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Gods and Monsters

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Gods and Monsters

Chapter 18, Vol. III

 

A fronte praceipitium a tergo lupi

(A precipice in front, wolves behind)


At four in the morning, the phone next to Ned’s bed blared with shrill insistence. He’d drifted off to sleep with The Twilight Zone on the TV and dreamed of low-fi alien invasions. Instead of blasting otherworldly creatures with laser beams in the dream, a garish ringing sounded from his gun. Even the aliens covered their pointy little ears and stared at Ned with confusion clouding their big buggy eyes.

 

On the fifth ring, Ned jolted awake. His limbs flailed, and his body catapulted up from beneath the sheets. The polychrome lights of the Vegas strip filtered through the window’s gauzy drapes as he fumbled for the phone. The receiver met Ned’s face harder than he intended and, through wincing pain, he grunted a “hello”.

 

FBI Special Agent Kingsley Bright was on the other end of the line, hollering with enough vigor to suggest he’d been awake for some time already.

 

“Shit went down last night, Ned. Meet me in the lobby in an hour.”

 

With no further explanation, Kingsley’s phone crashed into its cradle, and the line went dead. Ned sunk back into the mattress, his head cradled in a soft stack of down-feather pillows.

 

Sansa. They found her. Or maybe they didn’t. Or worse, they found her dead.

 

Ned had dwelled on the possibilities for months now. Time never presented any new prospects. Instead, it only exacerbated his growing frustrations. Those frustrations turned to horror when he heard that Myranda Royce’s body had been fetched from the Colorado River a few nights ago. He’d known her since she was a precocious and outspoken little girl, so different from Sansa and yet the two were inseparable. They’d even gone missing on the same night, and though he grieved for Myranda, Ned’s fear rested on the possibility that Sansa would meet a similar end. He cursed Nestor Royce’s willful extravagance that led to this entire mess.

 

When he received the invitation to Nestor’s annual party in the mail, Ned had buried it in the trash beneath coffee grounds and an old issue of Newsweek. Inexplicable instincts prompted his actions, and the following days were wrought with an unshakable sense of unease.

"Why can't we just rent a movie and order in something for dinner?"  Ned whined to Cat the day of Nestor’s soiree. She'd gone quiet, and her lips had sealed together in a frown; the suggestion denied and the topic non-negotiable. 

Ned thought to make the same suggestion to Sansa and to sweeten the pot by throwing in a trip to her favorite frozen yogurt joint. Before the party, though, she came to his office wearing a beaming smile and an outfit he'd never seen before and immediately objected. The white dress was shorter than anything he would normally let her wear. The straps were too thin, the cut too low, and her heels too high. With shoulders thrown back in confidence and pride at the woman she was becoming, Sansa gently pled her case. Her words, soft as to let him down gently, were some of the last Ned heard her say.

"I'm not a little girl anymore."

He had already known this, of course, but never heard Sansa say it so directly. She wasn’t asking his permission to grow up. She was urging him to accept that she already had, whether he liked it or not. Ned hadn't bothered to suggest a night at home with take-out and frozen yogurt. She wouldn't have taken him up on it, and her guilt at turning down her poor old dad would have spoiled her evening. He made up an excuse about having work to do and told Sansa to have fun at the party. Now, months later, he still regretted it – his reticence, his fear of pushing her away, and his decision to let his baby girl grow up one night too soon. 

Ned kicked his legs free of the sheets and sat up on the edge of the bed. He could easily crumble beneath the steady lashing of regret, fear, and frustration, but there was work to be done, and Ned always pulled himself together to brave another day. He was a rock, steady and calm, resilient no matter how the forces of the Universe seemed to work against him. After his brother Brandon’s untimely death, Ned tamed his profound grief and took the helm of the Moriarti case. He did the same when Sansa went missing – neatly tucking away all the worry and anguish. His friends, who had come in droves to Portland, marveled at this. "You're handling this better than any one else would in your situation," more than a few of them said.  

Meant as a compliment, it instead made him angry. In the observation, he saw an insult, a passive-aggressive slight against him, an insinuation that he just didn’t give a fuck. Not Ned the rock. Ned the rock is immovable and unbreakable, steady and calm, unaffected and – unlike so many others – able to carry on.

His friends didn't know him. None of them knew him anymore. They didn't know that he had waited up at the kitchen table so many long nights for his little girl to come home. He never told them about this. Nor did he tell them that he had fallen to his knees, a complete wreck, in the middle of Sansa’s bedroom floor the day he realized she wasn’t coming home. He never told anyone that Ned the Rock had begun to fissure against the grief.

Ned retreated from bed and moved towards the bathroom. His morning routine commenced, but his motions were clumsy. His toothbrush slipped from his hands – not once, but twice – both times upending globs of toothpaste onto the bathroom counter. He willed his hands to stop trembling long enough that he trimmed his beard. His fingers struggled with the buttons of his dress shirt and awkwardly managed a half-windsor knot on his tie.

 

The suit jacket he selected from the closet was finely tailored and handsomely adorned with gold cuff links. His pants were pressed with a pristine crease running down the center of each leg. His briefcase was packed with papers in orderly stacks.

 

Once he’d put himself together in less than an hour’s time, Ned walked to the window of his hotel room and drew back the curtains. From the twelfth floor, he could see the Vegas strip dotted with glittering lights and extending in either direction as far as his eyes could see. By night, the city dazzled. Its effervescent splendor drew hoards of people, who flocked the streets with childlike wonder. Everything – food, alcohol, and entertainment – was indulged in gluttonous excess here. The appeal was superficial, though, and soon the sun would rise on a city of shams. Beneath the surface, it was ugly and dirty, cruel and rotten at the core.

 

Weeks ago, Ned had laughed when Kingsley Bright suggested they set up a mobile operations center at the Flamingo Hotel. He could understand how centralizing their effort in Las Vegas was beneficial. Yet, Ned couldn’t get past the irony. Of all the places in Vegas, the Flamingo Hotel had some of the most storied mob ties, both past and present. Mafia legends haunted every corner of the city, but the Flamingo’s history was steeped in blood and misfortune.

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” Ned had chuckled when Kingsley suggested the Flamingo as their temporary base. “That’s Bugsy Siegel’s hotel and one of the reasons why his own men murdered him.”

 

Bugsy and his Murder Inc. cohorts birthed the American mafia. They envisioned themselves as gods of the world they created. They were human, though, and suffered from the same desires as everyone else, but to a larger extent perhaps. For Bugsy, greed did him in. He’d skimmed money off of his men’s investments in his fledgling hotel. At a meeting in Havana, Lucky Luciano and others finalized a contract on Bugsy’s life. Months later, he was shot dead while reading a newspaper in his girlfriend’s living room.

 

Ned had always found it a bit morbid that Alberto Moriarti favored the Flamingo during his visits to Las Vegas. The hotel was cursed, some said. Others claimed that Bugsy himself haunted the halls as a kind of purgatory, stuck in the place that had caused him so much strife throughout his time in Vegas. Nevertheless, lavish suites and blackjack tables were reserved exclusively for Mr. Moriarti and his guests when they stayed at the Flamingo. No expense was spared, no request denied – the whims of the Moriarti men were endlessly catered to.

 

Alberto Moriarti had stopped coming to Vegas years ago, and Ned never did find out why. The parties, the meetings over imported cigars and expensive liquors, the dinners held in his honor – they all came to an abrupt and unceremonious end. Like the hotel, perhaps Moriarti was a haunted man. Too many lives were carelessly changed all because he willed it.

 

And all those ghosts finally caught up to him.

 

On that solemn thought, Ned’s hands curled around the curtain’s delicate fabric and he drew them shut with one hard yank. He scooped up his briefcase on the way out the door and headed down the hall.

 

Inside the elevator, he punched the button for the lobby and rested with his back against the wall. The elevator jostled slightly as it came to a stop, and in the handful of moments before the doors opened, Ned drew himself to full height and smoothed down the front of his suit jacket.

 

When the doors opened, he strode off the elevator and into the lobby. His footfalls echoed through the expansive space, pounding hard against the polished marble floors. The front desk staff stared curiously at him as he marched past.

 

Kingsley was waiting for Ned at the other end of the lobby. With a leather-bound binder tucked beneath his arm, Kingsley’s thumb swiped at furious speed over the screen of his phone. He muttered to himself, dictating whatever message he was drafting.

 

“Good morning,” he greeted distractedly when Ned approached. The rest of his words were quiet mumbles amongst the frantic taps of the screen. “Goddamn son of a bitch. Not you, Ned.” Kingsley motioned his head towards his phone. “This honky tonk motherfucker.”

 

“Schroeder, I take it?” A hearty chuckle escaped Ned’s lips. Kingsley was blunt and, although vulgar at times, Ned had developed a fondness for the man’s dry and unapologetic humor.

 

“You guessed it. The asshole thinks he’s Wyatt Earp or some shit.”

 

Malcolm Schroeder was an investigator with the Las Vegas police department who Ned had met through Kingsley. Schroeder had a bizarre fixation with the old Wild West. In his office, pictures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday adorned the wall behind his oversized mahogany desk. Though he grew up in South Dakota, Schroeder spoke in a peculiar slow drawl and favored exorbitantly expensive cowboy hats. His sidearm was always displayed in a decorative leather holster hung proudly at his hip.  

 

Kingsley tucked his phone into his back pocket and smiled dully at Ned. Behind the black-rimmed glasses Kingsley wore, Ned could see that his eyes were faintly bloodshot and heavy circles rested underneath.

 

“Want to tell me what happened last night? ‘Shit went down’ isn’t very helpful,” Ned cajoled, though he sensed the answer wasn’t so simple. If it were simple, Kingsley would’ve explained over the phone. The man wasn’t one for withholding information only to dramatically reveal it later on. Kingsley looked poised to answer now, though. He drew in a breath – one meant to propel the words from his lips – but stopped short and glanced at the hotel staff behind the front desk.

 

“I’ll tell you in the car. We’re going on a road trip.”

 

Kingsley’s hand disappeared into his pocket before pulling his car keys free. He turned around and walked towards the doors in quick strides.

 

“Where?”

 

Ned’s question resounded forcefully throughout the lobby, but he hadn’t moved to follow after Kingsley. His briefcase felt heavy in his hand now, weighed down with papers and the pistol he kept inside.

 

Kingsley stopped at the sound of Ned’s voice. Though he hadn’t gone far, he spun slowly on his heel and retreated back towards Ned.

 

“Moriarti’s place,” Kingsley whispered and cast Ned a pointed look. The glasses had fallen halfway down his nose.

 

Though they stood a foot or less apart, Ned closed the gap between them. The extravagant space surrounding them – immaculate marble floors, stunning chandeliers, and the exceptionally polite concierge staff – suddenly felt hostile.

 

“What happened?” Ned demanded. When Kingsley didn’t immediately answer, Ned gripped his arm. “You know what I’m asking you. If something happened to Sansa–”

 

Ned’s voice wavered on the precipice of an echo. It swelled in an adamant, inadvertent crescendo until Kingsley interjected.

 

“No,” Kingsley pulled his arm from Ned’s grip and appeared mildly agitated. “I know what you’re thinking, but quit while you’re ahead, okay? That’s not what happened. Now, we need to get on the road.”

 

Kingsley’s eyes bored into Ned’s, and his mouth had contorted into a grimace. Though he’d known Kingsley for only a few months, Ned counted the man as a friend and knew Kingsley never offered false reassurances. He didn’t slather his words in sugarcoated niceties before speaking. He said what he meant to say, nothing more and nothing less. Ned acquiesced with a nod, and the two men crossed the lobby toward the front doors.

 

Ned first met with Kingsley in late June. An old law school buddy facilitated the meeting, and Ned counted it as a favor to his friend. Kingsley was an FBI investigator with questions about a new case he was handling, and Ned’s name was dropped as the man who would have the answers.

 

During his tenure as district attorney, Ned had encountered a wide variety of FBI agents. Some were stuffy and difficult to communicate with. They played their cards close to the chest and vigilantly safeguarded the ins-and-outs of their investigations. Others had an agenda. They’d wine and dine Ned, buttering him up in hopes that he might ease along judicial proceedings. Regardless, most left a sour taste in his mouth, and Ned counted his dealings with federal investigators as an often-unfortunate necessity in his line of work.

 

Despite his initial reservations, Ned met Kingsley at a hole-in-the-wall sports bar in Portland. The sun pounded down on him as he walked the three blocks from the only parking he could find. Sweating to death in his suit, Ned reached the bar in a profoundly foul mood. He found Kingsley in the back, hollering at the Dodgers game on T.V. with a half-eaten chicken wing in one hand and a beer in the other. Ned approached the table – disheveled, sweaty, and sporting an irritated frown – but Kingsley leapt from his seat and enthusiastically greeted Ned with a firm handshake.

 

The conversation between them proceeded effortlessly and lacked the awkwardness of a first meeting. Over beer and hot wings, the two men talked at great length about their interests, family lives, and, eventually, the reason for their meeting.

 

For years, Kingsley had worked undercover as Damian Johnson – a disenchanted and misguided police officer, who fraternized with street gangs like the Blood Kings. Kingsley had patiently cultivated his connections with the gang and played the part of “Damian” well enough to gain their trust.

 

A year and a half ago, the Vegas Blood Kings resisted Moriarti expansion into their territory. To the Moriarti, gentrifying poor neighborhoods served the dual purpose of forcing out the lesser street gangs and diversifying their business fronts beyond high-end gambling establishments.

 

When the Blood Kings sought to confront the Moriarti with a fight, Kingsley jumped on the opportunity to establish mafia connections. He volunteered himself as a liaison between the organizations and spared the Blood Kings from a losing battle. Kingsley met with Bronn the underboss of the Moriarti and arranged for the Blood Kings to be paid out of their territory. In the time since, Kingsley had maintained a friendly connection with Bronn and touched base periodically to keep the Moriarti within arm’s reach.

 

In recent years, the Blood Kings’ numbers had greatly diminished through incarceration and gang wars, and they had more or less disbanded in major cities. With a reorganization of his home unit, Kingsley was promoted as a lead investigator on a task force focusing on west coast mafia families, including the Moriarti.

 

Kingsley had been two weeks into his new position when the Royce massacre occurred. Suddenly, what had once been a sleepy account for the FBI was now teeming with activity. For the first time in years, the Severelli and Moriarti had violated the uneasy truce established during Alberto’s tenure. Kingsley found himself at the unit’s helm but with his historical knowledge of the Moriarti lacking. He reached out to Ned for help and with a strong suspicion that Sansa’s disappearance was intimately tied to the Moriarti family.

 

In the months since their initial meeting, Ned and Kingsley worked closely with one another. Their professional relationship had settled into a comfortable tandem, each relying on the other’s expertise to drive the investigation forward, while a friendship developed in the meantime.

 

The temporary move to Las Vegas was a significant step forward. In a matter of days, the painfully tedious investigation gained enormous momentum. Ned felt certain they were finally closing in on what they’d been working tirelessly towards.

 

Outside the hotel, the sun hadn’t yet stirred on the western horizon. Street lights blazing from up above illuminated the parking lot. As they crossed approached Kingsley’s car, Ned sensed the uneasiness that seemed to burden Kingsley. The man walked in hurried steps, his eyes scanning the lot as they went. The subtle disquiet was anomalous for Kingsley, who normally voiced his frustrations through hotheaded and colorfully worded diatribes.

 

After climbing into the driver’s seat of the car, Kingsley tossed his binder to the back. Ned lowered himself to the passenger seat and secured his briefcase on his lap.

 

Once inside the vehicle, Kingsley turned to Ned. The keys dangled from the ignition – the motor not yet running. The pink lights that shone from the hotel spilled through the windshield and cast Kingsley in a faint glow.

 

“Six hours ago the Moriarti and Severelli had it out in the middle of nowhere Nevada,” Kingsley began quietly.

 

Ned already anticipated this, as did Kingsley, Schroeder, and all the investigators working the case. They were all well aware of what was coming.

 

Something went wrong, Ned knew. Kingsley’s cryptic call had come hours later than he expected, and his partner’s behavior was unusually cagey.

 

“You know the informant we had at the meeting between the Moriarti and the cartel?” Kingsley asked, staring off towards the pink lights. Ned nodded, but uncertainty battered his calm facade. His hands began to shake again, even as he tucked them under his briefcase.

 

Schroeder had been over the moon about finding an informant a few weeks prior to the Moriarti’s meeting with the Caballero cartel. Behind a two-way mirror, Ned had watched the informant’s final round of questioning after the Moriarti-cartel meeting. Though Schroeder counted the man’s cooperation as an investigative success, the information provided was often full of holes. Ned had raised the flag on the informant’s reliability before, but Schroeder remained headstrong on the matter. He reasoned that it was a one in a million shot at finding someone willing to piss off a cartel and a mafia family in one fell swoop.

 

Kingsley chuckled now, soft at first, but then it erupted into sardonic laughter fueled by frustration and exhaustion.

 

“The informant got the location wrong. My agents showed up to an empty warehouse sixty miles south of where they should’ve been. Sixty fucking miles, Ned! By the time they got to the right place, the Moriarti and Severelli had already obliterated one another. Whoever survived fled and left a goddamn mess behind.”

 

Kingsley slammed the heel of his hand hard against the steering wheel.

 

“Son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted before slumping back in his seat. In the faint light, Ned could see Kingsley’s chest rising and falling in steady heaves.

 

“Alright, let’s just take this one step at a time,” Ned began steadily. “Who’s been accounted for? We’ll start there.”

 

Kingsley pulled in a deep, measured breath. He started up the engine and backed out of the parking space. The lights of the strip flitted by as Kingsley sped up the boulevard towards the highway.

 

“As far as men of any consequence, Gregor Clegane was burnt to crisp. A Moriarti capo, Murdoch, was identified among the dead.”

 

“Murdoch wouldn’t be the only capo that was sent to fight,” Ned reasoned. “The others must’ve fled. Is there any indication of who came out on top?”

                                                                                        

“This is where things get dicey,” Kingsley responded with subtle trepidation. “The informant was a bust, but that’s a risk we always take.” Kingsley paused. Ned could see the way Kingsley’s brow had furrowed, though his eyes remained steady on the road ahead. “That’s not all that happened last night, Ned,” he added on a soft exhale.

 

The car came to a stop at a red light. Across the intersection, cars dawdled slowly across, and Kingsley’s fingers distractedly traipsed through coins in the cup holder between them.

 

“Sometime after eleven last night, 911 calls came in reporting sounds of gunfire coming from Alberto Moriarti’s place. Two responding officers were on the scene about ten minutes later. They called for back up and, after back up radioed in that they were being fired at, no one heard from any of them again. Paramedics and a hoard of officers arrived sometime around midnight to a house full of dead bodies.”

 

The traffic light turned green. Kingsley stared at Ned who slumped further into his seat. His briefcase slid off his knees and down his legs. Though he anticipated the fall and even the pain as the briefcase crashed against the tops of his feet, he watched it happen and did nothing to stop it. His feet throbbed, and his stomach burned, but his thoughts were of Sansa in her white dress declaring she wasn’t a little girl anymore. He’d watched the sky turn dark moments before she came to his office, and he meant to warn her of the coming storm. If he could do it again, he might have pointed to the sky and begged her to stay. Instead, she had left his office, disappearing into the hall as gracefully as she entered. He had watched her leave. He had let her go.

 

From behind, a car blared its horn and flashed its high beams.

 

“Green light,” Ned mumbled as he snatched his briefcase off his feet.

 

Kingsley continued down the road, intermittently casting a glance in Ned’s direction as he navigated onto the highway.

 

“She wasn’t there, Ned,” Kingsley gently offered. “I would’ve told you if she was.”

 

“The compound had to be targeted by someone witting of the fight,” Kingsley continued moments later. “Whoever did it knew that the place was poorly secured.”

 

Ned nodded in agreement and rested his elbow against the door’s armrest. With his chin tucked in his hand, he stroked his beard with the tips of his fingers.

 

“It doesn’t make sense,” he shook his head. “That place should’ve been secured. It should’ve been fortified with a solid force of men. Not just made men, but capos, guys who’ve been through this before. When they go to war, families of high-ranking men bunker down together and are always sufficiently protected. The Moriarti are hyper vigilant about that, Kingsley.”

 

The car had taken on a claustrophobic quality. The distance they had left to travel seemed daunting, and Ned recognized familiar anxieties creeping in. He’d felt them once before when he and Kingsley took a road trip to Crescent City.

 

They departed for that trip in the early morning, but the air was already thick by then, and the humidity clung against Ned’s skin. Portland summers were never particularly humid, but the air was dense that day, the first anomaly of many.

With the windows rolled down, a salty breeze whipped through the car, loud enough that conversation between the two men was kept at a minimum as they enjoyed the scenic drive down the coast. Ned watched the waves crash against the craggy shore and disperse in a glittering array of droplets.

 

Again and again, mile after mile, he watched in wonderment until Kingsley rolled up the windows a few miles outside of Crescent City. In the deafening silence, the heaviness returned, though its manifestation was different. It came with a distinct sense of portent that flooded the small space and rendered the last few miles of their journey pure agony. Neither he nor Kingsley acknowledged it, whatever it was.

 

That night in Ned’s hotel room, the logistics of the next day were planned over a vending machine dinner of chips, Gatorade, and candy bars. They discussed Ned’s “run-in” with the Moriarti in great detail, but staging serendipity was no easy work as it turned out. Well past midnight, the two of them methodically worked through all the alternatives. They deliberated each and every “what if” until there was nothing left – no more ideas or words. The only things left between them were a stack of papers, a pile of junk food wrappers, and the inexplicable and persistent heaviness.

 

The following day was warm and the air sweet with the smell of funnel cake and cotton candy. White-topped tents lined the street, and vendors busied themselves setting up their merchandise. Under different circumstances, Ned would have roamed the festival, buying up trinkets to give to Sansa or devouring the delicious varieties of food that Cat would’ve chided him about later. Instead, Ned was equipped with a stack of Sansa’s missing person flyers and a roll of scotch tape. He and Kingsley decided that he’d visit each booth, forlornly hanging up flyers at each one. Ned deliberately wrinkled his outfit the night before by crumpling it up at the bottom of his overnight bag. He’d grown his beard out already, and the bags beneath his eyes did not have to be feigned.

 

He foolishly believed it might be simple: he’d play his part so as to not tip off the Moriarti, and the meeting would go off as he and Kingsley planned. He’d elicit all the information that was required and funnel it back to the investigators staked out at the hotel. However, the heaviness reemerged halfway down the row of festival vendors and lingered behind him. It followed him as he visited each booth and watched as he tacked up flyers with Sansa’s picture.

 

It’s him, Ned finally realized.

 

The Hound followed him, just as Kingsley said he would. Ned forced his legs to move faster and pushed through the crowd, desperately shouldering past groups of people and veritably tossing the flyers into the passing booths. The darkness was behind him throughout it all. When he disappeared momentarily into the crowd, the heaviness dispersed, and for a moment, Ned thought he might regain himself. Yet, it came again, stronger than before.

 

He hadn’t bothered with the flyers anymore. Instead, he bounded towards a stage erected in the distance. Music blared, and Ned thought to run. The darkness, the heaviness – it would follow him. Once it had its sights on him, it wouldn’t relent. Past the stage where guitars wailed and a singer belted into a microphone, Ned hurried down the street away from the festival. When he reached his car, the singer’s voice was just a dull echo. He pulled a gun from the glove box and doubled back a short distance in the direction he’d come.

 

The enigma he’d chased after for so many long and tedious years stood unmoving only a short distance away. He towered over the men who remained firmly by his side. When Ned pointed his gun, the Hound hadn’t flinched. Instead, he’d slowly raised one massive hand in the air, while tossing his gun to the ground with the other. When he spoke, his voice was deep, his words assured, and his tenacity unyielding.

 

Ned watched in irate horror as Sansa's name eased off the man's lips with a familiarity he had no right to. Her name curled around the Hound's tongue, savored to the end, but his eyes were what housed the sickening truth. They were dark with possessiveness, an unwillingness to relent for what he deemed was his.

 

Madness took over, and Ned careened towards the Hound. He would’ve gladly coiled his hands around the Hound’s neck and squeezed until the monster turned black in the face. Instead, he was pulled away and forced to watch as the Hound once more eluded him by slinking off towards the shadows. He was powerless to stop him. All that could go wrong had.

 

In the hours after, Ned nursed the cuts and bruises he’d endured from Bronn. Kingsley apologized for the one true kick he’d accidentally delivered to Ned’s side and gently asked what happened, where things had gone wrong. Ned didn’t try to explain and only said that he didn’t know. The truth was that he hadn’t the words to describe what he saw: the dark desires that stirred so readily within the Hound’s eyes, prompted only by Sansa’s name. A silent knowing had alerted him to a new reality – one in which the Hound didn’t want anything Ned was willing to offer in return for Sansa. He already had what he wanted, and he wasn’t going to let her go.  

 

“I don’t know what went wrong.” Kingsley’s voice pierced through Ned’s recollections, echoing the quiet thoughts that had besieged Ned’s troubled mind. In the side view mirror’s reflection, Ned saw the Las Vegas skyline diminishing as the car barreled down the highway. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t have had these guys nailed at the industrial park. There’s no reason why Moriarti’s place shouldn’t have been under heavy surveillance last night.”

 

“The Moriarti rushed this war,” Ned reminded Kingsley. “No one saw that coming. Not even me. They forced their hand and wanted it done quicker than any of us anticipated. It was an enormous mistake on their part and caused us a logistical nightmare. You did what you could with the time you had.”

 

“We dropped the ball on this.” Kingsley’s lips contorted into a distinct scowl as if he were gritting his teeth together. “There’s no two ways around it. Schroeder called me just before I talked to you, said he’d been at Moriarti’s for a few hours already. Why the fuck couldn’t he have told us sooner?” Kingsley paused momentarily and shook his head. “That bastard is hell bent on screwing shit over for us,” he mumbled quietly.  

Ned didn't know Schroeder like he knew Kingsley. He knew enough to know that Schroeder had been a perpetual thorn in Kingsley’s side. Ned had seen the power struggle between local and federal authorities before, but never to such a serious extent. Kingsley resented Schroeder for routinely sidetracking investigations and blatantly ignoring necessary bureau procedures. Schroeder returned the sentiment with a longstanding disdain for what he viewed as meddlesome FBI agents. Still, their mutual misunderstandings didn’t fully account for the bad blood between them.

"What’s the story with you and Schroeder?" Ned had wanted to ask Kingsley for quite some time. The question was on the tip of his tongue whenever Kingsley talked about Schroeder with an evident bitterness that tended towards hostility.

Kingsley didn't like liars, and perhaps that was why he never strayed from the truth himself. "Take what Schroeder says with a grain of salt, Ned. That's the best advice I can give," was all Kingsley had ever really said. Ned took it as more of a warning than anything, and that was as far as their conversations about Schroeder ever got. 

“He hasn’t been easy to work with,” Ned agreed distractedly, though he couldn’t quite speak to that fact. He hadn’t worked closely with Schroeder like Kingsley had and Ned only visited him once in Las Vegas.

 

Schroeder had insisted on making an appearance at Mirabelle Clegane’s funeral to rattle the Moriarti’s cage. Though Ned found it to be in poor taste, he’d made no motions against it. A few days later, Ned sat on the other side of Schroeder’s desk with Wyatt Earp glowering at him and the faint smell of tobacco smoke lingering in the air.

"I saw Sansa with my own two eyes, Ned,” Schroeder had boasted. “She's with him, and she’s not going anywhere.”

The half-assed consolation had slicked off of Schroeder's tongue with blasé ease. The man laughed afterwards – a low grumble, seedy in an obscure and inappropriate way. Something in Schroeder’s voice, the subtle deviousness and the implication that he knew more and saw more than he let on, left Ned toiling over the words and their horrid suggestion.

 

"She's with him."

 

After his meeting with Schroeder, whenever Ned remembered how the Hound had said Sansa's name, there crept a lasciviousness that hadn't been there before. In his nightmares, her name eased from half-marred lips with horrendous pleasure, and a murmured declaration would follow on a voice too soft for him to hear. The voice would grow louder, though, swelling with visceral insistence until the words were bellowing from the Hound’s lips.

 

“She’s mine.”

 

Ned shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the tops of his feet aching now. The city was well behind them, and suburbia waned to a few small towns dotted along the highway. The sun began to spill over a far off range of craggy hills and illuminated the car in pale pristine light. Out the window, Ned stared at a formation of rocks in the distance. Their shadows extended them far across the fissured expanse of earth.

 

“The Hound. Is he dead?” Ned demanded suddenly.

 

“I’m not sure,” Kingsley replied, shaking his head. “He wasn’t at Moriarti’s or the warehouse.”

 

It’s the end of the line, Ned thought, but didn’t know for whom the musing was meant – him or the Hound. One or the other, but it can’t be both, a voice invaded his thoughts. Yet again, it spoke to all the things Ned couldn’t quite put into words, all those ripples in dark and troubling waters.

 

“This is my last shot at him, Kingsley,” Ned admitted. “He can’t murder my brother and my wife, take my daughter from me, and get away with this.”

 

Kingsley navigated towards an exit off the highway. He came to a stop at the end of the off-ramp and looked to Ned. The engine hummed in the few quiet moments before Kingsley finally spoke.

 

“Sandor, Bronn, some of the capos – I’ve gotten to know those guys. They’re arrogant. They think they’re unstoppable. You already know these things, but you also know, as well as I do, it was only a matter of time before they fucked up. Their fate was sealed the second they crawled into bed with that cartel. They’ve been on the FBI radar for a long time, but as soon as the DEA caught wind of cartel involvement they were all over this. All these years of waiting for that fuck up finally paid off. This is it for them. You know that, don’t you?”

 

Ned had asked himself the same question once before. During the final months of tying up loose ends on the Moriarti case he’d built for years, he preemptively considered the case a success. Unbeknownst to him, he’d hung his hopes on a house of cards. In the eleventh hour, it all came tumbling down. No amount of hard work or years of service to the case mattered.

“All I know is this,” Ned began cautiously. “I want my daughter back and, dead or alive, I want the Hound accounted for. I want the Moriarti held accountable for all the evil shit they’ve done in this world.”

“Fair enough. We’ll make it happen.” Kingsley nodded with a faint smile.

They traveled down a two-lane state road, and Kingsley took the sharp turns with caution. The road was remote and wound steadily up a hill. After a few miles, a street appeared with nothing more than a small sign announcing its name. Kingsley turned down the street and continued at a slow pace towards a few large houses off in the distance.  

Mostly empty lots filled the neighborhood, perhaps first envisioned as a sprawling oasis in the desert, but falling short of expectations as money dried up. The visionaries clearly abandoned their project, leaving behind a handful of exorbitantly large mansions in the middle of absolutely nowhere. From what Ned could tell, the nearest town boasting anything more than a liquor store and gas station was probably a twenty-minute drive away or more.

They approached the end of the street and the largest mansion in the neighborhood, its drive half-full of emergency vehicles. Ned had always imagined Moriarti’s compound as some concrete fortress, stripped down to only the necessities, as bleak and impenetrable as the Moriarti themselves. To his surprise, the Moriarti compound wasn't a compound at all, but rather a Mediterranean style mansion – a tiled roof, stucco exterior, balconies along the front flanking an over-sized porch, and a fountain placed in the middle of a half-circle driveway, which separated the mansion from the street by a considerable distance.  

The mansion boasted the extravagance one would expect from a mafia Don, who had stepped down after collecting large amounts of wealth throughout his tenure. The house was an ostentatious anomaly in a location obviously chosen for its innocuousness. At first blush, it seemed a contradiction, but the more Ned stared at it, the more the mansion's intentional and strategic genius revealed itself to him.

You can’t make waves in the middle of the desert, he mused before glancing towards the driveway.

A police officer approached the vehicle warily, trying in earnest to peer through the heavy tint of the car's windows.

"You've got to keep moving," the officer shouted, his hand resting on the pistol at his hip.

Ned rolled down the window, and the officer crouched down to look inside.

"I’m Ned Stark, district attorney from Portland. This is Special Agent Kingsley Bright with the FBI," Ned hollered out the window.

"We're here to speak with Malcolm Schroeder. He's expecting us," Kingsley added and he held out his badge towards the open window.

When the officer faltered, Ned studied his uniform.  His shirt’s patch boasted the name of the nearest town, and the man himself possessed the telltale uncertainty of a small-town deputy sheriff. His face was pale, his eyes blood-shot and glassy as he stared into the car.

"Alright," the officer relented. "Keep your car parked here. I'll escort you."

The officer turned on his heel and was already heading up the driveway, while Ned and Kingsley scrambled out of the car. They fell in next to the officer when they neared the mansion.

Ned observed people meandering in and out of the open front door. Men in suits spoke to one another animatedly, arms waving in the air, though their voices were hushed. Police officers on the scene looked as shell-shocked and disturbed as the deputy sheriff leading them towards the steps of a sprawling front porch. EMT workers carried bodies, covered in the shroud of a black bag, down the steps. One after the other, the bodies were placed in ambulances, which commenced at a somber pace down the drive, sirens silent and lights extinguished – nothing to be done for those inside.

Malcolm Schroeder emerged through the front door with another man, who bounded off towards a group of police officers gathered by their squad cars. Schroeder was a tall, solidly built man, although age and stress were beginning to take their toll in the form of deep lines around his eyes and a beer gut protruding from his middle. He kept his dark brown hair combed back, though it still revealed a thinning hairline.

Schroeder meandered towards Ned and Kingsley. He circled around emergency workers and headed down the steps with his usual lumbering gait – slow movements with wide-swinging limbs. He talked in the same manner that he walked – everything drawn out in a deliberate and steady pace.

"Gentlemen," he greeted both Kingsley and Ned with a nod in each of their directions.

Ned took a step forward and offered Schroeder a firm handshake.  A distinct hostility lingered between Kingsley and Schroeder even as they exchanged a similar greeting. 

"How long have you been here?" Ned inquired, settling back on his heels and staring up at the mansion.

"I received the call around one in the morning and got here as quick as I could. I've been here since two I'd say."

Schroeder was pushing dirt around with the tip of his suede cowboy boot, and his arms folded across his chest as he studied the patterns trailing through the dust.

"It's good to see you again," Schroeder said to Ned with an uncharacteristic softness when he lifted his eyes.  What was meant to be a gesture of kindness instead left Ned unnerved.

“We can certainly make use of your famed Moriarti expertise here,” he added. “I never was one for small talk, though. Shall we?" Schroeder tucked his hands in his pockets and began towards the front steps of the Moriarti mansion. He turned to Ned as they ascended the steps, voice drawn low to a murmur.

"Listen, I want you to know what we'll be walking into," Schroeder cautioned ominously. "It's bad in there."

Halfway up the steps, Ned stopped and stared through the open door. Blood was splattered against the far wall of the foyer and pooled on the floor, the edges drying dark against tile the color of sand.

"Am I going to find a dead daughter inside?" Ned demanded, louder than he intended. The officers perched by their squad cards quieted to listen. The hush spread, and conversations ceased to an eerie silence that left Schroeder visibly unnerved. 

The man hovered a few steps above Ned and glanced back towards the open door before answering.

"No. I checked before every body was put in a bag. She wasn't here.”

Schroeder's glower may have gone unnoticed by the others, or perhaps they'd chalk it up to the man being sleep deprived and on-edge after a night of gruesome work. His words were curt and abrupt, as though he’d hoped to avoid the question altogether. Moments earlier, Schroeder had regarded Ned with tepid pleasantries. Though they were insincere in the first place, those pleasantries were abandoned now. He didn't like to be questioned and certainly not in front of others he considered his subordinates, but his defiance was odd and out of place, too blatantly defensive to be explained away by fatigue. When Schroeder continued on towards the front door, Ned exchanged a glance with Kingsley, who appeared similarly put-off by Schroeder's sudden brusqueness. 

"The coroner's had his hands full, but he's just about done," Schroeder informed when they stepped into the foyer.

The splatter Ned briefly saw moments before paled in comparison to the grotesque way blood stained the walls. Red streaks were smeared on the floor from individuals who did not die instantaneously, but rather crawled on their bellies towards the hope of safety.

Bodies were scattered throughout the foyer and into a great room. They were covered over with white sheets – a gift of modesty though the legs and feet were still visible, poking out as a reminder of what was underneath. Most of the sheets were stained red in large blotches near the top and the middle, the areas where fatal injuries were sustained.

Ned counted fifteen bloodied-sheets and, no matter where he averted his eyes, he saw red, running in dried rivulets down the walls or pooled, smeared, and in hand and foot prints on the floor.

A crime scene photographer carefully maneuvered around the bodies, snapping photographs that would end up in the hands of an unmoved lawyer, a callous investigator, and perhaps put on display in a courtroom to shock a jury into a guilty verdict. Yet, Ned didn't know if these men deserved justice. They were criminals, and they chose the path that led them here, lying dead beneath white sheets. These graphic photographs immortalizing the horrors of a crime scene were their only memento mori.  

A sheet was lifted off one man so the photographer could do his work. Ned glimpsed the face, which was a nearly unrecognizable mess of dried blood and mangled flesh. The man was tall and built with thick-limbs. Ned recognized him by his size and the tattoo covering his forearm.

“Johnny Allen. Or ‘Big Johnny,’ as the Moriarti called him,” Ned noted.

“And this one?” Schroeder lifted the sheet off of a body laying a few feet from Big Johnny’s.

“You should know who that is,” Ned deadpanned. Schroeder shifted uncomfortably beneath Ned’s stare. “Stephen ‘Disco’ Mareth. He’s the capo who heads up the Las Vegas division. That’s in your own backyard, Schroeder.”

Ned’s hands found their way to his hips as he walked back towards Kingsley, whose lips had lifted into a slight smile. Schroeder’s face flushed red, and his eyes narrowed at Ned. A pair of paramedics carrying another body bag passed between Ned and Schroeder.

"Jesus Christ," Kingsley breathed. He stepped towards Schroeder with a scowl and spoke with a frustrated fervor, though his words came quiet. "You said this place was under surveillance."

Schroeder was at least six inches taller than Kingsley, and the taupe-colored cowboy boots he favored so much added another two inches of height.  He took a step towards Kingsley and glared down at the man with the disdain of someone who just had fifteen bodies laid at his feet.  

Schroeder didn't think much of mafia men and spoke of them like they were animals that needed to be dealt with, vermin to be squashed beneath the heel of his boot. That was what really bothered Schroeder about Kingsley’s words: not that he would be held responsible for the death of Moriarti men, but rather that the lives of those men somehow mattered. To Schroeder, they didn't matter, and it was wrong of Kingsley to suggest a guilty conscience was in order.

"It was under surveillance, Agent Bright," Schroeder seethed in the space between him and Kingsley. "The local police department was keeping an eye on this place – the same department whose sheriff says Mr. Moriarti was a kind old man, who made no trouble in the community; the same sheriff who turned his head when a mafia boss set up shop in this town twenty years ago; the same sheriff who’s been cowering in fear ever since then, hoping like hell something of this magnitude wouldn't happen on his watch."

Schroeder turned away and bounded towards the great room beyond the foyer. His boots stomped against the ground, and his voice echoed throughout the room as Ned and Kingsley followed behind.

"But it did happen, and now the sheriff is in over his head. He lost four of his officers last night – one of them dead in an upstairs bedroom, the other three in the basement."  

Midway through the explanation he was loath to give, Schroeder turned around abruptly in the middle of a hallway lined with framed photographs.  

"Let me put that in perspective for you, Kingsley. That's about half of the police force in this town. So yes, this place was under surveillance by a few officers, who didn't know what the fuck they were doing and who told me to pound sand when I suggested they might need help from my department. The worst they've dealt with are bored kids stirring up trouble, tweeked out drug addicts, and the occasional drunk driver or two. Now, there are over thirty people who were murdered here last night, and the morgue at the local hospital can't hold all the dead bodies. Is this making sense to you?"

"Hold on a just minute,” Ned interjected forcefully. “Thirty people?" The number came at tremendous odds to the fifteen bloody sheets he counted earlier.

"Thirty-eight," Schroeder corrected and continued on towards a door at the end of the hallway.  "It's hard to tell who's who, but it looks as if most were with the Moriarti camp.”

Kingsley and Schroeder continued towards the end of the hall. Ned lingered a few paces behind, surveying the pictures lining the halls. With each passing photograph, he found himself increasingly fixated, and his steps came slower.

The images were of what looked to be ordinary people, family members whose memories were honored on the wall. For a place touted as a compound – some cold and forbidding refuge of heartless men – the photographs suggested a normalcy that Ned had never before associated with the organization. The Moriarti called themselves a family, after all, yet Ned had never regarded them as a family in truth, only in name.

They were criminals, wicked men making their own rules in the world and hurting innocent people along the way. Yet, the oath of family in name might as well have been family in blood to these men, and the faces hung on the wall were not so different from any other family photos.  Every smile was just as genuine, the pride and love just as evident.

Ned walked the row of photographs and studied the images of Alberto Moriarti’s life. There were war photos of Moriarti’s father and his battle buddies. There were photos of weddings, photos of laughing children and beaming mothers, photos of pretty girls and doting men.

Schroeder and Kingsley had disappeared down the steps leading to a basement, but Ned remained behind. He stopped in front of a photo halfway down the hall. In this photograph, Alberto was older, though no less proud and distinguished. Next to him stood the Hound, who looked no more than Sansa’s age. Wearing a suit and a lopsided smile, Clegane held up a burnt Ace of Spades card to the camera. Alberto stood by his side, glowing with pride.

Recognition stirred within Ned, as though he’d seen this picture before. The sentiment looked somehow familiar. A few moments passed before the remembrance barreled into him. On his desk in Portland was a photograph of him and Sansa after her graduation. She clutched her diploma in her hands with a dazzling smile, and Ned stood by her side, bursting with pride at his daughter’s accomplishments and bright future. Ned knew the look on Alberto’s face in the photograph. He understood the levity in Alberto’s smile and the light in his eyes. By all appearances, Alberto Moriarti was just as a much a father as Ned was, but the notion was unsettling.

Ned quickly averted his eyes from the photograph and continued down the hall, refusing to look at the other photos. His hurried steps landed heavy against the floor. He took the stairs to the basement carefully despite his haste. They were narrow and not much light was coming from the bottom, where a door was left open. Downstairs, the area was set up as a lounge, spacious enough to host three-dozen people or more and luxuriously outfitted despite a rustic facade.  

Ned kept a brisk pace through the lounge, heading past poker tables and a sizeable bar, towards a wooden door on the other side of the room, where Schroeder and Kingsley waited for him. Through the door, Schroeder navigated darkly lit halls, his head half-turned over his shoulder as he continued to relay details of the night's events.

"Most of the fighting happened upstairs, near the front of the house and in the kitchen. The Moriarti men were put down pretty damn quick by the looks of it. The Severelli must have come in force. They massacred everyone who was here and bailed afterwards."  

They stopped at a metal door, and Schroeder faltered briefly before turning to Ned and Kingsley.  

"This is where the women were. They were either hiding or were taken here by the Severelli."

With a firm pull, Schroeder opened the door and Ned and Kingsley followed him through to the other side. The area was a garage, situated on the western side of the mansion and large enough for five vehicles at least. The garage door was left open, and a cold breeze swept through the empty space. Two squad cars from the local police department were parked outside, blocked off by yellow tape with a few remaining investigators peering into the vehicles.

Whereas the mansion itself was lavish beyond all of Ned's expectations, the garage was stark and barren, every bit the bleak compound Ned had anticipated. Set against an empty space, the violence was visible.  Upstairs, Ned could count the bodies and knew how many had been lost. In the garage, the victims had already been removed, and the only traces left were their bloodstains.

"How many were here?" Ned insisted, as he stared at the ground towards one single body covered in a sheet, not yet collected and purposefully left behind, or so it seemed.

"Thirteen," Schroeder responded tepidly and followed Ned’s eyes to the covered body on the floor. "I know what your daughter looks like," the man added forcefully with the same affront he'd regarded Kingsley with earlier. "She wasn't here last night."

“Then who was here?” Ned’s voice echoed dully throughout the space. “I’ve identified two dead capos for you, and you’ve yet to tell either Agent Bright or myself where the rest of them are. All you’ve shown us is a mess!”

Schroeder approached Ned, heels scraping against the polished concrete with each slow step and his intimidating intent quite obvious, though alarmingly peculiar.

“A mess is a good thing, Ned,” Schroeder insisted. “We need this kind of chaos to build a case against them, don’t we? We need Moriarti men with blood on their hands.”

 

“We don’t need a mess. We need to find my daughter!” Ned shouted. He closed the distance between himself and Schroeder in a few short steps. “You said she’d be here.”

 

Schroeder’s gaze flickered up and down Ned’s form. A smile grew on his lips as he shook his head faintly.

 

“You think all we need is to find your daughter, but let me ask you something, Ned. Are you certain that she’ll testify against them?”

 

“Why the hell wouldn’t she?” Ned seethed.

 

“You know why she wouldn’t.” Schroeder’s voice softened to nothing more than a rasping murmur. He loomed in front of Ned with a cocksure smile lifting the corners of his lips. “I told you what I saw at Mirabelle Clegane’s funeral. Sansa was right by his side the whole damn time. You should’ve seen the way she was loved up on him.”

Ned hurled himself at Schroeder, shoving hard against the man's chest and taking him by obvious surprise. Schroeder stumbled backwards and lost his balance, falling towards the floor.

"If she’s with him, then where the hell is she?" Ned bellowed, hovering over the man. "You told me to wait!  We could've had her by now, and this wouldn't have happened!"

Ned launched towards Schroeder once more, and his knees hit the ground hard before his fists coiled around the man’s shirt. Ned shook him, throwing his weight against Schroeder until Kingsley was pulling him off, inserting himself between the two men. 

"I never said for sure she’d be here last night!" Schroeder shouted, regaining his feet and lurching towards Ned in one swift movement. Kingsley's arm shot up, pushing Schroeder back as the man continued hurtling his words at Ned.

"I told you they’d be together, and Clegane wasn't here last night either! So what the fuck do you care about what happened here? You care about these people now?" Schroeder motioned towards the blood-stained floor before bounding in the direction of the body behind him, where he ripped off the sheet.

"You care about him? You care that he's dead?"

Lying on the floor, Alberto Moriarti looked frail, skin waxen and pallid, his grey hair tousled, and the front of his white shirt soaked with dried blood. 

"Moriarti," Ned mumbled. He stared solemnly at the fallen patriarch.  

"That's right. Old piece of shit."

With the tip of his boot, Schroeder delivered a hard kick to Moriarti's side. The dead man's body shifted against the force, but remained rigid on the ground with eyes shut and mouth partially open, arms crossed about his belly.

"They got what they deserved," Schroeder continued, staring down at Moriarti. "All of them got what they deserved."

The same comments were made after the Royce massacre, when it was suggested that Nestor had brought it on himself after years of under-the-table dealings with crooked judges, dirty cops, and eventually the mob. The assertion disgusted Ned then, just as it did now.

To men like Schroeder, the violence and death endured last night was necessary to balance the scales. Schroeder took the old adage that justice should be blind to heart. For him, that blindness had bred ignorance and a dangerous kind of ruthlessness that thrived behind a badge and an oath to protect and serve.

Ned once asked his brother why he continued pursuing the Moriarti after so many fruitless years. “For the greater good, Ned. To triumph over evil,” Brandon declared gallantly with a righteous smile, as bright and brave as ever.

Schroeder loomed over the corpse of Alberto Moriarti, and Ned couldn’t quite say which man was the lesser evil. Good and evil was a continuum, not a line in the sand where men pick their sides and fight their battles against the other half. Good men do awful things, and bad men have the capacity to love, to raise families, to be fathers. Only tragedy was universal, and the horrors endured in Moriarti’s home were most certainly a grievous tragedy.

"No one deserves to die like this," Ned declared. He glanced briefly at Alberto once more before striding towards the metal door, back in the direction they had come. He retreated through the dark halls with the sound of Kingsley following after him and Schroeder somewhere further back.

He continued upstairs, past the photographs and into the open foyer, where the procession of body bags continued out the front door. Ned lingered in the front doorway for Kingsley, whose face was drawn in somber reverie as he surveyed what was left of the Moriarti home.

Ned contemplated the large staircase overlooking the foyer. The tiled stairs were pristine and veritably untouched by the bloodshed that had ensued below. The beige walls leading up to the landing above lacked splatter or any visible traces of violence.

"You haven’t showed us what’s upstairs, Schroeder,” Ned commented. With his arms crossed about his chest, he motioned his head towards the landing up above. “You said an officer was found dead up there.”

"Three men were dead upstairs. One of the first responders and two men identified as Severelli capos," Schroeder informed. He began to pace again, heels clicking and hands settled on his hips, anxious for Kingsley and Ned to depart. “Other than that, there’s nothing much to see.”

"Two Severelli capos were up there?" Kingsley repeated incredulously. He followed Ned’s eyes upstairs. "It makes no sense for them to have been up there."

"They could have been sweeping through, while the others held down the basement," Schroeder speculated with a dismissive shrug. 

"They wouldn't send capos to do that job. That's a job for made men," Ned quickly corrected. "Besides, they wouldn't have gotten that far without the Moriarti men being long dead first."

When their eyes met, Kingsley gave a small nod, and both men dashed towards the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.

Upstairs, hallways were situated on either side of the landing, each lined with doors. Down the hall to the right, a door had been left open, and light was spilling out against the floor. Ned headed down the hall, while Schroeder began ascending the stairs.

"I said there’s nothing to see up there, gentleman," he shouted after them.

A flimsy length of police tape blocked off the open door. Ned tore away at it and entered the room, easing around a large bloodstain in front of the doorway. The bedroom was spacious, boasting tall ceilings and oversized furniture, which still struggled to fill the room.  Blood was smeared down the wall adjacent to the door and dried in a large stain against the carpet directly beneath. The drapes adorning the windows were open, and the sun spilled through the clouds in radiant streams.

The third bloodstain, accounting for the third body, was on the bed. The bed sheets were in complete disarray – crumpled and twisted.  In the center, blood soaked the sheets in haphazard patterns.  A struggle had clearly ensued on the bed.

"Someone else was up here with them," Ned asserted, spinning on his heel towards Schroeder.

"Someone who either got away or only made it as far as the basement," Kingsley finished, nodding his head and scrutinizing the bed sheets before lifting a glance towards Schroeder.  "What evidence was collected up here?"

"Three pistols, a few casings," Schroeder responded, pinching the bridge of his nose and shifting beneath the doorframe. "I don't know what else. I wasn't up here."

Kingsley stepped towards the bed until his legs were flush with the edge of the mattress, which he leaned over, careful not to disturb the sheets. As he muttered something to himself, his two fingers delicately picked at the pillow.

Turning around, Kingsley held up his two fingers, still pinched together and lifted towards the light coming through the window.

"What is it?" Ned asked. Before Kingsley could answer him, Ned glimpsed a strand of something – thread perhaps – between Kingsley's fingers.  When he stepped closer, towards the light, the thin thread lit up in auburn color, hanging long from Kingsley's fingers. He held not a thread at all, but a strand of hair.

In unison, Kingsley and Ned turned to Schroeder, whose mouth momentarily hung agape and then sealed shut again in a stern scowl.

"It doesn't mean she was in this room, Ned," he asserted defensively, though he took steps backwards towards the door.

She’s with him, Ned’s mind taunted – sirens blaring, the warning bells Kingsley had cautioned about.

"You don't know that!" Ned bellowed. "Send it to a goddamn lab, and find out for sure!"

He shouldered past Schroeder and into the hallway, fists curled, nails digging painfully into the palms of his hands, and feet pounding against the floor.

"Even if she was here, she's gone again!" Schroeder shouted down the hall.  

Ned stopped midstride and stared at the ground. With his back to Kingsley and Schroeder, who he could hear shifting nervously behind him, the anger dissipated. His fists uncurled, and he no longer entertained the wild visions of barreling down the hall towards Schroeder.

Everything around him suddenly softened. The sounds became muffled and distant, and the light dimmed though the clouds hadn’t yet conquered the sun. Heaviness grew in the vacancy of anger, pressing in on him, though it wasn't the claustrophobic sense of urgency he was used to.

Standing in the hallway of this abandoned and desecrated home, Ned recognized the quiet murmurs of the voice he couldn't ignore. It didn't speak with words, but instead beckoned Ned to look at the door he'd stopped in front of, a door leading to a room catty-corner from the one he'd just been in.

"What's in here?" Ned asked, his hand lifting to the doorknob before Schroeder could answer.

"Just another bedroom," Ned heard from down the hall as he pushed through the door anyhow.

On the other side, the air was stale. Bits of dust floated through sun streams, which created the illusion of a hazy glow encompassing the quiet space.  

"Ned, I said there's nothing in there," Schroeder repeated more insistently. His voice echoed along with the footsteps coming down the hall.

Ned ignored both and walked to the center of the room, a smaller version of the last bedroom he’d just been in. While the rest of the mansion was left in chaos, this room appeared untouched. A floral bedspread was pulled taut against the mattress, and the pillows were in orderly rows.  Fresh flowers had been put in a green glass vase and placed on a nightstand. The room seemed to exist on its own, separate from the rest of the mansion and immune to the bloodshed and violence. The walls themselves and everything they sheltered radiated a sense of peace carved out from a greater whole that had known so much tragedy.

Who made it this way and why, Ned pondered momentarily with a dull sense of curiosity.

He stepped towards a dresser against the far wall of the room. Picture frames adorned its length in one long row. Through the mirror that hung above the dresser, Ned could see Kingsley enter the room along with Schroeder, red-faced and silently fuming.

Mirabelle Clegane appeared in all the photographs – smiling through bright red lips, eyes crinkled with laughter, and black hair framing a heart-shaped face. Kingsley previously mentioned having met her once before, and by all accounts, she was a vivacious spirit with a warm heart. Her untimely death had come as a shock, and even Ned had felt the pangs of bittersweet condolence at the news. Mirabelle was posed in a few pictures with other women, friends who she wrapped tightly in a hug. In another picture, Ned recognized Alberto Moriarti. The old man wore a sombrero. His eyes were closed and his mouth open in a fit of laughter, and Mirabelle was kissing his cheek, a margarita glass in hand. Ned felt a faint tug at the corners of his mouth, the emergence of a smile, which faded when his eyes scanned to the last picture in the row. He took the frame in his hands and saw Mirabelle standing next to a man who was at least a head taller than her, but who shared the same black hair and grey eyes.  

Sandor Clegane, Ned acknowledged.

The resemblance between the two was obvious, as well as the affection with which they seemed to regard one another. Mirabelle’s face was pressed against his chest, and Sandor's hand was clutched protectively around her shoulder. They weren't staring at the camera, but rather at one another with noticeable endearment.

"What is it?" Kingsley inquired. Ned glanced towards the mirror, but he wasn't looking at Kingsley.

Instead, his eyes were drawn to the opposing wall and a closet door, which had been left open. Through the reflection, he could see it was mostly empty.  The contents had been cleared out, and only a few items remained.

Ned's mouth opened to tell Kingsley it was nothing, but he remained silent instead. His eyes were steady on the closet, scrutinizing inconsequential details. Then, he spotted something that had been shoved to the far side of the closet, hidden in the shadows and hardly discernable.  

Spinning around, picture frame still clutched in his hands, Ned moved across the room, slowly at first, until Kingsley spoke again with subtle and nervous urgency.

"Ned, what is it?"

He quickened his pace the rest of the way and flung open the closet door. The sun spilled into the darkened space, illuminating a white dress shoved far into the corner. Ned ripped the dress from its hanger. It was shorter than anything he would ever let Sansa wear. The straps were still too thin and the cut too low, but now the white fabric was patterned in faded brown splotches of dried blood.   

With the dress balled in one hand, Ned glared at the picture in the other. Sandor Clegane had a sister, one he loved very much. The monster was a man – not a phantasmal, preternatural force, as Ned once believed when Clegane seemed to slip through his fingers at every turn. Flesh and blood, he existed. He had things that he loved, things that would tear him apart to ever lose. And he had lost those things – his sister, Alberto, his organization. Yet, he had still taken from Ned the only thing that mattered anymore, the only person he had left to love.

Ned hurled the picture frame across the room and watched with irate satisfaction as it shattered against the far wall, crashing down onto the floor in shards of broken glass.

"I'm not a little girl anymore."

He could hear Sansa's voice and remembered the way she smiled at him when she said the words, some of her last. He remembered the way she cried in his arms one night as a young girl, convinced she was cursed after reading palms with her Grandmother. Even years later, he'd find her face drawn in worry when she studied the lines of her palm with fear heavy in her eyes. His little girl knew something that he didn't. She felt it in a way Ned never understood until now.

She’s with him.

The voice spoke, and Ned recognized it as the truth. It came brutal, as he knew it would. It left him breathless, doubled over with his hands on his knees and furious tears rolling down his cheeks. By some inexplicable medium, he’d already known somehow, but refused to believe. He turned to Kingsley. His friend stood at his side, a resolute channel for all the sordid rage Ned couldn’t manage on his own.

Ned lifted himself to full height once more and swatted at the tears wetting his cheeks. He willed himself back into the very image of a rock – strong and persistent, though he was visibly trembling and his fists clenched in on themselves with the dress in one hand.

“Where is he?” Kingsley demanded of Schroeder. “Where the fuck are they?”

Schroeder flinched, and the extent of his shame only went so far as to preserve his ego. He stared at his boots and did not speak, but merely shook his head, at a loss after the defiance he favored so well was stripped from him.

“Answer the goddamn question!” Kingsley hollered.

“Clegane was admitted to a hospital last night,” Schroeder confessed, though reluctantly. “He’s lucky to have made it that far. He’s probably dead by now.” He cast a doleful glance in Ned’s direction, but it did not linger or hold any true measure of regret. “I don’t know where your daughter is, Ned.”

For a moment, the room went quiet. The calm that accompanied the silence earlier had suddenly fled. The air felt dense, thick and heavy. The claustrophobia returned.

“That was your job,” Ned asserted as he headed for the door. He stopped in front of Schroeder, and both men hovered in the small space beneath the doorframe. “Your part in this was to be our eyes and ears out here. I cannot reconcile why you’ve done the things you’ve done, Schroeder.”

Though they stood a breath apart within the doorway, Schroeder held his ground. His gaze didn’t falter or abandon the menace that stirred dark in his eyes.

“No, I think there’s only one thing you’re having trouble reconciling, Ned. And that ain’t my problem,” he countered. His mouth hung open as if there were more he meant to say, but the clicking of heels interrupted him. The sound echoed from the staircase in fierce rhythm.  

Ned stepped in the hall as an investigator on Kingsley’s team hurried towards him. The buttons of her jacket were mismatched, and a scarf was haphazardly tossed around her neck. She stopped midway down the hall, and her eyes shifted between Ned, Kingsley, and Schroeder, who’d all spilled into the hallway.

“He’s alive,” she informed breathlessly. “Clegane made it through the night. He’s at a hospital on the north side of town, one where the Moriarti have connections.”

Schroeder’s boot tapped faintly against the floor, and he drew in a deep breath. He moved forward, as if to follow after the investigator who retreated back towards the stairs. Ned stepped in front of him and held out his arm to block his path.

“We’ll take it from here,” he insisted, before heading down the hall.

Ned retreated down the steps leading to the foyer, which was now empty though the bloodstains still remained. Outside, the sky was grey, and most of the emergency vehicles had already departed. He stopped at the fountain and sat on the cold marble edge. With the fountain turned off, the water inside was dark and murky, but rippled gently against the rising wind. Ned’s back was turned to the mansion as he wrung Sansa’s dress between his hands.

The sun had disappeared behind a black mass of clouds gathering in the distance. As he turned his eyes to the sky, Ned recognized the turmoil up above. It reminded him of the storm that had raged over Portland one summer evening so many months ago. He’d watched the beginnings of that particular storm from his office window. The wind had whipped through the trees, which swayed to and fro with enough force that limbs snapped. The sky had gone dark as soot, and a voice from within warned on a whisper of unspeakable things to come.

Ned unfolded Sansa’s dress and laid it on his lap. His fingers ran circles around the stains and connected them one by one. Kingsley sat down beside him and watched silently as he did this.

“How could this have happened?” Ned murmured.

Kingsley shook his head and looked down at Sansa’s dress. Ned’s hands pressed flat against the fabric now.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Kingsley responded sincerely.

“You knew what was going on between them,” Ned remarked quietly. “When you met with Sandor in Crescent City, you must’ve known then.”

“I didn’t know how to tell you,” Kingsley confessed, obvious guilt coloring his words as he stared solemnly at Ned. “Then again, I didn’t think I had to tell you. You seemed to have already known.”

Ned slowly lifted himself to his feet, and his body ached now. His knees throbbed, and the fatigue of sleepless nights settled deep within his bones.

“I know what went on here,” he whispered with a nod. “I knew it in the way he said her name. I knew it in the way he looked at me.”

Ned cast a glance towards the mansion for what he knew would be the last time. No one would come here again. Moriarti’s home would be surrendered to the elements and forgotten in time. In the absence of sunlight, it appeared decrepit somehow, already greyed and ashen. It would never again be what it once was – neither a safe haven nor a home. In thoughtful, unhurried movements, Ned began carefully folding Sansa’s dress.

“When I see Sansa again, I imagine I’ll know it in the way she says his name and the way she looks at me – so fearful of my disappointment, but wanting what she wants all the same.”

He traipsed his fingertips over the wrinkled and stained fabric once more before placing the dress gently on the fountain’s edge. When he was done with his ritual, he looked to the sky, and Kingsley followed his eyes there.

“What’ll you say to your daughter in that moment, Ned?” Kingsley pressed. The wind had begun to lash around them and whipped up plumes of dirt. The clamorous boom of thunder erupted from the sky above. Raindrops pattered the ground around them.

“The truth. I’ll tell her the truth,” Ned began deliberately. “That bad men exist in this world, and he is surely one of them. That he lied to her. That I’m sorry he ever convinced her he was worthy of her graciousness, her kindness, or her love. That it’s time to come home, where she belongs. And that it’s over. For him and for her – it’s over.”

The dress was lifted on the breeze and, with a violent gust, tumbled into the stagnant waters of the fountain. Ned refused to watch as the water swallowed up Sansa’s bloodstained dress into its depths. He turned away just as the skies opened with a torrent of rain. The storm finally reached him.