A serial killer dubbed the Metro Mangler is on the loose in St. Louis. PJ Gray, psychologist and virtual reality sleuth, heads the investigation, alongside her partner, the veteran homicide detective Leo Schultz. Are the killings the work of one criminal, or two? The partners sift through baffling evidence, which links to a thirty-year-old crime and a wealthy family’s secrets. But in this case, there’s an added complication: The relationship between the partners is heating up. Gray is a recently divorced single mother, though, and outside of work she’s preoccupied with her son’s new gaming addiction. And on top of it all, there’s another man after her, too—she’s next on the Mangler’s hit list.
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Time of Death
Book Five of the PJ Gray Series
By Shirley Kennett
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Shirley Kennett
All rights reserved.
I'M SURPRISED TO SEE that my right hand trembles as I hold the knife.
With fear? No. I'm the one in charge here. I am not the slicee.
Shame? Maybe a little, that I don't have more socially acceptable things to occupy my time. Who decides what's socially acceptable, anyway? Probably there's some secret god to worship, the God of Successful Parties. I've made my humble little offerings at the altar, but not enough for the god to bless me into the kind of life I want: the house, the servants, upper arms that don't jiggle, the aura of class if not the real thing, adequate sex with hubby and a little something extra with the golf pro or the personal trainer or the stock adviser. Or with all of them, separately or in any combination.
If my offerings to the god weren't sufficient before, maybe some blood sacrifice will do it.
There's a little regret in the trembling of my hand, too. Regret that I didn't do this sooner. I've always known that if you don't climb the social ladder, you live on the droppings of the people on the higher rungs. I've just never done anything about it before.
Mostly my hand is trembling with excitement. This is going to work, I know it. I'm joining the ranks of rich bitches, and I'm doing it with my own cleverness and my own admittedly trembling hand.
I look around Old Hank's barn, checking my supplies. Hank's space heater, creating a bubble of warm air where I'm working. My telescoping five-hundred-watt halogen work light—ooh, watch out, that bulb gets hot! But it does lend an operating room flair to the whole setup. Scissors, gleaming. Syringe and needle, used and useless now, its ketamine contents spurted into the slicee's arm muscle. Stainless steel pans, oddly shaped, like little kidneys. A scalpel for delicate work. The rib saw. An anatomy book. A bottle of water. A heavy wrench to bash with, in case things get out of hand. The hammer and nails. And the knife from the sporting goods store. Yes, ma'am, that's one honkin' big knife any man'd be proud to own. For what, I'd like to know. Gutting little Bambi, I suppose.
Willing my gloved hand steady, I lean over the sedated form lying on a sheet-draped workbench. I would have preferred a stainless steel table, but bringing one in would have been far more trouble than it was worth. So, the old, oak workbench would have to do.
The first slice is reserved for his limp dick. I do the deed and plop the severed organ into one of the little stainless pans. A muffled gasp escapes me as his blood slips down his bare thighs and spreads between his legs.
Old Hank doesn't hear my soft gasp. In fact, I could stomp and holler and Hank wouldn't know. He's up at the main house, a hundred yards away, drunk to the gills. Earlier I left two fifths of Scotch on the porch, knocked on the door, and hid behind some bushes. The door opened and there stood Hank, silhouetted against the interior lights. I imagined his eyes gleaming as he picked up the bottles, and the puzzled look that must have crossed his face as it dawned on him that bottles didn't ordinarily walk onto his porch by themselves. He shrugged and went inside with his prizes. I figured that in less than twenty minutes he was dead to the world.
The neighbors all knew about Old Hank's binges, so they won't think it's anything out of the ordinary when he's found passed out in his own piss. That's Hank all right, Officer, hosed as usual.
Hank's house, barn, and chicken coop were an island of country life in the 'burbs. When Hank dies, there won't be a chicken around for miles. A live one, at least. Only those bloodless little corpses neatly arranged in the grocery's meat case.
Speaking of blood ...
After the first slice, it gets easier.
I move my hand quickly, whimsically, angrily, leaving behind streaks of blood. The nose. The cruel lips. Plop. The testicles. Plop, plop.
The slicee's eyes are open, even though he's unconscious. It's just the way the drug works, but it's kind of unnerving. I turn the pages of the anatomy book, looking at the charts, then measure with the span of my hand down from the collarbone and out from his sternum to a spot on his chest. In a few minutes, I've got a rough hole dug. It's easy to do, if stitching the patient up afterward isn't a concern. I watch in fascination as his heart pumps beneath my questing fingers.
I check his breathing and sit down on a straw bale to wait. I'm not sure how long he'll be unconscious. Timing is important here. He might bleed out or go into shock. Maybe I gave him too much ketamine, and he's so far down the k-hole that he'll never climb back out. There's a good chance I've done too much damage during my inelegant intrusion into his chest, and his body will just give up trying to live.
I hope those things don't happen.
The pendulum in my head ticks off time, and then he begins to groan. I dash the bottle of water in his face. He screams as he becomes more alert. Must be like waking up in the middle of an operation to find that the surgeon's still fiddling around inside. I grab his face—what's left of it—with both hands and force his eyes in my direction. I want him to take a look at me. I want to be acknowledged. He's a bit past the acknowledging stage, but I settle for what I can get.
I lean over with the knife, put my weight behind it, and stab him in the heart through the chest hole, the window to his innards, the seat of his soul if he has one. I watch as the heart quivers and stops.
Didn't need the wrench after all.CHAPTER 2
Dr. Penelope Jennifer Gray chose well when she selected soft-soled walking shoes that morning. Making her way over cobblestones on the Mississippi River levee, she placed her feet carefully. The early morning fog left a chilling film on her face. A degree or two less, and the cobblestones would be glazed with ice. She should be grateful for small things.
She'd gotten lost near Laclede's Landing, and not for the first time. The Landing was a dining and shopping area of St. Louis with a boisterous after-hours life. At six on a Sunday morning, the club goers were cleared out and the daytime crowd was still tucked into bed. She left her car in a no parking zone on Lucas Street with a "Police Business" card shoved into the front window above the steering wheel. A little traffic noise filtered down from nearby Eads Bridge, but it was muffled.
PJ could hear Detective Leo Schultz before she could see him through the fog. The sound waves of his voice seemed to have some kind of selective resonance with the suspended water molecules in the air, so that his voice carried when other sounds didn't. PJ honed in on his voice and came to a small knot of people gathered near a prone figure.
"About time you got here," Schultz said. His voice reflected disapproval of those inconsiderate enough to sleep in on a Sunday morning, PJ among them. She didn't take the bait. After a few seconds of posturing, he stepped aside to give her a view of the reason she'd been summoned from a warm bed.
A nude man lay only a few feet away on the cobblestones. Beyond him, the fog wiped the Mississippi from view. The man's face, chest, and genitals were mutilated and bloody. His fingertips were sliced off, so that his hands appeared stubby. There was no large pool of blood underneath, but he was as pale as a vampire's victim. Small waves lapped at the man's feet, a watery caress for a man who was beyond comfort.
"ME's come and gone," Schultz said. "Basically we're just standing here, freezing, waiting for you to show up."
He wasn't giving up. She challenged him with her eyes.
"Probably stopped to feed your cat," he said.
"None of your business if I did," PJ said.
Anita Collings's voice cut in. "Hey, could we get on with it? There's a dead guy over there and he's the priority."
PJ looked over at Anita, prepared to tell her off. The sight of her junior team member's determined face, with well-defined dots of red on her cheeks and fog condensed on her eyelashes like drops of transparent paint on a brush, shifted PJ's crankiness. After all, they had been out here longer. She forced her muscles to bring up the corners of her mouth. The result was as she expected: Dave and Anita immediately returned the smile, and Schultz gazed at the white wall of fog over the river.
Dave Whitmore flapped his arms in an exaggerated attempt to warm himself up. "Could we do this back at Headquarters?"
"Oh, come on, it's not that cold." PJ grew up in Iowa, where the snow started mounting up early, ended late, blizzards weren't ice cream treats, and wind chills of minus thirty degrees weren't uncommon. By this time, with Christmas less than three weeks away, Iowa would be covered with some serious white stuff. She thought St. Louisans were winter wimps.
PJ walked over to the body and knelt down for a closer look. The cobblestones were damp, and cold seeped through the knees of her jeans. The victim's eyes, open and with the flat gaze of death, held no enlightenment, and his mangled mouth told her no stories. There were ligature marks on his wrists and ankles. The small abdominal stab done to measure liver temperature was a gentle intrusion compared to the devastation in his chest. A softball-sized chunk of skin and flesh had been removed from his chest, directly over his heart. The ends of ribs protruded on each side of the hole, like flattened bits of chalk writing a story of savagery. It would be up to the medical examiner to begin the process of reading that story.
Studying the rough stubble on what was left of his cheeks, she noted that it didn't appear that he'd shaved in a while. She had the urge to take off her coat and put it over him, as if he needed more protection from the harsh elements than she did. The eyes drew her again, and she saw dried trails of tears that had leaked from the corners and flowed backward toward his temple.
Someone watched those tears with hatred or satisfaction.
PJ walked back to the group. "Who found the body?"
"Woman walking a dog. She had her dog off the leash—oughtta get a ticket for that—and the dog raised a ruckus. She called it in on her cell at half past five," Dave said. "Still dark then, but she carries a flashlight about the size of a baseball bat. Grabbed her dog and ran. She said she didn't get a really good look, but enough to know that the guy was dead. Officers Garcia and Leeds responded. Did you talk to them already? You probably passed them on your way down."
"I don't think I took the most direct route," PJ said. Schultz grunted.
A clattering sound alerted PJ to the arrival of the body removal crew. They'd pushed a gurney down the cobblestones. Wouldn't it have been easier to carry the body than to try to roll the gurney uphill, rattling and shaking? She pictured the corpse in its body bag sliding out of the straps on the gurney and bumping its way down the cobblestones, and that brought something else to mind.
"There's not a lot of blood here, so this is probably a dump site instead of the murder scene. How'd the body get here?" she asked. "Did it wash in from the river?"
"The body hasn't been submerged in the water," Dave said. "Just ended up with the feet like that."
"Okay, so he was either carried or dragged from a car up there," she pointed uphill toward the road that serviced the levee, "or rolled down. Whichever way, that should mean evidence on the path down."
"Ahead of you there," Anita said. "Techs have a large area cordoned off where the body could've rolled or been dragged. They're going to wait until the sun burns off this fog a little to do a better search. Tromping through there now might damage evidence. The photographer's been grousing about condensation in his lenses, and he's put everything away until the fog clears."
"Do we wait around for that?" PJ said.
"One of us will, unless Mr. Big Time Detective says we can all leave," Anita said, looking at Schultz. He glowered back at her. "I'll interpret that as a no."
PJ had a good view of the two men working to get the victim into a body bag. They'd sized up the job, put back the standard bag, and brought out a heavy-duty one. It had two zippers and a flap that closed like an envelope. The men handled the body with atypical reverence, and in silence. PJ could hear the zipper closing. They grasped the handles of the body bag, lifted it up to the gurney and strapped it on—securely, she was glad to see.
The gurney clacked its way up the levee. Conversation stopped until it reached the top, a spontaneous expression of respect for the dead.
"I don't suppose there are any witnesses to the dumping," PJ said.
"None so far," Dave said. "But we can narrow the time the body was dropped. The security staff of the casino patrols this section of the levee a couple of times a day. As of 10:00 p.m. last night, this section of levee hadn't sprouted any bodies."
"Leaving us with a little after 10:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. There's a tall hotel near here, isn't there?" PJ said.
"Yeah, the Embassy Suites."
"We need to get somebody over there and see if any guests saw anything from rooms that face this way."
"I'll do it," Dave immediately said. "At least it's indoors."
"I think a couple of officers can handle that," PJ said. "It's a little too early to start knocking on hotel room doors anyway. No sense ruining their opportunity to sleep in." She directed a glare at Schultz, but it slid off him like an egg off a non-stick pan.
"The way the chest is carved up, all that stuff with the heart, that's our holdback," Schultz said. "So don't spread that around." It was his first contribution other than a grunt since she'd offered the olive branch. "The ME said the time of death was six to nine in the evening based on rigor progression and body temperature, but the cold weather, nudity, lying on cold cobblestones, and muscular development were giving her fits. Said she had to suck the goo out of his eyeball to confirm it, only it sounded real professional when she said it."
"Thanks. I needed that image." PJ tried not to think about what the victim's last hours were like.
"Nasty mutilations," Schultz said, nodding in the direction of the corpse. "Regular chop job. Think it's a homo thing?"
"Not necessarily," PJ said. "There are lots of mutilation murders with heterosexual killers. Women target male genitals for a lot of reasons."
"He's got no mouth," Schultz said. "Look at that face. I wouldn't be surprised if the autopsy shows his asshole's cut out, too. You know, the two places where a guy can take it. Fucking hard way to go."
PJ sighed. Working with Schultz was something of a trial.
Living with him was even harder.
"Now can we go back to Headquarters?" Dave said.
"Yeah," said Schultz. "Everybody but you. You're staying with the techs."
Dave shot a glance at PJ, and she could see that he was hoping to be rescued from the task. She waved goodbye, thoughts of hot coffee already simmering in her mind.
When she got back to her car, there was a parking ticket tucked under the windshield wiper.CHAPTER 3
In PJ's office, ideas were tossed as vigorously as a house salad in an Italian restaurant. As a psychologist and the civilian leader of the Computerized Homicide Investigations Program—CHIP—PJ knew that these early brainstorming sessions often produced information of lasting value. Their first hours on a case were usually spent around her battered old desk. She trusted the instincts of the people gathered there as much as she trusted her own.
It hadn't always been that way. As a female shrink with a background in computerized marketing research simulations, PJ had been an outsider who'd cried in a bathroom stall on her first day of work. Then, in case after case, she'd proven the value of her forensic virtual reality simulations. She'd been in horrifying situations and come out on top, if not completely unscathed. Even more significant to her were the acceptance she'd gained from her team members and the nascent love she felt for one of them.
Schultz answered his cellphone, and it was clear right away that it wasn't a social call. It irritated PJ that she regularly got news second-hand from a subordinate because she wasn't as plugged into the police pipeline as the rest of her team. Shouldn't whoever was on the other end of that call be talking to her? The silent phone on her desk said it all.
Excerpted from Time of Death by Shirley Kennett. Copyright © 2005 Shirley Kennett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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