Janet bent over the body at the bottom of the stairs. She almost shed a tear. Such a shame. The poor girl was a twisted tangle of limbs. Janet slipped the small, cranial drill into the dead girl’s curled fist.
“I’m so sorry, dear, but you must understand, someone has to take the blame.” Janet sighed. “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Janet sprinted back up the stairs with surprising agility for a woman of her size. She tucked her latex gloves into her therapy dog’s vest and slipped the dog a treat. Mimi was such a good girl. Her “Stay” was flawless.
Emerging from the stairwell, Janet turned onto the oncology ward. She raised her hand to acknowledge a distracted greeting from the head nurse, Laura. Everyone at the nurses’ station was clustered around the tall bulk of a police officer and another official-looking man in a sports jacket.
“Time for us to go, Mimi.” Janet turned toward the elevators.
Conversation stilled as a gurney appeared out of room 413. All eyes turned to the covered corpse and its entourage: two city morgue attendants and the medical examiner, Dr. Ian Kelly. He motioned for the attendants to continue on while he paused at the nurses’ station.
Dr. Kelly turned to the detective. “Your officer can leave as well, if you’re in agreement?”
The uniformed officer tipped his cap to Detective Edwards and followed the gurney.
With a sharp tilt of his head, Dr. Kelly motioned the detective to one side. He spoke in hushed tones.
“I can’t state anything concrete until after the autopsy, but based on preliminary examinations, his death was caused by penetration of a sharp object to the base of the skull, the cerebellum. You know what this could mean?”
“We might have a serial killer on our hands.” Detective Edwards took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Keeping his expression bland, he turned toward the nurses’ station.
“Listen up,” he said, his tone commanding attention. “I need a list of everyone who’s been on this floor today, including visitors and volunteers. Delivery people will be stopped in the lobby. Can anyone tell me who that woman was who just left? The one with the dog.” One hand rested on his hip, revealing the gold badge clipped to his belt.
“She’s a volunteer. Janet Barnhardt,” Laura answered. “Janet and her therapy dog visit chemo patients.”
“She’s also a textile artist,” a girl in scrubs chimed in. “Check out the complex, knitted wall-hanging in the lobby.”
Detective Edwards gave a grunt, shrugged, and turned his attention back to the head nurse.
“The deceased—he was finishing up chemo and had been released to go back to work…” he paused to check his notes, “in a research lab at Johns Hopkins?”
“Yes,” Laura replied. “He is, was, a neuroscientist. He’d recently published a paper—”
“Excuse me, Laura,” Dr. Kelly broke in. He turned to Detective Edwards and spoke in hushed tones.
“I know I might be jumping the gun, but I can’t get past serial killer. I’ve been racking my brain. What am I missing, Edwards? Both you and I were called in on the other two cases. Same MO. Sharp instrument to base of skull.” Dr. Kelly folded his arms and pursed his lips.
Detective Edwards rubbed his palms together. “The first victim was in the stands at a dog show. He keeled over and tumbled down eight levels. No one saw anything. The second body was found in the stacks in the medical library. No witnesses. At the time, there was nothing to connect the two victims except their place of employment: Johns Hopkins. But since they are a major employer—”
“Wait just a minute,” Dr. Kelly interjected. He stilled and stared into space. “Something rings a bell. There was a death, a suicide, just over a year ago. Big news. Lead researcher at Johns Hopkins. Last name was Barnhardt.” He paused, chewed his lower lip, and then gestured to the detective to follow him over to the nurses’ station.
“Excuse me, Laura.” The head nurse and a physician were studying an image on a screen.
“Yes, Dr. Kelly?”
“That woman, the one with the therapy dog, what did you say her last name was?”
Both men looked at each other.
“What else do you know about her? Is she a recent widow?” Detective Edwards asked.
“Actually, yes. Very tragic story.” Laura lowered her voice to a whisper. “Suicide. She’s not been the same since. Her husband had to step down as department head at Johns Hopkins. The validity of his research was questioned publicly by colleagues. It destroyed him.”
“I knew Maxwell Barnhardt well.” The white-coated physician stepped forward. “His area of research was dysfunction of the cerebellum, ataxia in particular. My father suffered from it. Damn shame what happened. A witch hunt. Literally killed him. ”
A scream reverberated down the hallway. Laura clutched her throat. All heads turned as two women in scrubs bolted around the corner.
“In the stairwell! Oh my God! The chemo nurse, Carolyn. She’s dead!” a shaking blonde blurted through her tears.
Detective Edwards took her by the shoulders. “Calmly please. What’s happened?”
“She…she must have fallen down the stairs. Her neck looks broken. The blonde’s eyes widened. She pointed toward the stairwell. “And…she’s clutching what looks like a cranial drill.”
Janet extracted the sharpened, steel knitting needle from Mimi’s vest and wiped it carefully with denatured alcohol. She wove it into the design of the intricate piece of wool wall art, which featured unusual sections of driftwood, shells, and old bottle caps.
“I’ll donate this piece to a neurological inpatient rehabilitation center, Mimi, in commemoration of our Max.”
She stood back to admire her finished handiwork. The three steel needles, hidden in plain view, glinted in the light.