Coral Gables, Miami, Florida
June 27, 19:16
“How many bodies are there?”
Captain Kyle Sears hung one arm out of the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor as it accelerated away from the airport district station. The warm evening breeze rippled the sleeves of his distinctive taupe uniform, the nearby ocean sparkling as the sun set behind the glassy towers of the city skyline.
The warbled tones of a dispatch officer replied to his question across the radio waves.
“Two victims, both confirmed deceased from gunshot wounds. We got a tip-off from an unknown male caller. A forensics team is on their way and we’ve got a witness on the scene.”
Sears grimaced behind his sunglasses. The motion twisted his neat gray mustache as he glanced at his fellow officer, Lieutenant José Rodriquez, who shrugged as he drove. “A witness doesn’t necessarily lead to a conviction.”
Sears flicked a switch on the dashboard that sent sirens wailing as they raced along the boulevard, the Interceptor’s flashing lights reflecting off the windows of other vehicles that swerved to get out of the way. Southbound on the expressway, Sears could see the metallic sprawl of Miami International Airport nearby, the navigation lights of airliners blinking as they climbed into a spectacular sunset striped with tattered ribbons of black cloud.
Rodriquez, a thirty-year-old Latino out of Westchester, turned away from the palms of SW 40th and Ponce de Leon Boulevard and
down onto Sistina Avenue, a shady tree-lined residential street where most all the homes were two-story colonials with manicured lawns. A far cry, Sears recognized, from the usual homicide call-ups on the north side, where ranks of shabby clapboard houses ringed with chain-link fences faced sidewalks littered with junk.
“There it is.”
Half a dozen squad cars lined the street in a blaze of hazard lights outside one of the elaborate homes, police cordons blocking access to the sidewalk and gardens. A television crew from a local station was already hovering around, a reporter jawing into a camera as she gestured to the mansion behind her. Rodriquez pulled in and killed the engine as Sears climbed out and ducked under the cordon, flashing his badge at a beat cop who waved him through.
“Forensics arrived yet?”
“Inside,” the cop replied. “Got here a few minutes ago.”
Sears strode up to the front door as he donned a set of blue rubber gloves and surveyed the exterior of the property. To his right, a middle-aged woman cradling a small poodle in her arms was being questioned by two uniformed officers. Sears strolled over and the senior of the two cops, a portly officer with heavy jowls, filled him in.
“This is Madeleine Ford, Captain,” the officer informed him. “She observed the home-owner leaving the property in a real hurry about two hours ago, a man named Charles Purcell. We’re just waiting to find out who he is.”
Sears nodded and looked at the woman, her white hair immaculately styled and her movements precise and controlled. Probably retired years before, most likely widowed, with nothing better to do than watch the street outside.
“What exactly did you see, ma’am?” he asked with an easy smile as he removed his sunglasses.
Madeleine stroked the dog in her arms and glanced at the television crews nearby with their hefty cameras.
“Mr. Purcell came through here about two hours ago, Officer,” she said, clearly enjoying the attention. “Looked like he was in a real hurry. He went inside, and then about twenty minutes later he took off in his car like he was fleeing the devil himself.”
“Did you hear any gunshots or any kind of fracas from the home?”
Madeleine shook her head.
“Not that I recall. They seemed such a nice family, always polite, although he wasn’t about much.”
“Purcell?” Rodriquez asked.
“He was always working out at sea,” Madeleine replied. “Or so his wife said.”
Sears made a mental note and then left Madeleine with the uniforms and strode with Rodriquez toward the Purcell family home.
“Professional hit?” Rodriquez hazarded. “Silenced weapons?”
“Maybe,” Sears replied thoughtfully as they walked into the house.
A bespectacled forensics expert, Hickling, guarded the entrance hall and waved them forward with a nod.
“The hall’s clear but don’t handle anything. We haven’t dusted down yet.”
Sears headed toward the living room at the end of a long corridor, where he could see periodic flashes from a crime-scene officer’s camera. He heard a cheerful voice followed by a burst of laughter and applause, bizarrely out of place at a crime scene. Hickling rested a hand on Sears’s shoulder as he passed.
“It’s a bad one, Kyle.”
The captain slowed. Despite years of experience, the cautioning hand of a forensics expert was enough to make even Sears apprehensive. He took a breath and walked into the living room, then paused at the doorway to take in the scene before him as a tight acidic ball lodged in his throat.
The living room was large and well organized, two double leather couches lining the back and side walls, both within view of a large plasma screen that dominated the longest wall above a faux mantelpiece. French doors to his left. Bay windows to his right looking out over the lawns to the street. Sears looked at the plasma screen to see a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond playing, incongruous with the somber mood. He couldn’t see what Raymond was doing because of the thick blood splatter sprayed across the screen.
A woman lay slumped against the mantelpiece. Blond,
mid-thirties, and dressed in a beige two-piece power suit. Maybe a lawyer or a banker. Her hair had once been carefully piled high on her delicate head but was now matted with thick blood, while most of the rear of her skull was embedded in chunks in the walls of the living room and smeared across the mantelpiece beside her. She stared with her one remaining eye at the living room door.
“Surprise attack,” Rodriquez said. “Last thing she saw was her killer.”
Sears moved forward and looked down to his left, where, on one of the couches, lay the second body. The acidic ball in his throat threatened to leap out and he forced himself to keep breathing as he looked at the second corpse.
A girl, maybe nine years old, like a miniature carbon copy of her mother. Right down to the bloodied cavity where the back of her head had once been. Her hair, delicately swept back on one side over a tiny ear, lay in thick tresses on the other side across a congealing mass of blood and bone that had stained the couch. Spilled bodily fluids caked her bare legs. What was left of one side of her face stared up at them, locked in a gruesome rigor of shock.
Rodriquez’s voice was tight as he surveyed the scene.
“Same MO. She never had a chance to react. Probably saw her mother die before she was shot.”
When it came to homicide, like most detectives with the Miami-Dade Police Department, Sears had seen it all: fourteen years of shootings, stabbings, and poisonings; gangs, drugs, and racial hatred. He had seen corpses sliced, punctured, maimed, and decomposed. But every now and again he bore witness to something approaching true evil—a murderer who killed for no other reason than the goddamn hell of it. If the killer had a beef with the woman, that was one thing. But shooting the kid too?
The flash of the CSI team’s cameras jerked him out of his grim reverie.
“Any sign of forced entry?” Sears asked, mastering his rage and revulsion.
“Nothing,” came the response. “Whoever did this was either a real pro or they walked right in.”
“Burglary gone wrong?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“You kidding?” one of the CSI guys responded, a small but studious-looking man who, like Sears, was struggling to contain his rage at the carnage surrounding them. “Nothing’s missing that we know of. Matter of fact, there’s no sign the killer even went anywhere else in the house. This was a hit, plain and simple.”
Sears glanced at the mantelpiece, where a row of family photographs stood. Images of happiness. A smiling wife, the daughter at middle school, grandparents, friends. The whole nine yards. All of them splattered with blood. Sears was about to turn away when one of the photographs caught his eye. So thick was the mess upon it that nobody had noticed that the frame was empty. Sears pointed to it.
“Fingerprints, right now,” he snapped. “The picture’s missing.”
Rodriquez raised an eyebrow.
“Good catch, Kyle,” he said. “Trophy killer. You think the husband did it?”
Sears was about to answer when his cell phone rang. He slipped it out of his pocket as he watched the forensics team swarm over the photograph.
“Sears,” he answered.
A soft, unassuming voice replied.
“Captain, have you found the picture frame yet?”