Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.
—From the song “Ecce Puer,” poetry by James Joyce,
music by David Del Tredici
Scott Drayco leaned into the Brahms Rhapsody, the piano keys like daggers of silk beneath his fingers. The music washed over him with sounds akin to barbed, red amaranth flowers—a fitting soundtrack for the graphic crime scene photos lying on the piano.
He dug into the thirty-second-note scales. Maybe a little too hard, opening a cut on his index finger. With his eyes half-closed, he could blissfully ignore the streak of blood on the keyboard.
What he couldn’t ignore was the cellphone shattering the music’s spell. He grabbed the phone and almost hurled it across the room. Not that it was the phone’s fault—it was July, the air conditioner was broken, and despite being stripped to his boxers, he was drenched in sweat.
It wasn’t a call from the client he was expecting. Or anything at all he was expecting, for that matter. Maida Jepson’s voice on the other end was minus its usual robin-like chirp as she pleaded, “I hate to bother you, Scott. But I’m convinced someone tried to hurt a friend of ours. A twelve-year-old girl in a wheelchair. Her mother is beside herself with worry. Sheriff Sailor is busy working another case, and besides—he thinks it was just an accident.”
Then, a slight hesitation as she added, “Can you come?”
Sailor was a thorough and compassionate lawman, and Drayco was inclined to believe his opinion. Yet, though Drayco had only known Maida for a few months, that was long enough to know she didn’t indulge in flights of fancy.
“I can’t promise anything, Maida. I’ll be happy to do some checking and get back to you.”
“Thank God. I knew we could count on you.” The frown lines disappeared from her voice.
He gave up on the piano, since he was sticking to the bench, and grabbed the Manhattan Special he’d put in the freezer to chill. Forgoing a glass, he rubbed the frost-covered bottle on his forehead, then on his cut finger, and finally against the jagged pink scars on his right arm to dull the throbbing. Draped on a chair next to the piano with his feet propped out the open window, he took a few sips of the bittersweet espresso soda and let the liquid trickle down the back of his throat.
His townhome might be hot, but it was also quiet, even located near Capitol Hill. The sight of the small park across the street, with one lonely bench set under a weeping cherry tree, was a visual sedative for chaotic thoughts.
He reached to grab the four photos stacked on the music rack above the piano keyboard and spread them over his lap. Maida had mentioned a child. Yet, none of the four victims in front of him, sitting dead in their wheelchairs as if posed for a macabre slasher film, was younger than forty-five.
Drayco took on this current case as a favor to a Kennedy Center exec whose brother was photo number three, the man’s murder unresolved after six months with the Metro D.C. police. No officers liked to use the “S” word, but after four similar deaths, there was talk of a serial killer. The Metro force hadn’t called in the feds yet, especially with no new murders in nine weeks.
Still, when an officer-friend recommended Drayco to the client, he was careful to play up Drayco’s Bureau years. Not that it was unusual for agencies to hire him when they wanted the FBI touch without the FBI bureaucracy.
He put the photos back on the piano and picked up the cellphone to tap a number in the address book. “Sailor,” the booming baritone voice answered. The amber-tipped ovals were pleasantly neutral to a synesthete, one of the many things Drayco appreciated about the man. It was the kaleidoscopic voices that bothered Drayco the most, spewing forth from their owners’ mouths like firework bombs exploding inside his head.
“Sorry I haven’t gotten those tickets to the Nationals game yet, Sheriff. I’m working on them, I swear.”
Sailor chuckled. “Yeah, right, Drayco. You’re too busy wining and dining those hoity-toity clients of yours.”
Drayco looked at last night’s takeout from the SiAm Thai Emporium, congealing in cardboard boxes on the coffee table. The owner of the restaurant was so accustomed to Drayco coming in, he jokingly offered to adopt him. “Yep, it’s filet mignon and Chablis Grand Cru every night.”
“My wife would kill me for looking at beef. And that’s before the red meat had a chance to kill me first. You can eat all you want, Ichabod—which reminds me, the NBA after you yet?”
“Too old, too uncoordinated, and too short.”
“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still playing when he was forty-two, so you’ve got six years. But yeah, your measly six-four does make you a shrimp next to Kareem. Or Shaq. Call me crazy, but somehow I don’t think this is a social call since it’s not yet eight. What’s up?”
“Thankfully, you are. I got a call from Maida Jepson about an attack on a girl in Cape Unity. She made it sound like you were writing it off as an accident.”
Sailor sighed. “Virginia—not the state, that’s the name of the kid—has an overprotective mother. There was a big crowd at the Fourth of July picnic, she got pushed in front of a car. These things happen.”
“So definitely an accident.”
“The witnesses weren’t helpful, there have been no threats on her life, it doesn’t add up. Hell, to be honest, I’ve got my hands full with a bona fide murder that happened a month ago. However ...” the sheriff paused. “You’re going to think they’re connected.”
“Why is that?”
“The murder victim was disabled and had to get around with a wheelchair.”
“A middle-aged adult male, Arnold Sterling.”
Drayco stared at one of the photos on the piano, the one of the client’s brother, Marcus Laessig. His hair was as dark as Drayco’s, belying the man’s fifty-plus years. The man was seated in his wheelchair with red, inflamed grooves around his neck from the ligature wire used to garotte him. Purple petechial hemorrhages dotted his skin like a Jackson Pollack painting.
Drayco rubbed his eyes. He forced any emotions he felt about these photos and all the other violent images from his career into the lockbox he stored away in his mind. It was the only way to do this job and stay sane.
“How was the victim killed, Sheriff?”
“Strangled. With wire we found near the body.”
Drayco sat up, dropping his feet to the floor. Some of the details matched those of the Laessig case and the other three victims. But why hadn’t he heard of it? He could understand Detective O’Dowd keeping this from him, but his friend, Detective Skiles? That grated a little. “Did the D.C. police check with you on this?”
Sailor drawled, “You’re referring to those handicapped murders up your way? Let me guess. You’re in the middle of it. Yeah, they checked, didn’t think it related, but still ‘strongly suggested’ we keep details out of the papers. Whoop-de-do.”
Drayco grinned. In a few sentences, Sailor had managed to convey a wide range of emotions—his mistrust of the D.C. force, his fear other agencies might trample over his turf, and his relief that if anyone was going to do the trampling, it was Drayco.
“Can you tolerate a crime consultant playing in your sandbox, Sheriff?”
“Maybe if you bring some of that Chablis. Besides, there are several folks who’ll be glad to see you. And better pack your sunscreen. Just don’t bring us more bodies like you did last time, ’kay?”
Drayco waved off the sheriff’s veiled remark, relieved to have an excuse to escape the stale air and mildew in his furnace-of-a-townhome. Where had he put his suitcase? No time for laundry. He’d cram it in a bag and worry about it later. First, he needed to make a call to Marcus Laessig’s brother. A slim lead was still a lead.
The brother was patient up until now, but Drayco wasn’t sure how much longer that would last. Not that he’d blame the guy. Over one hundred hours logged on research and interviews already.
He stripped off his sweat-soaked boxers as he headed for the shower and tried not to think about the four-hour drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and down into the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. Hopefully, no major traffic accident-related backups like last time. If he left soon, he’d make it well before dark.
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