Cold Case


by Dolores Esteban



“A case of burglary,” Steve Mills said.

He placed a folder on Adam’s desk. Adam Johnson looked up with surprise. It was his first day in the office. Adam had just joined the cold case team.

“A case of burglary?” he asked back in confusion.

Steve gave a nod. He opened the folder and took a bunch of photos out of it.

“Two years ago, someone broke into Derek Peterson’s house. The house was empty. Peterson is a wealthy banker. He was on a vacation, in some exclusive club in Spain. The alarm system went off at 3am. An automatic call alarmed the local police station. They sent a car to Peterson’s house, but the burglar had already run. He had stolen several vases and had broken another,” Steve said, placing a photo on Adam’s desk.

Adam looked at the photo that showed a shattered vase.

“He left no traces, unfortunately. We investigated all carefully,” Steve carried on.

“A professional,” Adam replied.

“Not so much,” Steve said. “He didn’t deactivate the alarm system. He risked the alarm system going off, probably because he knew exactly where to find what he wanted.”

“The vases,” Adam said. “Are they expensive?”

“According to Derek Peterson, five antique Aztec vases are missing, each worth about 100,000 English pounds,” Steve said.

“The burglar most likely is someone who knew the house well. He most likely knows Derek Peterson. Let me guess. You checked everybody. Each suspect has a watertight alibi,” Adam said.

“Exactly,” Steve replied with a nod. “No traces, no suspects, nothing.”

“I suspect his insurance paid in the end,” Adam said. “Why is this case a cold case then?”

“Yes, his insurance paid,” Steve said.

Adam gave him a questioning look.

Steve handed him another photo that showed the face of a very young man.

“Timothy Baker, a fifteen year old boy, called the police and told them that he had seen the burglar get out of his car at about 3am. However, Baker’s descriptions were vague. He said the man was neither small nor tall, neither slim nor thick. The car was not an old car and not a new one,” Steve said.

Adam’s look was puzzled. “I thought you had no traces. But you even have a witness,” he said.

 Steve sat down in a chair and looked at Adam. “It’s just that Timothy Baker was thirty kilometers away when the man broke into Derek Peterson’s house. Timothy Baker had a vision. He’s sort of famous for it,” he said.

Adam looked at Steve in disbelief. He leaned back in his chair and watched a small spider crawling down the window pane. Finally, he turned his eyes back to Steve. He opened his mouth, but Steve raised his hand and stopped him.
 
“He’s sort of famous for it. 90% of his visions prove to be correct, but his statement was not considered a reliable fact, of course. The boy was laughed at instead,” Steve said. He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on Adam. “The case of burglary was officially closed. However, I’ve never closed it. I know that there’s more to it,” he said with an intent look.

Adam shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Why?” he asked. “Even if the boy’s vision was true, it would not help us a lot. A man, neither small nor tall, neither slim nor thick, in a car, neither old nor new. I beg you, Steve, you cannot make anything of it.”

Steve’s look was serious. “So far, I was not able to make anything of it. But I will,” he said in a determined voice. “I talked with Timothy Baker again a couple of weeks later. He said that the burglar had not only stolen the vases, he had also stolen an obsidian knife that Derek Peterson did not miss because he did not know it existed. The knife had belonged to his father who had hidden it in the library. The burglar must have known of the knife and he must have known of its hiding place.”

Adam measured Steve. “I fear I don’t get it,” he said. “I can’t see what you’re aiming at.”

Steve leaned back and smiled at Adam. “Well, a week ago, a man was murdered in Rome,” he said. “The murderer cut out his heart and threw his body down the Spanish Steps. He left a red hand print on the man’s abdomen. The dead man’s name is Jeremiah Irons. He was a dealer in Aztec artifacts. They performed an autopsy and concluded that his heart was cut out with an obsidian knife.”

Steve leaned forward. Adam fidgeted in his chair.

“I investigated a bit,” Steve continued. “Derek Peterson’s father had bought the Aztec vases from Jeremiah Irons eleven years ago. I have found a trace, finally.” He measured Adam. “I read your application papers and I investigated a bit on you as well. I was happy to learn that your father is a renowned archaeologist and that his special field is Aztec and Toltec culture.”

Steve smiled triumphantly. “Do you get it now, Adam?” he asked. “You’re my perfect partner.  We will be investigating the crime. I always knew that there was more to the case. I was right. I have booked two flights. We’re flying to Rome in two days.”

Adam didn’t show his urge to instantly make a call. He folded his hands on his belly as if protecting his body or hiding something from Steve’s sight. It was an unnecessary gesture as a pristine white shirt covered Adam’s skin. Adam looked at Steve. He forced himself to focus on the man.

“In two days?” he asked calmly.

***

Hot. It was the only word Adam could think of when he climbed out of the taxi that had taken them from the airport to their hotel in the city of Rome. Adam was feeling dizzy, not only from the blazing summer heat, but also from the flood of words Steve had overwhelmed him with during their flight from London to Rome. Steve had presented his speculations and theories on the murder. He was feeling enthusiastic about them and he was most likely right. According to Steve, they were on the scent of the Antique Mafia. Jeremiah Irons had either been killed by a dissatisfied customer or a competing dealer. Antiques were highly sensitive to market fluctuations. Steve had read about it on the internet. Antiques were a high-risk form of investing and entirely unapt to secure one’s financial future or make fast money. Perhaps a disgruntled costumer had lost a large amount of money or perhaps Jeremiah Irons had cheated. Steve suspected the latter.

Adam winced when someone addressed him. The receptionist was talking to him. He handed Adam a piece of paper and asked him to fill in the form. Adam glanced left and right. He had followed Steve into the lobby without perceiving much because he had been entirely absorbed in his thoughts. The hall was small. The décor was sedate: oak furniture, maroon plush chairs, mirrors with golden frames on the walls, and the occasional pot plant here and there. Adam turned back to the reception, filled in the form and handed it to the receptionist. The man asked for Adam’s passport and then handed him a key card. Adam picked up his small suitcase and followed Steve who had already moved to the elevator.

“Room 202, second floor,” Steve said cheerfully, looking at his key card.

“208,” Adam replied.

Steve looked up, smiled briefly, and then pressed the button to call the elevator. The doors opened an instant later. They entered and Steve pressed another button. The elevator moved up.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll find out that the Antique Mafia killed him,” Steve said again with a meaningful look at Adam while they were moving up to the second floor. “I arranged a meeting with Commissario Sassetti at 1pm,” he continued, looking at his watch. “One hour to refresh ourselves and eat. They offer lunch in the restaurant. I asked the receptionist. How about we meet up in the lobby in fifteen minutes, Adam?”

Adam gave Steve a brief nod. The doors of the elevator opened. They stepped out and walked down the corridor. Steve read aloud the room number of every door that they passed. They finally reached room 202. Steve opened the door and gave a whistle at the sight of the interior. Without looking back at Adam, he threw the door shut. Adam straightened in annoyance, but then moved on to his room. He entered and flung his suitcase on the single bed of the room, reached into the pocket of his jacket, took out his cell phone and opened it. Nothing.

Adam gazed at the phone for an instant, and then threw it on the bed. He walked to the window, drew the curtains aside and looked out on the narrow street in front of the hotel. A solid line of cars and blaring horns. Adam shrugged. Rome, like he had expected it. Adam raised his eyes and stared at the opposite building without really perceiving it. He had set off his first call two days ago, right after Steve had presented the cold case to him in the office. He had set off another five or six calls and had written three text messages. Adam subconsciously clenched his teeth. Almost two days had passed without a response. He continued looking out of the window, and then straightened abruptly and looked at his watch. He hurried into the bathroom.

Adam grabbed his cell phone from the bed, looked at it again, and then left the room. He hastened down the corridor, looked at the doors of the elevator, yet turned to the staircase and hurried down the stairs. He spotted Steve Mills in the center of the lobby. Steve raised his hand at Adam’s sight and pointed at the far end of the hall.

“The restaurant’s over there,” he said when Adam had joined him.

***

Commissario Sassetti was a lean man with greasy black hair and a piercing look. Adam and Steve sat down in front of Sassetti’s messy desk. Commissario Sassetti measured them from behind it.

“I’ve already informed you of the reason of our visit. I think our case of burglary and your case of murder are connected,” Steve said without any introductory words.

Commissario Sassetti looked at Steve, and then pulled a cigarette from a packet. He pushed the cigarette between his lips and lit it. Sassetti leaned back in his chair, measured Adam and Steve, and then blew the smoke of the cigarette towards them. Adam coughed. Sassetti gave him a cold look, but then rose to his feet and opened the window.

“I have received your query,” he said, sitting down again. His English was good, albeit with a hard Italian accent. Sassetti took another pull on his cigarette.

“Jeremiah Irons had a small shop in Rome. His main shop is in London. We’ve searched the shop, two rooms, a salesroom and an office room. Nothing attracted our immediate attention. The papers and so on are currently being looked through. The neighbors say that the shop was only opened on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Jeremiah Irons didn’t run the shop to make a living,” he said.

“The shop was a contact point,” Steve replied. He presented his speculations to Sassetti: He told him that he suspected Jeremiah Irons had dealt with illegal goods and had been in touch with the Antique Mafia.

Commissario Sassetti pulled on his cigarette thoughtfully, and then put it out in an overflowing ashtray.

“Coffee?” he asked, looking between the two detectives.

Steve and Adam nodded. Sassetti rose to his feet, opened the door and shouted something in Italian. A couple of minutes later, an officer brought three cups of coffee.

“Cappuccino,” Sassetti said, seizing one of the cups.

Adam straightened impatiently. “Jeremiah Irons was a dealer in Aztec artifacts. He was killed with an obsidian knife. He was thrown down the Spanish Steps. How does this sound to you?” he asked.

Sassetti measured him. “A ritual murder, you think?” he asked back.

“Either a ritual murder or the murderer wanted it to come across as one,” Adam replied. “The Aztecs cut the hearts of their victims out and threw the bodies down the stairs of their pyramids.”

“A blatant attempt to set us on the wrong track, I think,” Steve said, nodding to himself.

Commissario Sassetti pulled another cigarette from the packet and turned it in his hand. He looked at Adam.

“Why do think it’s a ritual murder?” he asked curiously.

“I’ve just mentioned the obvious facts,” Adam replied.

“Too obvious, way too obvious,” Steve said.

“What if in fact it was a ritual murder and the murder wants you to think it was not?” Sassetti asked, looking between Adam and Steve.

“This doesn’t make sense to me,” Steve replied. “Why perform a ritual murder in public when you don’t want the police to take notice of it?

“Because the police was not the addressee of his message?” Sassetti asked back.

“The Antique Mafia? A warning?” Steve asked, nodding slowly.

“A warning perhaps,” Sassetti replied. He looked at his cigarette and then lit it. “A warning, yes. But a warning to whom? Tell me of that burglary case.”

Steve told Sassetti the details, yet refrained from mentioning Timothy Baker’s vision. “A friend of Derek Peterson’s father knew that the man had hidden an obsidian knife in the library,” he said. “Derek Peterson had never heard of the knife and he didn’t find one. Police didn’t find it either. Either there has never been an obsidian knife in the house or the burglar took it along. Derek Peterson as well as his father collected Aztec art objects. Derek Peterson’s father had bought the vases from Jeremiah Irons eleven years ago. Joseph Peterson passed away three years ago. The case was closed, but I have a feeling that there is more to it. The obsidian knife, Commissario Sassetti. Why did Joseph Peterson possess an obsidian knife? Why did he hide it? Where is the knife now? Who took it? Did Joseph Peterson himself take it from its hiding place? His son Derek Peterson? If so, why did the man lie? Or did the burglar take it? Was he after the knife?”

“Many questions, detective,” Sassetti said with a small smile. “What if that knife never existed? The man who told you of it might have been mistaken.”

“Certainly,” Steve replied. “There’s no plausible, rational explanation for my speculations. I follow my guts.”

“This makes a good detective,” Sassetti said with another smile.

He rose to his feet, opened the door and shouted something. A couple of minutes later, an officer brought an item in a polythene bag. He placed it on Sassetti’s desk, and then left the room. Sassetti pointed at the item.

“An obsidian knife,” he said.

Adam and Steve leaned forward. Steve reached out and held the bag up. The blue-green knife looked antique.

“An expert will investigate it tomorrow more thoroughly,” Sassetti said.

“I didn’t know you found the knife,” Steve said with surprise.

“We found it this morning. Or more precisely, it was delivered. One of the secretaries found a parcel in the parking area. The woman took it inside and reported her finding. We’ve already investigated the parcel and the knife for fingerprints. None,” Sassetti said.

“Who left the parcel? Wasn’t the man recorded? You have video control, don’t you?” Adam asked.

Sassetti shrugged. “We’re currently watching the videotapes. Nothing so far. Don’t expect too much of them. The video surveillance system is old. This is Rome, detectives,” he said.

“You mean it’s not working properly?” Steve asked in a perplexed voice.

Sassetti pulled on his cigarette. “The parcel was left on the ground at the far end of the parking lot. The videotapes show the place slightly blurred,” he said.

Steve glanced at Adam in disbelief, but Adam didn’t react.

“Did someone choose this place because he knew the video surveillance system was not working properly?” Adam asked.

Sassetti fixed his eyes on him. “Only police knows,” he said.

He was interrupted by a knock on the door. Sassetti put out his cigarette, rose to his feet and opened the door. He talked with a man, then left the room and shut the door.

“What do you think?” Steve asked, exchanging a look with Adam.

“If a police officer is involved, then Sassetti will shield him. I’m pretty sure of it,” Adam replied.

“Do you think police is involved?” Steve asked.

Adam shrugged. “The Italian Mafia has connections. The Antique Mafia doubtlessly has also,” he replied.

Steve leaned back in his chair. “Now what?” he asked. “The Antique Mafia or a ritual murder or a combination of it?”

The door opened and Commissario Sassetti returned. He excused himself. A burglar had been arrested and was being interviewed. Sassetti’s presence was required. The Italian detective scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to Steve.

“Call me if you have any more questions. This is my private number. Better call me privately, detectives,” he said.

Sassetti gave them a grim look, then left the room and slammed the door shut. Adam and Steve looked at each other.

“He’s covering up something,” Steve said slowly.

Adam checked his cell phone. No reply. He closed the phone and pushed it back into the pocket of his jacket.

“All right, let’s go,” he said, smiling at Steve.

***

Adam and Steve visited the Spanish Steps and then went to Jeremiah Iron’s shop. The shop was locked and sealed by the police. They looked into the shop window. A few wooden art objects were displayed. They looked cheap and not appealing and they were covered with dust.

 “Like Sassetti said, Irons didn’t intend to make a living with his shop. I can’t imagine he ever sold anything of that stuff,” Steve said. “I can’t imagine anybody wants to buy that stuff.  Cheap, rotten, dreadful, covered with dust. The shop was just a contact point.”

Adam shrugged. “Well, yes, most likely. Jeremiah Irons dealt in Aztec artifacts. They are rare and precious. He was in touch with many people, costumers, sellers, and probably the people you say are the Antique Mafia. I would be surprised if he had had no connections. All these dealers have their connections and I guess that many of their activities are illegal. But they try to cover them up and mostly they succeed with it,” he said.

“I’m convinced Sassetti is covering up something as well,” Steve replied. “I’ll call him later. I won’t leave Rome without having found anything. There’s more to that case and I want to find it.”

He turned his head and gave Adam a grim look. Adam didn’t reply and just gave a faint nod.

They walked through the streets of Rome. The day was hot and after walking around for two hours they were tired and fed up with their tour. They returned to their hotel. Adam had just entered his room when his cell phone rang. He looked at the number and promptly answered the call.

“Dad, finally,” he said.

His father responded and Adam started pacing the room.

“Yes, it seems it has started again,” he said and then recounted the whole story.

He listened to his father’s reply. “All right,” he said. “I’ll come to your country house on Saturday afternoon.”

Adam ended the call and looked at his cell phone for a second or two. Then he closed it slowly. Like he had expected, his father was highly alarmed.

An hour later, Steve knocked on his door. Adam opened it and looked out.

“I’ve called Sassetti. He agreed to meet us in a bar at ten in the evening. Will you be coming, Adam?” Steve asked.

“Sure,” Adam replied. “Is it far from here?”

“No, just around the corner. I’ve already checked it,” Steve replied.

They entered the bar at ten o’clock. The place was crowded and loud. Suddenly, someone pulled on Adam’s sleeve. Adam turned around. Commissario Sassetti looked at him with a frown, a cigarette between his lips. He made a gesture with his hand. Adam touched Steve’s elbow and Steve turned his head and nodded at Sassetti. They followed the man through the crowded bar into a small backroom. It was dimly lit and smelled of cigarettes and alcohol. Sassetti pointed at a worn couch. Adam and Steve sat down on it. Sassetti sat down in a chair, put out his cigarette in an ashtray and immediately lit another. He pulled on it and blew the smoke towards Adam and Steve.

“All right, signori,” he said. “You wanted to talk with me again.”

“Why here and not in your office room?” Steve asked.

Sassetti made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Walls have ears,” he replied. He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on Adam and Steve.

“I warn you, signori. Better give up on your investigation. Close that case,” he said.

“Why, commissario?” Steve asked angrily. “What the hell are you covering up?”

Sassetti leaned back in his chair and looked at the two men.

“Eleven years ago another man was killed. His heart was cut out with an obsidian knife and his body was thrown down the Spanish Steps. Jeremiah Irons was one of the suspects, but he had a watertight alibi. Like you, I suspected he belonged to the Antique Mafia, but we had no evidence against him,” he said.

Steve gave a surprised whistle. “Who was the murdered man and why was Irons suspected of having killed him?” he asked.

“The victim was Angelo Falcone, rich, mighty, an art lover and a party-goer. And, more important, a Mafioso. I mean the Italian Mafia, not the Antique Mafia. We started investigating, but it was soon made clear to us that our investigation was not wanted. We were under instruction to stop it and so we stopped it. I had found out that he was one of Jeremiah Iron’s costumers. He actually met Irons about an hour before he was killed. That’s why I suspected Irons. Angelo Falcone had ordered Aztec art objects. Irons had delivered them, but Falcone refused to pay. That was why Irons requested a meeting and that was what Irons said when I questioned him. However, he withdrew his statement and said he had been mistaken. The payment had meanwhile been transferred to his account. I wanted to check Irons’ and Falcone’s accounts, but then I had to stop the investigations,” Sassetti recounted.

“It seems Jeremiah Irons was bribed to silence,” Steve said. “I still do suspect the Antique Mafia is behind it.”

“Do you have any idea why Angelo Falcone was killed?” Adam asked.

Sassetti looked at him. “Have you spoken with your father, Mister Johnson? David Johnson is a renowned archaeologist. His special field is Aztec and Toltec culture,” he said.

Adam’s muscles tensed. He leaned back in his chair.

Steve turned to him with a bewildered look. “What has your father to do with it, Adam?” he asked.

“Tell him, Mister Johnson,” Sassetti said. He leaned back and pulled on his cigarette.

Adam clenched his hands.

“All right,” he said. “My father heard of the murder. It was in the newspapers and on TV, albeit not for a long time, just for a day or two, and then all reports were stopped. My father was curious and looked for news, but the murder was never mentioned again. As a specialist in Aztec culture, my father was naturally interested in the murder. The murderer had performed an Aztec ritual or at least wanted the murder to come across as one. The man’s heart had been cut out and his body thrown down the Spanish Steps. Angelo Falcone, the victim was a purchaser of Aztec art objects and Jeremiah Irons was a dealer in Aztec artifacts. My father was interested, of course. The murder was much discussed in archaeologist circles. My father wrote a letter to the editor of a journal and claimed that the murder was a ritual murder.”

Adam fell silent.

“Why did you not tell me of it earlier?” Steve asked in an annoyed voice.

“Because his father was threatened,” Sassetti said.

Steve turned his head to Sassetti and then back to Adam.

“What?” he asked.

“My father received a telephone call. A man told him to revoke his statement, else my mother and his son would be killed,” Adam said.

“His son? You?” Steve asked. His eyes widened.

Adam gave a brief nod. “They showed they were dead serious about it. My father did not react to the threat. Two days later, my mother was attacked in the street and in broad daylight. They ripped her blouse off and cut the skin of her chest, right above her heart. The wound healed quickly, but my mother needed psychological treatment. My father revoked his statement and made a fool of himself. His academic colleagues laughed at him until they learned of what had happened. My father never mentioned a word again,” he said.

“Good Lord,” Steve said. “Are you certain the man behind the threat and the attack is the same man who killed Angelo Falcone?” he asked.

“I don’t have evidence, but I do think so,” Adam replied.

“He’s mighty, powerful,” Sassetti said, leaning forward. “He committed a dreadful murder, but nobody investigated a bit. Out of fear.” Sassetti leaned back in his chair and measured the two men. “I cannot investigate. I regret it profoundly, signori, but my hands are tied,” he said.

Steve looked between Adam and Sassetti. “What’s it about that obsidian knife that you found in the parcel?” he asked.

“It’s most likely not the knife Jeremiah Irons was killed with,” Sassetti replied. “And it’s most likely not the knife Angelo Falcone was killed with. The material we secured in both cases does not match the material of the delivered knife.”

“I do not get it,” Steve said.

“It might just be an idiot’s joke,” Sassetti said in an annoyed voice. “I don’t think it will help us a lot. Anyway, like I said, my hands are tied. Please reckon that investigations will be stopped very soon. I’m certain I’ll receive instruction to close the case.” The Italian detective rose to his feet. “Signori, I need to take my leave. Close that case of yours. I understood it was burglary. I understood the insurance paid. The matter is settled. Leave it at this,” he said.

“Wait,” Steve said, jumping to his feet. “What about Derek Peterson? Did you come across his name eleven years ago?”

Sassetti looked at him. “No, Mister Mills, I’m afraid I never heard that name before your mentioned it,” he replied.

Sassetti gave a brusque nod and then left the room. Adam and Steve gazed at the closed door.

“I don’t believe him,” Steve said.

Adam turned his head to him. “Derek Peterson’s father bought his Aztec vases from Jeremiah Irons eleven years ago. Angelo Falcone was killed eleven years ago. Both men were Jeremiah Irons’ costumers. Their names were probably recorded in the books and Sassetti has read them,” he said.

“I thought he dropped the case eleven years ago,” Steve said in an annoyed voice.

“Apparently, some men can never close a case, even if it’s officially closed,” Adam said.

Steve gazed at him. “What about your father? Did he hold his tongue?” he asked.

“For the sake of my wellbeing and my mother’s, yes,” Adam replied.

***

They didn’t speak a lot the following day. Steve was grumpy and Adam was nervous, although he managed to hide his feelings from Steve. They flew back to London in the afternoon.

Steve entered Adam’s office room the following morning. “I was thinking, Adam,” he said. “The case is officially closed and we’ll leave it at this.” He placed three folders on Adam’s desk.

“Quite different cases. Look through the folders and then pick one,” he said. He paused for an instant. “Just one more thing, Adam. We need to work in close collaboration. Never again hide anything from me. You should have told me of what happened eleven years ago. I would not have given you permission to work on the case. This was highly unprofessional, Adam.”

Adam narrowed his eyes. “What about Timothy Baker, the seer. You based all your speculations on the boy’s visions. Very professional, indeed,” he replied sourly.

Steve looked at him and smiled. “Yeah, I followed my guts. And I was right, wasn’t I? I chose to work with you because I thought you were the perfect partner to investigate the crime. Was I mistaken?” he asked.

Adam rolled his eyes, but then smirked. “All right,” he said. “You’re a good cop, Steve. One of the best.”

“I’m definitely,” Steve replied with another smile. His smile disappeared and his look turned serious.

“There’s more to that case. You know, I know, and Sassetti knows as well. I want to know what this case is all about. What did you father tell you, Adam?” he asked.

“Back then, not so much. I’ve figured it out more or less on my own,” Adam replied. “He was convinced that the murder was a ritual murder. He was convinced it was the deed of some secret sect that was performing a murderous cult.”

 “Why does the secret sect commit the murders in public? Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?” Steve asked.

“The Aztec ritual was an established habit,” Adam explained. “They killed hundreds, thousands of men. A daily ritual, so to speak. The men who performed it were mighty and powerful. The ritual was a demonstration of their power.”

Steve nodded thoughtfully. “The murderer is trying to demonstrate his power? What kind of power? And who does he want to impress?” he asked.

“I’ll be seeing my father on Saturday,” Adam replied. “He’s currently in the States, participating in a congress. He’ll be back tomorrow night. I’m going to meet him in his country house.”

“You called him?” Steve asked.

Adam nodded. “He’s alarmed as well. He has never given up on his theory. He has never forgotten a bit,” he replied.

Steve looked at Adam. “How’s your mother doing?” he asked.

“They divorced six years ago. My father puts his heart and soul into his studies. She couldn’t cope with it anymore. My father reminded her every day of the threat and the danger. She married again two years ago and immigrated to Canada with her new husband. She’s happy. She’s doing fine,” Adam said. He smiled briefly.

“I see,” Steve replied. “And what about you? Are you single or do you have a girlfriend?”

Adam stared at Steve for an instant. “I thought you investigated on me. What did you find out?” he asked warily.

Steve gave a laugh. “Nothing. This was not what I was primarily interested in. But I read your application papers. You’re not married. But you could well have a girlfriend or have a crush on some pretty girl.”

Adam smiled briefly. “No, no crush on a pretty girl,” he said.

“An ugly one?” Steve asked in fake fright.

Adam gave a hoarse laugh and looked aside for an instant. “What about you?” he asked, turning his eyes back to Steve.

“Not married. Not settled. Still alive,” Steve replied, laughing out loudly.

Adam smiled briefly. Steve slapped on Adam’s shoulder and then left the room. Adam exhaled with relief.

***

David Johnson stood by the window and looked outside. He watched Adam’s car coming up the drive. Adam’s father hurried to open the door. They exchanged a look. David made a gesture with his hand and Adam entered. His father closed the door quickly. They sat down in the living room. David poured them coffee.

“What do you think?” Adam asked.

“Can it be sheer coincidence?” his father asked back. “No, definitely not. I’m just wondering why they put Jeremiah Irons on the list. He was a man with connections. He knew how to pull a few strings.”

“He pulled too many strings perhaps,” Adam said.

“You mean he got too curious?” his father asked. “Maybe. I’m convinced he suspected something behind certain things, behind certain men, behind those men who were so highly and exclusively interested in Aztec artifacts. His business dealings were shady, but he made a lot of money. So why risk it with being too curious?”

“He might have just stumbled across something, unintentionally,” Adam replied.

His father shook his head thoughtfully. “I don’t think they would have performed the ritual on him. They would just have killed him off,” he said.

“Why are you so certain that he was not one of them?” Adam asked.

“I just can’t believe it,” his father replied. “Jeremiah Irons was, well, let me think of a word, too mundane a man. Like Falcone. I can’t imagine Angelo Falcone was a member of the sect either.”

“And yet the ritual was performed on both of them,” Adam said slowly.

“Yes, the ritual was performed on both of them and the ritual was performed in a way for all to see,” his father said.

“Right,” Adam replied. “It was blatant, it was plain to see. Do you think a mock ritual was performed on them as a warning to somebody?”

“I’m convinced that the true rituals are performed in secrecy,” his father said. “I said this already eleven years ago.”

They looked at each other.

“What makes you so sure that the sect really exists, apart from their threat and their attack on Mom?” Adam asked.

“Doesn’t this suffice to come to conclusions?” his father asked back.

“Come on, Dad,” Adam said. “You became suspicious. You still are. Eleven years have passed. You had eleven years to ponder and investigate. Tell me what raised your suspicions in the first place.”

“A young student of mine freaked totally out when she heard of Falcone’s death. The ritual murder had raised our interest,” his father recounted. “We were wondering if an academic was being involved. You know there are not many experts worldwide, so this idea was somewhat, well, frightening. It could have been someone we knew. The idea, however, was soon discarded. The ritual was blunt, lacked details. Just the heart cut out with an obsidian knife and the body thrown down the stairs. A specialist in Aztec culture would have performed a more refined ritual, would have added details that were unknown to the public at large,” he said.

“You thought someone just read about the basics of the Aztec ritual and found it was a spectacular method to kill someone off?” Adam asked.

His father nodded. “Yes, but I changed my mind when Kia freaked out. One of my colleagues organized a party. Several people were invited, among them Kia who worked as a research assistant with that said colleague. Falcone had been killed a month ago. Nobody was particularly interested in the murder anymore. Like I said, we had discarded the idea of one of us being involved. However, the topic was raised again. We talked it through again and shrugged it off once more. Kia had left the room. No one had paid attention and nobody missed the girl for a certain amount of time,” he said.

“What happened?” Adam asked.

“I think two hours had passed when someone finally started to look for her in my colleague’s house. They found her in the bathroom, her wrists cut with a pair of scissors. She was taken to a hospital. Her life was not in danger, luckily, but her mental condition was bad. I was told that she talked incoherently. It was said she told weird things about a ritual she had witnessed. Kia was taken to a psychiatric hospital and later left the country. I heard she returned to South Korea where she had originally come from. She had come to London as an exchange student. However, I had the chance to talk with her briefly before she was transferred to the other hospital,” Adam’s father said.

“What did she tell you?” Adam asked.

“She told me of a secret ritual she had witnessed. Someone had invited her to a party, but the party had turned out to be a weird festivity that culminated in a human sacrifice. Kia said she saw a man who was dressed like an Aztec priest. He cut out the heart of a woman and threw her body down steep stairs,” Adam’s father said. “I believed her report. It was by no means incoherent. But she was hard to understand because of her accent. Her English was broken. I guess this and her weird report made the doctors think she was having mental issues.”

“This raises questions,” Adam said thoughtfully. “Who invited her? Why was she allowed to participate in the secret ceremony? Where did the ritual take place? Who was the man who acted as an Aztec priest? In other words who was the murderer? And who was the victim?” he asked.

“Yes, I was thinking about all this also,” David Johnson said. “Unfortunately, I was not able to get in touch with Kia again. And I think she had no idea where the party had taken place. She said they had left London at night, had driven down country roads and had finally entered a deserted building.”

“God, Dad. She must have told you who had taken her to that place and back to London,” Adam said.

“Yes, that information was vital,” Adam’s father replied.

“Who, Dad?” Adam asked with urgency.

“Reginald Osborne, the colleague who organized the party,” David said.

“Osborne?” Adam asked in disbelief. “Why the hell did you never tell me of it?”

“For the sake of your wellbeing and that of your mother. And mine,” his father replied. “I had no doubt and still don’t have that they would instantly kill you or your mother if I touched on their secret again in public.”

“Reginald Osborne, member of a murderous sect,” Adam said slowly. “Well, I must admit, Dad, it would fit in with his eccentricities. I remember him. You invited him and his wife now and then for dinner. He was extravagant, flamboyant, and arrogant. I think I was nine or ten when they came to see us frequently. The man frightened me, but at the same time impressed me a lot. He had an aura of, well, let me think…”

“Sovereign power,” his father said.

Adam nodded.  “Sovereign power, yes. I didn’t like him. They stopped coming to our house. Why?” he asked.

“He and his wife divorced. Osborne had many amorous affairs, some of them quite embarrassing. Your mother felt uncomfortable in his company. So we stopped inviting him. I think he didn’t even notice that we had cancelled him from our friends list,” his father said.

“He had a fling with Kia?” Adam asked.

His father shrugged. “Yes. The older he got, the younger his girlfriends were. I don’t understand what young women see in him,” he said.

“Money, wealth, power, a job,” Adam suggested. “You can’t color everyone with the same brush. Some girls resist, but some even do it for less.”

“Do you speak from experience?” Adam’s father asked.

Adam blushed. “No, not so much,” he replied. He coughed slightly.

“Okay, Dad, Reginald Osborne is a member of that sect and you knew it all the time,” he continued. “How many of your friends, acquaintances, and colleagues are also involved?”

“I have been pondering on this for eleven years,” his father replied.

“Come on, Dad,” Adam said. “You have not just been pondering. You have been researching, haven’t you?”

“I had to proceed cautiously,” his father said with a nod. “These people attacked your mother. I had no doubt they would attack her again, or you, Adam. I was silent for a couple of months, focused on my work, told the people how much your mother suffered from the attack. The weeks and months passed by. I could only hope they had given up on watching me closely when I started asking around a bit.”

Adam nodded. His father continued.

“I talked with Kia’s roommate. She told me Kia had meanwhile returned to South Korea,” David Johnson said. “Reginald Osborne obviously wanted to get her out of the way.  He had paid the hospital and the flight. The girl told me Kia had befriended Osborne a couple of weeks before he had invited her to the secret party. Kia was flattered, but she was totally shattered afterwards. She didn’t tell her roommate of the murder, just said that something terrible had happened that night.”

“This doesn’t help us much,” Adam said.

His father nodded. “The girl told me Kia broke off with Osborne after that night and she also broke off with a friend of her, Janet Lloyd, another student,” he said.

 “Janet Lloyd?” Adam asked.

“I had a chance to talk with Janet when she attended one of my lectures. She was ambitious, arrogant, and there was something secretive around her,” his father replied. “I asked her bluntly if she knew what had happened with Kia. It was a risk I took. She could have run to Osborne, but I think she did not, as nothing happened after our conversation, neither to me nor to her.”

“What did she tell you?” Adam asked.

“Janet confessed her own love affair with Osborne. She ranted. She did not hold Osborne in high esteem. She said he had perverted sexual preferences,” his father said.

“What kind of preferences? S&M?” Adam asked.

His father nodded. “According to Janet, Osborne is a very dominant man. He considers a woman his slave. Not something many women can cope with. Janet finally broke off with him. She suspected Kia had taken her place. Kia was shy, compliant, and obedient. Those were traits inherent to her nature,” his father said. 

“Do you think he planned to make her the victim of the ritual?” Adam asked slowly.

“I was pondering on it,” his father replied. “Yes, I think that was what he had in mind. Perhaps she was forced to watch the ritual in order to prepare her for her future role. Perhaps Osborne did even think Kia would willingly play the role of the victim.”

“But the girl freaked out instead,” Adam said.

His father nodded. “Osborne had to get rid of her. Killing her off was not an option. Too many people had witnessed her suicide attempt.  Osborne didn’t want the police to investigate. Declaring she was having mental issues was a perfect excuse. He played the benefactor, paid the hospital and Kia’s flight back to South Korea. Thus, nobody would suspect him of being responsible for her problems,” he said.

 “Have you found out anything else?” Adam asked.

“No, nothing else in eleven years,” his father replied. “I had already come to the conclusion that the sect had dissolved. Your call, however, told me that I had been mistaken.”

Adam mused. “Angelo Falcone and Jeremiah Irons were killed in Rome. I don’t see any connections between Falcone and Osborne. I can see connections between Osborne and Iron, however. Could it be that Osborne illegally sold archaeological objects to Jeremiah Irons?”

His father nodded. “Definitely. There have always been rumors about him, but he was able to cover up his activities. At least I have never heard that anybody ever had evidence against him,” he said.

“I suspect Angelo Falcone and Jeremiah Irons got in touch with the group and stumbled over their secret,” Adam said.

“The murders are a warning to the group members,” his father mused. “Presumably to those who tend to leave the group.”

“What happened to Janet Lloyd?” Adam asked.

“She left university five years ago and went to the States. I have not heard from her again,” his father replied.

“Do you have any idea regarding the place of the ritual?” Adam asked.

His father shrugged. “Kia said they left London and were driving down country roads. I think the place is close to London, on the countryside, a deserted place with a building big enough to perform the ritual. A deserted mansion perhaps,” he said.

“Wouldn’t nightly activities attract attention?” Adam asked.

“I have no idea how many people were present that night, Adam. Kia said the hall was crowded. How many persons do fit into an entrance hall? Twenty? Thirty? Five or six cars at night, not driving together, one every fifteen minutes or so. I could imagine they would not attract attention,” his father said.

“You’re right,” Adam said thoughtfully. “I’ll be talking with Steve, my colleague. I flew to Rome with him.”

“Why is he interested in the murder in Rome?” his father asked.

“He’s convinced the murder is connected with a case of burglary that happened three years ago. The burglar stole a few Aztec vases. Jeremiah Irons had sold them,” Adam said.

“Doubtlessly a connection, albeit a faint one,” his father replied. “Who was the owner of the vases?”

“Derek Peterson, a wealthy banker. His father Joseph bought the vases eleven years ago from Jeremiah Irons,” Adam replied.

“Eleven years ago. Interesting,” his father said slowly. “I’m afraid I cannot connect the names with someone I know or knew.”

“A witness said that Joseph Peterson owned an obsidian knife that he hid in his library,” Adam said. “But neither his son nor the police found the knife. Perhaps the burglar came to get it.”

 “Joseph Peterson could have been a member of Osborne’s sect. The knife could have been a ceremonial knife. You need to investigate more thoroughly, Adam,” his father said urgently.

Adam smiled briefly. His smile disappeared and he gave his father a serious look. “We will find out all about it,” he said.

They parted an hour later. Adam promised to keep in touch.

***

“A sadomasochistic club whose activities got out of hand? And Reginald Osborne is a specialist in Aztec culture?” Steve asked after Adam had informed him on his conversation with his father.  He nodded thoughtfully.

“Yes,” Adam replied. “He was a serious scientist when he was younger. He discovered a few remarkable objects. The discoveries made him famous and he established quite a reputation. But he changed considerably over the years. He became extravagant, flamboyant, and arrogant. Rumors spread. He was said to illegally sell artifacts, but nobody was able to produce evidence against him. He and his wife divorced and he turned into a womanizer. Janet Lloyd said he had sadomasochistic preferences.”

“The perfect candidate,” Steve replied. “You said the Korean girl accompanied him to the secret place and witnessed a man cutting out a woman’s heart. Osborne did not actively take part in the ritual himself?”

“He was not the murderer, according to Kia. He did not actively take part in the ritual that night, but perhaps he did so some other night,” Adam replied.

“I’ll investigate on him,” Steve said. “And I’ll also investigate on Janet Lloyd. I’m certain she can give me names and details that I can work with. You said she left England five years ago. I could imagine Osborne’s group has forgotten about her.”

“Are you certain?” Adam asked. “They performed the ritual on Angelo Falcone and eleven years later another one on Jeremiah Irons. I don’t think they are careless and oblivious. What about Sassetti? Have you heard from him?”

“I called him this morning. The obsidian knife is not an artifact. It was produced in China, most likely two years ago. Neither Falcone nor Irons were killed with it. No fingerprints, unfortunately. Sassetti is convinced the knife was left by some idiot,” Steve said.

“Has he gotten instructions to drop the case?” Adam asked.

“Not yet, to his own surprise. It seems whoever held a protecting hand over Falcone, won’t shield Jeremiah Irons. Whoever protected Falcone, did not do it in order to shield the secret sect, but for a different motive,” Steve said.

“Sassetti said Falcone was a Mafioso. That’s the motive,” Adam replied.

Steve nodded thoughtfully. “I guess Falcone and Irons stumbled over something and were silenced. As a warning to others.”

“Members of the sect. What about Joseph Peterson? Was he a member of the sect also?” Adam asked.

“Investigate on him,” Steve replied.

“One more thing,” Adam said. “How about we question Timothy Baker again? It seems his visions pointed in the right direction.”

Steve looked at him and then laughed out loudly. “Very professional, Adam Johnson,” he said.

He placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder. Adam looked at it out of the corner of his eye. He sat motionless until Steve withdrew his hand. Steve winked at Adam.

“Find out about Joseph Peterson and question Timothy Baker again,” he said. “I’ll investigate on Reginald Osborne and Janet Lloyd.”

Steve made a step towards to the door, but then turned around again. He took the three folders that he had placed on Adam’s desk a few days ago.

“No need to look through them, Adam,” he said. “We’re busy otherwise, I think.”

Steve sent Adam an email a couple of hours later. Janet Lloyd had finished her studies in the States and had returned to England three years ago. She had married a man she had met shortly after her return. He was an art journalist and had interviewed her on Aztec arts. Her new name was Walker. They had two children, twins, two boys named Michael and Jordan. Janet worked part-time in a London museum.

Adam emailed back and asked if Steve was going to interrogate the woman. Steve answered he would do so the following day, and then asked Adam if he wanted to join him for lunch. They exchanged several emails discussing the restaurant and their favorite dishes until Adam blushed at the realization of the crap he had written in his emails. He wrote another short reply, saying he would be waiting for Steve in the corridor at twelve o’ clock. Steve sent back an email with a smiley. Adam gazed at the grinning yellow face, and then started his research on Joseph Peterson.

The cold case folder luckily contained a few useful documents, copies of insurance policies and letters Derek Peterson had written after his father’s death. Joseph Peterson had died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-six. He had retired a year before his death, after working for decades in a bank, the same bank his son worked with also. His wife Cynthia had died of cancer at the age of fifty-five. Joseph Peterson had not married again. One year after his wife’s death, he had transferred a big amount of money to the Cayman Islands. Derek Peterson had investigated on the money after his father’s death. The money had been withdrawn by cash. According to the bank on the Cayman Islands, Joseph Peterson himself had withdrawn the money, but Derek Peterson insisted his father had been in London on the date of the withdrawal. There was an extended exchange of letters between the bank and Peterson’s lawyers. The bank finally refunded part of the money.

Adam underlined the words Cayman Islands. He was interrupted by a knock on the door. Steve looked into the room. He pointed at his watch.

“I thought you were waiting in the corridor,” he said.

Adam looked at his watch, smiled briefly, and then rose to his feet. Steve had picked a Thai restaurant and got into raptures over the dishes as they walked down the street. Adam gave him a wary look. They entered the restaurant, sat down and ordered their meals.

“What do you think?” Steve asked.

“Well,” Adam started, “The Cayman Islands...”

“Not this,” Steve interrupted him. “What do you think? Do you like the dish?”

“Um, yes,” Adam replied. “I like Asian dishes.”

“That’s what you wrote in your emails. I’m glad you like Asian food. We can come here again some other day,” Steve said.

Adam smiled briefly. “The Cayman Islands,” he said, changing the topic. “It seems that something happened after Cynthia Peterson’s death. Joseph Peterson transferred a big amount of money to a bank on the Cayman Islands. Why?”

“I’m thinking,” Steve said, pushing his plate aside. “The obsidian knife that he was said to possess,” he said finally, “perhaps he bought the knife from Jeremiah Irons. Peterson transferred money to the Cayman Islands and Jeremiah Irons withdrew it with a wrong passport or so.”

“Possibly,” Adam said. “An original ceremonial knife is expensive, I think.” He opened his cell phone and searched the internet. “You can get an obsidian knife legally for about 2,000 $.  A special knife might cost more. But Joseph Peterson transferred about 25,000 $,” he said.

“He bought more artifacts perhaps,” Steve said.

He pulled his purse out. Adam hurried to pull out his one also. Steve made a gesture with his hand.

“My turn,” he said.

Adam gave him an awkward look, but Steve smiled cheerfully.

“It’s okay, Adam,” he said. “It’s your turn tomorrow.”

Adam opened his lips to protest, but then decided to refrain from commenting. He gave Steve a nod. Steve waved for the waiter, and then looked back at Adam.

“I called the museum. Janet Walker works this afternoon. The museum opens at half past two. I’ll go there. I should be back in the office before five. I’ll come to your room,” he said.

“Okay,” Adam replied. “I’ll try to find out about Timothy Baker. I’ll call him as soon as I have found out about his number.”

“This shouldn’t be too difficult,” Steve replied, rising to his feet. He rubbed his hands. “All right, let’s get back to work. We’re making progress. Who said the case was cold?”

***

Adam took the cold case folder and brushed through the documents. He found Timothy Baker’s telephone number and made a call. Timothy’s mother answered it. The woman was wary, downright suspicious, but finally called out to her son.

“Yes?” Timothy Baker asked in a wary voice.

Adam explained the matter to him.

“I don’t want to talk with you on the phone,” Timothy replied. “I know you’re recording the call. Police treated me badly back then. If you want to talk with me, then come to our house.”

Adam hesitated, but then agreed to visit the Bakers at three in the afternoon.

Timothy’s mother opened the door. She eyed Adam for an instant, but then showed him to their living room. Timothy was seated on the couch, reading a book. He closed it and put it aside when Adam entered. The young man had not changed very much. An odd aura surrounded him.

Adam introduced himself and explained the reason for his coming. Timothy rose to his feet and awkwardly reached out his hand. Adam shook it and smiled at the young man. Timothy sat down on the couch and looked at Adam warily. Adam sat down in a chair. The door opened and Mrs. Baker brought tea. She hesitated, but then left the room again.

“Are you still having visions?” Adam started.

Timothy gazed at him and gave a brief nod. Adam shifted his position, and then decided to come straight to the point.

“You mentioned an obsidian knife, Timothy. They thought your vision was humbug, but Steve Mills has never closed the case. He believes in your vision. I’ve joined the cold case team only recently. Steve introduced me to the case. I want to question you again. You mentioned an obsidian knife. Can you tell me anything else about it or the burglary in general?”

Timothy eyed Adam. “It’s odd,” he said. “I dreamed of the knife only yesterday. I saw it clearly. I awoke, but I could still see the knife with my inner eyes. I saw every detail. I would recognize it if you showed it to me.”

“Very odd, indeed,” Adam said. “So far, we have not found the knife. I’m currently investigating on the man who owned it. I suspect he bought it illegally and the knife was used in a ritual.”

“Yes, definitely,” Timothy said excitedly. He straightened. “I saw the knife clearly. It was old. It looked Mexican. It was elaborately crafted. It turned slowly in the air, or so it seemed to me. It was a vision. Visions are like this. I’m used to it,” he explained.

Adam gave a nod.

“And then a drop of blood appeared on the tip of the blade. A dark red drop of blood. The drop enlarged, and then blood streamed down the blade, a lot of blood. The streaming of the blood wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t help but stare. The blood soon covered the floor, a floor made of stone. And then the image vanished,” Timothy said.

He leaned back against the rear of the couch.

“This knife has killed many men,” he said in a serious voice. “Hundreds, thousands of men. This is why it is so precious to those who possess it. The knife has been in use for centuries. It has never stopped its cruel deeds.”

“What do you mean?” Adam asked.

Timothy looked at him with widened eyes. “I can only tell you of the image I saw and the feelings I had. However, my feelings tell me the truth. I’m very rarely mistaken,” he replied. He straightened and looked at Adam gravely. “The knife is used to perform a bloodthirsty ritual. It is used to kill. It has been used for centuries down to the present day.”

Adam took a breath. “You mean the Aztec ritual of cutting out the victim’s heart was never given up? When the Aztec people were eradicated, others took up on the ritual and continued it down to the present day?”

“Yes,” Timothy said. “They have never stopped performing the ritual. However, I’m afraid I cannot say who these men are, why they do it, and where they perform the ritual. The image was very clear. I was under the impression I could reach out my hand and seize the knife. So I suspect that the knife is somewhere close.”

Adam looked at Timothy until his words had sunken in.

“Why do you think did you have the visions, the ones three years ago and the one yesterday?” Adam asked.

Timothy shrugged. “The truth wants to come to light. Nothing can linger in the dark forever. I don’t know why, but I receive these kinds of visions, visions of hidden things, secret things that want to be uncovered. I was at odds with my talent when I was very young, but I have come to accept my destiny. I’m a seer.” Timothy smiled shyly. “Seers were popular in the past. People went to see them. They still do. This habit has not died out either.”

Adam smiled. He took his cup of tea and emptied it.

“Thank you for the tea and for helping me, Timothy,” he said. He pulled a card from his pocket. “My telephone number. Just in case you have another vision or just something more to tell me.”

Adam placed the card on the coffee table. Timothy gave him a nod. He stood awkwardly and showed Adam to the door. Mrs. Baker eyed them from the kitchen warily. Adam went back to his car. He felt as if a cold shadow had fallen upon him.

It was half past five when he arrived at the office. Adam sat down at his desk and wrote a report. He had just finished it when Steve knocked on the door.

***

“Oh my god, what happened?” Steve asked in bewilderment. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“So to speak,” Adam replied. He told Steve of his conversation with Timothy Baker.

“I’ve meanwhile read on that Aztec ritual. The heart was cut out, arms and legs were cut off, the corpse was skinned, parts of the bodies were burned, parts were fed to animals, and...,” Steve said, swallowing. “Parts were eaten,” he finished his sentence.

“Ritual cannibalism,” Adam confirmed.

Steve closed his eyes for an instant. He shook his head when he opened them again. “Could it be? I refuse to believe it,” he said.

“We have no evidence, neither for a ritual murder nor for ritual cannibalism,” Adam said soberly. “In fact, we have nothing. We’re just speculating.”

“No,” Steve said forcefully. He had regained his composure. “I talked with Janet Walker. She was hesitant at first, but then she could not hold back. I guess she has never confided to anybody.”

“What did she tell you?” Adam asked curiously.

“She said Reginald Osborne was a pervert, not just a man with S&M preferences, but a man who really enjoyed torturing others. Janet said that she agreed to one of his games, but when she begged him to stop it, he ignored her request. Her hands and feet were bound and her body was tied to wall bars. Osborne started to cut her skin with a knife. She begged him to stop it, but he continued. He left her alone in the room for several hours Janet was certain he would kill her in the end, but he let her go the following morning. Osborne bribed her to silence. She was in need of money, and so she took it and held her tongue,” Steve recounted.

“Did she take part in the ritual Kia attended?” Adam asked.

“No,” Steve said. “Janet knew of Osborne and Kia’s fling. Kia was a friend of hers, not a close one, but they now and then hung out together. Janet said she had wanted to warn her friend. She confronted Kia and told her of her own night with Reginald Osborne. Kia didn’t believe her and refused to talk with her again and Janet let her be, particularly when she heard of Kia’s breakdown and her weird talk about a bloody ritual. Janet was certain that Osborne had abused her. I asked Janet. She never took part in an Aztec ritual.”

“Can we believe her?” Adam asked.

“Yes. I trust my guts,” Steve replied.

“Reginald Osborne. Who else belongs to the circle?” Adam asked.

“Joseph Peterson?” Steve asked back.

“Most likely,” Adam replied. “We need to find out more about the men.”

Steve nodded and looked at his watch. “We’ll continue tomorrow,” he said.

They left the building and walked to the parking area. Steve pointed at the far end of it.

“My car’s over there,” he said.

“Mine’s right here,” Adam replied.

“Well, see you tomorrow,” Steve said and walked on.

Adam looked after Steve. Could it be? Or did he read something into things?

***

Steve showed Adam a list the following morning.

“They have searched Jeremiah Iron’s apartment and his office in London. They retrieved a large amount of documents that are currently being examined. This is a list of his latest deals that he had recorded in an order book,” Steve said.

He handed the list to Adam. Adam read the names, but none of them rang a bell.

“They’ll question the men,” Steve said. “I suspect, however, these deals and transactions were legal and we won’t find a hint. I’m going to research on Reginald Osborne now. How about we meet up for lunch? Is this fine with you, Adam?”

Adam smiled briefly and nodded. He returned to his research on Joseph Peterson.

“What deems me odd is the red hand print on Iron’s abdomen,” Adam said when they were having lunch in an Italian restaurant.

“I was already thinking about it as well,” Steve replied, eyeing his plate with spaghetti. “Sassetti sent me a brief summary of the autopsy. Irons had been knocked unconscious. His hands and feet were tied. He had a cut on his neck, not a deep one, but it bled briskly. They think the murderer soaked his hand with the blood and then made the hand print on Irons’ abdomen.”

“No fingerprints?” Adam asked.

“The murderer wore a disposable glove. He took it along. The hand print is hard to see anyway as the murderer cut Irons’ abdomen and diaphragm in order to get to his heart. You can imagine the mess,” Steve said.

Adam eyed the red tomato sauce on his plate in disgust. “Hard to believe they found the hand print at all,” he said weakly.

“They did, but they can’t say if it is a man’s or a woman’s hand print,” Steve said.

“The hand print wasn’t part of the ancient Aztec ritual,” Adam said thoughtfully.

Steve nodded. “The murderer set a personal sign, it seems, demonstrating his personal power,” he said. “The red hand print is a common trope in horror movies. We’ve already assumed that the murder was not a ritual murder. The ritual performed on Irons was a mock ritual, a warning to others. The bloody hand print would stress this assumption, I think,” he said.

“Perhaps,” Adam said. “But it still deems me odd. Was Irons killed on top of the Spanish Steps?”

“Yes,” Steve replied. “The murderer carried the unconscious man there, killed him, cut his heart out and threw his body down the stairs.”

“And not one single person witnessed the crime?” Adam asked in disbelief.

“Who knows,” Steve replied. “So far, however, nobody has contacted the police. I could imagine that any witness refrains from doing so, out of fear.”

Adam nodded. “Where is Irons’ heart? Did the murderer take it along?”

“Apparently. At least, they have not found it,” Steve said.

Adam looked at his meal and swallowed. Steve gave a laugh.

“Let’s change the topic. I don’t want to spoil your appetite,” he said.

They finally went back to the office and resumed their work. It was already half past six when Adam returned home. He switched on the TV in order to distract himself. They showed a report on the Irish province of Ulster. Adam was about to switch the channel when a coat of arms appeared on the screen. Adam gazed at the image that showed a red hand. Adam leaned forward curiously. He learned that the Red Hand of Ulster denoted the Irish province of Ulster. Its origins were said to be attributed to a mythical figure and the symbol appeared in various mythical tales. The symbol rooted in Irish Gaelic culture and was particularly associated with the Uí Néill clan of Ulster. The red hand was also known as the Red Hand of O’Neill.

The name rang a bell. Adam straightened, alarmed. He seized a piece of paper and jotted down the information.

He went to bed, but awoke at four in the morning and was unable to go back to sleep. His thoughts were running. Adam showered, dressed, and hurried to the office. He entered his office room at five in the morning and, without taking off his jacket, sat down at his desk and searched for Steve’s list. Adam went through the names and stopped at the seventh name from the top: Rory O’Neill. The man had ordered an Aztec calendar stone.

Adam put the list aside, rose to his feet, took off his jacket and went to the automatic coffee maker at the end of the corridor. The coffee maker worked loudly. Adam seized the cardboard cup and sipped on the hot coffee. He was about to go back to his room when the door to Steve’s room opened and Steve looked out with a frown.

“Goodness,” Steve said at Adam’s sight. “Did you make the noise? The coffee maker must be repaired. Why don’t they buy a new one anyway? Why are you here already, Adam?”

“Same question,” Adam replied. “What are you doing here already?”

“I had a date not far from here and I thought driving home made no sense at all. So I came here,” Steve said.

Adam sensed a twitch in his stomach. He took another sip of coffee. Steve snickered and made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Not what you’re thinking,” he said in an amused voice. “I called one of my informants yesterday. The man insisted to meet me at half past four in the morning. He works in a dubious night club. It didn’t please me at all, but I went to see him. I asked him if he had heard anything about Reginald Osborne. I asked him to ask around a bit.”

“A dubious club?” Adam asked, moving towards Steve.

“A bondage club,” Steve replied. “The man owes me a favor. He’ll ask around. Why have you come here early?”

Adam recounted his finding. “You said the murderer set a personal sign. I saw a documentary on TV about Irish province of Ulster. They mentioned the Red Hand of Ulster, the Red Hand of O’Neill. This rang a bell. The name Rory O’Neill is on the list you gave me,” he said.

Steve nodded appreciatively. “Find out about the man. Any connections between O'Neill and Osborne or Peterson? I bet you’ll find some,” he said. Steve went to the coffee maker and got himself a coffee also.

Adam and Steve stood in the corridor and made small talk until the door opened and a co-worker entered the hallway. The man gave them a questioning look. Steve greeted him cheerfully whereas Adam retreated to his room quickly.

Adam took the list again and gazed at the name. He typed his father’s telephone number. David Johnson answered the call in a scratchy voice.

“Did I wake you, Dad?” Adam asked guiltily.

He told his father of his finding.

“Rory O’Neill,” his father repeated the name slowly. “O’Neill. The name sounds familiar to me, but I cannot grasp it right now. How about we have dinner tonight, Adam? Can you spare some time? I’ll be thinking on the name.”

Adam agreed. He ended the call and gazed into the room thoughtfully. Finally, he resumed his work. He looked for a connection between Rory O’Neill and Joseph Peterson, yet did not find one. Frustrated, he left his office room at five in the afternoon. He knocked on Steve’s room and finally opened the door. Steve was absent, which frustrated Adam even more. He drove to his father’s house. David Johnson was already awaiting him. He ushered his son into the living room.

“Rory O’Neill,” he said excitedly after they had sat down. “I do remember the man.”

Adam leaned forward curiously. “Tell me, Dad,” he said.

“Rory O’Neill was one of Reginald Osborne’s students. He was an eccentric, a flamboyant personality with extravagant behavior, arrogant, exclusive, and picky. Only few liked him, but those who liked him downright fell for him. He was always surrounded by his little group of followers, men and women, groupies in a sense. Yes, the man came across like a crazy rock star. He had no real interest in his studies. I think he just visited the faculty out of curiosity, like visiting a zoo, or so. He disappeared after six months. I have never seen him again,” Adam’s father said.

He paused and looked at Adam thoughtfully.

“Now that I think of the man, it deems me Reginald Osborne copied him. He was a serious academic, but his personality changed drastically after he had met O’Neill,” he said.

Adam nodded slowly. “I suspect that neither Kia not Janet met the man at the university,” he said.

“No, definitely not,” his father replied. “O’Neill had left many years before Kia and Janet entered university.

“They could have met him anyway,” Adam mused. “Assuming O’Neill and Osborne were still in touch.”

“At a private party or so, yes, of course,” his father said. He cast his son a meaningful look. “You think O’Neill is the head of the sect?”

Adam shrugged. “We have no evidence at all. But a certain Rory O’Neill ordered an Aztec artifact from Irons. Is he the same Rory O’Neill who studied with Osborne?” he asked.

“I don’t think it’s sheer coincidence,” his father said seriously. “You must find out about Rory O’Neill. Where did the man go to? Where did he come from? Where is he now?”

Adam nodded. “That’s what we will be doing, Dad.” He smiled at his father. “What have you prepared for dinner?”

His father smirked. “Roast beef. I haven’t eaten it in months,” he said. “Now that I’m single, I need to cook. I don’t like fast food. I dare say that my meals taste good.”

He rose to his feet and looked at Adam.

“What about you, Adam? Are you still single?” he asked.

Adam smiled, yet refrained from replying. He followed his father into the kitchen.

Adam left two hours later and again promises his father to keep in touch.

The week passed by. Nothing happened, but on Tuesday the following week results followed in quick succession. Adam and Steve finally made progress. A bigger picture unfolded.

***

Steve’s informant reported that Reginald Osborne was well known in S&M circles. He was a regular visitor to the clubs and he often required special services that were illegal and were only offered in secrecy. Since Osborne paid big amounts of money for these services, he usually got what he wanted and usually found women willing to participate in his perverted games.

“It is said that he likes to play a mock murder game with the women,” Steve said with a stern look. “Much like Janet Walker experienced it. He ties the women, cuts their skin, and then licks their blood from their bodies. They cannot ask him to stop. This is part of the deal. They must endure it until he’s done with it. He pays the women and the agents who arrange the meeting usually in advance.”

“Any rumors that one of the women did not survive the game?” Adam asked.

Steve shook his head. “My informant won’t tell me more. He took a risk. I cannot press him.”

An hour later, Commissario Sassetti replied to an email that Adam had sent him. Sassetti had looked for a connection between Angelo Falcone and Rory O’Neill and had in fact found one. Adam informed Steve. They met in Adam’s room.

“Rory O’Neill lived in Italy for a couple of years. He left the country soon after Falcone’s death. Now, listen. O’Neill had bought his house in the outskirts of Rome from Angelo Falcone. Sassetti called Falcone’s then-girlfriend. She remembered O’Neill. Falcone was a party-goer as was O’Neill. The woman remembered the flamboyant man. Angelo Falcone was enthusiastic about him, but she did not like the man. O’Neill disappeared from the scene. The woman has not met him again,” Adam recounted.

Steve gave a whistle. “Rory O’Neill. He’s the key figure,” he said. “What about Joseph Peterson. Any connections?”

The bank Joseph Peterson had worked with as a client advertiser answered their query in the afternoon. Rory O’Neill had held a bank account for nine months. Joseph Peterson had been his adviser. O’Neill had transferred a big amount, approximately 450,000 pounds to the Cayman Islands.

Adam and Steve looked at each other.

“Bingo!” Steve said.

“Now we just need to find the man and extract a confession from him,” Adam said drily.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult,” Steve said in a convinced voice. “He’s the suspect of two murders. I’ll write a detailed report. This should suffice.”

“Better leave out our speculations on the secret rituals,” Adam said. “Think of Timothy Baker and his visions, one of the reasons they closed the case.”

“Sure,” Steve said with a slight frown. “I’m not an idiot, Adam.”

“No, you’re a professional,” Adam replied.

Steve cast him a sharp look, but then smiled broadly.

“We have a lot in common, Adam. More than you think or allow you to think,” he said with an ambiguous look.

He walked to the door, turned around, and smiled at Adam. And then he left. Adam gazed at the door.

At a quarter to five, Adam printed out a paper and looked at it. His heart was beating widely. He called Steve who came to his room promptly. Adam handed him the paper.

“A mansion near Witham, Essex, District of Braintree. Bingo!” Steve said.

“Rory O’Neill bought it fifteen years ago, when he visited the university and studied with Osborne,” Adam said.

“And looked for followers and playfellows,” Steve replied, studying the paper. He looked up. “Okay, let’s sum up what we have found out about Rory O’Neill. He’s stinking rich. He inherited his money from his father. A man of independent means, so to speak. Work is a word that O’Neill has never heard of. He’s forty-three,” Steve said. “Now what I think is: The man needs to fill his days. He’s rich, he can afford expensive hobbies. He built an Aztec temple and decorated it with original Aztec artifacts. A temple without activities is boring. So why not perform a ritual? O’Neill looks for followers and he finds them. Now he’s their guru, their priest. He picks the victims, or perhaps they volunteer. Playing Aztec is a lot of fun,” Steve said drily yet with a grave look.

“Yes,” Adam said in a sober voice. “But we need more evidence. So far, we have not even seen the man.”

“This will change very soon,” Steve replied. “I suggest we drive over to Witham and visit the temple.”

Adam looked at his watch. “What? Now?” he asked.

Steve pondered. “Too risky, okay. They might assemble there tonight. Who knows? Let’s drive there tomorrow. How about I’ll pick you up at four o’clock in the morning and then we’ll be sneaking about a bit?” he asked.

Adam nodded slowly. “All right. I can’t imagine they’re around so early.”

They left the building and walked to the parking area.

“We’re getting closer,” Steve said. “O’Neill will not escape.”

Adam glanced at him. He was feeling nervous, strangely excited.

Steve gave a laugh. “That’s the rush of adrenalin. The feeling will get even stronger, Adam,” he said.

Steve smiled at Adam.  His eyes rested on Adam’s face, but then he turned away abruptly and walked to his car. Adam looked after him. His heart was pounding faster. Adam opened the door of his car forcefully.

***

O’Neill’s mansion was located three kilometers from the small town Witham, north-east of London. Steve parked his car at some distance from the mansion on a dirt road. Adam and Steve walked down the road and approached the mansion. Morning had broken, but the light was still dim. The road was empty and everything was silent. A barb wire fence and an iron gate were supposed to keep unwanted visitors from entering the property. The house looked empty and deserted. There was no light in the windows.

“Do you think the house has a video surveillance system?” Adam asked.

“So far, I have not seen a sign that indicates it,” Steve said.

After watching the place for a couple of minutes, Adam and Steve climbed over the gate. The path to the house was dusty. They didn’t see footprints or car tracks.

“It was raining two days ago,” Steve said. “The rain has washed away the traces. We need to look more closely.”

“This means that nobody came to the house in the previous two days,” Adam said.

They walked on slowly, looking around carefully, and finally stopped in front of the entrance door. Steve examined it.

“Locked,” he said.

They surrounded the house. The windows were shut and the curtains were drawn.

“No way we can get into the house without breaking the door or a window,” Steve said.

“What about the backdoor?” Adam asked, pointing at the wooden entrance.

They approached it, but it was likewise locked. Adam looked at the ground.

“Look,” he said, crouching down and picking up a red wool thread.  He turned it in his hand and looked it at it closely. “Clean. It has not been here for a long time. A thread from a scarf perhaps,” he said.

They moved across the place slowly.

“There,” Adam said, crouching down again. “Car tracks, clear and distinct. Someone came here in the previous two days.” He stood and looked into the distance. “There must be another entrance to the estate.”

Steve joined him and examined the ground. “Yes,” he affirmed. Someone drove up here not long ago with a compact van or a pick-up truck.”

The place behind the house was dry and dusty. No lawn, no bushes and trees, only a few weeds grew in it. They moved away from the house, following the tracks of the car, and finally saw another iron gate. It was locked and secured with a bar.

“They came in here,” Adam said. “We must find out where this dirt track leads to.”

Steve nodded. “Later,” he said. “Let’s go back to the house and have a closer look.”

They walked back. The house had three floors and looked well-preserved.

“Someone has been attending to the building,” Steve said. “We must find the craftsmen. They must have entered the house.”

“We need to ask around in Witham,” Adam said. “I can’t imagine nobody watched a thing in fifteen years. If this house is O’Neill’s temple, then there ought to be rumors of some kind. Or do you think he was able to guard the secret for fifteen years?”

“No,” Steve replied. “There’s always someone who has heard or watched a thing.”

He looked up the house and moved on. Adam followed him. Steve stopped and pulled on a drainpipe.

“A window’s open on the second floor,” he said.

Adam looked up to the window. Steve pulled again on the drainpipe, and then started to climb it. Adam watched him, his heart pounding faster.

Steve reached the second floor, reached out his left hand and seized the window sill. He pushed his body closer to the window, raised his hand briefly from the sill and pushed the window open. He placed his left foot on a wall projection, withdrew his other hand from the drainpipe and placed it on the sill, and then quickly pulled his body up and through the open window.

A few seconds later, Steve looked out of the window. He smiled broadly, made a triumphant sign with his hand, and then disappeared into the room. Adam looked around warily.

Steve returned about twenty minutes later in the window and climbed down the wall.

“Interesting,” he said, rubbing his hands. “The rooms on the second and third floor aren’t locked, but they are all empty. The door to the attic is locked. The rooms on the first floor and the ground floor are also locked. Even the bathrooms and the kitchen. The door to the basement is not only locked with a key, it is secured with three additional padlocks. Someone’s overcautious or afraid of others entering the basement,” Steve said with a meaningful look.

Adam nodded. “The temple’s down there,” he said.

“It’s clear as day to me,” Steve replied. “I smell the blood.” He looked up the house again and then turned back to Adam. “Let’s go, Adam. There’s dreadful energy,” he said.

“You sound like Timothy Baker,” Adam replied drily.

 “I’m dead serious, Adam,” Steve said.

Adam gave a curt nod. They walked back to the main gate, climbed over it, moved back to Steve’s car and got into it. Steve started the car, and then they drove back to London.

“How about we have breakfast?” Steve asked when they entered the outskirts.

“I’m fine with it,” Adam replied.

Steve drove on and finally parked the car in front of his apartment house. Adam was stunned, but didn’t protest. He followed Steve to his apartment. Steve unlocked the door and turned to Adam in the doorway.

“Coffee?” he asked with a slightly insecure undertone.  It was barely perceivable, but Adam caught it anyway.

“Okay,” Adam replied with a smile.

Steve showed Adam to his living room and then went into the kitchen. Adam sat down on the couch and looked around in the room. It was clean, neat, and orderly, totally unlike he had imagined Steve’s room. The room looked as if somebody regularly looked after it. Who? His girlfriend? Adam felt a twitch in his stomach. He looked around again but saw nothing that indicated another person’s permanent presence in the room. Then again, Adam thought, Steve was probably not the type who scattered his girlfriend’s things all over his rooms. Steve returned with sandwiches and two cups of coffee. He placed them on the coffee table and sat down in a chair. He leaned back and looked at Adam.

“Unfortunately, we cannot have O’Neill’s house searched. So far, we have no reason for it,” he said.

“We must find out about his whereabouts,” Adam replied. “The man is like a phantom.”

Steve nodded. He seized his cup of coffee and took a sip. “I’ll contact my informant again. Reginald Osborne will lead us to Rory O’Neill,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“You like to read?” Adam asked with a look at Steve’s bookshelf that was filled with paperbacks.

“Yes,” Steve replied. “But I don’t read classical literature. I prefer crime thrillers, mysteries, and such.”

“Stephen King?” Adam asked, seizing his cup of coffee.

“For instance,” Steve replied with a smile.

They had found something they had in common.

An hour later, they left Steve’s apartment and drove to work.

Adam seized a sheet of paper, but then placed it back on the desk, and looked out of the window for a couple of minutes. He caught himself thinking of Steve Mills and the crime thrillers he read. Adam forced himself to focus back on his work.

Steve entered Adam’s room a couple of hours later excitedly.

***

“I called my informant. The man said he had news. Reginald Osborne asked for a special service in one of the clubs. He booked a girl for Saturday night. My informant talked with her. Osborne had already once booked the woman. She said Osborne will pick her up at the club on Saturday evening and will drive with her to a secluded place. She said he was a dirty skunk, but paid a lot of money. She was not scared. She said she could cope with his liking as long as he paid her well. And she said she knew where he would take her to, a deserted mansion in or near Witham. Last time they had driven there, Osborne had bandaged her eyes all the way from the London outskirts to the house, but the dirty skunk had forgotten to plug her ears. He had made a brief call in the car. It had not made much sense to her, but Osborne had said I’m going to Witham right now, and the woman had made a mental note,” Steve recounted.

“That’s the connection between Osborne and O’Neill,” Adam said.

Steve nodded. “I’ll write a report and fill in the forms. We have gathered enough information,” he said. “Reginald Osborne is under strong suspicion of being involved in illegal activities. Even if the woman consented to Osborne’s game, the game will not be considered normal prostitution. Osborne risks the woman’s death. The date could well be lethal. Murder by negligence or intentional murder. We must do what we can to stop the potential crime.”

Like he had expected, an operation team was set up, motions were filed and approvals obtained. The operation was planned fast and yet carefully. Two men were sent to the place again in order to take pictures of the house and the surroundings with a special camera. Although taken from the distance, the pictures were exact and distinct. The men hadn’t detected any signs of an alarm system, but the security experts worked out a safe way to the house anyway. The operation team internalized the results.

Adam and Steve continued investigating on Rory O’Neill, but whatever they tried, the man remained a phantom, just a name written on various papers. Many had had to do with him in the past, but nobody had seen him or heard of him in the previous two years.

“It seems he has disappeared from the scene,” Steve said.

“He was in Rome a couple of weeks ago, assuming he killed Jeremiah Irons,” Adam said. “Hasn’t anybody seen him in Rome? What has Sassetti found out? No reports?” he asked.

Steve shook his head. “Perhaps he had to drop the case. I’ll call him,” he said.

He informed Adam a short time later.

“Sassetti continued investigating on Reginald Osborne, but has not found out much. Osborne sold his house near Rome two years ago to an Italian investor group. The manager remembered the eccentric man, but had no useful information. They have not found out more about the murder on Jeremiah Irons. The corpse will be transferred to England next week. Not a single witness, not a single trace. Sassetti was pleased with the news on Rory O’Neill. He’ll investigate on him, but most likely won’t come back to me before the end of next week,” Steve said.

Adam called his father in the evening. David Johnson had cautiously asked around. Reginald Osborne was said to be on a vacation and his assistants seemed to be pleased he was gone. One woman told him in confidence that she thought Osborne needed psychological treatment. She thought the man was a sex addict who made a dirty pass on every woman who came across his way. She said that a couple of months ago he had invited her to a tête-à-tête dinner on the countryside, but she had of course reclined the invitation. It seemed to her that, fortunately, Osborne had lately stopped his pick up tours in the university. Adam’s father had tried to subtly find out if Osborne was a member of a secret sect, but his research had delivered no results. He had also asked an elder faculty member if the man remembered Rory O’Neill. The man in fact remembered the eccentric student and said that he had heard that O’Neill had left England a couple of years ago.

Adam told his father that his findings were in accordance with their results. He asked his father to stop his research, which his father reluctantly promised. They ended the call. Adam took a deep breath. He had to get prepared for the operation on Saturday evening. Neither racking his brains nor worrying would serve well this purpose. Adam reached out and picked up a book from the coffee table, a crime thriller that he had started to read the day before, a book Steve had highly recommended, and that in fact had instantly drawn him in.

***

The operation team met on Saturday afternoon. The team consisted of five men in total, including the head of the team. Steve and Adam were part of it. The head of the team repeated the plan of action.

“We’ll put on camouflage suits and apply the minor devices. The rest of the equipment will be placed in the trunks of the cars. After we have changed clothes and applied the devices, we’ll leave London and follow the route we have worked out. We’ll approach the mansion from the north.”

The man unfolded a map and showed it to the others.

“Here’s the mansion. That’s the dirt track that leads to the back of the house. We suppose Osborne will take this way. There’s a wood about five-hundred meters from the gate. We have seen the pictures of the wood and the path. We’ll park the cars in the forest and we’ll hide there until Osborne arrives and drives by,” the man continued.

The men nodded. They had visualized this part of the operation many times in the previous hours. They knew it by heart.

“We cannot plan the following steps. They’ll depend on the situation. Any comments or suggestions?” the head of the team asked.

Everybody agreed on the way of proceeding. The man turned to several items and backpacks that were placed on the floor.

“Please take your backpack, take out your camouflage suit and put it on,” the head of the team said to the four men.

The men stepped forward, seized the backpacks and opened them. Adam pulled out his camouflage suit. He hesitated for an instant, but then started to undress. Steve gazed at him, but turned away quickly and also changed clothes, but Adam had seen the look in Steve’s eyes and finally he had no doubts any longer. The truth had revealed to Adam in the blink of an eye.

They prepared their night-vision goggles and their headsets with the radio and tracking devices. They tested the devices and then they prepared their guns. They placed all items into their backpacks, and then left the building and went to the two cars that had been prepared for the operation. Steve and Adam climbed into one car, the other three men got onto the other. The cars left London and drove north-east. A short time later, they left the main road and drove north on a smaller road until they reached a crossroad. They took a small road east that led through fields of crop. Finally, they arrived at the dirt track that led south again and to O’Neill’s house. They approached the mansion from the north.

They drove into the wood where the men intended to hide their cars and lie in ambush. The men climbed out of the cars and covered them with camouflage canvas planes. They opened the trunk of the car and took out the rest of the equipment, ropes, a bolt cutter, false keys and other tools and devices. They opened the backpacks and took out the headsets and the night-vision goggles. They put them on, attached several devices and tools to their bodies, and placed others into their backpacks. They put on their backpacks and then they took their guns.

The men moved towards the edge of the wood. They lay down on the ground, hidden by bushes, yet with an excellent sight on the path. They were early and they had to have patience. It was eight o’clock, but Osborne was soon to come with his victim. It was only a question of time.

At ten past ten they heard the noise of a car. A man drove the car and another person was sitting in the passenger seat. The car drove by slowly. The men rose to their feet and moved along the dirt track. They stopped and viewed the house from the distance. Their monitoring devices showed that Osborne’s car was parked near the house. Osborne and the other person had already climbed out. A few minutes passed, and then the light went on in a room on the first floor and shone faintly through the drawn curtains. The men moved on and followed the barb wire to a point far in the east of the house. A man took off his backpack, took out a wire cutter and cut a hole. They slipped through the hole and looked at the house. The head of the team pointed in a direction. The men nodded. They moved on slowly, following the way the security experts had worked out in order to avoid motion detectors. The head of the team walked ahead and now and then indicated a change of direction. The men communicated via their headsets.

Forty-five minutes passed until they finally reached the house. The light was still on in the room on the first floor. Everything was quiet. Osborne and the other person had probably retreated to the illuminated room. Two men moved on to have a look at Osborne’s car while Adam and Steve surrounded the house. The head of the team remained near the backdoor. The men met again fifteen minutes later and exchanged their observations. The car was definitely Osborne’s. The men had checked the car sign. They had seen nothing inside of the car that raised suspicions. No other car was parked in the place. They agreed that Osborne and the other person most likely were the only visitors to the house. No door or window was broken. Osborne apparently possessed a key to the mansion. The men stood for another couple of minutes, observing the house, when suddenly a woman cried out loud. The head of the team raised his hand.

 “Open the door,” he commanded.

Steve tried to open the backdoor, but it was locked. He reached into a pocket of his camouflage suit and pulled out a false key, unlocked the door and opened it quietly. He stood for an instant and listened, and then entered the house. The others followed him. The night-vision goggles worked well and they saw the interior of the house clearly. The men moved on and reached the entrance hall of the mansion. They stopped at the bottom of a staircase. They heard another loud scream. The woman called out in obvious pain. The head of the team raised his hand.

“Change action,” he said. “Imminent danger. We’re going to enter the room.”

The men seized their guns and then moved up the stairs. They moved quietly down the hallway. They heard noises from inside a room. A man moaned and a woman whimpered. The men positioned left and right of the door and opposite of it. Suddenly, the woman screamed out again, now in obvious terror. The head of the team raised his hand. The men seized their guns tighter. The head of the team seized the knob of the door and turned it slowly. The door opened, unexpectedly. The man pushed it open forcefully and pointed his gun at the man in the room. Another man of the team entered right behind the first man. Reginald Osborne stood in the room, dressed only in bondage pants and with a knife in his hand that he was lowering from the woman’s throat. The woman was naked and tied to wall bars. The skin of her breasts and thighs was cut. Blood streamed down her body.

“Drop the knife,” the head of the team shouted.

Osborne gazed at the man, made a step back, but then seized the knife tighter and ran towards them. He raised his hand with the knife and yelled loudly. The second man of the team shot his gun. Osborne fell to the floor and pressed his hands on his thigh. His knife had dropped to the floor. The head of the team kicked it out of Osborne’s reach. The woman gazed at the men with widened eyes and then started to yell hysterically.

An hour later, the operation had ended. Two ambulances had arrived and had taken the woman and Osborne to a hospital. The doors of the house were sealed and the men returned to London.

***

O’Neill’s house was searched and a horrible discovery was made. The basement had been converted into an Aztec temple. The main room was decorated with Aztec artifacts. Smaller rooms in the basement contained clothes and items that were used for the ceremonies and rituals. One cellar room was filled with weapons and knives. The most horrible discovery, however, was a tzompantli, a skull rack that was erected in one of the rooms. They counted fifteen skulls, the skulls of the victims the sect had sacrificed over the years.

Confronted with the discovery, Reginald Osborne confessed the crimes. He had joined Rory O’Neill’s sect soon after he had met the man at the university. At that time, O’Neill had already practiced his cult for more than three years, together with a small group of followers. Osborne said O’Neill himself chose the victims, mainly young and naive women who trusted the group members. The members of the group were all men. A man usually approached the woman that O’Neill had picked. He seduced and manipulated her until she was a willing slave to him. Osborne and the other men shared the same liking. They were into sadomasochism and bondage games with a special thrill, which was the killing of their victims. The Aztec ritual perfectly fitted their needs. Osborne confessed that Joseph Peterson had helped the group with their financial transactions and had received a precious obsidian knife in exchange. Intrigued by the artifact, Peterson had bought the Aztec vases from Jeremiah Irons. After Peterson’s death, a man had broken into Peterson’s house to get the knife and the vases for O’Neill’s group.

Rory O’Neill had disappeared. Neither Osborne nor the other members of the sect, who were all found and arrested within a week, knew about O’Neill’s whereabouts. The interrogation of the seven arrested men brought more details to light. Jeremiah Irons had delivered the Aztec items over the years and the man had become increasingly suspicious. His allusions and remarks had alarmed O’Neill’s group and they had decided to kill the man. O’Neill and Irons met in Rome like they always did. O’Neill killed the man and then disappeared from the scene. None of the men had heard from him. An international arrest warrant was issued for Rory O’Neill.

Police researched on the victims. Gradually, after repeated interrogation, the men gave the victims’ names away. All women were reported missing. Family members and co-workers described the women as timid and shy, secretive and withdrawn. They had all been singles and they had all kept their affairs with O’Neill’s men a secret. All the women had disappeared without a trace. The skulls were examined and tooth imprints finally revealed the victims’ identities. The men were interrogated again. They confessed they had killed one woman each year. They had kept the skulls, yet burned and buried the rest of the corpses. Cannibalism had not been part of their ritual.

They had started the rituals in the basement fifteen years ago, after O’Neill had bought the mansion. In the beginning, only three men had performed the ritual with O’Neill. The other men had joined the group at a later time. When interrogated on Angelo Falcone’s murder, the men confessed that Falcone had been a member of the group for a year or so, yet had planned to leave the group. His decision had sealed his death. O’Neill himself had murdered him.

Reginald Osborne finally confessed that he had attacked Adam’s mother in order to scare and silence David Johnson. They had considered his open letter a threat. He also confessed that they had planned to sacrifice Kia, the woman Osborne had an affair with. He had taken her to the ritual, but another man had brought a woman also, a woman O’Neill had spotted only a week ago and considered the perfect victim. O’Neill had ordered Osborne to kill Kia off, but Osborne had refused to murder her. O’Neill had threatened to kill him, but Osborne had finally won him over. O’Neill gave in and Osborne arranged that Kia was declared insane. He later arranged her departure.

Rory O’Neill was arrested two months later in Malaysia. He had picked up a girl and had taken her to his hotel room. Police caught him in the act. The girl was tied to the bed and O’Neill had just started cutting the skin of her legs.

Adam received the news in his father’s house. Steve sent him a text message.

“Thank God!” David Johnson said with relief. “I could not stop worrying. I’m glad you’ve finally caught him.”

Adam looked up. “The Malaysian police caught him, Dad,” he said.

His father made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“If you had not investigated, then they would continue killing girls in the mansion near Witham. Just imagine! Reginald Osborne was part of it. We invited him and his wife to our house. Words cannot express my disgust,” he said.

He poured Adam more coffee. Adam gave his father a nod.

“Thank God you investigated that cold case. What’s the name of the man who insisted on investigating on it?” Adam’s father asked.

“Steve. Steve Mills,” Adam replied.

“Do you like him, Adam?” his father asked, taking a sip of his coffee.

Adam gazed at his father. His father put the cup down and gave a laugh.

“I could read it from your face when you read his text message. It’s rather plain to see, Adam. Even I can see it,” his father said. “And besides, I always knew. Your mother revealed it to me when you were sixteen.”

“Mom?” Adam asked in total bewilderment.

“The bond between mother and child. You can never deceive your mother,” his father replied.

He leaned back in his chair and smiled at Adam. Adam relaxed and returned the smile.


THE END




© 2013 Dolores Esteban

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First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction