Jedidiah Ellery flicked the butt of his cigarette into the gutter as he left his car on the street, parked beside the three squad cars and the black SUV marked for the Medical Examiner’s office. He hissed out a breath as he saw the identifier number on the SUV. With a tired nod to the uniform on perimeter duty, he signed his name on the entry log and slipped under the yellow tape. There was another one standing at the door. New to the turf, he started to hold out his hand until Ellery flashed his creds.
Two flights of stairs later and he was met by the third officer, who directed him down the hallway to the open door.
“Only other one on the floor is an elderly lady in apartment B,” the cop said. “She’s been told to stay inside if she can. On the plus side, she brings out coffee now and then.”
“Thanks, Ryan,” Ellery said, slapping a gloved hand onto the strong shoulder of the officer.
“And it’s weird in there,” Ryan warned. Ellery felt a grin spread across his face.
“They wouldn’t call me if it wasn’t.”
He rounded the jamb of the open door, letting the interior of the room wash over him.
Dozens of canvases stood on easels, hung at random intervals on the walls, and stood in haphazard stacks leaned against any vertical surface. Ellery was confronted with nearly a hundred images, and he had to look twice to verify what he was seeing.
“Capes?” he muttered, left eyebrow arching.
“Looks like,” replied a deep feminine voice. Ellery smiled.
“Detective Brown,” he said. “Always a pleasure to find you at a scene.”
“If you call me Detective one more time…”
He smoothly swiveled on his heels to see her deep green eyes staring at him. They seemed to be appraising him, taking in every element of his rumpled, just-rolled-out-of-bed appearance.
“How you been, Anne?”
She shrugged in a minuscule shift of her shoulders. “Get called to weirdness like this, but I guess it could be worse.”
“These pictures. They’re all…”
“Self-portraits, I guess,” she replied. “Portrait of the artist as a meta, or some shit.”
“Where’s the flop?”
She jerked her thumb over a shoulder. “Past all the paintings. And Jedi? Marlene’s the investigator.”
“Saw her truck outside,” he said with a nod.
“Need me to come with?”
“I can deal,” he said. The shuddering breath he took in almost belied his confidence.
He slithered his way through the easels, careful not to touch any of them. A minute later, he was standing in the doorway of what had been a kitchen. There was an obese man in the middle of the floor. A glance showed at least seven entry wounds on the man’s torso. Heavy pistol, Ellery surmised, his guess supported by the shell casings he could see on the floor.
“Jedi,” Marlene said. Her voice was carefully neutral. He looked up from the body. He fell in love with her all over again, as he did every time he saw her.
“Why’d they bring you in?”
Ellery pointed to the corpse. “James Leach. Governor’s favorite artist. This guy has five originals hanging in the Capitol, you know.”
“Ah. Friends in high places.”
“And they have my number.”
“You wanna do your thing?” she asked.
“Only if you’re finished with –“
“Just do it,” she said. “I’ll finish the science when you’re gone.”
He sucked at a tooth. “Your call,” he said.
He stepped carefully around the body until he got to the head and knelt beside it, uncaring that he had just placed the knee of his faded jeans into a puddle of blood. He steepled his fingers for a second, then intertwined them and pushed out, cracking all the joints in a staccato barrage. Wiggling the digits like a pair of angry spiders facing off against one another, he leaned down and laid the tips of his fingers gingerly along the jawline and his thumbs onto the temples of the corpse.
For a short time, nothing happened, but he started getting flashes of images. Paint on canvas, forming pictures. A pot of tea. A shadow in the door. Bright flares of gunfire. Searing pain in his chest. He fought past the pain and forced the images to roll back until he got a glimpse of the face, illuminated from below by the muzzle blast.
“I know who it is,” he said as he disengaged his touch from the body.
Elements: Portrait of the artist as _______________