Pisces Rising

Elizabeth Chase Mysteries (Volume 4)

Martha C. Lawrence

Minotaur Books

 
1



San Diego was still asleep, shrouded in the cool gray mist that settles along the coast when temperatures drop. I turned into the University Medical Center parking lot and claimed the kind of space you only find at 4:30 in the morning. The hospital wasn’t fifty yards away, but the fog was thick enough to blur the edges of the main building. Fog this dense always made me think of my mother’s Crawling Eye. When I was small, I used to wonder how Mom knew about the childish misdeeds I thought I’d concealed so well. How did she find out I’d snitched the candy, not brushed my teeth, read with a flashlight under the covers after lights out? “I have a crawling eye,” she’d say. “It slithers through the crack under your door and watches you when you think I’m not looking.” In my little-girl mind it became a monster, this Crawling Eye—a giant, bloodshot orb that lived on foggy hillsides and slinked through the darkness to peer in my window. I smiled as I got out of my truck. Perhaps my second sight was my own version of the Crawling Eye, inherited from my mother.
In the misty darkness overhead I could hear but not see power lines buzzing, set off by the heavy moisture in the air. It was a disturbing sound. I wrapped my jacket across my chest and hurried to the entrance. A man’s figure, silhouetted in the mist by the bright lights behind him, stood at the top of the hospital’s wide cement steps.
“You,” Scott Chatfield said as I trotted up the stairs, “are an angel to come at this hour.” His red hair was slightly disheveled, but a vibrant band of energy glowed around his head and shoulders, signaling to me that he was fully awake and aware, despite the early hour. I’d been well into grade school before I learned that these bands of light weren’t visible to everyone. Sometimes I see colors in the bands, but not this morning.
“Is this business or personal?” I heard the urgency in my own voice. All the way to the hospital I’d been combing my memory for acquaintances we had in common, hoping that tragedy hadn’t struck. Again.
“Business,” he said.
The muscles deep in my chest relaxed.
“Well, thank God for that.”
He realized then that I’d taken his urgent call personally because his mouth dropped open and he slumped apologetically.
“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay.” I was still drinking in the relief.
“I was so absorbed in our little drama here I completely forgot—”
“Don’t worry about it,” I assured him. I genuinely liked Chatfield. It wasn’t his fault that the case that had brought us together had ended so badly. He’d sent me a thoughtful card after McGowan’s death.
“You’re really okay?” His voice was soft, concerned. “I mean, you’re working again and everything?”
“Looks that way. So tell me about this little drama.”
“This is sort of a lame excuse for my being such an abrupt jerk, but I was calling you from a cellular when the press got here. Didn’t want details flying over the airwaves. David’s going to have a tough enough time with damage control as is, without me throwing juicy tidbits to piranha newscasters.”
“Tidbits about what? And who’s David?”
“A lawyer friend of mine with a hell of a case on his hands here. I’d love to help him out, but I can’t take this on now. I’m investigating a homicide up in Barstow. In fact, I’ve got a meeting there this morning.”
“Hence the urgent call to me.”
“Yeah. Also because you’re perfect for this case, which is truly strange. David asked me jokingly if I could refer a psychic detective …” he paused to smile “ … and I said that, as a matter of fact, I could. Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
The glass doors of the lobby slid open as soon as our feet touched the rubber doormat. In my haste to get to the hospital I’d thrown baggy chinos and a roomy tunic over skimpy silk pajamas. The smooth underthings against my skin felt out of place and slightly scandalous.
A news photographer with a Sony television camera perched on his shoulder stood just inside the hospital doors. Tape was rolling on a conversation between a reporter and a uniformed police officer.
“Looks like a feeding frenzy,” I mumbled.
Chatfield didn’t even glance their way as he led me with determined footsteps toward the far side of the lobby where a man in a rumpled trench coat leaned against the wall. The man stood straight as we approached and looked to me hopefully.
“David Skenazy,” he said, extending his hand. “Thanks for coming down.” Skenazy was hovering somewhere around forty but was going for a younger look, his dark brown hair cropped short on the sides, a shank of curls tumbling from the top. He exuded intensity, as if he had enough energy for two people.
“Elizabeth Chase,” I said, returning his firm squeeze.
Chatfield looked at his watch.
“I hate to play matchmaker and run, but I’ve got to hit the road. It’s a three-hour drive and—”
“Go on, get outta here,” Skenazy teased in a Brooklyn accent.
We said our good-byes, and Skenazy and I watched Chatfield exit the lobby doors.
“Now there,” Skenazy said, “goes a seasoned professional. I call him at 3 A.M. and ask if he knows a psychic detective. An hour later I’m standing here talking to one.”
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
Skenazy dropped the getting-acquainted mask and his smile disappeared.
“There was a murder last night at the Mystic Mesa gambling casino. My client was arrested at the scene. He was admitted to this hospital about two hours ago.”
“Your client was injured?”
“Not exactly. At the time of the arrest he was overdosing on tranquilizers. He was completely unconscious when the body was found. The medics managed to revive him in the ambulance. He had the presence of mind to have me called when he got here.”
“The Mystic Mesa Casino is on the Temecu Reservation, isn’t it?”
Skenazy nodded and headed toward the elevator bay.
“That’s got to be an hour away,” I said as I followed behind him. “Why’d they bring him all the way down here?”
David pushed the up button.
“You ever wonder what happens to violent criminals who are too wounded from a day’s work to be taken to jail? Stabbed drug dealers, burned arsonists, bullet-riddled bank robbers?”
“Never really thought about it,” I admitted.
“They end up at hospitals with county contracts to accept custody patients. My client is upstairs being baby-sat by an armed guard.”
“Why the heavy security?”
“The nature of the crime. It was … ugly.”
There was a ding and we looked up, but the elevator was going down.
“Ugly how?” I asked.
Skenazy swiped upward at the hair tumbling onto his forehead.
“He was found unconscious in one of the beds at the Mystic Mesa Hotel. The casino manager was lying in a pool of blood at the foot of the bed. He’d been bludgeoned and scalped.”
It took a moment for the word to sink in.
“Did you say scalped?”
Skenazy nodded.
“The victim died of skull fractures from a blunt instrument—not sure what yet—and the skin and hair on his head were peeled off. Scalped.”
I hadn’t heard the expression since school days. It conjured up dim memories of a history class on the French and Indian War. I vaguely remembered journal entries written by eighteenth-century Europeans, horrific accounts using the term savages instead of Native Americans. Long before I’d ever heard about a thing called “revisionist history.” I stared into Skenazy’s face, trying to imagine who’d do such a thing today.
“You’re going to get a nasty wrinkle between your eyebrows if you keep grimacing that way,” he said.
“This happened at an Indian gambling casino?”
“Yeah. Mystic Mesa, on the Temecu Reservation.”
“Is your client white?”
Skenazy nodded.
“Was the murder victim a Native American?”
He sighed. “Yes, he was.”
I had a fleeting image of a crowd of angry protesters, placards waving.
“Who is this suspect?”
“Bill Hurston, an old client of mine. In spite of how it looks, I really don’t think Bill’s capable of something like this. He’s a medical doctor—or was. I represented him several years ago when he got into trouble selling prescription narcotics under the table. He lost his license, but I managed to keep him out of jail.”
I gave Skenazy a dubious look.
“He was arrested for dealing narcotics? Doesn’t exactly sound like a pristine client.”
There was another elevator bell, and this time the up arrow was lighted. We stepped inside, and Skenazy pushed the eighth-floor button. I felt the ground give way as the elevator swept us upward.
“You’re right,” he continued. “Bill’s not spotless. But I was able to talk with him tonight after they got him stabilized. He says he could never murder anyone, and you know what? My gut says he’s telling the truth. Scott tells me you’re good with this intuition stuff. I’d like to know what you think.”
“Your client was found OD’d in a room with a bloody corpse. What do I think? I think you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
The door opened, and we stepped onto the eighth floor. Skenazy led the way past the nurse’s station and down the gray-flecked linoleum hallway.
“I didn’t mean I want your opinion. I want your, uh, you know—
“My intuitive reading.”
“Yeah. And if your gut tells you the same thing mine does, I’d like you to be my lead investigator.”
The offer didn’t appeal. This was the kind of murder that would inspire a blizzard of publicity and an endless stream of tasteless jokes. I pinched the bridge of my nose and applied steady pressure, a short-term fix for an ache that only caffeine would cure.
“Why don’t you find someone who’s hungry for a sensational gig? There’ve got to be a dozen PIs who’ll jump at this.”
“No doubt. But Scott’s impressed as hell with your work.” He slowed to a stop and turned to face me. “Honestly? This’ll probably be the highest profile case of my career. I want to know what I’m dealing with, A, and I want the best investigator I can get, B. Of course, if it’s too controversial for you—”
“It’s not that it’s too controversial. It’s just that …” I hesitated, trying to think of a diplomatic way to put it.
“Yeah?” he prodded.
“I generally don’t like working for defense attorneys. For the most part, all you guys do is help scum stay afloat. I prefer to catch criminals, not set them free.”
He actually smiled.
“I’ll say this for you, Elizabeth, you’re a straight shooter. But I’m tellin’ you, William Hurston isn’t scum. He’s a medical doctor—”
“An unlicensed medical doctor,” I amended.
“—and a guest of the hotel who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. All I want you to do is look at him. Just one look.”
We resumed walking. At the end of the hall an armed guard sat in a cheap aluminum folding chair, a magazine open across his lap. He looked up as we approached.
“Still sleeping,” he said to Skenazy.
“That’s okay,” he said. “We’re just going to step inside for a minute.”
The man lying on the bed had been handsome at one time, I could see that in his long, elegant nose and angled cheekbones. His fine blonde hair was receding now and streaked with gray, matching his closely trimmed beard. The half-dome of his forehead did not shine under the fluorescent light. His dull skin was just a shade or two deeper than the white pillowcase under his head. Looking at his face, I was overcome with a wearying sadness. My eyes traveled down the arms at his sides and stopped at his hands. His fingers were long and tapering. A healer’s hands.
“Please don’t judge by appearances because he looks like hell right now,” Skenazy said.
I made a shushing sound.
“He can hear you,” I whispered.
“You kidding?” he muttered. “He’s out like a light.”
“Doesn’t matter. If he has a heartbeat, he can hear you.”
Skenazy’s wilting look accused me of being hopelessly New Age.
“You talking about his subconscious mind? Pardon me, but who the hell cares?”
I was about to answer when the patient’s eyes opened.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” Hurston answered, so quietly that I barely heard him.
Skenazy’s mouth dropped open, but he recovered quickly, stepping to his client’s bedside.
“Hey, Bill. Listen, I’d like you to meet Elizabeth Chase. She’s an investigator and … Bill?”
Hurston’s eyes had closed again. Skenazy shook his arm.
“Bill?”
It was no use. This time he was out like a light. Skenazy gave up and rejoined me near the doorway.
“So … any first impressions?”
I looked again at Hurston’s hands. I couldn’t connect them to the murder Skenazy had described. I wondered if physical evidence would back up my hunch. The police would have tested Hurston’s hands for blood traces. If he’d scalped a man, those traces would show. Unless he’d worn gloves.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I won’t know until I talk to him. I’ll have to come back later.”
The guard looked up from the magazine draped across his thighs. He’d been reading an article about lawn care.
“Don’t bother coming here,” he said. “This guy’s due to be transported, soon as he sleeps it off.”
“Transported where?” I asked.
“Downtown Central Jail.”
PISCES RISING. Copyright © 2000 by Martha C. Lawrence. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.