She's a screamer all right—and not in a good way.
Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade reluctantly looked from the cracked screen of his mobile to the screaming woman across the street. As she knelt in front of the River Mills apartment building, the woman's traditional hijab spilled over the sidewalk like a pool of oil. In the coming nightfall, her huddled form blended in with the growing shadows even as she keened like a banshee. Rocking back and forth, oblivious to the well-meaning crowd of family and friends who surrounded her, Merna Yasrey pressed the palms of her hands against the sides of her head as if she could squeeze from her mind what was happening before her eyes.
Can't really blame her, Lestrade mused. I might do the same if I just learned my daughter had been murdered.
This wasn't the first time grieving family members had unexpectedly shown up at a murder scene. He'd probably have it happen again soon the rate his caseload was growing. But the more he tried to block out the woman's sobbing, the more the plaintive sound cut the cool evening air. Lestrade finished sending his text before gesturing Detective Sergeant Sally Donovan to his side.
"Tell me again how the mother found out?"
Donovan's dark hair waved down her back as she shook her head in disgust. "The man who discovered the body knew the girl's family. He called them right after he called us. I would like to give him bloody hell."
Lestrade sighed. "Nothing we can do about that now. What else do we know besides her name and age?"
"Didn't get a lot from mum, not in the shape she's in, but her uncle had a lot to say." Donovan scanned her notes. "Sixth form. No boyfriend. Three younger brothers. Mum works in an accounting office, dad died last year of a heart attack. Family emigrated from Egypt ten years ago."
She snapped her notebook shut. "According to the uncle, Akila was a good girl. Never had a spot of trouble with her."
"Did Anderson find her mobile?"
"No, just her school ID. Her uncle said she had one, though."
Lestrade rubbed his chin, aware that this much five o'clock stubble made him appear more haggard than attractive. And he felt every inch of exhausted. "Check her school to see if she was seen leaving with anyone. And get the CCTV."
It was worth a try. Maybe he would get lucky. Maybe someone saw the girl walk off with the person who ended her life so brutally and could identify him straightaway.
Narrowing his eyes, he watched Anderson and the SOCO team swarm the parking lot and rusted rubbish skip where the body had been found like ants on spilled sugar. Lestrade knew his men were good, but they weren't the very best.
And he needed the very best working this case.
Donovan loudly cleared her throat. "You've sent for The Freak, haven't you?"
She routinely questioned his judgment regarding Sherlock Holmes' involvement in official police inquiries, and he usually ignored her. But this time was altogether different. The stakes were too high.
Lestrade stood nose to nose with the junior officer. "That's not your call to make, is it? We didn't get anything from the other scenes—I need physical evidence from this one. If that means bringing him in, so be it."
Donovan refused to lower her eyes, and Lestrade wasn't through yet.
"You saw that black ribbon tied on her wrist, just like it was on the others. We've got a serial killer, now don't we? And from the looks of it, he's going to be off-the-charts bloody insane. Do you want to be the one to tell the mums of future victims we could've prevented their murders if we'd only consulted Sherlock Holmes? Because there will be more victims."
"Yes, sir," Donovan grumbled.
Lestrade broke his glare when Mrs. Yasrey's wailing rose in volume. "And for God's sake, can someone go see to that poor woman?"
"Yes, sir." Donovan waved the officers on crowd control in the mother's direction, but the sobs didn't stop.
Lestrade grimaced. He knew she wasn't done screaming yet.
"A serial killer's obviously at work, and you just now are bringing me in?"
Sherlock Holmes let the question hang in the air as he brushed past the detective inspector and strode toward the crime scene.
"You couldn't have prevented this murder." John Watson walked at Sherlock's side. "Greg said the victims have nothing connecting them."
"That he knows of," Sherlock muttered none too quietly.
"Shut up, Sherlock," Lestrade said.
Sherlock observed John sneak a glance at Lestrade's ashen features as the trio strode toward the cordoned-off area. He probably thinks Lestrade's ill, but he only has worked himself into an emotional state of agitation. He normally remains detached at crime scenes. There must be something particular disturbing him about this case.
John was like a dog with a bone. "You can't think you could've saved this girl."
"I don't think that at all," Sherlock said. "All I meant was if Lestrade had told me about the other killings when they happened, I wouldn't have been so bored this week."
He recognized the silence that followed. It meant he had said something "not good," something that would have made Molly tug on his sleeve and John pinch the bridge of his nose, much like he was doing now.
Lestrade stopped midstride. "Do me a favor, yeah? Don't tell the grieving mom that her daughter's murder is a source of entertainment for you, yeah?"
It was nearly pitch dark when they reached the body.
"Not so fast, Freak." Donovan handed him a pair of booties to slip over his well-polished leather shoes.
"I never wear—"
"You do today," Lestrade growled dangerously.
Lights brought in to illuminate the area switched on as Sherlock and John bent over the girl's lifeless body. Sherlock noted that her school uniform was soiled with blood, but the ground beneath her body wasn't. John focused on the black ribbon tied in an elaborate bow on her left wrist and the large "X" carved into the back of her hand.
"These cuts on her neck are jagged, uneven, on both sides of her neck and the front and the back." Sherlock quickly took out his magnifying glass. "There's glass imbedded in them. Tiny fragments but still there."
"This wasn't an ordinary knife," Anderson commented as he approached. "Certainly not the same one that cut the 'X' on her hand."
"It wasn't a knife at all," Sherlock replied.
"What type of weapon would do this?" John tried to remain professional as he turned his attention to the wounds, but his horror was on full display. "She's practically decapitated."
"What have you found, Anderson?" Sherlock said with no hint of sarcasm.
"Cause of death . . . well, she bled out, didn't she? No apparent sexual assault, but we'll have to wait for the autopsy to be sure. We'll go over her book bag and clothes for trace evidence. There's some glass on the ground but no other evidence. As for the skip, it's half full, mainly with the contents of someone's flat."
Sherlock furrowed his brow. "What exactly?"
"An old mattress, a chair, a large picture frame, an area rug."
"Let me see the frame."
One of Anderson's colleagues retrieved a large, rectangular frame, ornate in design and nearly two feet long.
Sherlock looked it over once. "It's not a frame. See the pieces of glass remaining in the corners here and here? They are coated with a reflective substance, most likely nontoxic silver or aluminum. This was a mirror. This is the murder weapon."
John gaped at him. "How?"
"The killer smashed it over her head, shattering the glass, then moved it back and forth like so." Sherlock slipped the empty frame over John's head and moved it side to side to demonstrate. "It explains how shards of glass ripped open her neck on all sides. No doubt the slivers of glass in her cuts will have traces of the same reflective coating."
"Bag the frame," Lestrade barked at Anderson. "Search the skip again."
"Wouldn't someone have heard her scream if she was killed here?" John asked.
"Where's the blood? Where's all the glass from the mirror?" Sherlock replied. "She wasn't killed here."
"I know she wasn't killed here. This is where she was dumped." Lestrade flushed red to the roots of his salt-and-pepper hair.
"Of course you know that." John eyed the DI carefully.
"Donovan is rounding up surveillance footage," Lestrade said roughly. "Hopefully we'll have an image of the bastard that brought Akila here."
John watched as the body bag was zipped closed. "Smashing a mirror over her head? It's so savage. Why carve an X on her hand and tie a black ribbon around her wrist? That's . . . that's . . ."
"Crazy," Anderson finished for him.
"The black ribbon and the X are the killer's signature," Lestrade said. "We found them on Pete Marchand, the first victim, and on Theresa McKeon."
Sherlock thoughtfully tapped his pointer fingers to his chin. "How were they murdered?"
Lestrade turned toward the street. "Let's go to my office."
If John had thought the murderer was crazy before, the crime scene photos of the other victims confirmed it. Sherlock paced behind where John stood in front of Lestrade's desk, staring at the digital photos in front of him.
"I . . . don't understand this," John murmured.
Pete Marchand, thirty years old and as burly as a rugby player, wore unflattering khaki walking shorts that were a size too small and an argyle sweater vest in pastels over a white polo shirt. On his left wrist was a black bow and the distinctive X was carved into the back of his hand. A heavy rope was wound tightly around his bare feet and ankles.
"Cause of death?" Sherlock asked not breaking stride.
"He was strangled with that same rope. Toxicology shows he was sedated. Someone of his size would have put up a good fight otherwise." Lestrade leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
"Where was he found?"
"Outside of a playground very early Monday morning. Luckily the park was empty and no kids were around."
The consulting detective paused. "Why would that have mattered?"
Lestrade didn't even acknowledge the question. "He was a bartender. Single, no kids. A cousin made the identification. From all accounts, he was a very friendly bloke."
Sherlock resumed pacing. "His clothes are all wrong. Wrong for the time of year, wrong for a grown man of his size and occupation."
John nodded rapidly. "Yes, I see what you mean."
"We showed the clothes to his cousin. He said there was no way Pete would ever wear something like that," Lestrade said.
"So . . . the killer's dressing them up?" The doctor pushed the photos away in disgust.
"When I got the case, I thought it could be some kind of fetish thing, you know? Role-playing and the like gone wrong. But then we found Theresa." Sliding a manila file across his desk toward Sherlock, Lestrade stood and gazed out of his office into the bullpen. "Theresa McKeon. She was twenty-four, a drug addict and prostitute. She was found on the bank of the Thames on Wednesday afternoon."
"Good God." John thumbed through the photos as Sherlock handed them to him.
Theresa wore a modest white nightgown that matched the color of her unearthly pale skin. Her strawberry blonde hair had been cut off unevenly in chunks. Again, the black bow and X adorned her left hand.
"Is the white substance on her skin paint then?" Sherlock asked.
Lestrade didn't turn around. "She was covered in it. And before you ask, the cause of death was a stab wound to the heart. Like Akila, she wasn't killed where she was found, but SOCO located a book in the vicinity of the body. It was Tess of the d'Urbervilles."
"This just gets stranger," John said.
Sherlock stared intently at the ceiling. "The killer lures them somewhere he can kill them and change their clothes without risking being discovered. It was somewhere a grown man, a prostitute, and a schoolgirl would have felt safe going to. Three seemingly unrelated victims, three different causes of death, three dump sites. And no apparent motive."
"He's a bloody psychopath," John exclaimed. "He doesn't need a motive."
Lestrade shook his head and walked back to his desk. "We thought there was a connection between Pete and Theresa because she may have gone into his pub, but now with Akila . . . we're back to square one."
"Why haven't I read about any of this is the paper?" John scratched his head.
"We've kept the details out of the press, and they don't seem too interested in the murder of a hooker or a bartender. But the murder of a schoolgirl? They will be all over it." Lestrade turned to lock eyes with the consulting detective. "Today is Friday. If the pattern holds, we'll have another victim on Sunday. We have to hurry. The murders are random, and we have no idea who he will target next."
Sherlock pressed his lips into a thin smile. "I do love a good mystery."