How do you kill a man... who's already dead?
Detective Evan White is on the trail of a killer. A madman who slaughters at a whim. A murderer bent on destroying everything and everyone Evan loves. An assassin who can't be killed... because he's already dead.
Evan is about to begin the longest day of his life. A day that will determine what is true, what is false. What crimes are reality...
... and what crimes are merely seen.
Michaelbrent Collings is one of those witers who makes other writers feel as though they should up their game. This story starts out as a crime investigation, and slowly sinks into mystery and then horror. While it reads like a crime novel, novel at first, the story takes a turn for the weird. – Martin Kee
"[Crime Seen] will keep you guessing until the end.... 5/5."–Horror Novel Reviews
"It's rare to find an ending to a novel that is clever, thought-provoking and surprising, yet here Collings nails all three...."–Ravenous Reads
"With an ending that, again, will keep you guessing until the last chapter, I would definitely recommend this book to others."–Horror Drive-In
"Dark, gritty, haunting and spooky . . . . A great read with creeping insidious chills and sudden gut-punches, Crime Seen is another winner from [Collings]."–The Horror Fiction Review
"Crime Seen by Michaelbrent Collings is one of those rare books that deserves more than five stars."–Top of the Heap Reviews
The back wall was covered top to bottom by a long black curtain. Tuyen shivered as she stopped at the thick drapery.
"Someone walk on your grave?" said Evan.
"I hate it back here."
"Not your style?"
She threw that disgusted look at him again. "I'm not Hmong."
She parted the curtain in the middle and stepped through.
Evan did the same, and realized that the curtain wasn't covering a back wall, but instead bisected the store neatly in half. He also understood why Tuyen had shivered, and had to resist an urge to do the same.
The back half of Mystix was dark. Not pitch black, but the lights were lower here. There was shelving, same as in the front, but the shelves seemed older, less stable. As though the owner of the store — whether that was Tuyen or someone else — had never bothered with any upkeep back here.
And what was on the shelves was the kind of thing Evan didn't understand. He could conceptualize what he was seeing, but not its uses. Not its reasons.
He saw chopsticks, lashed together in inverted crosses, each with the dried body of a gutted lizard lashed to it. Beside them was a spot on the floor with no shelves, but piled high with a variety of animal skulls.
The back wall — the real back wall — of the store drew his attention most of all. There were a trio of animals, what he guessed were creatures indigenous to Vietnam, stuffed and mounted on the otherwise empty space. A five-foot-long python with blood-red scales, a snub-nose monkey with a bluish face, and the shriveled body of something that looked like a baby jackal or maybe a small dog.
The python's jaws were unhinged, stretched wide, and it had swallowed half the monkey, which was around three feet long. The monkey had been arranged to look in agony, its arms splayed and its back arched. But at the same time it was busy chewing the baby jackal. And the jackal in turn had the tail of the python lodged deep in its throat.
The things were devouring each other forever, a horrifically conceived murder-suicide as each beast killed a foe and in so doing also swallowed the world of its own existence.
Evan had been on the force almost twenty years. He had seen murder, rape, torture, abuse — so much so that it all tended to blend sometimes; it all tended to seem like the same thing over and over again. But this circle of endless death sent chill-spasms up and down his back in a way few things did anymore.
"Jesus," he whispered.
"He's not here," said Tuyen. Her voice was low. Lost in a shadowland between reverence and fear.
The animals' eyes were sewn shut. And as soon as he saw that, the interpretation of the circle changed. Now they seemed to be vomiting, to be giving violent birth to one another, to the things that would eventually kill them.
Either way, death.
Evan looked at the curtain. It was the thing farthest away from the gruesome death-circle, and he didn't want to see those animals right now. Or ever again.
Tuyen saw him staring at the cloth. "Some Hmong believe the spirits can't pass through doors. They can appear anywhere, but places with no doors invite them."
That made it all worse somehow: the idea that there was no place safe, but that this place had been designed to specifically lure things from the other side.
Evan sensed movement. He turned toward it, and saw a large shape among the shelves at the back. Someone lurking. Perhaps a shopper, perhaps just another chubby old lady — albeit one interested in a darker sort of magic than the jolly-seeming women he had seen earlier.
Still, his fingers itched. He wanted to grab his gun. Wanted to just start shooting.
"Don't worry about him," said Tuyen. "Come on."
She pulled Evan's sleeve, almost yanking him along. Normally he wouldn't care to have a comparative stranger pulling him around in a dark voodoo shop, but he was grateful for her touch. It grounded him, the warmth of her hand even through his coat seeming to remind him that reality still had at least a toehold in his existence.
He moved with her to the back of the dark section. There was an open door there, which admitted them to a coffin of a room. No windows, just a desk, a chair, a small filing cabinet, a computer. Above the desk a small cabinet had been built into the wall. And that was it. No pictures, no other ornamentation. The small business office of a person who either made little money or whose main business was not in bookkeeping but in people. Perhaps both.
A small gooseneck lamp cast a weak cone of light over the desk, cutting the computer keyboard into zones of light and dark. It flickered, an exhausted beam of light that needed tending. Tuyen tapped it impatiently and cursed in Vietnamese.
She opened the cabinet above the computer. Inside was a small closed-circuit video setup. Not much, basically just a foot-square monitor with an attached video recorder. Evan had seen thousands of them. This looked like a cheap model, the kind designed to record, then automatically rewind and record again so that the owner would have a record of whatever happened in the last two or six hours, but nothing else.
The monitor was dark. Gray-green and strangely unsettling when it was revealed, like the eye of a sleeping demon that had yet to be awakened.
Tuyen flicked a red switch at the base of the machine and a pin of light appeared in the monitor. An instant later it widened to encompass the entire screen. The image flashed and flared, a gray/green/black/white mélange of motion. The lines were oddly hypnotic, and Evan found himself staring at the monitor, falling into it.
It was a view of the front of the shop, he finally realized. But a distorted view, as if someone had pulled reality like taffy and then shredded the results before gluing it all together in a lunatic hodge-podge.
The effect was creepy. Disturbing. And somehow beautiful as well. As if Evan might find all the answers he wanted and needed if he could only find a way to see behind the distortions.
"What's this?" he finally managed. His voice sounded like it was coming from someone else.
Tuyen sounded strangely distant, too. "I told you we don't have tapes," she said. "Or at least, none that are worth anything."
She whacked the side of the monitor. The sound hit Evan like a gunshot, like —
(the vision of his dead wife)
— a bolt of lightning, shocking him at least partially back to reality.
The blurred image on the screen shimmied under the blow, then returned. Evan looked away before it caught his attention again. Trying to convince himself that the sweat he felt trickling down his neck and armpits was just because he was concentrating, not because he was suddenly terrified.
"Stupid thing's been broken forever," said Tuyen. She sounded enraged, seething. And Evan had been a cop long enough — which meant he had been studying people long enough — to see that she was using rage to mask fear.
Tuyen was terrified of this monitor.
"It's still running tape, though?" he said.
She shrugged. "Sure. Maybe. Depends on if the day shift guy put one in last time it was working."
She pressed a button on the machine. Something deep in the base of the thing grinded resentfully, then a motor hummed with only slightly less attitude. The gray plastic cover under the monitor flicked back and a black video tape spit out.
"You're in luck," said Tuyen. She pulled the tape out and turned to Evan.
"You gonna put a new one back in?"
"Why bother?" She nodded at the monitor, which still showed a spliced mess of the world.
She handed the tape to Evan and he reached to take it. Their fingers brushed for just a second.
The tiny office was closeted, and it was a dry night. Static must have built up in their bodies, because when he touched her there was a sharp jolt at his fingers. Unusually strong for a static shock, but still the sort of thing you just ignored in polite company.
Tuyen apparently missed the "How To Ignore Shocks, Farts, and Burps" class at her finishing school. She gasped and stepped back so fast she almost collided with the desk. Evan reached out to steady her and she did a sort of epileptic limbo to avoid his hand.
"What?" he said. He was worried, but also annoyed. It was a shock, he'd felt it, too. So he knew it wasn't worth this kind of response. "You okay?" he said, and hoped he sounded sincere instead of just irritated.
Tuyen didn't answer. She looked at the monitor, and straightened without ever taking her eyes off it. Evan didn't look at it, telling himself it was because she was acting weird and he didn't want to take his eyes off her, though he knew that was only partly true.
He didn't want to look at that screen again. And realized that he was less afraid of seeing the strangely beautiful distortions than he was of seeing what they might reveal if they suddenly disappeared.
What is reality tonight?
"You need to throw that tape away," said Tuyen.
"Forget whatever you're doing."
"I'm a cop, Tuyen. I can't just 'forget' stuff."
"Sure you can. Cops do it all the time. I've seen it."
She was still holding the tape. She hadn't let go when she pulled away from him, she had yanked it out of his hand. Evan reached for it. Took it gingerly by a corner, being careful not to touch her again so she wouldn't go crazy and tell him —
(what she saw)
— a bunch of crazy hooey about Vietnamese smoke monsters or something.
He tried to take the tape. She didn't release it.
"Let go of what you're doing," she said. "Whatever you find, it won't bring happiness."
Evan yanked the tape out of her fingers. He dug a card out of his pocket and handed it to her. She took it like it was a venomous slug — something dangerous and disgusting.
"Call me if you think of anything you want to talk to me about," he said.
She didn't answer.
He was glad. He told himself it was because he'd had enough of her particular brand of crazy for the night.
But deep inside, in that place where we cannot lie — not even to the one person most likely to believe our lies, which is to say ourselves — he knew that he didn't want to hear her speak because she knew more than she had let on. And the things she hadn't said might very well destroy him.