“Is Piss-it coordinating this case or not,” I asked Lieutenant Tom Mason when he arrived at 7:30 the next morning. “We’ve got two headless corpses. Are we waiting for the killer’s shrink to call and say, “Yes, Cutter’s wacko, yours truly, Dr. Igor Hassenpfeffer’?”

I sat heavily on my desk, upending a mug of pencils.

“Hassenpfeffer? Is that a real name?” Tom asked, bending to retrieve pencils from the floor. Tom’s head of the Crimes Against Persons unit and our main line of defense against the brass. He’s a rail-thin fifty, has a face like a suicidal bloodhound, and is utterly without guile. I’d been stewing about last night’s confrontation when Tom walked up. Harry, just in and peeling off his chartreuse suit coat, was right behind.

“Listen to this,” I said, lifting the revised procedures manual from my desk and declaiming the PSIT section with the zeal of a jailhouse lawyer.

Tom nodded. “Read that this morning myself.”

“Is it pud-pulling, or is it for real?”

Harry sat down with a cup of coffee and gave me his indulgent look. Tom said, “Harry, you remember that rotten oP scow our river-patrol boys used to have? That itty-bitty boat?” It took Tom most of a minute to say the sentence. He’d come up on a watermelon farm near the Mississippi border, in the deep-back country, where folks talked about as fast as melons grew; if Tom talked any slower he’d talk backward.

Harry nodded. “The leaky tub with the iffy bilge pump.”

Tom put his foot on a chair and crossed his arms over his knee.

“Carson, back around ’99 we got us a brand-new boat donated by Mabry’s Marine. Twenty-four foot. Hundred-fifty-horse motor. Stable as a granite Cadillac. Even had life jackets.”

I sat tight and waited it out. Tom couldn’t bless-you a sneeze in under five minutes.

“Comes the day to dedicate that boat, Carson, y’know, christen it. A big ol’ to-do. Told the politicos, called the newsies. Except nobody’s told the chaplain. The band played, the politicians yapped.

The people stood and stared. But no christening.”

My attention started to drift. Harry nudged my arm, pointed at Tom, Listen up.

“The very next night some dope-boater comes hauling weed through the fog and slams a log north of the causeway. Rain. Heavy chop.

Waterspouts in the bay. But we still had to fish bales from the water before the tide sucked them away. You know which one of them boats the boys took out?”

Harry poked me and said, “They took the old boat because the new one hadn’t been blessed, Carson. They weren’t going to trust their asses to it without the blessing of a higher power. The PSIT’s real, but it’s basically brand-new. No one wants to trust it until it’s been blessed.”

“And when do we know if we’re receiving this anointment?” I asked.

“Should be pretty quick,” Tom said, tapping the crystal of his watch.

“The chief’s called a meeting in twenty minutes.”

Three words came to mind when I thought of Chief Hyrum: chain of command. If the chief was beside me while I choked on a gum ball he’d walk to his office and call a deputy chief of support services. The DCSS would inform the major in charge of the Criminal Investigations Section, who would alert the captain of the Investigative Services Division. The captain would inform the lieutenant in charge of the Crimes Against Persons Unit, and the lieutenant would send a sergeant from Homicide to Heimlich my corpse.

Structure was his insulation from reality. Or, to be kinder, from decision making. He’d been thrust into the position three years ago when the then-chief suffered a heart attack and retired. Hyrum made several well-intentioned missteps in restructuring the department and most resulted in negative publicity and general internal bellyaching.

Made wary by the experience, the chief now preached straight from the book and leaned toward the familiar passages. He approached recent experiments the PSIT, for example like a blind man nearing the sound of unfamiliar machinery.

We got to the conference room a few minutes early. I drank a cup of coffee by the urn, then filled another and sat as the others filed in.

It was an improbable assemblage of rankings, starting at the pinnacle with Chief Hyrum. Below him was Deputy Chief Belvidere, and because Belvidere attended, so did DC Plackett. On the next stratum was Blasingame from District Three, Cantwell from Two, and Tom Mason. Then, dicks from the districts where the murders had occurred: Rose Blankenship from Two and Sammy Walters from Three.

The chief and Squill entered, nodding and gesturing in conversation as Squill patted the chief’s shoulder. Chief Hyrum was fifty-three, maybe six feet tall, and gave the impression of solidity, though a few pounds of belly drifted over the belt line. The room fell quiet as he sat and looked out over the expectant faces.

He held on mine.

“I understand you were involved in some miscommunication last night, Detective Ryder. Would you care to explain your side of the story?

Now’s your chance.”

I felt my stomach fall and churn. “Explain what, sir?”

Squill cleared his throat. “Chief, sometimes mistakes are made and apologies are necessary.”

Hyrum said, “I can accept that, Captain.”

Every face turned my way. I felt like the lead in a play that closed before I’d read the script. It seemed Squill had gotten to the chief before the meeting and poor-mouthed me over last night’s incident. I was obviously required to apologize to him.

“What’s happening here?” I asked.

Hyrum said, “I say let bygones be bygones, Detective. It’s best to forget mistakes and “

I smacked the table with my palm. Coffee splashed from cups to the table. Grumbles.

“No, dammit. I demand to hear what you’ve been told about last night.”

Beside me Harry moaned so softly only I could hear him. Chief Hyrum gave me a three-count glare as he sopped spilled coffee with his napkin. “Captain Squill said you and Detective Nautilus were doing an excellent job of processing the scene under PSIT directives when the captain mistakenly established command under standard procedures, resulting in some confusion.”

Harry moaned again. Hyrum continued. “Captain Squill also told me “

“That I deeply regret any mistakes,” Squill interjected in a mortician-smooth voice. “I assure all in this room and especially Detective Ryder that I’ve since read the procedures. Twice. No, three times.”

A sprinkling of laughter at Squill’s self-deprecation. He was doing mea culpa and I was doing me an asshole. I’d expected him to lie about last night and he’d trumped me by telling the truth.

“Can we move on, Detective Ryder?” Hyrum asked, a baleful eye glaring my way.

I nodded. Please. Quickly. I shot a glance at Squill; he was stroking his chin and smiling out the window. The chief focused on Harry. “You’ve been at both scenes, Detective Nautilus. What’s your opinion?”

“I’ve been more involved with interviewing bystanders, Chief, so I’ll punt to Detective Ryder.”

It was Harry’s way of lifting me back in the saddle. Suitably chastened and without a single drop of coffee spilled, I ticked off a list of facts.

“Cold blooded,” Rose Blankenship said when I’d finished. “Any take on the messages?”

I followed with a quick review of where Harry and I had been: anagrams, astrological symbols, mythical symbols, basic letter codes, nothing feeling right except the notion that the killer felt secure and in control of the situation.

“Why don’t you piece together the events leading to the murder as you see them, Detective Ryder,” the chief said.

I nodded and started my timeline, trying to sound as professional and assured as a network news anchor. “The perpetrator arrived for an eight p.m. meeting arranged, I’m sure, by phone. He overpowered Mr.

Deschamps and killed him. The mechanism of killing can’t yet be determined.

Using an extremely sharp implement, he beheaded Mr. Deschamps a process Forensics informs me could take less than a minute. Before the decapitation the perpetrator spent ten or so minutes writing on the body, using “

Squill interrupted. “Ten minutes? You’re sure?” He liked to keep speakers off balance with scattershot questions. Unless, of course, the speaker ranked above Squill, who then hung rapt and mute on every word.

I kept the irritation from my voice. “I figure it was somewhere in that range, Captain.”

“How did you arrive at that number? Forensics?”

“Not exactly, Captain. It’s sort of an independent experiment, a way to “

Squill nodded triumphantly, as if he’d caught me in a bald-faced lie. I heard another low moan from Harry’s direction. “Detective Ryder, I know we’re blue-skying here, but we assign times to actions only after a qualified judgment from Forensics.”

“I think it’s qualified, sir,” I said. “Empirically at least.” I hadn’t had time to run it by Harry, he’d been at court.

Chief Hyrum frowned. “What are you talking about, Detective Ryder?”

“Like I said, a kind of experiment, sir.”

“Explain, please.”

I stood and dropped my pants.

Harry sounded like he was having an attack of appendicitis.


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