“Your timing couldn’t have been better; we were gonna roll him out this morning.”

“Well, I appreciate your time, Doc,” said Burke, looking over the refrigerated corpse as the medical examiner pulled down the sheet.

“Not to worry; where’s your shadow?” asked the M.E..

“My… ah, my police… handler, I suppose we could say. He’s having a smoke. All the more reason I’d like to make this quick.”

The M.E. nodded knowingly and exposed a portion of the late Ralph Morgan’s chest.

“Here,” he pointed. “Upper sternum. The same mark you mentioned?”

“Damned near enough,” Burke mused. “There was bleeding at the site, wasn’t there? Our dear departed Mr. Morgan was alive when this was carved onto his chest?”

“Very much so,” the coroner answered, donning some exam gloves. “It’s cut deep, too, see here? Clean through epidermal and dermal layers. And the killer had a very steady hand; no tentative cuts or signs of a do-over. How the hell did he get our friend here to hold still?”

Burke raised his eyebrows. “Most men will hold very still indeed with a gun in their faces. Even so… holding a gun on him with his off-hand, and carving his initials in the poor guy with the dominant one, implies two very skilled hands. And he’d have had to work fast.”

“You figure? These are his initials?” asked the doc.

“Just a figure of speech. Far more likely something symbolic. A fairly dedicated individual, and with a pretty clear sadistic streak, between this and the Bernard decapitation.”

Ah! Yes, good you mentioned that. Something else in common between them. You mentioned that the killer had to have a steady hand with a blade? Well, you don’t even know how right you are. The little piece of graffiti on our friend here wasn’t done with a scalpel. It would have been a field-grade knife at best. Well-sharpened, but still subject to its limitations. Same or similar with our late Mr. Bernard.”

“A knife?!” spewed Burke. “You mean Old Fatass just sat there and let the killer saw his head off with a knife?”

“Not quite,” the M.E. answered, demonstrating. “Feel where my finger is. Just at the notch in the back of your skull. A blade inserted just here, horizontally, if done skillfully, would sever the spinal cord right between the cervical vertebrae. Bernard would have died instantly, and the killer could finish sawing at his leisure. That’s also why the blood was so well-kept to a small area. If decapitation had come more cleanly, say, with a blow from a sword or axe, the resulting spurt would have repainted the walls.”

Burke shook his head, struck dumb. Here it was again: the killer had skills, no question, but was he really a professional, to have such garbage for weaponry? Were the tools supposed to mask the craftsman’s skills? Or perhaps, like the marks themselves, they were a message?

The reek of smoke told him that his police escort was returning. No matter, they’d found what they came for. Burke took a quick photo of the interlocking A and D cut into Ralph Morgan’s skin, and replaced the sheet.


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