Very early Saturday morning
She’d drunk way too much. She was an idiot. Why had she, Delsey Freestone, a reasonably intelligent twenty-five-year-old supposed adult, swan-dived into those last two margaritas? Because the big cheese director of Stanislaus was treating you like his favorite student, making you his special margarita recipe, that’s why, and you were afraid to turn him down. To be honest, you were flattered, too. And what was in those margaritas that tasted so good?
She was very sure at that moment she didn’t want to know.
She didn’t understand why Dr. Elliot Hayman, the new director of the Stanislaus School of Music—Call me Elliot, my dear—had appeared to want to cut her out of the graduate student female herd at the party and bestow his margaritas and attention on her. Not only was Dr. Hayman in charge of the prestigious music school, he was also an internationally celebrated concert pianist, with a libido, she’d read in a critic’s review, to rival his glissandos. When it came to renown, he was in a different universe than hers. She and Anna Castle, a violinist from Louisiana and her best friend in Maestro, had decided Dr. Hayman enjoyed the role of director because it appealed to his vanity, but they also both acknowledged it was only the older graduate students, like herself, who believed that he was, at the core, faintly contemptuous of the students. On the other hand, he was a sharp dresser, dropping in conversations that he shopped twice a year in Milan for his suits, always fashioned for him by Bruno Giraldi himself. Whoever Bruno was, Anna observed, Dr. Hayman certainly dressed to impress.
So why had Dr. Hayman dogged her all evening, giving her entirely too much attention until she was certain every student within hearing distance now hated her guts? Thank you, Dr. Hayman—Elliot—that was just what she needed. And what would Anna say about him when she told her about his behavior tonight? She’d laugh and say something like, “Smile, Dels, and suck it up,” stretching it out in her lazy Louisiana drawl until Delsey would want to yank the words right out of her mouth. She’d wished all evening that Anna had come, but no, Delsey had had to fly solo.
Delsey supposed the sudden waves of gut-wrenching nausea combined with her flatlining brain had been heaven-sent, since it had gotten her out the door of Professor Rafael Salazar’s sprawling ranch-style home on Golden Meadow Terrace in under a minute, with no one the wiser, only one arm in her coat when she’d quietly closed the back door behind her. She’d sucked in the cold winter air, grateful to be out of Professor Salazar’s whooping hoedown, away from both him and his twin brother, Dr. Hayman, and wasn’t that a hoot? Twins! Separated as boys and ending up with different last names. The only thing they had in common, as far as she could see, was their incredible talent.
She drove very carefully until her head was pounding so hard and she was feeling so woozy she was swerving like a drunk, which, she supposed, she was. No cops, please—too much humiliation. She eased her ancient Spyder to the curb of Tinsel Tree Lane and shifted into neutral. She pressed her forehead against the steering wheel, willing the world to stitch itself back together for her, swearing to any power listening that she’d go back to her one-drink limit. She’d made that promise when she was only sixteen, after sharing a bottle of hooch with her boyfriend Davie Forman, and wanted to die, certainly not have sex with him in his daddy’s Mustang. Tonight was the first time she’d broken that promise in nine years. What an idiot you are; you deserve freezing your butt off and having your head explode, and the misery of hugging the toilet in the morning.
She finally cracked an eye open to see the half-moon crystal clear overhead. It looked as cold and hard as the solid mountains of snow that blanketed everything around her—trees, street signs, cars, mailboxes. Big snow, the locals called it—unusual, the locals also said—yet here it was, a big honking snowstorm. At least it had stopped pelting down for a while, but they said it would begin again hard near dawn. She’d come to realize after the first heavy snow in December that if she hit a snowdrift, she and her Spyder wouldn’t be found until spring.
Looking at the unrelenting white made her miss the warm salty air of Santa Monica, scented with the night jasmine trellised on the stone fence surrounding her former apartment building. To top it off, her car heater was struggling to stay alive, her Spyder no more used to this circuit-freezing weather than she was. She sure wasn’t helping any, staying out all hours of this frigid night—it couldn’t be more than ten degrees, and counting down. Houston, we have a problem. She squeezed her eyes shut; what should she do?
She became aware of how very quiet it was, not a single owl hooting in the snow-drenched trees, not a single car or truck engine tunneling through the snow on the interstate only a quarter-mile away. No wonder; it was nearly one o’clock on Saturday morning. Only people she didn’t want to know about were up this time of night. She looked around and sent a silent prayer of thanks upward that there weren’t any cops, either. She knew she wasn’t up for convincing anyone she wasn’t drunk. She’d probably shatter the Breathalyzer.
She raised her head after a few minutes, held perfectly still for a moment, noticed she didn’t feel as dizzy and, blessed be, her headache was throttling down. She shifted the Spyder into gear and drove slowly, in a perfectly straight line, as only those who are impaired and know it do. After another six blocks, she turned off onto Hitchfield Avenue and then onto Lonely Bear Court. She saw her building up ahead on the right, a duplex with her one-bedroom unit on the bottom and Henry Stoltzen’s on top. Built as a solid red brick back in the twenties, it had been split up in the late nineties by the heirs to the old lady who’d lived there all her life.
She looked up to see Henry’s light on. Henry and his prized six-inch goatee had helped her move in the day she’d arrived in Maestro, fed her hot dogs and beer, and quickly become a good friend. He liked the popular songs she wrote and sang, even though he sat solidly in the classical corner, a gifted cellist who adored playing Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval’s Sonata in C Major.
He seemed oblivious to most other people around him, only his music and his iPod tethering him to planet earth. She turned into her parking spot next to Henry’s, drew a deep breath, thanked the Almighty she was still alive, and even better, not in jail. She promised good works she told herself she wouldn’t forget by morning, as she slogged through the snow to her front door. She was shaking with cold when she finally fit her old-fashioned key into the lock and the door opened. She stepped into a blissful seventy degrees.
She locked the front door behind her, slipped on the two chains, and shoved the dead bolt home. She flipped on the light inside the door in the small foyer. Home and warm. No more margaritas, no more one a.m. parties. I’m now a sensible woman, resolute and determined, and the Director of Stanislaus can go compliment someone in the reed section. She saw Eileen Simons of clarinet fame in her mind’s eye, and knew she was interested in Dr. Hayman—Elliot, my dear. Why hadn’t Director Hayman loaded Eileen up with booze this evening and stayed away from Delsey? Eileen had been at the boozefest, as drunk as everyone else, and giving Delsey the “die, bitch” eye all evening.
Now I’m safe.
Where had that left-field thought come from? Well, from being out alone and drunk in the boondocks of Virginia in the middle of the night, that’s where. Delsey bypassed the living room and went straight to the kitchen, swallowed three extra-strong aspirin and drank two full glasses of water. The tap water tasted nastier than usual, but she drank it anyway. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and walked through the hallway to the bathroom, turning on lights as she went. When she flipped on the bathroom light she saw the colorful South Seas shower curtain was pulled closed around the bathtub.
She never left the shower curtain closed because it made the bathroom look too small—well, unless she hadn’t cleaned the bathtub. Had she? Her brain was still fogged, and she couldn’t remember.
A hot shower, that was all she could think about, jets of hot water pounding her face, clearing out her head, making her want to live again. She stripped off her clothes, paused on the clip of her bra when she heard something, movement, something. Maybe a sharp breath? She didn’t move, listened hard. No, there wasn’t anything. Her brain was still squirrelly with tequila. She got her bra off, left her clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor, pulled back the shower curtain, and froze.
She’d never believed she was a screamer, but a scream ripped right out of her mouth, and then another, her brain screaming in tandem, Not possible, not possible. Her breath caught when she heard the sound again and whirled around, but she didn’t have time to be afraid before something hard as a brick smashed her on her head, and she didn’t scream anymore.
Northwest of Maestro, Virginia
Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith drove out of Gaffer’s Ridge at nine o’clock, after chowing down the best blueberry waffles he’d eaten since his Aunt Mae’s famous Sunday brunches. He’d stayed with a college buddy, Jennifer Wiley, who happened to own Jenny’s Café in the quaint touristy center of the small postcard town set among low mountains and rolling hills. Since the café was filled to bursting at seven-thirty every morning, it seemed the locals agreed with him.
He’d enjoyed his trip from San Francisco across the country, seeing friends and relatives on his way to his new posting in Washington, D.C., but he realized after two weeks with not much more to worry about than his Uncle Milton’s arthritis in Colorado Springs, and catching up with a couple of old friends, pleasant though it was, he was getting antsy and ready to get back to work.
Griffin looked up at the bloated dark clouds pressing down, promising more snow. He hoped he’d get to Maestro before his world turned white again. He eased onto State Highway 48, planning to cut across to the highway.
Griffin was sipping at the rich, thick coffee from the Thermos Jenny had handed him on his way out the door: “Rich, thick, and dangerous,” she’d said, and winked at him.
His cell buzzed. Since traffic was building up, Griffin pulled off the interstate. He saw the call was blocked, and that was weird. “Yeah? Who’s this?”
“This is Ruth—Agent Ruth Noble. I would have called you sooner, Griffin, to see when you’d be arriving in Maestro, and arrange to meet you, but we’ve got something of a situation here, and I’m helping my husband, Dix Noble—he’s the local sheriff—figure things out.”
Her tone made his brain buzz. “A situation?”
“More a puzzle. It’s pretty weird, actually. A Stanislaus student was found unconscious in her bathroom with a head wound. Usually that would mean she slipped and struck her head on the bathtub rim or somewhere else close. But the thing is, the neighbor who lives above her heard her scream, found her, and called 911. If she’d just struck her head, why would she scream? And there was no evidence she’s hit anything. All the blood we think was hers was found on the floor around her head. The puzzle is that there was a good deal of blood in the bathtub, probably not hers, like someone else had been bleeding in there and then left or been taken away. Dix saw the blood in the bathtub and of course he realized the implications.
“The back door was jimmied. So was it a burglary gone bad? Well, whatever, it wasn’t a simple burglary, what with all that blood in the bathtub.
“She’s not with it enough to tell us what happened. She’s in Henderson County Hospital. I’m here with her, waiting for her to wake up.
“She lived alone, so there’s no roommate to call, and we don’t know yet if there’s a boyfriend in the picture. I’m also trying to get hold of her parents, but no luck as of yet.”
“Any sign of a blood trail outside the bathroom?”
“Nothing obvious, but we’re bringing in the Henderson County forensic team to analyze the blood and go over the young woman’s apartment. They’ll check to see if any blood shows up under Luminol outside the bathroom.”
“It went wrong in the bathroom? That sounds strange.”
“Whatever happened, that person might have been injured or died, and was then hauled away. Don’t know yet,” Ruth said. “It snowed heavily last night, and any evidence outside the duplex—blood trail, tracks, anything—is long covered up. At least it stopped snowing here an hour ago, so the plows can catch up before the next storm comes in.”
Griffin felt wired. He loved puzzles; the more convoluted, the bigger the rush when he figured them out.
The bathtub puzzle sounded complex enough to fit the bill. “I can be there in an hour and a half, if it doesn’t start to dump snow on me. Have you talked to the neighbor who called 911 yet?”
“He’s next on my list. Dix talked to him at the scene, but he was so upset Dix couldn’t get much out of him. He’s had some time to settle. Hopefully he can fill in some of the blanks.”
“I’d be glad to help when I get there if you’ll let me. Who is she?”
“Her name’s Delsey Freestone. She’s a student at Stanislaus, like your sister.”
Griffin’s heart flatlined. “Ruth,” he said, and the words hurt coming out. “Delsey Freestone is my sister.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath. “I’m so sorry, Griffin. But listen, don’t worry, the doctors say she’s going to be okay, I promise. You all right?”
Griffin couldn’t wrap his brain around Delsey being attacked in her own bathroom. And with all the blood—maybe a body?
“I’m okay, Ruth. Hearing this, it’s difficult.”
“I can only imagine. But like I said, Griffin, your sister will be fine.”
He was silent a moment, calming himself, then, “Don’t bother trying to reach our parents—they’re in Australia, in the outback for another three weeks or so, out of touch, no cell phones.
“As far as I know, there isn’t a boyfriend. She told me she had a nasty breakup in Santa Monica and swore off men for the next five years.”
“All right. Get to the hospital as soon as you can. I’ll be here with her, room three-fifteen.”
Griffin punched the accelerator to the floor. A burglary, it had to be. He felt a hot slick of fear roil in his belly. Who had been bleeding in her bathtub and why? Was it the person who’d struck her down or another victim? She’d surprised someone? Why hadn’t he killed her? None of it made sense to him.
He knew in his gut he shouldn’t be surprised that Delsey was involved. She was, in fact, the perfect candidate, a Trouble Magnet—that was her family nickname, and it had all started when she was sixteen. She’d witnessed a convenience-store robbery, managed to escape whole hide, and was the main witness at the trial that sent two felons to jail. When she was seventeen she was proudly depositing her first checks for delivering newspapers in the local bank when two robbers came in with semiautomatics. It turned out she actually knew one of the robbers. She delivered his papers. “He always gave me great tips,” she’d said sadly. “You think the money was all stolen? Will I have to give it back?”
Even her breakup with her boyfriend in Santa Monica hadn’t been because of something common, such as the guy sleeping around on her or being a control freak. No, Delsey had managed to hook up with a guy who ran a car-theft ring and sold guns for his Mexican buddies on the side. “What a bummer that gorgeous red Ferrari belongs to a shopping-mall developer,” she’d told him when she and Griffin watched him leave the courtroom in shackles.
His parents had celebrated with champagne when their daughter was accepted into the Stanislaus graduate program that emphasized instrumental composition, what she’d wanted to learn more than anything, she’d told him when she’d applied. Delsey had been so pleased she’d kicked up her heels and announced, “At last, I’ll learn how to score ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the tuba,” and she’d laughed. Stanislaus was not only the most prestigious music school in the South, it had the added advantage of being isolated, a very safe place on the planet, far away from big-city crooks and wackos—and trouble. Griffin agreed. Delsey had assured him during her once-a-week phone calls that there wasn’t a single criminal in sight, she had a great girlfriend who played the violin and waitressed in town—everything, in short, was so normal he should worry she’d get bored, not get into trouble. And so he’d arranged to stop off in Maestro to meet Agent Noble and visit with his sister on his way to Washington, D.C.
He was a moron. And now this.
Luckily for him and the other drivers on Highway 50, snow didn’t start falling again until Griffin pulled into the Henderson County Hospital parking lot. He’d made it here in fifty-eight minutes.
Henderson County Hospital
Late Saturday morning
Griffin ran through the hospital lobby, saw a dozen people staring up at the three stationary elevator arrows, and took the stairs two at a time to the third floor. He’d spoken to Ruth two more times on his wild drive through the mountains to the hospital. There was no change in Delsey’s condition; she was still in and out, still groggy when she was in.
He ran down the corridor, ignoring a nurse’s voice behind him, and opened the door to room 315 to see a tall woman in a white blouse with a black cashmere V-neck sweater, black pants, and boots standing close at the foot of Delsey’s bed. She was fit and slender, her short dark hair waving around a strong, intelligent face. She looked over when he came in, and smiled. “You must be Griffin Hammersmith. You didn’t let any snow melt under your tires—that was fast.”
Griffin realized she had to be Agent Ruth Noble, but all he could do was nod. He felt frozen, not from the cold but from gut-wrenching fear for his sister.
He said, “Yes, I’m Griffin Hammersmith. You’re Ruth Noble.”
He shook hands with her even as he looked to the bed. Delsey looked to be asleep, or out of it. There was a large bandage on her head. “How’s my sister?”
Ruth said in a calm, steady voice, “Dr. Chesney’s telling us Delsey will be all right.” She knew she sounded mechanical, words spoken to a family member scared out of his mind, and not a fellow agent, but still, they were true and they calmed him.
Ruth had seen Griffin Hammersmith’s photo, but she doubted she’d have recognized the wild-eyed man who burst through the door still wearing a fur-lined parka over jeans and boots. Ruth looked at him again when he tossed the parka on a chair, and was surprised at her next thought. Wowza, your photo doesn’t do you justice, señor.
His attention turned immediately to the doctor who walked into the room, an older woman wearing a white coat, a stethoscope around her neck. She was plump and pretty, a pile of curly white hair thick on her head. She smiled at him, patted his arm. “I’m Dr. Chesney.”
Griffin said, “I’m Griffin Hammersmith, Delsey’s brother. What’s going on with her? Agent, ah, Ruth said you believed she’d be okay, but she’s not awake.”
Dr. Chesney automatically lowered the pitch of her voice. “We’ve done a CT scan. She has no evidence of a skull fracture or of any bleeding or contusions in or around her brain. She had a laceration of her scalp that required stitches, and she’s suffered a rather severe concussion.”
Dr. Chesney saw he’d taken it all in, and added, “We gave her some medications for her pain, though we have to be very careful with that. She’s still groggy, not completely oriented. It’s hard to predict how long that will last, after the severe blow she had. Maybe hours, maybe days, even weeks.”
Griffin knew all about concussions, since he’d had his own bell rung more than once when he’d played high school and college football. Mostly he remembered having nagging headaches and just not feeling quite right. Griffin looked down at Delsey’s face, leached of color, winced at the large white bandage. His fingers hovered over her cheek, then touched her warm skin, maybe to reassure himself she was alive. He closed his eyes as his fingers lightly pressed against the pulse in her throat. Slow and steady.
Dr. Chesney lightly touched a spot above her left ear. “As I said, the wound required stitches, but it looks a lot worse with this big bandage than it really is. We’ll change it out tomorrow for something smaller. The blow jarred her brain, of course, so we can expect short-term symptoms even after she’s fully awake, like difficulty concentrating, dizziness, nausea, and balance problems.
“But she will recover nicely in time, Agent Hammersmith. Right now, she’s still confused. Having you here will help her. I understand she’s a student at Stanislaus. I doubt she’ll be up to performing for a while. What is her instrument?”
“She plays both the guitar and the piano, but she’s mainly a singer and a composer,” Griffin said.
“An opera singer?”
Griffin smiled, hearing Delsey say as she rolled her eyes, The Good Lord save me from climbing to high C every other note, except for the National Anthem. Hey, Griffin, wouldn’t it be great to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl? I wish I knew who to kiss up to to wrangle that.
He said to Dr. Chesney, “She could have been an opera singer, but what Delsey really likes is to compose and perform popular music. She’s already had some success. She’s at Stanislaus because she wants to learn everything she can about composition and instrumentation, ah—” Griffin’s voice fell away, and he swallowed. “She’s very talented. She’s like our grandmother.”
Dr. Chesney smiled, showing a wide space between her front teeth. “Your grandmother? Freestone?”
“Hammersmith? Goodness, Aladonna Hammersmith is your grandmother? Oh, how I wanted to be an opera singer after I first heard her perform at Carnegie Hall, but alas, even the shower water turns cold when I try an aria.”
Griffin smiled. “She was Miss Aladonna to all of us grandkids. She made the best chocolate-chip cookies in the world.”
Children, Dr. Chesney thought, had their own criteria for what was important. She remembered Aladonna Hammersmith had died of heart failure in the early nineties. In the years that followed, she’d seen a good half-dozen retrospective shows about her life. “I look forward to hearing Aladonna Hammersmith’s granddaughter perform when she’s up to it. If we’re lucky, she’ll be back to normal before you know it, so please don’t worry too much. I’ll be back in a couple of hours, unless she needs me. They can reach me on my beeper.”
She turned to Ruth. “I hope Dix can figure this all out. We sure don’t want a repeat of anything like last year in town. Talk about horrific. At least she won’t die like the others did.” Her eyes flicked again to Delsey. Dr. Chesney left the room, leaving dead silence in her wake.
Ruth shook her head. “Talk about a klutz thing to say, but that’s Dr. Chesney. She was probably still so excited to hear her patient is the granddaughter of her opera goddess she forgot you were here.”
He said, “What did she mean, a horrific time last year? Was another Stanislaus student hurt? Killed?”
“There was a murder—well, several actually—but that’s all over and done with. If you want to know more about it, I’ll fill you in later.”
Murders at Stanislaus last year? Did Delsey’s being struck down have anything to do with that old trouble? Had she somehow managed to start up with the wrong person? He wouldn’t doubt it. The Trouble Magnet could sniff out a bad apple in a sealed barrel.
“Tell me, Ruth, that the murders last year were neatly solved and the killer sent to prison.”
“Well, all of them were resolved except the last one; well, there are still some questions in my husband Dix’s mind and the primary suspect is in the wind, but far away from here, we think. Trust me, it has nothing to do with this.”
Griffin realized he was probably being paranoid and tried to turn it off. But a cop is a cop, and he wanted to hear all about last year’s murders. But now wasn’t the time. He pulled up a chair and sat beside his sister. She was sleeping, her breathing slow and regular. He pulled her hand from beneath the hospital blanket, looked at her long white fingers, magic fingers that made such beautiful music the angels wept, and when she sang you wept along with them. He slowly began to rub the back of her hand. “My mother told me when a person is down and out Miss Aladonna had told her it helps if you can hold their hands, that they somehow know, and she did that for my grandmother when she was very sick. I haven’t any idea if it’s true.”
Ruth pulled up the only other chair and sat on the other side of the bed, picked up Delsey’s left hand and began rubbing it. She looked over at Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith. She imagined that when he walked down the street women nearly got run over staring at him. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt to his elbows, and his jeans were old and fitted him very nicely. He looked, she thought, very fine. He was as pretty as his sister, with all his thick blond hair, his eyes as green as wet grass, a small hollow in the middle of his chin, and cheekbones sharp enough to slice a lemon. He was saved from being too pretty by a nose obviously broken a couple of times when he’d been younger, and which now sat a bit off-kilter. He and Delsey looked nearly the same age even though Delsey was six years his junior. According to her driver’s license, Delsey had turned twenty-five the previous week.
She said quietly, “You know, Griffin, Dillon described you as the real deal. I’m glad you’re here, for Delsey’s sake.”
Griffin arched a perfect eyebrow at Ruth and continued rubbing his sister’s hand. He said, “Delsey told me she wanted to learn everything in the known universe about how to put together a multi-instrument score, and this was the place. She never wanted to go to Juilliard, said New York was too big, too noisy, too claustrophobic.
“I haven’t seen Delsey since she moved here last September to attend graduate school. I didn’t make it home for the holidays because there were three bank robberies right before Christmas that had the police chief and the mayor screaming at us, and so I volunteered to head it all up, since, unlike most of the other agents, I’m not married with kids whose stockings needed stuffing.”
“Did you catch the bank robbers?”
Griffin nodded. “Two brothers, both two-time felons, neither very bright. We cuffed them while they were sleeping off a drunk in a Napa Valley motel.”
“I’ll bet they bragged about their big score in a bar.”
He gave her a grin that would smite female hearts from twenty paces. “Yeah, something like that. The bartender called us.”
A tech appeared in the doorway. “Dr. Chesney said to bring this to you right away, Agent Noble.”
Griffin said, “The results from the blood in Delsey’s bathtub?”
“Looks like.” Ruth took a piece of paper from him.
Ruth sighed, handed Griffin the lab report. “All the results tell us so far is that we were right about the blood in the bathtub not being Delsey’s. The blood on the floor, Delsey’s blood, was AB positive, and the blood in the bathtub is the ever-popular Type O. They’ve started the DNA typing, so we can still hope for some magic from the lab if they get a match in the DNA Index System.” She eyed him. “A cold hit is not very likely, though, as you know.”
Griffin said, “If she walked in on a burglary that morphed into a murder, or on someone putting a body in her bathtub, he would have killed her, not just hit her on the head.”
“Maybe he thought the blow did kill her. Maybe that’s what he intended. Or maybe he panicked.” How close had she been to dying? He tasted ashes in his mouth. What they needed was for Delsey to tell them what happened last night.
Ruth said, “Dix has already assigned a deputy to stand guard outside her room. If the perp does think he killed her and finds out she’s alive, he might try again.”
Griffin said, “Let’s hope not, but thank you. If the person in the bathtub was dead, the killer took the body out of Delsey’s apartment for a good reason. And what could the reason be? Someone could have seen him, no matter that it was well after midnight. He was taking a huge risk, carrying the body into her apartment, then carrying it out after Delsey screamed. Either Delsey’s attacker walked out, was helped out, or his killer really didn’t want us to know who he was, which would be the case no matter what else was involved. If it was a burglary, what were they after? I’ve thought about that but can’t think of anything particularly valuable. Her guitar is, I suppose, but not her piano, so that adds to the questions. What did they want? What did they hope to find?”
Griffin looked back at Delsey. “I guess I should tell you we have a name for my sister in the family—Trouble Magnet—that’s with capital letters, her official title. She drives our parents nuts.” Griffin told her about Delsey’s first newspaper route, when she delivered papers to a bank robber.
Ruth stared at him. “That’s pretty funny, but only since it turned out well. Does Delsey have anything to do with why you became an FBI agent?”
“Not really, but some of our instincts are the same. I have several more stories about Delsey that’ll make your hair rise on your neck. If there’s a wrong place and a wrong time, and the wrong guys, Delsey will find them or they’ll find her. Maybe it’s all mistaken identity. I wouldn’t be surprised, given her history.”
“I believe our patient moved a bit.”
Delsey heard voices, one of them familiar, and the voice seemed to be talking about her. She slowly opened her eyes to see her brother not three feet from her nose. “Griffin?”
Her voice was a skinny thread of sound that scared him to his feet. “Yep, I’m here. How are you feeling, Dels?”
“Don’t ask me that yet; I’m not sure. My brain seems to be floating up there somewhere near the ceiling. Maybe it’s better if I let it hover up there for a while.”
He patted her cheek. “Hovering is good. Gotta tell you, Dels, you look a little pathetic with the big white bandage around your head.”
“So you’re more beautiful than me right now?”
“Maybe, but you’ve got the win on drama points with that big honker bandage. Very impressive.”
“I heard you talking. You didn’t sound happy. Why?”
“Something happened to you,” he said. “Again.”
Delsey pulled her hand away from his and slowly raised it to touch her head. “What? Was I in an accident?”
“No, not an accident. You don’t remember?”
She frowned, then shook her head and gasped. “I don’t think I should move again. My head, Griffin—my head feels like it’ll explode if I do. That would be an awful sight, even for you, Mr. Macho FBI Agent.”
Griffin was on his feet. “I’m going to go find a nurse, get some meds for you, all right?”
“Yeah, that’d be good. Oh, no.”
She lurched up, and Ruth managed to get a bedpan to her mouth in time. She fell back against the pillow, shut her eyes. “I’m sorry. I had too much to drink last night.”
“Not a problem.” Ruth wiped Delsey’s mouth with a wet towelette. Not a good time for questions. She said, “Close your eyes and make your breathing light and shallow, that’s right, just relax.” She began stroking the back of Delsey’s hand as she said slowly, her voice as calm as a shallow summer river, “I’m Agent Ruth Noble. No, don’t try to talk. Keep everything easy, Delsey, just listen, don’t think. I’m married to the local sheriff, Dix Noble. He’s a lovely man, all tall and dark and tough as a muscle truck. He actually saved my life last year. It turned into a real gnarly mess here in Maestro as I’m sure you’ve heard, but we got it all straightened out. I have two stepsons now, Rob and Rafer, seventeen and fifteen. Both of them look like their father, and that means they’re going to be heartbreakers. Well, Rob already is. I’m going to be working in Washington with your brother, at the Hoover Building.
“There, that’s better, isn’t it? I don’t want you to worry about anything. Keep still until your insides settle.”
“Could I have a sip of water?”
Ruth set a plastic straw on her tongue. “Not too much, now; that’s right.”
Delsey took a single sip, felt her stomach twist, then, thank the Good Lord, it quieted down. “I’ve heard of you, Agent—”
“Call me Ruth.”
“Okay, Ruth. Most everyone at Stanislaus has heard of you, Ruth, you and your husband, Sheriff Noble. I heard a Stanislaus student was murdered, then the director’s secretary.”
“Yes. We got it sorted out.”
“A lot of the women at Stanislaus think Sheriff Noble’s hot—some of the guys do, too. It will get even worse now that Griffin’s in town. When the women get a load of him, there’ll be fistfights.”
Ruth smiled and patted her hand. “You might be right. He’s quite a package.”
“Poor Griffin, he has to deal with females up to about eighty coming on to him. Maybe the older women want to mother him. Or not, hard to say.”
Griffin came through the door with Nurse Morsi, who checked Delsey’s pulse, put a stethoscope to her chest, and said “good” several times. Ruth told her about Delsey getting sick. Instead of a magic med, Nurse Morsi produced a saltine cracker. “Chew on this, Delsey. Go slow, that’s right, a bit at a time. It will help with the nausea.”
Delsey chewed on the cracker. Her stomach didn’t complain. “Thanks. That’s good.”
“A flash of nausea is common with a concussion; nothing to worry about. It’s already gone, right?”
Delsey took the last bite of cracker, waited for a moment, and nodded.
“Good. If the nausea comes back we can give you an injection to calm things down. You had quite a bit of alcohol last night that showed up on your blood tests. That can’t be helping. Right now I want you to lie still, have some more water and saltines when you feel like it, and let your body reboot.”
Nurse Morsi left after a long look at Griffin, one Delsey recognized as saying, How about I buy you a drink? Delsey focused on her brother. “Griffin, I don’t understand. What are you doing here?”
“I was on my way to my new job in Washington and planned on stopping here to surprise you.”
“Did you see Jennifer?”
“Yes, she’s fine, made me the best waffles on the planet.”
Delsey said to Ruth, “Jennifer is an incredible cook. Believe it or not, she’s never wanted to be anything but Griffin’s friend.”
Griffin didn’t have the heart to tell her Jennifer was gay.
Delsey said, “She owns Jenny’s Café over in Gaffer’s Ridge, an hour or so northwest of here. I visited her this past fall and put on three pounds.”
Griffin knew she was being chatty; she always was when she was scared. It was a wonder she could manage it. He bent down and lightly laid his fingers over her mouth. “Don’t worry about all this, Dels, I’ll do all the worrying for you—or, better yet, we’ll let Ruth carry the worry load.”
“Not a problem,” Ruth said and began rubbing the back of Delsey’s hand again.
Delsey sighed. “It’s probably just as well Jenny’s gay. If she wanted to marry you, Griffin, you’d gain a hundred pounds.”
So she knew, did she? “Nah, I’ve got more willpower than you.”
“Do you know, Ruth,” Delsey said, “whenever we were sick, our grandmother would rub our hands and she’d sing that beautiful aria from Madame Butterfly, ‘Un Bel Dì,’ to us. You don’t have to sing, Griffin.”
Griffin said, “No, I won’t. Is the hand rubbing working?”
“It’s a good distraction.”
Ruth wanted to ask Delsey Freestone what had happened, but she decided Griffin should take the lead. She said only, “It’s snowing, bunches of big flakes drifting down. I’ll bet my two stepsons are sledding and snowboarding with half the kids in town at Breaker’s Hill.”
“I sledded at Breaker’s Hill three days ago,” Delsey said. She closed her eyes. Ruth thought her head must be really hurting.
Delsey turned very slightly to look at her brother. “You’ve got to get married, Griffin, and have kids. Imagine how gorgeous they’ll be. Maybe they’ll be lucky and have some of my talent.”
“Back at you. Maybe your kids will have some of my talent.”
Even though her head hurt and she wished she had another saltine to keep her stomach off the ledge, Delsey smiled. “I’ve gotta admit, your talent’s more interesting than mine. I mean, you’ve always simply known things no one else knew. I’ve always had to run into things, head-on, like the time that boy snatched Mrs. Garland’s tote bag and ran right into me when I came around the corner.” She closed her eyes again, but there was a small smile on her mouth. “At least Mrs. Garland got her tote back.”
He said, his voice very precise, “I meant my talent for solving crimes.”
“Yeah, yeah. Griffin never wants to talk about it, Ruth, but Miss Aladonna not only sang, she was psychic, and she swore that was her biggest talent and she passed it on to him.”
Ruth said, “Did Miss Aladonna speak to spirits?”
“No, like Griffin, she simply knew stuff there was no way she could know. She—”
“Enough of that, Delsey. I told you, I was talking about my talent as a cop. I see patterns sometimes, that’s all, look at puzzle pieces and can many times see how they all fit together. You’re looking better, you’re arguing with me, so let’s get down to business here, if you can do it without throwing up again.”
Delsey said to Ruth, “I told you he never wants to talk about it.”
Ruth only smiled.
“That’s enough, Delsey. You need to tell Ruth and me what happened. If you feel sick again, you stop talking, okay?”
Delsey felt a twist of nausea and swallowed. “Yeah, I can do this.” She swallowed again. “I went to a party over at Professor Rafael Salazar’s house.” She stopped cold, and her breathing picked up, suddenly hard and fast.
Ruth leaned close. “No, don’t panic, Delsey. Relax. What upset you?”
“I can’t seem to remember anything after I parked my Spyder at Professor Salazar’s house—there’s nothing else until I was here with you.”
Griffin said matter-of-factly, “Not remembering is common with a bad concussion. Now, you went to a party at this Professor Salazar’s house? You mean Rafael Salazar? The classical guitarist? I’ve got a couple of his CDs. He’s very good.”
“That’s him. He’s better than good, he’s brilliant. I’ve read he was a child prodigy.”
“So why is he at Stanislaus?”
“He’s a visiting professor, brought here by—this is really cool—his twin brother, who happens also to be the director of Stanislaus, Dr. Elliot Hayman.”
“I didn’t know he had a twin,” Griffin said. “And it’s Dr. Elliot Hayman? I also have some of his CDs playing Bach. Okay, I want to hear more about him, too, but first tell me more about Rafael Salazar.”
Delsey said, “I’ve never seen technique like his on the classical guitar. His fingers are a blur. His students adore him, particularly the women, and it’s not only his musical ability. He throws great parties and drinks his weight in vodka martinis, but what he excels at is dazzle and seduction, which he does with great regularity.” She grinned. “He’s with Gabrielle DuBois right now. She’s a voice student. I think he made a mistake—he let it out he thought Gabrielle sings like Edith Piaf, and believe me, she doesn’t let anyone forget it.”
“Wait a second,” Griffin said. “If he and Hayman are twin brothers, why do they have different last names?”
“All I know is they were separated as boys; Mom took one to Spain, married again, and changed his name to the new hubby’s name, Salazar, and Dad kept the other one with him here in the States.”
“Okay, back to the party at Salazar’s house.”
“I remember there were lots of people and cars and the music blaring out even though the windows were closed. Then it’s a blank.”
“Someone hit you on the head at your apartment, Delsey. We’re trying to figure out who.” Ruth stopped in her tracks when a woman rushed into the room, bundled up to her eyebrows, pulling off a wool cap and sending a long, thick dark braid flying down her back. It was Anna Castle, a Stanislaus student and part-time waitress at Maurie’s Diner. Ruth liked Anna, who’d come to Stanislaus at the beginning of the semester in September. She was always smiling and welcoming to her customers, knew all their likes and dislikes, and she always had time to chat with everyone. Ruth said quickly, “Hi, Anna, it’s okay. Delsey’s all right,” but Ruth saw all her attention was focused on Delsey. Since they both attended Stanislaus, she supposed they’d know each other, but this was more, this was real caring, real concern.
Delsey tried to sit up but couldn’t manage it. She held out her hand. “Anna, I’m okay.”
Griffin was up, his hand on his gun. “How did you get in here? Anna who? Who are you?”
“Griffin, it’s all right. This is Anna, a great violinist and my best friend.”
Griffin eyed the woman bundled up in a bright green ski jacket and wearing black knee boots over tight black jeans. He saw she was staring at his hand resting on the SIG clipped to his belt. He started to back off a bit, but then she walked up to him and smiled, her hand out. “I know you’ve got to be Delsey’s brother, since the two of you look like mirrors of each other. I’m Anna Castle, and like she told you, I’m her best friend. You’re the FBI agent, right?”
He nodded, never taking his eyes off her face. Dark, dark eyes, nearly black, and that voice of hers dripped as slow and smooth and rich as the syrup he’d poured over his waffles at Jenny’s.
“Yes, I’m FBI Agent Griffin Hammersmith, Delsey’s brother. It appears you already know Ruth.”
“Hi, Ruth. I think Delsey might be safe now, with two cops standin’ over her bed.” She stepped around him, and lightly laid her palm against Delsey’s white cheek. “Sweetie, you don’t look so hot. Can you tell me what happened?”
Griffin said, “There was a guard already outside her room when I came back in. How’d you get past him?”
Anna Castle turned, smiled at him. “Everybody eats at Maurie’s Diner. Do you know, Ruth, that Deputy Claus likes mayonnaise on his hamburgers?”
Delsey said, “Griffin, it’s okay, really, everybody knows and likes Anna.”
Anna looked at Griffin. “May I speak to your sister?”
“Don’t make her laugh,” he said. “It might bust her head open.”
“That might be tough,” Delsey said. “Anna’s funny.”
“Okay, sweetie, here’s the deal,” Anna said. “Rumors are flyin’ all over town ever since Henry started talkin’ to people at the diner about how you were naked and the paramedics were all guys, about how there was blood in your bathtub and someone bein’ there with you. That’s only one of them, admittedly the most interestin’. Believe me, everybody was wild to hear the details. You never mentioned a lover. You didn’t pick one up without tellin’ me, did you?”
Delsey laughed, squeezed her eyes shut at the shaft of pain slicing through her head. “You weren’t supposed to be funny, Anna.”
“I’m sorry. Here, this will help.” Anna smoothed out a dampened hand towel and lightly laid it on Delsey’s forehead. She leaned close. “That better?”
“Yeah, it is. Now, listen, I may have picked up a lover last night for all I know. I don’t remember. It’s like hitting a blank wall. Why did Henry come down to my apartment?”
“He said it was really late and he was hearin’ bumps and bangs, and then he heard you scream so he called 911. He stitched up his courage and went in your place and found you on your bathroom floor, lyin’ naked—he always lowers his voice and whispers it.” She shrugged, smiling. “You know Henry.”
She turned to Griffin. “I’m very glad you’re here. Your timin’ in Maestro is like a miracle. You guys have different last names. Why?”
“She married a loser crook, kicked him to the curb, but kept his last name because she said it made the muses of music swarm into her head. Delsey said you play the violin?”
“Actually, since I grew up in the Louisiana boondocks, bayou country, I played the fiddle first. I could still make you want to polka until you fall in a heap and shout yourself hoarse.” She turned back to Delsey. “You need to get your brain back together and tell us what happened. Exactly.”
West Potomac Park
The Lincoln Memorial
“Keep everyone back!” Metro Detective Ben Raven yelled to the three WPD officers as he knelt beside Savich at the broken body of a young man. It was hard to tell how long he’d been dead because he was frozen stiff. There was a small black halo of frozen blood around his smashed head. Did that mean he hadn’t died here?
It wasn’t ten o’clock yet and had been snowing hard since early that morning, so there was barely a trickle of traffic. Yet there were already at least twenty gawkers bundled up in their coats looking in on them, attracted by the yellow crime tape and all the police activity.
Ben told Savich a Park Service employee had found the body only an hour before and called 911. When Ben had realized the body was on federal land, he’d gotten hold of Savich as he was babying his Porsche through the ice-covered streets from Georgetown to the Hoover Building.
Savich looked up at the solitary figure of Abraham Lincoln, felt a familiar awe and sadness for the man, wondering as he often did whether Lincoln would have managed to bring the country together again if he hadn’t been assassinated. Savich looked away from the nineteen-foot marble statue and back down at the frozen, broken body. He was a boy, really, no more than twenty, Savich thought, lying close to Lincoln’s statue, one frozen arm flung out toward Lincoln’s chair. Savich knelt down beside him. Why was he naked? Why had his killer added this indignity? Savich found himself studying what remained of his young face. There was something about him that looked familiar. Who was he?
“No ID anywhere around him?” Savich asked.
Ben Raven shook his head. “Nothing, no clothes, no nothing at all.”
His arms and legs were sprawled at odd angles, as if he’d been thrown or fallen from a great height. Savich looked up sixty feet to the grilled ceiling. “We’ve got to check with the Park Service, see about access.” Had someone managed to haul the young man up sixty feet and throw him from the ceiling above Lincoln’s head? He didn’t see anything broken or unusual about the grills.
“Ben, does he look familiar to you?”
Detective Ben Raven studied the face. “Hard to tell, he’s so messed up.” He looked up quickly, said in a sharp voice, hard and clear as glass, “Hey, buddy, back off. No photos. This is a crime scene.”
Savich wondered how many photos had already been snapped with cell phones or even with zoom lenses and uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, emailed to friends and family and The National Enquirer. Crime scenes in living color were everywhere now. It made their jobs harder.
“Ben,” Savich said, “look again.”
Ben again studied the young man’s face. “No, I don’t recognize him. I’ve got to say he wasn’t dressed for the weather. Looks to me like most every bone in his body is broken. You think he was thrown from up there?” He jerked his head upward.
They both turned when the four-person FBI forensic team came up the steps of the memorial, with them Dr. Ambrose Hardy, the FBI medical examiner from Quantico.
Hardy was as skinny as his favorite fishing pole, his face covered with a thick black beard, like some underfed mountain man. The few patches of gray in his beard added to the effect.
“Savich,” Dr. Hardy said, not looking at him but down at the frozen body. “Not something I like to see on a beautiful Saturday morning.” He knelt down beside the boy.
“Hey, Dillon, you look both hot and cold. Isn’t it sad how that works?” He grinned up at Ms. Mary Lou Tyler, supervisor of the FBI forensic team. She was tough and smart, and though she was his mom’s age, she was still a seasoned flirt. She knelt down beside Dr. Hardy. “Geez, this isn’t how I planned to spend my Saturday morning, either, Ambrose.”
“None of us did,” Savich said, turned, and saw Sherlock running up the steps toward him. He said, “Ben, do you want to be in on this?”
Ben looked back at the thin shattered body. “Yeah,” he said, “I do. Let me take you to the guy who found him. He’s a longtime employee of the Park Service, name’s Danny Franks. I told one of my guys to keep him warm in his squad car.”
Sherlock had her creds out so the cops in her path parted easily as she walked quickly to Savich and went down on her knees beside Mary Lou Tyler and Dr. Hardy. The two women spoke quietly. Savich watched her take in her surroundings, carefully, completely. It was her special gift, a kind of magic that happened when she re-created a crime scene in her mind. Sherlock said, “This was staged for effect, to focus public attention. Leaving him in front of Lincoln is a touch of drama to serve that purpose. A good choice, really.
“He was dead when his killer tossed him down here. You already realized there’s not enough blood with all his injuries for him to have died here.” She looked up. “So how could this work? I can’t see the killer climbing up access stairs sixty feet up, the boy over his shoulder. It had to be somewhere else. Actually, I doubt there’s any access to the ceiling.”
Dr. Hardy said, “I agree these look like massive deceleration injuries, Sherlock, such as a fall from several stories.”
Sherlock rose and dusted off her hands on her pants. “Yeah, but not here, which means the killer carried him here, to this public stage, where he arranged him just so.” She stared silently down at the broken body. “He’s so young. This is such a waste, such a horrible, needless waste.” She shivered, tucked a hank of curly hair back beneath her wool cap. “Dr. Hardy, can you tell us anything else about him?”
“Not a great deal. I’d say he was placed here within the last twelve hours; that’s as close as I can get since he’s frozen. He was alive when he suffered the visible injuries to his face and head. We’ll know at autopsy whether any of his other injuries were postmortem. I’ll have more for you this afternoon.”
She said, “Thank you, Dr. Hardy. We’ll leave him to you, then. Ben, let’s go see Danny Franks.”
As they carefully made their way through the heavy snow down the steps of the memorial, Savich asked her, “Sean’s okay?”
“Sean’s well occupied with Simon and Lilly. Computer games and popcorn at your sister’s house.” Sherlock shivered. “It’s cold, Dillon; it’s so very cold. What kind of monster would do this? And why?”
Savich said, “A monster wanting to make a statement, though it’s not clear what it is. Picking the Lincoln Memorial was a sure way to make the international news very fast.”
Sherlock said to Ben Raven, “I’ll bet you Callie is already getting photos emailed to her at The Washington Post. I see the newspeople are setting up already.”
Ben said, “I got a call from my wife a few minutes ago about the email she got along with a grainy photo shot from the sidewalk—impossible to see anything clearly through the snow. She wanted to know what was happening. Of course I couldn’t tell her.” He grinned. “It doesn’t keep her from hammering at me, though.” He looked up at the fat white flakes pelting down thick from the steel-gray clouds. “We’ll find out who our victim is soon enough, no doubt about that.” He paused, looked out over the Reflecting Pool. “Why are the weatherpeople always right when it comes to predicting the bad stuff?”
Savich looked one last time over his shoulder through the falling snow at the statue of Lincoln. What kind of statement did this horrific act mean to send? Would they be hearing from this killer again? Soon? He saw the media had arrived en masse despite the weather, newscasters speaking urgently into microphones as they stood on steps that began at the edge of the Reflecting Pool, probably leading off by describing the Lincoln Memorial with its thirty-six Doric columns and what it means to all of us. What else would they have to talk about until they learned something about the dead young man up there?
Ben eyed all the reporters. “Don’t let it slip your mind, Savich, that we’re standing on federal land, and that means you’re in charge. And these guys are all yours.” He gave Savich a huge grin and slithered off into a crowd of WPD officers.
Savich manned up and spoke to the reporters. It was nice to tell them he didn’t know a thing yet, and not lie.
“Makes me sick,” Danny Franks said to Savich and Sherlock as they sat beside him in the Metro squad car. “Awful thing. I haven’t ever seen anything like that, I mean, this poor young guy, frozen dead, and he looked like someone beat him to pieces.” Franks’s voice shook, and he sucked in a deep breath, and focused his eyes on Sherlock’s face. She’d pulled off her wool cap, sending a riot of red hair around her face. Mr. Franks didn’t seem to be able to pull his eyes away from her hair. “I mean,” Mr. Franks continued, “you see dead bodies all the time on TV, even see them medical examiners cutting them open, showing bloody organs, whatever, but it isn’t real, you know it isn’t real.”
Danny looked back up to the memorial. “That young man was so young, barely starting his life.”
Excerpted from Bombshell by Catherine Coulter
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.