The Eye of the Virgin (Ike Schwartz Series #6)by Frederick Ramsay
On the same evening that a body is found in Picketsville’s urgent care clinic, a mysterious break-in occurs at the house of one of Callend University’s faculty. Both seem to be connected to an icon, The Virgin of Tenderness, in the faculty member’s possession. The fact that the body is that of the faculty member’s ex-wife’s/i>
On the same evening that a body is found in Picketsville’s urgent care clinic, a mysterious break-in occurs at the house of one of Callend University’s faculty. Both seem to be connected to an icon, The Virgin of Tenderness, in the faculty member’s possession. The fact that the body is that of the faculty member’s ex-wife’s lover who, more interestingly seems to have entered the country under an assumed name only complicates things for Sherriff Ike Schwartz.
In the search for killers and thieves, what appears to be outdated spycraft, a microdot, is found on the icon. In an era of sophisticated cyber-encrypted information transfer, the presence of this bit of CIA nostalgia brings in Charlie Garland and the forces from Langley.
Ike has no wish to engage with them or their problems. He has killers to apprehend and sets out to do his job in spite of the meddling by government agencies. That the bit of spycraft is something more than old time microphotography and it carried information that implicates the involvement of Israel’s super secret Mossad only complicates an already messy set of problems.
A dead CIA agent, a rogue handler, and a potential international incident are avoided outside the faculty member’s house as the good, the bad, and the ugly are neatly sorted and carted away.
During the course of all this, Ruth’s mother arrives for an extended visit, Ike and Ruth are officially engaged, and the Sutherlins, Billy, Frank, and Essie, like Dilsey Gibson, endure.
"Sure-footed plotting and easy banter make Ramsay's sixth Sheriff Ike mystery (Choker, 2009, etc.) a brisk, entertaining read." Kirkus Reviews
"Mixing down-home police work, CIA maneuvering, and FBI finagling in this timely tale of terrorism, Ramsay comes up aces with his sixth outing (after Choker)." Library Journal
" With folksy charm and dollops of humor, Ramsay crafts a tale of international intrigue in which the past and present make poor bedfellows. Fans of Ruth and Ike's blossoming romance will find plenty to cheer about." Publisher's Weekly
Read an Excerpt
The Eye of the Virgin
By Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Frederick Ramsay
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNail polish remover.
The eye-watering reek of the acetone-based solvent assailed Louis Dakis the moment he opened his door. No matter how often you work with it, you never quite get used to the odor. It did not concern him, not at first, anyway. He'd been painting a medium-sized Christ Pantocrator and was working in acrylics instead of egg tempera. One needed uninterrupted time, even leisure, to paint with the latter, a luxury he no longer enjoyed. This afternoon, running late, and as usual, he'd dashed out the door for his class after he'd rinsed his brushes in distilled water and then soaked the older ones in the solvent to break up the accumulated pigment at their base. Commercial nail polish remover was cheaper than straight acetone, and easier for him to acquire out here in the sticks. He couldn't remember if he'd put away the rag he used to wipe them. Must have forgotten. Even so, the odor seemed pretty strong.
He leaned the icon, Eleousa, The Virgin of Tenderness, the topic of his lecture that day, which he'd been carrying under his arm, against the door jamb and stepped into the foyer. There was only the one small reading lamp alight in the room's corner next to a battered leather upholstered chair. Even so, its feeble light was sufficient to cause the glass shards littered across the carpet under his front window to glitter and attract his notice. Thin curtains fluttered in a brisk March evening breeze. Cold air pooled across the floor, and even though he'd just come in from the outside, he shivered.
Several competing thoughts vied for his attention. He nudged the door closed and shook his head, trying to arrange them in some coherent fashion, not necessarily in order of their importance. An open window should have meant lower intensity for the odor. Perhaps the wind had caused the polish remover bottle to tip over and spill its contents. But he was sure he'd capped it, hadn't he? A broken window pane ... Had someone broken a pane and then opened the window, broken into the house, spilled the bottle? Windows did not break spontaneously, did they? He brushed the knuckle of his index finger across his mustache and dislodged a bit of something. The trouble with facial hair he thought, not for the first time, is that you never knew what bit of your most recent meal might still linger in it. A frown settled on his forehead.
A noise at the back of the cottage, toward the kitchen, brought a halt to this checklist and confirmed at least part of the last entry. Might became had—someone had come in and was still there.
He realized after he'd spoken that he'd made a mistake, perhaps a serious one. A reasonable man would have backed out and called the police. All the security courses he'd taken while working in the nation's capital had emphasized that point: do not confront criminals or, indeed, even a potential lawbreaker whatever the circumstance might be. He or she could be armed, could be desperate. As this admonition percolated up from the lower reaches of his conscious, he thought he heard the back door open, slam shut, and footsteps clomp across the back porch and then go silent in the grass of his back yard. The house was on the edge of Callend University's campus close to a copse of cedars and forsythia and well away from its nearest neighbor.
He stood frozen in place. His heart rate jumped as adrenaline coursed through his circulatory system. Caution said call the police. Curiosity said go look. Curiosity won.
By the time he reached the back of the house and leaned over the sink to peer through the leaded glass of a kitchen window, there was nothing left for him to see. Perhaps a shadow had moved out near the cherry tree. He couldn't be sure. It might have been the wind, which had picked up in the last hour. He flipped on the porch light. The feeble light pushed back the darkness no more than twenty feet or so, but past the tree at least. If there had been someone out there, he was gone now. The wind whipped the tree's lower branches as if to taunt him. Whoever had entered his house had melted into the night. All he could make out beyond the dim pool of light from the porch were silhouettes of evergreens, black against a gray sky, and lighter gray splotches of forsythia blooms, bright yellow in daylight, and the long, very dense and dark hedge that bordered the northern edge of the yard. A movement over there. Was it possible that the shadow that caught the corner of his eye, near the back of that hedge might have been his intruder? He couldn't be sure. Anyway, it had melted away almost the instant he'd swung his gaze toward it. He must be seeing things. Whether real or not, he could not say. Perhaps if he stepped outside he could see better.
He reached for the door knob but stopped his hand in midair. Fingerprints, there might be fingerprints. This would not be the first time he'd called the police about a break-in, and in the process, he'd learned his lessons about crime scenes. And he did not want to confront anyone, armed or otherwise. Been there, done that, got the eight stitches in his scalp. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1 and then went to close the spilled bottle of nail polish remover which had rolled into the hallway, and to wipe up its contents and contemplate the mess it had made of the varnish on the hardwood floor.
* * *
The man sitting on the ugly plastic chair was unremarkable in appearance, youngish, maybe late thirties or early forties. Shaggy black hair and dressed in jeans, tattered white button-down shirt, and a bomber jacket, both of which seemed a size too large. He could have been Middle Eastern, or not, Mediterranean, certainly. He had been seated for several hours in the corner on the row of chairs toward the rear of the waiting area. No one could recall how long or even when he had come in.
URGENT-C, the urgent care facility on Picketsville's Main Street, did not offer the drama-filled weekends associated with big-city hospital emergency rooms; no ER here, no frenetic arrival of ambulances, drop-dead gorgeous nurses in scrubs and high heels, just the usual small town occasional semi-emergencies. But once in a while it did become crowded. A nearby automobile accident could create some excitement until the injured could be moved to Lexington and its hospital. On this particular Friday it had become unusually busy due, in part, to a sudden rash of intestinal influenza cases, which seemed to affect small children in particular.
"Under six, after six," Jerry Stempak, the center's director, said when he surveyed the bawling kids and looked at his watch.
Added to this mini-epidemic was the fact that in the past several years the town's senior medical practitioners, it seemed, had retired to condos at Hilton Head or Palm Beach to be replaced with for-profit clinics irreverently dubbed docs-in-a-box and staffed by young health-care professionals who preferred to keep strict office hours and not work outside them—either the hours or their clinics. As a consequence, the urgent care facility would begin to fill after five in the evening and would see patients off and on until midnight. This evening it had begun to fill around six-thirty with the sick children. Shortly after seven, a troop of Boy Scouts who had all shared a meal consisting of tuna surprise and egg salad, both prepared by their bachelor assistant Scoutmaster earlier in the day, arrived to augment the smaller children. All the scouts needed to be dosed with Compazine and fluids. They created a considerable distracting hubbub as vomiting children competed with wailing tykes for the staff 's attention. Soon the waiting and examining rooms filled to overflowing with sick children, anxious parents, keening, unpleasant odors, and harried caregivers.
No one had noticed when or how the man had entered. The nursing staff and the physician's assistant on duty assumed he must either have been a parent of one of the scouts or flu victims, or have a minor complaint that the triage nurse had deemed non-urgent. By eleven-thirty the crowd had thinned sufficiently to allow one of the nurses to approach him.
"Sir, can I help you?"
He didn't respond. He sat slouched in the chair with his head lolled to one side, chin on his chest. She could not see his eyes. She only noticed that he sat awkwardly on the chair's electric blue plastic seat. She glanced back at the reception desk.
Laurie Kratz looked up, shrugged, and shook her head. "He didn't register. I thought he must be ..." She shrugged again waved her hand over the desk, and returned to the paperwork stacked in untidy piles in front of her.
The nurse turned back to the man. "Sir? Are you all right? Sir?"
Assuming he'd fallen asleep, she shook his shoulder gently. His head lolled to the other side. He slid off the chair and crumpled onto the floor at her feet. Startled, she stepped back and stared at the form on the floor, which seemed to be stuck in a sitting position, albeit he now lay on his side. She knelt, found no trace of a pulse and felt the cold skin under her fingers.
"I need a cart over here." She flailed her arms at the entry clerk. "Get Elaine out here."
Elaine Franks, the physician's assistant on duty, bustled out and knelt beside the nurse. She needed only to feel the body to realize a cart with resuscitation equipment and defib kit would be useless. The man was very dead and had been for some time. Nevertheless, her training kicked in, and she opened his jacket in order to use her stethoscope. She yanked his shirt up, popping buttons and tearing the material. That's when she saw the entry wound under his armpit. She rocked back on her heels and shook her head.
"Cancel the cart. Call 9-1-1, stat."
Chapter Two"What have we got?" Ike Schwartz, Sheriff of Picketsville, at least until the election in November, followed a gust of damp March wind into the sheriff's department and glanced at his watch. He pushed the door shut. Eight-thirty, not too late, all things being considered. He filled his coffee cup at the credenza behind the booking desk, added creamer and sweetener. He turned his gaze on his dispatcher, Essie Sutherlin, recently married to Billy and more recently with child, as the Bible would delicately put it.
"Looks like we caught us a B and E and a homicide, Ike. Not too shabby for a Friday night in March." Essie sat enthroned behind her desk, regally pregnant, and glowing as only first time expectant women can. "Must be the Ides of March, huh? Wasn't that when that old emperor, Jules somebody, bought it from his buddies?"
Ike grinned and nodded, and gestured toward her obvious bump. "Not quite, the ides will be the fifteenth, middle of the month, the fifteenth day of March, May, July, or October; otherwise the thirteenth day of the other months, but only in the ancient Roman calendar, which was different than the one we use now, of course."
"I knew that." Essie said, eyes wide and ingenuous.
"Naturally. Picketsville High is known for its classics curriculum, Anyway, you're close enough and it was Julius Caesar—like the salad—who, as you say, bought it. How's junior behaving today?"
The progress of Essie's impending motherhood had displaced the usual office gossip. The jury was still out on whether that qualified as an improvement. A little bit of chat about massive hormonal shifts and morning sickness went a long way. But then, a preoccupation with deer hunting and NASCAR standings did, too, so he'd go along with prenatal physiology for a while and hope the work at hand would engender some new conversational opportunities. And for that reason, he welcomed the news of a homicide.
"He's growing, Ike. The doc says I might have me a bruiser. Ma, that's Billy's momma, says all her boys was big so she's guessing this one will top out at eight or nine pounds, too. Scary, ain't it?"
"I reckon it must be and by God would be if I were the one carting around the future of the Sutherlin clan. But, as it happens, it is not an area about which I have much in the way of working knowledge. Who took the calls?"
"Either. Start with the homicide."
"Frank caught the homicide and Billy the breaking and entering. Their write-ups are on your desk. Today is a shift change so they will both be back in an hour or so."
Ike headed to his office and the reports. He had difficulty making out Billy Sutherlin's scrawl and set that report aside against the time he'd get the details in person. Frank Sutherlin, Billy's older brother, had a neater, almost feminine, hand, if there was such a thing. In this era of correct, that is to say, mind-numbing conventional thinking, he wasn't sure. He read the report and scratched his head. This one would be a poser, no doubt about it. He fetched another cup of coffee, put his feet up on his desk, and stared unseeing through the glass windows that separated his office from the rest of the area.
A body deposited in the urgent care center. Why would anybody go to all that trouble? Why not dump him in the woods like everybody else? Something screwy here.
* * *
Frank and Billy Sutherlin did not, as a rule, pull the same shifts. Ike initiated that policy after his first year as sheriff and after a viewing of Saving Private Ryan. It was probably an overreaction and didn't work in practicality, but he liked the concept. Major crime was not a big concern for Picketsville, but the chance that there might be a situation that could go south in a big way always hovered in the back of his mind. There's been one near miss the previous summer. He did not want to face Dorothy Sutherlin and have to tell her another one of her sons was dead, much less two. She'd lost one of the twins already in Iraq and except for her youngest, all were in professions that put them in harm's way. But this weekend, Amos Pettigrew, who preferred night work, called in sick, and Billy, eager to pile up compensatory time against the day his child would be born, volunteered to take the shift. Now, both brothers sat across from Ike blowing on their coffee and looking bleary-eyed. Since the time they had entered the office, the ambient aroma had shifted from that of burnt coffee to something closer to that of wet leaves. A modest improvement he thought.
"So, Frank, we'll start with you. I read your report. I have the details. Just give me the sense of it."
Frank Sutherlin screwed up his face in concentration. "Hard to figure, Ike. We'll have to wait for the ME's report, but the guy on the scene last night ... By the way we were lucky to find someone as quick as we did to come out from the ME's office, or one of us would have had to camp out all night with the stiff—sorry, the victim. Anyway, the guy from the ME's office said our shooting victim looked like he'd been shot with a small caliber weapon under the arm. I wrote that up but either it was a light load or it hit bone because we couldn't find an exit wound. He guessed the bullet might have severed that big blood vessel in the chest."
"There are two, if I remember my freshman biology right. One is the vena cava, or some such, and the other is the aorta."
"Yeah, that last one I think he said, and then the guy bled out. Best guess, that would be the cause of death, doc says. It looked like whoever he was had been shot someplace else and then the person who shot him changed his shirt and put an oversized jacket on him before he was dumped in the clinic."
"Nobody saw him brought in?"
"Apparently not. We quizzed all the staff and everyone we could locate, but nobody could remember seeing him come in or even noticed him after he got there. The staff was run ragged by a bunch of sick scouts and a mini-flu epidemic. Most of the people I talked to assumed he was a parent of one of the patients. But, like I said, there's a bunch of people we couldn't question last night."
"Will you have any trouble finding out who all was there?"
"No. We have the names from the admission forms. Addresses too. We should be able to interview them all pretty quick."
"It brings up the question, though, doesn't it?"
"Why would anyone go to all that trouble? Why not leave him in an alley or a parking lot?"
"It's a poser for sure."
Billy sipped his coffee and made a face. "Maybe whoever did it hoped that the hospital could do something, like, after the fact. You know, an accident, shooter feels guilty and brings him in but is afraid to stick around. Sort of like a denial thing."
Excerpted from The Eye of the Virgin by Frederick Ramsay Copyright © 2010 by Frederick Ramsay . Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dr. Frederick Ramsay was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He received his doctorate from the University of Illinois. After a stint in the Army, he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. In 1971 he was ordained an Episcopal priest. He is the author of several scientific and general articles, tracts, theses, and co-author of The Baltimore Declaration. He is an accomplished public speaker and once hosted a television spot, Prognosis, on the evening news for WMAR-TV, Baltimore. He is also an iconographer with works displayed around the world. He lives in Surprise, Arizona with his wife and partner, Susan.
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