Cronin's Key (Cronin's Key #1)

by N.R. Walker


Detective Alec MacAidan ran through the dark, wet back streets of New York City. The rain gave a silver-scape to the buildings, dulling the stench of garbage-littered alleys, and added an eeriness to what had been an already weird night. Shadows seemed to move and follow him as he ran, making the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, but he never quit running. Chasing.

He was one of the fittest guys in his department, and at only twenty-nine, he was younger than most. His jeans were wet to his knees, and water streamed down from his soaked brown hair to his coat. His senses alert, the only sounds he could hear were his own heart pounding in his ears and his boots striking the pavement.

He’d chased down ice addicts before, and this one was no different. Unnatural strength and speed, ashen faces and wide eyes, and manic highs and lows made these people unpredictable and dangerous. But as he navigated his way, chasing the guy through the back alleyways, around corners, over fences, barely catching glimpses of the guy’s dark coat before it disappeared again, the shadows got closer. Alec had the creeping realization he wasn’t chasing someone at all.

He was being chased.

Followed. Hunted.

Despite the burn in his lungs and legs, he pushed himself harder, faster. As he rounded the corner of a building, the guy he was chasing approached the eight-foot brick wall that fenced the back of the alley.

The assailant didn’t stop; he didn’t even balk. He simply used the alley wall to his right to launch himself up onto the top of the brick fence, where he paused for just a second, long enough to stop, turn, and look at Alec. And he smiled before disappearing onto the other side.

Two things flashed through Alec’s mind: speed and teeth.

Neither of them human.

Alec did as the assailant had done. He ran to the dead end, then stepped onto the alley wall and used it to propel himself up enough to get his arms up on top of the brick fence, pulling himself over it.

He swung his legs over and jumped down into another shorter alley that met a main road just a hundred yards away. Cars passed and Alec thought for sure he’d lost the chase, but a lone figure stood in the alley. Alec thought for a moment that the man had simply given up running, but something flashed near the street—a coat, Alec realized—before disappearing around the corner.

The lone man just stood there. All Alec could see was a silhouette, lit only from a streetlight behind him at the end of the alley, the man was completely shrouded in shadow. Alec pulled his gun and aimed it at him. “NYPD,” he huffed, out of breath. “Hands where I can see ’em.”

The man fell to his knees, then slumped to his side on the wet pavement. Alec ran to him, and when he was close enough, he could see a dark pool of blood seeping through the man’s shirt. Alec hadn’t heard any shots fired, nor any confrontation. Was he shot? Stabbed?

Alec pressed his hand against the man’s chest with one hand and radioed for backup with his other. “This is MacAidan. I need a paramedic.”

It was only now that he was close enough that Alec could see the man’s face. He was pale with dark eyes, but he was smiling. He was oddly beautiful and serene despite having what looked like a bullet wound in his chest.

“What’s your name?” Alec asked him.

The man laughed. “He missed my heart.”

“We’ll get you to the hospital,” Alec said. “Just hang on.”

“No.” He shook his head slowly, still smiling. “It’s you. It really is you.”

Alec was sure the man was seeing someone that wasn’t there, as most people taking their last breaths often did. “What’s your name?”

“He will come for you. Tell him it’s started, they’re coming.” His voice was wispy, fading. “It’s not one, it’s both.”

The man was making no sense. “Tell who?”

The man on the ground reached up and put his hand to Alec’s chest. He smiled again, his eyes glazed over with something akin to wonder. “I touched the key.”

“Detective MacAidan.” Alec’s radio cracked to life, startling him. He didn’t know how long the operator had been calling his name. “State your location.”

“The key to what?”

The dying man laughed. “You must tell Cronin what I said. He’ll find you, Ailig.”

Alec’s blood ran cold. Ailig? How the hell did he know…? Then the man on the ground took his last breath and crumbled to dust.

* * * *

Alec had seen some pretty weird shit in his life, but nothing quite prepared him for what he’d seen tonight.