They found another body in the woods near Pope’s Head Creek on Friday. A man walking his dog before dawn discovered it hanging upside down from a tree, trussed up by the ankles, throat a ruin of slashes. But there was no blood.
Uniformed police arrived first and strung police tape from one tree to the next in a wide circle around the scene, enclosing it. After them, the plain clothes detectives and forensic investigators put in an appearance.
By then, the word had spread to onlookers, who happened upon the scene by chance, or heard about it from other early arrivals. People trickled through the forest in pairs or by themselves, following the buzz of whispered conversation. They lurked in the foliage, too far from the action to take pictures. Most of them pocketed their phones as police circled the perimeter, threatening to arrest the shutterbugs. Inch by inch, a cadre of uniformed officers worked to shepherd the crowd further from the scene, despite the staggered rows of trees that made it difficult to account for everyone.
By the time Mario Lucado arrived, an ambulance already waited on the nearest stretch of dirt road, blocking any other cars from maneuvering through the area. Red and white lights strobed the forest, forcing onlookers to squint and avert their eyes.
Lucado parked his own car in the grass beside a growing collection of other nosy new arrivals. Taking his time, he picked his way through the brambles and carpet of leaves, making steady progress towards those strobing lights. When he got close enough to have an only partially obscured view of the crime scene, he halted for a rest. With relief, he propped himself against a tree trunk and massaged his knee. He could glimpse the scene from a short distance, just between some taped off trees and beyond a thick tangle of shrubs.
A few other wide-eyed spectators loitered nearby, watching and whispering.
“How many does this make?”
“Five in as many weeks.”
“Dude must be some kind of monster.”
Though he listened, his eyes never left the crime scene. Lucado scrutinized the uniformed police that milled about as if they had no idea what to do. One detective gestured with a smoldering cigarette between different spots on the ground that Lucado couldn’t see from his vantage point. He couldn’t hear the cops, only the other inquisitive people hovering nearby.
“What does the killer do with their blood?”
Lucado stabbed the end of his cane into the soft, wet earth, making it stand of its own accord. He’d heard enough. No one nearby knew any more about what had happened than Lucado did. Only the police, and they weren’t letting anyone near enough to spy on them, much less inspect the victim’s body.
Lucado followed every news story about the killings. He helped himself to every scrap of public knowledge about the previous victims. Four so far over the past month, all strung up in their underwear with no identification on them. This made a fifth. Every time, they were found with the blood drained, but this was the first scene Lucado had been able to visit in person. He barely glimpsed the corpse, already lowered from the tree and laid out on the ground where detectives could examine it more closely.
As an hour or two slipped by, some onlookers grew bored and left. By then, though, the word had spread and more arrived to take their place. Some stayed only minutes; others, like Lucado, remained for the duration, craning their necks and giving live updates over their phones. Even the news crews breezing in were kept at arm’s length by the police.
Lucado made little effort to sidle closer and get a better look. That was a young man’s game, and his hobbled knee couldn’t jostle with such competition, especially since the uniformed police rebuffed their efforts at every turn. Instead, he listened for the most curious among them, above all the journalists, to repeat snatches of conversation they’d overheard from the investigators. One name, invoked several times, was that of the lead homicide detective, a man named Kolka. Lucado thought he saw him through gaps in the undergrowth.
A brief, piercing chirp from the siren warned everyone that the ambulance had arrived. Gravel crunched beneath the ambulance’s wheels as it eased past the clutch of civilian vehicles parked in the grass on either side of the road.
On the scene, police shut off lights and packed up their camera gear. Two EMTs spread an open body bag on the ground, hoisted the corpse into it, and zipped it shut. They lifted the bag onto a gurney and wheeled it towards the waiting ambulance. Police officers cleared the path of reporters and made sure no one else got too close.
The sun had risen high enough to glint through the leaves, though it remained gloomy beneath the spreading canopy. One after another, cops left the scene carrying banker’s boxes full of sealed evidence bags, until nothing was left but trailing police tape. The crowd of onlookers began dispersing.
Lucado retrieved his cane and hobbled after the ambulance, still idling in the road not far from where his car was parked. He moved slowly, leg complaining with every step. His stiff knee ached as it struggled to flex. The old wound always pained him in the mornings, but he could survive a ten minute walk back to his car.
Lucado eased himself behind the driver’s seat of his aging Honda Civic with a grateful sigh. His leg throbbed painfully, and for half a moment, he considered driving back to his motel room. But he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this. The view at the crime scene wasn’t much, just enough to confirm second hand rumors and reports. Lucado needed a closer look at the body. He doubted that he’d have another chance.
A line of slow moving cars proceeded along a succession of single lane blacktop roads that cut through the wooded hinterland, flanked by leaf-choked ditches. Some cars turned off into sleepy suburban neighborhoods, locals who just happened to be in nearby parks when the morning’s commotion began. Some cars ahead of the ambulance pulled halfway onto grassy shoulders, slowing to let it pass even though it didn’t have its lights on. Those people had been at the crime scene too; they knew where it came from, and what it carried. Lucado followed at a distance, well behind the ambulance, but never losing sight of it.
Soon the motorcade of the macabre reached wider, more trafficked roads, and quickly dissolved. Some joined the heavier traffic heading towards Arlington and Alexandria while others opted for more distant suburbs. A few disappeared down side streets. The flow of traffic consumed them. Lucado kept following the ambulance.
The leisurely chase finally terminated at a hospital. Unsurprised, Lucado drove past the back lot where the ambulance pulled off and found a handicapped parking space out front. He elbowed the car door open and climbed out, ignoring the painful twinge in his knee.
At that time of morning, the lobby was quiet. Not many sick people waited to be seen, none of them in immediate distress. They kept to themselves. For the moment, even the nurse’s station stood empty. Lucado limped toward the door, leaned into the handle, and pulled it open.
On the other side, another nurse’s station guarded a branching hallway. Rooms opened off the halls in either direction, but Lucado didn’t need any rooms. He needed the elevator.
A nurse stood at her station, leaning against the countertop with weary, disheveled hair and dark circles beneath her eyes. She scribbled on a patient’s chart, glancing up at Lucado only briefly. He offered a courteous smile as he appraised her.
To him, she looked like a woman near the end of a long, exhausting shift, and he doubted she had the energy to question him. He chose a hallway at random and limped past her. Sure enough, she ignored him, too intent on her own business to bother.
After rounding a corner, the hallway started looping back towards the branch Lucado hadn’t taken. It undoubtedly formed a square, a hospital block full of patient care rooms, small labs, and bathrooms. He pushed through a pair of double doors and found a bank of elevators opposite a hallway leading to the operating rooms.
He pressed the call button, waited, watching from the corner of his eye as another busy nurse breezed past. Unquestioned, he made it into the elevator when one arrived, and stabbed his thumb into the button for the basement. The doors slid closed, and Lucado felt the whir of machinery and a brief touch of vertigo as the lift descended.
It opened onto a hallway not unlike the one he’d just left behind. Here, though, there were no recovery rooms, only surgical theaters, CAT scans, and best of all, unguarded supply closets. With a white lab coat over his trousers and rumpled shirt, he could at least look the part of a consultant.
Arrows on the wall marked the way toward different sections of the hospital. Radiology, diagnostics, maintenance, loading dock. Lucado followed the arrows pointing toward pathology. Other people went about their business in the basement, but none of them paid him any attention.
After a few minutes of searching, he found the morgue behind a blank wooden door marked only with a room number. His shoes clapped against the tile floor as he entered. Along one wall, six huge metal drawers took up most of the space. Half of them were marked as occupied, but Lucado didn’t need a closer look at their contents. One corpse already lay bare on the stainless steel table in the center of the room. A gurney had been pushed against the wall.
Other than that, Lucado had the place to himself. He glanced around, just to be sure. Hairs rose along the back of his neck. He could hear the muffled sound of music coming from a radio in some adjoining room. The medical examiner on a break, perhaps.
The man on the table stared at the ceiling with empty eyes. Dark, tight curls of hair on his chest and arms stood out in stark contrast to the pale, pasty flesh. No autopsy would be needed, Lucado could tell at a glance. The man’s head had been a quarter of the way hacked off. Three deep, sure slashes laid his throat open.
A toe tag dangled from one foot, and Lucado stole a quick glance, just to confirm what he already knew. It gave the date, the name John Doe, and listed the location as Pope’s Head Creek, along with a mile marker. His new friend was the same body he’d glimpsed EMTs loading onto the ambulance.
Lucado bent closer, clasping his hands behind his back. He looked for tooth marks, but though the slashes were grouped close together, they looked pretty clean. It looked passionless, nothing like the chewed ruin he remembered from his wife’s death. He figured the man’s killer must have the steady hands of a surgeon.
There was staining around the wound where the blood rushed out, a few drops beneath the chin. Nothing more. Lucado pictured the body suspended, the killer lifting the head by the hair as the blood spurted freely into some receptacle. In Lucado’s imagination, he saw a metal washbasin, filling up gradually with steaming, thick blood.
He straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow, waiting for a wave of nausea to pass. What kind of sick human being would want so much blood? What would they do with it?
His wife had been left broken and bloodless as well, but Lucado knew exactly what had happened to her.
Behind him, the unmarked door opened. A young man walked in carrying a clipboard and a cup of coffee, stopping short when he saw Lucado. For a moment, he just looked confused, but the guilt must have been written on Lucado’s face.
“You’re not a medical examiner. What are you doing in here?”
Lucado tried to recover his composure. He limped toward the man, cane carried in the crook of his arm, as he snapped off the blue latex exam gloves, one after another. They were still clean, but gave a nice touch of authenticity to Lucado’s costume. Without a word, he tossed the gloves in the trash can by the door and pushed past the bewildered morgue attendant.
The loading dock was closest, so Lucado headed in that direction. After a couple of moments, the attendant followed him out, empty handed now, and frowning. Lucado glanced over his shoulder but kept walking. The attendant turned down a different hallway, vanishing from sight, allowing Lucado a sigh of relief.
It didn’t last long.
Just as he reached the loading dock, ignoring harried workers carrying plastic crates full of pharmaceuticals, a couple of security guards materialized near a different door. They spotted him at once, conferred for only a second, then moved to cut off his escape.
“Excuse me, sir,” one of them said, blocking Lucado’s route. The other guard took up a position at his elbow.
Lucado leaned heavily on his cane, playing the part of the confused and doddering old man, hoping he could get off with a warning if he earned a little sympathy. “Mm? Yes?”
“We need you to come with us, please, sir.”
Lucado hung his head. “Damn.”