The Mussorgsky Riddle – Chapter One (Sample)

Chapter One – Overture

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Freshly turned earth. Ammonia.

The alternating aromas fill my senses as I take the first Charlotte exit off I-77 and forge my way through the rain toward the cloud-obscured cluster of skyscrapers in the distance. Death and despair hang over the city like the leaden sky that has been my only companion for the last hour. I peer through the deluge, my rapid breathing in time with the staccato rhythm of my windshield wipers, and contemplate turning around.

Have I done the right thing coming here?

The tinny drone of my GPS guides me through the clogged maze of streets, the hint of ammonia growing stronger with each passing minute. When I finally arrive at the clinic, the odor becomes so overpowering, I nearly retch. I take a moment to clear my thoughts the way my mother taught me before rushing through the downpour and inside. Cool, sterile air fills my lungs as the receptionist motions me to meet her at the door to her left.

“Are you Mira Tejedor?” she asks.

I nod and head for the frosted glass door leading to the back. One last wave of nausea ripples through me as I step through the doorway and follow her to an office at the end of the hall. The sickening ammonia stench fades with each step, though no time passes before another scent fills the gap.

Part of me wishes I’d awake tomorrow with only the five senses God afforded the rest of humanity.

But my wish is a fool’s wish.

I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

My grandmother always knew when it was going to rain. More accurate than any weatherman, people outside our family usually guessed the arthritis gnarling her fingers gave her this particular insight. The truth is far stranger.

The women in my family all possess certain talents that set us apart. With Grandma, it was the weather. With Mom, truths, half-truths, and lies. And me? Emotions. I can sense happiness like the average person smells fresh-baked apple pie.

The faint scent of roses drifting across my consciousness, for instance, suggests the receptionist’s hint of a smile is genuine. Still, the barely veiled disapproval in her gaze tells me all I need to know.

Like so many before, she thinks I’m a fraud.

Or worse, insane.

You’d think I’d be used to this by now.

“You can wait in here, Ms. Tejedor.” Studying me over her zebra-striped reading glasses, she keeps her eyes on mine as she backs out of the room. “Dr. Archer is finishing up with his one o’clock. Shouldn’t be but a few more minutes.”

“Thank you, umm…” Her ID is flipped around backward. May be unintentional, but it wouldn’t be the first time a person tried to see if the “psychic” could guess their name.

“Agnes. My name is Agnes.” Her cheeks flush. “Can I get you a water or something?”

“Sure.”

She disappears into the hall only to return a moment later with a bottled water complete with folded napkin. A pleasant pine fragrance lights up my mind.

A woman who shows up for work in teddy bear scrubs should probably get the benefit of the doubt.

“Thanks, Agnes. I’ll make myself comfortable till the good doctor gets freed up.”

“Not too comfortable.” She straightens the papers in the desk inbox. “Dr. Archer is pretty particular about his office.”

As she pulls the door closed, I hang my compact umbrella on the rack by the door, slip off my lime-green peacoat, and take a look around.

Clearly a man’s space, the slab of polished cherry that serves as his desk appears large enough to land a plane. The air smells of old books, leather, and aftershave. The delicate sounds of a string quartet echo from the high-end stereo system in the corner. The quiet strains compete with the crescendoing rain that beats the roof like a thousand snare drums.

The polished brass nameplate on the desk gleams with his name in script letters.

Dr. Thomas Archer.

Sounds like some hot neurosurgeon from Days of Our Lives.

To the untrained eye, the office likely appears cluttered, but I recognize organized chaos when I see it. Every book and piece of paper is no doubt exactly where the good Dr. Archer wishes it to be. Diplomas, licenses, and awards fill two of the walls, each triple matted with matching frames and hung with immaculate precision.

Perhaps the good doctor suffers from a bit of OCD himself.

My pocket buzzes. A missed call on my cell phone. Mom’s number. I try to call her back a couple of times but the reception in the office is for crap. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a part of me is relieved. Yet again, she’s keeping Isabella while I’m on assignment and I’m not quite up for one of my mother’s patented guilt trips at the moment.

Continuing my inspection of the office, I pull an old, leather-bound book from the shelf and try to decipher the title.

Die Traumdeutung.” Though trilingual in English, Spanish, and Italian for the better part of my years on the planet, any attempt at German ties my tongue in knots. I flip through the first few pages and discover the work appears to be an original from 1899 and printed in the original tongue. Several spots throughout the book have been marked with scraps of colored paper.

I let out a laugh. “Must be a real page turner.”

“Freud’s book on the interpretation of dreams.”

Smooth as chocolate mousse, the baritone voice sends a shiver down my spine as the tang of sweat after a long day’s work plays across my consciousness.

“Groundbreaking work in its time, though it comes across a bit dated these days.”

Leaning in the doorway, a man dressed in a gray blazer and dark slacks regards me with a genial smile. Like Agnes, however, his steely blue eyes tell a different story. Just shy of disdain, the professional dismissal in his gaze is all too familiar.

“Ms. Tejedor, I assume?”

“That would be me.” I close the book and slide it back into its space on the shelf. “And you must be Dr. Archer.”

“Batting a thousand so far. A little demonstration of the old ‘extra sensory perception’?” He steps into the room and brushes his temple like some carnival mind reader.

I force a smile. “Sorry to disappoint. I recognized you from your website.” That much is true. Though his official photo must be a little out of date, the years have been kind to him. A few years older than me, he’s mid-thirties, forty tops. He’s taller than I would have guessed, and even better looking than his picture. “Not to mention, this is your office.”

“Fair enough.”

He gives me a quick but firm handshake, steps behind his aircraft carrier of a desk, and drapes his jacket across his leather swivel throne. I’m not sure if it’s the brush of his broad shoulders or the hint of cologne as he passes me that breaks my concentration, but it takes a couple blinks and a deep breath to refocus on why I’m here.

“I wasn’t sure we’d have the pleasure of your company today,” he says, “what with all the storms between here and D.C.”

With that voice of his, it’s clear Archer has found the right vocation. There’s also little doubt about what he’s trying to say.

“It was I-85 pretty much the whole way.” I offer him the most genuine smile I can muster. “Rain or no rain, it’s a pretty easy drive. Would’ve been here an hour ago, but traffic was backed up for miles a little north of here. Someplace called Concord Mills?”

He lets out a chuckle. “With all the highway construction there at the bypass, I’m not surprised.” He inhales deeply through his nose and any joviality vacates his features. “Look, I appreciate the fact you’ve come a long way, and in less than perfect conditions, but…” He glances at his shoes and then back at me. “May I be frank, Ms. Tejedor?”

I set my jaw. “I’d expect nothing less.”

“How do I say this?” His eyes go up and to the right, as if he’s trying to remember a word that won’t quite come. “Can you tell me what it is you hope to accomplish here?”

And there it is. The kiss of death. If six years of this gig have taught me nothing else, it’s once you identify yourself as a “psychic,” the absolute best you can hope for is a healthy dose of skepticism. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve shown up for a job and been met with anything even remotely resembling acceptance, and that includes the clients who paid good money for me to be there.

Most people assume you’re either a con or a lunatic. The average cop won’t give you the time of day and the few who will won’t stick up for you in front of their buddies. The clergy I’ve worked with are always too busy trying to save my soul to listen to anything someone like me might have to say. Worst of all, however, are the doctors. Like they’re fighting to keep their spot at the top of the moral food chain.

Regarding people like me, the head shrinkers lead the pack.

Archer rubs at his right eye as a sympathetic twinge of pain blossoms above mine. Three minutes in my presence and he’s developing a headache. An auspicious beginning.

“Caroline emailed me a few days ago. Said she’d asked you to come today, but–”

“With all due respect, Dr. Archer, Ms. Faircloth all but begged me on the phone to drive down and meet her family today. In fact, she paid a full week in advance to ensure she’d have my undivided attention. I woke up a little after five to get here on time. Spent eight hours on the highway dodging rain and hail and a whole slew of idiots who don’t know how to drive in either. All the road construction put me behind an hour, so I skipped lunch to make it here before two. Trust me. I’m not going anywhere.”

Archer studies me like some kind of museum exhibit.

Or, more likely, a prospective patient.

“Look.” I hold my hands up before me in mock surrender. “You and me, we’re on the same side here. I just want to help the boy.”

Archer grabs a medical chart the size of a small encyclopedia from his desk and holds it before him like some kind of sacred text. “I’ve taken care of Anthony for the better part of four years, Ms. Tejedor. I have no doubt your intentions are good but trust that I have some idea about what’s best for him and his family.”

Something akin to the smell of black pepper permeates my senses. Skeptical. Defensive. Almost hostile. My sigh becomes a chuckle.

Why did I think this time would be easier than all the others?

“…and that doesn’t even take into account all the privacy issues involved with you joining us in session.”

Crap. I zoned out for part of the good doctor’s rant, and he knows it. The peppery smell assaulting me now reeks of vinegar. Before he was simply defensive. Now he’s mad.

“I believe Ms. Faircloth is focused on bigger issues right now than maintaining medical confidentiality. From what she told me, her son hasn’t spoken a word in weeks despite the best efforts of everyone involved.” My head tilts to one side. “No offense, but it sounds to me like you could use a little help.” The hint of condescension in my tone turns even my stomach.

Archer bristles and his face turns a shade of scarlet. “You’re staying, then?”

“As of this moment I’m officially on the clock.” A glance down at my battered wristwatch, a vintage Cartier and the nicest thing my grandmother ever owned, reveals a few minutes remain before the scheduled appointment. “They’ve got both of us for an hour. I’ll do my best to stay out of your way, as long as you return the courtesy.”

His face shifts, almost imperceptibly. “You honestly believe you can help the boy?”

Huh. A legitimate question. Will wonders never cease?

“I won’t know till I try.”

Neither of us speaks for a moment, the only sound in the room the hammering rain.

“Florida State.” I motion to one of his immaculately hung diplomas on the wall. “I applied to that program back in the day.”

“You were on track for a PhD?”

“Didn’t agree with me.” I bite my lip. “As you can imagine, they were less than impressed with some of the extras I brought to the table.” He doesn’t respond. Maybe a less contentious topic. “You got sick of the ‘Sunshine State’?”

“I’ve only been in Charlotte eight years now but my time in Gainesville already feels like ancient history.” A wistful smile breaks through his pensive stare. “It’s funny. I don’t feel thirty-seven.”

I return his smile. “When I was still in middle school, I asked my dad when he started feeling his age.”

“What did he say?”

“As I recall, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Not yet.’” My father’s quiet laugh and broad smile trickle through my memory. “The last few years, I’ve begun to understand what he meant.”

“Sounds like a wise man.”

“He was.”

Archer glances over at me. “Just putting this out there. If all of this gets a little over your head, there’s no shame in bowing out. This case is a tough one, a bit beyond a lost set of keys or a missing dog.”

“And once again my reputation precedes me.” I lean across Archer’s desk and fix him with a no-nonsense stare. “Trust me. I’m capable of a lot more than lost and found.”

“Oh, I know all about what you’re capable of. When Caroline mentioned you might be coming today, I did some light reading on one Mira Tejedor. Not too much out there, but what I did find was fascinating, particularly the business with the kidnapping in Fredericksburg last summer. I’m not sure how you kept your face off CNN, but it was pretty clear the police would never have found that little girl without you.”

A thousand invisible spiders make their way up my spine and march across my scalp. “So, you are familiar with my work.”

Archer’s dour facade cracks. “Sarah… I forget her last name. How is she?”

The rain pelts against the glass of the office’s lone window. “Last time I checked in, Sarah was doing fine. As fine as she’s going to be, at least.” My hands tremble despite my best efforts to keep them still. “When I think of what she went through…”

Two Julys back, a girl named Sarah Goode was taken from her front yard at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, two days before her tenth birthday. The animal who took her managed to keep her hidden for thirteen days before the Fredericksburg Police located her, albeit with a quiet assist from yours truly. He left her locked up in the attic of a decrepit old shack in the woods with no food and barely enough water to survive. And that doesn’t even take into account what he did to her.

But there’s more.

I never told anyone, not even her parents, that Sarah possesses more than a touch of psychic potential herself. Without her reaching for me as I reached for her, I doubt I would have ever found her. Still, her talent made the scars of the ordeal run all the deeper. Bad enough having to deal with your own emotions in such a place, but to feel what he felt. His glee, his lust, his madness. To be inside the head of the bastard when he climbed on top of you…

Stop. Enough of that. It’s been fifteen months.

“Her kidnapper was denied bond and is still awaiting trial.” I brush a tear from the corner of my eye. “I suspect when the trial comes around, they’ll call me to testify.”

“How did you find her? The papers said the police had all but given her up for–” Before he can finish, Agnes pokes her head into the office.

“Dr. Archer. The Faircloth family is here.”

“Thank you, Agnes.” Archer stand and slips back into his gray blazer. “Shall we?”

Archer stops me in the hall.

“Before we go in there, at least let me give you some background. The whole situation is pretty complicated.”

“Actually, if it’s all right with you, I’d rather meet Ms. Faircloth and Anthony cold. I know most of the basics from talking with her on the phone and too much advance information tends to muddy the waters, so to speak.” My lips pull into a smile. “If I have any questions, I’ll be sure and let you know.”

“Fine.” As he closes the door to his office, he shakes his head and chuckles. “Whatever spins your crystal ball.”

Archer stops at the front desk and reviews the onscreen schedule with Agnes. Time to give the good doctor the Tejedor once-over. The whole sixth sense thing has proven more than useful over the years, but part of being good at what I do involves paying as much, if not more, attention to the other five senses.

Let’s see. Shoes shined to a high luster, shirt pressed with a touch of starch, pants with a crease so sharp it could slice vegetables. Either he’s married and his wife is cool with the no ring thing or he’s on a first name basis with a good dry cleaner. He clearly spends time in the gym. Wears a bit of product in his hair. Nails trimmed but not manicured. Good. Mom always said to never trust a man with nails nicer than yours.

I catch Archer’s eye. His smirk suggests he’s been half-watching me take inventory. I jerk my eyes away and allow my gaze to wander out into the sparsely populated waiting room where two sets of eyes are locked on me like laser beams. The first pair belongs to a sullen young man who glares at me with something just this side of contempt. The second pair of eyes, however, could not be filled with more wonder. A girl with wavy red hair, seven or eight at most, stares at me as if she were looking at an angel.

“Those two?”

“Anthony’s brother and sister.” Archer turns his back on the window so the kids can’t tell they’re the topic of conversation. “Jason’s a senior in high school. Plays defensive tackle on the football team and comes off a bit gruff. Rachel, on the other hand, is a sweetheart. Usually pretty quiet. Not Anthony quiet, mind you, just a little shy.”

I chance a wave at the girl, but am met with only that same star-struck stare. And something else. Something just below the surface. Something desperate.

“Ready?” Archer asks as the acrid smell plays across my senses.

I tear my gaze away from Rachel Faircloth’s forlorn eyes. “Ready.”

“All right.” Archer takes a few steps down an adjacent hallway before stopping at a closed door. He rests his fingers on the handle, and looks back at me. “Last chance to bail.”

“You’re not scaring me, you know.”

“Just making sure you’re committed.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Why, Dr. Archer, was that a joke?”

“Perhaps.” A mischievous grin flashes across his features as he opens the door and steps inside.


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