitting up with this one until the cock crows. You go home and get some sleep. I'll cover the autopsy and let you know if anything breaks. I'll see you at 11?"

Jazz readily agreed. "Sounds good to me. We can't do much until we get an ident or a sighting. I'll cover tomorrow night if the pace has picked up. Cheers, bro!"

As soon as Jazz had left the office, Derek pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket to check for messages. It was early in the morning and he had only recently checked his inbox, so for most people it would be no surprise that it was still empty. But Derek sighed. Normally he would have a whole string of text messages by this stage of the night.

Instead, nothing.

He wondered aloud how long this silent treatment was going to continue. Two days and counting. It was new to him and he didn't like it. His usual style was more confrontational. He wasn't known for backing down from a fight and neither was his opponent.

Even now. Despite everything.

His finger tapped out a message.

"Really?! This is how you want to play this?" He typed and pressed send.

The line turned blue on the screen and "Delivered" appeared in grey beneath it. Immediately, "Delivered" became "Read". For a moment the cursor flashed as though something was being typed. But the sender obviously changed their mind because the screen cleared again. Derek waited.

After ten minutes he gave up, pulled his feet down from his desk and turned towards his monitor. He glanced up at the outer office, but everyone was chatting and going through the administrative processes necessary at the beginning of a homicide investigation. Murder boards were being wheeled in, maps were being pinned up and phones were being plugged in. They had tried interactive noticeboards but there was only budget in the department for one. It sat in the centre of the office mimicking the contents of the static boards beside it. But it could only show one board at a time and sometimes, they needed to see the whole picture. So, while they waited for the budget to catch up with real life, the static boards would have to do.

In an hour's time, unless something useful came in, Derek knew the office would all be quiet again and the thumb-twiddling would begin. They needed an I.D., or an angle and it wasn't going to happen at 3.30am. For now, however, the department was busy doing the routine, and with that activity, it meant no one was bothering Derek. No-one was paying attention to him, leaving him free to resort to his usual off-books pastime.

Google searches.

Derek was good at computing. He'd had a computer from a young age and he had quickly seen the many benefits that the technology could bring to his life: Social media when he was grounded (before George caught on to the craze), plus the ability to track his various high school business ventures including stationery sales, fashion etc.

Not to mention online porn was so much easier to hide from his IT-illiterate parents than magazines under the mattress.

Derek was too old for all that now. He had more important things to do with his computer skills. His google searches had a purpose – a purpose that bridged the gap between his personal and his professional life in ways that weren't strictly to police code.

For three years now he had been looking for something, (or maybe someone). And when he found it (or them), someone was going to pay.

Possibly with their life.

He pulled the small notebook from his jacket pocket and flipped it onto the table. It had once been an expensive leather-bound book, with an integral pen. But three years of living in his jacket pocket had worn the leather away at the corners and the pen had long ago run out of ink. Inside the quality paper pages were full of Derek's scribblings, not so much careful note-taking as regular brain dumps. Ideas were written, circled, scrubbed out.

Someone - many years ago - had described Derek's handwriting as "unique" – an attempt at polite criticism during a late-night study session. Derek had responded with a cocky retort and a dig of his own - and she had amended her description to "spider scrawl". Now he could not look at his own handwriting without remembering that night, the girl and the people they had both become.

Derek glanced at his phone again, picked up the notebook and thumbed through the pages until he reached beginning of The List: ten alphanumeric strings with no indication of what they meant or represented. Seven of the numbers were ticked off, meaning he had already researched those numbers using google. That process alone had taken him six months. He leaned forward, ready to begin to research the eighth string.

The door to his office opened. "Sarge. Phone call for you in the main office."

Derek nodded and closed out of his browser as he stood up. Time to go to work.

Across town, Nora Venturi padded barefoot across the landing to her youngest son's bedroom. She opened the door carefully and peered into the dark.

"You okay, sweetie?" She enquired, her eyes not yet adjusting to the gloom inside the room.

Robbie Venturi sat up in bed. "My ear hurts, Mom." He said and reached for the bedside lamp. They both blinked at the sudden brightness and he turned the lamp off again.

"I think it's time for your antibiotic and some painkillers." Nora confirmed, glancing at the bedside clock. "Would you like some warm milk too?"

"And a cookie?" Robbie prompted hopefully. "You know those antibiotics are supposed to be taken with food."

Nora grinned. She wondered how much of his wakefulness was actual pain and how much was the primal call of his stomach. Yup, he was a Venturi, alright.

"Of course. Casey made a batch yesterday. I'm sure there are some left over. I'll be right back." Nora padded back across the landing and towards the stairs. Her eyes well-adjusted and light from the street illuminated the stairwell so she didn't need to switch on the electric light. She smiled a little as she descended. Ten years ago, going downstairs in a Venturi household without a light on would have been risking a broken neck from stepping on an errant toy from Marti, a soccer ball from Lizzie or a hockey stick from Derek. These days it was a different house in a different town and most of the elder children were away. Even when they were home they were all a little better at tidying up.

One of the few positives to have come out of recent events.

She reached the ground floor and the darkness of the wide hall. To one side, the open plan living room which led to the kitchen, but on the other side the two doors which led to the two ground floor bedrooms, one previously a dining room, the other the converted garage. The old garage door showed a thin crack of light at its base. Nora sighed.

It wasn't just Robbie. Two of her children were awake.

"Casey, hun. You okay?" Nora tapped on the door before opening it.

Casey turned from her place at her desk, her phone in her hand, a wry smile on her lips.

"Yes, thanks Mom."

Nora frowned. "The usual?" She asked. Casey nodded and pulled a face. "I'm fine, Mom. I've taken something for it and I'll just do some work until it passes. Did I make a noise?"

Nora shook her head. "Robbie has earache. I'm making him hot milk and cookies." She paused. "Assuming there are some left…" Nora glanced towards the hallway.

Casey rolled her eyes. "There will be. He's still at work."

Nora took a deep breath. "I guessed as much." She looked at the darkness under her daughter's eyes and the paleness of her skin. Nora didn't think there was a spare ounce of fat on Casey's body, though much of it was covered in her dressing gown and the blanket she wore over her knees. There was the triangle of skin exposed at Casey's throat, however, and Nora couldn't help but notice the small round scar that during daytime hours Casey always kept hidden.

As if sensing her mother's attention, Casey put her hand to her throat and coughed. Nora looked away.

"Cup of tea? As I'm in the kitchen anyway?" Nora asked with false brightness.

Later, as Nora climbed back into the bed she shared with her husband she lay for a while waiting for sleep to come.

"Everything okay?" George Venturi turned towards her and mumbled.

Nora sighed. "Robbie was hungry and Casey…" She paused. "Casey's really unhappy."

George reached across and patted her on the arm.

"Talk to Derek. He'll know what's up."

Nora turned over onto her side. "Yup. That's what I'm afraid of."