A cunning pederastic serial killer nicknamed “Santa” is making his way up the East Coast from New Orleans to Boston, leaving a trail of young bodies in his wake. Santa covers his tracks along the way by working as an itinerant bass player in a series of jazz combos. At the same time, the Driscoll family – Mark, Julie and their nine-year-old son Nate – who live in an upstate suburb of Syracuse, New York, struggle to come to grips with Mom’s quadriplegia following a horrific auto accident. The suspense builds to a fever pitch as these two plot strands approach each other for the inevitable confrontation. All this tension is heightened by the mystery of Duncan, Nate’s stuffed-toy gorilla, who is not only the boy’s beloved companion but becomes a kind of family totem, and, later on in the story, so much more.
This is a novel not only for readers addicted to thrill rides and maddening suspense, but also those who are curious about the abnormal psychology of the pedophiliac killer. The book gives food for thought as well as a kind of perverse satisfaction for the imagination and senses. It is a thinking reader’s thriller.
It was the best cut at the ball little Joey Simmons had ever taken, but he fouled it back over the chain-link fence. As catcher, Zach Moss had the job of retrieving it. He slipped down through the hollowed-out area under the fence, looked both ways before crossing the empty street lined with warehouses and loading docks, and darted across to where the ball lay nestled against the curb—just a few feet in front of the charcoal van. It was Sunday afternoon and the area was deserted. As Zach reached down, out of the corner of his eye he spotted the tall man in the black polo shirt leaning casually against the van’s open sliding door, kicking a crushed paper cup to the curb.
“Whatcha got there, pal?”
“A baseball,” Zach answered shyly, noticing the van was empty.
“Wow, that looks like a Phillies ball. I’ll bet you caught it off the bat of Ryan Howard or some big slugger like that, huh? Could I have a look?”
Zach hesitated, torn between advancing and retreating, politeness and caution. That hesitation sealed the boy’s doom. The man made as if to reach for the ball, but grabbed the little wrist holding it instead. It was a deft move, a practiced move, and lightning fast, carried out with the larcenous dexterity of a seasoned pickpocket. The boy was so stunned that he forgot to scream.
The sliding door slammed shut and the man was behind the wheel pressing the accelerator before the boys on the ball field knew what was happening. He had kept himself on the sidewalk side of the van during the entire abduction, carefully hidden from their view. Zach knew he’d done something very wrong, even though he hadn’t meant to. All those endlessly repeated parental warnings raced across his mind, all the “Don’t ever listen’s” and “Always avoid’s” and “Run screaming from’s.” Could he have another chance? Please! He’d do it right this time. He splayed his fingers against the window, crying out—too late—to his friends as the van pulled away. He hadn’t noticed that its windows were dark-tinted, transparent only from the inside.
Passing through the industrial outskirts of the city, the van headed up Old York Road into the northern suburbs. It neither sped nor lagged and it obeyed all traffic laws. The man at the wheel enjoyed a supreme confidence in his trapping skills. It was a craft, an art even, and he had mastered it. Soon there was more wilderness than houses, until at some point the van turned left off the main road onto a poorly marked crossroad that, in short order, forked at a dirt road. The van took the dirt road across a tiny rustic bridge spanning a creek, continuing then across a cleared, open field on the right, at the end of which stood a modest white colonial house atop a gently sloping lawn. Potted plants overhung the small porch with its two rockers diagonally facing each other on either side of the front door. The place stood in the open, yet was well hidden by hilly wilderness beyond property boundaries. The dirt road saw little traffic.
The van pulled off the road and circled around to the rear of the house, stopping next to the angled steel cellar doors. The man got out, looked around and inhaled deeply, basking in the mellow sunlight of late afternoon. He was alone, the only sound that of the gently rustling trees. He slid open the van’s side door and leaned in, hands braced against the roof, ogling his prey with satisfaction. And lust.
Terror widened the boy’s eyes, making them—and him—all the more alluring to his captor. He cowered, pressed against the corner of his seat, his body balled up in futile self-protection.
“What do you want, mister? Why am I here?” he asked tentatively, knowing full well the man knew he knew why he was there.
“All in good time, Zach, all in good time,” the man chuckled. He’d heard the other kids call the boy by name weeks ago when he first began scouting him. He always made sure, if at all possible, to get a kid’s name before taking him. The process went much smoother that way. Strategic use of a boy’s name soothed the boy with the delusion that, despite appearances, his captor was well disposed towards him. A tactic that would make an adult instantly wary tended to pacify an eight-year-old. He’d learned that the hard way many years ago from the debacle in Austin when the words, “Whaddaya say, kid, let’s hang out,” triggered a shrieking that forced him to start, rather than end, the process with lethal violence. After that, from Atlanta through Nashville and Blacksburg and on up the east coast—it was his first “tour”—he made sure to get the name up front and learned to soften his diction. It was part of his evolution from a seat-of-the-pants amateur predator to a serial pedophile of deadly proficiency.
“Why don’t you climb out of there and come in for a cold drink, Zach? You must be thirsty. Catchers eat a lot of dust. They need to rehydrate all the time.”
“No! I don’t want to! I wanna go home!”
“I’d like you to think you are home—for now.”
“No, I’m not!” the boy cried with mounting panic. He began to whimper.
“Come on now,” the man said, mildly irritated. He extended his powerful right arm inside, like reaching for a prize in a grab bag, and gently but firmly pulled Zach out of the van. Then, bending over slightly while holding onto the boy, he pulled open the already unlocked cellar doors with his free arm.
Instinctively, Zach began to buck. He tried to pull away and squirmed furiously—to no avail. He had never felt such physical strength before. It was like trying to jerk a piece of wood loose from the vice in his father’s basement tool shop. Even when, not so long ago, his father would playfully toss him up in the air and catch him coming down like a medicine ball, it was nothing like the sheer physical resistance, the total control by another, he was feeling now.
The man carried the boy down the steps, bracing him on his hip like a surfboard. They entered a finished basement, though one that had the same dank, musty air all basements have, with or without dehumidifiers. The smell of the air caused a new spike in the boy’s panic, suggesting as it did the mold of the grave. Even at eight Zach was aware of the connotations of mold. The man cuffed him, as if scolding a pet, and got off on it. It was all part of the one-way foreplay.
The man carried him to the far end of the dark basement, which was largely uncluttered by the usual piles of stored junk, as if the house hadn’t been occupied long enough to accumulate much to store. There, well behind the furnace and hot-water heater, was a small, inconspicuous room, walled off from the rest, no doubt originally intended as a study or office. But the man had converted it to a kind of private pleasure cave. Richly paneled and lushly carpeted, hung with lurid pornographic images, both paintings and photographs, of naked children, many interacting with “erect” naked men, the windowless room was the sick expression of what had become the man’s sole reason for being. He had left the door unlocked and ajar for quick and easy sequestering of his latest prey. Lowering the boy onto the quilt-covered king-size bed that occupied more than half the room’s space, he raised an index finger to his smiling lips to shush the signs of panic contorting the boy’s face and body language. Then he leaned forward and switched on the portable CD-player on the nightstand. The soft strains of “So What” filled the room, the opening track of Miles Davis’s cool-jazz masterpiece, Kind of Blue, with the insouciant opening base sequence introducing Davis’s smokey trumpet. It was always the same music, always “So What,” setting the same naughty jazzy mood— anything else would have been unthinkable to him.
As the man pulled his shirt over his head and began unbuckling his jeans, the boy’s whimpering swelled into alternating sobs and shrieks. He had no idea he was playing right into his predator’s game plan, for the man’s lust was spiked above all else by another creature’s helplessness. He wanted the boy to beg for his innocence, his bodily integrity—his life. He craved the dark bliss of godlike power over the destiny of another, especially when that other was fully aware of his own utter dependency. This was his drug, his elixir, immeasurably more potent than the heroin he had tried so many times, which, while bestowing bliss, had also dulled his senses, and he lived for the sharpening of his senses. This got him out of bed in the morning.
“Zach, Zach. It’s all right. We’re just gonna cuddle for a while. Okay? Just lie together and hold each other and make each other feel good, you know?”
“I wanna go home!” the boy bawled in tearful protest, apparently shocked by the urgency of his own voice, for his sobbing escalated, opening up to a pathetic wail fueled by panic.
Its only effect was a quickening of the man’s desire. Stimulus … response. No one could hear them there, and it was all just becoming so delicious. As the man slipped out of his jeans, Zach’s eyes were riveted on the bulge in the crotch of his briefs. At eight, he had just enough sexual awareness to know what that bulge meant. Still, it was his dim but nightmarish sense of what might come afterward that intensified the stabs of panic.
The man lay down on the bed and snuggled up to his prey, whose flinching reflex merely spiked his lust once again. The man was lost within the dark caverns of his desire, the boy trapped within those same caverns.
“This is so nice,” the man breathed dreamily, reaching down deftly to their mutual nether regions while pressing the sobbing boy to him with unnatural strength …
The sun was down and a purplish twilight graced the overgrown area behind the house as a dark figure strode purposefully from the cellar doors in the rear into a little copse of oak and cedar about a stone’s throw away. He was carrying a base fiddle case. But his firm grip and taut right arm left no doubt that the case’s contents were heavier than any fiddle.
After a while, the only sound to pierce the darkening stillness was the rhythmic thrusting of the spade into the soft earth. Far from being drained by the effort of the
cleanup, the man felt juiced, energized, expansive, and, at the same time, utterly relaxed. He reveled in the digging, each thrust of the shovel a little aftershock of that explosion of pleasure for which he lived. Finally, dropping the shovel behind him, he sank to his knees, opened the case and stared for a while at the olive-hued double-strength trash bag that served as a shroud for the lifeless body. Gently lifting the body from the case, he lowered it into its shallow grave, again staring and carefully straightening out both the bag and the body it contained, though without attempting to pose the body in any way. No tableaus, no “necro-symbolism” to titillate the profilers. Just putting it where it belonged.
About the Author
Author Dennis McCort (1941-) was born and raised in Hoboken, New Jersey, the „mile square city“ on the Hudson, in the shadow of Manhattan. He writes of his experiences growing up there in the postwar industrial era before gentrification in his book, A Kafkaesque Memoir: Confessions from the Analytic Couch (PalmArt Press). McCort is now retired from Syracuse University in upstate New York where he taught German language and literature over a long career. He has authored literary studies on German and Swiss writers and on the influence of Zen Buddhism on such Western writers as J.D. Salinger, R.M. Rilke and Thomas Merton. His understanding of Zen, both as scholar and practitioner, i.e., from both outside and inside, helped him to add layers of complexity to the fascinating personality of the pedophiliac protagonist of Duncan. McCort has also written a comic novel, titled The Man Who Loved Doughnuts, about a young professor who fails to get tenure at his upstate university and spends a lost weekend in lower Manhattan. It is available as an Amazon Kindle eBook. Duncan is his novelization of a macabre seed-concept coming from his wife Dorothy: that of a serial pedophiliac murderer on a collision course with a young boy whose only defense is his stuffed toy gorilla. Both McCort and wife describe the book as a “thinking man’s thriller.”
Private contractor Matti Baker’s personal quest is to keep America safe. With unwavering loyalty, she was trained to assist government and outside agencies in identifying, locating, and eliminating individuals and nations that pose as threats to the United States. Baker navigates through assignments, that on surface, appear to have no connection. Ultimately Baker finds out that they are all intertwined and will trigger global destruction if not stopped. While sacrificing to keep her family hidden and safe; Baker enlists the help of her best friend and closest colleagues to eradicate double agents.
Whether in Texas, California, the Middle East, or even the foothills of Montana, Baker finds herself in the center of world domination. She keeps her wits about her and those that are lucky enough to be in her inside circle.
Praise for AESOP:
“Plenty of thrillers attempt to create spunky female protagonists; but AESOP excels in its gritty, first-person observational style. It will especially delight thriller audiences who like their action nonstop and their characters not just intelligent, but self-determined, driven, and sometimes edgy in their relationships with loved ones, superiors, peers, and the world.
AESOP is highly recommended and is head and shoulders above most thrillers featuring female operatives facing high-level threats and physical and mental challenges.” – D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“AESOP by Michele Packard is a fast-paced novel that introduces private contractor (Hit Lady) Matti Baker whose job is to find and eliminate individuals who pose a threat to America. Packard has created a kickass heroine that possesses beauty, brains, cunning, guts and brawn. In this novel, Matti is out to stop some very bad actors, and the job is exasperating. She doesn’t know it, but someone is out for her too. She has or knows something of importance that someone powerful wants very badly. So sometimes she is the hunter, and at other times she is the hunted….
Packard likes to use events from movies to illustrate the action occurring in her story. A memorable example is when Packard uses Stephen King’s scene of Annie Wilkes smashing Paul Sheldon’s feet with a sledgehammer to convey what is happening to Matti when her abductor’s interrogation goes to the extreme.” – Texas Authors, December 2018
Chapter 10 Road Trip
Double trouble. That’s what we were. I felt like I was in Stripes, when he said, “There’s something wrong with us, something very very wrong.” Damn, we were cute and funny. I was so glad Bethany was meeting me. I needed to unwind and get her perspective on things. She met me on the runway and was looking perfect as always. Bitch. It really was annoying, I was not sure how she did it, but she always looked on point. Just once, I’d love to see her all sweaty and in disarray.
She came beaming up to me with a full perfect smile and a mimosa for us both in her hands. “Here’s to however you fucked up to land us this gig, cheers.”
“Missed you too girlfriend. May be a premature toast with this road trip.”
We boarded onto a G6. Not a bad way to fly if you ask me. The G6 was capable of going 7,500 nautical miles, taking you from LA to Melbourne, marketed as the fastest and most expensive business jet on the market. It would be a little out of reach to make a direct flight to Afghanistan, but we were doing a stopover in London first for supplies, both fuel and ammo from our partnering friends. Not sure who Freddy hit up for these sweet rides, but I liked it.
Bethany and I got situated and comfy with a drink as we took off. I filled her in on Ramiz and everything I knew and didn’t know. We plotted potential next steps and expectations. We were two hours into the flight before she asked me the real question.
“Well, are you going to make me ask or are you going to spill it?” she simply stated.
“What do you mean?” My way of avoidance.
“Two guesses and the first one doesn’t count. Spill it. I want to hear about the Greek God you are obviously pining over.”
“Ohh, you want to talk about that little nugget,” I feigned.
“Well….” I filled her in on everything. We spent more time on this than we did national security, that was for sure. After I finished wrapping up, and we bounced off pros and cons, she looked at me and said, “Well, not to sound like my momma, but what’s meant to be will and this too shall pass.” Jesus, thanks for that. With that, I went back and passed out from exhaustion.
By the time we got to London, Freddy had sent over what they deciphered from the bottle. The label was just one coordinate etched multiple times all over the bottle. The label was the key to the other coordinates, but they were still unable to unlock the true significance of it all. It was like that movie with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in Contact trying to decipher some cosmic code. We had coordinates for Iraq, Israel…and a few other “stans” as I called them (Kazakhstan, Pakistan). Trouble was when you were being sent signals from all over kingdom come you tended to think the worst. True terror was not necessarily physical; it was mental. Fear will crumble people and nations.
The phone was clean with only that one number which was traced to Turkey. So, that dictated our first stop. We were going to play cat and mouse and see if we could catch a rat.
There were some beautiful women from Turkey. Not a lot of black people though, so Bethany was going to have to be my earpiece for this part. Women faced significant disparities in employment, religion and education along with being victims of rape and honor killings. Honor killings were usually committed by male family members against female members for bringing dishonor to the family. Could be for having sex outside marriage, denouncing faith, or because you got raped (probably by your brother…see note above). Needless to say, this country wasn’t advocating for women’s rights. To fit in, I donned a dark brown wig and dark brown contacts and covered up appropriately. Didn’t want to look too nice, but at the same time, hoping someone didn’t want to tag team me in any circumstance.
We were outside their capital, Ankara, in a little town called Pursaklar. There were 19 condensed neighborhoods with various terrain. Our target hadn’t moved locations in over 14 hours. I was sure they had a contingency plan in case Ramiz didn’t return contact. How much time they’d allow to pass was going to be the key to our next step.
When I was in position, Bethany texted the following to our mystery pal: “Clear. Time for next step.” We had argued what would tip them off and settled for this gamble. We had no background or history of other communication between these two parties, so took risks
with sending anything. Bethany had eyes in the sky and it showed only one heat seeking body in the building. Didn’t trust if the little bastards were hiding under some tarp and didn’t want to go in blind. Better to force them out onto more neutral ground, if you could even say that, since they at least would have the advantage of the lay of the land.
One, five, fifteen minutes passed. Nothing. Heat sensors showed little movement and finally no movement when reached 20 minutes. Then no heat detected. Damn, our hands were tied and I’d have to enter. I prayed a quick Hail Mary, as I feared this perp booby trapped the place to blow. I couldn’t bring my fav Colt, so checked the safety and silencer on the modified FNP90 that I was carrying under my traditional Turkish garb. P90 was compact but powerful and futuristic for the time. It has a unique top mounted magazine with high-velocity custom 5.7mm ammunition that fragments on impact and distributes kinetic energy to the target alone. It’s a beast. I was starting to really like it. I surveyed to ensure no additional outsiders casing the joint and Bethany confirmed no other heat images near. In condensed cities like this, I found that hard to believe. Almost like they knew not to be around. Definitely gave me a squeamish attitude for entering. I made my way to the door and tested it. It was locked so meant I was going to have to force in and pray for the best if there was someone still inside waiting on me.
3.2.1. Didn’t need full force to kick in this weak door. No lights. No movement. Something wasn’t right, and that wasn’t just because I was in Turkey tracking down who knew what. I cleared each room until I got to the last one. Mattresses on floor, and cheap couches littered rooms.
Sheer shades for window treatments. This looked like a typical home. Nothing stood out. Relayed to Bethany to look for any movement outside of perimeter. Back track quickly. How did he get out? Where was he hiding?
As I headed back to front door, there was a door I didn’t originally see under the staircase. It had three locks on it. Suddenly, your typical house was looking not so typical. I slowly opened it as I inspected for any wirings or riggings. As I opened, I saw the steps leading down. No lights. Bad feeling about this, made me think of Silence of the Lambs where Stallings enters down to the dungeon to see the freak dancing with his dong between his legs. Needed to shake that visual out. Tried to relay to Bethany but signal fading out as I entered down. Turned on light mount on my P90. It was bright enough to show me a path and would blind them from seeing me clearly and aide so they couldn’t take an easy head shot. Nothing on the walls, it was literally a cave with a winding hallway. Was it rigged, or just used as an escape route? Had to go slowly in case it was the latter. Where was it leading, how long? Easy to become paranoid.
The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. Something was off. All living things from complex mammals to single cell organisms instinctively respond to danger. Our hearts pound, our palms sweat. I turned off my light and stayed put. Listening. Nothing. I slowly started backing up. I had a feeling I was about to pump 900 rounds down this narrow hallway and hope to hit more than the wall. I was almost back to the staircase when I saw a small flicker of light growing. Oh shit. I turned to the stairs and took them up by three. I was out the front door when the explosion underground went off.
Felt like an 8.2 earthquake and the whole residence started to sink in. I was high tailing it down the street with all kinds of shit falling from adjacent buildings. Bethany was in my ear asking for status update. WTF? Do you not see the sunken building or billow of smoke? People were out now wondering what was happening. I now ducked and moved between buildings to make my way back, praising Jesus I turned off my light in time to be able to see what was coming.
Perp gone. Cave demolished. House in ruins. F’ me. We didn’t have time and wouldn’t send units in to see what may or may not have been. Plausible deniability. If they were sophisticated enough to have cave and ability to blow, there would be nothing left for us to go off of in a timely manner.
Back to square one. Well, at least this time, Freddy couldn’t complain about me killing anyone.
Bethany and I spent the next 10 days globe-trotting and hitting the other coordinates only to come up with nothing. It was a rope-a-dope.
About the Author
Michele Packard comes from a military family and worked tirelessly as a cable tv executive before staying-at-home to raise her three children. She has written in both the fiction and non-fiction genres, utilizing her experiences and wit to share stories with others. She is a frequent traveler with her husband and is the primary caretaker of the family’s beloved labs.
Two detectives’ steamy past complicates their hunt for a psychotic killer and puts them in an assassin’s deadly sights.
Would you trust a former lover who’d betrayed you? Detectives Cole Trane and Mollie Simmons have no other choice. They’re after a ruthless killer tied to the Russian mafia who leaves behind a bloody trail of victims as he races to escape to Canada. Their only hope is to have each other’s back like they once had each other’s heart — especially when they discover that they, in turn, are being pursued by a deadly assassin who wants to get them in his sights.
About the Author
Jack Polo is an award-winning screenwriter whose fiction reads like a verbal camera — taking you into the hearts and minds of the people in his book. From star-crossed lovers Cole and Mollie, to Nikolai Voronov, the Machiavellian Russian oligarch who wants no survivors, to the dark evil of Igor Petrak, the psychotic assassin. The result is a page-turner of the first order. This is a can’t-put-down thriller.
A MAN COPES ANY WAY HE CAN AFTER KILLING HIS ONLY SON.
His team believes he’s calm and Zen. His boss finds him obsessive. Suspects think him gorgeous but dangerous. They’re all right.
Chief Inspector Gray James is sculpting the remembered likeness of his small son when he receives the call – a faceless corpse is found hanging by the choppy river, swirls of snow and sand rolling like tumbleweeds.
Montreal glitters: the cobbled streets slippery with ice, and the mighty St. Lawrence jetting eastward past the city. One by one, someone is killing the founders of a booming medical tech startup – propelling Gray into a downward spiral that shatters his hard-earned peace, that risks his very life, that threatens to force him to care and face what he has shunned all along: his hand in the storm.
From the prize-winning author comes a psychological, page-turning mystery with all the elements one needs on a rainy night: a complex murder, a noble yet haunted detective, and an evocative setting to sink into.
April 1, 5:30 am
MORE NUMBING PAIN.
At precisely five-thirty am on April the first, Chief Inspector Gray James tucked his cold hands into his pockets, straightened his spine, and looked up.
He breathed out through his nose, warm breath fogging the air as if surging out of a dragon and tried to dispel the mingled hints of flesh, cherry blossoms, and the raw, living scent of the river.
The drumming of his heart resonated deep in his chest – brought on more by intellectual excitement than by any visceral reaction to murder. Because of this, Gray accepted an atavistic personal truth.
He needed this case like he’d needed the one prior, and the one before that. That someone had to die to facilitate this objectionable fix bothered him, but he’d give audience to that later. Much later.
A car backfired on le Chemin Bord Ouest, running east-west along Montreal’s urban beach park. A second later, silence ensued, save the grievous howling of a keen eastwardly wind, and the creak of nylon against wood, back and forth, and back and forth.
Heavy boots tromping through the snow and slush came up from behind. A man approached. Tall, but not as tall as Gray, his cord pants and rumpled tweed conveyed the aura of an absent-minded professor, yet the shrewd eyes – not malicious, but not categorically beneficent either – corrected that impression.
Forensic Pathologist John Seymour looked up at the body hanging from the branch of a grand oak, gave it the eye and said, “Well, I can tell you one thing right off.”
“You wouldn’t be caught dead in that suit.”
Gray sighed. “What do you suggest? That I refer the victim to my tailor?” To which Seymour shrugged and got to work.
With every creak of the rope biting into the bough, Gray half-expected the swinging shoes to brush the snow-laden grass; each time the cap-toed oxfords narrowly missed. A grease stain marked the bony protrusion of the left white sock (with a corresponding scuff on the heel – from being dragged?), above which the crumpled brown wool-blend fabric of the pants and ill-fitting jacket rippled in the wind – like the white-tipped surface of the river beyond.
Dawn cast a blue light on the water and snow. A damp cold sank through Gray’s coat and into his bones. Amazing how the usually peaceful beach park took on a menacing air: the St. Lawrence choppier than usual, swirls of sand and snow rolling like tumbleweeds, the sky heavy and low. But a children’s playground lay behind the hanging body, and its red swings, bright yellow slide, and empty wading pool offered a marked contrast to the swaying corpse.
With every flash, Scene of Crime Officers photographed the body and documented what remained: only an exposed skull, framed by sparse hair on top, ears on either side, and a wrinkly neck puckered in a noose. A red silk tie under the hangman’s knot accentuated the complete absence of blood. Blood would have been preferable. The features were stripped to the bone, with eroded teeth set in a perpetual grin as if the skull were enjoying a joke at everyone’s expense.
“White male in his early fifties,” Seymour said. “Well off, by the look of him. Only small bits of tissue left on the cheekbones, lips, and around the eyes. Notice the distinctive gap between the two front teeth.”
That could help with identification.
The custom ringtone on Gray’s cell played “She’s Always a Woman.” Why was she calling him so soon? He stabbed the phone and tucked it back into his cashmere coat pocket before circling the body several times.
“What killed him?” Gray asked.
“The facial trauma preceded the hanging.”
That much was obvious since the rope wasn’t eaten away like the face.
“We can’t know the cause of death until I get him on the slab,” Seymour said. “And before you ask, the time of death is hard to say. Parts of him are already frozen. Maybe four to seven hours ago. I’ll have a better window after I’ve checked the stomach contents and what’s left of the eyes.”
Seymour crouched and felt the victim’s knees and lower legs. “Rigor mortis has set in, probably sped up by the cold.” He rotated the stiff ankles. “Look at these tiny feet. Can’t have been too popular with the ladies.”
Gray closed his eyes and counted to five.
All around, professionals bustled gathering evidence, clearing onlookers and photographing the scene. The park lay sandwiched between the beach and parking lot leading to the main road. On one side, the river flowed eastward in a blue-gray haze, blurring the line between water and sky. On the other, traffic going into downtown Montreal grew heavier by the minute. The road led to his neighborhood, where Victorian and Edwardian homes, bistros, and cafés crunched together for ten hipster-infused blocks.
This park held memories of weekends spent with his wife and son. A lifetime ago. Why did it have to happen here, of all places?
“Did some kind of acid cause the burns, Doctor?”
“Yeah. Parts of the eyes are still there. Almost as if they were left for last. I wonder why.”
Gray could think of a reason but didn’t elaborate.
A gust of wind swung the corpse’s legs sideways, narrowly missing an officer’s head.
“What the hell.” Seymour grabbed the ankles. “The sooner we cut him down, the better.”
Which couldn’t be soon enough. Gray bent down and held the lower legs. He gripped the ankle awkwardly with his right thumb and little finger, the middle three immobile these last three years since the accident, and a snake-like scar running from his palm to his wrist blanched from the cold.
Despite his hanging on tight, the corpse danced in the wind. “Don’t rush on my account, Doctor.”
Finally, attendants cut the victim down and laid him on a stretcher. Seymour hunched over, his blond hair parting in the breeze, revealing a pink, flaky scalp, the grinning corpse powerless to refuse examination.
“Definitely acid,” Seymour said. “Going to be hard for you to trace, since it’s so easy to get. Impure sulphuric acid’s available at any mechanic shop. You find the purer kind in pharmaceuticals.” He flashed a penlight into the facial crevices and probed them with a long, needle-like instrument.
The victim couldn’t feel it, but each stab and scrape made Gray flinch. “Must you do that?”
“Look at these chipped bones,” Seymour said. “Here, next to the supraorbital foramen, and here on the left zygomatic arch. They’re edged off, not dissolved by acid.”
Gray paced his next six words: “Was he alive for the acid?”
“I’m going to have to brush up on vitriolage. If he were, he’d have breathed it in, and we’d see scarring in the esophagus, nostrils, and lungs.”
Looking around at the flat, deserted beach park, the ropy ebb and flow of the water, Gray said, “He didn’t die here, did he?”
“No. From what I can see, livor mortis indicates he probably died sitting and was strung up later. I’ll let you know after all his clothes are off.” Seymour pushed himself up with his hands, his knees popping like the report of a firearm. “What could the poor bastard have done to deserve this?”
Gray didn’t answer. As someone guilty of the greatest sin of all, he considered himself wholly unqualified to make any such judgment.
His cell played “She’s Always a Woman,” again, and he pulled it out. Images from the previous night played in his mind: her hands flat on the mattress, his palm encircling her belly from behind. And those unexpectedly strong martinis she’d made earlier.
Putting away the phone, he spoke brusquely. “When will you have something ready?”
“Preliminary report probably later today. And I’ll send remnants of the acid for analysis to determine the type and grade.”
As the body was carried to a van and Seymour followed, second-in-command Lieutenant Vivienne Caron approached Gray carrying two cappuccinos from a nearby Italian cafe. Wonderful steam rose from the opened lids, and the dark, nutty aroma drifted forward, the first hint of comfort on this bleak morning.
Her chocolate brown eyes exuded warmth – eyes both direct and shy, their color perfectly matching her short, straight tresses now whipping about in the wind and framing gentle features.
“Chief Inspector.” She addressed him formally, despite their longstanding friendship. The sound of her nearly perfect English was pleasant and familiar, beautifully accented with the musical intonation characteristic of certain Québecois.
Even though she held the coffee before his left hand; he grasped it awkwardly with his right.
“Don’t spill any on that thousand-dollar suit,” she said.
It made him gag. “Why do you always add so much sugar?”
“Because I know that with a juicy case to solve, you’ll be too busy to eat or sleep.”
A moment of silence passed between them, pregnant with history he didn’t want exhumed.
“I have to make sure you’re okay,” she said. “Even if you refuse to… She was my best friend.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You live with Sita’s ghost more than I do. Enough time has passed for me.”
“Maybe. It’s changed you.”
“For the worse?”
Vivienne stilled, her mouth open. “Non. For the better. That’s the problem.”
Her eyes were warm yet partly adversarial. He saw it as the conflicting desire for wanting him to be okay, but not to leave her to grieve alone. She’d once told him the same trauma that had disillusioned her had enlightened him.
“It doesn’t matter what happens,” he whispered.
“Doesn’t matter?” Her voice took on an edge.
“As long as you can control your reactions – it doesn’t matter. Freedom comes from living in grays – no black; no white. No convenient polarities.”
Her eyes pierced his, but he knew, out of respect, she wouldn’t directly say what she thought; that he oscillated between Zen and obsession, contentment and blackness.
She shuffled her feet. “I don’t know how you made that leap, after the tragedy.”
“The worst thing that could ever happen to me has happened. After that, I can either fear everything or nothing – I have nothing left to lose.”
Vivienne didn’t reply.
What right had he to preach when he still experienced unguarded moments which filled his insides with quicksand as that malignant though raced through his mind: what do I do now? How do I fill this day and twenty years of interminable days when everything is for nothing? When this life feels surreal, dissociated as though I’m on a foreign planet with strangers.
Those moments often occurred when he didn’t have a case; they occurred before sleep and drove his nightly obsession.
“Living in Gray?” Vivienne shook her pretty head. “I believe in good and evil.”
“Then where do I fall? Or will you make excuses for me?”
“Non. I won’t make excuses for you. “
Her eyes hooded over; she took a step back. A door slammed between them, again.
“No cell phone, no ID,” she said. “Any footprints or tracks are covered by snow.”
“Let’s have someone check with the occupants of the hospital rooms facing the river.”
Westborough Hospital sat directly across the road. A magnificent feat of engineering, its four glass-walled buildings were connected by skyways. It had taken twenty years of fundraising to build (with its founding director recently fleeing to Nicaragua under allegations of embezzling some of those funds) and took up several square blocks.
Gray forced down the coffee. Already, warmth and caffeine coursed through his system, bringing life to his numb toes tucked inside the slush-soaked loafers. “Did you check with missing persons?”
“Only one recent report matches. Norman Everett of Rosedale Avenue in Upper Westmount. He’s only been gone since last night and reported missing by his step-son, Simon Everett. And of note, Norman’s a doctor at Westborough Hospital.”
Gray’s head shot up. “Missing since last night, and works at this particular hospital? The timing’s perfect. Give me his details. I’ll do the interview myself while you finish up here.”
She handed over the number, and he made the call to Norman Everett’s house, reaching the missing man’s wife, Gabrielle.
Before Vivienne could go, a Scene of Crime Officer jumped forward and handed Gray a transparent evidence bag.
“Found this by the tree over there, Chief.”
“It lay just under the snow. The city cleaned this area recently; hardly any debris around.”
Gray thanked him and looked down at the four by six-inch identity badge, examined the photo, and read the identifying details, gripping it tight enough that his fist blanched. The image blurred for the briefest second before clearing.
Vivienne rubbed her hands together. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t trust his voice yet. A shoal of uncertainties flooded his chest. The case suddenly became more raw, more urgent, but he’d handle it. He always did. Gray unclenched his jaw and fingers, and handed her the evidence bag.
“The killer?” she asked.
“Look at that ID. Look what it says. You can’t be sure.”
“Yes, I can.” His tone came out harsher than he’d intended. He could guess her next words, and he’d deserve them. Does anything matter, now? Will you be able to control your reactions? But she didn’t say it. Didn’t point out the one circumstance that sliced his calm with the efficiency of a scalpel. Instead, she met his eyes in a gentle embrace before moving farther up the beach.
Bells sounded from St. Francis, the eighteenth-century cathedral up the road for the Angelus prayer. Quebec had the largest Catholic population in the country, and maybe as a result, the lowest church attendance and marriage rate. But the familiar ringing comforted and smoothed the sharp edges of his morning.
Gray left the cordoned off area, crossed the breadth of the beach park, and headed to the attached parking lot and his car; the black metallic exterior gleamed in the distance.
At one time, the Audi S5 had consumed a substantial chunk of his detective’s salary, but he hadn’t cared. Memories of countless family road trips lay etched within its metal frame.
Still twenty feet away, he pressed the automatic start to warm the engine, just as Seymour summoned him from behind.
The doctor jogged over sporting a wry smile, breath steaming in the cold air, and his long coat flapping. Behind him, the van carrying the body left the parking lot.
“I forgot to ask you earlier – about your next expedition,” Seymour said. “Mind having some company?”
“I failed last time,” Gray said. “Or hadn’t you heard?”
“A fourteen-hundred-kilometer trek to the South Pole, on foot, is hardly a failure.”
“It is if you can’t make the journey back. Anyway–”
A boom drowned out his words. The earth shook, and air blasted towards them, throwing Gray to the ground onto his right shoulder, pain searing up his arm. Chunks of metal and debris flew from the newly obliterated Audi in every direction, denting nearby cars and clanging against the pavement. A puff of smoke shot upward, chasing the flames, leaving the smell of burning rubber and metal hanging in a thick cloud – while cars on the nearby road screeched to a sudden halt. The fire swayed as though alive, angry arms flailing and crackling, spitting sparks in all directions.
“What the hell!” Seymour lay in the snow, his mouth open, his arm up to ward off the scorching heat.
Gray’s car lay mutilated, the black paint graying as it burned. People jumped out of their vehicles to take a look. Vivienne and some officers ran towards him, their feet pounding on the asphalt.
“Someone is damn pissed off at you,” Seymour said, eying his own dented Mercedes. He turned to Gray. “What did you do?”
About the Author
A MYSTERY; A BEACH; A BEER: Ritu’s favorite vacation day.
Ritu’s first book, His Hand In the Storm has had nearly 50,000 downloads. It became an AMAZON BESTSELLER in the Kindle free store and was #1 in all its mystery categories. She needs coffee (her patch for Coca Cola), beaches, and murder mysteries to survive – not necessarily in that order. She won the Colorado Gold Award for the first in the Chief Inspector Gray James Murder Mystery Series, His Hand In the Storm. The book was also a Daphne du Maurier Suspense finalist.
She’s fulfilling her lifelong desire of becoming a mystery writer. Many thanks to all the readers who are making that possible.