Friday, June 25, 2010
“Riley, would you please knock it off? You’re making me crazy!”
Eileen jumped at Ryan’s loud voice, smearing the ink on the note she was writing. “What? What’s wrong?”
Ryan sneered at her, running his hands through his sweat-dampened hair. “You! You and that damn pen!” He reached over and snatched the ballpoint pen from her. “You’ve been clicking it against your teeth for over twenty minutes, and I swear, if you do it again, I’m going to poke your eyes out with it!”
She glared at him, on the verge of saying something nasty, then changed her mind and smiled sweetly instead. “I’m sorry. Can I get you some ice water?”
Ryan shook his head, continuing to sift through the crime scene pictures on the table. “No. There probably isn’t any ice anywhere in this damn building anyway.” A droplet of sweat trickled off the end of his nose and splattered against the file he was holding. He ignored it and looked up at Eileen. “And I’m sorry I yelled.” He tossed the pen back to her. “I think the heat is making me a little testy.”
Eileen winked at him. “Nah. You’re always testy. The heat is just bringing out the worst in you.”
He smiled at her, grateful as always, for her ability to take his mercurial moods in stride. That’s part of what made her such a great friend. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “I wish they’d fix the damn air conditioning already.”
She nodded in agreement. “I know. It’s got to be close to a hundred degrees in here. And having the door closed is making it hotter.” She fanned herself with one of the files from her desk, but that just stirred up the humid air and made her feel warmer. Tossing the file aside, she stretched back, her partially unbuttoned blouse allowing Ryan to take a quick peek inside. Eileen caught his gaze.
“Cut it out,” she said, clamping her arms over herself.
Ryan sneered. “What? Just because I’m gay, I can’t take a peek?” He gave her a lecherous look. “Or maybe even cop a feel?”
They both laughed and Eileen wagged her finger at him. “A cop copping a feel. Great. Gay or not, you’re still a pervert.” She threw a file at him, which he deftly caught in mid-air.
He rolled his shoulders, trying to get comfortable. His royal blue shirt clung to his skin, deep Vs of sweat on his chest and back, and huge wet marks under his arms. He caught a whiff of himself and grimaced. “Eileen, my love, you better hope that we don’t have to go out anytime soon. I am ripe.”
She shrugged. “Me too. I guess we’ll deal with it. Plus, going out would be a welcome distraction at this point. Between these files and the heat, I’m about to lose my mind.”
Just then, the air conditioning kicked on, setting off huge rounds of cheers from everyone in the squad room. The air around them began to move, warm at first, then cooler as the vents forced fresh air into the room.
Eileen exhaled forcefully. “Thank goodness. Maybe now we can focus.”
Ryan stared at her. “You want me to focus when it’s this close to lunch? You know I can’t work on an empty stomach.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “You imply that you do work when you have a full stomach.”
Loud guffaws escaped from Ryan. “Point well taken. But Lee-Lee, I’m starving. Let’s go eat.”
“Okay, okay. Let’s go.” The exited the oven of a room, stopping at her desk so she could grab her purse. Casually flinging it over her shoulder, she headed to the glass exit doors with Ryan right behind her. “What do you want? I’ll buy today.”
Ryan opened his mouth, but Eileen hurriedly cut him off. “Something reasonable, please. I’m buying, but I’m not made of the green stuff.”
“How about that new Thai place up the street? I heard that’s pretty good.”
“Fair enough. Maybe I’ll get the Screaming Chicken. Then the temperature inside of my mouth will match the air around me and I can wash it down with something good and cold.”
“No. We’re still on the clock. I’ll wait until tonight. Nah. I heard they have some exotic fruity, non-alcoholic drinks. That’ll be good.”
“Will you buy me a beer?”
Eileen squinted against the sunshine as they stepped outside. She fumbled in her bag for a pair of sunglasses. “I’ll buy you a beer tonight at Charlie’s. Fair enough?”
“Yup. I can wait.”
He stood, watching Eileen walk away. “Um, Eileen? Where are you going?”
She was obviously confused. “I thought we were going to the Thai place.”
“Are we walking?”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding me? Ryan, it’s only a little over a block away. It’s hot, but it’s not that bad. We can walk.”
He was feeling stubborn. “No. Let’s drive. I want air conditioning.”
“Ryan, the inside of the car won’t be cool before we get to the restaurant.” He narrowed his eyes at her, giving her the ‘cop stare’, and she could see that she was getting nowhere. “Tell you what. You drive. I’ll walk. We’ll see who gets there first. Loser has to buy an extra round of drinks tonight.”
“You bet.” He broke off in a run for his car.
Eileen smiled to herself and began the short walk to the restaurant. It was horribly sticky and humid, but as she walked in the shade, it didn’t feel so bad. There was a light breeze, and she pulled her hair off her neck, grateful for the cooling sensation. Her heels clicked against the sidewalk, and she thought hard about the case they were working on. It was like a puzzle, but she was still missing pieces. She had been wracking her brain for the past week, trying to determine what she was missing. There had to be something, some kind of clue that would reveal who the killer was. The girl had not really been stalked, as far as they could tell, and other than a loose-cannon boyfriend from high-school, they couldn’t find anyone who held a grudge against her. It was obvious that someone had been watching her and knew how to escape her apartment unnoticed, but they couldn’t prove that it was a bona fide stalker. She was still hopeful that someone who saw the press release would remember something that could help them crack this case. Sometimes the smallest tips turned out to be the biggest leads. All they needed was one tiny break to blow the case wide open.
Seconds later, Eileen pushed open the door of Thai Heaven and was greeted by a blast of air conditioning and tantalizing aromas. A tiny hostess greeted her with a big, brown-toothed smile. “Welcome. You like to sit?”
Eileen smiled. “Please. A table for two, by the window, if you don’t mind.”
The hostess showed her to a small table, and Eileen was sitting just in time to see Ryan park out front. She stuck her tongue out at him as he fed the meter. He flipped her the bird as he fed quarters into it, making her laugh out loud.
He stomped into the restaurant and flopped into the chair across from her. “I got caught at the light on the corner. Man, if not for that, I would have been having my extra drink on you tonight.”
“Too bad, loser. Looks like I’ll be drinking the top shelf stuff this evening.”
He playfully hit her with his menu. “You’re only saying that because you know I’m a total softie and will let you get away with it.”
“Absolutely,” she retorted smartly as she read over the menu. Everything looked so good. She finally settled on an Asian chicken salad and egg rolls, with a big glass of iced tea. Ryan ended up ordering the Screaming Chicken and a soda. They ate quickly while they chatted about work, carefully avoiding any discussion of their most recent case, neither of them wanting to admit that they were hitting a stone wall.
Eileen was just sucking down the last of her iced tea, and Ryan was on his third soda when her cell phone rang the same time Ryan’s pager started beeping. She narrowed her eyes before she answered. She loved her job, but it was sometimes so damn frustrating to have work invade everything, even her lunch break.
“Riley,” she barked.
Ryan gave his pager a cursory glance, eyeing her as she scribbled information on her napkin, not liking the intense look she had.
As soon as she hung up, she opened her wallet and threw money on the table. “Let’s go partner. We’ve got a female stinker not too far from here.”
“Same thing that came through on my pager.” He swallowed down the last of his soda, chewing on a mouthful of ice. “How much of a stinker?”
“About a week old stinker, maybe a little older.” Her stomach let loose with a hollow wail. She frowned at the sound. “Maybe I should have skipped lunch.”
“Maybe. But I have to tell you, sometimes I wonder why you picked this profession when you have such a sensitive stomach.”
“It’s not that bad. And my stomach’s not sensitive. It’s just…responsive to stress.”
“You got that right. It sounds like a scene out of a bad alien movie.” He made an obnoxious screeching sound and twisted his hand into the shape of a claw. “It’s like there’s something alive in there.”
She shrugged. “True, but I haven’t thrown up on a crime scene yet.”
“Yet is the key word, sweetie.”
“Whatever. I have a perfect record when it comes to not puking on the job. So you, Mr. Smarty Man, can just shut up and drive.” She slid into the passenger seat, and though she didn’t say so, she was secretly grateful that Ryan had been his normal, stubborn self and insisted on driving. It beat having to walk back to the precinct.
They pulled up to a blonde brick two flat. The street was crowded with on-lookers and emergency services vehicles and personnel. Ryan tossed Eileen the Vicks and she slathered it under her nose.
“Do you want to put on extra?” he teased. “You did say it was a week old stinker.”
Eileen stuck out her tongue. “No. I’ll be fine. But I dare you not to put on any at all.”
“Hell no. Even I’m not that brave.”
They made their way up to the second level. As soon as they entered the apartment, there was no denying the similarity to the previous crime scene. This time, the girl was spread out on the dining room table. The body was bloated and black, decay clearly settled in. Her arms were stretched and the wrists bent at a horrible backward angle, the rope wound tightly and looped around the table legs. The girl’s legs were draped over the edge the table, her feet also wound with rope and tied to the opposite end table legs. Dried blood was caked in rivers down the girl’s legs, and had landed in what was now a sticky, congealed, and partially crusted pool on the hardwood floor. Eileen averted her eyes, trying not to think about how painfully uncomfortable the poor woman must have been in her final moments.
“How could she have been up here for a week? Didn’t anybody notice?”
One of the uniforms piped up. “The downstairs apartment is vacant. It was the landlord who actually found her. Apparently, the little gal was supposed to be on vacation for a week, and when she didn’t show up back at work, her boss called up the landlord. Guess she don’t have any family nearby, and had listed the landlord as the emergency contact. Nice older guy. Maybe in his mid-fifties and pretty pleasant. Well, pleasant under the circumstances. He’s downstairs giving a statement to my partner.”
Ryan shook his head. “Looks like she never made it to her vacation spot. No shortage of bad luck.”
The uniformed officer shook his head. “Nope, no vacation for her. Hell, she hadn’t even finished packing. There’s a suitcase on the bed half full of clothes, and a bunch of folded stuff on the bed and floor.”
Ryan grimaced, feeling bad for the dead girl. “Any identification around?”
The officer spoke up again. “Yeah, her purse was here. Got her driver’s license from her wallet. Karen Myles. Twenty-six. Five-three and a hundred twenty eight pounds. Wouldn’t guess it by looking at her.” He glanced at the swollen body and shrugged, not overly concerned. “Nothing seemed to be missing from the wallet. There was cash and credit cards. Even her traveler’s checks were still in there. Doesn’t look like it was a robbery. It’s bagged up, but I can get it for you if you want.”
Eileen shook her head. “Nah. Sounds like you were already pretty thorough. I’m just going to look around here a bit and then head downstairs to talk to the landlord. What’s his name?”
“Dennis. Dennis something or other. Cook or Cox, I think. We hustled him downstairs pretty quick. Didn’t want him up here while we were working.”
Eileen nodded before turning her attention back to scene in front of her.
Harvey Weinboon was already there, busying himself, looking over the body. He looked up, eyes wide and expressive behind his glasses. Ryan and Eileen said nothing, able to tell by his look that this was not a coincidence. He held up the girl’s left foot. “Orion.”
Ryan looked perplexed. “What?”
“I’m right here!”
Harvey shook his head in disgust and pointed at the girl’s foot. “Not oh Ryan. Orion. On her foot. Look.” Harvey ran a thick thumb over it, pointing out the points and shallow lines connecting them.
As Harvey explained it, Eileen could see that there really was no mistaking the shape. Eileen’s shoulders tensed. Now they knew. Now there was no doubt. It was not mere coincidence. Similarities this chilling could only mean one thing. They were dealing with a serial killer.
“There’s more,” Harvey said. He reached over to a plastic evidence bag, which contained a small, blood speckled slip of paper. “This was—ah—this was protruding from her.”
Ryan covered his mouth with his fist. “Protruding from where?”
Harvey rolled his eyes and gestured with an extended thumb over his shoulder. “From her. From her vagina. Whoever did this waited around to be sure she was dead, then carefully tucked it into her. I can say that, because there’s only a very small amount of blood on it, and if she had still been alive, there would have been more blood and it would have soaked through the paper. Since there are only speckles and some crusted over spots, it was put in after she stopped actively bleeding.”
Ryan was dumbfounded. “Can I see that? Why would a killer leave a piece of paper behind? This is too bizarre.”
“It is bizarre,” Harvey confirmed. “But it’s not just a piece of paper. It’s a note.”
“A note? What kind of note?”
“Yeah,” Eileen interjected. “What kind of note?”
Harvey swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing above his collar as he handed over the bag. “I only read part of it. It’s addressed to you, Eileen.”
Her blood ran cold. “What do you mean, it’s addressed to me?”
“Just what I said. It has your name on it.”
Ryan grabbed the bag before Eileen could reach it. “Not now, Eileen. We wrap this up first. You can’t be distracted yet.”
“Bullshit,” she said, snatching the bag from him. “It’s addressed to me, I’m going to read it.”
Through the clear bag, she saw her name neatly written at the top of the paper. First and last name. Eileen Riley. He’d even included her title. Detective Eileen Riley.
I know you. I watch your pathetic efforts, but I won’t be stopped. You can’t stop me, bitch. I will stop you, before you can even catch up with me. I will stop you, just like I stopped these other whores. Nobody laughs at me and gets away with it. Your fate is sealed, detective. It’s written in the stars. Run, run, fast as you can. I’ll be two steps ahead of you. Or maybe two steps behind you, watching, waiting, ready to pounce.
Eileen read the words twice, just to be sure she absorbed them. She then calmly handed the bag back to Ryan, turned around, and vomited on the floor. Ryan, ever the gentleman, patted her on the back and said dryly, “There goes your perfect record.”
Over her retching, she managed to hold up her left arm and give him the finger. She felt faint and dropped down to her knees, trying to avoid being overtaken by the black haze that was floating over her eyes. Harvey and Ryan helped her up and guided her to the living room, where she sat on the edge of the sofa. She was angry with herself for being so weak and angry at them for helping her. She brushed their hands away.
“I’m fine. Leave me alone.”
Ryan shook his head, concerned, but unable to conceal his gloating. “You’re not fine. You just totally lost your lunch. I hope it tasted better going down than it did coming back up. It certainly smelled better when the waitress brought it to the table than it did when you dumped it on the floor just now.”
Harvey hit Ryan’s shoulder, a little bit harder than just a friendly slug. “Shut up Ryan. Leave her alone.”
Eileen smiled wanly at him, grateful for his intervention. She loved Ryan like a brother, but sometimes, she hated him like a brother, too. “Listen to the man, Ryan. I may be a little wobbly right now, but as soon as I get my strength back I’m going to have to hurt you. Look, just give me a few minutes, okay? I’m sorry I puked. It happens, right? I didn’t muck up the crime scene. Well, not too badly at least.” She sighed and gratefully accepted the bottle of water that one of the officers handed to her. “I had a big lunch, it stinks in here, some crazy asshole has killed two women now, and has left a not quite threatening, but still disturbing note for me. Yeah. I’m feeling a little sick to my stomach.”
Aware that he had struck a nerve, Ryan immediately apologized. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a jackass. Honestly. I just thought it was funny since we were talking about it right before we got here. Really, I’m sorry.”
Unable to stay mad at him, Eileen nodded. “Apology accepted.” She swished water around in her mouth, hoping it would lessen the odor of her now rank breath. Feeling better, she got to her feet, taking a few hesitant steps first to make sure she wasn’t going to get dizzy again. When she was sure of her footing, she turned to Ryan. “Let’s go downstairs and talk to the landlord. Harvey’s already working on the body, Lucy’s got the pictures, and the officers who responded first have already bagged up almost all of the evidence. There’s not too much left to do up here, and I want to talk to the good landlord while everything is still fresh in his mind.”
Ryan followed her downstairs, not saying anything. He really did feel bad for teasing her, but that was the only way he knew to deal with her. She hated mushy, emotional stuff, and she probably would have gotten angry if he’d made some big spectacle out of asking if she was okay. Obviously, she was not okay. Truth be told, he wasn’t feeling okay, either. He wasn’t nauseous, but he had a cold, prickly feeling that was vaguely reminiscent of fear. It didn’t seem possible, but he was actually afraid for Eileen. Neither of them had ever encountered anything like this before. Random murders? Yes. Drive-bys? Yes. Multiple homicide victims in a single location? Yes. Break-ins gone bad, domestic violence with horrible endings, children beaten to death, gang members left for dead in alleys? Yes, yes, yes and yes. But not an active serial killer. At least, not that they were aware of. And this one, whoever he was, had his sights set on Eileen.
He shook off the feeling, knowing he had to focus on the task at hand. Eileen held the door open to the downstairs apartment, waving him in ahead of her. He hesitated before entering.
“Hey Lee-Lee. Are we okay? I really didn’t mean to piss you off. Honestly.”
She gave a curt nod. “I’m fine. It was just bad timing. I think it’s safe to say that my stress level is reaching its peak.”
“Okay. Back to business?”
“Of course.” She followed him into the apartment, quietly closing the door behind her and trying to control the shaking in her hands. The sooner she got a hold of herself, the sooner she would be able to talk to Mr. Cox and get the investigation rolling. There wasn’t time to be sick or weak. Right now, she needed to be strong for the two young women who had met such horrible fates.
The landlord was not quite what Eileen was expecting. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t what she saw. He appeared to be maybe around fifty-four or fifty-five, with longish gray hair, a little taller than average, maybe around six feet, and lean. His body was long and sinewy, almost like he spent his days running across the African plains chasing lions. He had a long face with a very square chin and a long, straight nose that was flat at the tip. It reminded Eileen of the Tin Man’s nose in The Wizard of Oz. He was standing in the empty living room, deep in conversation with a uniformed officer. “Excuse me,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Detective Eileen Riley and this is my partner, Ryan Maxwell.”
The man focused his clear blue eyes on them before giving her hand a limp shake. His palm was cool and clammy. “Dennis Cox. Wish I could say it was a pleasure.”
“So do we,” Ryan replied. “I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be for you.”
He shrugged and pushed his shaggy gray hair out of his eyes. “I’ve been around dead bodies before. It was just hard knowing it was her.”
“Mr. Cox, can you tell me whatever you know? Did you see or hear anything unusual?”
“Please, call me Dennis. Mr. Cox makes me feel like an old man. But in response to you question, no, I didn’t see or hear anything. I was just telling this fella here,” he leaned his head toward the other officer and folded his arms over his chest, tucking his hands under his arms. “I only came by today because I got a call from Karen’s work. She does some kind of customer service at a bank downtown. Don’t remember the name of it. It’s that big gray building with the blue sign on top. Lots of glass doors.” He scratched his head. “Of course, I guess a lot of buildings downtown look like that. Gray with a lot of glass. But it’s the one that’s different. The blue is different. You’d know it if you saw it.” Eileen nodded, jotting notes, pretty sure which bank he was describing.
“Anyway, couple years ago she asked if she could list me as her emergency contact, something about how human resources needed someone to contact in case anything ever happened to her. I told her sure. I knew she didn’t have no family in this area. Hell, I don’t think she had family anywhere. Never had people over that I know of, was always real quiet, paid her rent on time. Sent me Christmas cards every year.”
His eyes abruptly began to water, a few tears trickling from the inner corners. He looked embarrassed and hurriedly wiped them away on his shirt sleeves. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I seem to be leaking a bit. I just can’t believe it. She was such a nice girl. Never caused no problems. Been living in this apartment for, gosh, probably five years now. Moved in right after she finished college. I was worried about renting to such a youngster, but she had some good references and already had a job. Same job she’s at now. Or well, same job she was at. I remember that she seemed kind of desperate. Didn’t say anything outright, but she just kind of had this look about her. Like she was hiding from someone. Or something. I took a chance and I’m glad I did. She was probably my best tenant.”
“I’m sorry,” Eileen said. “It sounds like the two of you were close. It must be such a shock, such a loss.”
“Yeah. I mean, about the shock part anyway. We weren’t really close. Not like a relationship or nothing. We just looked out for each other. I actually didn’t know too much of her personal business. Like I said, she was pretty quiet, kept to herself. I knew she was planning on going on vacation. Booked herself a cruise to Alaska. Had been wanting to do it for a while and she finally saved up enough money. She called and let me know she was going to be gone for a week. The tenants who used to live down here moved out about three weeks ago and Karen was worried about the whole building being empty. She told me that she put her lights on timers, had her mail delivery stopped and whatnot so it wouldn’t be so obvious, but she asked me to keep an eye on the place. I showed this place to a couple early last Tuesday, maybe a little after nine in the morning. I can’t even think that she…that she was already up there like that. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I was at another of my buildings down the street on Thursday and just drove by here real quick. Cut through the alley behind the place then zipped around to the front. Everything looked good and then I came by again on Saturday to cut the grass. Same thing. Nothing strange. And then I got a call this morning from her work. They said that Karen didn’t come back to work when she was supposed to, wanted to know if I knew anything. Of course I didn’t, but said I’d stop by and see if she was here. I just figured that she got delayed or decided to extend her trip. Doesn’t make sense now. If she was going to be gone longer, she would’ve called her bosses or someone. Anyway, I came over and when I started heading up the stairs, I smelled something funny.”
He shuddered just thinking about it. “I know that smell. I was in Vietnam. I know what a dead body smells like.” He shook his head, trying to clear out a picture that none of the rest of them could see. “I had the keys with me. Even though I knew. I knew. There’s no mistaking that smell. But I had to be sure. Maybe she did something crazy and forgot to put away some meat or something before she left. Or maybe the power went out or something and her groceries went bad. Hell, maybe a squirrel or something even got inside and bit the big one. Not likely, I know. But she was excited to be going on vacation and maybe it was something else. Anything else. I had to know. I went in and she was there. Hell, I wasn’t even sure it was her at first, but who else could it be? I took a quick look, just to be sure she was really dead. I mean, she had to be. That color. Nobody looks like that. And the smell just, I mean, it wouldn’t be smelling like that if she’d been alive, but I just…I just needed to make sure. Then I used her phone to call 911 and waited for them to get here.”
“Dennis, you did great. Thanks for getting us all that information. I still need to ask a few more questions.” Eileen looked down at her notepad, where she’d been furiously scribbling notes as he had talked. “You said that Karen was pretty quiet and kept to herself, but do you know if she hung out with anyone? Friends from work? Or a boyfriend maybe?”
He shook his head. “No, like I said, we weren’t too personal with each other. I come by weekly to take care of things. You know, stuff like cutting the grass in the summer, raking the leaves in the fall. The tenants usually shovel in the winters, but when it was real bad overnight, I’d get up early and come over and do it. Sometimes she would bring me a cup of coffee or hot chocolate or something. And lemonade in the summer. More than once she offered to take over the yard work, but I didn’t like the idea of a girl out doing that kind of stuff. We would talk a little bit, mostly about the weather or sports or something. Just idle chit chat. And I usually did most of the talking. She didn’t have too much to say. But she was always real nice, real pleasant. And I never saw anyone hanging around her place when I was here.”
“Dennis, do you know if Karen had a car?” Ryan was suddenly more than a little curious about this woman. What or who was she hiding from?
Dennis scratched his head. “You know, I’m not sure. I never saw her in a car. And she mentioned a couple of times that she enjoyed her train ride to work. Bugged her in the winter a little having to take the bus and walking to the el, but she never said anything else about it. Course, that don’t mean she didn’t own a car. She coulda had one but just didn’t use it for work. Parking downtown can be a real bitch.” He flushed suddenly and glanced at Eileen. “Sorry, excuse my French, Miss Detective. Parking downtown is expensive and I think she didn’t want to spend the money on one of them parking passes.”
Eileen was chewing on her lip. “Did it seem like Karen had any kind of financial difficulties? Maybe she owed someone money for something? Or did she work another job that you know of, other than the bank downtown?”
“Again, I don’t think so. Anything’s possible, I guess, but I don’t really know. She never talked about money, but she always paid her rent on time, paid her utilities on time.”
“How do you know her utilities were paid on time? Did you request receipts or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m the landlord. If the utilities don’t get paid on time, the companies send me a letter in the mail. I never got one because of her not paying a bill.” He shrugged. “She had some nice stuff in her apartment, too. I do a walk-through twice a year of every unit in every building that I own. I do it mid-spring and late fall. In spring, I see if any painting needs to be done, carpets need cleaning, stuff like that. Check to make sure the air conditioning is okay. In the fall, I check the furnace and the plumbing, plastic up the windows if the tenants want and make sure everything’s in good shape for the winter. I probably walked through Karen’s place ten times, give or take. She had it decorated real nice. Pretty pictures hanging up, nice furniture. And she had a fancy little collection of crystal something-or-others in her dining room. But anyway, I walked through to check everything, same times every year.”
“That’s a lot of work,” Ryan said. “You cover the cost for all of that stuff you mentioned? It must get expensive.”
“Not too bad. I’d rather pay a couple hundred bucks for maintenance every year than to have to shell out a couple thousand for something major later on.”
Ryan nodded. “Still, that’s pretty nice of you. Most landlords aren’t so accommodating.” He tapped his finger against the bridge of his nose. “Dennis, were you ever in Karen’s apartment for anything other than a routine walk-through?”
“Sure,” Dennis replied, bobbing his head up and down. “Two winters ago when we had that bad ice storm, a branch snapped right off the tree out front and crashed through her living room window. She had to go to work, but asked if I could come and take care of it. Me and my brother hauled the branch out and I got a glass company out here the same day to fix it for her. I changed the locks last summer when she lost her keys. Told me that she was fumbling in her purse to answer her cell phone and when she pulled it out, her keys caught on the antenna and they flew out. Dropped right down into a sewer. Neither of us was interested in trying to fish them out. Let’s see, when else was I here?” It was obvious he was trying to remember each time he had been in her apartment. “Shortly after she moved in, she had some trouble with her kitchen drain. The last tenants must’ve dumped some grease down in the sink. I tried for two days to take care of it while she was at work. I couldn’t get it, so I ended up calling a plumber. I probably got the receipt somewhere if you want to see it.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Eileen said. “Anything else you can think of?”
“Sorry, but no. Like I said, she kept pretty much to herself. Always sent me a thank-you note anytime I did work. She was a sweet girl.”
Ryan was still perplexed by the lack of information. “Dennis, she lived here for five years and you never saw anyone coming or going?”
“No, never. And she never mentioned family or parents or anything.”
“When you found her, other than the obvious, did anything look strange, anything out of place? Anything missing from what you could see? Any signs of forced entry?”
“No. I mean, I don’t know what kind of personal stuff she all had, but nothing looked like it was missing from what I could tell. And the door was locked up. I had to unlock it to get in. I didn’t check the back door, but the front door was good. And nobody else had a key that I know of. I had to change the locks downstairs. The locks on the outside doors and the locks in the downstairs unit because the last tenants took one of the sets of keys with them. I like my tenants to be safe, so I changed all the locks. Karen was here when I did it and I gave her a copy of the keys for the outside locks right away. I’m the only other one with a set of keys. I live alone so I’m the only one who has access to them.”
Ryan perked up momentarily. “Did the previous tenants leave under unfavorable conditions?”
Dennis shook his head. “Not really. They wanted to go month-to-month on their lease because they were thinking about building a house out in the suburbs somewhere. I wouldn’t do month-to-month with them because they’d only been here for a year and were late on their rent twice. I agreed to a three-month lease and they said fine. Then they changed their minds and gave me thirty days notice. No big deal. They told me they would leave the keys on the kitchen counter when they left and just turn the doorknob lock behind them. I came by that night when they left and the door was locked, apartment was empty and clean, but there was only one set of keys on the counter instead of two.”
The wheels were turning in Ryan’s head. “Do you know if Karen got along with the other tenants?”
“I guess. There were never any complaints either way.” His eyes bored into Ryan’s. “If you’re thinking that they came back and Karen let them in, you’re wrong. I don’t rent my places to killers. I pay for criminal background checks on all my tenants.”
Eileen jumped in to smooth things over. “That’s not what he meant. We just want to explore all possibilities and not miss anything.”
He nodded stiffly but said nothing.
She gave him a friendly smile. “Okay. I think that’s all we need for now.” Ryan and Eileen both handed him cards with their cell phone and pager numbers on them. “Here are our numbers. If you think of anything, please give one of us a call, okay? If you can’t reach me or Detective Maxwell, call the main number listed on our cards and they’ll track us down. We’ve got your address and phone number, so we’ll be in touch as we follow up on leads and have any developments.”
Dennis took the proffered cards and put them in his wallet. His face had a dark look. “Mr. and Miss Detective, you just find out who did that to poor Karen. Nobody deserves to be hurt like that. There are too many evil people in this world and not enough good. And we lost a good one.” He sighed, shuddering at the memory of Karen’s battered body. “How long do you think your boys are going to be up there? I have a lot of cleaning that I’m going to need to get done.”
Eileen gave his arm a pat. “We’ll let you know when we’re through. We have to get pictures of everything, try to find Karen’s next of kin so they can get her belongings. It could take a while. But once the preliminaries are complete, we can get you the numbers of some companies that specialize in death clean-ups.”
Dennis’s eyes widened and he looked ill. “There are companies that actually do that?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Eileen shook her head sadly. “What a world we live in that there’s a need for such services, huh?”
Dennis nodded. “I couldn’t agree with you more. I thought I saw the worst of the worst when I was in Nam, but this, this is just beyond anything I could have even seen in my worst nightmares. Anyway, that’s our world. Listen, are you all going to need to be in this unit? Just wondering, because if not, I’d like to lock it up.”
“No, we’re through down here,” Eileen said. “Thanks for opening it up for us. I’m sure it would have been difficult to give your statement upstairs.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It would have been. You two are real nice. Good luck with this.”
“Thanks Mr. Cox, we’ll keep you posted.” Eileen shook his hand, which seemed to have more strength in it now than it did at their initial meeting. “And again, if you think of anything else, no matter how small or unimportant it may seem, please call me or Detective Maxwell.”
“Will do, thanks.”
They all left the unit at that point, with Dennis Cox locking up the door and the detectives returning to the scene upstairs. Once they were back upstairs, Ryan nudged Eileen. “You think he was telling us the truth?”
“I do. He doesn’t have any reason to lie as far as I can tell. He seemed genuinely shocked and upset. Seemed willing to help, too. I feel kind of bad for him. Hell, this is our job that we do every single day and I puked on the floor.”
She flashed Ryan a dazzling smile, which he was inwardly grateful for. At least he was sure now that she wasn’t too angry with him. “I’m sorry again about before,” he said earnestly. “I really didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just so rare that I see you with your feathers ruffled about anything and I wasn’t sure how to handle it.”
“No problem, amigo. And for the record, the Thai food did taste better going down than it did coming back up.”
Ryan smiled back at her and flicked her nose. “You’re a brat.”
“Yeah, I am. But that’s why you love working with me. I keep you on your toes.”
“That’s an understatement,” he said dryly. “I never know what to expect when you’re with me on a case and this is no exception. Now you’ve gone and attracted the attention of a serial killer. Nice going, Riley.”
“I know, what can I say?” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave him a smug look. “I’m so gorgeous and wonderful, who wouldn’t want to stalk me?”
Though they both laughed, Eileen felt a deep flutter of fear in her stomach. She knew she was going to have to be careful with this one. Very careful.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The girl’s name had been Justine Hembert and Eileen and Ryan had paid a visit the same afternoon to Mrs. Hembert, who lived clear on the other side of the city. The poor woman was obviously devastated at the loss of her only child, but she said to them, “I knew it. I just knew it. Justine never missed our dinners. Never. Not even during finals. We always met once every two weeks, just to keep in touch.” The woman had smiled through her tears then. “I know that most of the time, Justine was just humoring me. Her dad died when she was in fourth grade, and it had been just us for a long time. I was petrified at the idea of her going to college. When she told me she found an apartment, I was even more scared. At least there are people around in the dorms all the time. But she persuaded me. Told me it would be cheaper than the dorms, and finally, I agreed. She had only been living there since the beginning of May.”
At that point, Mrs. Hembert had completely dissolved into tears. Ryan gently patted her shoulder, offering his condolences in a low soothing voice, telling her to call if she needed anything. Eileen stood awkwardly to the side, unsure of what to do. She hated having to visit families of homicide victims. She knew it was part of the job, but she was terribly uncomfortable with all of it. She wasn’t a touch-feely type and tears had always bothered her. Thankfully, Ryan had a gentle touch and a gentle personality. He made visits like this much easier.
As she thought about it, she reminded herself that it wasn’t because she lacked compassion. It was just that she never knew what to say or how to act. She wasn’t good at showing emotion to begin with, let alone showing it to someone she didn’t know, and most especially showing sadness over the death of a complete stranger. That was part of what had made doing the press release so difficult. The Lieutenant really wanted her to appeal to the sensibilities of the public, and she had done her best, which resulted in more extensive coverage across all of the news channels and papers. She’d been given strict instructions on how to field questions from reporters and to leave out the more gruesome details of the crime. Instead, she was supposed to place more focus on the senselessness of it all and how a young life was snuffed out before that life even really took flight. Despite the coverage and her impassioned pleas to anyone, anyone who had any information at all, they didn’t get a single tip or lead.
For the first time in her career, Eileen Riley felt like a failure.
As they were leaving that night, Ryan had chucked her under the chin and told her to get over it. “Don’t worry about it, Lee-Lee. It was our first plea to the public. The sucky part is that there may not really be any leads. It does happen, you know. There are cases where nobody sees anything and the trail goes ice-cold. Of course, if this was one of those television crime shows, we’d have it all wrapped up in an hour, and that’s with the commercial breaks!”
“Not on my watch,” she had retorted. “I’ll be damned if whoever did this is going to get away with it. I’ll hunt the bastard down myself if I have to.”
Ryan rolled his eyes as they left the cool building and went out into the humid nighttime air. “Whatever. You want to be a super hero, that’s your business. It’s way better to just leave work at work. Go home and live your life. Getting too involved, taking it too personally, man, it just leads to trouble down the road. You don’t need any extra trouble in your life right now.”
Eileen chose to bite her tongue, knowing full well that he was right. But this case reeked of trouble. There was something she could feel, deep down in her bones, that this time, there would be no way of not taking it personally.
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Sebastian was numb. Numb, and a bit nauseous, but still walking. He tried to focus on getting back to his lodgings, and only that. If he let his mind wander for the merest second, it took him back to earlier in the night. The evening had started with a series of wins at the card tables. He had been thrilled that he had won enough to pay his mounting debts as well as enough to survive another month—or even two if he was frugal. He had resolved to end the night right then, take his winnings out the door, and figure the rest out later. But the damn Hazard table had caught his attention. He rarely played. The complex rules and pure chance of the game usually held no appeal for him. Tonight though, the sound of the dice pulled him closer and closer. Before he knew it, he found himself in the middle of a game.
At first he made some money off the other players’ losses. The problem with Hazard was that you never knew if you were going to keep it. He watched his winnings steadily dwindle due to the other castors’ wins. After a while, there was only one other play left with him. What had possessed him to put such a large sum into the center of the table—everything he had, plus more—he’d never know. Even a disowned, rascal of a son, such as he, knew that the debt a loss would bring would require him to flee the country to avoid his creditors. His father had cut him off two years ago and he had been by his wits and periodic gaming wins ever since. Although one might argue that anyone with any wits would not have done what he had.
A strange calm had settled over him as he stretched his arm out over the table and released the dice from his clenched fist. Sebastian couldn’t watch. Time seemed suspended as he kept his eyes on his opponent instead of the ivory in charge of his fate. When disbelief registered on the other man’s face, he still didn’t look down. Had he just mad a rich man even richer? The roar of the crowd seemed too distant to be real. But the cheers and suddenly vigorous pats on his back could not be ignored.
Pure chance. Now, everything was different. He could have just as easily left the club a beggar.
Instead, he celebrated by drinking a bit more than usual, but not so much that he’d do anything he might regret with a turn of a card or toss of the dice. He was feeling disgusted with himself as it was. He had never done anything so stupid in his life. He did not consider disobeying his father’s order to join the army—as almost all second sons of the nobility were expected to do—stupid. That had been standing up for himself. What he had done tonight was truly reckless. It was as if his tarnished reputation was starting to actually rub off on him.
He was tired. He just wanted to get home and get some sleep before making arrangements for his new fortune. Even after his bills were paid, he would have a sizeable amount to live off of for the rest of his life. He might have trouble giving up some of his more lavish tastes and be happy with a more modest existence, but he would never step into a gaming hell again.
That was the rub, he realized, as he walked thought the streets beginning to come to life in the graying dawn. As much as he appreciated a pleasant walk in the early autumn air, he liked riding a horse and driving a curricle more. Moving to the county to have those things wasn’t appealing though. He enjoyed the bustle of London and the company of friends. Sebastian knew he would expire of boredom if he settled in the countryside. He wondered how he could continue with the level of decadence he was accustomed to without gaming. There had to be a way. Later, he promised himself as he let himself into his rooms with only a slight stumble. The weight of what he had just done, and the fact that he was flush with money, propelled him through the door before he lost the entire contents of his stomach.