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Blood Brothers: A Short Story Exclusive

James Rollins

  Blood Brothers



  Blood Brothers


  An Excerpt from Innocent Blood



  Chapter 2

  About the Authors

  Also by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell



  About the Publisher

  Blood Brothers

  Summer, present day

  San Francisco, California

  ARTHUR CRANE WOKE to the smell of gardenias. Panic set in even before he opened his eyes. He lay still, frozen by fear, testing the heavy fragrance, picking out the underlying notes of frangipani and honeysuckle.

  It can’t be. . .

  Throughout his childhood, he had spent countless hours reading in the greenhouse of his family’s estate in Cheshire, England. Even now, he remembered the hard cement bench in a shaded corner, the ache in his lower back as he hunched over a novel by Dickens or Doyle. It was so easy to lose himself in the worlds within those pages, to shut out his mother’s rampages and threatening silences. Still, no matter how lost he was in a story, that scent always surrounded him.

  It had been his childhood, his security, his peace of mind.

  No longer.

  Now it meant only one thing.


  He opened his eyes and turned his nose toward that scent. It came from the empty pillow next to him. Morning sunlight slanted through his bedroom window, illuminating a white Brassocattleya orchid. It rested in an indentation in the middle of the neighboring pillow. Delicate frilled petals brushed the top of his pillowcase, and a faded purple line ran up the orchid’s lip.

  His breathing grew heavier, weighted by dread. His heart thumped hard against his rib cage, reminding him of his heart attack last year, a surprise gift for his sixty-eighth birthday.

  He studied the orchid. When he’d last spotted such a flower, he’d been a much younger man, barely into his twenties. It had been floating in a crimson puddle, its heavy scent interwoven with the hard iron smell of his own blood.

  Why again now . . . after so many years?

  He sat up and searched his apartment’s small bedroom. Nothing seemed disturbed. The window was sealed, his clothes were where he’d left them, even his wallet still lay on the bureau.

  Steeling himself, he plucked the orchid from his pillow and held its cool form in his palm. For years he’d lived in dread of receiving such a flower again.

  He fought out of the bedsheets and hurried to the window. His apartment was on the third story of an old Victorian. He picked the place because the stately structure reminded him of the gatehouse to his family’s estate, where he’d often found refuge with the gardeners and maids when the storms grew too fierce at the main house.

  He searched the street below.


  Whoever had left the flower was long gone.

  He took a steadying breath and gazed at the blue line of the bay on the horizon, knowing that he might not see it again. Decades ago, he had reported on a series of grisly murders, all heralded by the arrival of such an orchid. Victims found the bloom left for them in the morning, only to die that same night, their bloody bodies adorned with a second orchid.

  He turned from the window, knowing the flower’s arrival was not pure happenstance. Two days ago, he had received a call from a man who claimed to have answers about a mystery that had been plaguing Arthur for decades. The caller said he was connected to a powerful underground organization, a group who called themselves the Belial. That name had come up during Arthur’s research into the past orchid murders, but he could never pin down the connection. All he knew was that the word belial came from the Hebrew Bible, loosely translated as demonic.

  But did that mean the past murders were some form of a satanic ritual?

  How was his brother involved?

  “Christian . . .”

  He whispered his brother’s name, hearing again his boyish laughter, picturing the flash of his green eyes, the mane of his dark hair that he always let grow overly long and carefree.

  Though decades had passed, he still did not know what had happened to his brother. But the caller had said that he could reveal the truth to Arthur.


  He glanced at the orchid still in his hand.

  But will I live long enough to hear it?

  As he stood there, memories overwhelmed him.

  Summer, 1968

  San Francisco, California


  Morning light from the stained-glass windows painted grotesque patterns on the faces of the young choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But their ethereal voices soared to heaven—clear, beautiful, and tinged with grief.

  Such grace should have brought comfort, but Arthur didn’t need comfort. He wasn’t grieving. He had come as an interloper, a foreigner, a young reporter for the Times of London.

  He studied the large lily-draped photo of the deceased mounted on an easel next to a carved mahogany coffin. Like most of the people in the church, he hadn’t really known the dead man, although everyone in the world knew his name: Jackie Jake, the famous British folksinger who had taken the United States by storm.

  But that tempest was over.

  Ten days ago, Jackie Jake had been found murdered in an alley off San Francisco’s Mission Street. Arthur’s newspaper had flown him from London to cover the death—both because he was their youngest reporter and because he was the only one who admitted to having listened to Jake’s music. But the last was a lie. He had never heard of Jackie Jake until this assignment, but the ruse got him on the plane to California.

  He had come to San Francisco for another reason.

  A hope, a chance . . . to right a terrible wrong.

  As the funeral Mass continued, the crowd shuffled restlessly in the pews. The smell of their unwashed bodies rose in a cloud around them. He’d assessed them when he came in earlier, taking stock of Jake’s fans. They were mostly young women in long skirts and blousy white shirts, many with flowers in their hair. They leaned in postures of utter grief against men with the beards of ascetic hermits.

  Unlike most of the crowd, Arthur had worn a black suit, polished shoes, something that befit a funeral. Despite his desire to shake the iron rule of his childhood household, he could not escape the importance of correct attire. He also wanted to present a professional demeanor for the policemen investigating Jake’s murder. Arthur sensed that their sympathies would not lie with this hippie crowd.

  As the service ended and the mourners began to file out, Arthur spotted his target near the back of the nave, a figure wearing a black uniform with a badge on the front. Arthur contrived to bump against him as he exited.

  “I’m very sorry, Officer,” Arthur said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

  “Not a problem.” The man had the broad American accent that Arthur associated with California from films and television programs.

  Arthur glanced with a heavy sigh back into the church. “I can’t believe he’s gone . . .”

  The police officer followed his gaze. “Were you close to the deceased?”

  “Childhood friends, in fact.” Arthur held out his hand to cover his lie. “I’m Arthur Crane.”

  The man shook Arthur’s hand with a too-firm grip. “Officer Miller.”

  The officer kept an eye on the e
xiting crowd, his face pinched with distaste. A man wearing jeans and sandals swept past, leaving a strong smell of marijuana in his wake. The officer tightened his jaw, but did not move after him.

  Arthur played along with his obvious disdain, hoping to tease information out of the officer. “Jackie and I were friends before he came here and got involved with”—he waved his hand at the crowd of hippies—“that lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these flower children had killed him. From my experience, it’s a fine line between fan and fanatic.”

  Officer Miller shrugged, his eyes still on the mourners. “Maybe. The killer did leave a flower near his body . . . some type of orchid.”

  And that was how Arthur first found out about the orchids.

  Before Arthur could inquire further, Miller lunged to the side as a rake-thin man grabbed an easel near the door, clearly intending to steal the blown-up photo of the folksinger. The thief’s dark eyes looked wild under his unkempt hair, his dirty hands gaunt as a skeleton’s.

  As the officer interceded, the man abandoned the photo, grabbed the easel, and swung it like a club. Miller tried to dodge, but his hip crashed against a neighboring pew. The easel struck the officer on the shoulder, driving him to his knees. The thief raised the easel again, high above the head of the dazed officer.

  Before Arthur could consider otherwise, he rushed forward. It was the kind of foolhardy action his brother, Christian, would take in such a circumstance—but it was out of character for the normally reserved Arthur.

  Still, he found himself barging between the two men as the crowd hung back. He grabbed the attacker’s arm before he could deal a fatal blow to the fallen police officer. He struggled with the assailant, giving Miller time to scramble to his feet. The officer then manhandled the attacker away from Arthur and quickly secured the man’s wrists behind his back with handcuffs. The man glared all around. His pupils filled his entire irises, making his eyes look black. He was definitely under the influence of some kind of drug.

  Miller caught Arthur’s gaze. “Thanks. I owe you one.”

  Breathing hard, his heart thumping in his ears, Arthur could barely manage a nod and pushed back toward the exit.

  What was I thinking . . .

  As he reached the streets, the bright City by the Bay seemed suddenly a darker place, full of shadows. Even the morning light failed to dispel them. He fetched up against a light pole and stood there for a moment, trying to slow his breath, when a flash of white caught his eye.

  A paper flyer had been pasted onto the pole. The title drew his attention.

  But it was what was beneath those hand-scrawled words that sucked the air from his lungs and turned his blood to ice. It was a black-and-white photo of a handsome young man in his midtwenties, with dark hair and light eyes. Though the photo had no color, Arthur knew those eyes were a piercing green.

  They belonged to his brother.


  The flyer contained no further details except a phone number. With trembling fingers, Arthur wrote the number on the bottom of his notebook. He hurried down the crowded street, searching for an empty phone box. When he found one, he slotted his money into it and waited. The phone burred in his ear, once, twice, five times. But he couldn’t put it down.

  He let it ring, balanced between disbelief and hope.

  Finally, a man answered, his voice spiked with irritation. “What the hell, man? I was sleeping.”

  “I’m sorry.” Arthur apologized. “I saw your flyer on the street. About Christian Crane?”

  “Have you found him?” The man’s tone sharpened, annoyance replaced with hope. “Where is he?”

  “I don’t know,” Arthur said, fumbling for his words. “But I’m his brother. I had hoped—”

  “Damn,” the voice cut him off. “You’re the Brit? His foster brother. I’m Wayne . . . Wayne Grantham.”

  From the man’s tone, he clearly thought Arthur would recognize him, that Christian might have spoken to Arthur about him—but Arthur hadn’t shared a word with Christian for over two years, not after the way they had left matters in England, after their fight. It was why Arthur had come to San Francisco, to mend fences and start anew.

  Arthur pushed all that aside. “How long has Christian been gone?”

  “Eleven days.”

  That was one day before Jake was killed. It was a ridiculous time to peg it to, but the folksinger’s murder was fresh in his mind.

  “Have you called the police?” Arthur asked.

  A snort answered him. “Like they give a damn about a grown-up man gone missing in San Francisco. Happens all the time, they said. City of Love, and all that. Said he’d probably turn up.”

  “But you don’t believe that?”

  “No.” Wayne hesitated. “He wouldn’t have left without telling me. Not Christian. He wouldn’t leave me not knowing.”

  Arthur cleared his throat. “He left without telling me.”

  “But he had his reasons back then, didn’t he?”

  Guilt spiked through Arthur. “He did.”

  Wayne had nothing else to add, and Arthur reluctantly gave up without asking the most important question of all. There were some questions he still had difficulty asking, stifled by prejudice and made uncomfortable by his ingrained formal upbringing.

  Instead, he went back to the hotel and filed his story, burying the new detail of the orchid a few paragraphs in. For good measure, he also reported Christian missing to the police.

  As Wayne had said, they did not care.

  THE NEXT DAY, Arthur woke to the screaming headline of a second murder. He read the paper standing at his kitchen counter, a mug of coffee growing cold in his hand. As with Jackie Jake, the victim’s throat had been torn out. The body of the young man—a law clerk—had been found only a few blocks away from St. Patrick’s Church—where Jackie Jake’s memorial service had been held. The article hinted that the murders were connected, but they didn’t elaborate.

  Two hours later, Arthur sat at a diner across from Officer Miller, calling in his favor, admitting that he was a reporter for the Times.

  “Can’t tell you much more than was in the Chronicle here,” Miller admitted, tapping the local newspaper. “But there was a flower—another orchid—found at this crime scene, too. According to a roommate, the victim found the orchid in his bedroom the morning he was killed, like the murderer left it as a calling card.”

  “Were there any witnesses? Did anyone see someone at the crime scene . . . or see whoever left that orchid?”

  “Nothing concrete. Someone said they saw a skinny, dark-haired man lurking around the church at the time of the murder, taking pictures, but it could be a tourist.”

  Arthur could glean nothing else from what the officer told him. The mysterious photographer did add a good detail for the report Arthur intended to file, but the fact was certainly not as juicy as the detail about the second orchid.

  That afternoon, Arthur composed and wired in the story. He dubbed the murderer “the Orchid Killer.” By the next day, the name was plastered across every newspaper in the city and across the nation, and his reputation as a journalist grew.

  His editor at the Times extended his assignment to cover the murders. He even convinced the paper to give him enough of a stipend to rent a dilapidated room in the Haight-Ashbury district—where both victims spent most of their time. Arthur used the little money left over to buy a radio and tuned it to the police band.

  Over the next days, he worked and ate with the radio on. Most of the chatter was dull, but four nights later, a frantic call came over the band. A dead body had been discovered, just blocks from Arthur’s rented room, a possible third victim of the Orchid Killer.

  He hailed a cab to get there quickly, but the police had already cordoned off the area to keep the press away.

  Standing at the yellow strip, Arthur
lifted his Nikon camera. It was outfitted with a zoom lens. Christian had given it to Arthur as a present when he finished school, telling him that he could use the extra eye. Arthur still wasn’t very good with the camera—he preferred to tell stories with words rather than pictures—but without a photographer assigned to him, he would have to manage on his own.

  To get a better vantage point, he shifted away from the police cordon and climbed a few steps onto the porch of a neighboring Victorian home. He leaned against a brightly painted column to steady himself and examined the crime scene through the lens of the camera. It took some fine-tuning of the zoom to draw out a clear picture.

  The victim lay flat on his back on the sidewalk. A dark stain marred his throat and spread over the stone. One arm was outstretched toward the street as if beckoning for help that would never come. In that open palm lay a white object.

  Arthur zoomed in and tried to identify it, finally discerning the details of its frilled petals and subtle hues. It was an orchid, but not any orchid. Arthur’s stomach knotted with recognition.

  It was a Brassocattleya orchid.

  Such orchids were common enough, used as corsage flowers because of their powerful scent and their durable beauty. His mother had raised that particular breed because she adored the scent.

  Arthur remembered another detail.

  Christian had always loved them, too.

  His mind’s eye flashed to the poster, to the still life of Christian printed there, his brother’s smile frozen, his eyes so alive even in the photo.

  As he stared at the orchid in the dead man’s palm, the sweet smell seemed to drift across the street to him, although that couldn’t be true. He was too far away, but even the imagined scent was enough to dredge up a long-buried memory.

  Arthur sat on the stone bench in the corner of his mother’s greenhouse holding a pruning knife. The familiar scents of orchids and bark surrounded him, as the afternoon sunlight, trapped under all that glass, turned the winter outside into a steamy summer inside.