Title: Hand Job
Disclaimer: Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child dreamed them up; I'm just playing in the sandbox.
As Lt. Vincent D’Agosta took stock of the crime scene, he couldn’t help thinking this had to qualify as a kind of karma. Russell Todd, the defendant in a recent high profile murder trial, acquitted by an idiot jury, was sprawled in his easy chair, stiff and cold. Ligature marks stood out around his neck, and the probable murder weapon -- a silk scarf that matched the one he’d used to strangle his girlfriend -- was stuffed in his mouth.
But that wasn’t even the weird part.
No, that was how Todd’s left hand had been cleanly amputated, post-mortem judging by how little it had bled. Amputated, and carried off as a trophy, because it hadn’t turned up anywhere on the premises. They were still searching outside, but instinct told D’Agosta no one went to that much trouble to acquire a souvenir just to toss it in the trash on the way out.
Interesting footnote, too, that didn’t feel like coincidence to him: Todd had been a southpaw. That’s why he’d been offered a multi-million dollar baseball contract before the publicity of his arrest and trial.
That bothered D’Agosta, kicked the case over into another realm. Some outraged citizen or relative of the dead girlfriend, pissed off about the verdict and deciding to deal out their own brand of vigilante justice -- that would be a walk in the park to wrap up. Just start with Marianna Malloy’s closest relatives and friends and work from there. This was too elaborate, too considered to be anything that simple. They’d check out the obvious suspects and motives, of course, but he’d eat his shield if it played out that straightforward.
Giving the room a closer inspection, D’Agosta’s eye was caught by a trail of yellowish spots along the floor. Crouching down, he scratched one with a thumbnail, confirming it was wax, dripped from a candle. “Hey, scrape this up and get it to the lab -- and get photos,” he said, pointing out the drops of wax that marred the polished wood floor, from the threshold all the way over to Todd’s chair; there were additional drops on the red leather upholstery. “Don’t miss this, either,” he added, now indicating two drops of wax on Russell’s left forearm, as if he’d been holding it up in a defensive posture to ward off something.
“What’s the deal, Lieutenant? It’s just wax,” one of the crimes scene guys piped up.
“Yeah? You see any candles burning around here?” There was a fat, red votive candle over on the fireplace mantle, but it was stone cold, no drips, and didn’t look like its wick had ever seen a match. “Bag it anyway,” he said.
“What do you think that wax means, Lt. D’Agosta?” a new voice demanded, nasal and grating.
“Who the hell are you?” D’Agosta rounded on the civilian -- bad posture, acne-scarred face, rumpled clothes, Jets baseball cap on backwards, and black-rimmed glasses perched on his nose.
“Elijah Piper, with The Post,” the guy said.
Christ. “How’d you get in here?” D’Agosta didn’t begrudge the man doing his job, just not right now. “There will be an official statement issued later. You can hold your horses till then.”
“Aww, c’mon, Lieutenant,” Piper whined, “give a guy a break. Bet you’d cut Bill Smithback a deal.”
“Yeah? You’d lose your money. Come on,” he took Piper by the arm, hustled him back over to the door, “beat it.”
Dragging his heels, Piper pleaded some more, “At least confirm if you’re looking into a connection to the other mutilation murders.”
Other mutilation murders? “And just what would you know about that?”
“Well, after all,” the whiney, nasal quality of the voice gave way to a more familiar, honeyed southern drawl as Piper straightened out of his slope-shouldered slouch, “it is my habit to take an interest in such matters, my dear Vincent.”
D’Agosta stopped, taking a closer look at Elijah Piper and seeing what lay behind the disguise, and blew out a half-exasperated breath. “Pendergast?”
Smiling, he inclined his head in a slight bow. “The very same.”
D’Agosta shook his head, but was smiling as he said, “Halloween’s not a for a week yet.”
Smile broadening just a bit, Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast said, “Forgive the unorthodox entrance.”
Waving it away, figuring he should probably be used to it by now, D’Agosta said, “I’m guessing there’s a reason for the get up?”
With a look of mild reproof, Pendergast said, “Naturally. You don’t really suppose I do this merely for amusement’s sake?”
Deadpan, D’Agosta replied, “Never crossed my mind. So?”
“So, my compliments on spotting those wax drippings, Vincent. I suspect that will turn out to be a feature overlooked in the other incidents, and may prove to be crucial to solving this case.”
Acknowledging that with a nod, D’Agosta said, “How many cases are we talking about?”
“I’ve located five others to date. There may be more.”
“All murder suspects who got away with it?”
“With one exception: Joshua Dean, convicted of murder in New Jersey, and executed. In that instance, the body was exhumed shortly after burial and the amputation made at the graveside -- during an eclipse of the moon,” Pendergast added with a sidelong glance that underlined that for significance.
D’Agosta gave him an interested look back, nodded. “Okay, I’ll bite.”
Pendergast smiled and lightly touched his arm, and was about to say something when a commotion at the door heralded the arrival on scene of Captain Laura Hayward. D’Agosta had been expecting this. The Todd case had been hers, and she’d still been fuming last night about him getting off scot-free.
She gave him a sharp look, zeroing in on Pendergast’s hand lingering on his arm but not recognizing the FBI agent. Todd had the bulk of her attention, and she approached the body slowly, circling the chair as she took in the details. Finally, stepping back, she nodded to herself. “Guess you could call this justice,” she said, coming over to D’Agosta now. “Any leads?”
“Few ideas, nothing solid yet.” He didn’t like being circumspect with her, but it seemed a wise idea, given how she was going to react when she found out Pendergast was involved.
Suspicion growing in her eyes, she looked Pendergast over, asked D’Agosta, “Who’s your friend, Vinnie?”
Pendergast inclined his head toward her, said, “We are acquainted, Captain Hayward.”
She gave them both a look of disbelief. “How is this an FBI case? And don’t try any of your bullshit on me.”
“Vinnie,” she turned to him and he could feel her displeasure simmering away, “believe me, I know where you stand. I won’t ask you to choose again,” she finished, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice. She swung back to Pendergast. “Well?”
Giving D’Agosta a sympathetic look, Pendergast told Laura, “This is the latest in a series of crimes that have occurred in at least three states, Captain Hayward, and as such falls well within the Bureau’s purview.” His voice and manner were as cordial as ever, but D’Agosta could tell he didn’t appreciate being challenged like this.
“Sure,” Laura fired back, radiating skepticism. “And you couldn’t possibly handle it without dragging Vinnie into it.”
“I am not aware of dragging Vincent into anything, Captain.”
D’Agosta rolled his eyes and cleared his throat. “I got a say in anything?” They both looked at him, Laura still teed off. “Unless you plan on using your pull to get me off this case,” he told her, “I intend to continue with the investigation and will welcome any assistance the FBI has to give.”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway, would it?” she said, resignation creeping into her manner now. “You’d just tag along with him behind my back.” She shook her head, frustrated, aimed it at Pendergast. “You get him hurt, you get him killed, I will have your ass.”
“Captain Hayward, I assure you, putting Vincent in harm’s way has never been my intent.”
“And I’m really touched by everyone’s concern,” D’Agosta broke in again, his patience skating on thin ice, “but right now there’s work to do and, if no one has an objection, I’d like to get on with it. I’ll keep you updated,” he added to Laura.
“I won’t hold my breath.” She gave him another troubled look, shook her head and started for the door. “Call me before you head off for Kuala Lumpur,” she said by way of goodbye.
D’Agosta watched her leave, sighed, tried to avoid catching Pendergast’s eye. He cleared his throat again, muttered, “Sorry about that.”
“Not at all. She’s only concerned for your welfare. No one could fault that.”
“Yeah.” That was true enough, just not quite everything. But Pendergast didn’t need to know he could never entirely shake the feeling some of Laura’s concern was tied to how his actions might reflect on her own ambitions. As for the rest, well, Pendergast was in no ignorance that Laura didn’t approve of his unconventional approach to law enforcement.
“Any chance this is going to wind up in Kuala Lumpur?”
Pendergast smiled, nodded, accepting his wish to move on. “I should be very surprised if it did, although of course anything is possible.”
Wasn’t that the truth?
...to be continued...