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Friday, July 2 Eppley Airport Omaha, Nebraska
Monsignor William O'sullivan was certain no one had recognized him. So why was his forehead damp? He hadn't gone through the security checkpoint yet. Instead, he had decided to wait until it got closer to his flight time. Just in case someone did recognize him. On this side, he could still pretend to be picking up a colleague rather than admit he was leaving.
He fidgeted in the plastic chair, clutching the leather portfolio closer to his chest. So close, so tight it seemed to crush his lungs, causing that pain again, a pain he may have dismissed too quickly as heartburn. But of course, it was only heartburn. He simply wasn't used to eating such a large meal for lunch, but he knew the flight to New York and the later one to Rome would include cardboard renditions of food, causing much more damage to his overly sensitive stomach than Sophia's leftover meat loaf and mashed potatoes did.
Yes, surely the leftovers were responsible for his discomfort, he told himself, and yet his eyes darted around the busy airport terminal, looking for a bathroom. He remained seated, not wanting to move until he examined and found an acceptable path. He shoved a thumb and index finger up under his wire-rim glasses to dig the fatigue out of his eyes, and then he began his search again.
he'd avoid the shortest route, not wanting to pass the exotic black woman handing out "reading material"as she called itto anyone too polite to say no. She wore colorful beads in her hair, what looked like her Sunday best dress with splashes of purple that made her hips even larger, but sensible shoes. Her smooth, deep voice almost made it a song when she asked, " Can I offer you some reading material?, And to everyoneincluding those who huffed their responses and rushed byshe greeted them with yet another melodic, polite stanza, " You have a most pleasant day."
Monsignor O'sullivan knew what her reading material was without seeing it. He supposed she was a sort of present-day missionary, in her own right. If he passed her, would she sense their connection? Both of them ministers, distributors of God's word. One in sensible shoes, another with a portfolio stuffed with secrets.
Better to avoid her.
He checked the Krispy Kreme counter. A long line of zombies waited patiently for their afternoon dose of energy, like drug addicts getting one more shot before their flight. To his right he watched the bookstore entrance, quickly glancing away when a young man in a baseball cap looked in his direction. Had the youth recognized him, despite his street clothes? His stomach churned while his eyes studied his shoes. His cotton-knit poloa gift from his sisterwas now sticking to his wet back. Over the loudspeakers came the repetitive message, warning travelers not to leave their luggage unattended. He clutched the portfolio, only now discovering that his palms were also slick with sweat. How in the world had he believed he could just leave without being noticed? That he could just get on a plane and be free, be absolved of all his indiscretions.
But when Monsignor O'sullivan dared to look again, the young man was gone. Passengers rushed by without a glance. Even the black woman greeting and passing out her reading material seemed totally unaware of his presence.
Paranoid. He was just being paranoid. Thirty-seven years of dedication to the church and what did he get for it? Accusations and finger-pointing when he deserved accolades of respect and gratitude. When he tried to explain his predicament to his sister, the anger had overwhelmed him, and all he had managed to tell her in their brief conversation was to have the title of the family's estate changed to her name only. "I won't let those bastards take our home."
He wished he were there now. It was nothing extravaganta two-story split-timber on three acres in the middle of Connecticut, with walking trails surrounded by trees and mountains and sky. It was the only place he felt closest to God, and the irony made him smile. The irony that beautiful cathedrals and huge congregations had led him further and further away from God.
A squawk coming from near the escalator startled him back to reality. It sounded like a tropical bird, but was instead a toddler in full temper tantrum, his mother pulling him along, unfazed, as if she couldn't hear the screech. It grated on Monsignor O'sullivan's nerves, scratching them raw and resetting the tension so tight in his jaw that he feared he'd start grinding his teeth. It was enough to get him to his feet. He no longer cared about accessible paths, and he made his way to the restroom.
Thankfully, it was empty, yet he glanced under every stall to make certain. He set the portfolio at his feet, leaning it against his left leg, as if needing to maintain some contact. He removed his glasses and placed them on the corner of the sink. Then, avoiding his own blurred reflection, he waved his hands under the faucet, his frustration fueled by the lack of response. He swiped his hands back and forth, finally eliciting a short burst of water, barely wetting his fingertips. He swiped again. Another short burst. This time he closed his eyes and splashed as much as he could on his face, the cool dampness beginning to calm his nausea, beginning to quiet the sudden throbbing in his temples.
His hands groped for the paper-towel dispenser, ripping off more than he needed and gently dabbing, disgusted by the smell and harsh feel of the recycled paper. He hadn't even heard the bathroom door open. When he glanced in the mirror, Monsignor O'sullivan was startled to see a blurred figure standing behind him.
"I'm almost finished," he said, thinking he might be in the way, though there were other sinks. Why did he need to use this one? He noticed a faint metallic odor. Perhaps it was a member of the cleaning crew. An impatient one at that. He reached for his glasses, accidentally knocking them to the floor. Before he could bend down to retrieve them, an arm came around his waist. All he saw was a glint of silver. Then he felt the burn, the streak of pain, shooting up through his chest.
At the same time there was a whisper in his right ear soft and gentle. "you're already finished, Monsignor O'sullivan."
There was no easy way to pick up a human head.
At least that's what Special Agent Maggie O'dell had decided. She watched the scene below and sympathized with the young crime lab technician. Maggie wondered if that was exactly what he was thinking as he squatted in the mud, looking at it from yet another angle. Even Detective Julia Racine remained quiet, standing over him, but unable to offer any of her regular advice. It was the quietest Maggie had ever seen the detective.
Stan Wenhoff, chief medical examiner for the District, yelled down an instruction or two, but stayed beside Maggie on top of the embankment, not making any attempt to find a way down. Actually Maggie was surprised to see Stan on a Friday afternoon, especially at the beginning of a holiday weekend. Normally he would have sent one of his deputies, except that he wouldn't want to miss out on making headlines. And this case would certainly start making headlines now.
Maggie looked beyond the riverbank, out at the water and the city on the other side. Despite the usual terror alerts, the District was preparing for the weekend festivities, expecting sunny skies and cooler-than-average temperatures. Not that she had any big plans beyond lounging in the backyard with Harvey. She'd throw a couple of steaks on the grill, read the latest Jeffery Deaver.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear though the breeze immediately tugged another one free. Yes, it was an absolutely beautiful summer day, except for the decapitated head someone had discarded on the muddy riverbank. What level of evil did it take to slice another person's head completely off and leave it like a piece of trash? Her friend, Gwen Patterson, accused her of having an obsession with evil. Maggie didn't look at it so much as an obsession as an age-old quest. She had decided long ago that it was part of her job to root out evil and destroy it.
"Finish going through the surrounding surface," Stan called down. "Then just scoop it up into a bag."
Maggie glanced at Stan. Scoop it up? Easy for him to say from up here where his polished shoes were safe and the waft of death hadn't yet arrived. But even from above, Maggie could see it was a daunting task. The riverbank was littered with cans and discarded take-out containers and wrappers. She knew the areathis stretch under the over-passwell enough to know there were also cigarette butts, condoms and a needle or two. The killer had taken a risk, discarding the head in such a well-trafficked area.
Ordinarily Maggie would find herself assessing that risk as the killer's apparent disorganization. Taking risks could amount to simple panic. But since this was the third head to show up in the District in three weeks, Maggie knew this had little to do with panic and everything to do with the killer's twisted strategy.
"You mind if I come down and take a closer look?, Maggie called down.
Racine shrugged. "Help yourself," she said, but she came to the bottom of the embankment and offered her arm for leverage. Maggie waved her off.
She searched instead for anythingbranches, rocks, rootsto hang on to. There was nothing but river mud and tall grass. She didn't have much choice but to slip and slide. Like a skier without poles, she tried to keep her balance, managing to stay on her feet, skidding past Racine, but stopping within inches of ending up in the Potomac.
Racine shook her head, a slight smirk on her lips, but thankfully didn't say anything. Maggie didn't need to be reminded that perhaps she went a bit overboard when it came to Racine, not wanting to accept any favors, or worse, feel she needed to repay a debt. She and Racine had had enough challenges and obstacles in the last several years. And more importantly, they were even. That's where Maggie wanted to leave it.
Maggie tried to clean her shoes of the clumps of mud, rubbing them against the tall grass, not wanting to bring any more foreign particles to the scene. Her leather flats would be ruined. She was careless about shoes, often forgetting her slip-on boots. Gwen constantly warned her that her treatment of shoes bordered on irreverence. It reminded Maggie of Stan's shiny, polished ones, and she glanced back up the embankment, noticing that he had backed away from the edge. Was he worried she may have started a mud slide, or did he want to make sure no one expected him to follow her path? Either way, she knew he wouldn't be coming down.
Julia Racine caught Maggie looking up. "Heaven forbid he gets his shoes dirty," Racine said under her breath as if reading Maggie's thoughts. But her eyes and attention quickly returned to the decapitated head as she added, " It's got to be the same killer. But we may have gotten lucky this time."
Maggie had only recently seen pieces of the case files on the other two heads. This was her first invitation to the crime scene, now that Racine and Chief Henderson suspected they might have a serial killer on their hands.
"Why lucky?, Maggie finally asked when it became obvious that's what Racine was waiting for. Some things never changed, like Racine demanding everyone's attention before she announced her brilliant theories.
"Getting that tip allowed us to get here before the critters finished their snack. The other two were down to the bone. We still haven't been able to identify them."
Maggie swiped her shoes against the grass one last time and came closer. Then the smell hit her like a blast of hot air. The mixture of scents that accompanied death was difficult for Maggie to describe, always the same and yet always different, depending on the surroundings. There was the faint metallic smell of blood, but this time overpowered by that of rotting flesh and the muck of river mud. She hesitated, but only for a second or two, focusing instead on the grisly scene less than three feet in front of her.