Detective Mason Callahan stared at the severed fingers on the bathroom linoleum.
“What’s the point of trying to hide the corpse’s identity if he’s left in his own house?” Detective Ray Lusco muttered. The burly Oregon State Police detective had been silent for nearly thirty seconds as he took in the scene. A record.
A mutilated body lay in the bloody bathtub. Arcs of blood went up the walls and across the floor. A large rubber mallet had been abandoned on his chest, the dead man’s misshapen skull indicating its use. Most of his teeth had been broken off at the gumline and looked like pieces of shattered porcelain in the drying blood. Two fingers were still attached to his left hand, but the rest were scattered across the floor.
“Looks like someone was interrupted before he could finish the hands,” said Mason. He scowled as he did a quick count. “I only see seven loose fingers.”
Ray winced. “Aw, shit. You don’t think he took one as a souvenir, do you?”
“Might be under the body.”
Both men paused, and Mason steeled his stomach at the mental image of the two of them rolling the body to check. “We’ll wait for the ME.”
The medical examiner can have the honor.
It never got easier. Mason had seen dozens of deaths in his decades of law enforcement, and many had imprinted on his brain and cropped up in the middle of the night, ruining his sleep until he banished the images. He’d learned to compartmentalize his work. This was a job, and he was damned good at it. He was there to help and had to set aside his horror and disgust at what one human would do to another.
Even he hadn’t been safe from a killer’s wrath.
His fingertips traced the lines of rough skin around his neck. Eight months ago someone from his past had tried to hang him, fully intent on a murder of vengeance. If Ava hadn’t shown up when she had . . .
He abruptly inhaled through his nose, fighting back his gag reflex, using the scent of the death in front of him to push away the memory.
The home sat on a small lot in a tiny town just outside the Portland suburbs. A local patrolman had responded when a neighbor noticed a broken window in the back of the house and saw blood on the kitchen floor. The town’s police chief had taken one look at the gory scene and requested the Oregon State Police’s help. The town of three thousand hadn’t had a murder in more than a decade.
“Reuben Braswell. Age fifty-two. Not married. Appears to live here alone,” Ray stated, checking the notes on his phone. He pointed at the pile of bloody clothing tossed by the toilet. “His wallet and driver’s license were in his pants pocket. He matches the photo and stats.”
“What’s the tattoo say?” An American flag covered half of the victim’s arm, but Mason couldn’t make out the words below the flag.
“‘We the people.’”
“What about the tiny print?”
“The words of the Second Amendment.”
“Some people have strong feelings about it.” Mason didn’t have a problem with the Second Amendment, but he wasn’t about to tattoo it on his body. “Any other tattoos?”
“Only if they’re on his back. The ME can check.”
“Was he ever married?” asked Mason.
“Doesn’t look like it. I don’t know how he got to that age without getting married,” Ray said. “Wonder what was wrong with him.”
“Maybe he simply didn’t want to be married. Doesn’t mean there’s a problem.” The marriage discussion wasn’t a new one. He and Ray had broached it several times. The other detective swore marriage was the best thing that had ever happened to him and had a storybook home life. Gorgeous wife. Two great kids. Perfect home. Mason had hidden his jealousy for years. His own marriage had imploded long before.
His situation was about to change. For the better. Much better, thanks to Ava.
“It doesn’t make se—”
Mason cut Ray off. “It’s not for everyone. What’s he do for work?” he asked to redirect his partner’s train of thought.
“Works at the local Home Depot. Eight years.” Ray looked up. “I wouldn’t mind working there after I retire. I already know what’s on every aisle.”
Mason nodded, knowing they shared a fascination with the store. Between the two of them, they had enough tools to stock a new one. But he had no desire to ever work in retail.
“Parents deceased. We’re trying to find the brother and sister.”
“Let’s walk the rest of the house.”
The crime scene tech had stood patiently in the doorway as the two detectives looked their fill, but Mason felt the impatience rolling off the tall, thin man, who shifted from foot to foot. Mason nodded as they passed, seeing relief cross the tech’s face that they were leaving his crime scene.
“Are you caught up on this season of Queer Eye?” Ray asked as they moved down a hallway, walking tight to the walls to avoid stepping in a wide, smeared blood trail but not close enough to knock the old photos off the wall. Mason paused at a black-and-white photo of young boys in cowboy hats sitting on a pony. He owned a nearly identical one of him and his brother. Probably every family of his generation had one.
Ray continued talking. “The last episode is a real tearjerker.”
“Ava had the show on the other night.” Mason had stealthily watched from behind the safety of a book, pretending to read instead of watch the emotional makeover show. “I think she watched that one.” As if he could forget. He’d held his face completely stiff to fight back tears as the five costars had kindly rebuilt the self-confidence of a man his own age.
Fifty wasn’t far ahead in Mason’s future. A humbling number that didn’t match how he felt on the inside.
“Yeah, I already texted with her about it.” Ray sighed. “Fucking brutal show.”
It was normal that Mason’s fiancée texted with his partner. When Mason couldn’t help her choose between roses or peonies for their wedding flowers, Ray was stoked to share his opinion. Same with discussions about women’s boots or the latest rom-com. Mason appreciated their friendship.
The men halted at the kitchen entrance, the origin of the smeared blood trail before them.
Mason looked up. More arcs of blood streaked the ceiling and one wall. The kitchen’s tired wood floor was marbled with smears and small pools of blood.
“Guess the rubber mallet damage wasn’t sufficient in here,” said Ray. “He used it again in the bathroom.”
Or he simply felt like it.
Mason could almost feel physical echoes of rage in the room. He wondered what the mallet hitting the skull had sounded like and fought back a shudder.
He spotted the broken window not far from the back door and stepped carefully around the blood, the booties covering his cowboy boots muffling the usually sharp sounds of his tread.
“Glass pieces are outside,” Ray said.
“The break wasn’t from someone trying to get in.” Mason pointed at the arcs of blood near the window. “I think someone hit it with the mallet. Could have been accidental. Maybe not.”
“I can’t think of a reason to break the window from the inside,” Ray said.
Mason agreed. Why break the window when you could unlock the door to get out?
He opened the door, which led to a small concrete patio. A large grill stood in one corner, and the faint odor of char and barbecue reached him. He inhaled deeply, hoping the smell could drive away the scent of death. The June afternoon was hot, creeping into the high nineties. Unusual for this early in the summer. The small patch of lawn had more dry, brown areas than green, and a weathered gray fence surrounded the small backyard, hiding it from the adjacent homes.
“How’d the neighbor spot the broken window?” asked Ray.
“I’d like to know too.” Someone would have to deliberately peer over the tall fence to see the backside of the home. Mason had asked an officer to bring the neighbor back for an interview.
“Mason, Ray.” Medical examiner Dr. Gianna Trask stood in the doorway behind them. “They told me you were here.”
Both detectives had worked with the ME before. Her husband was the brother of investigative journalist Michael Brody. Mason didn’t know how to label his testy relationship with Brody. Not friendship. Not acquaintanceship. What do you call having a mutual respect but high suspicion of each other? The reporter would be at Mason and Ava’s wedding. Along with Gianna and her husband.
Hands were shaken, greetings exchanged.
“I haven’t looked at the body yet,” Dr. Trask said. “But judging by the green face of the patrolman who let me in and the mess in the kitchen, it’s a bad one.” Her voice was light, but her dark eyes were grim.
“Keep an eye out for a missing finger,” Ray said.
One of her eyebrows shot up. “Noted.” She stepped back inside, leaving the door open a crack.
“Back to work,” said Ray. “More house to cover.”
Mason sucked in a last inhalation of the faint barbecue scent, wishing he could make it last.
FBI special agent Ava McLane downed the last of her coffee and put the mug in the dishwasher, the new appliance triggering a smile. When do I stop feeling giddy about appliances? The stainless-steel dishwasher matched her new six-burner stove and wide commercial refrigerator. She and Mason had been without a kitchen for nearly four months as contractors ripped out the 1980s-style kitchen and then discovered problem after problem. The plumbing. The electrical. The dry rot.