Stargazer

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Chapter 23 A Rising Body Count

Lewis was dreaming again. He knew he was of course, but knowing this couldn’t prevent him experiencing the attached emotions. But this time, the background current of fear and desperation seemed strangely absent at first.

When Marcella turned to back to him in the car, her face was no longer mangled. Instead she was smiling back at him, the evening sun lighting up her face through the wind screen. She was trying to mouth something at him, as if he were deaf and he should try and lip read her.

The dream would quickly switch to McEvoy, lying sitting against the apartment wall, bleeding from his gunshot wounds. He was smiling too now with his head turned to the bedside locker. The smell of acrid smoke would suddenly become strong and he would sense the deadly warmth of flames licking at his feet.

Now Marcella was lying there instead of McEvoy, the right side of her face now mangled again, her right eye missing. She was frantically trying to mouth the word now, one single word, over and over, but he just could not understand it.

Dread would seep into him and then he would wake up, trembling, drenched in sweat. When Ware visited him, the first thing that struck Lewis was that it wasn’t over, that he was still out there. Why else would Ware visit him, why else would Ware have that look of perpetual concern on his face. He had asked Lewis if he knew who he was and where he was, but then some words he used Lewis didn’t recognise. More and more now, Lewis could make sense of persons speaking to him, the words used, but his own ability to vocalise back was totally stunted. He needed some sort of rudimentary way of communicating, and he had an idea. He still had good use of his left hand, and now everyone seemed to have one. He used to have one and had gotten it begrudgingly; a cell phone with text function.

.........

Tuesday 8th August

10am

Ware was sitting in the FBI office in Columbus on Nationwide Boulevard. Petronal, their chief lab technician in Quantico had left a number to contact him at this morning. He dialled the number without too much expectation. The remains of the contents of McEvoy’s apartment had been mostly ash. What had been recovered were a partially burnt stack of A4 notebooks and in addition, some copies of Columbus PD files, as well as a .38 which was linked to 6 murders in November of ’98. Petronal picked up after a couple of rings.

“Hey Ed, thanks for getting back to me. Don’t get too excited, not sure if any of this helps you but let’s see”

Petronal was one of his favorite colleagues at Quantico, always willing to chase down the most minor of details and in this case, effectively try and put together a 100,000 piece jigsaw puzzle which was mostly charred paper and ash. The other aspect he liked was Petronal’s willingness to read around the specimens handed to him, usually he requested the case notes on anything he was asked to analyse. Ware thanked him anyway and told him to proceed.

“Everything I have I can email the images on to you, so here goes. We got a total of 5 partially recovered blue A4 notebooks, a separate folder of what looks like a composite of Columbus PD files on your original investigation in November’98. All seem to pertain to the investigation around your Stargazer killer, and none on the investigation into those murders that Lewis was serving the warrant on McEvoy. Draw your own conclusions there, but my guess is that McEvoy wasn’t aware he was about to be arrested when Lewis confronted him. The .38 used is a match for those gun murders, very high probability it was the one used in all six. There is minor fire damage to much of the notebooks, which were stored in a small wardrobe in the apartment. We got only McEvoy’s prints matched to them, but Lewis’s prints are on the Columbus PD items as well. Four of the notebooks are fairly well preserved as I’ve said, the fifth was recovered from beside a bedside locker on the floor. It has been extensively damaged, but looking at the other four which had dated entries, this might either be the first or more likely the last in a series. I’ll mail on the images of the recurring words and phrases used in what we recovered, and the images of the charred words and partial words we recovered in the most badly damaged ones. There is significant crossover and repetition in the four well preserved ones. There are a total of 490 images here so I’m going to pare that down a little and ask you to pay particular attention to images # 492, #493 and # 494. All I’ll say is those were never found in the 4 preserved ones at any stage, I don’t want to influence your thoughts on them anymore than that”.

Ware thanked him again and hung up as his cellphone began to ring. He was intrigued by Petronal’s coyness. Clearly he was suggesting something.

The voice at the other end of his cell identified himself as the Sheriff of Stark County in Northeastern Ohio.

“Special Agent Ware?” he asked. “Are you handling that missing boy case from Medina?”. Ware hesitated. Technically speaking he wasn’t, but he had an interest. A keen interest. “That’s right, I’m involved in a manner of speaking” he replied.

“Well, I’ve got some news for you. I’ve been on to Sheriff Purtens there and I may have some more business for you. We’ve got two missing black boys here too now. Disappeared Saturday, never came back from the park. We did a search of their last known whereabouts and well...”

The sheriff tailed off before restarting again. “Well, we did a search and it’s probably nothing, but we found a painting of a star on an old abandoned barn nearby where they would cycle home from”.

Ware’s heart dropped into his stomach. “What kind of star sheriff?”. There was a moment of muffled talking on the line as he heard the sheriff quiz someone nearby about it.

“My deputy tells me it was a Jewish star with a crude eye in the middle, all painted big like”

Here we go thought Ware. No doubt now. But what of the eye in the middle?

“You said an eye in the middle Sheriff?”. Ware wanted details where there was probably none.

There was more muffled talk before the Sheriff came back to him.

“Well now sir, my deputy tells me whoever painted it was no artist but that’s what it looked like. And it was painted big all over the inside of the barn, the size of a tall man. We got pictures and all. And we were real careful. I’ve been on to Sheriff Purtens there in Medina. He filled me in”

Ware knew this was what was needed in Quantico now to really commit. He’d be heading a minimum 5 Agent manhunt within the hour. No need for hush hush anymore to spare Columbus PD blushes, in particular Spietz’s. He’d already fielded an angry phone call from him yesterday over the news piece on tv.

“One more thing, Sheriff. Red paint, am I right?” Ware asked.

The sheriff replied almost instantly. “That’s right sir. And don’t go just yet. I’m not quite finished”

Ware could hear the shuffling of papers in the background.

“See I know for a fact we got another one too. I’m friendly with Sheriff Nurak there in Holmes County outta Millersburg. He came to me last week with a strange one too. Dead woman found off the interstate on a tertiary side road. Been missing a few days. She was found bludgeoned to death, toxicology positive for opioids, but definitely murdered”

Ware wondered where this was going. Stargazer wasn’t one for random murders, Cinncinati had taught him that.

The sheriff continued. “So he found one of the very same stars painted on an overpass concrete divider near the body. Now this lady went missing with an infant. 13 month old. And there’s no sign of the child.” Ware suddenly felt like he might get sick. The eye in the center.

He needed to contact the bosses quickly in Quantico. He needed all available manpower on this now and way more media exposure. The killer was trying to message them now, play with them, a catch me if you can scenario. And by Ware’s calculation, he had three more victims to abduct and kill before summers end. They needed to put the entire state on high alert. But most depressingly of all, they needed a suspect, something, a photo fit image. And there was currently only one man alive he could think of that might have seen their killer, Lewis.

........

Christ that was some weekend he’d put in. An average of six admissions each day and as many referrals bounced back to the ED each day too. And now he was on call again. Dr Hazim Murtaz put his cellphone in his suit pocket and exited out of the Unit. It was now almost 10:30pm and he had finally escaped two back to back meetings on new Sepsis protocols. He called the elevator and realised quickly it was out of order. Strange he thought, he’d been in Grant’s almost 10 years now and never ever experienced that before? Murtaz went to the Stairs exit. His car was four floors below but at least it was downstairs, not up. The stairwell was deserted, all shift hand overs well and truly finished, those lucky enough to be going home already there now. He began the climb down the stairs and by the last set of steps the man came into his line of sight. He was tall, easily 6’2, mid 30’s , tight red brown curly hairs, his skin almost alabaster pale, piercing green-blue eyes. But what was most strikingly were the patches of vitiligo spread over his face and neck. He was wearing a pale cream hoodie with a small logo on the breast Murtaz didn’t recognise initially until he glanced again and read it as NASA. The hoodie was stretched a little at the front from something heavy in the hoodie pocket. His jeans were a pale blue. The entire appearance was almost ghostly. Murtaz went go past him to the door when the man stopped him gently.

“Dr Murtaz?” he growled.

“That’s correct” Murtaz replied.

“Do you want to live?” the man replied.

It was said in an almost friendly tone which caught Murtaz off guard.

“Excuse me?” Murtaz tried again to move to the door.

The man stepped to obstruct him now and removed a large hand gun from his hoodie front pocket. Both hands were wearing a full glove, cream in color. He was staring directly into Murtaz’s eyes now. Murtaz needed only a moment looking in those eyes to realise that he would not survive this encounter unless he escaped out of this stairwell. There was no suggestion in those eyes that he would be spared. No attempt had been made by his assailant to cover his identity. He was wearing gloves in summer.

“Look, if it’s money you’re looking for, my wallet is in my car. I’ve $300 in cash and an expensive watch. But they are in my car” Murtaz offered.

He tried hard to keep his voice from wavering, tried his best to sound in control. The man threw back his head and laughed softly before staring back again at him, smiling.

“Sure, why not. Maybe I’ll take your car too”. He motioned Murtaz to the door with the gun. “Lead the way. No distractions”.

Murtaz’s Mercedes was near the combined Exit for the elevators and the stairs. This was a perk of the job he’d gotten as Chair of the Critical Care Division, a parking space right beside the Western Staff entrance/exit. He pressed the central locking mechanism on his key as the alarm bleeped it’s familiar double bleep.

“Other side. Drivers side” his assailant snapped.

Murtaz had hoped to get to the glove box from the passenger side. He did indeed have $300 in cash there. And he did indeed have a Rolex in there. But he also had his snub nosed .38. And now he couldn’t get to it, his only chance of survival in his control taken from him. He sat into his car and the robber sat into the passenger side. He pointed the gun at Murtaz and ordered him to drive to Franklinton.

“This is very simple. You answer my questions, you don’t ask me any questions. You do this truthfully, you live. I’m interested in what’s in your glovebox all right, but that’s not what this is all about.” His assailant’s tone was almost monotone, robotic.

Murtaz was frozen now, fear he had been suppressing beginning to bubble to the surface. The man looked in the mirrors and suddenly grabbed the right side of Murtaz’s neck violently, with almost an impossibly big hand. “Drive” he hissed loudly. Murtaz snapped out of his panic, and began to reverse out.

They drove in total silence for what seemed to Murtaz an age, with his driving companion ordering a left here, a right there, the cityscape passing by until the streets got less and less well lit. Murtaz knew he was driving into the projects, he knew he was going to be executed. Whatever all this was about, it wasn’t money. His would be killer wasn’t some strung out gang banger. He was almost professional in his manner. He was being directed to his grave.

“So…... So……. So what’s this really all about?” Murtaz spluttered out.

“Tom Lewis. One of your patients. In a fire in Cinncinati. I saw you on the paper with him. How is he doing?” the man replied. The tone was certainly not one of being inquiringly concerned for the patients well being.

Murtaz thought for a split second. If Lewis was a sole survivor of some big drug thing gone bad, this guy most likely wasn’t looking for good news. He wouldn’t buy that Lewis was dying if he’d seen him on the paper though at that medal ceremony thing though. But he might buy that Detective Lewis was brain damaged enough to be of no threat to him.

“He’s probably going to survive. Poor guy. A lot of his cerebral function has been badly affected by the stroke”

His assailant interrupted him. “Can he talk? Does he make sense? Does he understand?” Murtaz paused before replying . “Understand what?” he asked.

“I have already warned you not to ask questions” his passenger replied. “Do I strike you as the kind of man capable of mercy?”

The tone was flat and low, matter of factual. Murtaz began to tremble now.

“Pull over here please”

Murtaz followed the order as they pulled to a stop in a deserted car park space looking in over a small green area. The last streams of evening sun were well gone now, as the night descended.

“Well? Do I strike you as the kind of man that is merciful?” His assailant stared at him now, repeating the question in an infinitesimally more insistent way.

Something went in Murtaz’s head like a switch. His fear evaporated as he saw now that it was over. 52 years on this Earth. It had been fun, that which he could remember. A wife he had never stopped loving since the day he met her, two kids he secretly worshipped, secretly because you know, teens, they want you in the background only of their lives now, not being “all weird”.

He was ready to go. “No. I don’t think you’re merciful. Whether I live or die now is just a whim to you. You don’t dwell on such things as mercy”.

The man again dropped his head back and laughed softly.

“Mercy has a spectrum doctor. Surely you realise this when you go to work. God’s mercy may be unbounded but it is not distributed evenly. This is never mentioned in our holy books” He glared again at Murtaz. His eyes seemed more an icy cold blue now.

“Just like God, Dr Murtaz, I operate on the principle of mercy being unevenly distributed. And just like God, I have extreme agency. So once again. Can he talk. Can he make sense. Does he understand?” The assailant enunciated each word of the last question carefully.

“No. He will never understand, or talk again. The stroke was massive. It has destroyed much of his higher cortical function. Even with physiotherapists and cognitive therapy and whatever, he’ll never do a crossword again”.

Murtaz glared back at him. The man opened the glove box and took out the .38 and put a round in the chamber. “Turn your head to the left and lean against the window and close your eyes” Murtaz smiled and obeyed. The last thing he felt was the barrel at the nape of his neck pointing upwards.

......

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