by Claire McNab
To Whom It May Concern: You are a chosen one. Your name has been selected to receive these instructions. Follow them exactly and you will have great good fortune. Fail, and this letter will bring you death. You have forty-eight hours. Do not break the chain…
While investigating the murder of a fellow police officer, Australian Detective Carol Ashton believes she has discovered a bizarre link between this case and several other unsolved homicides — each victim received a chain letter promising death if the instructions are not followed. When her hunch leads nowhere, Carol figures it was just a coincidence. Then, someone very close to her receives a letter…
Ninth in the Carol Ashton Series.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1997.
|Publication Date||November 15, 1997|
|Cover Designer||Sandy Knowles|
The Lesbian Review
There’s never a dull moment in any of Claire McNab’s books and this can certainly be said about this action-packed story! If you enjoy mysteries/thrillers with a cocktail blend of romantic angst and fever pitched intrigue, have a seat and allow this story to take you for a few wild turns and unexpected bumps along the way. Even though this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, I would suggest that you start at the beginning of the Detective Inspector Carol Ashton Mystery Series in order to fully understand and appreciate this story.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
You are a chosen one. Your name has been selected to receive these instructions.
Follow them exactly and you will have great good fortune. Fail, and this letter will bring you death. Do not break the chain.
Within forty-eight hours you must copy this letter and send it anonymously to ten other people. Wonderful things will begin to happen for you within two weeks.
If you do not do this, you will die.
You have forty-eight hours. Do not break the chain.
There was blood everywhere in the hallway. Red splashed the cream walls, pooled on the parquet floor. Several lines of fine drops had sprayed the pale ceiling. The edge of the door and the handle were smeared with it.
He lay outside on the front veranda of the neat suburban house. Blood was a halo around his head, a cloak spread beneath his shoulders, a sticky darkening stain that had dyed the front of his white T-shirt and splattered down his jeans. Even the soles of his worn tennis shoes were covered with blood. Crimson impatiens in wooden half-barrels on either side of the stone steps leading up from the garden echoed the color.
It was a beautiful spring day, sunny, yet still with a touch of bracing coolness. A sparrow hopped onto the veranda railing and cocked its head inquisitively. Detective Inspector Carol Ashton stood staring down into the face of her friend. She ignored the bustle of technicians around her. Steve’s blue eyes were wide with surprise, not horror. He had been stabbed repeatedly, fatally, yet his expression was tranquil, his bloody hands relaxed.
Liz Carey, head of the crime-scene team, came to stand beside her. “It still amazes me,” she said.
Carol took a deep breath, consciously pushing her grief to one side and assuming her professional role of investigating officer. “What does?”
Liz gestured with a gloved hand. “That peaceful expression, after what’s been done to him. I’ve seen it before, particularly in children who’ve died in sudden, unexpected violence. Maybe it’s that everything happens so quickly. And he died fast.” She indicated a deep cut in his throat. “Looks like the carotid artery’s gone. From that moment, he probably had a minute, tops.”
Carol turned her gaze back to Steve’s face. There was a superficial slash across one cheek, and blood had bubbled out of his mouth to stiffen the new mustache he had recently begun to cultivate. She remembered the good-natured ribbing he’d endured about his facial hair last night when they’d all gathered in a pub for after-work drinks.
She looked up as Detective Sergeant Bourke took the veranda steps two at a time. He halted beside them. “Jesus. It is Steve. When I heard the address, I hoped …” He let his breath out with a long sigh. “Anyone told Lauren?”
“Not yet. Would you do that, Mark?”
Unconsciously, he put up his hands and tugged at his cropped brown hair. “Carol…they were getting married next week…I was going to be the best man…”
“Would you rather a stranger told her?”
Her cold voice had the desired effect. He dropped his hands and straightened his shoulders. “Of course not. I’ll do it right now. And I’ll call Pat, so Lauren will have someone with her.” Bourke bent his head. “Jesus, Steve,” he said, almost as if blaming the dead man for the situation.
Liz glanced at him dispassionately, then said to Carol, “Come inside. Now that they’ve pretty well finished with the immediate crime scene, there’re a couple of things you’ll want to see.”
They stepped around the puddles of congealing blood, obscenely incongruous on the highly polished parquet floor. “Nice,” said Liz, looking around. “Really done the place up.”
Carol thought of the wedding that now would not take place, and how they’d all been joking at work about Steve’s nesting complex and the painstaking steps he’d been taking to make the shabby house he’d bought into a perfect home.
“All right, Liz, what do you want to show me?” She made sure her tone was matter-of-fact. Whatever she felt personally, no emotions were going to affect the smooth running of this investigation.
“There’s no blood anywhere else in the house, and I figure he was first attacked here, in the hallway. Look here…” Liz indicated an area on the floor two meters in from the front door. “See that semicircular mark in the blood next to the footprint? It matches the blood on the right knee of his jeans. And here?” She pointed to a slide mark closer to the door. “He steps into his own blood, and slips.”
Liz tilted her head as she surveyed the scene. “I reckon he was stabbed several times, maybe in the throat and chest, and blood gushed out of him onto the floor. He goes down on one knee.” She flicked a finger at the wall. “That smear shows where he steadied himself with his right hand. Then he got to his feet.”
Carol could see it all, as though she were an unwilling witness. One moment Steve was alive, vital—the next he was mortally wounded, his blood pumping from his body as he turned and tried to escape. Had he realized, in those last moments, that everything for him was over?
Liz was pointing to the ceiling. “Those fine spray lines came from the murder weapon, already covered in blood.” She mimicked stabbing motions, the imaginary knife lifted high to plunge down into an invisible victim. “Every time the perp raised the weapon, he sent a spray of blood clear to the ceiling.” She gave a dry smile. “Got quite carried away, he did.”
“Did you notice any defense wounds on the victim’s hands?”
Carol heard herself refer to Steve as a victim with a pang. If Steve could hear her, he’d understand. There had to be distance between them. He was no longer a colleague, a friend, but the object of a fatal attack. She blinked as she felt tears prick her eyes. Toughen up! she snarled to herself.
“A few cuts on his hands,” Liz was saying. “Nothing particularly deep. I think he was taken by complete surprise and hardly had time to try to defend himself. He just tried to get away.”
“Any evidence of forced entry?”
“No, but the back door’s unlocked, and most of the windows are open. Some of the rooms are freshly painted, so he was obviously airing out the house.”
“Is there a back entrance?”
“Yes, a lane runs behind all these houses in the block. There’s a separate garage and a back gate. It’s just got a latch, so anyone could walk right in.”
Carol looked at the polished floor running away to the back of the house. “Why isn’t there blood somewhere else? The person who did this must have been drenched.”
Pleased at the question, Liz indicated a series of semicircular drop patterns near the doorway to the front room. “Exactly. There’s no way you could avoid getting blood on you. I’m guessing here, and the blood evidence expert will have a better opinion, but I’d say he was wearing something to protect his clothes, like a plastic raincoat. He took it off, gave it a shake or two to get rid of some of the blood, then folded it up and took it with him.”
He, thought Carol. This has to be a man. But then, she had known women who had killed with knives, stabbing over and over again…
“Inspector?” It was a uniformed patrol officer. “We’ve got the gardener sitting in the car. Do you want to see him?”
Carol nodded to her, then said to Liz, “I want this house completely processed—every room and every item. I want an analysis of everything, down to the finest detail. The same outside to beyond the boundaries, especially at the back.”
Liz raised her eyebrows. “That’ll take some time.”
Carol turned to the officer. “What’s the gardener’s name?”
“His name’s Joe Silvano. He was working in the front here when it happened. He’s the one who gave the alarm.”
Carol followed her down the front steps, past the red impatiens in their brown barrels, and into the front garden. A freshly-painted white picket fence enclosed a rectangle of recently-mowed lawn edged by hydrangea bushes and freshly-turned flower beds.
Crime-scene tape and the admonitions of two patrol officers held back the cluster of people who always seemed to materialize at crime scenes. Carol had often wondered if they were summoned by some strange group-sense of disaster, some bush telegraph that signaled violence and murder.
The middle-aged man clambered out of the backseat as soon as he saw Carol approaching. He was white faced and shaking, and leaned against the open patrol car door as if for support. He seemed unaware of the blood soaked into his faded green T-shirt and grubby khaki shorts, or the streaks of dried blood on his hands.
“Are you in charge? I need to talk to the person in charge.” His voice still had a touch of an accent.
Carol introduced herself. He disregarded her invitation to sit down, but nodded, distracted, then the words spilled out of him.
“I was just doing the garden for him, that’s all. Working Sunday to do something extra, so it’d be ready for the wedding. The sarge said he had a black thumb, you know? He was doing up the house, could handle everything else pretty much, but he needed me for the garden, here and at the back. I’d mowed the lawn, was just doing the flower beds, when I heard this sound. Sort of…”
He raised his open hands, stiff fingered. “Sort of like a wet shout. And I turned round, and I saw him…” The man pointed with a tremulous hand. “Up there. I saw the blood on his T-shirt, and then he fell down…”
“Did you see who attacked Sergeant York?”
Silvano stared at her, as if this were a new thought that the murderer had still been there. “No. I didn’t see anyone. Just the sarge.”
Carol took his arm and led him through the impeccably white front gate into the garden. “Please show me where you were working.”
The crowd surged against the tape, confident that something interesting was happening. “It’s that Carol Ashton,” said someone loudly.
“She looks much better on TV,” said someone else disparagingly. “What in hell’s she done to her nose?”
Carol resisted the impulse to touch her face. Her black eyes and most of the bruising had faded, but her nose, smashed by a rifle butt, had remained obstinately swollen, even after corrective plastic surgery.
Silvano pointed to a heavy spade, discarded on the grass near a hydrangea bush laden with heavy white and purple clusters. “Right over there. Had my back to the house, digging, and then I heard something, and turned around…” His face folded into lines of pain. “It was awful.”
Carol nodded sympathetically. “I know this is hard for you, Mr. Silvano.”
“Yeah, well…” He swallowed. “I got up there, fast as I could. Didn’t even think that there might be someone still in the house.” Silvano looked up at the veranda and the half-open front door. “I never gave it a thought…”
“Please tell me exactly what happened.” Carol gestured at the stairs. “You’re digging here, you hear something, turn around. You realize there’s something wrong with Sergeant York, and you go up the stairs. And then?”
“He was on his back, and there was so much blood. It was just pouring out of him. I had to do something. I shouted for help, then I got down on my knees, lifted him up, tried to stop the bleeding, but I knew it was hopeless.”
“Did he say anything?”
“There was blood in his mouth—I don’t think he could speak. Some people came running up the stairs…” He gestured vaguely. “Neighbors. I said to get an ambulance.”
Carol looked to the officer, standing attentively nearby, who nodded at the unspoken question. “We have their names.”
Silvano was still speaking. “I kept on telling him he’d be okay—I didn’t know what else to do. He was staring at me and taking huge breaths, like he couldn’t get enough air. Then he fell back in my arms, and…” He raised his shoulders helplessly.
The man’s eyes filled with tears. “He was a good bloke, you know. Maybe I could have done more…”
“You did everything you could.” She waited until he had regained composure, then said, “Did you hear any movement in the house?”
“Perhaps you looked into the hallway through the front door.”
“All I saw was the sarge.” His glance fell to his hands, and he examined them, gazing at the dried blood under his fingernails. “When he stopped breathing, I should have done something. But his mouth was full of blood.”
Carol steered him back toward the patrol car. “There was nothing you could do. He was beyond help.”
She mouthed the platitudes in a soothing voice, giving no hint of the grief and outrage she felt. Why did Steve York—a fine person and admirable police officer—have to lie dying in pools of his own blood?
“Mr. Silvano, I’m afraid we have to ask you to give a full written statement.”
The gardener turned toward her. “Who could have done this dreadful thing?”
“I don’t know, but we’ll find out.” Carol said this with every confidence. When it was one of their own, the police service would provide every resource for as long as it took. No matter how much time passed, there was no such thing as an inactive designation for a cop killing.
Silvano backed into the backseat, and sat slumped with his feet outside on the grass verge. “The sarge was such a good bloke. Why would anyone want to kill him?”
Carol didn’t answer. What could she say that would mean anything? There were many people who had reason to hate the police, and some might be motivated to violence but this was the frenzied attack of someone mad with fear or rage.
She turned at the slam of a car door. The medical examiner had arrived. He half-saluted her as he hurried through the gate in the picket fence. Carol watched him climb the stone steps—steps up which Steve had vowed he’d ceremoniously carry Lauren after their wedding. It had been a standing joke at work, with much laughing comment about the body-building gym time Steve would need to do to accomplish his pledge.
“However long it takes, Steve,” she said softly. “However long it takes.”
Carol had walked up and down the rear lane, and peered into adjacent backyards. Now she came back out into the nondescript suburban street. The grass verge on either side was lined with oleander bushes flowering in shades of pink or red.
The crush of onlookers had grown, and Carol’s appearance caused a buzz of excitement. A reporter with a television crew in tow ducked under the tape and dodged around an officer on crowd control. “Inspector Ashton! A statement?”
Carol gave a slight negative shake of her head, accompanied by a moderate expression of regret. She respected the power of the media and worked them as assiduously as they worked her.
Turning her back on the crowd and ignoring the comments and questions, she concentrated on the row of houses before her. Steve’s was like all the others, dwellings built in the forties and fifties in the postwar boom. They were undistinguished single-story brick buildings with red tile roofs, each sitting isolated on its own rectangular block of land, the boundaries clearly delineated with paling fences on three sides and a choice of brick or wooden fences along the front. Flowers brightened most front areas, and vegetable gardens, many with the ubiquitous choko or passionfruit vines smothering the nearest fence, bordered the back lawns. Almost all had a single-car garage at the rear, although many of these had been converted into double carports.
The gardener’s calls had brought help from Steve’s neighbors on Carol’s right—the neighbors on the other side had been at church. Carol paused at the front gate. The garden was neat enough, but the front fence sagged, apparently being held up by a series of small flowering bushes. The redbrick house was bluffly unadorned, and the cream woodwork needed a coat of paint. Like Steve’s, a short flight of stone steps led to a small veranda and the front door.
Stopping halfway up the steps, Carol looked over at Steve’s house. From this angle she couldn’t see the veranda, but his front garden and steps were in clear view. She could imagine Mr. Silvano’s cries splitting the quiet Sunday morning, people putting down their papers, saying to each other, “What was that?”
Inside, Anne Newsome, her buoyant physicality in check, was sitting demurely at the kitchen table. The constable stood as Carol entered the faded kitchen. “This is Mr. Edward Parcell, Inspector.”
Carol shook the seated man’s hand. His grip was surprisingly firm. Although he was old, perhaps in his late eighties, and frail, with skin blotched and papery, he still gave an impression of stubborn vigor, and his pale blue eyes were sharp.
“I’m Inspector Ashton,” she said.
He nodded, his almost hairless skull bobbing dangerously on his thin, corded neck. “Yeah, I seen you on the telly.”
Carol slid onto a hard, straight-back wooden chair. The kitchen was very clean and tidy, but the surface of the sturdy unpainted table at which she sat had been scrubbed so often that its surface was full of dips and hollows, the edge of the old porcelain sink was chipped, and the cracked linoleum on the floor had almost lost its original intricate pattern of squares and circles.
She glanced over at Constable Newsome, who had seated herself again and opened a notebook. Anne was a conscientious note-taker, something she had learned from Mark Bourke. Now she sat with pen poised, ready to record any and all details. Carol thought of all the notebooks she, herself, had filled over the years with information that was very often useless—but sometimes those scribbled notations held the key to a mystery.
Carol turned her attention to the old man, who was watching her intently. “Can you tell me what happened, Mr. Parcell?”
“I reckon I can,” he said. “Me and the missus, we were having a cup of tea right here in the kitchen”—he paused to indicate an ancient brown teapot, two cups and saucers both nearly full with obviously cold milky liquid, and a plate of iced biscuits—“when we heard a bit of a commotion next door. I went to see what was up, and Marge came too.”
Carol looked around. “Is your wife here?”
This question amused him mightily. “After what’s happened? She’s out bending the ear of anyone who’ll listen. Best story she’s had for years.”
Carol sighed to herself. Apart from possible contamination of other witnesses, some of the ears Marge Parcell would be bending no doubt belonged to the media.
“What exactly did you hear?” she asked.
“The dago bloke, he yells out.”
“Yeah. The I-tie. Screaming his head off, he is. We go in, and he’s up on the veranda, still yelling.” Mr. Parcell pursed his lips and shook his head.
“And?” Carol prompted.
“Well, I don’t mind admitting it gave me quite a turn. I was in the army, you know, Second World War, North Africa, so I can take it with the best of ’em, but this was pretty awful. Blood everywhere. Knew right away he was a goner.”
“Did you see a knife or any weapon?”
He leaned forward, propping his sharp elbows on the table, his pale eyes narrowed. “You thinking the I-tie did it, are you? Barking up the wrong tree, if you do. When I came down the side of the house, I looked over and seen him digging in the garden. Then Marge calls me to say the tea’s ready. I come in, quick smart, and I haven’t had but one bite of biscuit and a swallow of tea, before he starts screaming his head off.”
“So, as soon as you heard Mr. Silvano shouting, you and your wife immediately went next door?”
“Didn’t hang around—he was screaming blue murder.”
“You went up on the veranda, took a look, and went straight for help. Is that right?”
He gave Carol an irritated frown. “Course. Told Marge to stay there, case she could do anything—though I knew she couldn’t—and went for the phone.”
“The phone in Sergeant York’s house?”
Parcell looked affronted, as though Carol were accusing him of some misdeed. “Well, it was an emergency, wasn’t it? And he wasn’t going to complain, take my word for it.” A slight smile twisted his skinny lips. “Worried I might have tramped in the blood, are you? Well, I didn’t. I was careful.”
“After you made the call, did you look through the house at all?”
He gave a bark of laughter. “Cripes, woman, I’m not that stupid. Got the hell out. If someone was there with a knife, I didn’t want to meet him.”
Carol saw Anne hide a smile. A little amused herself, she said, “That was wise, Mr. Parcell.”
He nodded agreement. “Too right.”
“Did you know Sergeant York well?”
“Good bloke. He was fixing up the place, wanted it just right before he got hitched. I helped him with a few things—always been good with my hands. Matter of fact, just seen the sarge this morning, out the back. Had a bit of a yak over the fence.”
He leaned back, thoughtful. “You know, he told me he was waiting for an exterminator. Said the bloke was going to check under the house for white ants. Said it was for free, so I said to the sarge, if it’s free, tell him to pop over here when he’s finished with you.”
Not letting her sudden keen interest show, Carol said, “And did the exterminator come to your house?”
“Didn’t see hide nor hair of him.”
“Did you ever see this person, even at a distance?”
“Can’t say I did.”
She leaned forward, willing him to know something—anything. “Do you know the name of the exterminator company?”
Parcell rested his chin on his bony hands. “None of the biggies. Some little fly-by-night show with a fancy moniker. The van was parked in the lane a couple of times. White, it was, with red lettering on the side. Fresh, like it’d just been done—beautiful job, actually.” He furrowed his brow. “I just can’t remember the name. Marge might.”
Marge, when she came home for a break from gossiping, certainly did.
“Real funny,” she said. “Like a joke, you know? Called himself Terror of Insects. It was right there on the van. Bit of a laugh, eh?”