Played to Death: A Scott Drayco Mystery
"An engaging lead and atmospheric setting make for an ideal travel read."Library Journal
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Simmering resentment in a small coastal town. A missing manuscript. A dark family secret.
Scott Drayco isn't a typical detective: a former concert pianist with synesthesia, he turned to law enforcement when a violent attack put an end to his music career.
After Drayco inherits a rundown Opera House in a Virginia seaside town following a particularly brutal case, he just wants to arrange a quick sale for the unwanted “gift” while nursing his battered soul in a peaceful setting near the shore.
Those hopes are shattered when a dead body turns up on the Opera House stage, a mysterious "G" carved into the man's chest. With himself a suspect in the murder, Drayco digs into very old and very dangerous secrets to solve the crime and clear his name.
But first...Drayco must dodge a wary Sheriff, hostility over coastal development, and the seductive wife of a town councilman—before the tensions explode into more violence and he becomes the next victim.
“An engaging lead and atmospheric setting make for an ideal travel read.” - Library Journal
Over 500 five-star reviews on Goodreads! A Shamus Award finalist and Named Best Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Release date: July 10, 2014
Publisher: Crimetime Press
Print pages: 314
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Played to Death: A Scott Drayco Mystery
Monday 15 March
It was a helluva welcome to a town. More a raw wound on the landscape than a sign—with large red letters weeping down the front of muddy plywood: Cape Unity, Home of Real Americans! Developers and Other Devils Turn Back Now! Scott Drayco hoped to take in some sights near the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, but this wasn’t what he had in mind.
The overlook next to the sign was deserted except for Drayco in his vintage Oldsmobile Starfire, its indigo paint coordinating like bruised skin with the amber sky. He climbed out and looked toward the Bay. The Atlantic Ocean on the opposite side of the Peninsula lay hidden from view by barrier islands, but it wasn’t hard to imagine long-ago European immigrants in fragile ships catching sight of these shores. Perhaps he shared more in common with those exhausted pilgrims than he cared to admit.
The cold wind blew stinging sprays of saltwater into his eyes, but it felt good. One way to know he was no longer hemmed in by an urban metropolis. Not to mention that unmistakable shore aroma, Eau de Seaweed with a pinch of fish market. He had to keep pushing wind-swept hair out of his eyes, his fingers pulling away dark strands. His barber said mid-thirties was a bit early to go bald, just lay off the stress and “you’ll be fine.” Maybe next lifetime.
Looking at his watch, Drayco heaved a deep sigh and slid back into the driver’s seat. The rumble of the engine’s eight cylinders probably sounded like a sea monster to the native wildlife. He followed the scribbled instructions on the piece of paper on his passenger seat and finally pulled in front of his destination. Snippets of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” sonata flashed through his mind—dark, moody, rueful—as he stared at the Opera House in front of him. He was in unfamiliar territory, in more ways than one.
Drayco climbed out of the car to get a better look at the Opera House building, a fading snapshot of better days as it loomed in the flash of morning twilight. He studied the façade, a true stylistic schizophrenic. Patterned shingles and weathered copper rosettes flanked the gables above. The orange brick walls sported contrasting white stone highlights. Dingy windows remained intact, but cracks crept along the front steps, and peeling paint resembled a pox, fallout from the sea air he could almost taste.
A gust of the unsettled March winds startled him. He jumped back when a piece of cornice blew off the Opera House roof line, landing at his feet. An omen? Drayco squinted up at what remained of the cornice, hoping it held together.
He had two reasons for being here and hadn’t asked for either. One of those reasons, the potential client he’d agreed to meet here, was nowhere in sight. Was this all just a huge joke at Drayco’s expense? If so, the mystery client was a great actor, his voice on the phone agitated, insistent. No, likely just late.
Deciding to take a look inside and using the key his attorney gave him, Drayco paced down the hallway over the faded carpet. Once likely a brilliant-red color, it was now more a salmon pink. Two shuttered box office windows stood as mute sentinels questioning who dared disturb their musical mausoleum.
As he approached the auditorium, Drayco stopped short, listening. The building hadn’t been used in years, yet it was as if he heard faint strains of piano music and applause. He reached out to open the door, but his feet felt glued to the carpet. He’d moved past all that, hadn’t he? What’s done was done? Standing up straight, he pushed into the pitch-black hall, his flashlight revealing row after row of ghostly seats and the faint silhouette of the piano on the stage.
He picked his way down the aisle to the front and fumbled around for a light switch. When his fingers landed on one next to the stage, he flipped it on. The lone bulb cast a dim, amber glow, but it was enough for him to see something there that didn’t belong.
With a knot forming in his stomach, Drayco was grateful for his long legs as he hoisted himself over the apron’s footlights, strode to center stage, and stopped. If this was the mystery man he was supposed to meet, the man wasn’t just late for his appointment.
The body lying on the stage had a gunshot wound to the head and a pattern carved on the chest where the shirt was cut away. A wilting red carnation was pinned to the lapel of the man’s coat, the blood and carnation forming a grotesque collage. But it was the man’s wide-open eyes that were the most disturbing. Eyes frozen in surprise? Terror?
From the dried condition of the blood, he was murdered a few hours ago. Just in case, Drayco listened for sounds the killer was lurking nearby. Not hearing anything, he dialed 9-1-1 on his cellphone, the unfortunate dead man and the piano his only company.
As Drayco waited, his breathing formed vapor tempests in the cold and silent space, the swirling breath-clouds echoing back to him. He resisted an overwhelming urge to touch the piano, to play it before the spotless keyboard got covered in black fingerprint powder. Instead, he blew on his hands, trying to warm them up. If only he could reach down and close the dead man’s staring eyes.
Drayco knew anyone else would balk at arranging a meeting with a stranger at a dilapidated Opera House at seven in the morning. But in his line of work that passed for normal. So did the unsmiling face of the man in a sheriff’s uniform who strode down the aisle only eight minutes after Drayco’s call.
“You’re Drayco,” the sheriff stated, tilting his head up.
The quarter-moon paunch and balding pate of this particular sheriff didn’t make the man appear threatening, until one noted the piercing brown eyes and hulking shoulders worthy of an offensive lineman. Drayco nodded down at the officer and looked at his nametag, “Sheriff Sailor.” No deputies, just the head guy himself. The scale of everything was different in a small town.
Sailor took one look at the body and uttered, “Jeez,” then joined Drayco in studying the deceased. A pair of pince-nez eyeglasses like those favored by Teddy Roosevelt lay beside the body. The glasses were intact but smeared with blood from the bullet hole in the man’s forehead, the likely cause of death despite the pattern slashed into the flesh.
Drayco said, “I doubt the victim carved up his own body before he shot himself. And no gun or knife in sight.”
“Or did you hide them?” Sailor wasn’t joking, watching Drayco’s reactions closely.
Rather than take offense, tendrils of sympathy wrapped around Drayco’s brain. He’d walked in the other man’s shoes far too many times. He replied, “As I said, murder by a person or persons unknown, not suicide.”
The sheriff said, “The victim’s wife, Nanette, would agree with you about suicide. Fifteen minutes before you called, she phoned to say her husband was missing. Didn’t leave a note, suicidal or otherwise.”
“Would that be Mrs. Nanette Keys? Assuming our victim over there is Oakley Keys.”
“That’s him. You never met him before?”
“I’d never heard of him until he called yesterday and said he wanted to hire me.”
“So you know of absolutely no reason he’d want to hire a detective right before he’s found murdered—on said detective’s own property?”
Drayco sucked in his breath and chose his words carefully. “Keys arranged a meeting early this morning but wouldn’t give details. I’d planned on coming to town soon, anyway.”
It was supposed to be so easy. Quick trip over to the Eastern Shore, quick trip out, just long enough to decide what to do with the Opera House. Drayco’s Opera House. He would never get used to the sound of that. It had to be a world record for unusual bequests by grateful clients. When his attorney called to say Horatio Rockingham had left Drayco the place in his Will, he’d looked at the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st. “How did you know I’m the new owner?”
“It’s my business to know. Little surprised to see you in person. Kinda expected a realtor to handle everything. The boys and I laid wagers as to how fast a ‘For Sale’ sign would go up.”
“Are you that sure I’m going to sell?”
“You’d be insane if you didn’t.” Sailor looked over at the body again. “Only half past seven. Yet it looks like Keys has been on the floor for some time. Doesn’t make sense he’d schedule a meeting with you then sneak in hours beforehand.” Sailor examined the blood spatter. “But he wasn’t dragged here from somewhere else. He died here.”
Drayco pointed to the victim’s chest. “What’s with the carving? Resembles a letter of the alphabet. ‘G,’ I think. There are even serifs.”
“‘G’ for gruesome. Strangest damn thing I’ve seen. Maybe the M.E. in the state’s Norfolk Office will pin down more. Along with an approximate time of death.” The sheriff locked eyes with Drayco again. “Can anyone vouch for your whereabouts last night and this morning?”
“Fellow drivers held prisoner on the Bay Bridge, thanks to a chain-reaction crash. I left the District at eight last night but didn’t arrive here until fifteen minutes ago. Spent the night in my car on the bridge.”
“The emergency crews working the crash didn’t take down license info if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Where were you before eight last night?”
“At home alone, but my nosy neighbor and unofficial biographer can give you a detailed account of everything I did.” For a microsecond, Drayco thought he saw a flicker of amusement on the sheriff’s face. If so, it was gone as quickly as it came.
Drayco weighed his options. As the sheriff guessed, he’d secretly hoped for a quick Opera House sale before heading off on his first real vacation in five years. Although if he were honest with himself, it wasn’t so much a vacation as an escape, a chance to banish the nightmares from his last case. Nightmares that left him wondering if it was time to retire from investigative work altogether.
Instead, here he was, trapped in the middle of a legal minefield.
At home, his answer would be to dig into a Bach fugue, sinking into the composer’s complex counterpoint for inspiration. Investigations were Drayco’s counterpoint, and once a “theme” like Oakley Keys’ murder appeared, Drayco’s analysis gears kicked in, looking for motifs, patterns, layers.
He eyed Oakley’s mutilated body. The congealed, dried blood spread out on the stage like a demonic child’s fingerpainting. Why couldn’t the man wait until the time they agreed to meet? And how had he gotten in?
“Are you willing to spot a suspect a few questions, Sheriff?”
Sailor strolled over to the piano, a position that placed him at equal distances from Drayco and the corpse. “Depends on what you ask.”
“For starters, have there been similar mutilations?”
“Makes it sound like we’ve got aliens removing cows’ lips.” Sailor flicked a piece of imaginary lint off his hat before depositing the hat on top of the piano. “But the answer is no. Although this is my first murder case.” He quickly added, “In this town.”
“So what would make Oakley Keys a target?”
“Possibly a land dispute. He was David versus a development company Goliath that wants to build condos. No specific threats.”
Drayco read about that in the Washington Post. A brief article about Eastern Shore development, buried on an inside page. No direct mentions of controversy, but some hints about pollution in estuaries. The awkward, eternal dance between progress and entropy, waltzing onto the shores of Cape Unity.
“Was Oakley Keys wealthy?”
“Not yet.” The sheriff pulled plastic gloves out of his pocket and walked over to the body.
Drayco stepped back to allow him to pass. “Not robbery, then.”
“His wife said nothing was missing from the house. Except a mask of some kind.” Sailor picked up a wallet filled with money and a credit card. “And there’s this.”
Two deputies burst through the front of the hall and marched down the same aisle the sheriff had taken. With a tilt of the head from Sailor, they went straight to work. It got brighter, and Drayco scanned the stage. Where had he missed a light switch? One of the deputies wore a camera draped around his neck, had a sketchpad in hand, and an evidence kit and some brown-paper collection bags lay at his feet. Everyone must do triple duty in this department.
The triple-duty deputy knocked over an aluminum case, and Drayco winced at the jagged magenta spikes the sound set off in his head. He realized he must have identified them out loud when Sailor tilted his head and asked, “Jagged magenta spikes?”
Drayco started to wave off the question, but he didn’t want the sheriff to think he was losing his mind. Or a psychopath. He could see the newspaper headline now: Deranged Detective Swaps Sleuthing for Slicing.
He replied, “Chromesthesia. It’s a type of synesthesia where people hear sounds as colors, shapes, and textures.”
Sailor tilted his head. “Is that so?”
Drayco glanced at the deputy with the aluminum case, the man oblivious to the symphony of fireworks he’d set in motion. Sometimes Drayco envied people who only experienced the world in flat, 2D sound. “My attorney mentioned a caretaker. Is he here?”
The sheriff called out, “Tyler, find Seth Bakely for me. Closest house in back.”
The second deputy, a young woman, disappeared out the back stage door for a few minutes and returned with a man in denim coveralls, who lumbered onto the stage. With sepia hair, snowy eyebrows and furrows of wrinkles, his age was hard to guess: anywhere from sixty to eighty.
Bakely stared at Drayco, who was between Seth and the body. “Who’s he?” he growled in a liquid sandpaper voice.
“This is Scott Drayco, Seth. The new owner.”
Seth Bakely didn’t shake Drayco’s outstretched hand. “Heard about you. Thought you’d be older.” He coughed. “Guess Mr. Rockingham’s heirs are glad he dumped this thing. Don’t think I saw the man twice. Don’t know why he paid me to stay.” Seth’s forehead crinkled into tighter rows. “Suppose you’ll be wanting to hire other people to take over.”
“Did you know that man over there?” Drayco moved aside so Seth could see the body.
Bakely blinked his eyes several times and stared at the corpse, then turned away to wipe his mouth on his sleeve. “In this town, you know everybody a bit. What happened? He dead?”
“You kill him?”
Funny that Seth voiced the question Drayco expected the sheriff to ask outright. “Do you have any idea how he got in, Seth?”
“Hain’t seen him in here. Don’t get visitors. Just mice and spiders. Must have come in the stage door. Lock’s temperamental. Don’t always work.” Seth kept shifting his feet in place. “Told you Rockingham never spent a dime on this place.”
“Any signs of someone else who didn’t belong? Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Just you. And him.” Seth wiped his sweating face, which was a shade or two paler than when he arrived.
Sheriff Sailor, leaning on the piano and mostly silent, grabbed that moment to chime in. “What time did you leave the Opera House last night, Seth?”
“’Bout six. Went home and watched TV. With Paddy. Don’t start my morning rounds ’til nine.”
“And did you hear anything? A gunshot?”
“Ears don’t work like they used to. Was watching an old war movie. And there was some rain, pretty heavy. Almost sounded like hail.”
Sailor said, “All right. That’s it for now, Seth. And don’t clean in here until we give the okay.”
Bakely swayed on his feet, then righted himself and jerked his thumb at Drayco, “My house is on the street behind. If you need anything, holler.” He shambled down the hall and out of sight.
Drayco said, “Garrulous type, isn’t he?”
“Man of a thousand words. Just not in the same lifetime. Keeping his son Paddy out of jail doesn’t help his attitude.”
Surprisingly, the sheriff didn’t stop Drayco as he bent down to study Oakley’s skin, being careful not to touch the body. “Grayish, signs of advanced rigor in the upper body. With the cold temps in here, it’s harder to tell, but likely dead eight to twelve hours, give or take. Which means he arrived, and was killed, before midnight.”
He examined the wound on the forehead. “Irregular hole, some powder tattooing and lesions but no searing. An intermediate-range shot.”
Drayco did a quick three-sixty view. Lots of clear sight lines, with the wings of the stage and curtains perfect for a stealthy approach. “From the blood patterns, there may be an exit wound. Wonder if the bullet went through?”
The triple-duty deputy called out from the side. “It lodged in a post over here. Only one I’ve found.”
At least that was one tiny piece of good news. Drayco said, “No damage to the lands and grooves on that bullet, if we’re lucky. And it’ll be easier to remove a piece of post than a whole wall.” He got as close to the red carnation as possible without handling it. “I don’t see any blood on the pin, which means our carver didn’t handle it with his bloody hands or gloves. Keys wore it here.”
Sailor folded his arms across his chest. “You act more like a CI than a PI. Was the newspaper wrong? Not that it’d be the first time.”
Drayco was surprised. “Newspaper?”
“We do have those around here. And an out-of-town detective becoming the new owner of a historic building is big.”
“Not a CI. Not exactly a PI. Call me a crime consultant. Or crime guru, like someone did once. I think it was an insult.” Drayco pointed to the victim’s jacket. “Strange for him to be wearing lightweight seersucker. It was only a degree or two above freezing last night.”
The sheriff shrugged. “Oakley had money problems and wasn’t the GQ type.”
“The wife didn’t report him missing until this morning?”
“He was an odd bird. Been on the straight and narrow for a while, but had a history of drinking. And a few other indiscretions. This was old hat to Nanette, who, by the way, is a fine lady. Does a lot for this community.” He paused. “It’s unfortunate she doesn’t have an alibi.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me she was alone all last night.”
Drayco chewed on that for a minute “Were Oakley’s ‘indiscretions’ arrest-worthy?”
“Last I heard, extramarital affairs aren’t illegal.”
An affair would increase the odds this was nothing more than a domestic dispute case. Drayco should be relieved by that. But he’d learned never to trust a coincidence—like having a would-be client murdered before he can talk to you.
The sheriff’s voice cut through Drayco’s reverie. “Crime guru or no, my deputies and I have work to do. I’ve spotted you a half-dozen questions. More than I ordinarily would.” His tone of dismissal came through loud and clear. “I suppose you’ll be staying in town a while?”
Drayco saw where this was headed and envisioned his last chance of a quick exit flying out the window. He thought briefly of the nonrefundable plane ticket to Cancun back at his townhouse. “The Opera House has me chained here, anyway. What’s a few more days?”
“Plenty of time for the grand tour of Cape Unity. Come to think of it, that might only take a half-day.” Sailor’s expressions ranged the gamut from A to Blank. The man must be a good poker player if he were the gambling type. Right now, Drayco hoped he was.
Sailor added, “What the hell, if this thing has us stumped, maybe we’ll hire you. We’re down a deputy to the mumps. Keep you in town longer. Especially if you get the mumps.”
“For you, Sheriff, I’ll waive expenses.” Drayco worked with law enforcement officials of all stripes, and it was always a crap shoot. At its worst, it degenerated into a competition. Egos, one; justice, zero. “Does this mean I have your blessing to leave now?”
“As long as you don’t touch anything on your way out. But as a big-city professional crime consultant, that should be SOP for you, right?”
With one last look at the remains of Oakley Keys, Drayco left the building and sat in his car with the engine off, staring at a jagged line of cracked bricks on the Opera House façade. One decaying and unwanted Opera House, one murdered potential client, one wary sheriff, and he’d been in town less than an hour.
Opening up his car window to let in a blast of cold, salty air, Drayco watched the scud clouds swallow up the last traces of the sunrise. He fingered the remains of his breakfast, a PayDay candy bar wrapper. What did their old jingle say? “The nuttiest bar in town.” Why stop at just one town? Why not the whole damn universe?
When the universe handed out karmas, Oakley Keys was standing in the wrong line. It was all so easy for people who explained every evil in the world as “God’s will,” or predestination or whatever credo they subscribed to, comfortable in the belief there is a purpose for everything. Even murder.
He watched the ambulance pull up to the rear door of the Opera House, ready to ferry the newly deceased off to its autopsy. Too early to tell until results came back, but Keys was likely killed a few hours before Drayco arrived. A brutal ending for one in this town, and an uneasy beginning for another.
He replayed the mental image of the body formerly known as Oakley Keys, waiting for his date with the medical examiner. Why did Keys want to hire Drayco? Why did he break into the Opera House, only to be shot and carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey? And why the devil was Keys wearing a red carnation?
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