Detective Paolo Cabrera issued explicit instructions to the ward nurse and ignored the muscular orderlies prowling the corridors. The menace he projected intimidated the residents, sent them scurrying out of his path as he approached the private hospital room. Tension vibrated up his spine. Each step carried him closer to discharging his duty.
Countless cycles of night and day had passed in an unfathomable procession since Robert Stinson was committed under the influence of his wealthy and powerful surname. Cabrera suspected almost four decades of an existence filtered through the lens of anti-psychotic drugs would prepare even a sane man to embrace the grave. Mortality had run its course. He was here to confront the man who’d changed hundreds of lives, altered dozens of personal histories, and reshaped entire families.
He paused outside the milky opaque safety glass of the door.
The cold case investigation had led to an empty windowless chamber in a Fifth Avenue mansion. Cabrera adjusted the weight hanging from his fingers. The wooden box had sat centered under a Tiffany chandelier. Fractured multicolored beams illuminated the heavy oak grain, contrasted the molasses tones of the polished mahogany table on which it rested. The hinged top opened to display the eerie contents.
The choreographed celebration of death sickened Cabrera.
Interior items were neatly arranged by category with slips of paper labeled in a precise exquisitely formed script. The hand that shaped every letter had been educated in the finest schools, presented the best opportunities, encouraged along avenues guaranteed to achieve success; but this Upper East Side heir had chosen the cobbled road to hell.
Cabrera returned his focus to the present and pushed open the door.
Machines surrounded the wasted form of a man on the narrow mechanical bed. Restraints limited all movement. Age had bleached Stinson’s hair the pale color of his flesh. He turned and displayed dark eyes deeply-set in a cadaverous face. Inactivity had sucked muscle from his body and his atrophied limbs appeared arachnoid, disproportionate in scale to his torso.
Stinson locked his gaze on the object in Cabrera’s grasp. A feverish bevy of alarms sounded. Red and yellow warnings flashed. The needle on the respiration graph danced back and forth. The heart monitor twitched steadily upward in a lethal ascent. The blip following the patient’s fibrillating chambers ramped across the screen. The radiograph line staggered into peaks and valleys. Codes echoed insistently in the cold space.
Fierce satisfaction licked through Cabrera. He hefted his burden atop a wheeled platform.
Stinson followed the movement. In the flashing glow his eyes shone black. A rictus of pleased anticipation curled his lips. “Let me see.” The hoarse command carried an element of power and the voice contained a lingering vestige of the charisma that had charmed countless victims. Tremulous fingers reached and failed, checked by the heavy nylon wrist band.
Hiding his revulsion, Cabrera splayed a palm toward the oak box in the manner of a practiced showman and smiled. “Tell me about them.” His tone too soft to carry beyond the sterile space, the simple sentence contained a trace of his mother’s Dominican cadence, a lament for the finger of fate.
“Open the lid and I will.” Stinson’s focus never left the burnished container.
Cabrera continued his task. He unlatched the two halves of the lid and lowered the front panel.
Stinson stared for a long moment and exhaled a great sigh. “My work was unfinished.” A brittle laugh spilled out his mouth. “Others did not aspire to my vision.”
Cabrera wondered how many generations back the madness first bloomed.
“The block-cut figures commemorate the soldiers I released to the river.” Stinson flicked out his tongue and tasted the air like a snake testing for an elusive flavor.
The archives listed the names of eleven servicemen dragged out of the East River, every individual all but decapitated in gratuitous displays of violence. Cabrera scrutinized the medical equipment. Lights blinked. Alarms sounded. Monitors redlined. His directive to ignore distress signals was being honored. He prompted the old man. “Tell me about the porcelain doll heads.”
“Mementos of my ladies.” His tongue caressed the sounds. “I selected them with care, sought to capture an individual likeness.” Stinson focused on the petite smooth white craniums.” Their lovely blue orbs demanded fitting tribute.” Lust twisted his features.
Cabrera swallowed the rush of fluid in his mouth. The files on the women encompassed an entire block of shelves in the records department. Stinson had favored blondes. Horrific photographs documented the bodies of nineteen mutilated females he’d discarded with empty bleeding eye sockets.
“I want to know about Sarah.” Cabrera said.
Stinson heard the emotion in his intonation, and mimicking a hound that caught bloodscent, he swiveled his gaze. “My gilded swan,” his grin displayed perfect teeth, “my masterpiece.” The drawled words clutched Cabrera. “The crystal beads on the bodice of her wedding gown glittered in the morning sunlight. She lay so graceful on the steps of St. Michel’s Church.”
“You broke her neck and took her eyes.” Cabrera saw the pleasure ripple across Stinson and perceived it was time. He reached down, gathered up a handful of power cords and yanked. The bank of noisy machinery fell silent. “Admission records chronicle your involuntary commitment the same day.”
Stinson rolled his eyes and shrugged. “My parents never approved my vocation, especially Sarah.” his glance sought the trophies. “The Lambert family being friends and all, made it awkward, you see.” Wheezing out a contemptuous laugh, his lips turned blue as he labored to inhale. “What does anyone care after so long?”
“This was my gift to you.” Cabrera sought forgiveness with a silent prayer.
Confusion etched Stinson’s waxen features.
“My father was Sarah Lambert’s fiancé.” Cabrera leaned down to fill Stinson’s field of vision. “I exist only because you killed her.”
Comprehension flooded Stinson’s face, followed by a flicker of fear just before his heart seized.
Cabrera held the dying man’s gaze. “Today we complete the cycle of sacrifice and retribution.”