/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

First Murder

Fred Limberg


Fred Limberg

First Murder

Chapter 1

It didn’t register right away. There was a sound, a distant beep-beep-beep chased by annoying buzzes. Tony tried to grunt the damn noises away. Didn’t work. Three more beeps followed by three more buzzers mocked him. What the hell? It wasn’t loud or urgent enough to be a smoke alarm. With each set of beeps his head hurt a bit more. He winced at the sharp pain behind each of his eyes.

“Is that yours or mine?”

The voice was vaguely familiar. The bed was too soft to be his. His head hurt like hell.

More beeps. More buzzes. He risked opening an eye-just one. Pitch black. He was sure his eye was open. The beeping came from his right. So did the buzzing.

“It’s yours. Mine doesn’t vibrate.” It was a woman’s voice. A nice voice.

He opened the other eye.

“Tony, shut the damn thing off!”

Maybe not so nice.

After three more beeps the buzzing was interrupted by a rattle and a clunk sound, like something falling.

Maybeit’s dead. It better be dead.

The warm shape next to him moved, rustling the covers. He heard soft low laughter.

“Detective de Luca, would you please find your new pager and see who’s trying to reach you?”

“Uh, sure.” Tony could make out shapes in the darkness now. He peeled back a sheet, swung his legs to the floor and sat up. The pain increased. It beeped again. It wasn’t dead but it soon would be. He tracked the sound. It was coming from behind a bedside table.

Okay, I’m naked. This could be very good or very bad.

He shook his head to try to clear the cobwebs-yet another mistake. Tony slipped out of the bed onto his knees, one hand on top of the nightstand, the other groping under and behind it for the noisemaker. He snagged the plastic cube, his pager…his new pager. Tony de Luca, a detective for all of fourteen hours, had his first page. He sat on the bed and fumbled for the switch on the lamp.

“Damn it, Tony!” The woman yanked his pillow over her face.

His head throbbed. He was light blind. The pager was still beeping and buzzing. Squinting at it, he found he had a one in three chance of punching the right button. He went for the biggest one, the red one in the middle.

651-548-9045 911 flashed on the tiny screen. He didn’t recognize the phone number but the 911 at the end surely meant to call immediately. He had a cell phone but didn’t have any idea where it was. Tony was still working on where he was. Then it clicked. It was all good, except for the pain.

“Pants?” Tony looked around the room. No pants.

There was muffled laughter sneaking from beneath the pillow.

“I don’t know. The living room? No. The kitchen. Check the kitchen. And kill the damn light,” the woman commanded. Tony obeyed. The unfamiliar bedroom went dark. He felt his way down the hall.

Tony found the pants in the living room and his boxers wadded on the kitchen floor. He sat on a swivel stool at a raised granite counter. It was a nice kitchen-nice enough to have some orange juice in the big refrigerator. He took a slug from the carton, then another, and the pain moved from behind his eyes to his forehead.

Squinting again, he peeked into the purse on the counter like a sneak thief. Yep! He was in Sue Ellen McConnel’s townhouse. Grinning, he dialed the number from the pager.

“Bankston.” The voice on the other end was low and melodic and definitely wide awake.

“De Luca here. What’s up?”

“Good morning, detective, ready to go to work?” Tony found the wall clock. 4:17. A.M. Morning, all right.

“No,” he said. It slipped out before he could catch it. He had only been partnered with Rayford Bankston for the last half-day. They’d spent all of fifteen minutes together so far and Tony hadn’t gotten a clear read on the man yet. The long silence worried him.

“Where are you?” Bankston finally asked.

Good question, Tony thought. He looked in the purse again. “Downtown. Market Street.”

“Meet me at 1462 Victoria. I’m a half hour out.”

“So what’s up, uh…Sergeant Bankston?”

“We’re partners, Tony. You can call me Ray.”

“What’s up, Ray?”

“Your first murder, son. See you in thirty.” The line went dead.

Tony started the search for a pen and a scrap of paper to jot down the address before it escaped when he noticed Sue Ellen leaning in the doorway. She was wrapped in a white sheet that offset her dusky skin. Her short black hair was bed-mussed and her signature bright red lipstick missing.

“Who was it?” she asked, yawning.

“A 10–89 in Highland Park.”

She scrunched up one side of her face, head cocked.

“Sorry, old habit,” Tony said. With over 6 years on the force, most of it in radio cars, he lapsed into code without thinking at times. “Apparently there’s been a murder in Highland Park somewhere. I guess Ray and I caught it.”

“Aren’t you just the fast starter,” Sue Ellen said and smiled.

The address became a fugitive when the sheet slipped.

There had been six…no, eight of them at the bar. Cop friends, a girl from the courthouse, and two of the assistant D.A.s-one of which was standing in the doorway, breasts exposed, smiling at him. They were congratulating him on his promotion to detective, all buying him drinks. Tony was a beer guy. The drinks they bought him weren’t beer. There was a lot of teasing, some flirting…and now, looking over at the woman in the doorway he felt a little embarrassed. Then again, he thought, she doesn’t know I forgot where I am…was…whatever.

“Shirt?” He hadn’t located that article of clothing yet, and one sock was still hiding.

Sue Ellen hitched up the sheet and went into the living room. When she stretched over the back of the sofa Tony lost his entire train of thought again.

“Here.” She retrieved it from behind the couch and shook it out.

More of the evening came back to him. He grinned while he buttoned his shirt. The flirting had been mutual, a pleasant surprise. He’d wanted to ask Sue Ellen out since they’d met. He was testifying on a drug case and she was the lead prosecutor. Maybe the new gold badge impressed her.

“I’m sorry, but I have to run.”

She smiled, walked over to him and put her hand on his cheek. “Me too,” she said. Then she turned and walked down the hall to the bedroom.

Tony found his shoes. He was on hands and knees looking for the elusive sock when she came back.

“You probably don’t want to forget these.” She held out his gun and badge wallet.

What the hell were those doing in the bedroom? Both of them had exploded out of their clothes as soon as they got in the door. Her things were strewn about too- her crumpled dress was in the living room and a lacy black bra on the floor by the kitchen table. Another piece of the puzzle clicked into place.

“Handcuffs?”

“You wish.” God she has a nice laugh.

“I’m not usually so…ah…” Tony wore a self-conscious, shy smile.

She laughed again. “It was funny. It was fun.”

Tony started counting his blessings. “I’ll call. I want to see you again.”

“I know.”

He prayed that later he’d remember what he had said. “We’ll start over.”

“You don’t remember, do you?”

“Sure I do.”

“You’d better go,” she said. “Don’t keep Uncle Ray waiting on your first 10–99.”

“10–89,” he corrected her. “I’ll call.”

When Sue Ellen gave him a kiss goodbye the sheet dropped completely. She was laughing again when she closed the door.

Wait a damn minute. Uncle Ray?

Tony jogged the short hop from Sue Ellen’s downtown condo to police headquarters. The brisk air and pace helped cut through the brain-fog. He’d deal with his car later. He checked out one of the unmarked Crown Vics. He also checked with the dispatcher to get the address again and his watch. It was already 4:40. He was going to be late. Tony decided to go Code 3, stuck the blue strobe light on the car’s roof and toggled the siren on.

Traffic was light, no surprise at 4:45 in the morning. He blew through two lights, heading generally west and south to Victoria Street. When he made the last turn he realized the house was a block up, near the next corner where a discotheque of blue, red and yellow lights danced, lighting the street and throwing weird disconcerting shadows over houses on both sides of Victoria. Tony killed the siren a block from the house…not soon enough.

“Hey de Luca, what’s the hurry?” one familiar patrolman shouted. That was Tim.

“Hey Tony, you’re out of uniform,” another added, laughing behind him.

It was still dark. Cops in black leather and nylon huddled together by the cars, their breath-fog rising in the street light lit pre-dawn. It was chilly but not cold this early in October. Tony shrugged off the taunts. Just a week ago he’d been in a uniform, riding in a radio car, working with these people.

He noticed a man sitting sideways in the back of one of the black-and-whites flanked by two uniformed officers, his head down, hands in his lap. Tony couldn’t tell if the guy was cuffed. He wondered if the crime had been solved before he’d even arrived. That’d serve him right.

Further up the drive, he saw a solitary thin figure in a suit silhouetted by a light over the side door of the brick house. Tony turned at the sound of an approaching car. It was the crime scene guys, the first of them anyway. He noticed the coroner’s van just up the street. No ambulance. He sighed and walked up the drive.

“Glad you could make it.” Detective Sergeant Rayford Bankston looked Tony up and down with a critical eye. Ray was wearing a dark gray suit and a tie, wearing it very well for 5:00 in the morning. He was a tall thin black man with short graying hair. He held a small digital recorder and a pair of latex gloves in one hand and shook Tony’s with the other.

“I’m not that late, am I?” Tony wasn’t sure what to expect from his new partner. Bankston had a reputation of being a loner, kind of aloof.

“Not really, considering.”

Tony cocked one eyebrow, wondering if Ray knew about the party, about Sue Ellen.

Uncle Ray?

“So what have we got?” Tony turned to the door, eager to go to work.

“The man in the car there is Scott Fredrickson. He says he got in late from a business trip, went in the back door here and saw his wife dead on the floor. Stabbed. Says he grabbed the phone, called 911 right away, and here we are.”

“No one’s been in yet?” Tony knew some street cops were better than others at a crime scene.

“The responding officer went in-carefully, she assures me. She saw the body on the floor, and checked for a pulse. But the lady was gone, way gone she said, and backed out. The scene’s untouched.”

“That’s good.”

“So here are the ground rules, detective. Touch nothing. Move nothing. Observe. Take notes. I prefer to use this recorder.” Ray held it up before sliding it in his pocket. As he worked the latex gloves on he added, “Something I picked up from the coroner.”

Tony nodded and looked off, wondering how he was going to explain that he’d forgotten to grab any gloves, or his notebook, or a pen, or a flashlight.

Ray recognized his rookie partner’s dilemma. “What I do is I keep a kit, actually several of them. One in the car, one in the desk, like that, so I never show up at a scene without my tools.” He smiled, holding out a pair of gloves to Tony. “It’s embarrassing not to have your tools. Unprofessional.”

“Thanks, Ray.” Tony noticed the gloves were powdered inside, more comfortable when you would be wearing them for a while. Professional. “Won’t happen again.”

“What say I go in first? I’ve done this a time or two.” Ray’s twenty-five years on the force, most of it as an investigator, guaranteed that Tony wasn’t going to argue. “You’ve got what, five years on?”

“Six and a half. Last year I was with Narcotics. Eighteen months, actually. Undercover. I liked it, took the exam, and here we are.”

“Narco-that would explain why you look scruffy.”

“It’s four in the fucking morning, Ray. What’s with scruffy?”

“Hair. Beard. Clothes. Sock.” Ray held up one finger. “Scruffy. And I’d prefer that you save your cursing for more appropriate circumstances.”

“And what would a more appropriate circumstance be?” Tony bottled his anger when he replied but his words still dripped with sarcasm.

“Hammer versus finger comes to mind. Looking into a gun barrel comes to mind. Husband comes home early? Hit a deer in your new car? Now that definitely deserves a good cussing. You’re not on patrol anymore. Please get in the habit.” Bankston turned toward the door. “You ready?”

Tony nodded. “Lead the way, Sarge.”

“It’s all in the details, Tony. Remember that.” Ray pulled the screen door open and led the way. “And don’t ever call me ‘Sarge’ again, okay?”

“Got it…Ray.”

Hot damn, Tony thought. Here we go. My first murder.

Chapter 2

The only light in the kitchen came from a ceiling fixture. Ray and Tony focused on the body sprawled in the middle of the room. The woman was on her back, one leg tucked under the other. One of her shoes, a black leather slip-on with a low-heel, rested on its side a few feet away. She was wearing a skirt, collared blouse and jacket. The skirt was navy blue, calf length. An embroidered jacket was splayed open. A once white or ivory colored blouse was stained red-black from the blood. Her head was turned to the left side. One arm was outstretched on the floor. The other arm lay across her torso near the knife but not touching it.

The handle of a knife stood erect from her chest, just below her left breast. In life, she had been a pretty woman-strikingly attractive, in fact. In death, the settling of blood and degradation of tissue had already begun to betray that beauty.

Her long brown-blonde hair was fanned out on the tile floor. The blood pool had crept up from beneath and around her and had soaked one side halfway. Her eyes were open. Tony thought she looked surprised, as if she had been asking ‘why are you doing this?’ at the moment someone had pierced her heart.

She had been dead for a while. The blood was blackened and tacky. House flies whirred about. Some hovered and swarmed about the body and the blood. Some investigated and feasted. Her bowels and bladder had let go. The smell of urine and feces mingled with the coppery tang of blood.

Tony had seen death before but it had been recent death, immediate death, always accompanied by sirens and flashing lights and screaming. The blood had been red in those deaths. It had been gunshot death and slashing death and sometimes metal-rent accidental death. It had been loud rap music death, rock and roll dying and shotgun murder. It had been meth-fuelled death, whisky and beer soaked slaughter. In this quiet kitchen with a once-pretty woman lying on the floor wearing a surprised sad look on her face he found himself listening for organ music-a hymn or a Celtic chant or something.

Ray, kneeling by the body and talking softly into his recorder, said, “The victim is middle aged, Caucasian female. Death appears to have been caused by stabbing. One wound is visible. A knife is still imbedded in the victims left chest. Death was not immediate as evidenced by the size of the blood pool. I see no spatter, no blood trail.”

Tony looked around the kitchen for the first time while Ray continued to catalog his observations and impressions. He saw a knife block on the counter, a large expensive looking set. The handles matched the one in the woman’s chest. On one counter a leather purse lay on its side. Some of the contents had spilled onto the countertop-a wallet, a roll of mints, a lipstick tube. A set of car keys lay nearby. Ray, now on his feet, leaned over the woman, still talking in a low monotone.

Tony wondered how Ray could keep the emotion out of his voice. He realized he was fighting an urge to scream and curse. He looked again at the murdered woman lying in a pool of blood, his hands balled into tight white bloodless fists-Tony wanted to be mad at someone.

A black suitcase lay on its side and a crumpled hanging bag sagged over by the door. A fresh green MSP airline tag was threaded through the handle. Delta Airlines.

“I’m tempted to rule out robbery or crash-and-grab,” Ray murmured into the recorder. “A large diamond ring is on the victim’s finger. She’s wearing pearl earrings.”

“Her wallet’s on the counter too, Ray,” Tony offered.

Ray turned to Tony with an irritated look on his face then realized that his new partner was just trying to be helpful and had, in fact, been listening. His frown softened and he nodded.

Careful to avoid the blood pool Tony stepped over to the sink. There was a bowl and a glass in the left basin. Both were dry and looked clean. There was a coffee mug in the right basin. He leaned over and saw that there was dried residue in it. He found the coffeemaker and, with one knuckle, rocked the carafe. It was over half full. He moved over to inspect the knife block. There was one empty slot from the deeper section of the oak carrier. Tony looked back at the body and winced, certain there was a substantial knife under the handle-a butcher blade or a big carver.

Ray was now slowly circling the body, still droning into the recorder. Tony, making sure to stay out of his way, moved to the other side of the cabinets. He looked down and saw a dark smudge.

“Ray, there’s a mark over here.”

“I’m not there yet.” Ray sounded irritated.

“It looks like a heel scuff.”

“We’ll see.” Ray never raised his head or his voice as he continued to circle the corpse. Tony surveyed the room again. There was an alarm panel by the door.A solitary green light blinked patiently.

“She might have known the killer, Ray.” Tony felt proud, having figured out this major factor, and on his first day, actually, first hour on the case.

“Of course she did, son.” The air hissed when Tony’s balloon deflated.

“I’m just trying to help,” Tony said, and kept the you asshole to himself.

“I know.” Ray straightened up and looked across the room. “Why don’t you get some more lights on in here and take a look around, carefully, and see if you can find a planner or a calendar.”

Tony flipped switches and prowled around the desktop tucked into a niche by the breakfast table. He watched Ray pause, look down at the smudge on the floor and say into the recorder, “There is a scuff mark, approximately four inches long angled diagonally across the room toward the body. Make sure forensics checks it against the deceased’s shoes.”

Tony smiled triumphantly while he inspected the desk top. Magazines and newsprint shoppers were neatly stacked. There was a notepad and a spiral bound planner angled on the side.

“Got it. There’s a note pad here too.”

Done now with his death-dance around the corpse Ray joined Tony, took out a pen, and carefully flipped the planner open to the first week of October.

“Monday. Yesterday. 9:30. CH/ORIENT. Wonder what CH/Orient means.” Tony mused.

“We’ll find out.” Ray used his pen to flip the book shut. “We’ll let forensics have it first.” He stood tall and stretched, fists in the small of his back. “I’m not liking this one even a little bit, detective. Not a bit.”

“Okay, why not?” Tony rubbed one eye, still a bit out of it.

“You were right about her knowing the killer. I’m assuming you noticed the green light on the alarm. She let him or her in. The husband didn’t take the time to turn off the alarm, or he’s lying. I don’t think he is at this point. The killer also wasn’t necessarily planning on committing murder. They used a chance weapon, the knife-didn’t bring a weapon with them.”

“What’s to like about any murder, Ray?” Tony asked, genuinely curious.

“Some solve themselves. The husband is standing over the body with a smoking gun and just can’t wait to tell us why he killed her…or him. We’re going to have to get into these people’s lives, Tony. These are the worst. I hate getting into people’s lives.” Ray took a deep breath. “Go get the scientists and then we’ll snoop around the rest of the house before we go talk to Mr. Fredrickson.”

“We can do that?” Tony was no rookie, but he had always been left at the door when the detectives arrived.

“It’s a crime scene,” Ray replied. “Welcome to the big leagues.”

The first tech in the door was one of Ray’s favorites, Jonny Kumpula. They had worked many cases together over the years. Ray respected his thoroughness and skills. Kumpula appreciated what Ray did with his evidence.

“I need a time of death, Kump,” Ray said without preamble when he entered, heavy case in hand. Kumpula took one look at the body and then glanced back at Ray. They both cocked their heads when they heard the furnace kick in.

“I’ll do what I can.” Kumpula, shrugged, knowing already that it would be a tough call. The detectives retreated.

Over half of the finished basement was an entertainment room with a massive wide- screen TV dominating a collection of comfortable looking sofas and chairs. There was a bar but it wasn’t stocked. A small refrigerator held four bottles of beer and a half full bottle of white wine. The room smelled of Pledge and lemon oil. Ray lifted the corner of a magazine. No dust.

“Cleaning service?” he asked the digital recorder.

The rest of the basement was split between a well appointed laundry room, a bathroom, and a home gym. The appliances and exercise machine were new looking. There was a basement door at the back of the house, alarmed like the others-this one blinking red, with a heavy steel bar across it.

Tony frowned. No one left this way.

The second floor was considerably warmer. There were four doors visible down the wide carpeted hallway. Two were closed. Ray and Tony found one to be a boy’s room, evidenced by posters and trophies on the shelves. Two twin beds were made and un-mussed. The closet held a few clothes, mostly summer wear.

“A son living away from home?” Ray asked the recorder.

The other closed door hid a guest room. There was a queen sized bed, a dresser and mirror, some pictures on the wall and little else. Again the bed was made and undisturbed. The closet was empty except for some shoe boxes stacked on the shelf.

A tiled bathroom was found behind door number three. There was a tub, a commode with the lid down, and a small vanity. Tony noted an empty waste can. The medicine cabinet held few toiletries and no prescription drugs. He sighed when he saw the aspirin bottle, reminded of the dull ache he’d almost shoved aside. He closed the medicine cabinet and went looking for Ray.

The master suite was impressive. Again they found a made bed, no dust, and expensive, tasteful furnishings. There was another bath off the bedroom, this one showing signs of regular use. Tony called out to Ray from the bedroom.

“We can definitely rule out robbery, boss.” When Ray joined him he pointed out a pair of diamond earrings on the dresser. “I’m thinking half carat each. The Fredrickson’s are doing all right.”

Ray just nodded.

There were sheers on the windows flanked by heavy brocade drapes. Tony noticed it was getting lighter outside. How long had they been in the house?

“Time to talk to the husband.”

Ray headed downstairs. At the front door he checked the deadbolts and alarm. The killer hadn’t gone this way either. It had all gone down in the kitchen.

Tony lagged behind, upstairs. Standing in the master bedroom, he noticed the pale lightening of the sheers, heard the furnace whisper on again, barely disturbing the silence. He took in the neatness of the room, the ordinary-ness of everything. Nothing was disturbed. Nothing seemed out of place. He hustled down the stairs to join his partner.

They cautiously stepped around the techs dusting for prints and looking for other minute traces of evidence. Kumpula looked up at them, brow furrowed, frowning.

“Liver temp is 74.1, Ray, and I checked out the thermostat. It’s not a set-back model. It’s been 62 in here the whole time.”

Ray needed a time of death to even think of getting started. “Get me close, Kump.”

“Wish I could. You’re looking at 11pm night-before to 9 AM yesterday. Late Sunday night to early Monday morning. Best I can do for now.”

Ray nodded.

“Maybe the Doc can get you closer from the autopsy. Liver temp sucks when it’s been this long,” Kumpula said, trying to give him some hope and maybe something more exact to work with.

“I know.”

“So who’s the new victim…I mean partner?” Kumpula jerked a thumb in Tony’s direction.

“Victim?”

“Tony de Luca, meet Jonny Kumpula.”

“I’d shake but it’s kinda’ insincere when we’re all wearing gloves,” Kumpula joked.

“Nice to meet you, Jonny. Hey, just what did you mean by ‘victim’?” Ray was already out the door and Tony was anxious to follow.

“Just kidding,” Kumpula called out behind him as the screen door closed. Tony could have sworn he heard him add ‘sorta’ just before it latched.

Chapter 3

Ray stood in the center of the paver driveway just outside the back door. He looked toward the radio car the husband was sitting in, glanced up at the lightening early morning sky, and finally towards a small gathering of people, neighbors shivering in housecoats and robes. One man pointed at the house. Two women were whispering to each other.

Tony nudged Ray with his elbow. “Think anyone saw anything?” He nodded toward the gathering.

“I’m sure someone saw something. Trouble is, right now we don’t know when whatever they saw has any bearing.”

“Yesterday morning.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. “Early yesterday morning. The lady was dressed, ready to go to whatever CH/ Orient is.”

Ray nodded and told him to go on.

“The bowl and the coffee cup in the sink? Purse on the counter? She was wearing makeup and lipstick.”

“Could have been going out the night before?” Ray added. “Or coming in.” He turned to look back up the drive toward the garage. A new looking Lexus sedan was parked in front of it.

Tony pressed on. “Didn’t strike me as going out clothes, the outfit she had on…has on. Looked like office clothes…business clothes. Coffee mug in the sink. Morning.”

“Just how long have you had a gold shield?” Ray looked into Tony’s eyes. Tony thought he was making fun of him, felt a little squirt of anger. Ray intended it as a compliment.

“It’s what I think, Sergeant Bankston. That’s all.” It came out more pissed off than he really intended. Tony knew he was a rookie detective but he wasn’t a rookie cop with a rookie mind. He turned away so Ray wouldn’t see his expression.

Ray thought about his reply for a minute. This was turning into one of those moments that can define a relationship, or at least affect it in a negative way for a while. Tony was a rookie detective, true, but Ray happened to think he was right-thought he was pretty observant. But they didn’t have a time of death and she might have had a business meeting the night before and been coming home. Too many mights. Still, Ray thought this one, de Luca, might actually have some instincts, some talent. So many other partners managed to disappointed him he was wary by default.

This was not the time for a confrontation, though, so he decided to say, “We’re not in these people’s lives yet, Tony. You go over and talk to the neighbors. You’ve done that before, right? Keep an open mind. This thing’s just starting.”

“You’re going to talk to the husband?”

“Mm-Hm.”

“Without me?” Still tense, Tony could see the logic even if he didn’t like it. He knew how to work a crowd of potential witnesses.

“This time. We’ll be having more conversations with Mr. Fredrickson. And Tony?”

“Yeah.”

“Be sure you ask them about Monday morning.” Bankston gave him a half-smile before he turned to the radio car.

After borrowing a pad from one of the uniformed cops still there and taking the required abuse, Tony approached the small crowd clustered behind a slash of yellow tape. Their hushed conversations quieted further as he approached.

Tony realized that at this moment he missed his uniform. He’d done this dozens, even hundreds of times. Ray’s comment about looking scruffy still stung. Tony knew that he cut an imposing figure in uniform. Six foot one and a muscular hundred and seventy five pounds of black haired, squared away, blue clad, no nonsense cop, with a creaking leather belt and a high riding Glock on his right hip-he got people’s attention right now. Well…most people.

Now, he fumed, here he was in yesterday’s jeans with yesterday’s whiskers, undercover hair, probably smelling like he’d just boinked an assistant D.A, and with only one fucking sock he hoped would go unnoticed. Well, at least he had the gold shield hanging around his neck. He stepped up to the yellow tape.

“Good morning. I’m Detective de Luca.”

“What’s going on officer?”

“Was somebody hurt?”

“Who’s dead? I heard one of the cops talking about a body.”

“Why’s there a coroner van over there.”

“Where’s the ambulance?”

“Is it Deanna?”

“Is it Scotty?”

“He’s living over by the U.”

“What’s going on, officer?”

They were ganging up on him. Tony was being stoned, pelted with questions he wasn’t sure he could answer or should answer. Even so, some things registered. The dead woman’s name was Deanna. He hadn’t known that and felt like he should have. He held up his hand, trying to quiet them, missing his uniform more and more.

“Hang on folks!” He said it louder than he needed to but it had the desired effect. Most of them got quiet. “I’m Detective de Luca. I need to get your names. You all live around here, right? And I need to ask a couple of questions right now. I or another detective may contact you later today or tomorrow with more questions.”

Tony ducked under the crime scene tape and started working the small crowd, asking things like have you noticed anything out of the ordinary at the Fredrickson’s the past couple of days? Any delivery trucks? Any strange vehicles? Have you seen any people that looked like they don’t belong here? When? Well, anytime the last couple of days. Monday morning?

He noticed one man walking away from the group and called out after him, untangling himself from the housewives and retirees.

“Hey! Hold on.” The man kept walking, looking back over his shoulder.

“I said HOLD IT!” Tony’s street-cop voiced command froze the man. “What’s your name?”

“Al Cooper. What? I live over there.” The man pointed to a small stucco house three doors down. Tony hurried over to him. In his uniform days anyone hustling away from the crowd of gawkers at a crime scene got special attention.

“Where you going?”

The man had an annoyed look on his face. “I gotta’ get ready for work. What?”

“You see anything strange going on around here the last day or two? You heard my questions back there.” The man’s attitude wasn’t evasive but Tony thought he needed to keep pressing.

Cooper shifted his weight from foot to foot, impatient. “Nah, I ain’t seen nothin’. Look, I gotta get to work.”

“Where do you work, Mr. Cooper.”

“The Ford plant. What’s all the questions for? My shift’s comin’ up.”

Tony got his address and phone number and returned to the thinning crowd of neighbors. Others had wandered off while he was with Cooper.

Great…just fuckin’ great.

He went back and tried again, collected a few more names and numbers. The crowd was dwindling when he noticed one woman, an older lady clutching an overcoat closed over her nightclothes crying softly.

“It’s Deanna, isn’t it?” Her cheeks were wet. The woman’s thin gray hair was still bed mussed and in the streetlight Tony saw her ears were reddening in the early morning chill.

“Did you know her well?” Tony asked. The other gawkers had drifted off, gone back home for coffee and breakfast and worry about a murder on their quiet street.

“I’ve lived next door to Scott and Deanna for twelve years. Right over there.” She pointed to the neat frame house closest to the Fredrickson’s driveway.

Tony wanted to say something to comfort her but he needed to start getting into their lives, as Ray put it. “Tell me about them.”

“Scott’s a financial planner. He handles my accounts, now that Bud’s passed. Bud was my husband. Deanna, my god, Deanna…” the woman started crying again. “I’m cold. Would you like to come to the kitchen to talk? I’ll make coffee.”

“Yes ma’am.” Tony saw the first of the news vans heading up the street. Jackals. Somebody must have used the radio instead of their cell phone. “Why don’t you go on ahead. I need a word with my partner.”

Tony escorted her through the thinning ranks of uniformed officers, across the Fredrickson’s driveway, to her own back door. The two driveways ran parallel. He realized that the woman must have said hello to the dead woman, Deanna, almost every day. He sidled up next to his partner, saying nothing, listening to Ray and the husband, Scott Fredrickson, talk in low tones.

“I know it sounds cliche, detective, but Deanna didn’t have an enemy in the world. Not one.”

Tony observed the man, still sitting sideways in the back of the cruiser, hands still in his lap. The sky had lightened considerably and was hinting blue, nearly cloudless. Tony could see dark circles under the man’s red eyes. It looked like he’d been punched. He’d certainly been crying. He had coarse stubble on his cheeks. His suit was wrinkled, mussed as if he’d been living in it for a few days. His brownish gray hair was disheveled.

“Maybe someone from work?”

“Deanna didn’t work. Well, not at a job, work. She volunteered at Children’s, been helping out there for years. She was on a few boards, the food shelf and a woman’s shelter. She’s busier than I am some weeks but she loves it.”

“You mentioned children. Was she on good terms with them?” Tony thought he could see a knife slash the man’s heart when Ray asked the question from the look of pain and utter despair that crossed his face.

“Good terms? Best friends is more like it. Our daughter lives in Madison. She’s married. Pregnant.” Scott Fredrickson looked up at Ray. “My God. She’ll never…” It took him a minute to be able to speak again. Ray and Tony looked at each other. Ray looked sad and sympathetic. Tony looked angry.

“Scotty, Scott junior, lives over by the U. He’s a sophomore. Econ major. Dee was probably the only mother in the city with a key to her son’s house. Welcome anytime. He has some roommates. Nice young men. They all love her…call her the house mom.”

“You know them well?”

“No, but she did.” Ray made a note.

“What about friends? Any difficulties with her friends?”

“The ‘Go Girls’? Not a chance. No chance.”

“The ‘Go Girls’?”

“A group of them. They do everything together. Have forever, seems like. They take trips every year, sometimes more often. They’re like sisters. My God… I have to call them too.” He looked up at Ray, hopeless and lost…defeated already and the day barely begun. Ray touched his shoulder, sympathetic, thinking already that this man hadn’t killed his wife, but her death might kill him. The detectives stepped away to give him a minute and to compare notes.

“I’m going to talk to the neighbor.” De Luca shagged his head toward the house next door.

“Need any help?”

Tony’s nostrils flared.

Ray noticed but decided to get into it later. “I’d like to stay with the husband and talk to Kumpula. You do it.”

De Luca nodded, already sorry he’d taken it wrong again. “Lady says they lived next door for twelve years. Driveways run right next to each other.”

“See how the windows almost match up.” Ray pointed to the two lit windows. “Don’t you just hate nosy people?”

Tony saw immediately that a person could look directly from one side door into the other. “Nope.”

At that moment two men horsed a raised gurney across the lawn and rattled it onto the driveway. They were almost ready to move the body. Ray and Tony looked over and saw Scott Fredrickson sag further, collapse inward, reality battering a broken, broken-hearted man.

“De Luca you said? East Side?” The tiny woman was fussing with cups and saucers. Pale pink lipstick had magically appeared, her wispy hair combed now, and the housecoat exchanged for a heavier, nicer one. Tony smiled for her. He couldn’t think of anyone who still used a percolator for coffee.

“I know a Louisa de Luca,” Mae said while the coffee perked.

“My aunt Louise, I bet.” He sat back and let her talk.

The woman’s name was Mae Long he learned, widowed three years, with two grown daughters and six grandkids. Her husband, Bud, passed just two years ago. While she rattled off names and ages Tony listened politely for a while, but she did go on a bit, and he started getting impatient. Fine and good, he thought, juggling the dainty cup, but I want to know about the Fredricksons.

“I’m really not the nosy type”, she said.

Just my luck.

“But after twelve years you get to know people. Dee was a saint. I’m not just saying that. She put in more hours at Children’s Hospital and with the Food Bank than most people do at work in a week.” Wrinkled lips pursed, Mae looked toward the window facing the driveway and the Fredrickson’s house.

“Were you familiar with the comings and goings next door, Mae?”

“Like I said, I’m not a nosy sort. But Dee was usually out of the house by 8:30 most mornings, 9:00 at the latest. That’s why I thought it was odd that her car was in the driveway yesterday morning. Scott’s out of town, you see. He was in Phoenix this week. His car’s in the garage. Gracie’s married and lives in Madison, did you know that? And Scotty’s at the U. He almost never comes home during the week.”

“I see.” Not nosy my ass. Keep going, Mae. “The husband and her got along all right, did they?” He thought he saw a blush creep up.

“Oh yes. Oh yes. When Scott would get home from a trip he never made it in that back door without a kiss, and I mean a good old fashioned smacker. It does an old woman’s heart good to see a couple so in love after so long.”

“And the son? They got along as far as you could tell?”

“They had some set-tos when he was in high school. Dee was harder on him than his father. Of course, she was around more. But he grew up into a fine young man. Even brings his friends over now and then.” That’s interesting.

“Friends?” Not that you’re nosy or anything, Mae my darling.

“From the school I think. They came over on Sundays sometimes. I think they come for the big TV downstairs and Dee’s cooking.”

“Ah. Just a couple more questions if that’s okay?” Mae fetched the percolator and refilled their cups. “Think back to yesterday morning. Was there anything out of the ordinary? Any early visitors you might have noticed?”

“Is that when she was killed?” Tears welled now. Mae stared sadly at the tabletop and said softly, “I knew I should have gone over there when her car sat there all day.” Tony gave her a long minute. “I heard a car, a car door, yesterday morning. I was still in bed. Asleep, really. I didn’t think anything of it then. I guess I thought it was just Dee leaving. Guessed it was 8:30 but I never bothered to look at the clock. Now I think about it, it could have been a car on the street too.”

“Anything else you remember?”

“Yesterday morning. I made coffee, got the paper from the front stoop around 9:00. I can’t remember anything out of the ordinary. You know, I never even went out the side of the house until afternoon. I was going to the grocery. That’s when I noticed her car still there. I’m so sorry, Tony.”

He thanked her for the coffee, left a card-one of Ray’s with his name scrawled on it, and told her to call if she remembered anything else, anything at all.

By the time Tony finished up with Mae, Deanna’s body had been removed and taken to the morgue for an autopsy. Scott Fredrickson was standing now, the first time Tony had seen him upright. He joined them. Ray was looking toward the house-the husband not able to.

“I can’t stay here,” Fredrickson said, meaning it was too hard, too tragic.

“No you can’t.” Ray said, adding that it was a crime scene and it would be a few days. Tony noticed the hurt look in the husband’s eyes as it registered; that he might be a suspect and that he was forbidden from entering his own home.

Tony was dispatched to fetch some clothes from Scott’s closet, an evidence tech accompanying him, photographing and inspecting what he placed in an available suitcase. Ray noted where Fredrickson would be staying and made arrangements to meet up later in the day. It promised to be a long one.

Chapter 4

Ray told Tony to go home, to grab a shower and fresh clothes and that they’d meet at 9:30 in the CAP squad room. The Crimes Against Persons division of the S.P.P.D took responsibility for investigation of everything from assaults to rapes and homicide and the squad room served as their base of operations.

Tony wanted to stay with the scene, watch Ray work with the evidence techs and see what came next almost as much as he wanted to get cleaned up and squared away. On the drive to his house on St. Paul’s East Side he tried to sort through and arrange what they knew so far, what he knew so far, but it wasn’t enough yet. It wasn’t much at all.

Tony noticed a neon ‘Open’ sign flickering in the window of a strip mall hair salon on Arcade and checked his watch. He had time. From the chair he could see a Dunn Bros. across the street. While his freshly shorn undercover hair fell on his shoulders and the floor he thought of Mae’s percolator and the truly shitty coffee it made.

Finally home, he quickly showered and shaved. He ran his fingers through thick black almost wavy hair, not completely happy with the quick cut, but what do you want for thirteen bucks. He grimaced at his closet. Rayford Bankston was something of a dandy. A sharp dressed man, they called him in the bull pen. Tony had a blue suit, a gray suit, some of his dad’s tired ties, and a lonely tan sport coat.

The tan sport coat over clean pressed jeans won. Tony stood in front of the mirror with the black matte Glock.40 in his hand, the one he’d left under the Crown Vic’s seat at the crime scene. The detective gig was so new he hadn’t had time to find either a shoulder rig or a clip-on holster. He had another pistol, a.38 Smith and Wesson revolver. It had been his father’s. So had the little house on Case Street where he lived. He took a minute to remember the cranky old bastard and miss him one more time. Back to work, detective. Dad would be proud. Mom would worry.

Uniform regulations called for the Glock, but what about detective regs? He tried both in waistbands and coat pockets and the little.38 won the first round. The Glock went in the shooting bag and back under the front seat, Tony thinking maybe he could get to Gander Mountain sometime during the day. He didn’t see a shootout in the near future. He wondered what Ray carried…and how.

On the drive back downtown Sue Ellen called his cell phone. Tony grinned and thought of white sheets and lost socks.

She launched a dozen questions rapid fire. How did it go? Is it the woman on Victoria or the Asians over in Frogtown? Do you have any suspects? Tony had never been involved with anyone interested in cop stuff before. It usually put them off, usually pretty quickly.

Involved?

“What did you mean by ‘Uncle Ray?” he asked, finally getting a word in.

“My mother’s a Bankston. Ray’s sister. That’s how it usually works.”

“Ah.”

Sue Ellen’s tone changed from curious to really curious, almost wary. “Is it a problem, Tony?”

“Huh? What?” The light changed and he hooked a right on Seventh. He didn’t have long to talk.

“I favor my father. You didn’t know?” Her tone shifted again, now close to angry. “Don’t tell me this is a problem.”

“Sue Ellen, I’m just starting my first case as a detective. I have no idea when I’ll have any time, but as soon as I do will you meet me for a drink, dinner maybe, if we have time? Whatever? No, it’s no problem. What problem?”

She laughed softly. “Good and yes.”

“Except maybe for the uncle thing,” Tony said, chuckling too. “What’s he like? I mean, I’ve heard stories.”

“Uncle Rayford is a very interesting man. You’re going to like him. Did you know that he sings, for example?”

“Sings? Like in a church choir?” That got a laugh.

“No, like R and B. Motown. Bluesy. Jazzy stuff. He knows Smokey and all those guys.”

“Smokey Robinson?” Tony was impressed. He was a casual fan.

“Ask him.”

Tony had another question or ten but not much time. He wheeled into the parking lot next to the headquarters building. “Why’s he a cop? What kind of cop is he?”

“Why? You’ll have to ask him. He’s got a real strong sense of fair play, of justice. It’s what he wants to do. As far as what kind? He’s really, really good.”

A quick glance at his watch told him he was late again. “Look, I gotta go. I’ll call you soon as I have some time.”

“You don’t have my number,” Sue Ellen pointed out.

“I’m a detective. I’ll find it.” He heard her laughing when he closed the phone and smiled at the caller ID screen.

The CAP’s Homicide Unit staked claim to the northeast corner of the second floor. Desks butted up to desks. The Lieutenant’s office sat at one end, glass walled, with the blinds usually drawn. File cabinets lined one wall. Most desks had a computer monitor and keyboard on them. Modern as it was, ancient bland fluorescent light flattened and depressed it.

Voices drifted from a meeting room at one end with the door open. Tony found Ray, the lieutenant, Gullickson, and three others…one that he knew well, seated around the large table in the center of the room. He nodded at Carol Offord, trying to remember how long it had been.

“You clean up pretty good,” Ray remarked in greeting. Tony wasn’t sure how to respond, wondered what these meetings were like, what this one would be like. He let his easy nature take over, opened the coat, gave a turn, and smiled.

“Grab a chair, de Luca, you’re late,” Gullickson grumbled, looking at his watch. Tony would soon learn that he did that a lot.

Gullickson started right in. “Okay, I’m giving you Offord, Lipka, and the inscrutable Vang Pao for now. You’ll need help on this bastard. No offense, de Luca, but you’re a little raw. Ray was just elaborating on the husband interview.”

Ray took over. “We’re going to need to verify it, but I’m pretty sure the guy was out of town. The arrival time bothers me, though. Four in the morning?”

“Want me on that?” Ted Lipka looked up from his note taking.

Ray nodded. “Then I want you and Pao on follow-up door to doors. You got any notes Tony?”

Tony nodded. He flipped through his notebook and ripped several sheets out, the ones with the names and notes he’d taken from the group on the street and offered them to Lipka. Pao let out an audible groan. “What?” Everyone had a grimace on their face except Carol. She looked away to hide her grin.

Ray cleared his throat to take over the conversation and stop the smirking. “In the future Tony, keep your notebook intact. You might need those notes in trial. Might need them later. Make copies.”

“Oh.”

Shit!

“Okay.”

“Autopsy?” someone asked.

Carol Offord answered. “Tomorrow at the earliest. There was a small fire-fight over in Frogtown involving six Asian gentlemen-two dead, two in Ramsey, and two in custody. The dead guys beat our deceased to the morgue.”

For a brief moment Tony wished they had drawn that case instead. He was familiar with the street, with the gangs, and hell, they already had people in custody. Slam dunk. Start adding up the closed cases for Detective Anthony de Luca. Sweat ’em a little Get one of the Asians to raton one of the others and lock all of them up in Stillwater. The buzz of conversation intruded on his fantasy.

“Tommy Gorand is at Region’s. They’re pretty sure he’s going to make it, but it was bad.”

Christ!Tommy’s a pal of mine.Shot? Tony tucked his fantasy away and got his head back into the case.

Gullickson got up to leave. “Obviously, you’re lead on this one, Ray. Use your people as you see fit. De Luca, don’t get over eager on me. These are good people, you’ll learn a lot.” Tony tracked him as he retreated to his office.

Lipka and Vang Pao saddled up for the door to door interviews. Ray kept Carol back, huddled with her for a minute, then came over to Tony.

“I want you to go talk to the son and the roommates.”

“Alone?” Tony was surprised but not worried that he couldn’t do the job.

“I’m taking Carol with me. We’re going to make another run at the husband. What we need right now is to know where everyone was from Sunday night through Monday morning.” Ray paused, let out a sigh and shook his head. “Man, that’s a lot of time.”

“No better time of death?” Tony asked.

“Not until the autopsy…maybe…hopefully.” All Ray could do was shrug.

“Okay. Hey, thanks for the shot, Ray.”

At first Bankston turned to walk away, but he decided to get this one thing out of the way now; hopefully get it out of the way for good, but he doubted it. He was remembering the attitude he’d gotten earlier at the crime scene, the sarcastic replies. Now would be a good time to set the young detective straight.

“Tony, I have an idea what’s going on in your head right now. After six-some years on the force you think you know some things, and so far you’ve shown me that you do. Some things, okay? But there’s this chip on your shoulder. You get pissy pretty quick sometimes.”

Tony met his gaze. Both faces were set and serious.

Ray continued. “I don’t do pissy, de Luca. I don’t play politics. I don’t play games. I clear cases. I like spirit. I like young detectives who have a little fire in their bellies. Point your spirit and your fire at clearing this case, not at me because I want things done a certain way.”

“Yes sir.” Tony’s voice was flat, showing no emotion. He heard what Ray was saying, both the words and what was between the lines. He got it. If there was any anger he’d point it at himself for being a dumb ass. Ray was right.

“I don’t do ‘sir’, either. Tony, you’re enrolled in ‘Murder 101’ now. Go talk to the son and his roommates. Find out where they say they were Sunday night and Monday morning. Find someone to back them up and if you think someone’s lying to you, find someone to back them up. Get a feel for them. Stay in touch. Ask me questions. Bounce your thoughts off me. Someone who knew Deanna Fredrickson killed her and she was a popular lady. She knew lots of people.”

“You can count on me, Ray.” Tony was grateful, truly grateful, for the words, for the lesson.

Bankston merely nodded and walked away thinking to himself ‘and don’t ever sass me again, boy’.

Tony found himself alone in the meeting room with Carol Offord. Well, he thought, I couldn’t duck her forever.

“Tony.”

“Carol. How have you been?” De Luca had no idea what to expect from her. The affair had been short lived and over for what, a year? Two? That long ago?

Carol was tall for a woman. She almost met Tony eye-to-eye when she looked at him. Tony took in what would have been a pretty, high cheek-boned face except for the eyes. Gray wisps teased at her black short hair. Carol had flinty blue, almost gray eyes that always looked sad and resigned, like she had seen too many bad things in her years on the force. He remembered she favored no nonsense business suits, just like the one she wore now, and that it likely hid some outrageous lacy nothings underneath. They’d had a few laughs. It hadn’t ended badly or sadly, it had just ended.

“I’ve been good. Good. Congratulations.” Carol offered her hand.

“Thanks. It’s a little overwhelming.” Tony took it. Her skin was cool and dry and smooth.

“I’d thought you’d have called. What’s it been, a year?” She was still holding on.

“About that I guess.” Here it comes, he thought. I really don’t need to deal with this right now.

“I got a divorce, you know.” Carol smiled and finally let go of his hand.

Was she telling him something? Hinting? Flirting? “I heard that.” What was it Ray said? No politics. No games. Clear cases. “Look, I gotta head out. I’m doing the son and the roommates. This will be good, working together.” He nodded, trying to convince himself that it would be, maybe reassuring Carol.

Carol looked down at the floor. “It wasn’t because of you, of us…the divorce.” Maybe she was more nervous than she looked. No politics. No games.

“That’s good.”

“Was it the age thing?”

The age thing?

Tony was twenty-nine then, Carol at least ten years older. It had felt a little naughty at first, he remembered-getting it on with an older woman. A little weird, but what the hell, they were both adults. He hadn’t really thought about it much. She obviously had.

“No. Not at all,” Tony said. “We just went in different directions-at least that’s what I thought.”

“Sure, that’s it, different directions. And we both end up here.” A cloud passed over Carol’s face, a worry, something flickered in her eyes. Tony had no idea what.

“Are you okay, Carol?”

“I’d like to talk. Away from here. A drink later maybe?” There was too much hopefulness in the question. Tony was uneasy, hell, he was worried now. One of the reasons it had ended was that Carol was a little intense for him.

“I’m seeing someone,” he said.

“So am I,” she snapped back, turning, and striding off. Tony watched her walk away thinking he really didn’t need this right now. She turned at the doorway.

“Didn’t seem to matter before,” she said, and then she was gone.

Chapter 5

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Tony really was sorry even though he hadn’t known the woman, Deanna. He was sure it sounded hollow and insincere, almost rote, as he faced the three young men sitting on the couch. Two of them looked sad. One looked devastated-red-eyed, disheveled, and dispirited.

“You didn’t even know her,” one of the boys snarled. That was Scotty, the son. The other two nodded.

“You’re right, but I’m still sorry.” They fell into an awkward silence. Tony had a job to do though, so he put his street cop face on and took the next step. “I need to talk to each of you, ask a few questions. I need to do it separately.”

That got them all bristling and changed their expressions.

“You can’t possibly think any of us had anything to do with it.” That was from the young man named David Hong. “No fucking way, dude.” Hong was big for an Asian, Tony thought. Then he realized Hong was probably Samoan. Regardless, he was definitely offensive guard sized.

“I don’t think anything at this point.”

“Missus F was the best, man. She was great.” That came from the slight red haired kid named Swenson, sitting on Scotty’s right, hanging onto his arm. Through his trendy black eyeglass frames Tony could see he had been crying too.

“That’s what I’m finding out. That’s why I said I was sorry.”

“So what’s this talking bullshit?” Hong, protecting his friend, Tony thought, not hiding anything.

“We’re trying to get a handle on where everyone who knew Scott’s mother was from Sunday night through Monday morning, anyone with any connection.” Tony took out his pad but didn’t open it.

“Why separately?” the Swenson kid asked. He had an innocent look to him. Tony guessed that in his whole life he’d never been involved with the police, probably never in trouble with the law, certainly not hip deep in a murder investigation.

Tony decided to lay a few cards out, try to get them on his side. “Because that’s what the instruction book says to do.” He tried a smile.

“Instruction book?” Hong’s accusing tone told Tony that the both the smile and the joke had failed.

“Look, I was trying to lighten things up a little. I just made detective. This is my first case. Help me out here.”

“Oh great! Just fucking great.” Scotty buried his head in his arms. “My mom’s dead and we’ve got you on the case. The newbie. A noob. Just fucking great.”

“Scott.”

“What.” The young man looked up with something close to a sneer on his face.

“I’m a new detective, not a new cop, all right? I’ve got almost seven years on the force and I spent the last year and a half undercover with the Narcotics Unit. Any of you guys read about the big meth bust, what, four months ago?” Hong and Swenson nodded. Scotty didn’t care. He didn’t seem to hear him.

“I was the inside guy. Look, we’ve got a whole team working this one, a great team. Rayford Bankston is a legend in the department and he’s my partner. We’re going to find out who killed your mother, Scott. I promise. But I need to talk to you guys…separately. And I need to talk to your other roommate. What was his name again?”

“Sean. Sean Stuckey.”

“Right. He around?” Three heads shook. “I’ll catch him later. Scott, let’s you and me go in the kitchen, talk for a bit, and then I’ll get a statement from your friends. Okay?”

“Detective de Luca?”

“Tony.”

“Tony, what’s it like being undercover?” Hong seemed to have calmed down. Scott paused on the way to the kitchen to listen.

“What’s the most frightened you’ve ever been? I mean piss-your-pants scared.”

David thought for a second. The time he’d bungee jumped? The car crash when he totaled hisbrother’s pickup? He shared both of those stories.

Tony realized they were all listening closely. “Now be that scared 24/7 for something like six months. That’s undercover. If the bad guys make you you’re dead. If you slip up, you’re dead. Hell, during the take-down, if one of the cops isn’t in on who you are, you’re dead. I don’t want to do it again.”

“But you got ’em, right? You busted them all? That’s what the paper said.”

“We got all of them involved in the meth operation. The Latin Kings is a pretty big gang though.”

“Holy shit.”

Tony knew he had their attention now, maybe even their respect. And holy shit was right, because there were still a lot of the LKs still out there and he had a lot riding on keeping his true identity secret. The trial was still a month away.

The interviews went well after that. Tony had a short list of specific questions he wanted to get into with each of them but he let it run conversationally. He knew he was amassing a lot of information and a lot of it would ultimately be useless. But Ray said they needed to get into these people’s lives to make any progress on this one, so he worked his specific questions in when he could.

Scotty had been studying Sunday night with a group until ten or after, then came back to the house. Tony wrote down the names of the people in the study group and numbers from Scotty’s cell phone. They played some video games, him and Hong and Swenson, until about midnight. On Monday he had taken an Econ test at ten. He remembered huddling with some of the study group early over coffee before the test. He remembered calling his mom from the bus stop. Scotty cried when he added that he left a message, guessing she had already left for the day and realized she’d been dead.

The phone rang. Scotty’s father asked him to come to the hotel he was staying at. Tony shook his hand when he left, thanked him for the help, and moved on to Mr. Swenson.

Swenson had been at the house all night Sunday, alone until about 11:00. When Tony frowned he fetched his computer and showed the detective the time stamps on the papers he had been working on. Swenson was in the Carlson School of Business. A quick glance at the material told Tony the kid was bright, literate, and knew a hell of a lot more about investments and the stock market than he ever would. De Luca noted the professor’s names for Swenson’s early Monday classes so he could check attendance.

Hong had been working, slinging pizza until 10:00, then back to the house for some Halo gaming with a hot pie. He didn’t have any early classes on Monday and had been at the house alone until close to noon. Tony frowned again and asked him if he remembered talking to anyone Monday morning, if he’d gone for coffee or anything where someone could back him up. Hong drew a blank. He’d slept in, showered, and poked around on ‘Facebook’ for about an hour. Did it leave a time stamp? Would have been around 10:30 or 11:00. No idea.

Then David remembered the fight. A girl who lived in the house next door, Erin was her name-a thin, blonde, ultra-hot girl with a tongue stud. She’d had a shouting match with her boyfriend. Hong smiled, told Tony it had woken him up it was so loud, but that was okay because maybe now she’d go out with him. Swenson knocked on the door asking if they were about done or if he could come in to get something to eat. Tony told him to come on in. He had what he needed. If everything checked out all the roommates had alibis…except for the Stuckey kid.

“Tell me about Scott’s mom, what did you call her?”

“Missus F. She was one cool lady.”

“Cool how?”

“Care packages for one thing. She’d cook these meals, like real meals like pot roast and gravy and drop them off for us.”

“And Christmas presents last year. I mean what mom gets her son’s roommate’s presents…”

“Nice ones, too. And birthdays, too.”

“So you’ve all lived together for a couple of years?”

“All but Sean. He took over Tiko’s lease this summer. Transferred from out west. LA.”

“Any idea when he might show up?” Tony checked his watch. He’d been there for more than two hours already.

“You never know with Stuckey.”

“He’s got a girlfriend.”

“More than one.”

Tony noticed the two share a quick look. Swenson frowned. Hong rolled his eyes. He wondered what that was about.

“I saw Sean Monday morning on campus, on the bridge actually.” Swenson offered.

“What time?”

“Had to be a little after noon. Classes were done. I was going over to the West Bank to hook up with some people.” Swenson hoped he had been helpful. It showed. Still, it wasn’t in the time frame Tony was curious about.

“So anyway, about the vic?” Tony regretted it as soon as it came out of his mouth. Street cop talk did not work in this new gig. “I’m sorry guys.” They were glaring at him. Deanna Fredrickson wasn’t a ‘vic’ to them. She was their friend.

“It’s okay, detective. You didn’t know her, like Scotty said.” Hong shrugged. He was getting to like the detective.

“I’m getting to. I’d like to have known her.”

“We’d go over to their house. They have this great TV and sound system downstairs and a dish. We’d watch football and hoops.” Swenson said.

“And she’d feed us.” Hong looked like he appreciated that more than the skinny Swenson.

“She even bought beer.”

“In the summer she’d let us use the pool like anytime, like for parties.”

“Last summer she and a couple of her friends joined us. We had some girls with us and they just hung out. She was easy to talk to.” Swenson’s voice was quiet and thoughtful as he reminisced.

“Her friends, too?” Tony knew they would be talking to the friends later. He paid close attention.

“Yeah. Sure. There was this one woman, lemme see, Roxie. Right, Swennie?”

“She was a babe.” Tony noticed a little blush creep up Swenson’s neck.

“And this other woman, Erika, she was kind of like…”

“Also a babe.”

“A small lady, but not like a midget.”

“Not everything’s small.” Hong shot a frown toward Swenson.

“Okay…Sean.” Something was going on between them that Tony couldn’t get a handle on. Why did he call him Sean?Some roommate thing? He was glad they’d opened the door about the friends. He thought he remembered Mae talking about them. The husband definitely had. He decided to nudge a little.

“Sure, I get you. Mrs. Fredrickson was kind of a babe, too.” Swenson screwed up his face at that, and Hong rolled his eyes again. “What?”

“She was Scotty’s mom, dude.”

“Moms can not be babes. Major foul. Hit the escape button.” Tony thought of some of the pictures he’d seen in the house. Deanna had been a very attractive woman, definitely a babe in some of those pictures. Then he remembered her sightless surprised eyes, the knife in her chest, and the blood pooled on the floor. Too bad she hadn’t had an escape button then.

“This is so bogus. I mean, I just saw her last Friday.” Hong stared out a dirty window toward the street.

“At the house? At the Fredrickson’s?”

“Naw. She and her friend, uh…Karen. They stopped in to see if Scotty was here. Me and Sean were just hanging out, you know. Neat lady. This all sucks so bad.”

“Sorry. Hey, either of you have a cell number for Sean? I still have to talk to him.”

“Not me.” Swenson shrugged. That surprised Tony. A roommate didn’t have his cell number? Maybe they didn’t get along.

“I do somewhere,” Hong said and headed off to his room.

Tony made a note of Stuckey’s number and rose to leave. He told the young men that he’d probably need to talk to them again, that he’d enjoyed meeting them. Actually he had, he realized. Nice kids, in school, out of trouble and on their way somewhere in life. He’d seen too many young people headed in the opposite direction-down instead of up. Even in the midst of the tragedy that had been Deanna Fredrickson he felt some bit of hope. Now if their alibis willjust check out…

On the way to his car he veered to the house next door and rang the bell. A striking young woman-thin, blonde and smiling, finally answered it.

“Erin?” Tony asked tentatively.

“Do I know you?” She wide-eyed the badge he held up. Confused, maybe a little worried. The smile faded.

“Did you have a fight with your boyfriend Monday morning? Out here on the porch or in the yard?”

“Did someone complain?” Erin looked up and down the street.

“Do you remember what time it was?”

“Why?” She crossed her arms across her chest and cocked her head to the side.

Tony rubbed his face with one hand. “Erin, at some point one of us is going to have to answer a question instead of asking one. Did you know that?”

“What’s going on here?”

“See what I mean?” Tony had his charming smile working. The girl was disarmed.

“Why do the police care if Gregg and I had a fight?”

Tony was determined to keep up with her. “Did I say the police cared if you had a fight?”

“Am I in some kind of trouble?” Erin frowned.

“If you ask me one more question I’ll arrest you for blatant curiosity. Would you like that?”

“There’s no such thing…is there?” Tony laughed out loud. She still didn’t get it.

“What time Monday morning did you throw Gregg out?”

“8:30? Maybe 9:00?”

“You’re not sure?”

“What business is it of yours?” Erin shot back petulantly.

“What if I told you it would provide an alibi for a suspect in a murder investigation?”

“An alibi? What did Gregg do? Is he in jail or something?”

“Did I say this was about Gregg?”

“Who’s alibi? What murder?”

“What time, Erin?” Tony barked. Enough was enough. He needed to get things moving.

“8:30!”

“Thank you. Now see, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“I am so confused.”

“I believe you. Thanks.” Tony walked away, leaving the girl shaking her head on the steps. He couldn’t resist, turned, and said over his shoulder, “If you’re on the outs with Gregg the guy next door, David, he thinks you’re hot.”

“Is he the big guy or the red head?” she called after him. He chuckled all the way to the car and halfway back to the station.

Chapter 6

Scott Fredrickson Sr. sat on the edge of the bed, wearing the same crumpled slacks and dress shirt. He had what looked like two day’s growth of beard and a lifetime left of sadness on his face. Ray had gotten a call from Ted Lipka en route. Fredrickson’s plane had been held hostage on the Phoenix airport tarmac by a warning light in the cockpit that took over five hours to be resolved. Alibi confirmed.

That could be worth a cussin’, Ray thought, and it explained the odd, brutally late arrival time. Scott Fredrickson didn’t drive the knife into his wife’s heart. Ray had to keep open the possibility that he could have paid someone to have it done, but the more he heard from the distraught man the less he believed it could have happened that way.

Chilled refreshing October air was locked out of the hotel room. It was stuffy and close. It smelled of fear and sweat. Fredrickson shrugged when Carol asked if she could record the session. He signed off on his right to counsel and had yet to hesitate answering their questions in any manner.

They revisited the conversation of the early morning hours outside the house. Deanna had, in his words, been a saint. She volunteered for the hospital and for the food bank. She had a strong loving relationship with both children. She had a group of friends, lifelong friends. They laughed and teased and supported each other through good times and bad.

“Who would want to kill Deanna?” Scott asked. “Why?”

Ray suggested they take a short break. He needed to think. He needed some fresh, crisp air.

He needed a motive.

It was time to start asking some hard questions. Carol joined him on the small balcony and lit a cigarette. Ray caught a whiff of the smoke and even after fifteen years had the urge to ask for one.

“You think he can handle what’s next?” Carol said, blowing a huge plume of smoke and frost fog into the breeze. She had been on the job for almost twenty years. Her jacket chronicled her years on patrol, a long stint in sex crimes, and now almost five years in the CAP Homicide Unit. She had some commendations in there along with a pair of reprimands. She was tough. Ray was glad she was along for this interview and knew what she meant. Some hard questions were coming.

Sometimes Ray felt like they were piling on, and this one was just getting started.

“Was your wife having an affair, Mr. Fredrickson?” Scott pursed his lips, gazed off to a bare spot on the wall for a long minute.

“No.” It came out as a simple statement of fact.

“Are you?” Scott’s head swiveled toward Ray. Even reddened his eyes were brilliant blue.

“No.” There was no evasion to the question there.

Carol took a turn. “Were you and your wife having any financial difficulties?”

Fredrickson turned to her. “No. We’re not rich, detective, but there are not any financial issues. Dee has…had access to all of the accounts. All of the accounts are in both names. No.”

“Could someone have been blackmailing her and you wouldn’t have necessarily known?”

“Blackmail?”

“Extortion of some kind. Blackmail.”

“For what?” Scott looked completely lost.

“An affair? Compromising photos? Drug use? Maybe you’ve done something? You’re in investments, right? You bent some rules and she was covering for you?” Both detectives noticed that this was making Fredrickson uncomfortable. There was a change in his posture. He sat a little straighter. His eyes narrowed. Was it anger? Guilt?

“My wife and I shared an extremely satisfying sex life. We are…were more in love now than when we married. There was no affair. I’d have known. As for my business, if you’ll sign a confidentiality agreement I’ll open my books for you.”

“We don’t need to sign anything, Mr. Fredrickson. This is a murder investigation. We can get subpoenas, warrants, anything we need if we feel the investigation takes us there.” Carol was pissed and it showed. Ray caught her eye and gave a slight shake of his head, waving her off.

Scott continued, unfazed. “It will be easier, faster, and more complete. That’s the only reason I mention it. I have a responsibility to my clients. It’s privileged information, Detective. I have nothing to hide, but I have responsibilities.”

“We appreciate that, Mr. Fredrickson.” Ray said

“As for our personal records, credit cards and debit card statements, I’ll hand those over anytime. There’s nothing there that will point to any blackmail payments. Let’s move on, shall we?” Ray blinked. Here was who would usually be the prime suspect in effect taunting him to take his next punch.

“Tell me about your daughter.”

“Helene. Thoreson’s her last name now. Husband Brad. Baby girl, Anna. They live in Madison. Deanna’s mother lives there too. We see them as often as we can, which isn’t often enough. They’re en route now. They were camping over the weekend. Deanna’s mother finally got hold of them. She went out to the park to get them, as a matter of fact.”

“Any friction there?” Ray meant between the daughter and the grandparent.

Scott sighed. “No. We haven’t been able to talk Dee’s mother into moving to the Cities so far, and Helene and Brad live there as much to keep an eye on her as any other reason. If there’s any friction, Detective, it’s because they couldn’t be closer.”

“How about the son? I’m sorry, your son.”

“They were best friends.” Fredrickson shrugged. “It’s the only way to describe it. They had some difficulties when Scotty was in high school. Pretty normal stuff. He tested limits. She pointed out where they were. You see, what you don’t know about Deanna is that she has…had this incredible capacity to love people and help them. It was tough on her sometimes, like when one of her friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was Dee’s force of will that kept the woman going through the ordeal.”

“You keep mentioning her friends.”

“The ‘Go Girls’. It’s what they call the group.” Fredrickson got up and retrieved a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. “I knew you’d want to know about them so I wrote down all the names and addresses for you. Phone numbers too.”

“The ‘Go Girls’?” Ray scanned the handwritten list.

“Karen Hewes was Deanna’s best friend, has been since college. Her husband and I are friends, too. Gary and I go hunting a couple of times a year, right? So the girls decided they’d take some trips. Let’s see, the last few years they’ve gone to Vegas, Laughlin, LA, and one time to Mexico, Ixtapa. They went to Florida one time too. Rented a car and drove to Key West from Miami.”

“Gambling?”

“Nothing high stakes, although Lakisha, I’m sure you’ll talk to her soon-Lakisha entered one of those tournaments once. Texas Hold ’Em, right? And she won the damn thing.”

“She ever mention any trouble from the trips? Anything out of the ordinary?”

“I think that was the point-for them to do something out of the ordinary. To try new foods. Drink a bit.”

“Drugs?”

“Not Deanna. A couple of them I wouldn’t put it past.”

“Which ones?” Carol was so quick with the question it set Fredrickson back.

“I’m not talking opium dens here. I’m just thinking they might smoke a little pot or something.”

“Or something?”

“Maybe some coke. I really can’t say. Karen likes to have a good time and Gary’s, well, he’s um…protective. That’s what I’m trying to say. And Roxie, that’s Roxie Kennebrew, she’ll let herself get over-served now and again.”

“We’ll be talking to them.”

“I also wrote down who I could remember from the hospital and the gym, she did the gym thing a couple of times a week, and the food bank. I tried to remember as many as I could. Her address book is at the house, on the table by the phone. It might have more people in there.” Ray knew that the address book was in a storage box in the evidence locker by now, not at the house, but he didn’t mention it.

“What else can I tell you, detectives?”

“Any neighborhood issues? You get along with all your neighbors?”

“I travel a lot. You know that, right? I know Mae next door pretty well, and her husband Bud before he died. That must have been about three years ago. Other than that I’m afraid I didn’t really know any of them other than to wave.”

“Cleaning service? Did your wife have any people she used regularly, assistants, whatever?” Ray looked over toward Carol. He was pleased she had brought that up. He’d considered domestic servants, too. Fredrickson’s answer ended that line of thought.

“Not in Deanna’s house. She picked it out, decorated it, cleaned it, cherished it. We have a pool guy in the summer, and a neighbor’s kid does the lawn, but that’s it.”

Carol and Fredrickson went back and forth for a few more minutes. Ray turned into himself a bit and tuned them out.

Something in the back of his brain told him to focus in on the girlfriends. He wanted to know more about the ‘Go Girls’, and right now. The green blinking alarm light. A coffee cup in the sink. Gals out on the town. Ray studied the list in his hand and looked over toward Carol and Scott.

“May I call my son now?” Fredrickson appeared even more drained than when the detectives had arrived. His shoulders sagged more. His hands lay slack in his lap. Ray turned fully toward Carol, catching her eye as she looked up from her note pad. She gave a small shrug. She had nothing more.

“Of course,” Ray replied. “We’ll just step out again for a minute.”

Once outside Carol had a cigarette fired in record time and looked out over the parking lot, arms crossed, her foot tapped a steady rapid beat on the cold concrete floor.

“I want to meet these women.”

Ray had the list in hand, again studying it. “So do I Carol. I might take de Luca with me on some of them.”

“Ray, I’ve got more experience. You know that,” she protested.

“We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I’m thinking you and Pao, with your vast experience, can cover her work, the gym, and the charities better than Tony.”

“Sometimes women open up more to women.”

“I know that. Sometimes they feel threatened, too. True?”

She knew he was right. “Your call, Ray.”

He checked his watch. “Let’s wrap up here for now. I want to see what Tony learned from the son. You track down Pao and start on the hospital and so on. I think the autopsy is scheduled soon too. We’ll stay in touch.” She dropped the cigarette, ground the butt with her heel, nodded, and took the list from Ray to copy the contact information once they were back inside.

“He’s on his way. He was talking to one of your detectives.” Fredrickson was standing, his hands in his pockets. He looked lost.

“You met him this morning. De Luca.”

“I guess.”

“We’re done for now. We’ll want to stay in touch, Mr. Fredrickson.”

“The house?”

“I’ll let you know. It’s a crime scene. We need to control access right now.” Ray left unsaid that they might want to search further into some nooks and crannies uninterrupted.

“I need…I guess I need to make some arrangements. Her body…”

“Don’t worry about that right now, sir,” Carol replied too quickly. “It won’t be released until after the autopsy, and we may need to keep it available even after that, in case something comes up and they need to go back in.” A moan escaped Scott Fredrickson’s mouth, oozed from his soul, low and sad and pained. He melted down, back onto the rumpled bed, an arm laid across his eyes and wept.

Ray lowered his head and shook it slowly. Carol could have said a dozen other things. Television showed too much of the grisly parts of their work. They waited patiently, respectfully, while the man on the bed regained some control. Ray figured he was nowhere near cried out.

After a long minute he mumbled a question through the hands now covering his face. “Do you have to?”

“Yes, sir,” Ray answered softly. “We do.”

“Well then…” Fredrickson took a deep breath and sat up and dragged a sleeve across his wet red eyes.

“I’ll call you later.” Ray said softly. He stepped over and laid what he hoped was a reassuring hand on Scott’s shoulder.

“I’m frightened, Detective Bankston. Frightened.” Ray said nothing, just looked in the man’s eyes and waited for him to go on.

“Somebody she knew, maybe someone we both know, they killed Deanna, and I don’t have any idea who or why. I’m frightened.”

Ray gripped the man’s shoulder firmly. “That’s what we’re all working on. I’ll call later.”

Chapter 7

Tony went back to headquarters, parked himself at what he guessed was his new desk, and started making phone calls. Scotty Fredrickson’s alibi checked out. So did Swenson’s. He tried Sean Stuckey’s cell phone every fifteen minutes. All he got was voice mail. He left messages the first two times.

Ray and Carol rolled in just after noon. Carol was polite but chippy. Tony guessed her attitude had to do with their encounter earlier and shrugged it off. Ray was thoughtful and curious what Tony had learned from the son and the roommates.

Ray again directed Carol to match up with Vang Pao and get on the hospital and gym interviews. She snatched up her purse and stalked out. Ray knew she wanted to get to the women friends, the ‘Go Girls’. He did too, but there were other things to do first.

He showed Tony how to fill out the interview forms for the case file. Ray didn’t mind that the file was actually created electronically, just so long as copies were printed and kept in the case folder. He didn’t care to sit for hours squinting at a computer screen, opening windows, searching sub-folders and clicking keys. He liked to feel the paper, read real words in black and white, and occasionally make notes. He hoped Tony would adopt the habit.

Tony took a call from the morgue and transferred it to Ray after the person calling insisted. They’d never heard of a Detective de Luca, they wanted Sergeant Bankston. His attention was split then. He tried to hear what Ray was saying while he transferred notes from his pad to the interview log form on the screen. The keyboard knew he was a little pissed, the way he was punching the keys with authority.

Ray, making notes, the phone handset clamped in a hunched shoulder, said “uh huh” a number of times. The call went on for a while and eventually Tony quit trying to follow Ray’s end. He’d find out soon enough what the coroner had to say so he concentrated on his own notes, carefully transcribing what Scott Jr. had said and what Swenson and David Hong had said. Tony wondered if he should make notes of their body language. He didn’t know. Ray was still on the phone with the coroner and he couldn’t ask. Another line rang. They’d probably want Sergeant fricking Bankston too, he fumed.

“Homicide, de Luca”

“Hey man.” It was a cheery voice, almost familiar. He tried to place it. “It’s Kumpula. Forget me already?”

“Jonny. What’s up?”

“Ray around?” Tony frowned and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. Here we go again.

“He’s on with the coroner right now. Want to hold?” Tony almost managed to keep the attitude out of his voice.

“Hell no. Look, I’ve got a problem. You can help me here.”

“I’ll do what I can. What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got so many fuckin’ fingerprints we’re going crazy down here.” Kumpula sounded frustrated.

“Any on the knife?” Tony sat up straighter and grabbed a pen.

“Yep.”

Tony felt the adrenaline squirt right into his bloodstream. His heart rate downshifted and revved to near the red line. “Whose? Whose are they?” Ray turned to look at him. He’d shouted the question.

“Whoa, podna’…down boy. I thought the same thing, first off. It was the vic’s prints, man. The woman grabbed the knife after she was stabbed. If there were others they got smudged. Hers were smudged too, like she dragged her hand down the hilt.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. My feelings exactly. Look, all you guys out on the street start printing the people you interview, okay. I’m not kidding. We’ve got close to two dozen different sets. We’re going to run all of them through AFIS but it’ll take time. Get me some comparison prints, okay?”

“Will do.” Tony replied. He was sure Ray would agree. “Anything promising yet?”

“Get me some comps, Tony. That’ll help.”

“Okay. Will do. You still want Ray? He’s off now.”

“What for? Gotta go. Comps, baby. I need comps!” The line went dead. Tony grinned. At least Kumpula wasn’t treating him like a newbie. He leaned back in his chair to enjoy it for a moment.

“Good news?” Ray had a pair of cheaters on, glasses with small rectangular tortoise shell frames that perched on the end of his nose. He looked over them at Tony.

“Uh…not really.”

“Kumpula?”

“Yeah.” Tony straightened back up in the chair and lost the smile. “There were prints on the knife hilt but they were the vic’s.” Rays face hardened. He let out a short sigh before he looked away.

“Do me a favor, Tony.”

“Sure. Anything.”

“Don’t refer to the deceased as ‘the vic’ anymore. The word is victim. Her name was Deanna Fredrickson. It isn’t respectful.”

Tony didn’t expect that. On the street they were all vics and perps. It might be a hard habit to break, he thought. Then he remembered catching himself when he was talking to the boys earlier. Maybe it wouldn’t be too hard.

“I’ll try, Ray.”

“I’ll appreciate it. What else did he have to say?”

“He’s got a shi…big pile of prints. Lots of different sets. Lots of people. He wants us to print anyone of interest, people we interview.”

Ray pursed his lips before replying. “That’ll make things interesting. I was thinking of doing it anyway.”

“How so?”

“Well, we can ask for their prints, but it takes a judge or an arrest to make ’em give them up if they don’t want to. Just like DNA samples.”

“That is interesting.” Tony thought about it for a minute. If someone didn’t want to give up their prints for comparison there would have to be a reason-a damn good one. That could lead to all sorts of compelling conversations.

“When we get a break run down to the lab and get everyone a kit.”

“Don’t you mean a scanner?” Tony was a gear junkie and thought the electronic fingerprint modules were very cool gadgets. He knew the department had a number of them; surely enough for the Homicide teams. It would save a lot of time and mess.

“Nope. I want ’em inked.” Ray watched Tony try to work out for himself why he’d want to use the old fashioned method.

“Intimidation?” Tony guessed that it was a sort of a test, that there was, as usual, a reason for everything with Ray Bankston.

“Mm-Hm.”

“Okay. I get it. What did the coroner have to say?” Ray had been on the phone for a while. Maybe they could skip going to the morgue to watch the coroner perform the autopsy. Tony had seen blood and trauma in all its horrid forms-car wrecks, gun-shot wounds, knifings and slashings, even the aftermath of a hatchet fight one time-but he wasn’t at all anxious to see what happened on the table in the morgue. Not yet. CSI on television was one thing.

“Cause of death was, as expected, the knife to the heart.” Ray looked down at his notes. “No recent sexual activity. Stomach contents were barely digested. Some cereal, raisins, some orange juice.”

“No coffee?” Tony remembered the cup and the half full carafe.

“Nope.”

“There was a coffee cup in the sink.”

“Mm-hm.” Ray nodded. “Why don’t you run down and grab those print kits now. I’ve got to work on my notes and the others should be back soon. We need to see where we are.”

“Grab you anything on the way back up?” Tony was already out of his chair and halfway to the door.

“No thanks. Not right now.” Tony left and Ray dropped the notes from his hand. He had no stomach for anything right at the moment.

Tony would miss the trip to the morgue for his first murder; miss the first-hand relay of information, an experience that would probably stay with him the rest of his life. Ray wouldn’t miss it. He wouldn’t miss seeing the gray naked woman on the table, splayed open, chest split with a saw, the top of her head gone so they could weigh the brain, organs laid aside after their inspection. He wouldn’t miss the smell of rot, of decomposition, body gasses and eau de antiseptic. No, Ray wouldn’t have the stomach for much of anything for a while. He might miss it this time but so many others haunted him…so many others.

“I think we can narrow the time of death,” Tony said as he dumped the fingerprint kits on an unused desk. “Maybe even fix it.” Ray swiveled his chair toward Tony’s. He’d been thinking about it too.

“Tell me.”

Tony hitched himself upon his desk top and set down a coffee cup. “Early Monday morning. She’s dressed to go out, just eaten breakfast; cereal and OJ. You don’t eat that for dinner. Plus it hasn’t been digested. The appointment book said she had a 9:30, we can guess it was something at Children’s Hospital. I’m going back over there to check the alarm clock by the bed.”

“6:45” Ray shrugged when Tony frowned a question at him. “I checked.”

“Okay. She hits the snooze once or twice, gets up, showers, makes the bed, dresses, fixes some cereal, what…an hour?” Tony raised his eyebrows and turned the corners of his mouth down, waiting for Ray to argue with his timeline, hoping for an attaboy.

“And on the back end, the trip to Children’s in rush hour from Highland is twenty minutes. Ten to park. Fifteen to chat and say hi.” Ray apparently agreed with him and took it a step further. Tony felt like they were on the same page.

“So she was killed between 7:45 and 8:45 Monday morning,” Tony said with some finality.

“You sure this is your first murder?” Ray chuckled. He was pleased that Tony had figured this out, and pretty much on his own. Granted it wasn’t that big a leap once the stomach contents were known, but the young detective was thinking, keeping his head in the details.

“So did the murderer know her schedule? Know she’d be home then? Or did they just take a chance?” Tony seemed to be asking the questions of himself. Ray noticed he was turned away, looking up at the flickering fluorescents, half lost in thought.

Ray brought him back to the squad room when he spoke. “Good questions. We have to consider it wasn’t premeditated. The murder weapon was a kitchen knife, laying right there on the counter.” Ray looked up at the ceiling too. Recollections of other crimes, other lost lives and mysteries jostled each other. Tony stayed silent. He let the scenarios and what-ifs of his own dance and tease each other.

Ray broke the spell again when he added, “I really want to meet the ‘Go Girls’.”

Chapter 8

The Marland residence was across town, across two or three towns, actually. It was way out west of Minneapolis in the suburb of Minnetonka. Lakisha Marland told them she’d be happy to talk to them and that she planned to be home all afternoon.

The house was set back from the road. Both Ray and Tony could see the slate gray waters of the big lake that the town was named for behind it. There was a breeze, a chill wind that tossed the surface of the water. Irregular lines of whitecaps tossed tears from their foamy crests. There were no boats out. Not even fishermen seemed to care for the sullen overcast day and the uneasy waters.

As they approached Tony marveled at the house. It was brick, painted white, with acres of paned glass arranged just-so across its face. Even though well into October, he could see that the lawn was well cared for. The plantings seemed precise, chosen…specific to a sense of style and order. The house was at least three stories tall. Tony wondered if there were basements this close to a massive lake. It was impressive. The Marland’s had some money. Tony was curious if Scott Fredrickson managed any of it for them. He also wondered if a servant would open the door, a liveried butler or a maid in a starched black dress with white piping or something like that.

Lakisha Marland answered her own door. She was a strikingly beautiful woman, blacker than Ray and almost as tall. She was wearing a full length dress, black, maybe silk, with gold swirls in a random pattern. Tony knew there was a name for that kind of dress but couldn’t remember what it was. It was an African thing or maybe Egyptian.

Her hair was short, curly and styled close to her head. It was soot black with a bare hint of gray at the temples. Golden hoops dangled from her ears. Her eyes were unsettling. They were deep brown, almost black, and slightly almond shaped. Her nose was thin and straight, her lips full and sadly smiling as she greeted them. Ray made the introductions. Tony gawked at the house and the furnishings as she led them through an expansive foyer, past a dining room with a table for at least twenty, gleaming of rich dark walnut wood hues, past a kitchen that looked both practical and comfortable and onto a warm glassed in porch that looked out over a sloping lawn to the lake.

Tony noticed something else. A vibe of some sort…a small electrical charge was building between his partner and this tall, beautiful, exotic woman. There were no sparks flying, but there was a low frequency buzz happening, a kind of sizzle. He grinned, but it went unnoticed.

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” she said to Ray. Her voice was tinged with an unfamiliar accent. Tony tried to place it as he listened to her.

“I can’t think of where we might have met.” Ray accepted the tea she offered him.

“It will come to me.” She smiled and nodded at Tony when she offered him tea but didn’t address him. She turned back to Ray. “It’s such a sad, tragic day.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. You and Mrs. Fredrickson were close, weren’t you?” Lakisha turned away, looked out the windows toward the gray-blue unsettled water.

“Kind of like the day, as if all color has been drawn from it and it’s turned cold and ugly. Like a light has been turned off. Deanna was such a good person. This is so ugly.” She lifted her head up and breathed deeply. She seemed determined not to cry. “Who would do such a thing?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mrs. Marland.”

“You shall call me Lakisha and I shall call you…Rayford, isn’t it?”

Tony figured she wasn’t going to call him anything.

“I have to ask you some questions, Lakisha. Some may be hard.”

“Not as hard as losing a friend.” Ray nodded and poised his pen over the pad that had appeared in his lap. Tony got his out too.

“Did Deanna have any enemies that you know of?”

“Enemies? Foes? Someone jealous of her? Of her beauty? Of her spirit? Of her wonderful husband or her beautiful children?” She looked off out the window again. “Not one that I can possibly imagine. Not one.”

“Could she have been having an affair?”

“Not without me knowing about it. No. She has a wonderful husband. I wish he were mine.” She caught herself and allowed, with a slight knowing smile, “Don’t take that the wrong way, Rayford.”

“I won’t. Could her husband have been? Having an affair?”

“Scott? He’s devoted to her, and why not. She was beautiful and funny and sexy and what…tireless. No, Scott wouldn’t stray.”

Ray nodded. “That’s the impression I get too, but I have to ask.”

Lakisha set her teacup aside. “You’re searching for a motive, aren’t you Rayford?”

Ray pretended to dodge the question even though it was coursing beneath everything he was thinking. “What about your group, your friends? The ‘Go Girls’? Was there any friction there? Do you all get along?”

“Have you met the others yet? Karen or Erika or Roxie?”

Ray shook his head. “Not yet.”

“I suppose with any group there’s, what did you call it, friction? We know each other so well and really are quite close. It would be impossible to not have some…friction. I like that word.”

“I understand that you take group trips. Leave the husbands home and travel.”

“Some husbands are rarely home, but yes. Oh Lord, do we have fun.” She paused, again drawn to the bleak vision outside. “I wonder if we ever will again, without Deanna.”

Ray waited a respectful minute. Lakisha’s attention had drifted out toward the sullen lake, remembering. “Tell me about them. Do you gamble?”

Lakisha sat straighter and replied, “Of course we do. We gamble and we eat too much of the wrong things and drink and tease and flirt and shop. We are accomplished shoppers, yes we are.” The memory of the vacations drew her back into the warm room. Ray and Tony stayed quiet, let her go on.

“We went to Las Vegas, let me think, five years ago. Was it the first trip? I think so. I entered a poker game. It was only a thousand dollar buy in and I thought-what the hell. I won it!” She reached over and put a hand on Rays arm. “I couldn’t believe it! We went to Laughlin once. I didn’t like it there and I didn’t win either. There was Mexico. Ixtapa. That was fun. The others simply cooked on the beach. And the trip to LA, the hunk-hunt we called it. We were determined to meet Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford or Sean Connery. We wanted to meet movie stars and shop on Rodeo Drive.”

“Did you?”

“Shop? My word, yes. Mr. Marland flinched when the statements came, I’m sure. The only movie star we met was Woody Harrelson. That was a severe disappointment.”

“Did you ever have any trouble on the trips? Those are some ah…risky places you’ve visited.”

“Oh, we were always in a group. Well, almost always. And we have Ally.”

“Ally?”

“Allyson Couts. You’ll meet her.”

“Tell me about her. I’d like to hear about all of them, really.”

“Oh no, Rayford. Meet them yourself. Form your own impressions. I’d hate to be the cause of any…friction.” Tony cracked half a smile. He was enjoying the banter.

Ray didn’t push. He realized it would be better if he met them first, developed his own notions. “There’s one other thing. We’d like to get fingerprints from you if we could.”

“From me?” She was surprised. “Whatever for?”

“There were a lot of fingerprints taken at the scene. I assume you’ve been to the house before.”

“Many times.”

“They’re for comparison. It’ll save a lot of time. Have you ever been fingerprinted, Lakisha?” She looked down at her lap, embarrassed. She nodded.

“Fingerprints come to our database from many sources. Armed services, some are given voluntarily, government work…” Ray was trying to shield her from something, Tony sensed.

“Criminal records,” she said, her voice low, the tone resigned.

“Yes, those too.”

“Your system already has my fingerprints, Rayford. It was years ago. Many years.”

Ray picked up on her sadness, sensed some sort of defeat in her attitude and tried to give her an out. “The time saving, Lakisha, comes about in that we don’t have to search any of the databases if we give the evidence techs a comparison card. We don’t even have to look. If you would rather not that’s okay too.”

She sighed and held her right hand out to Ray. Tony passed the ink pad and card over. It seemed to him that Ray took a long time and was very gentle in guiding the woman’s long fingers over the pad and card. He saw them looking in each other’s eyes a couple of times. Then Ray took out his handkerchief and gave it to her so she could wipe the ink off her hands.

“Thank you,” she said. Ray passed the pad back to Tony and slipped the card into his jacket pocket.

“I think that’s all the questions I have for now.” Ray stood, offered a hand as Lakisha rose as well. Tony, ignored once again, realized he was on his own. In a tense and awkward silence she led them to the foyer. She was still worrying her stained fingers with Ray’s handkerchief when she turned at the door.

“I know now. I know where I’ve seen you.” Ray looked down at the floor. “It was just last month, at the Dakota.”

The Dakota? That’s a serious jazz club in Minneapolis, Tony knew, and very upscale. He had never been there. His tastes ran more to Rock and R and B. He cocked an eyebrow at the ever surprising Ray Bankston.

“You were singing with Booker T and the band.”

Booker T and the MG’s?Motown?

“I’ve known Duck and Steve a long time. They were just being polite.”

“You were good.”

“Thank you.”

“You have to let me know when you’re performing again. I’d like to come.”

“I, ah…don’t perform much anymore. It’s not a regular thing.”

“Pity. I’d like to see you again.” She noticed the hint of a smile on Tony’s face. “See you sing again.”

“I’ll try to remember to let you know. We may have more questions in the future.”

“Anything I can do to help. Please, call me.” She opened the door and tried to return Ray’s handkerchief.

As they walked to the car Tony turned to Ray. “Booker T and the MG’s?”

Ray wouldn’t look at him and kept walking.

“Duck and Steve?” They both got in the car, Ray behind the wheel. “You know Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper?” Ray remained silent as they drove down the long driveway and turned onto the twisting narrow road.

After a time, Ray cleared his throat. “What did you think of her?”

Tony couldn’t resist. He tried, but it was a big hanging slider. “What did you think of her? You dawg.”

Ray turned to look at Tony. He had a frown on and had a tight grip on the wheel. “Keep your mind on the case.”

“You keep your mind on the case. I took lots of notes.”

“Good.” They drove on in silence for a minute. The frown dissolved into a half-smile. “I sort of forgot.”

“I noticed.” They drove on, trying not to get lost in the maze of curling roads around the lake.

Ray cleared his throat again. “I did some backup work for Smokey some years ago.”

“Smokey Robinson?” Ray just nodded. “Man. Sue Ellen told me you sang some but…man.”

“No big thing. How long have you been seeing my niece?” Ray asked as they turned onto the interstate.

“Not long.” One night. Jesus…last night.

“She’s a nice girl.” Tony wondered if Ray was sending a message…or a warning to him to play nice. “I can see you two getting along. Now get out your phone and see if you can reach the one who lives in Eden Prairie. I’d hate to waste this much driving for one interview.”

“Tia Bork?”

“That’s the one.”

“Why is that name familiar?” Tony punched numbers. Tia answered. Yes, they could come by now. Twenty minutes would be fine. Tony looked out at the ocean of brake lights ahead of them on the crowded rush hour three-lane and told her it might be longer.

“Let’s try again. What did you think of the Marland woman?” Ray asked. Tony flipped through his notebook, shot a side look at Ray. The Marland woman?

“I think once we get more to work with she’ll be a good one to confirm or deny things.”

“I agree. You don’t see her for it, do you?”

Tony stared out at the traffic, thinking, trying to keep things straight. “Hard to say, Rayford. You forgot to ask her where she was Monday morning.”

“I believe you’re right. I guess I’ll have to call her later to clear that up.”

“I can do it.” Tony offered, always the innocent immensely helpful junior detective partner.

“Nope. My mistake. I’ll do it. No problem.”

“I hope she has an alibi.” Tony hadn’t forgotten about the fingerprint card Ray had slipped into his pocket instead of back into the kit. He wondered what Lakisha Marland had done years ago that got her into the system. He was sure Ray would tell him when he found out. “And ask her if Scott Fredrickson manages any of their money too.”

“You thinking something?”

“No boss, just getting into their lives like you said.”

Chapter 9

Ray and Tony found the address. Eden Prairie, a newer suburb, was much more navigable than Minnetonka. The house they approached was big. Not ‘Marland’ big, Tony mused, but substantial. The door was opened by an immense man with short blond hair, an easy smile, and the largest arms Tony had ever seen.

“Now I got it! Boom Boom Bork!” Tony spurted, offering his hand. Ray rolled his eyes. Boom Boom crushed Tony’s hand and in turn, Ray’s.

“Mr. Bork. I’m Sergeant Bankston and this is Detective de Luca. We spoke with your wife earlier.”

“About Deanna’s murder.” The recently retired Viking defensive end had a powered subwoofer buried in his chest. His voice was low and rumbling and sturdy. The smile disappeared. Tony thought he could hear a low growl as they were led into the house. In the kitchen they were introduced to his wife, Tia, another of the ‘Go Girls’.

Tia Bork was cheerleader beautiful, Tony saw immediately; blonde, fit and buxom. She was dressed in some sort of athletic suit that swished and whispered when she moved. Her husband dwarfed her, but then, Boom Boom loomed over Tony and Ray too. She was not a small woman. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Another set of red weary eyes looked at the detectives hopefully.

“Any questions for me?” Boom Boom rumbled. His arm was protectively around Tia’s shoulders.

“Not right now, sir,” Ray looked up at him. “We’d appreciate a few minutes with your wife.”

“Working your way through the girl gang?”

“Something like that.”

Bork snagged an amber drink in a low clear glass from the counter. Ice cubes rattled.

“You find the fucker did this to Dee and let me have just two minutes with him.” Boom Boom finished off the drink. Tony noticed a bottle of Makers Mark on the counter, recognized the distinctive red wax top. “I’ll be downstairs,” he said and left them alone with Tia.

“He means it,” she said, indicating they should sit at the kitchen table. She grabbed another low rocks glass and topped off a drink. “Do you mind?” Both detectives shook their heads. “Want one? Can I get you something?” Again they both declined so she slid into a chair across from them.

“Your husband was close to Mrs. Fredrickson?” Tony let Ray take the lead again but sensed that he could jump in this time if he wanted too.

“We’re all close. Scotty handles some things for Barry. Deanna and I have known each other for, Christ, fifteen years…maybe more. Yeah, we’re close.”

“Where were you Monday morning? Early…between 7:00 and 9:00?”

“Is that when it happened? Oh my God! And Scott didn’t get back until this morning.” She squeezed her eyes together tightly, tried to keep them from leaking more tears, and failed. Tony hoped she had a kinder image of her dead friend than what real life, and death, had imprinted in his mind.

She took a long pull of the whiskey and shuddered. “I was taking the kids to school.”

“That’s kind of early isn’t it?” Ray suggested. Tony had no idea what time school started. He had little contact with children of any age.

“Cherie’s on the swim team. They practice early. Monday I stayed to watch for a while, the little ones were with me.”

Ray ran down what had become the standard list of initial questions. Enemies? The possibility of an affair by either of them? Any financial difficulties she knew of? All of them were met with what were becoming standard answers. No. Not remotely possible. Are you kidding? He made brief notes and turned the questioning to the ‘Go Girls’.

“What do you want to know about our group for?”

“Was there any friction in the group?” Ray couldn’t tell her that he was still scratching for a motive, even a hint of one, and that the ‘Go Girls’ and their trips intrigued him.

“Is that a cop word? Friction? Get five or six women together and you’ll get more than that.”

Ray frowned. “So there were problems?”

“Not really. Not like you might think. Deanna is…was…the peacemaker of the group. I’d be jealous of something Lakisha bought and she’d get me over it. Erika pissing and moaning that all the good men were taken. She’s the only single one, well, unless you count Ally. Roxie would want to go to a certain bar and Ally would want to go to a restaurant. Problems like that. Certainly not life and death problems.”

“Tell me about the ‘Go Girls’.

Tia took another sip of her drink. “Like what? It’s just a bunch of us that have been friends for a long time. We like to do stuff together. We care about each other.”

“Like your trips?”

“That was originally Karen’s idea. Her husband is a big outdoors type, hunting and fishing-gone a lot. Hell, Barry’s gone half the year during the season, but she got it in her mind that we should ditch them for long weekends and get a little wild.”

“Wild?”

“Not really. Well…maybe a little. Like the time in Vegas when Lakisha entered this Texas Hold ’Em tournament. We were in the audience screaming every time she made a bet. We almost got tossed. We went deep sea fishing in Mexico. All of us, all but Ally, went scuba diving. We were just obnoxious in LA. We wanted to meet Harrison Ford. We got Woody Harrelson. We went to this strip joint. In LA they have strip joints for women. It’s creepy. That kind of wild.”

Ray stayed with the trip questions, intrigued. “You went to a lot of places that are what, maybe risky is the term. Did you ever get in any trouble?”

“Like cop trouble? No…never. Like men trouble? Not really. We’d get approached, sure. It was funny. We’d blow ’em off. Maybe tease a little, but that was all. It was girl time and we’re the ‘Go Girls’.”

“Tell me about the others.”

“No.” That took Ray back. Tia had been cooperative so far, informative. The ‘no’ had been definitive.

He must have had a puzzled look on his face because Tia went on to explain, “Look, you’re asking a lot of questions about our group, about Deanna’s circle of friends. It’s not my place to tell you what I think about them. I could tell you Roxie’s a lush and Lakisha can be a real bitch and Karen is frisky all the time, but that wouldn’t be fair to them and it would affect your thinking. There’s no way…no way in hell that any of us had anything to do with Dee’s murder.”

She stood quickly and the chair squeaked when she shoved it back. It almost tipped over. Tia retreated behind the kitchen island and poured more whiskey. A bit splashed over the rim of the glass. She looked like she was getting a little drunk.

“Mrs. Bork, one last thing. If you don’t mind we’d like to get your fingerprints. It’s just for elimination purposes…comparison.” She looked at him strangely for a minute, like she was working through something difficult, like she was confused.

“Barry!” she yelled with her head turned toward the hallway. Boom Boom quickly appeared. He didn’t look happy but Tony was still relieved when he didn’t make any moves like he was going to sack them. He glanced at the bottle on the counter, saw how much lower the level was, and sighed.

“What is it, babe?”

“They want my fingerprints?”

Tony turned his palms up on the table top. “It’s just for elimination. There are a lot of prints in the house. It’ll help us find the killer.”

“You want mine, too?”

With that question the crisis was over, the issue decided. Tony got out the kit and printed both of them. Tia was sullen. Her husband rubbed her back while Tony guided her fingers from the pad and rolled them across the card. Boom Boom did his by himself. After washing her hands Tia excused herself, said good evening to the detectives, and climbed unsteadily up the stairs.

“She’s upset.” Boom Boom shook his head. “Hell, I’m upset too. She usually doesn’t drink like this.”

“It’s understandable. They were close.” Ray looked once more at his notebook. “I need to ask you where you were Monday morning, early, from seven to nine.”

Boom Boom chuckled. “I haven’t needed an alibi since training camp last year.” He rubbed his hand over his face once. He seemed weary too. “Tia and the girls headed out early. Cherie has swim practice Mondays. I was up, read the paper. Oh yeah, about eight I got a call from Coach, wondering if I was interested in coming in for some weight work. I still help some of the guys with weights. That help?”

Back in the car and headed for St. Paul, Tony stared out the side window, thinking about the Borks.

“We don’t have a motive. We don’t have a suspect. We don’t have any leads. I’m discouraged, Ray.”

Bankston stared out the windshield, looked straight ahead at the interstate traffic. He was thinking too, thinking so hard he didn’t even glance to the left at the massive Boeing 747 bathed in white light next to the gigantic maintenance hangar at the airport.

“It’s early yet.”

Tony started flipping through his notebook, looking for names and numbers. “You want to talk to someone else?”

“Not tonight. I mean it’s early in the case. This one’s different. The first 48 hours usually makes or breaks a case. This one’s different.”

“I don’t see us solving this tomorrow, boss.”

“I don’t either, but I’ve been surprised before.”

Ray glanced over when Tony fished out his cell phone. “I still haven’t heard back from the other roommate, Stuckey.” Tony dialed the number again and got Stuckey’s voice mail… again. He left another message. “You think it means anything? Him not calling me back?”

“Not without more information.” Tony dialed another number.

“Hello.”

“David Hong?”

“This is Dave. Hey, detective. What’s up?”

“Just wondering if Sean’s there.”

“You just missed him. He blew through, grabbed something out of his room and headed out. He’s probably gone for the night.”

“Well damn. You talk to him? Tell him I want to talk to him?”

“Nope. He was in and out. Hasn’t he called you?”

“No. And I’ve left messages.”

“Not surprising, Tony. If it isn’t a chick he doesn’t seem to have time for it.”

“A ladies man?”

Hong laughed into the phone. “More like a pussy hound. You want me to give him a message if I see him?”

“Just to call me. How’s Scotty doing?”

“Haven’t seen him all day. He’s been with his dad.”

“Sure. Hey, thanks David. Later.” Tony flipped the phone shut and went back to staring out the side window.

Carol and Vang were at their desks when Tony and Ray trudged into the squad room. Vang was keyboarding his notes, Carol on the phone. Tony fished out his notebook and dropped it on what he guessed was his desk. Ray pointed to one next to his.

“This one’s yours.”

De Luca shifted over and spun in his chair. “Want me near you?”

“Sure. Gotta keep an eye on you.”

Carol finished her call and came over to join them.

“How did it go?” Ray asked. Carol looked tired. Her jacket was wrinkled, her slacks creased behind the knee. Tony guessed she’d covered a lot of ground during the day.

“We got squat, Ray. The woman was a saint. Loved by all. A tireless worker. Everybody’s friend. We couldn’t get a whiff of anything to look into.”

“I sort of expected that.”

Carol crossed her arms and leaned on Tony’s desk. “What about you two?”

“We interviewed Lakisha Marland and Tia Bork.” Tony looked up at her where she was perched. He knew she wanted the girlfriend interviews and couldn’t help but rub it in a little.

“How’d the rook do?” She directed the question at Ray, her thumb at Tony. Tony knew she was hoping he’d stepped in it at some point during the day. Then he remembered he really hadn’t said much-nothing at all to the Marland woman and damn little at the Borks.

“Tony did fine today.”

Ray sensed that Carol was doing a little baiting, playing with his new partner. He’d heard rumors that they’d had a thing the last year or so and wondered if that was in play. He also guessed Carol was put out because the lieutenant had partnered him with Tony and not her. When things slowed down she would be back in the Sex Crimes unit. Homicide was not her permanent gig.

Tony grinned up at her. “I got to meet Boom Boom Bork this afternoon.”

“You get his autograph?” Maybe she meant it as a joke but it came out snippy.

“Better than that,” Tony said. “I got his fingerprints. Which reminds me, should I run these down to the lab?” Tony waved the cards. He didn’t ask Ray about Lakisha Marland’s. He wanted to see what he would volunteer.

“Before you go home is fine.”

“So did you two sleuths do better than we did? Tell me we’ve got something to work with.”

“Maybe. Until we come up with something better I’m going to concentrate on the women friends. The ‘Go Girls’.

“Because?”

“Because…” Ray flipped a few pages in his notebook. “Because Deanna was a saint, loved by one and all, supermom, and…Roxie’s a lush, Lakisha can be a bitch, Karen’s always frisky, and I don’t even have a clue what ‘we have Ally’ means. Tia Bork’s going to be hung over tomorrow.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s nothing.”

“Want me to work the women with you tomorrow?” Carol was still angling, still pushing. Tony looked expectantly toward Ray.

“Early, yes. Tony, the more I think about it the more I’d like you to get the last roommate either off the list or on it.” Tony nodded. “Maybe Kumpula will come up with something.”

Vang drifted over, listening to them, and added, “I didn’t get much from the neighbors either. I had an idea though. It’s a couple of blocks away but there’s a Holiday station down the street. I’d like to see if their cameras look down Victoria.”

“Do it.”

“And I missed a couple of them. I’ll stay on that.”

“And help Ted with the financials and the phone records. Who did she talk to Sunday night and Monday morning? Did she draw a lot of cash out of any of the accounts recently? You know the drill.” Vang nodded and left.

Ray stood and stretched. “And with that, I’m calling it a day.” Tony realized that his first day as a detective was over. It had started out weird. It had started out damn early too, and he caught himself stifling another yawn. Ray gave a wave at the door and he was gone. Carol smiled down at him.

“Want to go get a drink?”

“I’m beat, Carol.” He checked his watch. It was only seven. If he hurried he could get to the Gander Mountain store and see about finding a holster.

“Right.”

Tony was sick of her attitude and the pissy tone. “Fine. Come on and go to the store with me. I need a shoulder rig for my Glock, maybe a clip-on, and something for my backup piece too. Then I’m going to indulge in something greasy and fast for dinner and then you can watch me sleep sitting up.”

“You were on the call out for this, weren’t you?”

“Four AM, sugar. Maybe another time.” He wondered if she heard the ‘maybe’.

Chapter 10

Wednesday started early for detective Tony de Luca. He’d made it to the store the night before and found a shoulder rig and a couple of clip on holsters. He’d even found an ankle holster for the little 5-shot.38. Real detectives wear ankle holsters and carry backup pieces, right? His dinner had indeed been quick and greasy and it reminded him early that morning how bad it had been. Even so, he was back in the squad room at 7:30, working on his notes and reports when Lieutenant Gullickson stopped by his desk.

“Morning, de Luca.” He was carrying a styro-cup of coffee and a donut tucked in a napkin.

“Lieutenant.”

“How did it go yesterday?” At this early hour Gullickson didn’t seem hurried and harried like he usually did.

“I think it went okay. I don’t have much to weigh it against, you know.”

“If you follow Ray Bankston’s lead you’ll do fine. Any progress?”

“Not unless something happened overnight I don’t know about.” His pager had remained blissfully quiet all night. He’d needed the sleep.

“Hmm.” Gullickson juggled the coffee and pastry he’d just bitten into.

“Ray’s taking Carol with him this morning, working on the girlfriends. I’m chasing down one of the roommates. Then I’m not sure what.”

“Someone ducking you?” The lieutenant had a glop of yellow custard in the corner of his mouth.

“Not sure if it’s that. Like Ray says, we need more information.” Tony pointed to the corner of his mouth. The lieutenant found the blob of custard with his tongue and smiled.

“Well, keep me in the loop.” Gullickson wandered off to his office.

Tony hadn’t had a lot of experience with the brass. Maybe the lieutenant had been a good investigator in his day, maybe as good as Ray. All Tony saw now was a chunky guy in a bad suit eating donuts and telling him to follow Ray’s lead. He was feeling pretty uninspired when his cell phone rang.

“This is Tony,” he said without checking the screen.

“You didn’t call me last night.” Sue Ellen sounded wide awake. Now he checked the caller ID screen. She was calling from her office, judging from the prefix.

“I was bushed.”

“So how’d it go, detective?” The way she said it made him think she really was pleased that he had been promoted, like there was some kind of pride or respect or something in her voice. Maybe, he fantasized for an instant, she’d had her eye on him for quite a while but couldn’t bring herself to date a lowly patrolman.

“Well, other than we don’t have a motive, a clue, any forensics, a suspect, or anything but a dead body…it’s going pretty good.” He heard soft laughter.

“But you survived.”

“I did. I have no idea what my schedule’s going to be like the next few days. Can I call you late?”

“I’m working on this Latin King case. We’ve only got a month before trial so I’m usually burning it pretty late. Call whenever.” That sounded encouraging.

“Do I get you as my coach?” Tony was the state’s premiere witness. The case she was talking about was the one he’d been in deep cover on. She was a thorough prosecutor and he knew she’d want him well rehearsed for the trial.

“You’ll have to do everything I tell you to.” She wasn’t talking about testimony now, she was flirting. He liked that a lot.

“Oh, I will. Count on it.” He saw Ray go into the lieutenant’s office and figured he needed to wrap the call up. “Uncle Rayford just came in. I think I better go.”

“Is he being nice?”

Tony was puzzled, wondered what she meant. “Sure. We get along fine.”

“Okay. Good. Call me.” As he hung up Tony wondered why everyone kept asking him how he was getting on with his partner.

Tony sat in an unmarked Crown Vic outside of Scott Jr.’s house.

Morning dispatch in the Homicide Unit’s squad room was nothing like roll call. Ray had come from the lieutenant’s office, spoken quietly with Vang Pao, and given Tony his morning mission. It was simple and brief. Same as they’d talked about the night before. Nail down Sean Stuckey’s alibi.

Tony thought he’d done pretty well in the interviews yesterday. He hadn’t said much, but he hadn’t done any damage either. Watching Ray and Lakisha Marland interact had been as interesting as the case, for a little while at least. He’d met one of his heroes. Now he was on the trail of a suspect…sort of. Okay, he was just chasing down an alibi, he admitted to himself, but cases on TV turned on this kind of shit all the time.

He watched the activity on the street. Most of it consisted of student housing. He watched young men and women carrying backpacks or wearing shoulder bags juggle coffee cups and napkin wrapped bagels or toast while trudging north on 17th Street toward the nearest bus stop. Some walked alone. Others clumped together. Some looked serious and distracted. Others laughed and jostled, elbows nudged, heads rolled back laughing. Erin tripped down the stairs of the house next to Scotty’s and noticed Tony. She started to give a wave but ended up just looking puzzled and walked off. Tony chuckled and shook his head.

The Swenson kid emerged from the big blue house. He was one of the serious ones and walked alone as far up the street as Tony could see. He guessed that Scotty was still with his father, camped out in an overheated hotel room full of grief and sadness, waiting for word from the coroner as to when the body would be released. He drained the last of his tepid coffee and got out, stretched, and again wondered if the Stuckey kid had come home the night before. He’d considered calling first but that hadn’t done any good so far. He climbed the stairs and cocked his fist to knock on the door. David Hong burst out and crashed into him.

“Whoa!” Tony had to grab onto him to keep from falling. It struck him that Hong was big enough to give Boom Boom Bork a worry or two on the football field.

“Detective!”

“Sorry, man.” Tony grabbed Hong’s dropped backpack for him. It weighed just under a ton.

David hefted it with ease and slung it over his shoulder. “Something wrong?”

“No. Still trying to hook up with Stuckey. He around?”

Hong shook his head. “Haven’t seen him. Must have spent the night at his girlfriend’s. One of ’em. Who knows?”

“Right, you told me he was a busy man.”

“Look, I gotta make my bus.” The big Samoan kid looked at his watch, then up the street.

“Any idea where I can hook up with him?” Tony asked.

Hong, already down the stairs, said, “It’s Wednesday. He’s got a 9:00 in Film History Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”

Tony trotted after him and laid a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Hey, I’ll give you a lift.” The house was empty and Tony wanted to talk to Hong. Maybe he knew where the class was. Tony wondered if he could track Stuckey down on campus.

David was grateful for the ride. “This is kinda’ cool,” he said while checking out the radio in the unmarked Crown Victoria. It was set low and the dispatchers were coding calls and directing the patrol traffic. It was a slow morning.

“First ride in a cop car?” Tony said, trying to make conversation.

“First time in the front seat.” Hong had a sheepish look on his face. Tony looked the obvious question at him. “Last year at Halloween. Some of us went to Madison for the party.”

Tony couldn’t help but grin. “That still going on?” He told David that he had partied on State Street back in his college days. It was good. They were bonding. Hong turned the conversation back to the missing roommate.

“What are you so interested in Sean for? You think he did it?”

Tony frowned. He was positive his questioning was slyer than it obviously was. “No. I’m just on alibi patrol. We like to know where everyone was. I’m the new guy. They put me on the low priority stuff, you know.”

“How do you like being a detective?” Hong asked. He seemed genuinely interested.

Tony smiled. “Yesterday was pretty cool. I got to meet Boom Boom Bork.”

“Who?”

Tony shook his head. Did the kid really not know who he was talking about? David’s face was blank. He had no clue. “Never mind.” Hong would never be an offensive lineman. “So, if I can find this auditorium where the film class is how would I recognize Stuckey?”

David laughed. “You wouldn’t. Not on this campus. He’s a white guy, early twenties, blondish hair, average height, average build, trying to grow some hair on his face. He’s probably wearing dirty jeans and a sweatshirt, carrying a backpack. Good luck, Tony.”

De Luca, on the campus now, scanned the crowds of students swirling along the sidewalks. He saw ten Sean Stuckey’s without even trying or turning his head.

“Unless he’s like, naked,” Hong said, out of the blue. “Then you’d recognize him.” He had a matter of fact look on his face, eyes wide, head cocked to one side, thin grin.

“Huh?” Tony flashed to the idea of scars or a tattoo…tattoos…and asked Hong what he meant.

“The guy has the biggest dinger I’ve ever seen.”

“Dinger?”

“Weenie.” Tony had a puzzled look on his face. “Penis?” Hey, pull over anywhere, this is good.”

Tony pulled to the curb and asked, just to be sure, “You’re telling me Sean Stuckey has a big dick?”

“Dude, he’s got a porn star dick, okay,” Hong looked a little sheepish, embarrassed even, and hurried to explain. “I just…this one time he came out of the bathroom naked. I thought ‘holy shit’. Hey, I’m not gay or anything like that, dude. I just noticed, you know.”

“Watch a lot of porn, do you?” Tony said with tease in his voice. The big Samoan kid was turning all kinds of shades of red. Tony chuckled and had to quickly explain to David that he wasn’t laughing at him.

“Life’s not all Halo and Modern Warfare and studying. Just sometimes. Everybody does it. Mostly it’s funny,” Hong said. He looked all kinds of anxious to get out of the car now. “I shouldn’t have even brought it up.”

The two of them looked at each other for a beat and then both laughed out loud.

“Okay, sometimes it’s like my brain isn’t even connected,” Hong said, still laughing a little. “When you asked how you could recognize him I, like, flashed on the fact that he looks like every third guy on campus…except for one little thing.”

Two grown men laughing out loud in an un-marked, but obvious, police cruiser bought more than a few turned heads and furrowed brows from passersby.

“Sadly, dude, this is not the first time my habit of free-association and mild case of ADD have gotten me in a bit of trouble,” Hong managed to work in between giggles. “Oh look, a bunny.”

“That’s going to make it a little hard to pick him out of a crowd, know what I mean?” Tony said.

“God, let’s hope so,” Hong said and took a great deep breath to try to get himself under control. “Maybe that’s why he has all the girlfriends and I’m on the seventh level of Halo already.”

Tony thanked him for the information, still chuckling a little. Hong thanked him for the ride and headed off into the churning crowd. Tony sat there for a minute trying to think of what this new tidbit of information meant; what bearing it could possibly have on Deanna Fredrickson’s murder.

He couldn’t think of a thing.

Then he wondered just how big

Chapter 11

Ray and Carol caught up with Erika Hilgendorff at her office early on Wednesday morning. She greeted them at the receptionist’s desk wearing a phone headset. Someone, maybe Lakisha Marland, Ray tried to recall exactly who, had told him that Erika was small; small but not a midget. He silently corrected himself without prodding-not a ‘little person’. He hadn’t given it much thought. The woman standing in front of him was most pleasantly unique.

At first he thought of a poster he’d seen somewhere; in a bar or liquor store somewhere-a poster of a German girl, a fraulien, a St. Pauli girl. Erica had big hips, full breasts, long blond hair and sturdy arms; muscled, in Ray’s imagination, from serving giant steins of dark foamy beer. She was a robust looking woman with laugh lines crinkling at the corner of her eyes and a wide full mouth that looked like it was used to smiling.

She couldn’t have been over four and a half feet tall. He glanced down at her shoes and noticed she was wearing low heels. While she and Carol were getting introductions out of the way he took the opportunity to study her. She didn’t have large hands and arms or the exaggerated limbs suggesting dwarfism. Everything was in perfect proportion. It was just in miniature, as if she had been created on a slightly different scale. She led them to an unused meeting room for the interview.

“I had just about gotten over my early crying jag when you called to say you were on the way over.” It was a brave attempt at a smile, Ray noticed. He was going to let Carol be the lead on this interview.

“It’s rough, huh?” Carol leaned close, establishing a rapport.

“Losing one of your best friends? Goddamn right it’s rough.” A tissue magically appeared.

“We need to ask you a few questions.”

“Sunday night I was home alone. There was an old Bette Davis flick on. I’m a sucker for gray movies. I turned in early and was here in the office about 7:00, on the phones by 7:30. I sell insurance, commercial lines. Sometimes I can catch people early. Get their attention.” Carol looked over at Ray and frowned. She hadn’t asked a question.

Erika noticed Carol’s unease and explained. “I talked to Lakisha last night. She clued me into what you guys would be asking.”

“That’s maybe not so good,” Carol said. It came out terse and with a frosting of reprimand. Erika didn’t seem the least intimidated.

“What…that friends talk? What? You think we’re trying to get our stories straight? Get our alibi’s tight?” Ray just sat there, occasionally making a note.

Carol stiffened. “I’ll need some names to verify the morning calls.”

Erika produced a folded sheet of paper from her jacket pocket and tossed it in front of Carol, now bristling at the woman detective’s increasingly arrogant tone. “That’s Monday’s call log. Don’t embarrass me, honey.”

“Thank you.”

Erika continued. Carol’s attitude had worn off on her a bit. She was combative now. “I can’t think of a person in the world that would want to hurt Dee. It has to have been a robbery or something. Is there some serial killer out there you’re keeping out of the press?”

Ray looked up from his notes, eyebrows arched. They hadn’t tossed the idea of a serial killer around. There hadn’t been a true serial killer in the Twin Cities for as long as he could remember, not a real one. He tried to think of the writer’s name, the one who wrote all the crime novels that made it sound like the Twin Cities was spree-murder central, but couldn’t pull it out.

“No,” Carol said.

“She got along with everybody. I mean everybody. Always a kind word. The first person to step in to help. The fu…the world should have more Deanna Fredricksons.”

When Carol asked questions about the possibility of affairs Erica didn’t answer verbally. Instead she gave her interrogator a look that would have made most people retreat and fervently repent, at least that’s what Ray thought. He didn’t know if it was Erika’s personality or Carol’s that kept touching match to kindling, but it was time for him to step in.

“Ms. Hilgendorff, I’m immensely curious about the trips you took as a group. I don’t know why exactly.” His voice was soothing, low, and melodic like the music he liked to play, like the songs he sang. “I don’t normally share this information while we’re still interviewing family and friends, but we know you didn’t have anything to do with your friend’s death.”

Carol looked over with raised eyebrows. What did he mean telling this chick she wasn’t a possible suspect? Of course, they could lie up a storm as easily as the suspects if they wanted to-and often did. Not Ray so much, though.

“We’re up against such a wall here that I have to wonder if it isn’t something from somewhere else, from out of town.”

“What do you mean?” Erica was engaged again. The quills were laid back flat.

“Las Vegas or maybe Laughlin comes to mind. Maybe she crossed someone? There was some gambling.”

“Not a chance. Deanna didn’t gamble that much. Just slots. Lakisha and I play some cards. No…Dee just wanted to go to shows.”

“No troubles in Mexico? It can get pretty wild down there.” Ray was guessing at that. He’d never been south of the border in his life.

“Mexico was actually pretty tame. We did the beach thing a lot. We snorkeled and some of us even went scuba diving. The instructions were pretty basic. We didn’t go very deep.”

“But it’s a tourist town. No nightlife?”

“Two words, detective: cruise ships. Jesus, they’d dock in the morning and spew thousands of people out into the streets. And not just one ship at a time. The bars were so crammed at night you couldn’t turn around.”

“I see.” He paid attention to his pad for a few seconds. “Then there was LA.”

“Then there was LA,” Erika sighed. If Ray hadn’t known better he would have said he’d heard an audible click right then. He felt a dramatic change in her tone. “Some of us had more fun in LA than others.”

“Trouble?” It looked to Ray like she was trying to make up her mind to tell tales. He hoped she would.

“Shopping. Rodeo Drive. Beverly Hills. Some of us work for a living. Some of us can’t afford Hermes and Prada and fucking Gucci.”

“You were jealous of each other’s money? Of Deanna’s Visa Card?” Ray winced when Carol said that. Erika Hilgendorff turned her head in Carol’s direction slowly but she was clearly addressing Ray.

“We take these trips for different reasons. Deanna just wanted to have fun, see new things and do new things. Lakisha always seems to be on a mission to bankrupt Mr. Marland. Roxie gets to drink without having Ken on her ass about it. Karen just wants to get some breathing room. Let her hair down. Me, I just want to hang with my friends. A lot like Deanna did.” She turned back to Ray.

“I’m the only single one in the group, well…except Ally. I think LA was my last trip though. With Deanna’s death we may not ever go again anyway. It’s hard to explain.” She shot a quick glare in Carol’s direction. “It isn’t all about the money.”

Finally! Ray cheered silently…some friction!

“Since I’m the only single one, some of the ladies in the group have been taking it on themselves to get me laid. They wouldn’t dare do it themselves. Deanna was Snow White. She never pushed, but Karen and Roxie are getting to be a pain in the ass. Like, they do all this flirting and egging guys on and then turn ’em loose on me.”

Ray nodded, pretending to understand what she meant. “That could be awkward, I suppose.”

“Damn straight it is. Christ, one night…the last night in LA they roped me into going to this strip club with them.”

“Strip club?”

“In Los Angeles they have strip clubs for women, Detective Bankston. You don’t get out much, do you?”

She didn’t mean it as an insult and sort of laughed the comment off. Ray was a little stung by it though. He’d gotten out plenty, maybe not so much the last few years, but he’d been a regular at the Motown Studio in Detroit since the late 70’s. He’d spent time in the clubs in Chicago and St. Louis. He’d sung in Memphis for the gang at Stax records…not really his thing, but he knew some of the session players. What did this chick know about Rafe Bankston? He kept the emotion off his face. He was working. She was talking.

“It was disgusting. I was thinking maybe we’d see some hunky guys like the Chippendales, but noooo. They had guys on stage with their wangs out, with erections, and women would go up on stage and…it was disgusting.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “Karen almost dragged me up there. She tried to. To tell you the truth, Detective, I think she wanted to jump up there and blow one of those guys, but she was too chicken.” Ray was caught without a response to what she said. That didn’t happen often. Carol stepped right in.

“Get out! I’ve heard about those places but I never thought they were real.” Carol’s regular gig for years had been in the Sex Crimes Unit. She knew all about those places. She’d seen the videos too often, snatches of them at least.

“They’re real…real sicko.”

“What did you do?”

“I got the hell out of there. Dee and I grabbed Karen and Roxie. Rox was so shit faced I don’t think she knew what she was doing. That was it. We were out of there.”

Ray had another question. “Was Lakisha Marland there that night?”

“Sure.” Erica turned to look at him. “She was strange that night. She wasn’t one of them egging me on, she never does that, but she was taking in the whole thing like it was some kind of bizarre movie to her. That’s what she said later. It was like a surreal movie.”

“You were angry with Karen?”

“God damn right I was,” Erica huffed.

“Were you angry with Deanna?”

“Hell no.”

“Because she was helping you get out…get them out of there?”

“That’s right.”

“How’s your relationship with Karen Hewes now?”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with Deanna’s murder. I don’t have a problem with Karen. Deanna didn’t have an ongoing issue with Karen either, if that’s what you’re implying. They were best friends-best friends long before we started this running around the country on trips.”

Ray held his hands up in mock surrender to Erika’s agitation. “I’m sorry if you took it that way. I wasn’t trying to imply anything.”

“Have you met Karen yet?”

“Not yet.”

“When you do you’ll meet Gary, too. There’s a reason Karen goes a little over the top when she can.”

“Gary?”

“Karen’s husband?” Carol asked. Erika nodded, looking away…looking grim.

“What’s he like?” Ray asked. Erika barked out a harsh laugh, one of those with no humor in it.

“You’ll meet him. It’s not for me to say.”

“Could he and Mrs. Fredrickson have been involved?” There was that look again, the one that made you sorry you’d spoken. The one that would make you think twice before asking another stupid question.

“Do you want my fingerprints now?” Erika was done with them. Lakisha would have told her about the fingerprints. It was funny. She was almost eager to give them up.

“I’ve never been fingerprinted before,” she said.

Ray and Carol rode in silence for a while before Carol offered an observation. “That is one tough chick.”

Ray didn’t completely agree. “It was an interesting interview. Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of the Deanna Fredrickson admiration society.”

“C’mon, you were a little titillated, weren’t you?” Carol was driving. They were heading toward Edina and the law offices of Allyson Couts, Attorney at Law.

“Intrigued. Nobody just walks in off the street and sticks a knife in Snow White. Deanna knew her killer.” Ray reminded her.

“Which might mean the other ‘Go Girls’ know the killer too.”

“Which also might mean one of the ‘Go Girls’ is the killer.”

“Don’t you just love a mystery, Ray?” He thought about it for a while before answering. He missed his cigarettes at times like these. He was jealous of Carol and her Marlboro Lights.

“Not anymore. I used to be up for it. I used to love the challenge…the puzzle…the mystery. Not anymore. I want the murderer standing over the body with an empty smoking gun, crying his eyes out in remorse, crying out for God to forgive him for his sins.”

“This ain’t one of those, Ray.” She flicked a taunting ash out the window.

“I know,” he said, closing his eyes. Ray let his head droop to his chest, and thought about little Erika Hilgendorf and women’s strip joints where men waved boners around and about Lakisha Marland. Then he smiled, remembering he had to call her about her alibi later.

Chapter 12

Tony drove away from the campus with no urgent destination. Stuckey was probably somewhere in the milling masses, anonymous and un-findable for the time being. He considered that the final solution was going to be a good old fashioned stakeout. Tony had never been on a stakeout. He’d sat on the side of the road with his radar on, jigging for speeders, but that wasn’t a stakeout. He’d done roadblocks before, but that wasn’t a stakeout either. The interstate sign appeared advertising Snelling Avenue, the exit nearest the Fredrickson’s house. He decided to make a stop there. It was still taped, still a secure crime scene. Ray hadn’t given him any specific instructions what to do if he couldn’t locate the missing roommate so he decided to go through the house again on his own.

It wasn’t like he’d been told he couldn’t, he told himself. The old saw about begging forgiveness before asking permission came to mind. If he had to sell it he’d call it…initiative. That had some buzz.

There was a squad car parked on the street in front. When Tony pulled into the driveway a young patrolwoman stepped out of the unit, tucked a baton in her belt, and approached him. She recognized it as an unmarked police car. There wasn’t any tension. Still, Tony reached for his new gold shield. He didn’t recognize her.

“Detective de Luca,” he said in greeting, trying to be nonchalant.

“Connors.” She offered her hand. Tony thought she looked awfully young to be wearing a uniform, fragile even. When they shook hands he noticed she sure didn’t smell like a cop.

“I just want to take a look.” He cricked his head toward the house. She told him some evidence techs had left not more than an hour ago, said they might be back, and produced a key and a clipboard he hadn’t noticed before. He hadn’t been looking at her hands. Officer Connors was cute. He felt a little guilty standing at the back door, pulling on his powdered latex gloves. Then he was in the house.

The blood stain was still on the floor, dried and nearly black now, a dark testament of Deanna Fredrickson’s death. He noticed that someone had stepped in it at some point, probably after the body had been removed and the stain photographed and cataloged, described and filed away…after it didn’t matter anymore. He was glad it hadn’t been him.

Dusty graphite smudges surrounded the sink and littered the countertop. He noticed the coffee mug sitting on the counter. He leaned over to inspect it. The other smudges had rectangular striations across them, most of them, where the techs had used a tape to pull the prints off. The mug didn’t have any. That struck him as odd, but just for a second. He guessed the techs had other ways to lift prints. He vowed to study up on it.

The address book was gone. So was the planner notebook. Those would be in evidence now, handier for them to refer to. The smudge on the floor was still there but he could see where someone had scraped at it, no doubt lifting a sample for analysis. He remembered every detail of the appearance of the body from the early morning previous. As if in a photo shoot the image flashed in his mind. Here. There. Side view. The leg tucked under. The missing shoe.

What had the coroner’s report said? That it appeared to have been a left-handed assailant; the blade was angled right to left and slightly upward, under the ribcage, partially severing the aorta.

Click. Flash! Here. The smudge. The shoe. He had it! He took out his notebook and wrote: ‘DF was killed by a right handed assailant…knife in right hand. Dragged back. Lost shoe, Smudged floor. Strong? Stronger than her? Surprised.’

He moved over, nearer the table so he could see the entire scene, especially the center of the kitchen. The killer had approached her from behind, probably had hooked an arm around her neck and dragged her backwards. What had they said? Had Deanna screamed? Mae next door hadn’t mentioned a scream. A hand over her mouth? De Luca made more notes, reminders to see if the coroner had noted any bruising around her neck.

Tony pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. He was suddenly feeling tired and spent. He wondered if this was what it was like when you figured it out…made the leap. That you were suddenly exhausted? He’d seen the murder in his mind’s eye and, damn it, made the connections. He hoped Ray would agree. He hoped he’d be proud of him.

There weren’t as many graphite smudges in the basement but the techs had been thorough it looked like to him. The small refrigerator had been printed. He opened it. A beer was missing. Hadn’t there been four in there yesterday?

The boys, the roommates would come over here to watch football games he recalled someone telling him…Scott Jr.? David Hong wasn’t much of a football fan. He wondered if Swenson was, or if Stuckey was. He checked his watch and decided he had plenty of time. He tried to imagine three or four college men sprawling on the big sofa, yelling at the screen, tossing beers across the room. He tried to picture Deanna joining in. He didn’t see that but he didn’t know why.

Upstairs he found much the same. There were fewer smudges than in the kitchen. A lot of them didn’t show tape marks. Deanna Fredrickson had been thorough in her dusting. One caught his eye. It was on the woodwork of the door to the master bedroom, just about head high. Peering closely he could tell it had yielded a print. He decided it wasn’t too surprising, after all. Who dusts the door trim?

The jewelry was gone from the dresser top, he noticed. He made a note to double check the evidence inventory. Someone had helped themselves to a beer, he was pretty sure, so why not a couple of grand worth of earrings.

The bathroom had been gone over. He thought some prescription vials were missing. Would they have been cataloged into evidence? Maybe she was on uppers, he mused. Maybe she was on antidepressants, on happy pills. Did that account for her energy?

The bedside table on the right nearest the door gave up a secret when he opened it. There was a shiny silver toy in there along with a couple of bottles of lubricant. He remembered it was called a Steely Dan, like the band. A girl’s best friend on Friday night, wasn’t that how it went? Even with the gloves on he hesitated to pick it up and decided to just let it rest there. He felt like an intruder-a voyeur. Was this what Ray meant when he said they had to get into people’s lives?

The table on the other side of the bed didn’t give up anything of interest; two paperback books, a notepad and some pens. Tony was shutting the drawer when something clinked and rolled around, like it had been underneath the paperbacks. It was a bullet, a.38 caliber Federal round. Not new-but not a relic either, Tony thought, based on the patina of the yellow brass. That meant there was a pistol somewhere. He looked at the room with newly curious eyes.

A cheap pancake holster was taped to the back of the husband’s nightstand. It held a small frame revolver similar to the one that was chafing Tony’s ankle in his new holster. The hammer was resting on an empty chamber. It was a Colt, a nice little gun, Tony thought as he hefted it. He decided it should go into the evidence locker. Best not leave a firearm in a house that was a crime scene, people coming and going, snooping around…like him.

Tony bagged it. He had baggies and latex gloves with powder inside them, spare pens, even a small digital camera. He wasn’t going to be caught without his tools again. No sir.

As he locked up the back door, the pistol heavy in his coat pocket, Tony wondered if Deanna Fredrickson had thought of the gun when she was attacked. If it had been handier could she have defended herself, saved her life? If her husband hadn’t been stranded on a runway, if he’d been home, would he have been able to rush to the kitchen and shoot the killer? Was her murder made possible because of a fucking warning light in an airplane cockpit a thousand miles away?

It didn’t take Ray but a second to make the connection. Lakisha Marland had scoffed when he suggested they could run into trouble on their trips. She’d said ‘we have Ally’- something like that. Allyson Couts was an impressive woman. She greeted them at the door to her office, smiling and polite, and intimidating as hell.

She was almost as tall as Ray, close to six feet. Ray estimated she weighed between 260 and 280 pounds. She didn’t try to disguise it. Her suit was tailored to her size, close fitting but not tight, a navy blue skirt and jacket advertising a confident, powerful woman. Kind of pug faced, she had shoulder length brown hair and wore glasses. She showed them to the client chairs in front of her desk, asked if they cared for coffee or water. She seemed open and pleasant-at first.

“Obviously, you’re here because of Deanna’s murder.” They hadn’t called ahead. Ray and Carol had taken the chance that they would catch her in the office.

“Yes. We’re interviewing family and friends at this point, trying to get a feel.”

“I think we’ve met, Detective Bankston.” Ray couldn’t pull it out. He was sure he would have remembered this woman.

“Twelve years ago? Maybe more? The Bianchi case?” That took care of one question. She was a defense lawyer. He remembered now. It started clicking. Ray didn’t get involved in Minneapolis cases often. Allyson Couts must work mainly Hennepin County, he surmised. He’d been called to testify against Carlo Bianchi, who he was sure had murdered Reese Whittier, a minor St. Paul troublemaker.

“I remember now.” Allyson Couts hadn’t been as large then. He remembered her as a tall, relentless defense attorney who had mercilessly shredded him on the stand. He had been called to provide background on Whittier. She had blocked, ducked, dodged and blunted everything he had to say.

“So, how can I help you, Detective Bankston? What’s the TOD?” He also recalled her brusque style.

“Monday. Early A.M. We’re thinking 7:00 to 9:00 or 9:30.”

“Breakfast. Helmo case. Client and co-counsel.” She grabbed a pen and scribbled on a pad. “Here.” There were three names and phone numbers on the paper. She knew how it all worked and didn’t seem to take any offense.

“Any tension between the husband and wife you noticed?” Ray decided to match her style. He could do brusque too.

“Nope. Storybook.”

“Kid problems?”

“Everyone should have kids like Scotty and Helene. Wrong tree.”

“What about the ‘Go Girls’?”

“What about ’em?” Ray noticed her eyes narrow slightly at the question.

“Arguments? Jealousy? Someone pissed about something that happened on a trip?” She might have been abrupt and direct, but Allyson was thorough and seemingly truthful. She took a minute to think about Ray’s last question.

“Not with Dee.” She seemed distracted then, still thinking about what she knew, what she thought, and how much of it she would share. “A couple of them might be on the outs, but not Deanna. Not with Dee. Next question?”

“What can you tell me about the incident at the strip club in LA?” Ray didn’t have much else to work with. Neither did he have much expectation of Allyson Couts giving anything up.

“Can’t help you. I wasn’t there.”

“You went on the LA trip though.”

“True. But I didn’t go to the club.” She leaned forward on the desk, hands out and open. “I’m gay, Detective Bankston. The last thing I’d want to do is go to some dive where a bunch of guys are waving their dicks around. I skipped that one. And I don’t do hearsay.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” Ray smiled and rose, offered his hand. “Thanks for your time, Counselor.” He saw Carol start to reach for the fingerprint kit and gave her a discreet wave off. They showed themselves out.

“Whew.” Carol said once they were in the car. “You went up against her in court? And lived to talk about it?” She was chuckling while she lit a cigarette.

“It wasn’t too bad for me, but she got the guy off.” Ray shrugged.

“Did he do it?”

“I think so.” He turned to her in the car. “I got it straight in my mind a long time ago, Carol. We catch ’em. The DA prosecutes ’em. Someone in Minneapolis screwed up or something. Not my problem.”

“Yeah, I think that way too.” She nodded. “But sometimes…don’t you get mad sometimes when some junior ADA screws up and one of the bad guys walks?”

“Not mad. I don’t need to waste my energy on mad. I just try to get the next one so airtight, so perfect, that anyone can prosecute it.”

“Bullshit.” Carol tossed the half smoked butt out the window and started the car. “You get mad.”

Chapter 13

Ted Lipka and Vang Pao were leaning against Connor’s squad car. Tony remembered they were still interviewing the neighbors so they must have been nearby. He joined them, curious if the canvassing had produced anything. An old man in a red plaid jacket was herding a small pile of leaves near the curb two houses over. Tony noticed he was keeping an eye on the activity around the police car. Greetings out of the way, talk turned to the case.

“Anything?” Both of the older detectives shook their heads.

Ted flipped a page back on his pad. “Not much. One lady, Grober’s her name, lives in the blue house over there.” He pointed east, toward the busier cross street and the gas station two blocks over. “She said she saw a young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt walking toward the bus stop early Monday morning. She said she didn’t recognize him.”

“She seems to be the unofficial neighborhood watch,” Vang added. “She remembered the Graves woman walking her dog, a Mr. Hendricks was running late and had to trot to catch the 8:15, and that someone named Aldo got his paper that morning in his boxers.”

“That might be something then,” Tony sounded hopeful.

“She only saw him from the back. Couldn’t tell if he was black or white. Couldn’t remember if the sweatshirt had any writing on it. No idea about size. Might not even have been a guy.”

“He was carrying a backpack.”

“That’s not much.” Then Tony remembered something Mae had said, something about hearing a car door. “Did she say anything about a car here at the house? Out front or in the drive?”

“No, but she wouldn’t have been able to see this house.” Ted pointed again toward the blue house. It was on the same side of the street and only three down. Unless the Grober woman had been on the lawn she wouldn’t be able to see the Fredrickson’s.

“What about you? Talked to the last roommate yet?”

It was Tony’s turn to shake his head. “He seems to be a busy boy. I don’t think he’s ducking me but he’s not calling me back either. What do you guys think?” Tony wasn’t above asking advice. Ted and Vang were veterans. Neither of them exuded the presence that Ray did but he knew they were both competent investigators. And everyone had more experience than he did.

“A college kid not bending over backwards to talk to a cop? That’s not surprising.” Vang had a frown on his face. “But…we need to clear him. You’ve left messages?”

“Several.”

“We need to clear him. These kids live on their damn cell phones.” Vang’s tone of voice told Tony that talking with Stuckey was important. He felt a swell of urgency.

“I’m thinking of staking out the house. Ray’s left me kind of twisting here.”

Lipka chuckled. “That sounds like Ray. He doesn’t hold hands, Tony. I’m guessing he said something like ‘talk to the last roommate’ and not much else.”

Tony nodded. That was exactly what he’d said. Ray was testing his resourcefulness. He wanted to see how he would solve the problem. Well, Tony thought, I guess I’d just better go solve this problem.

“Anyone want to join me on a stakeout?”

That got a laugh.

Roxie Kennebrew was a mess. There was no other way to describe it, Ray thought, looking at her. Her red hair was barely combed. Her makeup was smudged, what was left of it. She looked to have been crying for days. Her eyes were tortured, the lids rubbed pink by a hundred tissues. There were the last traces of lipstick at the corners of her wide mouth. She hadn’t seen a tub or shower in a while, he could tell. Ray decided that Roxie Kennebrew was either despondent over the death of her friend or a very good actress.

Ray steeled himself for this chat. Even though he was inclined to feel some sympathy for her he was tired of the lack of progress. Deanna the good mother. Deanna the volunteer. Deanna the dutiful wife. There was something Deanna had done that had driven someone to murder. If Roxie Kennebrew was truly devastated maybe she’d open up, talk about the group dynamics of the ‘Go Girls’, let something out, let something slip. If she was acting, Ray was sure he’d be able to tell.

Carol pointed out the two empty brandy bottles in the trash. Ray considered that the woman was drowning her sorrows, self-medicating, drinking to make the pain of loss go away. He knew that never worked, that all the drinking would do was sharpen the edge of self pity so it could cut a little deeper. He’d had some experience with that. He also considered that she might be drinking away her loathing for the evil deed she’d done.

Then, too, he remembered that more than one of her friends had commented that she was a drinker, that she…what was it…liked to let loose? Maybe it was as simple as that. Maybe she was just a drunk. Whatever the case, Ray was still a little gritty from the interview with Allyson Couts. Too bad, Roxie, he said to himself. Ray Bankston doesn’t suffer drunks.

“Tell me about your Monday morning, Mrs. Kennebrew.” It was a command, not a request.

“Monday morning.” Roxie looked down at the table. She had both hands wrapped around a coffee mug and stared at it with bleary detachment. “Nothing really. I, uh, went to the gym about 9:30. Then I called Dee’s house, I think about noon. Yeah. Noonish.”

Carol nodded. There had been a message on the Fredrickson’s answering machine.

“Earlier?”

“Ken. Ken had already gone to work. I got up about 7:30. Made some coffee. Read the paper. You don’t think I killed Dee…you can’t!” That brought a fresh wave of tears; deep, heaving sobs. An already sodden tissue was reduced to pulp and shards. Carol spied a box on the counter and fetched it for her.

“So no one can verify where you were or what you were doing early Monday.” Carol tried to signal Ray with her eyes that he was pressing too hard. After another minute of crying, softer this time, she sat up straight, sniffed loudly and glared at Ray.

“I want my lawyer here if you’re going to accuse me of killing Dee.”

Carol shrugged as if to say to Ray ‘I told you so’.

“That’s certainly your right. I’m not accusing you of anything though, not at all. Your friend was murdered very early Monday morning. We’re trying to place everyone who knew her, everyone she was connected with.” Roxie eyed Ray warily.

He thought he could smell liquor and wondered if she might have fortified her coffee.

“I told you where I was and what I did. I didn’t see anyone until I got to the gym. Gold’s, over on County Road E.”

“All right. We’ll let that go for now. Tell me, do you think Mr. or Mrs. Fredrickson could have been having an affair? Either of them?”

Ray hoped to slide past her request for a lawyer by ignoring it. They were still groping for a motive. When she answered he knew he’d pulled it off.

“No way in hell. Dee doesn’t fool around and neither does Scott. I’d know.”

“Can I ask how? How would you know?” Ray sat back, waiting for another chapter of Snow White.

“Because Scott knows he has an open invitation any time he wants some, for one thing.” Ray took a look at Roxie Kennebrew again. Beneath the tired eyes, streaked makeup and shapeless housecoat she was another very attractive member of the ‘Go Girls’. He could imagine Scott Fredrickson being tempted, at least, by her looks and the figure she was hiding behind the terrycloth.

“But he never, ah…took you up on the offer?”

“Never. Not that it’s any of your goddamn business.”

Ah, but it is, Ray said to himself, keeping his face neutral.

“And Dee…I’d just know. We didn’t have any secrets.” Ray hesitated with the comeback he wanted to use. It would just piss her off.

She surprised him when she confronted it head on. “She even knew I wanted to screw her husband. We laughed about it. That’s how I know, detective.”

“That’s pretty telling.” Ray wondered if it was the truth.

“It’s the new millennium. We’re all adults. And we’re really good friends. Why keep secrets?”

Why indeed, Ray thought. But someone’s got a secret and it’s important enough to kill for. And it’s someone you probably know, he wanted to tell her.

“Okay, no secrets. Tell me what it was really like on the trips you all took. What happened in Vegas? What happened in Mexico and LA?” Roxie shook her head. She still had the same sad serious look on her face when she answered him.

“You’re not one of my friends. You’re not one of us. Not one of the girls.” She gave a short bark of a laugh. “Not one of the husbands, either. You, we can keep secrets from. I can anyway.”

“Why would you want to?”

“That’s obvious isn’t it?”

“Not really. One member of your little clique is dead. Murdered. I would think you’d want to share anything that might help us find out who killed Deanna Fredrickson. She knew the killer. She let the killer into the house. She knew her killer.”

Ray hadn’t raised his voice at all. He’d spoken in precise measured tones, stating facts, facts that he normally wouldn’t share with a potential suspect.

Roxie froze when he said that. She looked directly into his eyes, not moving. It had hit a nerve-paralyzed her. Ray could barely make out that she was breathing she was so still. He thought he could see her thinking, could see images passing behind her red eyes, questioning, wondering who Deanna knew that could have killed her. He saw fear there. Roxie was wondering if she knew the killer too, he was certain of it. The only sound that intruded was a clock ticking somewhere in the house.

“Nothing.” Roxie sighed heavily, a deep cleansing breath. “We never fought. There could be a little…cattiness, I guess you’d call it, but it was always in fun. It was never serious.”

“It might not have been on the surface.”

Roxie went into another trance, looking deeper, thinking harder whether any of her friends could even be capable of such hatred, because, she reasoned, only hatred could make you kill someone you cared for, someone you loved.

“We never fought,” she said again, still sifting through memories, through conversations and teasing, through taunts and jokes and a thousand things they’d said to each other. Ray remembered Erika’s story about the strip club in LA.

“You fought in LA, at the strip joint.”

Roxie’s brow furrowed. “Who told you about that?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory. She seemed merely curious to Ray.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m just wondering if there could be any hard feelings.”

“From who? I got smashed and Karen and I were acting like jerks. We teased Erika. We probably pushed it too far. I can’t remember all of it.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, dig into the memory of it. “Dee hustled us all out of there. I remember that. Karen was kind of wired that night. It was a bad idea to go there. We all agreed on that later, at the bar. We laughed about it.”

“You went to another bar?”

“Near the hotel. It was nicer than the hotel bar. It was pretty late. We didn’t fight though.”

Ray’s tone softened some. “Sounds innocent enough.”

“If anyone was mad it would have been Erika, and Dee was the one who broke it all up.” Ray had to agree with her on that point. He was trying to fit it together when Carol spoke up for the first time.

“So you all went to a bar, had a few drinks and patched things up. No harm, no foul?”

“Lakisha and Erica left after one drink, I think. I stayed for a while, but I probably shouldn’t have. Sometimes I drink too much. Someone has probably told you that already, too.”

Ray kept his face impassive, stayed silent. Carol was doing okay.

“So they took you back to the hotel?”

“I got back there on my own. Dee and Karen stayed for a while. I think Dee was keeping an eye on her, on Karen. She was pretty wound up after the club.”

“Drunk?” Ray probed.

“More like horny. No…not horny.” Roxie searched for another word. “Frisky. When she’s not around Gary she’s a huge flirt.”

“And Deanna was flirting too?”

“No. Dee was running interference. She and Karen go way, way back. She was just staying close so Karen wouldn’t do something stupid.”

“Was this normal?” Ray probed deeper.

“Yeah, but not like you think. Dee watched out for all of us. She called me cabs or drove me home. She ran interference for Erica too. She would talk to Lakisha about her spending and antagonizing Mr. Marland.”

Ray interrupted her. “Why does everyone refer to him as Mr. Marland? Off the subject. Sorry.”

Roxie laughed softly, the first time she’d done so throughout the whole conversation. “She never uses his first name. Never. He’s been Mr. Marland for ten years, maybe longer. I have to think what it is. Funny, huh?”

Ray allowed himself a brief smile. Carol frowned at him for breaking the rhythm they had built up.

“Why would Deanna have needed to run interference at the bar? Was Karen that frisky?” Carol asked, trying to get back on track.

“I don’t remember. I think Karen was eye fucking some guy at the bar. I’m not sure. I do remember that it was our last night in LA and it was a very quiet flight home.”

“You all stayed at the same hotel?”

“Sure. I had a room with Ally. Karen and Dee shared a room, so did Lakisha and Erika. It saves money.”

“And everyone made it back in their rooms that night?”

“Yeah. I mean we all met in the lobby for the shuttle.”

Roxie kept looking over at the cabinet over the range. Ray guessed that’s where the liquor was. He weighed the idea of telling her to go ahead and have a drink and decided against it. They were about through there. The LA trip and the strip club incident didn’t seem to be going much further, if it had ever had any legs at all.

Back in the car, Carol was thoughtfully smoking another Marlboro while Ray flipped through his notebook.

“What are you thinking?” Carol asked.

“I’m thinking we need a motive. Did you buy all that…that they never fought?”

“Not a chance. But I think they may have picked their battles carefully.”

“Go on.”

“As a group their biggest dilemma would be where to go for dinner or whose house to party at. As a group they would be careful to maintain peace and order. Keep the vibe positive. Individually? You cannot have a half dozen women in close contact without, what do you call it? Friction? That’s your word isn’t it?”

“It’s a good word,” Ray said.

“I don’t see them as swingers.”

Ray’s eyebrows went up when he turned toward her. “That came out of left field.”

Carol explained. “I thought of it when she talked about Deanna’s husband, how he had an open invitation. Maybe I’ve been in Sex Crimes too long.”

“But you think there’s some sexual tension there?” Ray asked. He hadn’t picked up anything like that.

“We haven’t met this Karen Hewes yet, but I’ll bet you she’s as good looking as the rest of them. The Marland woman’s attractive, right?”

Ray nodded. “And so is Erika Hilgendorff. The only one out of sync is Allyson Couts.”

“My bet is that Couts isn’t part of the inner circle. She’s not as close as the others.” Carol started the car. The interview with Roxie Kennebrew had taken a while. She waited for Ray to tell her where to go next, wondering if they should try to match up with the Hewes’ woman or head for the office.

“I wonder how de Luca’s doing?” Ray asked. He didn’t expect her to answer. He decided to head back to the station, to the office to do some thinking. He needed more information, needed to talk to Lipka and Pao, check in with Kumpula and see if any interesting forensics had appeared. Then he was going to get them all together to go over it all-the interviews, the neighbors, the science. There was something lurking in there, there had to be.

There always was.

Chapter 14

So this is what it’s like on a stakeout Tony said to himself for the tenth or twelfth time in the last three hours. He was parked across the street from the pale blue house Scott Jr. shared with Hong and Swenson and the elusive Sean Stuckey. Scotty was still with his father, he assumed. Swenson had come and gone once. David Hong was in the house. No one had a picture of Stuckey. Tony’s plan was to approach the house when anyone entered that he didn’t recognize.

Tony thought that it was a lot of work just to clear a fringe element. Beyond Scott Jr. the roommate connection was tenuous at best. He wondered if Ray was sticking him out here to keep him out of the way, keeping him from screwing something up. It wasn’t a big confidence builder.

Most of the houses on the street were student rentals. Tony watched as the twenty something men and women came and went. They all seemed to be in constant motion. Some driving, most walking-to the bus stop on the corner two blocks up, to the small grocery on the corner, or to whatever lay on the avenue beyond. There was a pizza place close by but out of sight. The smell had been driving him crazy for the last hour.

Just fifteen minutes. Tony’s stomach growled, arguing that he wouldn’t miss Stuckey if he scooted over for a slice or two of thin crust. He imagined pepperoni and mushrooms and onions and black olives swimming in mozzarella, little pools of grease puddling on the surface of the pie, steam rising, the smell of a tangy, biting tomato sauce and oregano blending with the cheeses and the sausage.

He was reaching for the car’s ignition when his phone rang. He noticed who was on the other end and smiled as he touched the screen.

“Hi.” Caller ID is a wonderful thing, he thought, as he greeted Sue Ellen.

“Hi yourself, detective. Caught any bad guys today?” She seemed to be in a good mood.

“I wish. Hey, you want to join me on a stakeout?”

“Doesn’t that sound like fun?” He could tell she didn’t really think so. “Who are you staking out? Or can’t you tell me.”

Tony leaned back in the car seat, savoring her lovely voice. “Just a college kid. It’s a real thin connection to the Fredrickson woman. I think your Uncle Ray has me riding pine here.”

“Clearing alibis, huh?”

“That’s it.”

“It’s important. Want to know why?” Sue Ellen said.

Oh great, Tony thought, now the cute DA chick is going to give me detective lessons too. Part of him was tired of everyone knowing more about his job than he did. Part of him was eager to learn.

“I think I do but why don’t you give me your take.” It came out snippy. Tony thought he might have to apologize but Sue Ellen breezed right over it.

“I’ve been with the DA’s office for almost five years now. We’ve had a lot of cases turn on fringe players. Not the cases where you’ve got eye wits and smoking guns. Cases like this one though…you need to go through all the motions. Just clear the guy and move on. If he doesn’t clear, you’ve got something to work with.”

“You know about this one?”

“Not really. Just office talk.”

Tony knew she was right. Still, she wasn’t the one that had been sitting in a car for three hours. His butt hurt, his neck hurt, and the pizza smell was driving him crazy. “Have you talked to Ray about it?”

“No. I’m not saying we’ve never bounced anything off of each other, but we try to avoid it. It’s one of our unwritten rules.”

“Probably smart.”

Her tone changed. Tony heard her voice shift into a serious mode. “I’m afraid I didn’t call just to talk, Tony.”

“What?”

“I’ve gotten some threats.”

“Threats?” He almost made a joke about an old boyfriend.

“The Latin Kings.” That was the gang Tony had infiltrated the year before. Sue Ellen was the lead prosecutor. He was the star witness. His identity was a very closely held secret. “They’re letting the word get out that they’re coming after me and any of my assistants. They’re trying to get to you.”

Tony slammed the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “Shit!”

“People are getting nervous around here.” The Latin Kings weren’t afraid to use their guns to settle arguments. Tony knew this first hand. He’d been inside.

“What are you going to do?”

Sue Ellen sounded defiant when she answered. “Nothing, right now. The Gang Task Force is going to put some pressure on. They know these assholes. They’ll let ’em know this is not the way the game is played.”

“Did they target you specifically?” Tony needed details now.

“Yeah, they did.”

“How many people know my name?” Tony wasn’t asking because he was afraid of the gang bangers. He was worried about the clerks and assistants in the DA’s office that could get roughed up.

“It’s been held close.” Sue Ellen paused, thinking about who was in on it. “The judge of course. Reynard over at Narcotics. Your old partner, I assume, and my two assistants.”

“The defense doesn’t have it? What about the disclosure thing?” Prosecutors were supposed to share anything they got with the defense, and vice versa, Tony knew. He just couldn’t pull up the lawyer word.

“No name. Remember the deposition? The judge allowed it just because of this kind of thing.”

He did remember. He had been taped but his voice had been altered and his face obscured. It had been months ago. At the trial he would be live and in person but for now he was anonymous, or almost.

“So what are you going to do?”

“Nothing. Nothing different. I won’t let these assholes intimidate me. And I have Marco now.”

“Marco? Marc Giordano?” Tony relaxed some. Giordano was BCA, the state guys, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He was big and mean and one of the best shots Tony had ever seen. Marco cast a large dark shadow.

“My new best friend. You know him?”

“Just barely, but he’s good.”

“And big.”

“That too.” Tony, about to offer her more reassurance, was startled by a rapping on the window. He jerked his head and almost dropped the phone. His right hand instinctively reached for his gun.

“Christ!”

David Hong jumped back, startled by the outburst. Sue Ellen was yelling into the phone. Tony had to deal with the shot of adrenalin that had squirted into his system. He put a hand up toward Hong, signaling wait a minute. He reassured Sue Ellen that everything was okay and promised to call her later. Then he took a deep breath. He hadn’t seen Hong at all, concentrating on what Sue Ellen had been saying. He punched the button to unlock the passenger door. Hong stuck his head in the car, smiling.

“Sorry?” He looked a little embarrassed.

“I didn’t see you coming.”

The big Samoan kid draped an arm over the car door. “You’ve been out here a long time, man. Waiting on Sean?”

“How’d you guess?” So much for covert surveillance, Tony grumbled to himself.

“Want to wait inside?” Tony thought it over. Why the hell not? He followed Hong across the street.

“Does that pizza joint around the corner deliver?” he asked as they climbed the front porch stairs.

Tony hadn’t played any video games since he was in college and not much back then. He was impressed with the sophistication of the new games. Halo was a challenge. Hong was an expert with the controller. Tony suffered through an embarrassing learning curve but was finally getting the hang of it.

Swenson came home. He snagged some pizza and joined them on the sofa for another round. Tony had made himself at home. The boys were easy to talk to, witty and intelligent. Tony had tossed his sport jacket aside, the shoulder holstered Glock flapped under his arm as he leaned into the game, putting useless body-english into the electronic bullets. Tony felt a little guilty. This was not how a stakeout was supposed to go. He was having a pretty good time.

He’d talked to Ray. They were going to have a meeting, go over everything they had. Tony wanted to join them. Ray thought it best for Tony to stay on the stakeout, get the Stuckey kid off the list, that he had a good bit of time invested. Ray told him he hoped he’d be done with the kid tonight, to stick with it. Sure boss, Tony said, and went back inside to the game. He finally made the second level and was out for revenge.

The front door opened. Tony looked up to see a young man in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt wrestling with a backpack. Sean Stuckey. He was about 5’10”, not powerfully built, but not slight, either. Hong had been right. Sean was trying to grow some hair on his face and looked like the blond half of the white kids on campus.

Tony was concerned with the look on Stuckey’s face. His eyes had narrowed and there was a look of worry on it.

“Hey, Sean. This is Tony.” Swenson was grinning, having fun with his roommate’s confusion. He was used to the big guy with the matte black gun in a shoulder rig by now.

“Hey.” Stuckey tossed off an up-nod, trying to be cool. He was thinking of how to get out of there, Tony thought. He knew the look.

Tony retrieved his jacket and fished his gold badge out of the pocket. “I’m Detective de Luca, St. Paul Homicide. You’re Sean Stuckey, right?” He didn’t offer his hand. Stuckey’s eyes darted around the room. He was nervous. He’d been surprised-jumped. Tony wondered if the kid might bolt.

“Yeah. Oh shit! You’re the guy on the phone, right?” The look changed. Stuckey seemed more relaxed. Tony thought he was putting on a show.

“I left several messages.”

“Man, I was going to call, and then this shit happened.” Sean reached into the backpack. “I dropped the fucking phone and some dude ran over it with his bike.” He held up the busted phone. The screen was gone, just shards clinging to the rim, now, and it was bent. It was a goner.

“Looks fatal.” Tony nodded. If the kid was making up an excuse it was an expensive one. It was a nice phone.

“It bites, man. Three hundred bucks! And my whole fucking life is in there-my numbers.” Stuckey stuffed the debris back into the knapsack. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

Tony turned to the two guys on the couch. “Somewhere we can talk?” They both just smiled at him. They wanted to listen in.

“Privately?” Tony shot them a stern look, as if to say ‘game time’s over’.

“Let’s go in the kitchen.” Sean led the way. Tony noticed he threw a pissed-off glance at the two boys on the sofa. There didn’t seem to be any love lost between them. Sean maneuvered so that he was sitting directly across from Tony at the scarred wooden table.

Surprisingly, Stuckey fired the first shot. “This is about Scotty’s mom isn’t it?”

“Not unless there’s another crime you’re connected with I should know about.” Tony tried to keep it light. He thought he saw something. A hesitation? A hitch? Like Stuckey had tried to hide a thought and failed.

“What do you want to know?” The kid was all business now. Tony wondered if he’d been through this before.

“Where were you early Monday morning? Early like 6 to 10.”

“That’s easy. I spent the night with Angie and had a 9:00 class.” Tony made a note. Stuckey watched him closely.

“Angie?”

“This chick.”

“Angie have a last name?”

“Arkwright. You want her phone number, too? She’s pretty hot. We’re not like, exclusive.” Stuckey’s attitude took the first step toward wearing thin.

Tony flipped to a clean page and slid the notebook and his pen across the table. “And her address please.” Stuckey gave him a sullen look and started writing. “And while you’re at it, write down the class and the building and the professor’s name for the class.”

“For my alibi?”

“That’s right.” Tony folded his hands on the tabletop and watched Stuckey write, keeping his face neutral. When he was done, Sean slid the pad back…hard. It skidded off the table and onto the floor.

“Sorry,” Sean said.

Little fucking liar, Tony thought. He looked over the notes. The woman’s address wasn’t far away, maybe 15 blocks.

“History of the Cinema?”

“Yeah. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I’m an art major, leaning toward film.”

“And you were in class and Monday?”

“I told you that. It was a film review.” Tony nodded. “I already took this but the credits didn’t transfer. It’s a pain in the ass.”

“Transfer from where?” Tony really didn’t care. He asked the question reflexively, just making conversation, trying to get the kid at ease.

“UCLA, if it’s any of your business.” Stuckey was starting to piss Tony off. The notebook. The attitude. He wanted to get in the kid’s face, shove back some, but decided to just keep with the program, get the info he needed and move on. He made a note about the attitude while wondering how Stuckey would react to his next surprise. He pulled the finger print kit out and held it up.

“Know what this is?” Stuckey shook his head. “It’s a little kit we carry to take fingerprints with. Were you ever in the Fredrickson’s home?”

“Yeah, I was there once. We watched a football game in the basement like, last week, two weeks ago. Something like that. Why?”

“I’d like you to let me print you for elimination purposes. There were a lot of prints in the house. This will save us a ton of time.”

Stuckey frowned. His eyes started searching, left to right, like he was looking for a hole to crawl into.

“What do you mean save time?”

“Running all of the prints through the local, state, and fed databases takes a little time. It’s pretty quick now, but there were a lot of prints. We expect some of them aren’t in our system.”

Tony watched Sean working something through in his mind. Sean looked worried again, not cocky.

“Do I have to?”

“No.” It had bothered the Marland woman, the fingerprinting. She’d hesitated. She was in the system; for what, Tony had no idea. Mrs. Boom Boom hadn’t been enthusiastic either, he remembered.

“Not right now, anyway. I’ll just have to go to a judge and get a warrant if I think it’s worth the effort.” Tony wasn’t sure if he could actually do that but it sounded good. Then he had a thought. “Are you already in the system, Sean?”

“No fucking way, dude.” While Sean waved his hands Tony thought of at least a hundred gang bangers who were better at the bluff and bluster.

“Then help me out.” Sean stood abruptly and paced for a minute. Tony realized this was really a dilemma for him.

“These are just for, what did you say, comparison?” Sean sat back down but wasn’t comfortable. He kept fidgeting.

“That’s right.” Tony put on a half-smile like he’d seen Ray use, his mind churning with speculations. He wondered if the kid wanted to ask if there were prints on the murder weapon. Did he know it was a knife? Was it the knife he used and now he’s worried he might not have wiped it well enough? Okay kid, Tony thought, it’s time to raise, check or fold.

Stuckey folded. “Show me how to do it.” While Tony was working the kit Sean asked him what was next.

“Nothing really. I’ll check in with Angie tomorrow and give your prof a call so we can get on with the investigation.” While Sean was smearing the ink on his fingertips around with a paper towel Tony couldn’t help but add, “Unless, of course, you did it. Then I have to come back and arrest you.”

“It’s de Luca right? Detective de Luca?”

“That’s right.”

“Your sense of humor blows, de Luca.”

Tony got up to leave. At the door he turned and gave Stuckey his best Columbo. “I’m curious. What film did you watch Monday morning… in the cinema class?”

It worked. Tony caught him off guard. Stuckey had a cartoon question mark hanging over his head.

“Citizen Kane?”

Tony just nodded and walked away. “Falk you, kid,” Tony said to himself as he left the house.

Chapter 15

Tony sat in the idling Crown Vic flipping through the notes he’d made interviewing Stuckey. Something bothered him about the kid. His attitude was all wrong. Thoughts about Sue Ellen’s call kept intruding, blocking and checking his train of thought. He opened his phone and started to call her back to get more information on the Latin King threats, but punched Ray’s number in instead. He’d go see her later.

“Bankston.”

“Hey, boss. Have I still got time to make the meeting?”

He’d been in the house a long time. It was dark. Lights shone up and down the street. Street lights, halogen yellow, flickered behind barren branches. House lights whispered through shades and glass. There were few cars. No headlights searched the street at the moment. The foot traffic was almost gone and a chill was settling. He wanted to talk about the Stuckey interview, see if he had maybe read the guy wrong or had forgotten something.

“We postponed it until tomorrow morning,” Ray said.

“Just for me?” Tony teased. He doubted that Ray Bankston did anything with his efforts or feelings in mind.

“Yes, Tony. We couldn’t possibly solve this crime without your keen intellect and insight,” Ray teased back. The real reason was to let Kumpula and the computers do some more work on the fingerprints and to get the reports in better order. Ray also wanted Tony to sit in on the first of the sessions, get a feel for how they sifted facts and suspicions. Maybe the young detective would learn something.

“I’ve been accused of a lot of things Ray, but keen intellect?”

“Did you match up with the last roommate?” Ray asked, done with the banter.

“I did.”

“Did you clear him?”

“He says he was with a girlfriend all night and made it to class Monday morning at nine.”

“Does it check out?”

“I just got done talking to him.” Tony wanted to add ‘give me a freakin’ break’, but he didn’t.

“Well, it’s early yet.” Tony looked at his watch. 9:15.

“It’s early if you’re on the 8 to4 shift.” It had been a long day and the comment slipped out before he could catch it. Tony waited for Ray’s rebuke. He thought he deserved one.

“Whatever you think is best, detective. We’re meeting at 7:00 here in the squad room.” Tony heard Ray’s phone click off.

No rebuke. No argument. No hand holding.

Plenty of guilt though.

He started the car and checked Angie’s address again.

Angela Arkwright lived on the third floor of a small white-gone-to-gray stucco apartment building. There was no security door. No intercom. No buzzer. It was an old, tired building. The carpets probably had a color once, Tony mused. Same for the walls a few decades ago, he added as an afterthought. Now they just looked defeated. There were some kid’s toys in the hallway on the main floor and scuff marks on the mop-water colored walls. A nauseating curry smell staked claim to the airless first floor hallway. The stair treads were worn wood, grooved and smooth from years of weary comings and goings.

It was far enough from campus and the main bus routes that Tony doubted that it was student housing. He had driven past some small factories and warehouses and crossed a pair of railroad tracks to get to the tiny crowded parking lot. As he turned the corner for the last flight of steps he heard a Spanish-language TV program blaring from behind the door nearest the stairs. The canned laugh tracks sounded like all of the others he had ever heard. Laughter, he thought, the universal language.

Angela Arkwright’s apartment was at the far end of the building. He passed doors of different colors as he walked down the hallway and heard muted snatches of different televisions shows and conversations as he strode past. He turned his head at the sound of an opera recording behind a pea-green door to his right. He felt like he was walking through a brief nothing moment; the actors, anonymous and hunkered down for the night behind hollow wooden barricades, never to know or care of his passing. It was oddly unsettling and made him a little anxious.

Tony missed his uniform again. He just had a few questions to ask and didn’t want to waste a lot time to establish rapport. He just wanted a couple of answers and no bullshit. He wanted to go see Sue Ellen. He wanted to call it a day.

He knocked on the door like he was in his blues, authority-hard and urgent. The door was flimsy and hollow, not code, not a real barrier.

A woman appeared in the chain gap. Tony could see just a slice of her face. It looked as tired and makeshift as the building. He held his gold shield at eye level.

“Angela Arkwright? I’m Detective de Luca.”

It took a beat for it to register on her face. Her brown eyes were dilated and red rimmed. He smelled marijuana and something else he couldn’t put his finger on. The look on her face wasn’t fear or surprise. It was a look of resignation. He thought he noticed her slump and heard a quiet sigh. The door closed. Tony waited for the sound of the chain being removed. Finally, he knocked again.

This time the chain rattled and the woman opened the door. She wore a wan smile and a wrinkled Cuervo Tequila tee shirt. Her blond hair needed a touch-up. A brown stripe bisected the top of her head where her shoulder length hair was parted. Her face showed where she had lost a battle with acne; not the whole war, but one or more skirmishes, for sure. Dark eyebrows were separated by frown furrows of worry and curiosity. She wasn’t wearing any makeup Tony could find. She held the door half open with one hand. The other held a smudged glass tumbler, a quarter-full of clear liquid. There were two nearly exhausted ice cubes and a road-kill lime floating in it.

“Help you?” she said and took a sip from the glass. Tony traded his shield for the notebook.

“Just a few questions if you’ve got a minute.”

“Is this about the car?”

Tony didn’t want anything to do with the car. He smiled and shook his head. “Do you know a Sean Stuckey?”

A door opened down the hallway. An old woman with frizzy gray hair peered around the jamb. Angela gave her the finger and the woman retreated back inside her apartment. Then she grabbed Tony’s jacket and pulled him inside, muttered something that sounded like ‘nosy fuckin’ bitch’, and slammed the door.

“Why do you guys always say it like that?” Angela was drunk, or stoned, or maybe both Tony figured. She tried to take another hit off the drink and frowned. It was empty. “This way.”

She walked through a jumbled living room toward the kitchen. Tony took a quick look. She’d either emptied or hidden the ashtray with the joint in it. The pot smell was strong in the apartment. He had no choice but to follow.

“Say what like what?” he asked when he caught up to her in the dingy kitchen.

“Like, do you know ‘a’ Sean Stuckey? How many could there be?” She was leaning against the counter now, arms crossed beneath heavy breasts. She tried to take a sip from the empty glass again. Tony didn’t take any pleasure in her nervousness.

“I guess I could have asked if you knew the Sean Stuckey, but I didn’t know that he was famous.”

Angela laughed and scratched her backside. “More like infamous. Yeah, I know him.”

She turned and reached above the stove for the vodka bottle that was on a shelf up there. Tony looked away, embarrassed. Angela wasn’t wearing anything but the tee shirt. He remembered Sue Ellen flashing him like that two nights ago, reaching for his shirt behind the sofa, the white sheet riding up, the laughing. That was sexy. This was just sad.

“Was he here with you Sunday night?” He watched her struggle with the ice cube tray. Tony took the tray from her and cracked the cubes himself to help move things along.

“Sunday night?”

Angela went off somewhere looking for Sunday night. She splashed vodka in the glass and took a thoughtful sip. Tony noticed she didn’t wince or grimace when she swallowed the straight warm liquor. Kharkov. Cheap stuff. Sunday night seemed to be hiding across the room somewhere above the refrigerator.

“Sure. Sunday night.” She nodded thoughtfully and then smiled, like she had earned some small victory. “Sean was here Sunday. Monday night, too. God, I’m still sore.” She giggled. Tony held the ice cube tray out. Angela studied it like it was a box of chocolates before picking out two for her drink.

“Sunday, was he here all night? Did you see him in the morning on Monday?”

“You want a drink?”

Tony shook his head. He remembered Sean teasing him when he asked for her number. He remembered him saying she was hot. Angela looked like she should have been in her twenties, but it would take some work to sell the deal. Her skin was grayish. Wrinkles were already hinting at the corner of her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. She looked to be a haggard thirty. Maybe she was. She wasn’t hot though. Not by a long shot.

“Monday morning?” he reminded her. She’d gone off somewhere again. Probably working her way up to Monday.

“Why do you want to know?” She was braver now, hiding behind her vodka.

“I’m with the Homicide Unit, Miss Arkwright. We’re just trying to clean up some loose ends.”

Angela started laughing, head thrown back. It was a mean raucous laugh that tailed off in a coughing fit. “He finally killed someone with that fucking spear?” she asked, once she was done hacking.

Tony was confused for a minute. Then he remembered the odd conversation with David Hong. They had a laugh about…damn it. He couldn’t pull it out.

Angela looked over her glass, bleary-eyed but serious. “Did Sean kill someone?”

“No. I don’t think so.” Tony caught himself. He’d been puzzling over what Hong had said that cracked them up and what Angela had said. He’d answered without thinking.

“Maybe an accident?” She giggled again. Then Tony remembered what had embarrassed the big Samoan kid.

“Miss Arkwright…”

“Angie.”

“Angie. What am I missing here? Did Sean say something? Something about a murder?”

“I’m sorry.” She took another big swallow. The vodka seemed to compose her some. “Private joke. Murder, huh? Who got killed?”

“Monday morning?” He tried to get it back on track, get his answers and get the hell out of there. Tony finally figured out what the other smell was. It was sex and body odor, a desperate feral musk.

“He might have been here. I was sleeping. I slept in.” Tony bet she slept in a lot of mornings; that and woke up with a hangover more often than not.

“So you’re not sure?”

“He was gone when I got up.”

“Which was what time?”

“I don’t fuckin’ know. Maybe ten?” The drink was empty again. Tony stared hard at his notebook when she reached up for the bottle. She was slurring her words more now, getting a little belligerent. “You too good to drink with me?”

“I’m working.”

“Whatever.” She ignored the ice cubes this time. Kharkov. Neat. Maybe she was saving them for later.

Yeah right.

He flipped the notebook shut. He had what he’d come for. Angie Arkwright couldn’t positively alibi Stuckey for early Monday morning. A phone rang in the living room. It took three rings before Angie was aware of it. The answering machine kicked in on the fourth.

“Do you need to grab that?”

Tony had already plotted his escape. She waved her free hand, dismissing his question, when he heard Sean Stuckey’s voice coming from the living room.

“Well, thanks for your time.”

He headed for the door. He wanted to hear what message Sean was leaving and caught the tail end of it.

“…I was there Monday morning. See you later, babe.”

Tony hesitated at the door. He wondered if he could ask Angie to play the recording for him. He wondered further if he could make her play it. She snuck up on him at the door, wrapped his arm in both of hers. She pressed it tightly to her body, warm and naked under the rank tee shirt.

“Do you really have to go?” She gave him a drunken leer, rubbed her breast against his arm. Tony carefully untangled himself and got the door open.

“Sorry, I’m working.”

He used the excuse again, not that he was in the least bit tempted, but he saw a sadness and loneliness behind the alcoholic haze and didn’t want to hurt her. He suspected that she’d been hurt plenty, used and hurt. He felt like he was about to do it again and took a step back inside.

“Could you play that message back for me?”

“What message?”

“The last one. The one that just came in. I think it was Sean.”

Angie looked over at the battered Code-A-Phone and shrugged. “Knock yourself out. I gotta pee.” She set her glass on a thrift store coffee table and weaved through the living room and down a dimly lit hallway.

Tony figured out the buttons on the ancient machine and punched up the message.

“Hey Ang, some cop is gonna come see you tomorrow asking if I was there Monday morning. You were kinda out of it. Just tell him I was there Monday morning. See you later, babe.”

On his way down the hallway he caught a brief glimpse of the gray haired woman as she closed her door and made a note of the apartment number…just in case.

Chapter 16

There was an empty chair in the hallway next to Sue Ellen’s door. Tony guessed it was for Marco or another agent from the BCA. It was empty and that made him nervous until he heard a booming laugh. It was Marco. His laugh was as big as he was. Tony knocked. The laughter skidded to a halt.

Marc Giordanno opened the door, smiling. “Hey, ain’t you one of them Latin Kings?” The joke fell flat as Tony realized another person was in on the secret.

“Marco, long time.” Tony offered his hand. Giordano had to shift the Beretta to his left hand before he could shake.

“Detective now? Congratulations, de Luca.” Marco pulled him into the condo and took a long look up and down the hallway before closing the door. “I thought you should have taken the exam a couple of years ago.”

Tony stood awkwardly by the door. It occurred to him that with Marco as a guard dog, spending time with Sue Ellen would be awkward. He worried too that she might want to keep their relationship, or whatever it was, quiet. She answered his question by slipping easily into his arms and kissing him on the cheek.

“We were just having some coffee. Long day?” If Giordano was embarrassed or felt awkward it didn’t show. Sue Ellen headed for the kitchen. Tony gave Marco a look, like he was asking permission to follow her, asking if this was cool. Marco answered with a shrug.

“Please have a beer in the fridge-please,” Tony said loudly as he crossed the room with the guard dog in tow. Sue Ellen already had a Summit open and tipped into a tall pilsner glass.

“I knew that look. It wasn’t a coffee look.” Marco took one of the stools by the granite counter and sipped his coffee. He gave the foamy beer a wistful glance.

“What a day,” Tony said after polishing off a third of the glass.

“Tell me.” Tony was sorry he’d whined immediately. He was used to the street, to gang bangers and druggies and threats of violence. He carried a gun. He recognized this wasn’t Sue Ellen’s world, not outside of the courtroom anyway.

“No, you tell me. What’s the word, Marco?” He settled onto another stool. Sue Ellen leaned against him.

“Word is to take it seriously. The LK’s aren’t too bright but they’re mean bastards.”

“Are they desperate enough to try something though?” Tony sipped his beer again and for a second thought he should switch to coffee, that he was torturing Marco. Then he thought, ah… what the hell. My shift’s over, pal, deal with it.

“One theory is it’s a bluff. Just shaking everyone up.”

Tony had been inside the organization. The Latin Kings didn’t do much bluffing.

“I’m not shaken.” Sue Ellen lifted her chin. She looked defiant. She looked mad.

“Another is that they’re trying to engineer a change of venue. Maybe their lawyer thinks it’s a good idea to move the trial to the sticks. Thing is, would that be to their advantage?”

Sue Ellen looked over at her star witness. “I don’t see how. Unless they think they can intimidate the jury easier.”

“Or buy a smaller town’s judge?” Marco added.

“Highly unlikely.”

Tony weighed in. “What about the Feds? Maybe you should kick the case to them. Get out from under it.”

Sue Ellen glared at him. “Not a chance. No way. We fought like hell to keep this investigation at home. The Feds wanted it from day one, so did the frickin’ BCA.” Sue Ellen’s temper was showing, something Tony had never seen. “St. Paul needs this one. We need to show we can police our own town without a lot of bullshit interference. That means from start to finish. This is my case.” Sue Ellen’s face was reddening, her fists were clenched and her face was all tight lines and anger.

Tony and Marco looked at each other. Marco risked a smile. He was secure in his job at the BCA and wasn’t connected to the case other than as protection for the prosecuting ADA. He didn’t care where the trial was held, didn’t care who prosecuted it or who got the glory. The smile was because of the rumor that Sue Ellen McConnel was said to be angling for a job at the state level, the Attorney General’s office, maybe the big job itself. Word was she had ambitions.

Tony didn’t know any of this. He just wanted to work the Fredrickson murder with Ray. He knew he’d need to be in court for a day or two when the trial started but that wasn’t a big deal. He hoped they’d have the case solved by then and be on to something new. He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw in Sue Ellen’s eyes. He didn’t understand the politics. He understood ambition though. He’d reached for the gold shield and gotten it. He’d been patient, paid his dues, done his turn on the street and then some. Tony guessed it was different in the DA’s office.

Sue Ellen shrugged. “It’s probably out of my hands, regardless of what I think or want.” Or, Tony thought, the risks you’re willing to take.

Marco slid off the stool, still smiling. “My personal opinion is that, what’s the guy’s name, Garcia? The head dude of the LK’s. I think he’s just mucho pissed. You cost him a lot of money and what, three or four of his main guys? I think he’s just swaggering.”

“I hope you’re right,” Sue Ellen said.

“And with that, if I could use your bathroom first then I’ll go back to the hallway so you two can have your privacy.” Tony hadn’t planned on spending the night. He wasn’t sure yet how the relationship with Sue Ellen was going to go. He was sure it wasn’t a one-nighter, and like Sue Ellen and her case, it was probably out of his hands no matter what he wanted or thought.

When Marco disappeared down the hallway Sue Ellen slipped into his arms. “Awkward, huh?”

Tony nodded. “You could say that. Marco’s reputation is that he’s a really good guy. He’s probably discreet.”

Sue Ellen ran her hand across Tony’s chest. “If you were here he could go home for the night. I’d be well guarded.”

“I don’t think it works like that.”

“Coward,” she teased, pushing back from him. “I’ll tell him if you’re afraid to.” It occurred to Tony at that moment that Sue Ellen had no reservations about who knew they were involved or what they would think. She was moving the relationship forward, making it clear that she wanted him around and it felt pretty good. She kissed him; softly at first then more urgently. Tony heard Marco walking through the living room, heard the front door open and close. He didn’t need his eyes open for that. Sue Ellen was a terrific kisser. Then the front door crashed open.

“Tony. Sue Ellen.” Giordano’s tone of voice wasn’t playful or teasing, it was harsh and commanding. Something was wrong. Tony led the way through the room.

Marco had his pistol out and pointed to the hallway chair with his free hand. A bright brass bullet, a 9mm it looked like, was sitting on the middle of the seat. Sue Ellen’s eyes widened in surprise and a little bit of fear. Tony frowned, angry. Marco was already on his phone, calling for backup, getting more bodies on scene. Garcia was swaggering all right, and it was working.

Marco put a hand over the phone and turned to Sue Ellen.

“Pack a bag.”

Ray was alone in the squad room. He’d shut off some of the lights and had his feet up on his desk. The cafeteria mug had a scant half-inch of amber liquid in it, a tot of Dewars from the bottle he kept hidden in the bottom drawer. He didn’t want to go home. Ray wanted to think. He wanted to roll what they had about the case around in his brain in the silence of the deserted squad room, with just a taste of liquor to tease him into thinking he was relaxing.

He’d heard about the threats from the Latin Kings. It bothered him on two levels. Ray was worried about his niece, of course. It didn’t matter if it was the Latin Kings or the Surrentos or los Vatos Locos, any of these gangs were capable of violence and havoc. It was a matter of time until one, or even all of them acted out-acted on their malevolent impulses and openly challenged the authority they disregarded.

Someone had told him, someone from the Gang Strike Force, not long ago, that gang members outnumbered police officers something like three to one. Ray hoped they all stayed dumb and kept shooting at each other. A war in the streets was unthinkable. He preferred his murders one at a time.

Ray also worried that the threats would affect de Luca, distract him. He liked the young man and thought he showed some promise. De Luca had instincts, thought processes that neither Ray nor anyone else could ever teach, critical to untangling lies and obscurities and mis-directions, critical to solving cases. And, he thought, it’s his first murder. It would be important to clear this one. Ray’s first murder was still open, unsolved, and it haunted him.

It wasn’t a daily anguish, sometimes not even weekly. But every so often he remembered the little girl who was violated and murdered and left like so much trash in a dumpster so long ago. They didn’t have the DNA tools back then but it didn’t matter. He’d put what they had into the system and didn’t get any hits. The last time was three years before, he remembered, and thought maybe he’d try again.

The phone caught his eye. He had a call to make and his ruminations and the whiskey had been convenient excuses for not making it. Not that he was afraid of making the call-well, maybe a little-but not for any reasons relating to the case. At least he hoped not.

She answered on the third ring. “This is Lakisha.”

“Ray Bankston. I hope I’m not calling too late.”

“Rayford, I was thinking about you earlier this evening.”

I was thinking about you too, he thought, but didn’t say.

“No, it’s not too late at all. I was just reading.”

“Anything interesting?” Ray read police reports and interview transcriptions, coroner’s reports and department bulletins. He tried to remember the last book he’d read.

“Have you ever read anything by Walter Mosley?”

“I’ve heard the name, but no. I don’t have much time to read novels.”

“True crime being so much more interesting than detective stories?”

Ray chuckled softly. “Not really. I’d give anything to be able to get to page two hundred and know who the killer is, though. Know that when I picked the book up that all of the mystery was there, in the one book.”

“I think I know what you mean.”

“The reason I called…”

“The true crime, of course. Deanna’s murder.”

“I neglected to ask you a question or two.” Ray wondered if she knew he’d done it intentionally so he would have an excuse to call her, maybe see her again.

“Yes?”

“Where were you Monday morning, early?”

“I was here at home. Sleeping.”

“How to say this…ah…can anyone corroborate that?” He heard her laugh, not directly into the phone but as if she was holding it at her side. Ray had never thought of the word corroborate as funny.

“Well, Mr. Marland is away; out of the country, actually. The pool boy is off for the season, and while I have my eye on a certain man we haven’t been able to spend much time together.” Ray wondered if she was flirting, if she was talking about him.

“Any phone calls? Deliveries? Can you think of anything to support that?” There was a pause in the conversation. She was thinking.

“I’m afraid I was sort of a lay about on Monday. In fact, I don’t think I went out at all. I’m sure of it.” Ray Bankston’s life was in constant motion. He had a hard time imagining staying home all day, not talking to anyone, not even the time he’d been laid low by the flu. Still, Lakisha Marland wasn’t much of a suspect. None of the ‘Go Girls’ were at this point.

“I spent the day writing. I’m a writer you know.” No, he didn’t know that. “I’m afraid I’m a bit of a recluse when I’m working on a book.”

“What do you write? I don’t spend much time in bookstores.”

“Erotica. I write about sex, Rayford.” Ray’s mind blanked for a beat. It wasn’t until he heard her laughing again that it rebooted. Erotica?

“I’m sorry,” she said, getting her voice under control. “I shouldn’t have done that. I was teasing.”

“Well, someone has to write it I suppose.”

“Good comeback. I’m sorry. Actually, I write mysteries and you wouldn’t have seen my name in the bookstores because I publish under a psuedonym.”

“Apology accepted. I’ll tell you, you got me with that one though.”

“Good. I meant to.”

Ray made himself stay on task. “I just had a thought. Do you write on a computer?”

“Of course.”

“I think the problem’s solved.” Ray caught himself smiling. “Your entries will have a time stamp on them. Were you working early?”

“Monday? I think I sat down about seven. I’d been puzzling over a scene and had some thoughts during the night. That happens often.”

“I’ll need to see the computer, have you open some files for me.”

“Tonight?”

“It’s after ten, Lakisha. A little late?”

He heard disappointment in her voice. “Hmm…I suppose.”

“I’ll be by in a day or two. The data isn’t going anywhere.”

“Okay.”

“Another question. Does Scott Fredrickson manage any of your husband’s money?”

“No. What an intriguing thought, though.” She paused, playing with the scene in her mind. “The husband is doing something with the funds, what…money laundering or something? An investment goes terribly bad, thousands disappear. And the wife is killed as a warning or revenge. Complicated.”

“Thinking of a plot twist for your latest book?” Ray was enjoying the conversation but in the back of his mind he was worried. A mystery writer’s imagination could skew his own thinking if he listened too hard, or shared too much. He’d have to be careful with what he said around her.

“Always. I have to tell you, Rayford, I’ve been thinking very hard about Deanna’s murder, trying to envision what could be behind it. I’ve been imagining scenarios involving our friends and have tried to think what could possibly have happened. Have you met all the others yet?”

“All but Karen Hewes.”

“After you meet Karen call me. Come see my computer and we’ll talk. You need to meet them all first.” This was a change from her earlier attitude. Ray wondered if she would share more information about the ‘Go Girls’. Tony had thought she might.

“Can time stamps on a computer be altered?” she asked.

“Don’t mess with the computer, Lakisha.”

“I won’t, not until after you’ve checked it out. A woman needs a strong alibi from time to time.”

“You’re thinking about a plot twist now, aren’t you?”

“You got me.” She laughed softly and said good night. Not goodbye…good night.

“Don’t mess with the computer.”

Chapter 17

De Luca wondered if being exhausted at the start of every day was a detective’s lot in life. Tuesday started at a hung-over four in the morning with the discovery of Deanna Fredrickson’s body. After putting twelve hours in on the case, Wednesday had fallen apart with the late visit to Sue Ellen’s. The escalating threat implied by the bullet outside her door galvanizing her protectors. She was hustled off to a hotel with three guards in tow. Finally home, Tony had tried to sleep but there were too many things banging around in his head. What little shut-eye he got was shallow and filled with questions and worry and the ghost of Deanna Fredrickson.

Tony wasn’t happy with Ray Bankston. Ray had decided to wait until afternoon to get the team together to compare notes. He could have not slept for at least another hour. A seven o’clock meeting required a six o’clock alarm. Between yawns Tony was working on his interview transcriptions when Carol Offord came into the squad room. She was wearing a navy blue business suit and looked rested and scrubbed and fresh. She said ‘hi’ much too cheerfully in his opinion.

“You should try one of those energy drinks,” she offered. Tony had tried them and every time had caromed off walls, ceilings and other people. He’d stick with coffee, even though the squad room brew was worse than Mae’s percolated poison.

“You should…” Tony caught himself. He strangled the suggestion in his throat. No sense making an enemy before 7:30. “Never mind.” He went back to his reports.

Carol stood at his desk looking down at him. “Did you clear the kid, the roommate? Ray and I worked more of the friends yesterday.”

“I finally talked to him. I’m not clearing him though. Not yet.”

She frowned. “No alibi?”

“It’s weak. I’m not sure. I’ll talk it over with Ray.”

“Try it out on me. I’ve got some time.” Tony didn’t want to. She came across way too perky and helpful. It made him suspicious. Then again, he reasoned, maybe it’s just fatigue and foul mood and worries about Sue Ellen. Ah, what the hell.

“He says he spent the night at a girlfriend’s. She confirms him being there Sunday night but doesn’t have a strong sense of Monday morning arriving on time.”

“Flaky?”

“More like nasty. Pot smoke in the air, a quart of Kharkov vodka, neat, and she forgot her undies.”

Carol flashed a thin humorless smile. “How exciting for you.”

“Uh…no. But I don’t think she was lying about Sunday night.”

“But not Monday?” Tony shook his head.

“It’s Monday morning that matters.”

Tony glanced at his notes. “He had a class at 9:00. Said he was there. It’s on my list for today. If he was in class at 9:00 he’d have had to hustle either from the woman’s apartment or from the Fredrickson house to make it outside the TOD. He doesn’t have a car, according to the roommates. It could clear him in my mind.”

“I’d buy that.”

Tony decided that Carol wasn’t picking on him. It wasn’t her fault she’d gotten some rest. Ray came from the lieutenant’s office and greeted his way down the row of desks. He looked good too, in his tan suit and white shirt and tie. Tony’s sport coat showed hangar marks on the shoulders and his jeans had one day on them for sure. Tony caught Ray’s critical look and held up is hands in surrender.

“I’ll fit right in at the U, boss. I’m still working on Stuckey.”

“I wanted you with me on the Hewes’ woman this morning. Didn’t I tell you that last night?”

“Nope.”

“You look like hell, son.”

Carol went through a fast slide show of expressions during the exchange. When Ray said he wanted Tony with him she wilted. She wanted to go on the interview. Then when Ray told Tony he looked like hell, she blossomed, perked back up and turned her sunny face toward the boss.

“You got a sweater or something somewhere?” Ray asked.

“At home?”

Tony, resigned to being a victim of his wardrobe, guessed now that he’d just have to do the reports and go to the U and check out Stuckey’s class. No working with Ray, but maybe get a chance to hit a department store later. Penney’s has some nice stuff, he thought. Surely it wouldn’t be another twelve hour day.

“Well, come on.” Ray was shaking his head. “Carol, what I’d like you to do is pull everything we’ve got together for later. You write the best synopses of anyone in the department. I really ought to get you to work up something for training.” Ray’s praise fell on disappointed ears.

“Ted and Vang might get pulled. There was a suspicious death in St. Anthony Park this morning.”

“That could leave us short-handed,” Carol warned.

Ray, already walking toward the door called out over his shoulder, “We’ve still got ’em for now and, truth be told, we haven’t got a lot of doors to knock on right now. Let’s see how the day plays out.”

As they headed out Tony turned at the door, caught Carol’s eye, and winked at her. She gave him the finger. Revenge lurked in the tight smile on her face.

the Hewes’ didn’t live far from the Fedrickson’s house, but it was enough for a walk to be impractical; maybe twenty blocks. The neighborhood was similar with older homes, many of them brick or stucco and well cared for. the Hewes’ home had no driveway, none of the houses on the street did. The garages were in back, fronting an alley. It was a two story structure with a steeply pitched roof and dormer windows. It was easily the nicest house on the block.

Karen Hewes answered the door. She dressed in black denim jeans and a cream colored turtleneck sweater. She reminded Tony of Deanna Fredrickson and Roxie Kennebrew right away. He knew they were all near the same age, mid 40’s, but like the other ‘Go Girls’ it was easy to misplace a decade looking at her. She had short ash blond hair styled to frame her face. Her skin was smooth and well made up, a hint of blush on her cheeks, and her eyes weren’t red rimmed and tortured like the other women’s had been. But then, she’d had a couple of days to pull herself together.

And like the other ‘Go Girls’ she was trim and fit. She didn’t have an hourglass figure, Tony noted, but she didn’t miss it by much. Her jeans were snug over ample hips. Tony thought she looked kind of busty even with the bulky sweater on. He guessed she went 5’8” or so and saw she was in her socks.

While Ray was making introductions Tony took a moment to observe her. He didn’t see the confidence in her that he’d sensed in the other women. It wasn’t furtiveness exactly, but she seemed hesitant, almost subservient. He saw her look back over her shoulder twice, like she was nervous, like there was someone watching her.

There was.

Gary Hewes, a rangy six-and-a-half footer with salt and pepper hair and a breezy confident attitude inserted himself in the conversation in the doorway, all handshakes and howdy-do. He was dressed in trousers and a crisp white ironed shirt and tie-a suit, save for the jacket. He herded everyone through an immaculate living room to a kitchen that had seen extensive renovation. Gary noticed Tony’s admiring look.

“Did most of it myself. I’m a contractor.” Gary grinned. “Cherry cabs and Corian tops, did all that myself. It’s got the Viking range, the big one, and the biggest goddamn refrigerator I could find.” Tony was impressed. It was good work. To his right an archway revealed a slice of an elegantly appointed formal dining room.

“That was the old kitchen space. I moved a wall or two. The whole first floor has been re-done.”

Karen poured coffee for everyone and they settled around an antique oak table in the breakfast area.

Ray regained charge of the conversation and said, “I just have a few questions for right now.”

“Oh, we know all about it. We’ve talked to the others, to Scott and Ken.” Ray had been talking to Karen. Gary answered for her.

“The questions I have are for Mrs. Hewes,” Ray said evenly, his half-smile on now.

“You go right on ahead and ask away,” Gary said. Green as he was Tony could see it coming. Ray turned back toward the woman.

“We need to know where you were Sunday night and Monday morning.”

“She was here at home. We had supper about seven and watched some TV,” Gary said.

Ray looked toward Gary, still smiling. “Mr. Hewes, I need to talk to your wife. I’ll have some questions for you later.” Gary nodded as if he understood what Ray was saying.

“Now, Mrs. Hewes…”

“Oh, you can call her Karen. That’s her name.” Gary hadn’t gotten it. Ray’s smile faded.

“Mr. Hewes, I’m going to ask you to leave the room. I need to talk to your wife right now. We’ll talk to you later.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t have to leave the room. This is my house.”

Ray sighed and looked over at Tony. “Then I guess we’ll have to do this interview at my house, Mr. Hewes. That would be at headquarters, over on Seventh Street.”

“What are you saying?” The good humor and politeness gone from Hewes’ voice made Tony tense slightly. Gary Hewes was big and solid. Tony didn’t doubt he could handle him but it wouldn’t be fun.

“I’m saying that if you give us some privacy here and let me interview your wife we can save a trip downtown. This is much more pleasant and the coffee is really outstanding, isn’t it Tony?” De Luca nodded, keeping his eyes on Gary, who was smoldering now. “Go upstairs or outside or wherever you want. I have some questions for your wife. I can ask them here or at headquarters.”

Gary wouldn’t let go. “What if she wants a lawyer?”

“That’s her right. It’s your right, too, when it’s your turn. It’s not your turn now, Mr. Hewes.”

“She wants a lawyer.”

“Fine.” Ray turned to Tony. “Detective de Luca, will you please go to the car and call for a black and white…”

“Stop it!” Karen was glaring at her husband but talking to Ray. “I don’t want a lawyer. I don’t want to go to the police station.”

“But honey…”

“Gary, it’s okay. Go downstairs. Let us talk.”

“But…”

Tony caught the pleading tone in Karen’s voice when she told her husband to leave, to let her do what she had to without his imprint. He suspected that this was not the norm in the Hewes’ household.

“Please?”

Tony knew the hateful look Gary Hewes gave them when he left the room was his way of saving face; of hiding his misplaced embarrassment over having his wife tell him what to do. He felt sorry for him. Not because he was being banished to the basement like a misbehaving child, but because he sensed the man didn’t realize that he was wrong and probably wouldn’t learn better anytime soon, if ever.

“I’m sorry about that,” Karen said. Her cheeks were bright red.

“We’ll be as brief as possible. Are you sure you don’t want a lawyer, Mrs. Hewes?”

“Please, call me Karen. No. What on earth would I need a lawyer for?” The tension was slowly draining from the room. Karen refilled their cups and leaned forward, elbows on the table.

“Monday morning?”

“Monday. Gary was up and out early. He had a 6:30 meeting so I know I was up at 5:30 to get his breakfast for him and get him out the door.”

“What did you do then, Karen?” To Tony it was like watching a levee break. First a small rivulet breaches it, just a trickle. Then as more of the dam washes away the trickle becomes a stream and the stream becomes a river and finally the river becomes a torrent.

“I called Dee.” She held her head up, trying to be strong. Her eyes filled with tears. “I knew she had something at the hospital that morning but it was so early I thought we could have coffee or get something.” The first small sobs began. “She didn’t answer.” Her quivering shoulders joined the sobs. She hugged herself to stop them.

Ray had a solemn look on his face. He gave her time to collect herself by flipping through his notebook. Tony noticed he was looking in the front of it.

“You didn’t leave a message.” Ray found what he was looking for. There were only two messages on the machine, one from the son and one from the husband.

“No. I guessed she was in the shower.”

“I see.”

“I was already dressed so I decided to just go over there.” Ray and Tony shared a concerned look.

“What time was this?”

“7:30? Maybe closer to 8:00.”

“Did you talk to her? Was she there?” Tony was glad Ray was doing the talking. He could keep the excitement out of his voice, temper the anxiety. Tony wasn’t sure he’d be able to. The woman had been there during the window of time they’d determined that Deanna had been murdered.

“No. She didn’t answer the door. I assumed I’d missed her.” She looked from Tony to Ray and back. Ray’s face was blank, impassionate. Tony’s expression must have been amazement or excitement. Karen’s expression changed from curiosity to fear, and finally to despair. “Oh my God,” she whispered.

“How did you know she was gone?”

“She was lying in there dead, wasn’t she?” Karen’ shoulders shook again.

Ray asked the question again. “How did you know she was gone?”

“I didn’t. I guessed. She was in there wasn’t she?” Karen’s voice was rising with each answer. Tony looked at the basement door with concern.

“Was her car gone?”

“I don’t…I don’t know. She kept it in the garage.”

“Did you look in there?”

“No. I just assumed she was gone already.”

“Where did you park?”

“What? Why?”

“Did you park in the driveway?”

“She was already dead, wasn’t she?”

“Please, Mrs. Hewes. Karen. Did you park in the driveway?”

“No. On the street.” Karen was leaving them, Tony noticed. She was focusing on something out of the window in the tiny backyard. Her voice and mannerisms changed. He wondered if she was going into shock.

“What did you do then?” Tears ran down her cheeks while Karen stared out the window. Tony guessed she didn’t even hear the question.

“What did you do then?”

“She was dead. Dee was dead.” Tony saw the moist stains on her sweater and on her jeans where tears flowed unchecked from the burst levee. She didn’t wipe them. She didn’t even know they were there.

“She was dead.”

Chapter 18

“Gary was kind of pissed you made his wife cry,” Tony joked from the passenger seat as they drove toward Minneapolis and the U campus. He’d had to do some arm twisting when Karen’s husband came up from the basement. Tony hoped Ray would find the humor in it.

“That interview could have gone better.”

As big as Gary Hewes was he hadn’t had a chance against de Luca’s training and years of experience on the streets. Tony had him down and ready for the cuffs in about three seconds.

Ray frowned at the windshield as they rolled down the interstate. “As interesting as it is that the woman says she was at the house the morning of the murder, we didn’t get very far with anything else, did we?”

“No,” Tony agreed. He thought he heard something else, some doubt in Ray’s tone. “Are you saying she wasn’t at the house?”

“I’m not saying that. Sure would be nice to have a witness, though.”

Tony couldn’t disagree, but he would have bet a large sum that the woman wasn’t acting. She’d been shaken. “We’re going to have to take another run at her aren’t we?”

“Oh yes,” Ray said.

“Mr. Hewes isn’t going to like that.”

Ray turned his head toward Tony, smiling now. “Let’s not let him know.”

“I like that idea. I’d really hate to have to put him on the ground again. Tell me something Ray. Do you really think Karen is a suspect? Or Lakisha Marland? Or Tia Bork?”

“Now we’re at a teaching moment, detective. Write this down: Everyone Deanna Fredrickson knew is a suspect. Everyone she knew or had contact with is a suspect until we clear them.”

“Okay.”

“And not just in this case. Every case is the same in this respect, Tony. Everyone is a suspect until they’re absolutely positively unimpeachably cleared.”

“I understand. I mean, it’s obvious, right?”

Ray chuckled. “So obvious that it’s easy to forget.”

They exited the freeway and entered the labyrinth that was the University of Minnesota campus. East Bank. West Bank. Dinkytown. Frat Row. No Left Turn. One way. Construction Zone. Of the thousands of students and teachers presently on campus they were looking for a Professor Galbraith who taught History of the Cinema on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

It took a while.

Professor Galbraith had no idea who Sean Stuckey was. He rarely attended the ‘History’ screenings, leaving the task to his TAs, graduate students who were working part time while they pursued their advanced degrees and were, Tony thought, as arrogant and unhelpful as the professor. Tony and Ray tracked them down one by one, by phone and in person.

They finally cornered their last prey hiding in a dark room full of editing equipment. His name was Gordon. He was editing a documentary of some kind. Flickering video images of people in lab coats talking earnestly were pointing at pictures of Earth on the TV monitor. A tinny dialogue ran underneath. It promised the end of the world as we know it every thirty seconds or so.

Gordon had been working the ‘History’ lecture Monday.

They’d screened Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that morning. No one took attendance for the class, he explained. You either mastered the material or not. There were over two hundred students registered for the class. He estimated that they almost never had more than a hundred and fifty in the lecture hall.

It surprised them both when they learned that Gordon knew who Stuckey was. He knew he was a transfer student from UCLA and shared Stuckey’s opinion that the U had screwed him out of a bunch of credits. Stuckey had taken a similar, harder class out west but the credits didn’t transfer for some reason. They’d had coffee once or twice after class. Gordon didn’t remember seeing him Monday but hadn’t been looking for him. He could have been there, he told them.

Sean Stuckey doesn’t have much of an alibi, Tony thought.

Tony spent the drive time back to the station buried his notes, trying to get everything straight for the session later in the afternoon, the case review. When the car stopped he looked up, surprised. They were parked in front of a clothing store.

He followed Ray inside, watched him shake hands with the men and women there. They knew him. This was where Ray bought the nice suits and jackets he was famous for. The haberdashery had a smell. It smelled like wool and linen. It smelled of mild tasteful men’s scents. It smelled of talcum and shoe leather and the toasty smell of a hot iron on cotton.

Ray chatted while a small bald man groped Tony, quietly relaying numbers to another small bald man. They measured his arms and neck, his chest and his waist twice. He gave Ray a questioning look across the store. Ray had his half-smile working and turned to the small bald men. He pointed toward a rack of suits.

Tony was ushered into a large dressing room and stripped to his boxers. The room was very warm. He was surrounded by mirrors. He tried on a blue suit, a dark navy single breasted jacket and gently pleated trousers. He slipped into a grey chalk stripe double breasted. The fabric felt like a whisper on his legs. The small bald men made marks on the cuffs and scurried to another room further back.

Ray shook his head at a brown suit and it vanished. Shirts appeared. Ties were paraded one after another. Tony would nod yes. Ray would shake his head no. A dark charcoal gray-almost-black sports jacket appeared. It fit like Sue Ellen, naked in his arms. Got to have that one, Tony thought. The small bald men looked nervous when he tried it on over the shoulder holster rig. The jacket hung just fine.

Black slacks and a jacket reflected from the mirrors. Tony felt pampered. He felt sleek. He’d never had clothes like this, had never been fit. He imagined walking up to Sue Ellen’s door, decked out like this, ready to take her to the Dakota to hear Rafe Bankston sing with Joel Shapiras’s quartet.

Trousers were brought out from the back. A plump woman with pins tucked like toothpicks in the corner of her mouth watched him slip on one pair after the other and made him turn around. Twice she grabbed at the fabric at his rump and clucked.

Plastic wrapped hangars appeared. Shirt boxes were stacked on the counter. Ties were gently folded in tissue paper and bagged. Tony surrendered his Visa Card. Fifteen hundred and eighty bucks later he and Ray were back in the car and headed for St. Paul. Tony was wearing the charcoal gray sport coat. The blue jacket with the hangar pleats was in the trash bin back at the store.

He thanked Ray several times.

Ray told him he was welcome.

Carol noticed the sport coat right away. De Luca looked good striding into the squad room behind Ray. She went over to him and rubbed the fabric. Tony thought he heard her purr. Vang and Ted showed up minutes later. The team was assembled.

Just as Ray was getting their attention and Carol was passing out her notes Jonny Kumpula banged into the room. He had stack of thick folders under one arm and was carrying a half-full jug of electric blue Gatorade.

“Hey everybody!” Kumpula grinned. Ray knew that grin meant he had something interesting.

“I would like to thank those of you who turned in your fingerprint cards promptly. They helped a lot.” Kumpula rifled through the folders, found the one he wanted, and looked up. “What? You guys just go ahead. I’ll raise my hand.”

“Why don’t you go first, Kump.” Whatever science Kumpula had in his files and notes would help later. Ray was afraid they didn’t have much to discuss otherwise.

“Okay. Lots of prints. No fibers we could find. No juices. It’s all detailed in the file.” He patted it, smiling. “I got some other stuff, though. You want the highlight reel?”

“Please.”

“Okay. The mister’s in the system. Scott Fredrickson spent a year and a day in the Ramsey County workhouse in…let me see…1977.” Tony sat straighter in his chair. “I called up the case. He pled guilty to assault third, knocked down from attempted murder.” They all knew that assault in the third degree meant it involved a weapon of some sort. “He beat the crap out of his wife. There were pictures.”

“Deanna?” The question slipped out of Tony’s mouth, but everyone else had it ready.

“Apparently the first wife…a Marjorie.” Ray’s eyes were locked on Kumpula.

“The weapon?”

“A lamp. He hit her with a lamp after he hit her several times with his fists.” Tony wanted to start writing down notes right then, record first impressions of the information, get some immediate questions on paper so he wouldn’t lose them. No one else was writing anything down, he noticed, so he set his pen back on the desk.

“Anything since then?”

Kumpula flipped a page. “Nope, not even a traffic citation.”

“Okay. What else?”

“You’re gonna love this one. Okay, de Luca doesn’t get me a comp card for the roommate, Stuckey. Not right away. So I’d put all the mystery prints out there, right? I got a hit on Stuckey this morning. If I’d had the comp card I might not have put it out on AFIS, least not right away.”

“Let me guess, LA?”

The LA trip was well documented. Sean Stuckey had transferred from UCLA, the University of California/Los Angeles. Tony hadn’t had a chance to share that with anyone but Ray as yet, and that only in passing. He thought this was damn interesting.

“Yup. LA. But it’s a weird deal. Very weird.”

“Define weird.” Ray said. He knew that ‘Kumpula’ weird could be another person’s truly bizarre.

“What I could pull up-he was arrested, okay, and booked. Then the case was dropped. Well, not dropped, exactly. It’s murky. I’m confused.”

“What was the charge?”

“See, that’s part of it. The charge was sexual misconduct. We don’t have anything like that here.”

Now it was Carol’s turn to sit up straighter. Her previous assignment had been in the Sex Crimes Unit. Minnesota didn’t have a ‘sexual misconduct’ charge. She wasn’t sure what that meant in California.

“So we don’t know if he was tricking, or pimping, or if he was picked up for lewd behavior, or diddling little girls, or what.” Kumpula took a swig of his blue drink. “I’ve only had it for a couple of hours, sorry.”

“No, this is good, Jonny.” Ray turned to Carol. “You got anyone you know out there that could help us?”

“I’ll have to check my files. I’ll find someone.”

“It could be important.”

Kumpula sorted through his pile and pulled another, thinner folder out. “We found a thumbprint and two fingers from Stuckey on the doorjamb of the master bedroom upstairs. At some point in time he was upstairs in the house.”

Tony remembered the graphite smudge on the doorframe from his last visit to the house, remembered wondering whose it could be. The vibe in the room turned even more serious. Quieter. Everyone was processing this information. All of them; Ray, Carol, and the others were trying to figure out what Stuckey might have been doing upstairs in the Fredrickson house. Ray finally broke the silence.

“I know you would have brought it up immediately but I have to ask. Did you get anything off of the knife?”

“The handle was smudged. Now that’s interesting because it means it was wiped with a synthetic, most likely a nylon or rayon cloth. It could have been silk or a real lightweight wool blend, too. That would tend to leave a smear. Cotton or terrycloth, like a dish towel, would have wiped it clean.”

“That is interesting.”

“And then there’s the mug.” Tony remembered the mug in the sink with dried coffee stains. “It had been wiped too, on the outside. It was wiped completely clean, though. We’re thinking with the hand towel that was on the counter.”

“What about DNA from the coffee residue?”

Kumpula cocked his head at the rookie detective, impressed that he’d noticed the mug in the sink and remembered the details. Ray looked at him too. He’d missed that, or maybe it was in his notes or on the recording and he hadn’t placed any importance to it.

“Sorry, no.”

“It was probably the vic’s, anyway.” Ted Lipka wasn’t as close to the case as Ray and Tony. To him Deanna was just another victim. Tony wondered if by thinking of her always as Deanna that he was getting too close, too involved with her as a person. He’d have to ask Ray about that.

Ray, dug through a pile of papers on his desk, apparently found the one he was looking for, and his face darkened as he read. Worry lines sprouted across his forehead.

“What’s wrong?” Tony leaned over to see what had Ray so puzzled. It was the coroner’s report.

“Kump, try again on the DNA, okay?” Kumpula started to protest. If it wasn’t there it wasn’t there. “Deanna Fredrickson didn’t have any coffee in her stomach.” That stopped the whining. “Just try, okay buddy?”

“I’ll have to go off the reservation.” Kumpula meant he’d have to try to get the FBI involved. They had better toys.

“Wherever you need to.”

Kumpula nodded while he made a note on the folder, then he looked up. He wasn’t done.

“And there’s the Fontaine woman.”

Fontaine? None of the ‘Go Girls’ was named Fontaine. Tony was puzzled until Kumpula added, “Lakisha Fontaine.”

Tony watched Ray closely. He’d seen the two of them flirting. At least he thought it was flirting. Ray’s attitude didn’t change. He was engaged and curious.

“Lakisha Fontaine did three and a half years in Shakopee for manslaughter. ‘80 to mid ‘84.” Kumpula looked only at his notes while he told the story. “There was a bar fight. Minneapolis. Fontaine killed a woman named Tonya Reller. Reller was stabbed once in the chest. Fontaine claimed it wasn’t her knife. There was some gang connection that isn’t clear from what I’ve got so far. They took it through trial. Fontaine had a PD. They argued it was self- defense and lost. Since then…nothing.”

Ray remained stoic. If the revelation about Lakisha Marland affected him Tony couldn’t see it. Ray made a few notes before he looked up.

“What else have you got, Kump?”

“Boom Boom Bork used to get in a lot of fights. Big surprise. Hey, you think I could get anything on eBay for that comp card?”

Chapter 19

The case review ended up being a lot shorter than Tony imagined it would be. The senior evidence tech had put a lot of intriguing science and research in front of them. Kumpula headed back to the lab and the five detectives gathered round Ray’s desk.

“Okay folks, let’s get organized.” Ray flipped through his notebook. “Ted, Vang, I want you back in the neighborhood. Karen Hewes says she stopped by the house Monday morning. She thinks it was between 7:30 and 8:00. See if anyone can confirm that. She drives an Audi, a black A-4.”

“The next door neighbor, Mae, heard a car door,” Tony said, remembering his visit with her. “Maybe she can pin the time.”

“Maybe you should do it, check with her,” Vang suggested.

“I want Tony to have another chat with Mr. Stuckey. Tonight? No, tomorrow’s Friday. Tony, see if you can manage to run into him at that film class. I’ll go over how I want you to approach him later.”

Tony was pleased. Ray trusted him to approach Stuckey, who was now, at least in Tony’s opinion, a bona fide suspect. There was no denying that the coincidence of the ‘Go Girls’ trip to LA and Stuckey’s appearance in the Twin Cities could be important. And he’d been picked up for something called sexual misconduct. What was that about? Tony tuned back in when Ray gave Carol her assignment.

“Carol. I need you to find out all you can about Stuckey’s arrest. Kumpula’s not usually vague. What was it he said? It’s murky? He was arrested and taken far enough through their system that his prints are still there.”

“Maybe they screwed up. Maybe the case was dropped, the charges dropped…”

Ray interrupted her. “Let’s find out before we speculate too much. See if you can get the facts.”

“You’re right. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. It’s a hell of a coincidence.”

Carol flipped her notebook shut and stood. “California’s two hours behind us. I’ll get started now if there’s nothing else.”

“You go ahead. And let me know as soon as you find out what’s going on out there. It’s going to make a difference in how we approach Stuckey.”

Vang and Lipka headed out too. Late afternoon was a good time to catch people coming home from work. Some detectives would have thought it was busy work. Tony was relieved he hadn’t drawn the assignment, but both of the older detectives knew that if you kept approaching the same people asking the same questions over and over, phrasing them differently, that it often led to something.

Scott Fredrickson was still at the hotel he’d retreated to after discovering his wife’s body. His son and daughter were in adjoining rooms. The son had been cleared. The daughter had too, courtesy of a park ranger that told them he had helped the grandmother find their campsite. Ray and Tony didn’t want to talk to them. They wanted to talk to Scott Sr.

Scott invited the detectives to join him on the balcony. He pulled out a cigarette. Ray noticed it was an English Oval, unfiltered and expensive. He had acquired a taste for them on a trip to Europe some years back.

There was a white noise on the second floor balcony, the sound of cars and trucks, both near and far away. It sounded like an urgent mechanical wind. Anemic October sun was hazed by thin high clouds. It had no color or warmth. Most of the trees had lost their leaves. Scott Fredrickson was pale and colorless too, still sad.

“I know why you’re here.” He got right to it. Ray had only asked a question with his eyes. “I wasn’t thinking very clearly. Still can’t, really.”

“You have some history, Mr. Fredrickson. Violence. Against a spouse.”

“History,” he said softly, taking a long drag on the cigarette. “I sure do. Want to hear it?” Ray just nodded.

“It was what? Thirty years ago. I was in school. I was married. We were broke. I drank a lot. Marjorie pissed me off about something. Money probably. I really don’t remember. We fought. It was thirty years ago.” He took another drag on the cigarette.

“Deanna and I never fought. I haven’t had a drink since I got out of the workhouse. That was the worst year of my life…until now.”

Tony listened closely, heard the words and felt the emotion of Scott Fredrickson’s words. He spoke in short, simple, factual sentences, pausing for a beat before each one.

“There’s liquor in the house,” Tony said, his tone matter-of-fact.

“Deanna would have a drink. We served drinks at parties, kept some beer for when the boys would come to watch a game. It didn’t bother me.” He looked up at Tony. There was a hint of something in his eyes. Defiance? Pride? “I haven’t had a drink in thirty years.”

Ray seemed to accept it. The man hadn’t even been in town Monday morning. Still, a history of violence carries a weight, a stigma. Tony worked through these thoughts and others.

“Felons aren’t allowed to have guns,” Ray said. Tony had forgotten about the.38 he’d found behind the nightstand. Ray hadn’t.

“Technically, it was Dee’s. We’ve had it for years, just for protection.”

“You have a good alarm system. It’s tied into the 911 operator.”

“Do you know how long it took for the first police to arrive when I called about Deanna? Six minutes, detective. Six minutes.”

“You’d be in real trouble if you ever used that gun.”

“If I’d ever had to use it, it would have been because of real trouble. I…we were willing to chance it.”

Fredrickson took out another cigarette and lit it after offering one to the detectives. Tony noticed that his hands were steady, his movements precise. He wasn’t nervous about the questioning. Sad maybe, having to relive another tragedy from three decades before, having to make excuses, to confess to a mistake he’d already paid for.

“Does this make me a suspect, Detective Bankston?”

“No.” Ray said after a moment. “But we have to check these things out.”

Tony thought about something Ray had said early in the investigation, the first morning when they were in the house with the dead woman. He said they were going to have to get into these people’s lives to solve this one. At the time Tony didn’t know how difficult and painful that was going to be.

The sun had disappeared by the time Ray and Tony pulled into the Marland’s driveway. It wouldn’t be light out for long. A coach lamp on a pole in the front yard had already come on. They hadn’t called ahead. Tony argued that Ray should take this one himself, see the woman alone. Ray told Tony that he was his chaperone. He’d laughed about it. In truth, Ray didn’t want to be alone with Lakisha, not until he knew more. He worried if he could be impartial. He had laughed because he didn’t want Tony to know how worried he was.

“Why Rayford, how nice.” Lakisha wore a beige colored, soft looking, fleece warm up suit and a broad smile when she opened the door. Then she saw Tony. “And uh, detective…”

“De Luca, ma’am. Tony de Luca.” The smile remained when she took his hand, but the eyes tightened and a furrow appeared on her forehead when she realized that Rayford wasn’t there for a social call.

She led them to a den, a wood paneled man’s room with leather club chairs and ashtrays and supple Persian carpets on the floor. It smelled of cigars and cognac and gun oil. A glass paneled cabinet full of expensive looking shotguns and rifles dominated one wall. A floor to ceiling bookshelf covered the one opposite. This was Mr. Marland’s room, not hers. Tony puzzled over the choice.

“A business call, then.” She sat upright on the front edge of a burgundy leather armchair. Ray sat directly across from her, close, their knees inches apart. Tony sat on a sofa to the side, looking at the two of them in profile. A fire had been laid. It was warm in the den. He guessed that was why she had chosen the room.

“But it’s always a pleasure to see you, Lakisha.”

“So, have you met all of my friends?” Ray nodded. “What do you think of our little group?”

“I think you’re all burdened with a great sadness, a tremendous sense of loss. It’s obvious you are all close.”

“Oh we are, Rayford. Did you come from a big family?”

“One brother.”

“Then it will be difficult for you to get the real sense of us. Imagine having six sisters. Six points of view. Six sets of likes and dislikes. Six strong personalities in competition.”

“In competition for what?”

“Does that matter? Trivial things: the flattest tummy, the biggest boobs, the most money, the fanciest clothes. Label envy. Husband envy. Who has a pool? Who drives a Lexus? Never on the surface though. There’s no scorecard. But six sisters are always going to be at odds over something.”

“Now I have to ask what Deanna Fredrickson was in competition for. Were any of you jealous of her for some reason?”

Lakisha gave a short snort of a laugh. “Here’s the thing, Rayford, she was the one that was above it all, or most of it. She was the peacemaker, the mediator, our voice of reason.”

“The least likely victim,” Ray offered. Lakisha turned inward at that comment. Ray hadn’t posed it as a question but she seemed to take it that way.

“I don’t think any of us are likely victims, certainly not murder. Our troubles are trivial. Petty stuff.”

“I’ve seen people killed for their shoes.” Tony spoke for the first time.

Lakisha replied, sounding defensive. “In the city? In Frogtown or on the West Side or in North Minneapolis? I’m sure that happens. It’s not like that with us.”

Tony shrugged. “I know what you’re trying to say. My point is that people will commit murder for trivial reasons. That’s all. You’re telling me that it couldn’t happen in your group because you’re all what? Better? Rich? Sophisticated? I’m not so sure.”

Lakisha turned to Ray. “Your partner has some suspicions.”

“My partner has lived on those streets for a long time. You brought up competition.”

“And I wish I hadn’t,” Lakisha said, frostier now…distant.

Ray wondered if Tony had hit a nerve and continued. “You’re the writer. The observer. You say that Deanna was the peacemaker. What if someone didn’t want to kiss and make up, so to speak? Resented the intrusion?”

There was a pause before Lakisha spoke again, as if she was working through something. “You still don’t have a motive, do you?” Ray kept his face blank. No, they didn’t have a motive and the mystery writer could sense it. “If you want to talk about resentment, I’ve got a suspect for you. Have you met Gary Hewes?” Lakisha watched the two detectives share a look. “Of course you have.”

“What about him?” Tony asked the question. He was the one who’d had to restrain him the day before. The man had a temper and he was obsessively protective of his wife.

“Deanna has tried for years to get the man to lighten up. He all but keeps Karen on a leash. Maybe she had a confrontation with him we don’t know about and he flipped out.”

“Could that have happened?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like Gary. I could be way off base, but you brought up resentment as a motive and the man carries a grudge.” Without more to work with Ray didn’t want to pursue the issue further. Gary Hewes’ alibi had checked out but he would have a talk with him again…and soon. Lakisha was letting them inside the group now. He wanted to touch on some other things before he dropped the bomb.

“What about jealousy? Roxie Kennebrew has a thing for Scott Fredrickson, or so she says.”

“Sisters also tease, Rayford. Roxie has been teasing Deanna for years. I think she does it to motivate Ken, myself. He’s not the most ambitious man in the world.”

“Motivate?”

“Ken’s kind of a slob. Roxie flirts with Scott so her husband will try to keep in shape and have a little style, work harder.”

“Wrong tree, huh?”

Lakisha smiled when she replied. “Wrong forest.”

“There’s one thing that’s come up, a connection to the LA trip.” Tony was surprised Ray brought that up. It felt like an ace to him and he thought a few more cards should be shown before it was played.

“A connection?”

“I can’t explain yet. It’s a connection, a coincidence. I sure would like to know more about the last night there.”

Lakisha’s smile faded. “You’re talking about the strip club. It was surreal. I think it was Roxie’s idea, or maybe Karen’s. We had several cocktails before we went and more when we got there. I’d heard there were places like that but I had no idea. Have you ever gone to a strip joint, Rayford?”

“Once or twice. Not for many years.”

“I don’t know where they found these guys. I assume one of the attractions in men’s clubs is the size of the women’s boobs.” Both Ray and Tony nodded, Tony blushing slightly. “The men, boys really, were extremely ah… well endowed. After a few minutes, another song or two dancing, if you could call it that, they started stroking themselves. Women were shrieking and yelling. Some of them were with dates. I remember most of the dates were very quiet.”

Tony paid close attention to his notebook.

“It progressed from throwing dollars and underwear onto the stage to women climbing up and, uh…helping the studs out. One woman dropped to her knees and started sucking on one of them, then another. Karen was in a fit. Roxie wasn’t far behind, but at least she stayed in her chair. I, of course, was above all of it.” Lakisha laughed as if at a private joke.

“When Karen started for the stage, Deanna grabbed her; by the shoulders, by her blouse. I remember they were face to face, yelling at each other. The music was incredibly loud and the shrieking and yelling…then Tia joined in, and they dragged Karen out. I remember Roxie followed. I brought up the rear. Out on the sidewalk they were all doubled up laughing. I was too. What a scene.”

“So you think Karen would have gone up on the stage?”

“Oh yes.” Lakisha nodded with a wicked smile on her lips. “When Gary’s not around she lets loose. She gets wild. It’s revenge or pent up emotions or both.

“But nothing happened that night.”

“I wouldn’t call it nothing, but no, she didn’t make it to the stage, thank God.”

“What about afterward?”

“We went to a bar, a normal bar. I had one more drink and called it a night. You know what I did then?”

“I’m going to guess you went to your room and made notes, wrote descriptions of the scene.”

“Very good, Rayford. That’s exactly what I did. I used those notes in my novel Dance of Death. In the book, Carina, the Karen character-original, huh-she makes it to the stage. It’s a very racy scene.”

“What about the next day?”

“The next day we flew home. Karen was extremely hung over. I guess she and Deanna closed the bar. I can just see Dee lecturing her about keeping control. Deanna, our mother hen. She was quiet on the flight home, I remember. Really quiet. Maybe she and Karen had a fight.”

“A serious one?”

“No, in a couple of days we had a picture party and everything was fine.”

“Did anyone take pictures in the club?”

Lakisha answered with a naughty, sexy smile. She excused herself, said she’d just be a moment.

“Sean Stuckey has a big dick,” Tony said.

Ray closed his eyes, lowered his shaking head and chuckled. Tony was being serious. He’d flipped back in his notes and confirmed what he thought he recalled from talking to David Hong. “What?”

“Sorry. No, it’s good information. I’m not going to ask how you got it, not right now. It’s just the way you said it.”

“One of the roommates mentioned it. It just clicked when Mrs. Marland was describing the club scene.”

Lakisha returned and again sat across from Ray. She handed him a CD.

“That’s from my computer. I had a digital camera, a little one, with me that night in my purse. The pictures aren’t very good but maybe your connection is there.”

“Thank you.”

“And you should also have this.” She handed him a book. It was a hardcover, well thumbed, with a tattered but intact jacket. It was titled Lost Years, Lost Dreams, written by Tonya Reller. Ray searched for the name. It was vaguely familiar. He opened the book and read the jacket notes.

Lost Years, Lost Dreams is the story of one woman’s fight for survival in prison. Wrongly convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned, Laticia Lafleur finds comfort and reassurance, and most important, her sanity, in conversations with the ghost of the woman she was accused of killing.

For three years she and her ghost revisit the night of the murder, the events leading up to it, a senseless altercation in a run-down bar. Her ghost is sad and sympathetic. She knows Laticia is innocent, but all she can do is counsel her and help her survive.

Tonya Reller-the woman Lakisha was convicted of killing years before.

“It was my first book. The publisher loved it. One reviewer called it ‘haunting fiction’. Isn’t that funny? I tried to tell them it was really an autobiography; that Laticia really didn’t do the crime and really did talk to the murdered girl’s ghost all those years. It sold okay.”

“I want to read this.” Ray held the book up. “May I borrow it?”

Lakisha nodded. “I want you to. I know you have questions. I knew the fingerprints would open this door. The answers are all in there. I’d rather not speak of it again.”

Chapter 20

Tony looked over the empty squad room early Friday morning. He felt alert, refreshed, and eager after his first good night’s sleep in a week. He had talked briefly with Sue Ellen the night before. The Marshal’s Service had been called in. She was staying in a safe house at night and would have an escort, as she called it, during the day. Both of them wanted to make plans for the weekend but between her escorts and his murder investigation they agreed it was wishful thinking.

Tony picked out the navy blue single breasted suit for the day’s adventures from his new wardrobe, going so far as to iron a new white oxford cloth shirt. Out of practice, the tie had been a problem.

Carol was the first of the team to arrive. Tony noticed she had dark smudges under her eyes and had paid little or no attention to her hair or makeup. She dumped an armful of files on her desk before grinding a fist into the small of her back when she straightened. She smiled when she saw Tony and walked over.

“First that jacket yesterday and now this?” She reached over and began worrying the knot on his tie. “Lightning strike?”

Tony stood there with his arms at his side like a kid being fussed over on a Sunday morning. “Ray helped me. I think he wants me to look as good as he does.”

“I like it.” She gave the knot one final yank and smoothed down the tie. Ray walked in and stopped short, looking at the two of them. Carol was close to Tony, inside his space, patting his chest. The scene was almost intimate. He wondered if he was interrupting something. He also wondered what his niece would think.

Then he shrugged it off. Tony and Carol had known each other a long time. There were the rumors, true, but Ray had his own romantic queasiness and a murder to solve. He had spent most of the night reading Lakisha Marland’s book. The honesty and emotion-the sense of despair in it had bothered him. Lakisha wrote in her own voice. He imagined he could hear her speaking in the passages where the main character described her journey from shame and hopelessness toward understanding. Laticia Lafleur hadn’t killed that girl in the bar and Lakisha Marland hadn’t murdered her friend Deanna.

Ray approached, smiling at his partner. He was pleased, but Tony was a bit overdressed for chasing down a college kid on the busy, sprawling U campus.

“Looking good, partner.” Ray watched while Tony did a slow turn, showing off, proud of his new look.

“He cleans up pretty good, doesn’t he?” Carol added. “I just hope he doesn’t get too dirty when we get into what I dug up on Stuckey yesterday.” Playtime was over. It was time to get to work. They grabbed coffee and ducked into the meeting room so Carol could spread out her files.

“None of my old contacts out west were much help. I guess there’s a pretty high burnout rate for people working sex crimes in the LA area.” Carol found the file she was looking for and continued.

“Then I found Marcy Shriver. Marcy’s a supervisor in the LA version of our Sex Crimes Unit. Listening to her made me glad I live here.”

“She found something on Stuckey?”

“Oh yeah. Now I know why Kumpula thought the case out there was murky. Here’s what happened. LA Vice busted a video shoot. They had a tip that some internet porn producers were using underage talent. They went in thinking they were looking for young girls being filmed.”

Ray frowned. “Not the case?”

“No, but not what you’d think. Two young men had started a web site-get this-called ‘Ur MoM is So Hott’. They would film these young studs getting it on with older women and sell views and downloads. All by credit card. One of the kid’s fathers is a big shot with one of the studios.”

“Stuckey’s not underage,” Tony pointed out.

“Let me finish. They only made seven videos total. Stuckey was only involved with the last shoot, the one that was busted, or so he said. He and the two underage guys were doing the nasty with two women. Turns out the women were part-timers, older gals making a buck they thought.”

“So what’s murky? You said two of the guys were underage, that’s pretty cut and dried isn’t it? And if the women were having sex for pay, that’s prostitution, right?” It seemed straightforward to Tony.

“LA Vice didn’t see any money change hands or get anything about money on tape. The gals both said it was consensual, so did Stuckey. They didn’t know the two boys were underage, or so they said. And it’s not against the law to produce porn and sell it on the web.”

“It should be,” Ray muttered.

“But the DA didn’t buy the consensual story. I mean, it was no secret they were selling downloads. They’re really pissed about the underage stuff out there. There’s a lot of it.”

Tony was still puzzled. “So they prosecuted?”

“They wanted to, but they didn’t find the computers. The operation was 100 % digital, remember. What they think happened is that the studio big shot found out what the kid was up to, maybe he was in on it, they don’t know. They think the servers got erased and sold, probably overseas. Maybe they were destroyed. No trace. No financial records. No footage. Nothing.”

“But what about the, uh…episodes that got sold? Those are out there.”

“Remember there were only seven. It takes time for these things to build up steam. According to Marcy the earliest episodes were filmed with hidden cameras, or semi-hidden ones. The video quality was crappy, the sound was crappy, and they weren’t in very much demand. In the first three episodes the women didn’t know they were being taped.”

Ray shook his head, disgusted. “Jesus.”

“And according to Marcy, it was after a problem with the third shoot that the young entrepreneurs started hiring the talent, the women.”

“Well, that’s sure as hell against the law, too. You can’t film anyone without their knowledge for your own use; much less hawk it on the internet.” Ray was pleased to see his new partner was indignant and angry about the crimes.

“You can until you get caught. The producer guy, he’s really rich. Marcy thinks he set some geeks up with a bunch of cash and they bought every episode they could get a line on. There are some still out there, but think about it…if you have a bunch of porn on your computer are you going to advertise it?”

“So they dropped the case.”

Carol shrugged. “They had to. There wasn’t any evidence. Want a sobering thought? Marcy said they consider it a victory anyway. The boys are out of business. The porn they produced is off the market, and for all practical purposes, gone.”

“So Stuckey does this porn shoot, no doubt for some cash along with him having a reputation as a horn dog, and gets jammed up when the shoot is busted?”

“That seems to be it.”

Tony cocked his head to the side, talking to himself as much as the others. “I wonder if he was involved before, in the earlier episodes.”

Ray probed further, anxious for a lead, for something to connect the dots scattered about. “Carol, did Marcy have any of the videos, the other episodes?”

Carol laughed, but there was no humor in it. “They did. They had copies of all the episodes at one time, but remember I told you about the geeks and the cash?”

“Yeah.”

“They don’t have them anymore. Imagine that.”

“I have a very bad feeling about this.” Tony’s voice was low and firm. He was the only one who had met Stuckey. He was the one who had met the girlfriend, Angie, and knew first hand that Stuckey wasn’t choosy about the women he slept with. He and Ray had just the night before heard Lakisha Marland describe a disturbing scene at a sex club in LA-where Stuckey was from.

Several what-ifs came to mind but he couldn’t voice them all. Not yet. “Carol? Do you think Marcy could come up with the dates each episode went online?”

“I can ask her.”

“What are you thinking, Tony?” Ray had ideas of his own, and one of them dovetailed with Tony’s question. He wanted to hear Tony work it through.

“What if the bust wasn’t the first time he’d worked for the kids?”

“This is getting very complicated.” Carol started gathering her files, talking while she did. “I’ll talk to Marcy again. When did the ‘Go Girls’ go to LA?”

“Last Spring. Late April. I’ll get you the exact dates.” Ray said.

“Do that. I might have another track. I’ve got to make a few calls. Can we get some money?” Ray knew that Carol meant money for a snitch. It was a front page, high profile, Murder 1 case. Money shouldn’t be a problem. But who would she want to bribe?

Ray checked his watch. Tony would have to leave soon to match up with Stuckey at the film class. He decided he was going with him. It was time for Ray Bankston to meet Sean Stuckey.

Ted and Vang were out still working the neighborhood, the morning survey today, and Carol had a plate full. Ray dialed the lab and talked to Jonny Kumpula briefly. He needed an extra body that knew how to work a camera.

“We’re going to have to be careful with this one.” Ray, in the passenger seat this time, was happy to let Tony untangle the streets and parking problems on the campus. “I don’t want this fella’ to run on us.”

“So you’re calling Stuckey a suspect now?” Tony asked. He was in his mind, but he wasn’t sure if he should make the point yet.

“Not yet, but he’s of great interest to me. I need to meet him.”

“You’re the boss. How far are you going to push him?”

Ray didn’t answer. He just stared out the side window. He hadn’t decided how far yet, and it was too complicated to explain to his rookie partner in the short time they had. All they had so far were coincidences. Kumpula was fiddling with a Nikon in the back seat, a sophisticated digital camera with a high powered telephoto lens. Ray wanted some pictures of Sean Stuckey, and he didn’t want him to know they had them.

Tony found parking and led them across campus. He knew he would have to keep a sharp eye out when class was over. There were two doors exiting the Fine Arts building. Kumpula was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, to better blend in with the crowd. He set up about 75 yards from where Ray and Tony were standing. The big telephoto would allow him to get a head shot at that range. He was having fun playing sniper.

Stuckey emerged from the building, backpack slung over his shoulder, talking to a pretty, petite, dark haired woman. When Tony approached him and said, “Hi, Sean. Got a minute?” he didn’t recognize him at first, the blue suit and tie were a much different costume than what he had been wearing when he’d met him at the house. “Detective de Luca, remember?”

The dark haired girl frowned and melted into the crowd. She didn’t want to have anything to do with ‘detective’ anybody no matter how cute he was.

“You lying piece of shit!” Tony was surprised by the anger in Stuckey’s voice. “You said you were going to talk to Angie the next day. That was a chicken shit move.”

Tony recalled the message from the Code-A-Phone. He put on one of Ray’s half smiles, thinking ‘gotcha, punk’, and shrugged. “Chill, man. It was still early and I can put in for all the overtime I want.” Tony didn’t want to antagonize him. “I just wanted her off my list.”

“What do you want? I got another class.”

Ray stepped up. He was wearing a very dark gray suit and an even darker pair of Ray-Bans. Stuckey eyed him, wary and suspicious.

Tony, still smiling, said, “This is my boss, Detective Sergeant Bankston. He’s got a couple of questions for you.”

Stuckey ignored Ray’s hand. “I got another class.”

“We’ll walk with you.” Ray gestured, inviting Stuckey to lead the way, calling his bluff.

Stuckey looked around as if he was getting his bearings, making a decision. “What questions?”

“Your prints came back with a hit. Seems you had a little trouble out in California?”

“Fucker! You said those were for comparison.” Stuckey glared at Tony.

Tony shrugged, not threatened at all by the accusing tone. “That was your fault, Sean. You ducked me so long the lab sent them out with all the unknowns.” Stuckey didn’t need to know that once the LA connection was made the prints would have gone out anyway.

Stuckey’s reply was nearly a whine. “My phone got crunched. I showed you.” Ray stooped down to tie a shoe. Tony noticed it wasn’t untied, then realized he was giving their ‘sniper’ a clear shot.

“Here’s the thing, Mr. Stuckey.” Ray’s tone was matter of fact, not threatening at all unless you were hiding something. “Your alibi’s a little shaky. Your girlfriend aside, no one can put you in the film class Monday morning. Not for sure.”

“I was here.”

Tony edged closer into Stuckey’s space, glaring back now, telling him ‘playtime’s over’ with his eyes. “You told me the wrong movie, Sean. I checked.”

“So I was wrong about the movie. Big fucking deal. We watch three of them a week.” Neither Tony nor Ray said anything. Stuckey moved away from Tony and paced for a minute. He was agitated. He finally sighed and stood directly in front of the two detectives, shifting an angry look from one to the other.

“I did not kill Scotty’s mom. I met the woman once, at their house. We went over to watch some football. She and Scotty’s dad were there for like, five minutes, if that. They said hello and left. The bullshit out in LA has nothing to do with this shit. I was in class Monday. That’s it. I’m done talking to you.” Stuckey turned, hitched up his backpack, and strode off.

Back in the car, Kumpula proudly showed off his work with the camera. Several good head shots of Sean Stuckey flashed across the tiny screen.

“Do you think he was lying? You’ve spent the most face time with him.” Ray was starting to trust his new partner’s observations.

“His phone was busted, I saw that. And he could have been in the class and just mixed up the movies. I noticed you didn’t front him on the prints upstairs.”

Ray smiled. “It’s not time yet. I want to work these pictures first. You didn’t answer my question.”

“Yeah, he’s lying,” Tony said. “I just don’t know about what yet.”

Kumpula leaned over the seat with the camera. “So what do you think?” There was a picture of Stuckey’s jeans on the screen focused on his crotch. Both Ray and Tony gave him a disgusted look.

“What? This is the guy supposed to have a big wiener, right? Whadda’ ya’ think?”

Chapter 21

Kumpula had prints of Sean Stuckey’s photo for them in short order, a head shot with a neutral expression for them to show around. Tony and Ray used the time to take a look at the pictures on the disc Lakisha Marland had given them from the club in LA. Both of them were quiet while they scrolled through the images. Both of them were embarrassed. Carol strolled by, taking a short break from talking to Marcy in LA and making other calls. One glance at the images on the monitor sent her back to her desk and the phones, shaking her head and muttering.

Ray had Jonny make up a set of six photos, five young white males in their twenties and Sean Stuckey. It was common practice to show a witness a six-pack, as the set was known, but Tony was puzzled why the senior detective was going to all the trouble. All they wanted to know was if any of the ‘Go Girls’ had ever seen Stuckey before. He guessed Ray had his reasons.

They caught up with Tia Bork at home. When they showed her the six photos she studied them closely. The liquor was nowhere in sight and neither was Boom Boom.

She tapped the stack of pictures with a manicured nail. “One of these guys is a suspect, right?”

“Right now just a person of some interest.” Ray kept using that term. In Tony’s mind Stuckey a suspect for damn sure, but he kept it to himself.

“What kind of interest?” The look on Tia’s face asked if Deanna’s murderer was in the photo spread.

“I can’t answer that at this point,” Ray said. “What we really need to know right now is if you recognize any of these men.”

“Here in the cities or on one of the trips? You were very curious about the trips.”

“Anywhere.”

Tia studied the pictures again. Finally she sighed and set them back down. “No. I don’t remember ever seeing any of these guys. Not anywhere.”

“Maybe in LA?” Tony suggested. Ray’s head snapped to him, nostrils flared. The move was so abrupt, so obviously angry that Tia noticed.

Tony raised his hands in surrender. “What?” He honestly didn’t know what he’d done wrong. All he’d done was point Tia Bork toward the place they thought she might have run into Stuckey.

Tia looked at the pictures again. “LA?” Her brow furrowed before she looked back up. “The club thing?”

“Detective de Luca shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Why not?” Tia was still searching the faces in the photos. “Okay, you know, I might have seen this guy out there.”

She pulled one of the photos from the stack and placed the others face down. It was the picture of Sean Stuckey.

Tony reasoned he was already in trouble with Ray so he pressed ahead. “At the club?”

Tia laughed out loud. “At the club we weren’t exactly looking at their faces.” Hers was getting a shade of pink to it. “No. Not at the club. Look, I’m really not sure, but I might have seen this guy out there. Lose the beard. Spike the hair a little…give it a little style… I might have seen him.”

“The whole point of the photo line-up is to let the witness make the ID. You can’t lead them, Tony, no matter how much you want to.” Ray lit into him before the car was even started. “You can have the whole thing thrown out if you don’t do it by the numbers.”

“I didn’t…”

“You led the Bork woman. You suggested LA. That’s leading the witness. It’s a tainted identification. A sharp lawyer will chew your ass for that.”

Ray was angrier than Tony had seen him before. He guessed that Ray had learned this the hard way, that when he was green he’d lost a case because he screwed up an ID. He knew Ray was a perfectionist and that he wanted his evidence pure and unimpeachable, but Tony didn’t think he’d done everything wrong, not completely. He was also surprised he’d gotten a cuss word out of his partner. Well…ass anyway.

“Fine.” Tony had an idea. He was going to let Ray get it all out of his system before he told him what he had in mind.

“You always use a six-pack. Always! You can’t be planting faces in people’s heads.” Ray lectured, still angry.

“I said fine.”

“You get into court and the defense lawyers will pick and probe and slice away exactly how you do things and it can cost the DA a case.”

“I’ve been on the stand before, Ray. I know how it works.”

“Not from a lead detective’s point of view you don’t.”

“You’re right.” Tony was doing his best to let Ray get back to an even keel.

“So do it my way. Got it?” Ray started the car. He was coming down.

“Absolutely. No leading witnesses in a six-pack ID.”

“That’s right.”

Ray backed the car out of the drive and started making his way toward Edina and Erika Hilgendorf’s office, hoping to catch her in. They drove in silence.

While Ray concentrated on the traffic Tony worked on his idea, tried to come up with the best way to approach his cranky partner. “I don’t think we should front the Hilgendorf woman yet.” Good or bad, Tony decided to pitch his idea. Ray drove on in silence, glancing only once at Tony, and he wasn’t smiling. “I think we should go back to the lab.”

“Why?”

“Because Tia told us what Stuckey might have looked like last year. He had the LA thing going. No facial hair. Some spike to the hair. He doesn’t exactly look like that now. He just looks grungy.” Traffic was heavy and for once in his life Tony was thankful for it.

Ray had to keep his eyes and part of his mind on the road. “Okay, give me all of it.”

“I didn’t lead Tia Bork to Stuckey. I lead her to LA.” Tony waited for the explosion. He expected Ray to tell him in a loud voice that leading was leading and not to parse words. He cringed slightly, waiting for it.

“Go on.” Ray’s measured, even-toned response made him worry even more. Was the old guy setting him up for something, he wondered.

“Once she had the locale she picked the guy out, or almost did. I think we should get Kumpula or someone in the lab to Photoshop the guy. Clean up his facial hair. Give him a surfer doo.”

“And put him back in the six-pack like that?”

“Yeah. And mention LA right from the start.”

“I’m not so sure about doing that.”

Tony had him halfway there, he reckoned. “Why not? It’s where the ‘Go Girls’ and Stuckey intersect, other than he’s young Scott’s roommate.”

“Are you saying Stuckey met Deanna Fredrickson in LA and followed her here to the Twin Cities? Managed to place himself in the same house as her son?” Ray didn’t see conspiracy like that in the case, not a bit. “That he was stalking her?”

“Not at all, Ray. All I’m saying is that’s where it intersects and that connection should be exploited. We don’t have much else.”

Ray snorted. “We don’t have anything else.”

“So we go back to the lab?” Tony said evenly, doing an invisible victory dance in the car seat.

“We go back to the lab.”

Kumpula told them he needed what was left of the afternoon to do a good job on the composite. Ray didn’t think it made much sense to chase around on a Friday night with a pile of pictures so they decided to check in with Carol and call it a day.

Carol Offord was smiling when they got back up to the squad room. Tony hoped she had something concrete. What she had was more like gold. “I found one!” She was almost bouncing in her seat.

“One what?” Tony perched on the edge of her desk.

“One of the ‘Ur MoM’ episodes. Well, part of one.” Tony grinned. Ray looked skeptical.

“Where?”

“Here. Well, over in Sex Crimes. I was whining to Jerry Horace, one of the guys over there I’ve worked with. He remembered the title from a sting last year. His crew took down that kiddie-porn ring, remember?” Ray remembered. He had been part of the bust but not out in front. Tony vaguely remembered it from the news.

“So Jerry goes down to evidence and pulls the guy’s computer, the one we confiscated. He found me a clip.” She waved a CD at them. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

Carol slipped the disc into a computer and called up the media player. A fuzzy still image appeared. To the right was a legend that read, ‘Ur MoM is so Hott #6’. A bright green time stamp blinked 2:20. The clip was only a couple of minutes long. She grimaced and looked to Tony and Ray before hitting the play button. Ray nodded. The image came into focus.

“Whoa!”

Tony’s eyes widened and his mouth went dumb-look slack. An older woman, thoroughly into her 40s, was sitting on a couch between two younger men. She had medium length black hair, snow white skin, and an obviously store bought pair of boobs, size XL. It was so obvious it looked comical to Tony. She was buck-naked and had her legs spread apart. Ray was squinting. Tony couldn’t decide if he was scrutinizing the video or trying to block the image out.

The woman was giving an enthusiastic blowjob to the man to her right, well…trying to, Tony reckoned. Her left hand could almost encircle the guy’s erect penis. She was stroking it in time with her bobbing head. Both men’s heads were tilted back, unrecognizable. The image flickered and changed. Now the woman was facing the camera, bouncing up and down on one of the men’s huge members. The woman was the star. The giant penises were just props.

The two minutes dragged on for two hours, it seemed. The scene shifted again. One man mounted her from behind and was thrusting away while she tried to keep the other’s dick in her mouth. Raw nasty sex flashed on the screen but Tony didn’t feel the slightest bit of titillation or excitement. The camera panned to show the look of tortured pleasure on one of the men’s faces, the one getting the blowjob-just a quick camera tilt to the face and back to the action.

“Gotcha!” Tony reached toward the screen, meaning to tap on Sean Stuckey’s distorted face. The camera panned down so quickly he ended up tapping on the image of Stuckey’s erect penis.

Carol and Ray burst out in loud raucous laughter when Tony jerked his hand back. It didn’t matter if they were trying to break the tension or having some fun at his expense. Tony joined them. The scene shifted and Carol hit the off button. They’d seen enough. They’d seen too much.

“Good Lord,” Ray sputtered. “Sorry Tony, but I’ve been needing a laugh like this for some time.”

Carol wiped a finger under one eye, getting her own laughter under control. “You want to wash up?”

Tony just shook his head, still wearing a ‘yeah-you got me good there’ smile, but he was thinking it wasn’t all that funny.

“That was our boy, Sean.” Tony was trying to get them back to the reason they’d played the clip.

“It sure was.” Ray was back to serious now, even though he wore a cockeyed grin. “Lordy.”

Tony looked over at Carol and smiled. “I can think of several inappropriate questions right now.”

“No. No. And NO!” Carol said, still chuckling. “Leave it at that.” Tony nodded. He was too mannered to ever voice the questions and Carol was the wrong person to ask.

“Well, we learned one thing,” Ray said. His tone was serious. Tony bit off the wise crack he was about to make and asked ‘what’ instead.

“That was episode 6. Stuckey said he was only in the last one, number 7.”

“So what else is he lying about?”

Chapter 22

The Red Door, three short blocks from the headquarters complex, features a long dark oak bar running the length of the room lined with comfortable upholstered stools. A dozen square tables, often pushed together for larger groups, take up most of the open floor in the middle. Ten booths with red soft-vinyl upholstery lit by solitary drop lamps, inviting more private conversation, line the other wall.

Tony, Carol, and Ray, sitting in one of the booths, unanimously agreed that a drink was in order. It had been a long week of frustrating unanswered questions. Ray’s drink was scotch and soda. Tony nursed a beer, remembering the last night he’d been in The Red Door, accepting congratulations and hard liquor shots from well-wishers. Carol had a Manhattan in front of her and another already on order with Herve, the bartender.

The bar wasn’t crowded yet, but Friday night had a reputation. Tony shared handshakes and backslaps with at least a dozen people asking how his first week with a gold badge had gone and had he caught any crooks yet. Two people asked if he’d seen Sue Ellen around, friends who had seen them leave together Monday night and suspected there was gossip to be harvested.

Ray enjoyed seeing that his new partner was so popular and well liked. It paid to have friends in as many departments as possible. Ray sometimes wondered if anything of substance was ever accomplished without using your network, building favors, paying favors back, trading chips. He also noticed Carol bristle when well-wishers asked after Sue Ellen. It wasn’t a secret that she was his kin, but it wasn’t advertised either. He wasn’t even sure if Carol knew. They were finally allowed to talk among themselves.

“Okay, straight up question.” Tony looked from Carol to Ray and back. “At this point can we call Stuckey our prime suspect?” Ray sipped his drink thoughtfully, looking somewhere over Tony’s head for the answer.

“What was the motive?” Carol was staring into the nearly empty glass she was spinning between her palms. “All we have, really, is a shaky ID from the Bork woman.”

“And the LA connection,” Tony was quick to add.

“But what’s the motive? Money?” Carol asked, gesturing to Herve for her refill. “Blackmail? Extortion of some kind? Maybe the kid was involved with something out there, recognized Deanna, and was trying to shake her down.”

“Shake her down for what?” Ray asked. “I don’t think Snow White ever did a stag film.”

Carol patted Ray on the shoulder and said, “Actually, boss, there is one out there-complete with seven dwarves.”

“No,” Tony said. “Just…no.” He took a sip from his glass. “Really?”

“I have been in the smut squad way too long,” she sighed. Refill in hand, Carol continued, “Back to business. So Stuckey skips a class, goes to the house, demands money, they fight and he ends up stabbing her.”

“For reasons completely unknown,” Tony sighed. “I love this new detective gig.”

Ray stayed silent through the exchange and Carol’s speculations. He was grappling with the question of motive, too.

Tony: “But if there was a fight wouldn’t the woman have had some defensive marks, a bruise or something? Fibers? Some DNA left somewhere?” Ray noticed that his new partner was already arguing against Carol’s wild theories…a good sign.

“I think we have to be careful right now,” Ray finally joined in. “If we label young Stuckey as our prime suspect we’ll be keying in on him, working to prove he did it, and we might miss something else. Remember, everyone is a suspect until they’re cleared.”

Carol started counting. She raised a finger each time she ticked off the suspects. “One. The husband. He’s stuck in airplane hell. Clear. Two, the kid…kids…they’re out.”

“Three,” Tony joined in. “The roommates. Hong and Swenson. They have solid alibis.”

“But not Stuckey,” Carol pointed out.

Tony agreed. “Not Stuckey. Not yet anyway.”

“Four, Lakisha Marland. Clear?”

Carol looked over at Ray, who nodded once. “Clear. The time stamps on her computer matched up.” Tony looked a question at Ray. He hadn’t told him he’d talked with Lakisha again, or had gone to see her and checked out the computer. He wondered what else the old sly dog had been up to.

“Tia Bork?” Carol held up another finger.

“Cleared.”

“Allyson Couts?”

“Clear, and thank the Lord. I’d hate to try to make a case against her.” Ray got a chuckle for the comment.

“Erika Hilgendorff?”

“The phone logs check out.”

“Roxie Kennebrew?”

“Clear.”

“Hold on a minute.” Ray took a quick sip of his drink and gestured with it. “Maybe I’m just too old school, but when a woman comes right out and says she’s got the hot’s for the husband, I’m keeping that pot on the stove for a while.”

“Fair enough.”

“Karen Hewes?” Tony tossed out.

Ray immediately came back with, “Gary Hewes?”

Carol hadn’t been at the interview but she’d read the notes. She knew Tony’d had to restrain the husband, Gary, and that Karen had visited the house the morning of the murder by her own admission. “I don’t know. Sure the guy’s a little possessive, but the woman was Deanna’s best friend. Everyone says so.”

Ray and Tony shared a dark look. Best friend or not, neither of them would write the pair off…not yet.

“As much as I hate to say it,” Ray sighed, “The Stuckey kid is the most intriguing of the bunch. This has something to do with the women. I’ve just got this feeling.”

Tony noticed that at the far end of the bar a beeper went off. “I see what you’re saying. We need to flash his picture at the other “Go Girls” and see what reaction we get.”

Another beeper started chirping, then another one. Several people were hustling out of the bar, cell phones clamped to their ears. Something was happening-something big. Ray reached out and snagged the arm of a CAP detective named Diamond. His worried look asked the question.

“A bomb just went off over at the courthouse.”

Diamond shrugged free and hustled out the door. Tony nudged Carol with his hip. She was sitting on the outside of the booth bench. While she scooted over to let him out, Tony shared a concerned look with Ray. The same thought was on both of their minds.

Sue Ellen.

It took until late in the evening to get the situation sorted out. It hadn’t been a very big bomb, not much of an explosion. Nobody was injured, beyond their pride. There were a lot of dirt smeared trouser knees in the crowd fleeing the scene, and a couple of urine stained crotches. Two lawyers near the blast were rattled enough to need attention from only one of the dozens of ambulances that had responded.

Sue Ellen hadn’t been in the building. She had left early, her escorts grumbling while they lugged heavy boxes of files out to their Suburban. She planned to work through the weekend at the safe house. No one claimed responsibility for the explosion; not the Latin Kings, or the Islamic Jihad, or any of the thousands of others who could have carried a grudge against the court.

But the Latin Kings’ threat was at the front of Tony’s mind. He knew they were ruthless enough to try something like bombing the courthouse, not worrying about killing or maiming innocent people as long as they managed to throw the looming trial into disarray. He tracked her down by cell phone. It took some persuading for the Deputy Marshal in charge of the security detail to allow Tony to visit the safe house.

Sue Ellen laughed when he told her, sitting at the file covered kitchen table, that he felt like a teenager on a study date. Instead of Mom and Dad in the next room two serious men wearing guns were watching a movie. She laughed again when he told her he was definitely going to keep his hands to himself.

“Pretty strange way to get a romance started.”

Sue Ellen was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her hair was slightly mussed. A pair of glasses were perched atop her head. Tony didn’t know she wore glasses. There were a lot of things he didn’t know about Sue Ellen and he was a little put out that it was proving difficult to further the investigation. The romance comment was damn encouraging, though.

“I actually had a life when I was in uniform. Worked a shift, went home, went out…had a life.” Tony didn’t whine often, but this was a little frustrating.

“It wouldn’t matter with this thing. It’s my problem, remember.” They were sitting close on hard backed chairs. Sue Ellen gently scratched the back of Tony’s neck.

“What’s going on with it? Has anyone put any pressure on Garcia?”

“No one can find him.”

“I bet I could find him,” Tony growled.

“The Gang Unit knows where to look.”

“Not everywhere. I was inside, remember?”

Sue Ellen gently grabbed the hair at the back of his head and turned Tony’s face to hers. “And then what, detective?”

“I’d shoot him. The man is messing with my love life. I’ll just shoot him. Couple ‘a times.”

Sue Ellen laughed softly before she used the hand behind Tony’s head to pull him closer.

“Okay,” she said after a long lingering kiss.

“Okay what?”

“Go find him and shoot him. Quick.” She kissed him again.

“Can we get rid of those guys?” Tony motioned with his head toward the door to the living room.

“No,” Sue Ellen sighed. “I already asked. And no, I’d feel weird with them out here in the living room.”

“So would I,” Tony confessed.

“But I’m working on something.”

“What? A break out?”

Sue Ellen untangled herself and scooted the chair a few inches over. “If it works out you’ll be the first to know. Let’s uh…not make things worse right now though, okay?”

“You’re right.” He rubbed his face with both hands.

“So, tell me about your case. How’s the investigation going?”

“We were talking about it over at The Red Door when every pager in the metro went off. Truthfully, we don’t even have a good suspect yet.” Sue Ellen knew that sometimes cases just couldn’t be made. She felt bad that Tony’s first one might end up like that…an unsolved.

“There’s this connection to a trip to LA, kinda’ sorta’. One of the son’s roommates was out there when this group of women, they call themselves the ‘Go Girls’, were out there last spring.”

“Why are you looking at that?”

“There was an incident at a strip club.”

“The women were stripping?”

“No. The other way around.”

“The roommate was stripping for the women?”

“Well…no, not exactly.”

“You don’t have much is what you’re saying.”

“We got some porn,” Tony offered. It sounded like an apology.

“The roommate?”

“He’s got what you’d call a…a hum-dinger. His alibi’s real shaky, and his prints are in the system for a bust out there. They’re also in the house, but not in the kitchen.”

Sue Ellen had her prosecutor hat on now but no idea what Tony meant by a humdinger. “You can put him with the women?”

“Sort of. One of them thinks she saw him out there, but not at the club. He wasn’t one of the dancers.”

“How do you know?”

“One of the ladies took a few pictures.”

“And you’ve checked them out?” Tony nodded. Then he laughed at a thought.

“What?”

“I haven’t seen so many foot long hot dogs since the State Fair.” Sue Ellen laughed too, even though she still didn’t get the joke.

“You have a lot of work to do on this one, Tony. What does Ray think?”

“We’re going to show the six-packs to the other ladies tomorrow, as many as we can track down. See if they recognize the guy.”

“Is there any remote possibility that one of these women witnessed the murder? Think hard. It’s important,” Sue Ellen commanded.

Tony obeyed. He couldn’t possibly think of any of Deanna’s friends witnessing the stabbing. Karen Hewes told them she’d been at the house that morning and hadn’t seen anything. No witnesses…no way. “No. I don’t see it.”

“You could just show them the one picture. You aren’t probing a witness for identification. You’re trying to make a link, a better link, between this guy and the women. If they recognize him you might have something. You don’t need to use a lineup.”

“So why’s Ray so hell bent on doing it this way then?” Tony asked.

“Uncle Rayford has a blind spot. He wants his evidence to be so perfect he goes too far sometimes. That’s my guess.”

“So you wouldn’t need the lineups in court if you were prosecuting the case?”

“Tony.” Sue Ellen shook her head. “You’re a million miles from the courtroom.”

Chapter 23

That Saturday morning never did actually dawn through October clouds that were low and wet. It was like a damp gray blanket had been draped over the city. It grudgingly revealed itself, detail by detail, but by 9:30 still hadn’t satisfied the streetlights’ electric eyes. They were still on while Tony and Ray drove to Erika Hilgendorf’s house in Roseville, an old first ring suburb just north of St. Paul. She was glad to have them stop by, she’d said, anxious for them to catch her up on the investigation.

Ray didn’t tell her it was more a case of them doing the asking. Erica would figure that out pretty quickly.

Bruno greeted them at the door. Bruno, a Great Pyrenees, shaggy and snow white, outweighed the petite woman by at least twenty pounds…maybe even thirty.

“Who walks who?” Tony chuckled as Bruno grudgingly let them enter. Very protective of his mistress, his eyes never left the detectives for the entire visit. Tony made a conscious effort to avoid any fast moves.

“Oh, I walk him. He’s a big baby.” Tony nodded, thinking ‘sure you do, uh huh’. “The leash is just a prop.” Tony was about to make a joke about a saddle but Ray headed him off. He produced the picture of Sean Stuckey that Kumpula had updated and passed it over to Erika.

“Is this the guy who killed Deanna?” There was fire and anger in the small woman’s eyes. She studied the picture closely, holding it up to the front window of the living room for better light.

“No, this is just someone we’re interested in.”

“Why?” She jiggled the picture at Ray. “If you don’t think he did it then he must know something, right, like a witness or something.”

“Have you ever seen this man? Do you recognize him?”

“Recognize him? This kid?” The comment made Tony wonder again how old Erica was. The ‘Go Girls’ all had a talent, or at least a technique, for shaving years off. She gave the picture another hard look. “Nope. Never saw him before.”

Tony gave Ray a sidelong glance before he said, “It might not have been here in the Cities.” They had battled earlier about using the photo line-up. Tony had won that one. The skirmish for mentioning LA was fought to a standstill and remained unresolved.

“Tony…”

“It might have been in Los Angeles last spring. The night you all went to the uh…club.” At first Tony thought she wasn’t embarrassed by his mention of the strip joint. Her stance was still aggressive. Her posture was confident and businesslike, but Tony noticed the tops of her ears redden slightly and a pale pink tinge of color crept into her cheeks. The room was warm. No chilled breeze had crept in.

“You think he was one of the dancers?” She studied the picture again, then closed her eyes and tilted her head back. After a minute she looked back at the photo. “Nope. I can’t place him. Sorry.” She handed the picture back.

“No need to apologize,” Ray assured her. “If you haven’t seen him, you haven’t seen him.”

“If you want to know the truth, the only thing I was looking for in that damned place was an exit sign as soon as those guys started wagging their tallywhackers.” She let out a nervous laugh. It didn’t fool Bruno, Tony guessed, when the big white dog started rumbling.

“I didn’t speak to Roxie or Karen for a week. I don’t know what they were thinking.” Ray was searching for his next question when Tony spoke up.

“We met Gary.” Maybe it was the way he said it, or maybe it was that Erica had some idea of what they would have thought of the guy. She smirked at the comment.

“Real peach, huh?”

“He, ah…he’s protective.”

“Bruno baby is protective. Gary’s a freak.” Tony tried to remember who had used the words Gary and leash in the same sentence.

“You two don’t get along I take it.”

“We get along fine. If I enter a room he leaves or I kick his ass.” Gary Hewes was over six feet tall and Tony knew he had thick ropy muscles. He didn’t know quite how to use them, but he couldn’t see little Erica Hilgendorff kicking anybody’s ass.

“Check this out.” She and Bruno led them to a small bedroom that had been converted into a home office.

Two walls were lined with shelves and the shelves were full of trophies. Tony looked closely at some of them. Karate trophies. Ju-Jitsu matches. Full contact Tae Kwon Do.

There were photos too, all of them with little Erica Hilgendorff wearing a black sash and standing on one of the raised platforms, usually the tallest one with the first place trophy in her arms. Tony suspected that if you managed to get past Bruno your troubles were just beginning.

“Like I said, we get along fine.”

Ray was leaning in the doorway, a serious look on his face. “I don’t know if I’ve asked you this, but did Karen and Deanna ever fight?”

Erica didn’t hesitate with her answer. “No. Never. Those two were like sisters, you know. Why do you ask?” It irritated Ray that this woman was always probing for the reason behind his questions. “Oh…I get it. Maybe they were having a problem and Gary went over to straighten Deanna out and it got a little out of hand.”

Ray wondered for the ten thousandth time why everyone in an investigation wanted to be a detective.

“Hey, don’t give me that look.” Erica pointed an accusing finger at Ray. “I’m telling you, the guy’s nuts. Without Deanna I don’t know what will happen to Karen.” Bruno was lasered on that finger, just waiting for the word. Bruno was ready.

“What do you mean?” Tony was picking up the vibe, getting an idea.

“I mean, they did everything together. Deanna got Karen out of that house. If it was up to Gary there’d be locks on the outside of the doors.”

“But you haven’t heard of them arguing lately.”

“Not that I’ve heard. Dee got in Gary’s face more than once about his attitude. I know that for a fact. But there wasn’t anything on the radar lately.”

Tony wanted to ask her if she thought Gary was capable of killing Deanna but she beat him to it.

“But Gary though, he’s a pussy-too pussy to use a knife. He’d have used one of his damn guns.”

Ken Kennebrew was the polar opposite of Gary Hewes. When Ray explained again that it was best that they talk to Roxie privately he just shrugged his shoulders, muttered okay, and disappeared.

It was just past noon. Tony wondered if the orange juice Roxie was sipping had vodka in it. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks red-tinged. He didn’t see a bottle but knew that didn’t necessarily mean anything. She offered them coffee. One look at the oily remains in the carafe prompted a polite no from both of them.

Roxie didn’t recognize Sean Stuckey. She was sure she’d never seen him either in the Cities or in LA or anywhere. Positive. No doubts. Never seen him.

“That was quite a scene at the club that last night, I hear.” Ray’s comment seemed to sober her, shock her system. She snapped her head in his direction and the look on her face changed from confident denial to curiosity.

“You’ve been talking to Erica.” She squinted and took a sip of her orange juice.

“And others. It sounds like it almost got out of hand.”

Roxie looked briefly down the hallway Ken had gone down. “The key word is almost. Almost.” Roxie got lost for a minute somewhere in the bottom of her glass, down there with the half melted ice cubes and the bits of orange pulp. “Truth is, after the first few minutes there everything I remember about it is what someone else told me, you know?”

“You don’t remember?” She snorted at Tony’s question, got up from the table and went to the refrigerator, obviously in need of another screwdriver. The vodka was in the icebox along with the orange juice.

“I remember it wasn’t one of my best ideas. Or was it Karen’s?” She waved her hand in the air. “Doesn’t matter. I must have been a horse’s ass though. Erica wouldn’t speak to me for a week and even Lakisha was stand-offish for a while.”

“You were, ah…a little tipsy?”

“Honey, I was snot slinging drunk. Walking wounded. Deanna told me I tried to climb on the stage. It’s embarrassing.” Roxie took a slug from the drink. Tony and Ray both realized Roxie Kennebrew wasn’t going to be able to help them at all.

“So what’s with the guy?”

Ray stood and collected the picture, ready to leave. Tony rose too.

“Thanks for your time.”

Ray offered his hand. Roxie had to figure out how to set down her drink before she could shake with him. Tony glanced at his watch. It was 1:16 in the afternoon and Roxie was already gone.

“Well that was a waste of time.” Tony, behind the wheel this time, didn’t know where they were headed.

Ray sighed, partnering in Tony’s frustration. “She didn’t recognize him. Our connection is getting a little thin, don’t you think?”

“She could have slept with him and she wouldn’t remember,” Tony replied, disgust evident in his tone.

Ray was more detached, more analytical. “Maybe she did.”

Tony’s eyebrows arched. “You think?”

“Not really, but we have so many maybes going on, why not throw in another one.”

“So where to, boss?” Tony didn’t want to think about all the dead ends, all the maybes and what-ifs. He wanted a finger pointing them toward the killer. He wanted a motive to surface. He wanted to keep asking questions until something made sense.

“Who’s left? Karen Hewes and Lakisha Marland. I don’t think Allyson Couts would have seen him. She didn’t go with them that night.”

“Okay, Karen Hewes, then?”

Ray screwed up his face and sighed. “As much as I hate to drag this out, I think we should save her for Monday.” Tony caught Ray’s meaning immediately.

“You want Gary out of the house, right? Hey, we can always take her downtown. I can handle the guy.”

“I think we’ll get more if she’s at home. It would be a needless confrontation and I don’t want to antagonize them any further just yet.”

Tony nodded in agreement. “Okay, makes sense to me. So…off to Minnetonka?”

“That would be our remaining option for today.”

“Want to drop me at the station or at home? Do this one by yourself?” Tony knew there was some electricity between the two of them. Maybe Ray would appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with the woman without having him sitting silently on the sideline. Ray shook his head, laughing softly in that low melodious voice.

“Just drive. I still think I might need a chaperone around that woman.”

Chapter 24

There was a car in the driveway at the Marland house, a Jaguar coupe. Ray and Tony had not called ahead. They both perceived that they got better responses when they arrived unannounced…well, Ray thought so. Tony felt the Jag’s hood. It was still warm. Apparently Lakisha had a visitor. They were about to get back in their car and leave when the front door opened. Lakisha waved and hurried toward them.

“Just in time!”

She pointed a key fob at the Jag and the trunk popped open. A half dozen brown grocery bags peeked out of the trunk. “We can do this in one trip.” She loaded them each with two bags, chattering the whole time about her good fortune to have two such strong handsome men to help her. The gray blanket sky had just begun to mist.

She directed them to the kitchen, selected countertops and tabletops for each particular bag. Fresh produce was tucked into the massive stainless steel refrigerator, cans stacked in a pantry, and a package of cookies was left on the counter in easy reach. Somewhere in the bustle a coffeepot was primed and the smell of rich Colombian dark roast promised delicious reward for their labors.

“What impeccable timing,” she said, pouring each of the detectives a mug. “I was in a cooking mood and what should appear but two hearty appetites.” Tony looked to Ray for guidance.

“I’m afraid this isn’t a social call,” Ray confessed. Lakisha seemed not to hear him as tomatoes and onions and fat globes of garlic rolled across the counter.

“It is now.” She smiled at them. It was almost wicked, that taunting grin. “You,” she pointed at Tony. “With a name like de Luca you should know your way around a Bolognese sauce.”

Tony nodded. The pile of ripe Roma tomatoes called to him.

“Really. Lakisha, we can’t.” Ray protested. Tony listened hard for any enthusiasm in his partner’s denial and decided there was a chance.

He looked over the kitchen. The Viking range and double ovens said this was a kitchen designed for cooking, and with Sue Ellen under guard at the safe house Tony certainly had no better options.

“Why not?” Lakisha stood in front of Ray with her hands on her hips and a playful scowl on her face. She was wearing leggings and a skirt that seemed to be made from a large colorful scarf. A comfortable looking sweater hung down past her waist. The ensemble was casual and thrown together but it looked elegant to Tony. He wondered what Ray’s hesitation was.

“I…we’d hate to impose.” The scowl became a smile.

“You just want to ask some questions and leave, huh?” She pointed out the windows toward the sullen lake. “And it’s such a nice afternoon to be out. Rayford, slice the damn bread.” She hit him on the arm playfully with a fresh crusty baguette.

He took the loaf in hand and pointed it at her. “I still have some questions.”

Tony smiled. Lakisha and the tomatoes were winning.

“Let’s get the sauce working and then I’ll answer your questions.”

Tony sliced and peeled and crushed. Garlic and onion simmered in a copper bottom skillet. The smell of fresh oregano being finely chopped wafted in the steam rising from the stock pot bubbling with tomatoes. Ray helped, but it seemed he was always being crowded by Lakisha. She reached over and around him for a spice or a bowl. She clucked at him and took over making the bruschetta. They were having their own conversation but Tony didn’t mind. He did know his way around gravy and enjoyed watching them.

Finally the sauce was simmering, an antipasto salad was cooling in the refrigerator, and a bottle of Chianti had appeared. Ray took out the photo of Sean Stuckey and slid it across the table.

“Oh my,” she said softly before Ray asked a question. She looked up at him. “Who is this?”

The look on her face said she recognized him-that she’d seen Sean Stuckey before but didn’t know his name. Lakisha picked up the picture and studied it more closely, cocking her head to one side. There was a look of deep concern on her face.

Tony stayed silent. He didn’t know if Ray would say the name or if it would mean anything to Lakisha.

“You’ve seen this man before.” Ray said. It wasn’t a question. Lakisha took a sip of wine.

“In Los Angeles.” She nodded as she answered. “The last night we were there. Who is this? How did you get this picture?”

“I can’t tell you that.” She scowled at Ray as if to ask why the hell not? “Not yet anyway. You saw this man in Los Angeles the night you all went to the club. Where did you see him? At the club?”

All of the camaraderie and laughter was sucked from the room by the picture. Ray was the interrogator now and Lakisha the witness. Tony saw tension in their faces and their body language.

Lakisha took another sip of the Chianti. “Not at the club. It was at the bar afterward. I remember because…because I thought it was trouble coming.” She picked up her wine glass and walked over to the great windows overlooking the lawn and the lake. The mist had turned to a drizzle, the shoreline was barely visible in the gloom.

Ray moved next to her. Both of them looked out into the dusk. “Tell me about it,” he said.

“I was the last one left with Karen and Dee in the bar. We had a table. I noticed that Karen kept looking over at the bar. This boy…” she tapped the picture Ray was still holding. “He was at the bar…smiling at her.”

“At Karen Hewes?”

“Right.”

“Not at Deanna?”

Lakisha took a small sip of her Chianti. Tony noticed a small trembling from his post nearby. “At all of us at first, but he caught Karen’s eye and she kept looking back at him.”

“Did he approach you…at the table?”

“Not when I was there. I caught his eye once and gave him a hard look. I remember that. Like, leave us alone you little dipshit.”

“And he didn’t?”

Lakisha looked over at Ray. “No. He just sat there and smiled this goofy smile. I’m sure he was stoned. Not drunk-stoned. He had that look. His eyes were pinned.”

“But he never came over to the table.”

“Not while I was there. I told you that. I didn’t stick around long after that though. I was beat and a little drunk and tired and…oh, Rayford,” she paused for a beat and looked into his eyes. “Maybe I should have stayed with them.”

Ray patted her arm, trying to console her while at the same time trying to figure out what had her so distraught. It was Tony who asked the question.

“Why are you so upset, Lakisha?”

She turned to face Tony, her face set and determined now. “Because you have a picture of a man from Los Angeles that I recognize from the last night we were there. You didn’t get this picture from Los Angeles. You took it here, here in the Cities somewhere. You came across the man for some reason and it has a connection to Deanna’s murder. It has to or you wouldn’t have the picture.” Tony looked to Ray for guidance. How much could, or should, they share with her?

“There’s a connection,” Ray said evenly. “We still don’t know what it is, but you’ve just gotten us closer to figuring it out.”

“So who is he?” She walked to the stove to stir the simmering gravy.

Tony could see Ray fighting through the question. How much did they dare share with Lakisha Marland, and to what end? She had already described her encounter with Stuckey in some detail. What would be gained by identifying him by name or elaborating at this point? Did it matter that he was a porn actor? Did it matter that he was Scott Jr.’s roommate? If they told her would she run for the phone to gossip with the other ‘Go Girls’ and tell them the killer was in town? Tony reasoned that if all these questions were caroming around in his head they must be in Ray’s as well.

“I can’t tell you.” Ray looked down at the tabletop. “Not yet anyway.”

“Then get out. Both of you. Get out of my house right now!” Lakisha was pointing toward the front door. “I tell you everything I know and do everything I can to help you find Dee’s killer and you won’t tell me who this motherfucker is? He might be stalking us, Rayford. He might be planning to kill every one of us.” She was trembling in fear or anger or both. Ray stood, his head still down. Tony thought he looked sad.

“I’m sorry,” Ray said softly. “We’ll go. I wish I could tell you more but I can’t. There are a hundred reasons. C’mon Tony.” Ray started walking toward the hall. Tony gave Lakisha a look that he hoped said he was sorry, too.

Ray took the driver’s seat this time. Tony sat quietly on the other side waiting for him to start the car. The afternoon was gone and the drizzle was trying to turn into rain. Water ran in random rivulets down the windshield that was starting to fog from the two men’s breathing.

“We can’t tell her yet,” Ray finally said.

“I know.”

“But do you know why?” Ray turned to Tony, eyebrows arched, inquisitive. Tony wondered if it was one of Ray’s teaching moments.

“I can think of a dozen reasons, maybe more.”

“But the big one…what do you think the most important reason is?” Tony shook his head. All the things that he could think of seemed valid. He looked back at Ray and noticed a sliver of light from the front door and a shadow approaching the car in the drizzle. “It’s because she knows something else and if she has a name or where we came up with the guy it will taint her memory. There’s something else there.”

Both of them jumped at a sharp rapping at the driver’s side window. Ray rolled it down. Lakisha stuck her head inside the car.

“I can’t eat all that pasta by myself. Get back inside. If you can’t tell me-fine.” She turned and strode toward the front door, yelling over her shoulder, “and hurry it up.”

“You heard the lady.” Ray said as he opened his door.

Chapter 25

Swenson and Hong were both surly when Tony pounded on their door just after 9:00 on Sunday morning. No, Stuckey wasn’t there. No, they hadn’t seen him all weekend, not since Friday morning. Most importantly, no, he hadn’t moved any of his stuff out.

When Hong asked why Tony was so intent on finding Sean and asked if he was a suspect or something Tony answered, “No.”

There was no answer when they banged on Angie Arkwright’s door. Tony told Ray it wouldn’t surprise him if she was still wasted and didn’t even hear the knocking. Ray wondered if they were both in the apartment and were refusing to answer the door. Tony noticed movement down the hall out of the corner of his eye.

The frizzy gray haired woman Angie had flipped off the night he’d interviewed her was peering around her door jamb. When he started walking toward her she pulled back and shut the door.

“Ma’am,” Tony said, knocking gently on the door. “Police, ma’am. Could I speak to you a moment?” He rapped again.

“Whadda’ you want?” A raspy old-woman’s voice struggled through the door, leaving ten thousand cigarettes in its wake.

Tony held his gold badge up to the peep hole. “A couple of questions is all. Open the door, please.” Ray joined him, a quizzical look on his face.

“I don’t know nothin’. Leave me be.” Tony could tell she was leaning against the door. She sounded a little afraid.

“Please just open the door so we don’t have to yell. Your neighbors might not like it, cops yelling at your door.” Tony felt the door shudder and saw the knob turn slowly. She only opened it an inch.

“Whadda’ you want?” she asked again in a hissed whisper.

“Do you know the woman in 33? The Arkwright woman?” Tony still had his badge out and up.

“Know who she is. Don’t know her. She a mean ‘un.”

“Mean?”

“Always cussin’ me an’ stickin’ me her finger. I ain’t nosy. I jes’ like to know who’s comin’ an’ goin’.” She was squinting through the barely open door. All Tony could see was a slice of wild gray hair and a watery blue eye deep-set in a thin hard wrinkled face.

“You ever see this guy around?” He held up a picture of Sean Stuckey. The door creaked open another couple of inches.

“I seen him. Hair’s longer now an’ he’s got whiskers.”

“This is an older picture.” It was one of the altered shots, Stuckey’s California look. The old woman had noticed the difference.

Tony got an idea just then and smiled thinly. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“Couple a’ days ago.” She nodded toward Angie’s door down the hall. “He ain’t there now. Some other fella’s in there, though.” The old woman dropped her voice to a whisper. “She sellin’ it, I think.”

“What’s your name, ma’am? I’m Tony. This is my partner, Ray.” Bankston nodded. He was pleased. He had an idea where Tony was going with this woman.

“That boy in some trouble?”

“We just want to talk to him. He’s a little hard to find sometimes.” Tony shrugged, tried a wider smile.

“Uh-huh. John Law knockin’ on the do’ Sunday mornin’ and he ain’t in trouble?”

“We want to talk to him is all.”

“Uh-huh.” The old woman started coughing.

Tony fished a fold of bills out of his pocket and peeled off a twenty. Then he took one of his new cards out of another pocket.

“I could use your help. Now if you see this guy, any time, day or night, you call this number on the bottom.” She reached for the bill. Tony held it back and gave her the card first. “See the number on the bottom?”

“Not without my damn glasses.” She held it close to her tired watery eyes, squinting again. “Where it say cell?” Tony nodded and passed the twenty over.

“That’s the number. You see this guy you call me. If it works out, I’ll have another twenty for you. Deal?”

“Anytime?”

“That’s right.”

“Okay Ray.” She smiled a toothless smile and slammed the door.

“I thought I was Ray.” Bankston was chuckling as they pulled out of the dingy parking lot.

“Well, we look so much alike. I can see where people get us mixed up.” Tony laughed too. “So what now, boss?”

“I think we should rest today. I don’t want to get into it with the Hewes’ woman if her husband’s around, and we can’t find Stuckey. That was a slick move with the old woman.”

“There’s always a peeper. Even on patrol, whenever I’d pull up to a house, a crime scene or a domestic, whatever, I’d look around for the peeper.”

“If she calls let me know. I’ve got a few questions for Mr. Stuckey, too.”

Ray was driving, heading toward the east side of St. Paul to drop Tony at home. They rode in silence, each of them content with their own private thoughts.

Ray was getting comfortable with his young partner and appreciated that he didn’t talk just to make noise-that he waited until he had worked through a question before he asked for help. He liked that he didn’t leap to conclusions, too. So often the new ones, the youngsters, would be so eager to make their mark they tried to make the evidence fit some preconceived notion instead of letting it guide them.

Tony was simply enjoying the silence, watching familiar scenery slide past, letting go of the dozens of questions in his mind. He needed rest, he knew that. He also knew if he didn’t blank out the details of the murder for a while that things would begin to get confused. Maybe he’d go to the gym and work out. That helped sometimes, cleared some cobwebs. Maybe he’d call Sue Ellen later, see how life in the safe house was. He laughed to himself when he got the idea that what he should really do is check out a couple of the old Latin Kings haunts, find Garcia, and shoot him.

As they turned onto Tony’s street Ray gave a low grunt and pointed toward a SUV idling at the curb in front of his house. They could see three heads in the vehicle even though the windows were tinted.

“Someone’s waiting for you,” Ray said.

Tony wondered if the Latin Kings had somehow gotten through the barricade around his identity. Ray stopped the car in the middle of the street a half block away. Tony was just reaching for the Glock under his left arm when a man exited the SUV from the driver’s door. The big man lit a cigarette. It was Marc Giordano. Tony remained tense but left the gun in its holster. Ray drove alongside the SUV.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked when he got out of the car. Marco smiled at him and he relaxed.

“Oh, nothing,” Marco replied in a teasing sing song voice. He flicked the butt away. The rear door opened and Sue Ellen slid from the seat. Marco retrieved a clipboard and pen.

“Sign,” he commanded, and thrust an official looking document in Tony’s hands. “And welcome to the team.”

With his signature on the document Tony officially joined the protection detail for assistant district attorney S. E. McConnel as the SPPD’s liason officer.

Tony was puzzled but pleased. This must have been the tricky thing Sue Ellen had mentioned the night before that she was working on. While Tony and Marco were discussing the protectee’s eventual return to the safe house Sue Ellen was talking with her Uncle Ray at the car window. Before Tony could say good bye to him Ray dropped the car into gear and took off, leaving his grinning niece standing in the road. Marco left too.

“So how does this work?” Tony was smiling and untangling keys on his front stoop. “This protection thing.”

Sue Ellen was standing back from the steps admiring the small tidy house. It was pale green-almost-gray stucco with white shutters and trim. There was a large bare tree in the yard and not a leaf in sight, the browning grass cut short, and the walkway trimmed. Tony kept his home neat.

“Anyone comes after me you shoot ’em. Pretty simple.” Sue Ellen was wearing a khaki mid-calf length skirt with a denim blouse. A heavy sweater was draped over her shoulders, but the day was warm for October, last night’s rain a memory. Her bright red lipstick was perfectly applied and inviting.

“Okay, next question. How did you get Marco and the Marshal’s Service to go along with this?” Tony finally got the door open and with a sweep of his arm invited her in.

“I sighed-a lot.” She brushed against him as she entered the house. Her perfume smelled expensive and wonderful to Tony. “I mean a lot. I’d read part of a file and sigh real loud. In a few minutes I’d do it again. Finally Marco made a call and told me to get my butt ready, he was handing me off to you for the day.”

Tony closed the front door and she slipped easily into his arms. It was a long time before either of them talked again.

Sue Ellen spied the arch over the hallway that led to the bedrooms and took Tony by the hand. She paused to peer into a small bedroom he’d made into an office and into a sparkling tiled bathroom that had either been immaculately maintained in its original vintage or restored. At the end of the hall was the bedroom. It wasn’t a large room. Nothing about the house was on any grand scale. There weren’t any clothes littering the floor. Several pictures were arranged on the dresser, photos of a couple in different dress and times-children and parents growing up in each one. The quaint double bed was neatly made up.

In a very short time there were clothes littering the floor and the quaint double bed was no longer made up. It had a delightful squeak to it, antique wood joints laughed and squealed as Sue Ellen and Tony tussled and tumbled while they made love; sometimes frantically desperate and urgent-sometimes slow, simply letting their breathing move them.

The low lazy October sun was peeking in below nearly drawn shades before they rested. They weren’t done. They were just resting. Tony had the thought that they might not be done for years. He felt very protective.

“Are you hungry?” he asked right after his stomach made a low growling noise.

Sue Ellen laughed. “And here I thought I’d finally found the perfect man. Kind, sensitive, picks up his clothes, makes the bed. And after sex all he wants to do is eat.”

“Is that a yes or no?” He was melded to the curve of her backside in the narrow bed; warm, happy, and spent. His stomach growled again. She wriggled against him.

“Don’t tell me you can cook, too.”

“I’ll do better than that missy. I’ll show you.” Tony slipped from the bed. Sue Ellen watched him search through the dresser and smiled wickedly at his trim backside and powerful legs. Then a soft cotton cloth covered her face when Tony tossed a pair of lounge pants at her. “Those will work.” He slipped into a faded pair of jeans, still grinning, and left her in the bed.

She tracked him down finally, busy in the kitchen. A rosy looking Bloody Mary waited for her on a small breakfast table by the patio doors. Outside on the deck a massive stainless steel grill stood sentinel over planters and redwood stained Adirondack chairs. Then she spied two squat bowls.

“You have a dog?”

“Part time. I’ll introduce you in a minute.”

Tony busied himself at the stove and Sue Ellen tried her drink. It was tart and not too hot, nearly perfect. She’d have to teach him that she didn’t like olives. When she looked back outside the part time dog was staring in, tail wagging. She opened the door.

“Meet Boof.”

The dog eyed her warily but didn’t bark.

“Hello Boof.” She held out her hand for him to sniff. “How do you get a part time dog?”

“He belongs to Dot and Benny next door. The yards are kinda’ small here and mine’s all fenced too. We put a gate in for him so he’d have more room to run.”

“He’s cute.” Boof apparently decided she smelled okay and gave her a lick. “What is he?”

The dog was long and low to the ground. Boof had oversized floppy ears, sad wet eyes and tremendous paws. Sue Ellen thought he looked kind of like a Basset Hound but he was covered in black curly fur.

“Good question- and not the first time it’s been asked.” Tony sipped his own drink. He was about to share the theories that had been posed over the years when his cell phone rang. “Damn it.” He looked at the screen. The caller ID number was unfamiliar.

“Ray?” It was the old woman from the apartment house.

“This is Ray.” Sue Ellen looked confused.

“That boy here now. Come in jes’ a minute ago. To that girl’s place.”

“He’s there now?”

“Uh-huh. You said to call.” Tony rubbed his face with his free hand, thinking that the old crone sure has lousy timing. No, Stuckey has lousy timing. He was starting to hate Sean Stuckey.

“How long ago did he get there?”

“I tole you, jes’ now. Not five minute ago.” The old woman sounded a little pissed.

“Okay. What’s your name? You never told me your name.”

“It’s Connie.”

“Connie, if you see him leave call me right away. Can you do that?”

“You gonna’ gimme another twenty?”

“Sure. Sure I will. Now you call me if he leaves.”

“I will Ray. You kin count on me.” She clicked off.

Tony, frowning now, turned off the stove and turned to Sue Ellen and Boof. Both of them were looking at him with raised eyebrows.

“We have to go.”

Sue Ellen sighed and gave the part time dog one more scratch. Tony dialed Ray’s number. He was afraid it was going to roll to voice mail it rang for so long, but Ray caught it in time.

“Stuckey’s at the girl’s apartment,” Tony said evenly. He was surprised when Ray responded with a healthy “goddamnit!” “Meet me there in a half hour?”

“It’ll take me closer to forty-five minutes, maybe an hour?”

The Twin Cities aren’t that big and on a Sunday afternoon traffic would be light, Tony puzzled. “Where are you?”

“I’m out in Mi…I’m a ways out.” Ray replied. Tony thought he sounded a little sheepish. Minnetonka? Lakisha Marland? No wonder the old guy thought it was worth a cussing, Tony chuckled to himself. You rascal.

“What are you grinning about?” Sue Ellen was dressed, ready to go back to the safe house and not happy about it.

“Misery loves company.”

Chapter 26

Ray made good time from the wilds of Minnetonka. He pulled in behind Tony just minutes after he had arrived. Tony was in his Ford pickup. Ray was in an unmarked Crown Victoria-unmarked but still with a siren and light, both of which Tony would bet had seen recent use.

De Luca was wearing his jeans and a SPPD logo tee shirt under a weathered black leather jacket. He wore his pistol in a clip holster high on his right hip. He was ready to play the bad cop. Ray was wearing the same charcoal gray suit he’d had on that morning but his tie was gone. He had flipped his badge wallet open and tucked it in the breast pocket of his suit coat.

“You cussed.” Tony grinned when he said it. Ray started with an angry look that melted into one that might have been amusement.

“So did you.” Ray replied, and punched his young partner on the shoulder. “He still here?”

“Connie didn’t call to say he left.”

“That’s her name, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Ray…I guess you owe her another twenty bucks. Let’s go see Mr. Stuckey.”

They met Sean heading down the second floor stairwell. Tony was glad he didn’t have to spend time with Angie again, even if it would only have been long enough to escort Stuckey out of the building. They all clomped down the narrow stairs and out onto the sidewalk.

“We have some questions,” Ray said evenly. He was Stuckey’s height, but seemed taller. He looked directly, unflinching, into the young man’s eyes.

“What if I don’t have any fuckin’ answers?” For once Stuckey didn’t have his backpack over a shoulder. He was having trouble deciding what to do with his hands without the strap to hang onto.

“Detective de Luca has his cuffs with him. I’ll arrest you right here and now if you give me any more lip, kid.” Ray didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t smile, or frown, or flinch, or even blink.

“For what?” Stuckey’s voice rose. The end of his question squeaked.

“Murder.”

“Why are you coming down on me for all this? I didn’t do anything,” Stuckey whined.

“You lied to us, Mr. Stuckey. That’s not a good thing to do in a murder investigation.”

“I didn’t lie. I haven’t. Not once.” The look on his face didn’t match the conviction in his voice. A handful of orphaned leaves danced in a stray breeze in the entryway.

“There are two ways this can go now, Mr. Stuckey. We’re going to have a talk. We can do it back over in St. Paul at headquarters or we can go have a cup of coffee at that diner I saw up the block.” Ray finally moved his head when he nodded toward the diner but his eyes never left Stuckey’s. “If we go to that diner I expect you to behave. If you start yelling and cussin’ us then it’s back to St. Paul and right damn now.”

The three men were the only ones in the small diner besides one bored waitress and a cook that was clattering away in the back. They took a booth in the rear, past the short lunch counter. The frayed blue and white striped leatherette was slightly sticky and the linoleum on the tabletop showed skid-tracks, testament to the thousands of blue plate specials that had been slid across its tired surface. Ray and Tony sat on one side, facing Sean Stuckey. They were both watching him for the flinches and perspiration and darting eyes that would shout Liar as sure as the buzzing neon sign like the one in the front of the cafe shouted Open.

“So what did I lie about?” Sean dumped two sugars in his coffee and stirred it for a long time.

“You lied about meeting the women in LA, at least some of them.”

“Scotty’s mom? I never met her out there. I met her once at their house, that’s all.”

“April nineteenth. Late. You were in a bar trying to get Mrs. Fredrickson and a friend of hers to notice you. Trying to pick them up, maybe? Have a little fun with some hot moms?” Stuckey flinched when Ray used the term ‘hot moms’. It stung him. Ray meant for it to.

“No.” Stuckey was staring at his coffee cup, shaking his head slowly, obviously deep in thought, trying to remember. “No. I don’t remember. I never met Scotty’s mom until that afternoon at the house.” He looked up at Ray, pleading with his eyes, searching. “I mean, if we’d met there wouldn’t she have recognized me? At the house? Wouldn’t she have said something?”

“You looked different then.”

“How do you know?”

Tony fished a picture out of his jacket and held it up. “We know.”

“Where did you…” the question died on Sean’s lips. It didn’t matter where they got the picture. It didn’t matter how.

“You also lied about your career in the movie business.” Sean didn’t say anything. Tony was surprised at that. He’d been pretty vocal in his denials up until then. “We came across one of the earlier episodes.”

“They’re all supposed to be gone. Erased. Bought up,” Stuckey said softly, so low they had to strain to hear him. “Holtzman, the old man, he spent close to a million to get his kids off the hook, to keep it quiet.”

“The reality is that there are still some out there.”

Stuckey nodded. Tony thought he saw a flicker of something behind the young man’s downcast eyes, something that looked like hatred and defiance. He wondered if Ray was seeing it too. It was like Stuckey was steeling himself for a fight-that he was preparing for battle.

Stuckey must have noticed how closely Tony was watching him. The look of defiance seamlessly transformed into one of fear, of defeat. His eyes moistened and a surprising lone tear rolled down one cheek.

“I was dying out there. I was broke and flunking out and doing every drug I could get my hands on. I was dying. Skip and Todd, that was the Holtzman kids, they cooked up this bullshit pay-per-view porn deal. They talked me into it.” Stuckey turned his head and looked out at the deserted dark street. A lone car disappeared in the distance.

“Okay, it wasn’t too hard to get me to go along. They had the drugs and cash and, well, I’m not very picky sometimes. Especially when I’m trippin’. They bullied their old man’s crews out of gear and had a friend who knew the computer shit.”

Tony looked at Ray as if to ask ‘are you buying this?’ Ray shrugged and let Stuckey continue.

“At first it was a joke-all a big game. We’d get coked out of our fucking minds and find some old gal who liked young meat and they’d film it. They did that like three times. The video was really shitty and the women…” he shook his head. “It was just too weird, man. Then one night I dropped a tab of acid before the shoot. I had to. It was out of control. That night was the end of the amateurs. Bad scene. I don’t think that one ever got put in play.” Stuckey took a sip of cold coffee and grimaced.

“After that they’d hire hookers and shit. Then they wanted to get in on the action. Skip. Todd. One of them. I can’t remember which one-he had a pretty big dick so we’re going to tag team this one old whore. That’s the night we got busted.”

They waited for the waitress to refill their cups. She must have heard part of the conversation because she gave Stuckey a look that would have scared him if he’d seen it.

“Well, King Louie, that was the dad…he went nuts. Got the lawyers working, hell, he even got me one. A good one. He hired some guys to track down the vids and buy ’em up. Broke up the servers. Word was he spent almost a million bucks to keep his kids out of jail, but mostly to keep the name Holtzman and his film company out of the press. Royal Cinematic Productions does not do porn. Yeah, right.”

“And you?” Tony asked.

Stuckey gave him a smart ass smile. “I was told to disappear. He laid enough money on me to start over out here and here I am.”

“Interesting story,” Ray said. It was surprising how nearly it dovetailed with the story Carol had gotten from the woman in Los Angeles. Still, Ray thought, the best liars use a lot of truth to make their stories believable. He wondered if that was going on here.

“It still doesn’t explain how I’ve got a very good witness that puts you in a bar with the Fredrickson woman.”

“I don’t remember. Half the time I didn’t even know my name. Why didn’t she recognize me at her house, huh?”

“And speaking of the house…” Tony was trying to bore a hole in Sean Stuckey with a dark stare. “How did your fingerprints get upstairs? You went over to watch TV. That’s in the basement.”

“Upstairs?” For the first time Stuckey’s eyes started dancing, flitting from place to place, not really seeing anything-just flicking right and left.

“Halftime. At halftime I had to piss. Everyone did. I went looking for a bathroom upstairs.”

“You didn’t go looking for Deanna Fredrickson to let her know you remembered her? Shake her down for some money?”

“I told you, dude, I needed to pee. Look, I’ve been very, uh…forthcoming here. Lighten up.” Ray put a hand on Tony’s arm.

“That makes sense, right Tony. The prints were on the bathroom door, off the hallway.” Stuckey replayed the smart ass smile and waggled a finger at the detectives. “Nice try, guys. The bathroom was off the master bedroom. I remember leaning in, looking for the can. That’s where I must have left a print.”

“Nice try, Sean. There’s a full bath off the hall before you even get to the bedroom.”

“But detective, it was full of Hong at the time.” The attitude was back, Stuckey’s remorse and shame gone. “Look, you got anything else?”

“Not right now.”

Stuckey slid out of the booth and looked down at Bankston and de Luca. “Okay, I didn’t tell you everything about the web deal. I admit it. But I’ve got a fresh start going out here. I’m clean and mostly sober. I did not kill Scotty’s mom. I hope you find out who did. They should fry.”

“You buy all that?” Tony asked Ray. He was leaning over the open car window. Ray had just taken him back to Angie’s dumpy apartment building and his truck.

“Not all of it. He made some sense out of the upstairs print though.”

Tony looked skeptical.

“I mean, the woman wasn’t home.”

“Yeah boss, but what if he left a note?”

“You have suspicious mind, Detective de Luca.”

“I also wonder if our film student can act with more than his pecker.”

“Eerie. I just had the same idea.”

“I have a good teacher.” Tony smiled. “Got a twenty on you, Ray? I need to pay Connie and I’m a little short.”

Chapter 27

Monday morning dawned cold and clear. Tony and Ray had a good angle on the Hewes’ house from where they were parked, patiently waiting for Gary Hewes to leave for work so they could have a quiet talk with Karen.

After paying Connie her bounty, Tony headed home the night before with mixed emotions and disjointed thoughts both bothering and pleasing him. He had a long talk with the part time dog. Tony laid out what he knew about the murder and the evidence they had in hand. More and more the vane swung toward Sean Stuckey as the killer.

A quick call to David Hong didn’t clear anything up. Hong remembered using the upstairs bathroom the afternoon they watched the game, but there were no fingerprints left behind. Hong never saw Stuckey upstairs at all. He pressed Tony to tell him why he wanted to know about it.

Boof wasn’t impressed. Tony was confused. True, none of Stuckey’s alibis were solid but there was a rational reasonable excuse in every instance. He could have simply confused the movies and been in class the morning of the murder. He could have innocently used the master bath that Sunday afternoon. Tony was looking forward to talking with Karen Hewes. Maybe she had a puzzle piece squirreled away. Boof was looking forward to another biscuit.

And then, when Tony finally crawled into bed he smelled Sue Ellen. He smelled her perfume on the pillows and her sweat and musk on the sheets. He finally drifted off to sleep letting thoughts of the woman push the thoughts of the murder from his tired mind.

Ray was very quiet and thoughtful while they watched for Gary Hewes’ departure. He didn’t volunteer where he went after the talk with Stuckey. Tony respected him enough not to ask. It seemed that they took turns checking their watches every five minutes or so. As 8:30 came and went Ray commented that the fella’ ought to be heading to work any time now. When 8:45 rolled past Tony wondered aloud if the dude was maybe out of town or something. There was no activity at the house. The shades were drawn. A rolled newspaper waited on the front walk.

At 9:00 Ray started squirming in his seat, complaining. They had been there for over two hours. At 9:20 Tony said that enough was enough. Ten minutes later Ray agreed.

Karen answered the door after the first knock, surprised that it was the two detectives. She let them in and directed them to the large oak table they had sat at before. She was dressed in a light blue warm up suit and shiny white running shoes. Her hair was shiny and well brushed, framing her face perfectly and she wore her makeup well, not heavy or garish-just a hint of blush and lipstick and accented eyes.

Tony kept a wary eye on the doorway, expecting her husband to come charging in again, challenging him, making things much more difficult than they needed to be.

“I apologize again for my husband the other day,” Karen said. She glanced over at the doorway too.

“Is he home?” Ray asked. The answer came from the doorway, a voice echoed down the stairs.

“Who’s down there, Karen? Is someone down there?” The questions tailed off into a fit of juicy coughing.

“Gary’s got the flu. He’s been snorting and hacking all weekend.”

“Mmm, that’s a shame.” Ray said, not meaning it.

“I’m starting to get worried. He’s so weak.” She looked to the doorway again. Tony couldn’t decide if it was concern on her face or fear.

“We have a few more questions if you have the time.”

“Honeeeey? Bring me some water.” Gary Hewes was screwing up the interview from his damn sick bed, Tony fumed.

“Why don’t you see to him,” Ray suggested.

Karen raised a hand and waved off the suggestion. “He’ll be fine. You said it was just a few questions. It won’t take long, will it?”

“If you’re sure,” Ray offered while pulling a picture from his coat pocket. He laid the photo of Sean Stuckey on the table. Ray and Tony both saw it immediately, the change in the woman’s expression. Karen Hewes’ eyes tightened. She clasped her hands together tightly on the tabletop, so tight her knuckles whitened. They both noticed her jaw muscles clenching and relaxing and tightening again.

“Honeeey?” Gary’s pleading echoed pitifully down the stairwell and through the door. Her head snapped in that direction, her visage giving way to fear…panic almost.

“Do you recognize this man?” Ray was a portrait of calm, his half-smile aimed at the desperate woman. Tony felt like he was watching a tennis match, his head swiveling from the scene at the table to the doorway and back. Karen pushed up from her chair.

“No. I’ve never seen this person.” She went to the kitchen, to the coffee maker and poured a mug full. “My manners.” She croaked out a bitter laugh. “Can I get you a cup?”

Tony shook his head but Ray said, “please”.

“Karen, goddamn it!” Upstairs, Gary’s yelling dissolved into another fit of coughing. Karen’s hand trembled while she poured Ray’s coffee. The hacking sounds continued to bounce off the stairwell walls.

“You see, we have some interest in this person.” Ray tapped the photograph. “He might have some connection to Mrs. Fredrickson’s murder.” Tony noticed that Ray wasn’t letting out any details, wasn’t mentioning Lakisha’s observations or the fact that they knew Stuckey had been in LA in April.

“Oh my.” Karen made a point of not looking at the picture again and held her head high. She didn’t allow her eyes to drift down to it. The coughing finally stopped. Tony wondered if the guy had horked up a lung.

“What kind of connection?” she finally asked.

“We’re not sure just yet.” It occurred to Ray that he was telling her the truth. They weren’t sure what the connection was.

“Is there any danger? Am I…are we in any danger?” There was desperation in her voice. Karen backed from the table as if the picture laying there threatened her. Her right hand was high on her chest with her fingers touching her throat.

Tony was studying her face. He was trying to make sense of the change that had come over it, the change from fear to…what?

She looked like she’d just had a revelation.

“You guys!” Gary lurched into the doorway, leaning heavily on the jamb. He had on limp pale blue pajamas and a striped robe. His skin was gray and ashen. His eyes were red rimmed and painful looking. He coughed thickly, a deep chest rumble. Tony stood up, not to confront him, but to retreat from the spray when Gary sneezed repeatedly.

“They just have a few questions.” Karen went to her husband, seemingly unafraid of his disease. “It’s okay, honey.” She gave him her shoulder to lean on and led him to the table. Ray stood to gain some distance as well.

“What’s this shit about danger? Who’s in danger?” The question gurgled out of Gary’s chest. He spied the picture on the table and picked it up. “Who’s this?”

“Just a guy. They want to know if I’ve ever see him?” Karen sat close to Gary and patted his chest, trying to calm him. She still wouldn’t look at the photograph again.

“Well, have you?” Gary coughed out. He filched a sodden wad of tissue from the robe pocket and blew into it.

“No. Never.”

“There you go detectives. She’s never seen him. Who is he anyway?”

“Someone we came across in the course of the investigation,” Ray said, still not giving anything up.

“Is it possible he killed Deanna?” Karen lowered her head to her husband’s chest. She was letting him protect her now, Tony thought.

“There hasn’t been an arrest.”

“Well, there you go. Anything else?” Gary Hewes was doing all the asking and answering for his wife again. Ray looked to Tony and shook his head.

“Not right now. Thank you for the coffee. I hope you feel better soon, Mr. Hewes.” Both detectives moved toward the door.

“Hey, you forgot your picture,” Gary called after them. Tony scrunched his face. Hewes had sneezed and coughed all over it. He wasn’t going to touch it. No way in hell.

“You keep it,” Ray said. “We’ve got others.”

Tony was very careful not to touch his face with his hands and warned Ray not to either. “Plague house.”

Ray chuckled, but he didn’t touch anything but the steering wheel.

“I wasn’t going to touch that picture, no way,” Tony declared.

“Doesn’t matter. I was going to leave it there anyway. That was a very interesting encounter.”

“She lied.”

“Damn straight she lied, and she knows that we know she lied.” Ray was agitated, fired up enough to cuss. “I have some more questions for that woman.”

“Maybe the husband will croak.”

“Be serious, Tony.”

“I am serious, Ray. That dude’s in tough shape. Maybe a trip to the hospital, anyway.”

“She knows something. Something about Stuckey.”

“She saw him at the bar. Lakisha is certain.” Tony was flipping through his notebook, scanning pages near the front. Ray kept quiet, curious what the young detective was searching for, what he might have remembered.

“Got it! She lied all right.” Tony tapped his notebook. “Deanna and Karen were at the house one time, the boy’s place. Not long ago, either. Hong said he and Stuckey were playing video games. The women were looking for Scotty.”

“Any other notes? Did he say it looked like they recognized each other?”

“Nope.”

“You plan on asking him about it? Hong?”

Tony thought for a minute “I do…but I need some advice. How do I quiz the roommate without him getting more suspicious about Stuckey? He’s already making noises when I ask more questions.”

“He’s a good kid, this David Hong?”

“Seems to be. Yeah, he’s all right.”

“Let me talk to him. I’ve run into this before. Let’s give him a tour of the station, bring him in.”

“Arrest him?” Tony was a cop. That’s what ‘bring him in’ usually meant.

“Recruit him,” Ray said. “We need a spy.”

Chapter 28

Key’s Cafe on Raymond Avenue is a small place with big food. Tony and David Hong met Ray there after the lunch throng thinned out. The hot roast beef special was gone but there was still baked turkey with all the fixings, Thanksgiving in October. A practice run. David appreciated it.

Ray sipped his coffee, the cafe’s custom McGarvey blend, set the heavy cup down, and said, “We need your help, David.”

“This has to do with Sean, right? He had something to do with Missus F’s murder, didn’t he?” David herded the last of the gravy onto the last of his homemade roll.

“I’ll tell you the truth. At this point we’re not sure, not sure at all. Before I get into it we need to come to an understanding.”

Tony wondered how much of their suspicions Ray was going to share with this young man and what kind of understanding Ray was proposing.

David grinned. A drop of cranberry sauce was stuck in the corner of his mouth. “I ask too many questions, don’t I?”

“Curiosity is a natural thing,” Ray said, pointing at the corner of his own half-smile. Hong took the hint. “I question everything, but that’s my job. Detective de Luca is a curious sort too.”

“Look, ask me whatever you want. I won’t let on to Sean that I’ve talked to you. I don’t even like the guy.”

“Do you dislike him?” It was Ray’s show but Tony had to ask the question, had to butt in. If Hong had a score to settle with Stuckey he might remember things in a different light and that could lead them down a wrong path.

“No. He’s just a guy, a roomie. We don’t hang together. We just live in the same house. He’s not around much.” David shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

“This is what it is, David. We have a few questions for you, very pointed questions, and as soon as we ask them a whole lot of things are going to start banging around in your head. I can’t tell you where we are in the investigation, but you’re going to think it’s heading in a certain direction.”

Hong nodded. He understood what Ray was getting at.

“Tony says you’re a good guy, that we can trust you. Can we trust you not to say anything to Stuckey about these things?”

“I haven’t yet.” David smiled again. There was a brief intermission while the waitress cleared the empty plates. She asked if they wanted more coffee and tempted them with the news that an apple pie had just come out of the oven. Tony and David gave in to that temptation.

“No, you haven’t. Tony?” Ray looked over seeking his partner’s approval.

“David, a while back you told me that Mrs. Fredrickson and a friend of hers, Mrs. Hewes came by the house looking for Scotty.”

“Yeah. Karen.”

“Karen. And you mentioned that Sean was there. You were gaming or something.” David looked out over the nearly empty restaurant, thinking. The waitress dropped off two enormous slices of steaming apple pie and topped off all their coffees.

“Sure. I remember. Now that you mention it, it was a little weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Sean, he was like, ignoring her. Karen. She’s hard to ignore.”

“Attractive woman.” Tony nodded in agreement.

“Scotty’s mom had gone straight back to the kitchen. I don’t know why, but Karen was just standing at the side of the couch scoping out Sean.”

“Scoping him out?”

“Staring at him.”

“Did they talk to each other?”

“No. I think she was about to say something but Scotty’s mom yelled at her from the kitchen and she never did. She went to the kitchen and then they split right away. Barely said goodbye.”

“And Sean never acknowledged her?”

“Like I said, he just played the game. In my opinion he was ignoring her, but he might have just been into it, you know.” Tony made some notes. Ray asked the next question.

“Has Sean ever talked about living in Los Angeles, what he did out there?” David chewed while he thought about it.

“Not really. He says he’s here on scholarship. He doesn’t have a job but he’s always got money.”

“Is he into drugs that you know of?” Tony thought David flinched at the question.

“He looks a little strung out sometimes. He keeps some pretty crazy hours.”

“Crazy how?”

“I don’t know.” Another shrug. “He comes in at like three or four, goes out that late too, sometimes.”

“He ever say where he’s going?”

“Nah. Like I said, he keeps to himself a lot.” Tony put his hand on the big Samoan kid’s shoulder.

“You’ve been a big help, David.”

“Is it important? I mean, that Karen was checking him out? Do they know each other?” Ray chuckled. “See, I told you all kinds of things would start banging around in your head. Seriously, son, that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

“David, there’s one more thing we need from you.”

“Sure, whatever.”

“I’m going to give you my cell number.” Tony started writing while he talked. “I want you to call me if Sean starts moving his stuff out or if you see or hear anything…I don’t know…strange.”

David Hong flashed a broad toothy smile. “Davie Hong, agent XXL is on the case, dude.” He gave the detectives a sloppy Boy Scout salute. Ray winced at that. This was serious…serious as death.

“David.” Tony leaned over, scowling.

“This is cool. Like when you were undercover, right Tony? Seriously man, you can count on me. I can do this.”

Tony was behind the wheel. He and Ray were making their way back to headquarters and the squad room. Notes needed to be entered into the crime file, interviews needed to be logged, and they hadn’t checked in with Carol Offord all day.

“Do you think the kid’s solid?” Ray was studying his notebook, ignoring the mysterious mid-afternoon backup on the interstate. He was trying to make sense of Hong’s observations, asking himself question after question, trying to make a link. Had Stuckey simply been into the video game or was he pointedly ignoring Karen Hewes? If he recognized her and was snubbing her, what did that mean? And what was it the kid said, Karen was ‘scoping him out’? Did she just then recognize him? From LA? From whatever happened that night in the bar?

Tony snatched the mic off the dashboard and spoke into it. “Delta-14, repeat last.”

Ray was in the bad habit of tuning out the ongoing chatter on the radio. Tony, on the other hand, was not far removed from being on patrol and was able to keep an awareness of the various crimes and misdemeanors being reported and dispatched in a corner of his consciousness.

“10–30 at 1396 Milton.”

“That’s the Hewes’ address,” Tony said before keying the mic again. “Delta-14 en-route.”

“Copy Delta-14.” The dispatcher replied dryly. Tony toggled the grille lights and siren. Ray reached for the roof light on the seat between them.

“Silent alarm, right?” Ray wasn’t as up on all of the codes as Tony. The siren squawked. Cars and trucks jerked right and left, trying to clear a path for the police car on the packed highway. Tony set his sights on the nearest off ramp and threaded through the meager haphazard path he had to work with.

Once off the interstate Tony set a course for the Hewes’ house and backed off the siren. It wasn’t far. They pulled up behind a K-9 unit that had just arrived. Tony was out of the car first.

“De Luca, I thought you left all this behind.” Officer Carl Younger was an old acquaintance of Tony’s, not really a friend, but they had been at many crime scenes together over the years. Bankston joined them by the K-9 unit, eyeing the big shepherd in the back seat warily. The big black dog was alert and intense but not barking.

“This house-people we have something going with live here.”

“How do you want to do it?” Younger was deferring to the gold badge, letting the detectives decide how to proceed. That and he recognized Ray Bankston…Sergeant Ray Bankston.

“Get a unit in the alley and watch the front. Ray and I’ll see what’s up.”

Carl got the big shepherd out of the car while talking urgently into the mic clipped to his shoulder. He took up station at the front of the house. Ray and Tony headed around the side, through a low chain link gate to the side door to get a look in the back yard.

The house was quiet. There was no one in the yard. The side door was closed and the shade drawn. A patrol car skidded to a stop in the alley behind the fence, next to the Hewes’ garage. Tony trotted over to speak with the officer, to tell him to keep an eye out and both ears open and that he and Ray were going in.

When the shepherd barked Tony whipped his head toward the house. Ray was shaking his head, telling him silently that it wasn’t anything to worry about. Tony strode over to join Ray at the side of the back door. Ray looked calm but his pistol was out, held down by his thigh. Tony stepped to the right side of the door. Ray took position on the left. Tony nodded to him before he rapped on the door frame loudly.

“Mrs. Hewes? Karen? “ Tony shouted. There was no answer. He rapped again. “Mrs. Hewes? It’s Detective de Luca.”

There was a storm door with a lever latch. Tony signaled to Ray to grab it when he pulled it open. Just as Tony reached for the knob the door opened about six inches. Karen peered out, first seeing Ray holding the storm door open with one hand and a matte black pistol in his other, and Tony, his hand still reaching for the knob.

“Jesus!” Karen jerked the door wider and jumped back. Tony edged around, stuck his head in the doorway and scanned the room.

“Are you okay?” He took a cautious step inside, his hand resting on the butt of his pistol. “Are you alone?”

Karen didn’t know what to do with her hands. She brushed back her hair, wrung them in front of her, and finally wrapped her arms around her torso under her chest.

“Did you set off the alarm?”

She nodded her head forcefully. “And I called 9-1-1.” She was a little breathless. Tony looked around for her husband. “There was someone out there.” She pointed toward the back yard.

“In the yard?”

“Yes.” She was still pointing, jabbing her finger toward the window over the sink. “In the yard. A man.” Tony heard footsteps behind him, and a scraping sound. Gary Hewes was crouched in the archway to the dining room, swaying unsteadily. He had a rifle in his hands.

“Whoa! Shit!” Tony held his hands up shoulder high. His face was set, serious and frowning. “Gary, put that god-damned thing down. NOW!”

Gary Hewes looked worse than he had that morning. He was grayer and tired looking, even more wretched and wasted than before. He looked confused and uncertain. He held the rifle, a scoped Remington it looked like to Tony, at port arms. He didn’t look like he had the strength left to shoulder the weapon.

“What’s going on? Karen?” Tony walked over to him and gently took the gun from his hands. Gary relinquished it willingly, as if it had been a burden too heavy to carry in his weakened condition. “What the hell’s going on?” She went over to help him, propped him up, and guided him to a chair.

“There was someone in the back yard, sneaking around.”

“Did he try the door?” Ray moved closer. The pistol had disappeared, exchanged for his notepad.

“No. I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

“Did you recognize him?” Ray worked hard to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

“No.”

“Sometimes the neighbor kids will cut through the yard,” Gary offered blearily. “After school. Saves ’em a block or two.”

“It wasn’t a neighbor kid!” Karen barked.

“Did you get a good look at him? Can you describe him?” Ray had his pen poised, waiting while Karen wrung her hands some more and looked toward the window.

“He was maybe five ten or eleven. Jeans. Hooded sweatshirt. Gray or tannish colored. The hood was up.”

“Anything else?”

“He was white, I could tell that, but I didn’t get a good look at his face. And he had a scraggly sort of beard.” Ray made the notation, wondering how she could identify his race but not his face.

Karen looked up hopefully at the two detectives. Ray assured her she did fine, that it was a good description and excused himself and Tony for a minute. He said they needed to talk to the officers outside. They left Karen and Gary anxiously huddled together at the big oak table.

“Pretty good description.” Tony had a skeptical look on his face, a mirror of Ray’s.

“Yeah…of Sean Stuckey.”

“What the hell is going on here, Ray?”

Standing at the side of the house Bankston could see two squad cars in front and two in the alley. He had some bodies to work with, and a big black German shepherd.

“I’m going to get these guys working the neighborhood. I want you to go back inside and gently…gently, get her to give you another description. Find out how long before she saw this dude before she triggered the alarm. Find out if Typhoid Gary saw anything or heard anything, but I doubt he did. And make him lock up that damn rifle.”

Ray turned and headed for the cops in front first. He wanted that dog to start working. Maybe Stuckey had been in the yard. The guy was going to need another alibi in any case. Ray hoped that for once it would be a good one.

Sean Stuckey was out of passes and there were no get-out-of-jail cards on the table.

Chapter 29

“The funeral’s day after tomorrow.”

Carol Offord was driving. Ray shared the front seat with her. Tony and Jonny Kumpula were lounging in the back as they sped south on I-35. They were headed toward Austin, Minnesota, the home of Spam.

Kumpula loved Spam. By the time they passed the massive Cabelas complex outside Faribault he had told them much more than they ever wanted to know about the ubiquitous lunch meat and given them a half dozen recipes that none would ever dare try.

Carol was trying to get their heads into the case. They were heading for a house in the farmlands outside of the small city to meet with Darcy DuPree. She filled them in on the guy and her history with him.

Darcy didn’t like people much. Darcy liked pornography. Carol knew Darcy from a case she had been involved with nearly five years previous. DuPree was famous for trading porn on the internet. He collected still and video images from all over the world. While tracing the recipients of a particularly nasty and illegal kiddie porn broker, Carol ran across Darcy’s computer address and eventually Darcy himself.

Darcy was deathly afraid of child pornography. He had nearly been convicted of trafficking twice. He beat the rap both times by handing over both the images and the distributors, helping the Sex Crimes Unit in setting up a sting.

Dupree might have presided over a warped and disgusting Smithsonian-worthy porn collection, but when the cops came calling he turned into a very cooperative snitch. Carol told them she had contacted him seeking episodes of the ‘Ur MoM is so Hott’ series while Ray and Tony were working the leads.

He had them…all but one. He repeatedly made a point of telling her he didn’t have the last episode, the one where the underage boys were involved, but he seemed to know a hell of a lot about it.

Carol was surprised that any of that last episode’s footage was available, that it even existed. The set had been raided. The whole operation had been shut down. Darcy assured her it was out there but he didn’t have it. She proposed buying copies. Darcy laughed. He said he wanted ‘tit for tat’, and giggled when he said ‘tit’. Darcy disgusted Carol Offord.

This was where Kumpula entered the picture. Carol was crying in her beer, at The Red Door, having a drink with Kump and a few others the night before. She was complaining that this Darcy character had some clips she desperately needed and would only trade for something he didn’t have yet. Kumpula looked sheepish when he told her he might be able to help.

She got Darcy on the phone with Kump and a tentative deal was struck. Darcy wouldn’t hand over the ‘Ur MoM’ episodes until the senior evidence tech proved he had what he said he did. When she quizzed Kumpula about what he was trading he just smiled and said, “You don’t want to know.”

“Are you going?” Carol asked Ray, back in the moment now, referring to the funeral. He nodded.

“I wonder if our pal Stuckey will be there.” Tony said. He was planning to go too.

Kumpula fiddled with an electronic device in his hands. “Turn left on 46.” It was a GPS unit. They were driving through flat vast oceans of brown corn. Some had been harvested but much remained. Combines and pickers plodded through many of the fields, stopping now and then to blow bushels of yellow gold into ramshackle trucks. The stake trucks with peeling faded paint jobs, many with round ancient fenders, were testaments to the thriftiness and the mechanical skills of the farmers that kept the relics running.

“Let’s hope so. You never did run him down last night.” Ray still wanted to hear what Stuckey’s alibi was for yesterday afternoon at around 4:00, when Karen Hewes saw a mysterious man in her back yard.

“Stop the car.” Tony tapped Carol on the shoulder and made her jump. The scenery had changed and as she slowed and finally stopped the car on the narrow two-lane blacktop everyone looked around. Tony climbed out first. The others followed.

They were in the middle of a sprawling wind farm, surrounded by immense electricity generating windmills. Each gigantic structure pointed obediently in the same direction. Three bladed propellers, each easily ninety feet long, spun at the same speed-not in sync with each other, the machines weren’t aligned, but at the identical loping patient gait. It was as if the earth was whispering. It was hypnotic.

“Cool, huh?” Tony was grinning. He slowly turned around as he looked at the machines and said, “I don’t know why, but every time I see a herd of these things it makes me think of dinosaurs.”

“You know what? You’re right,” Kumpula said and slapped him on the back.

Darcy DuPree’s house was almost a half-mile off the tar road, an old farmstead surrounded by remnant towering elms. A caved-in barn and a rusted machine shed lay in ruins nearby. Tony pointed out three separate satellite dishes mounted on the gambrel roof. They waited in the car for a minute to see if any dogs patrolled the dismal brown yard.

DuPree didn’t answer the door right away despite Tony’s insistent knocking. A mean October wind raced over the harvested cornfields unchecked and found every gap in their clothing, used it to chill and irritate the four of them. Tony was using his fist like a hammer, making enough racket to rouse a dead man when DuPree finally opened the door.

“Yes?” Dupree was a tall man, easily six and a half feet tall, with flowing silver hair combed back and tamed with shiny oil that gave it a ropy texture. He wore rectangular black framed glasses. The lenses were so thick they made his eyes look grotesquely large. He had a thin build and was dressed in a blue satin jacket, sporting a colorful ascot. He would have been a handsome, older man except for the cartoonish eyes. Dupree answered the door as if he hadn’t been expecting them.

“Mr. Dupree?” Tony had his gold badge out and ready. Carol put a hand on his arm, keeping it down and out of sight.

“Hello Darcy,” Carol said, a forced insincere smile stuck on her face.

“Miss Carol.” Dupree had a squeaky whiny voice that didn’t match his patrician looks and a pronounced southern accent. He extended a slender, pinkish, long-fingered hand. Tony noticed Carol kept her gloves on when she allowed Dupree to take it. He also noticed that the tall man’s gaze never left Carol’s breasts. She was wearing a turtleneck under a bulky sweater but Dupree was staring as if she were naked.

“This is Detective de Luca, Sergeant Bankston, and our senior evidence technician, Mr. Kumpula.” She was brusque and businesslike with the introductions. “You spoke with Mr. Kumpula.”

“Please, please come in.” Dupree held the door wide and gestured. Carol shifted to Tony’s side, away from DuPree, and hugged his arm close when they passed him.

The living room was nothing short of elegant, a complete and shocking contrast to the dilapidated, decaying exterior of the old farmhouse. There were carved tables and fringed lampshades, red velvet covered chairs and a long upholstered sofa with dark wood lion’s heads on the arms. A small fire crackled behind a gleaming brass screen.

“Please, sit.” He made another sweeping gesture with his arm. “May I offer some refreshment?” Dupree was acting the perfect southern gentleman but looking only at Carol’s chest and backside, as if he were appraising a painting or piece of sculpture. Ray picked up on his staring. His face was set in a frown, eyes narrowed, nostrils flared. He projected an anger and displeasure he did not want Darcy DuPree to miss.

“Nice place.” Kumpula had a Stan Laurel smile working. Ray knew it was masking Jonny’s cataloging, that the evidence tech was taking everything in and filing it. He was paying particular attention to a room visible down the hall while DuPree was leering at Carol. A half open door revealed banks of computer equipment. Tiny yellowish lights blinked randomly on the stacked servers.

“Thanks, but we’re good.” Tony looked from Carol to Ray and back to Dupree. “We’re good.”

“Very well then, on to business I suppose.” Dupree settled deeply into a plush plum colored chair and stuck a cigarette into an ivory holder. Tony and Ray sat across from him, tense, on the edge of the sofa. Carol remained standing, arms crossed over her chest.

“I believe I have something you want and you, sir,” he turned to Kumpula, “have something I have long sought.”

Carol desperately wanted to know what Kumpula was bartering with the old pervert but Jonny, still hiding behind his idiot grin, wasn’t letting on.

“You realize the quality isn’t so good. It was originally on 16 millimeter film and not professionally done.” He took a CD case from his side pocket. DuPree’s cartoon eyes got even larger and the pink tip of his tongue was visible at the corner of his mouth.

“Oh yes. Oh yes. May I ask how you came to have a copy?” Dupree snubbed out the cigarette and leaned forward.

“That’s not important.”

“But I must be sure…”

Kumpula stood and interrupted Dupree. He waved the CD case toward the hallway and the room full of computers and said, “Let’s take a peek. Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” Kumpula’s smile faltered when DuPree giggled.

“Oh I like that.” DuPree stood, wringing his hands together. “I’ll show you mine.” He giggled again and led Kumpula down the hallway. Jonny looked back once, and he wasn’t smiling. In fact, he looked a little bit scared.

“This is just creepy,” Tony said to Carol once Dupree and Kumpula were out of earshot.

“Why do you think I brought all of you guys along?” She laughed nervously and took out a cigarette.

“I wonder what Kumpula has to trade? He’s not into this stuff is he?” Tony directed the question more to Ray, who had known him longer.

“Kump comes across all kinds of things,” was all the answer he gave. They heard Darcy DuPree’s high pitched giggle from behind the door at the end of the hall.

“Why isn’t this guy in jail?” Tony walked over and peered around the corner of another doorway into a kitchen that could have been featured in a 1950’s era magazine.

“It’s not like we haven’t tried.” Carol shrugged. “At least he’s out here in the sticks where he can’t do much harm.”

“Why out here?” Tony stuck his hands in his pockets. He really didn’t want to touch anything. The kitchen table was covered in slick glossy porn magazines.

“This is the old family place.”

“Huh? The guy sounds like he’s straight off of Bourbon Street.”

Carol smiled and shook her head. “Nope, born and raised right here. We have quite a file on him.”

Another giggle echoed down the hallway. Ray was staring out the front window, across the desolate yard and the beaten down cornfield that stretched almost to the horizon. Tony joined him by the window.

“And we’re here why, exactly?”

“We don’t know exactly. Carol has a hunch there’s a further connection between Stuckey and the ‘Go Girls’. She’s real curious about the ‘bonus tracks’, whatever that might mean. So am I.”

“You think there’s a link?”

Ray turned his head slowly from the window and nodded. “I think it’s possible.”

They both turned when they heard the door from the computer room crash open. Kumpula was striding purposefully down the hallway. He had a CD case in one hand.

He headed directly for the front door, not pausing or breaking stride. He grabbed the knob and said loudly over his shoulder, “Let’s go kids, now!”

Carol hurried behind him and didn’t look back. Ray followed. Tony glanced down the hall.

The door was wide open. Tony caught a brief glimpse of Darcy DuPree, both hands fumbling with the front of his pants, his attention wholly on whatever image was flickering on an unseen monitor. He was laughing in his high irritating whiny voice, looking off across the room.

As soon as Tony hit the seat Carol dropped the car into gear and flung gravel and dust as she tore out of the farmyard toward the road.

Tony looked over at Kumpula. “What happened?”

“That is a sick, sick man.” Tony saw Carol’s eyes in the rearview mirror, the deep furrows on her brow.

“Stop the car!” Kumpula commanded.

Carol braked hard, throwing them all forward. Jonny got out of the backseat and pulled an oversized semi-automatic from beneath his jacket. He leaned on the car’s roof and sighted on the power line where it was connected to a tall pole by the side of the driveway. It only took three shots for the power line to drop, sparking and arcing into the ditch. Two more shots separated the phone line. Kumpula holstered the gun and got back in the car.

The smile was back. Ray and Carol turned to look over the seat, amused looks on both of their faces.

“Why?” Tony asked.

“Guy’s an asshole,” Kumpula replied. “I hope it fried the servers.”

“But you got the episodes?”

“I got ’em.” He pulled a CD case from his pocket. “Ur MoM is so Hott, episodes 1 thru 6 and the bonus tracks. I left him with a lovely parting gift.”

“Oh, yeah? What?”

“He’ll find out when they fix his power and he has to do a hard boot on the system. Sorry, Carol.”

“For what?”

“You won’t be getting any more dirty movies from Darcy DuPree. The little computer worm I left in his system is going to eat them all up. Damn viruses.”

They all got a good laugh and kept it going for most of the ride back to the Cities, but in the back of his mind Tony was afraid of what they might, or might not see on the dirty movies they had in hand.

Chapter 30

Six hours. That’s how long the four of them had spent together in the car. Ray made sure they used the return trip productively. He guided and suggested and cajoled them while they discussed the case. They revisited the Fredrickson’s kitchen with Deanna’s sprawled bloody and lifeless body on the floor. They talked about the ‘Go Girls’-their looks, their attitudes, and their personalities.

And they talked at length about Sean Stuckey. It was Tony who pointed out that for all the conjecture about Stuckey they had very little face time with the guy. They touched on the husband and son and on the roommates, again deciding they had nothing to do with the murder.

No amount of pleading could induce Kumpula to reveal what he had traded to DuPree for the ‘Ur MoM’ episodes.

The four of them were brain weary and talked out when they arrived back at headquarters. Kumpula vanished. Carol led Ray and Tony to the Sex Crime Unit’s computer lab. There were various stations set up cabled to a tall stack of servers, linked powerful computers they used to track pedophiles across the World Wide Web. She steered them to a side desk. A lonely desktop computer with an oversized monitor sat waiting, unattached to the system.

“Meet Sol,” she said as she powered the computer up.

“Sol?”

“Short for ‘solitary’. What Kump did to DuPree, planting the bug…you wouldn’t believe some of the shit out there.” She gestured toward the stack of servers. “We learned the hard way. Anything that might be infected goes through Sol first.” The monitor flickered to life.

“So if it’s a system crasher it just nukes the one PC?” Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have thought of that but it makes sense.”

“Sol gets a lot of attention. This is Sol 22 by the way. Twenty one others have given their lives in the line of service. One thing we do is capture cookies and source codes for viruses on old Solly here. Then the geeks can protect the servers when we apply power to a problem.” Carol inserted the disc while Ray and Tony dragged extra chairs over.

“Are you pissed that Kumpula fried your snitch’s computers?”

“Not really. He’s probably got a backup data dump off site or in the cloud.” Carol shrugged. “It’ll take him a while to get back in business, though. Ready for the show?” Tony and Ray both grimaced. Neither of them was looking forward to it.

Episode 1 came to life. As advertised, the lone camera was hidden, or was positioned to suggest that it was, and there were no stage lights used. It looked like a poorly done home video. A young man, not Sean Stuckey, led an obviously drunk woman who could have been in her late thirties or early forties to a sofa and began kissing and fondling her. The camera man, or boy, could be heard talking, whispering urgently to someone off screen. Amateur hour.

“I think we can fast forward through this one,” Ray said dryly.

Carol looked over her shoulder at him. “Your boy might make a cameo appearance.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Ray was right, it didn’t matter. The woman wasn’t one of the ‘Go Girls’.

Episode 2 was very similar in some respects. More room lights had been added and turned on. A different young man urged yet another, older woman; this one could have been fifty, to the sofa. This woman wasn’t drunk. She was excited and eager and pawed at his clothes even before they fell to the couch. She dug at his pants. Tony thought she looked disappointed when she pulled a normal sized penis out of his trousers.

“Next!” Ray announced just as the woman’s head began lowering to the victim’s lap.

“Two down, four to go.” Tony was embarrassed and trying to joke his way out of it.

By Episode 3 the nasty little-boy producers had almost gotten their act together, Tony thought. There were more lamps, but still not enough and not positioned well. Episode 3 had a title screen. Ur MoM is so Hott! It also had a star.

Sean Stuckey entered the screen with his arm around the ample waist of one of the ugliest women Tony had ever seen in his life.

“Wow,” Carol said. “Where did they find her?”

“Don’t do it, Sean,” Tony said to the monitor. “Where’s your pride, man?”

“Maybe she’ll turn into a frog.”

“It’d be an improvement.”

Tony and Carol were laughing, pointing at the video image of Stuckey kissing the woman. They could tell he was working hard at trying to look like he was having fun. The ugly woman looked like she was in heaven.

“Look at those warts.”

“Look at those teeth!”

“Next!” Ray commanded. “Next! Next! Next!” He got up from his chair and walked a few steps away. Tony and Carol were laughing out loud.

“Look at his face.” The hag was on her knees digging furiously at Stuckey’s zipper. When she pulled him free she screamed, loud enough to nudge Ray to look back over at the monitor. Stuckey was staring at the ceiling. His face was contorted in pain and disgust, his great member limp and flaccid. It didn’t faze the woman. She inhaled it, determined to bring it to life. Carol thankfully hit the off button.

“Now that was one hot momma.”

Even Ray laughed. They unanimously decided to take a break. Carol bolted for the nearest exit to have a smoke while Ray and Tony searched for a coffee pot.

“That was disgusting.” Ray sipped the oily brew they had found. It was disgusting too. One sip was enough.

“We probably shouldn’t laugh.” Tony still had a smile, actually more of a smirk, on his face. He knew Ray wanted to stick to business, get through the rest of the episodes, go home and take a shower.

“In my day we’d call that gal a coyote.” Ray had a serious look on his face, but his eyes were bright and lively. Tony motioned for him to continue.

“See, you got your one-baggers, your two-baggers, and your coyotes. A one-bagger is a gal so ugly you put a bag over her face, right?” Tony smiled, nodding.

“And your two-baggers? They so ugly you put a bag on your own head in case theirs falls off. You heard this one?” Tony shook his head no. He’d heard it but he was having a fine time watching his new partner tell the joke.

“And then you got coyote ugly…a gal so ugly you’d gnaw your arm off at the shoulder rather than risk wakin’ her up the next morning.”

Both of them were laughing at the punch line when Carol returned. “What’d I miss?”

Back to work.

Episode 4 again starred Sean Stuckey. The young pornographers had obviously gotten some advice by the time they taped this episode, Tony noticed immediately. There was bright studio lighting and an animated title page. The woman was definitely a pro, store-bought top heavy, garishly made up and bored looking. Any pretense of luring a desperate housewife into wild sex was abandoned beyond a half-dozen lame lines of conversation. Episode 5 was the same. It was a different woman but so similar in appearance and mannerism Tony wondered aloud if there was a porn hooker training camp somewhere.

By Episode 6, when a third porno-clone dropped to her knees before young Stuckey, Tony was dejected as well as disgusted. They had seen nothing to link Stuckey to any of the ‘Go Girls’. Carol had gotten fidgety, checking her watch often and making noises about where she needed to be soon. Ray had her show him how to control the videos with the keyboard and wished her a good evening. There was only one clip left to watch, an out take. DuPree had called it the ‘fucked-up episode’. Tony was grateful when his phone rang. He left Ray to view the clip.

“De Luca.”

Tony didn’t recognize the number that flashed on his ID screen. He hoped it was Sue Ellen calling from a safe house phone. The long strange day was nearly over.

“Agent XXL checking in.”

“David, I mean XXL, what’s up?” Tony decided to play along with his spy. He needed any humor he could get after sitting through six episodes of ‘Ur MoM is NOT Hott’. He was never going to use the correct title again. There was nothing remotely ‘hot’ about any of it.

“Sean was here a while ago. He just split so I can talk now.” Tony stepped further from the computer so he could hear better and concentrate.

“Okay, what have you got XXL?”

Hong chuckled before he went on. “This is weird, Tony. This afternoon I got a call here at the house from Karen…Karen Hewes.”

“What did she want?”

“She pretended she was checking in on us, looking for Scotty, some bullshit, you know. Then she asks me if I’ve got a number for Sean.”

Tony’s thoughts downshifted and his mind high-revved to what Hong was saying. What the hell did Karen Hewes want with Stuckey’s phone number? “Did you ask her why?”

“I’m sorry Tony. I fucking froze, man. I was thinking the same thing but it came out in mumbles.”

“That’s okay, David. I was just thinking out loud.”

“I gave her the number.” Hong’s voice was low, confessional, like he shouldn’t have done it.

Tony thought about it for a minute. There was something in play he couldn’t put a finger on. Karen, who they knew had contact with Stuckey in LA, who they knew had recognized Stuckey at the boy’s house, and who they suspected had seen Stuckey lurking outside her own house was asking for his phone number.

“That’s okay Dave, really.”

“I knew she was scoping him.”

“She say anything else?”

“Nope.” Tony heard a loud banging sound behind him and spun around. He was too far away to make out what was on the computer monitor but whatever it was prompted Ray to slam his fist on the desk top…hard.

“Good work, David. Keep in touch.” He powered the phone down and didn’t hear Agent XXL sign off. Whatever was playing on the screen had Ray upset…cussin’ mad in fact.

Ray re-cued the video and was digging through his notebook when Tony wheeled a chair over next to him.

“The cop in LA…I know it’s here, damn it.” Pages flew while Ray pawed through the tablet. “Got it! This clip was the last one they made with women off the street or whatever. It’s called the ‘fucked-up episode’ because they never finished it…it was aborted. Watch.” Ray hit the play button.

The clip showed some technical improvements over the third episode. There still weren’t studio lights but more lamps and brighter bulbs gave off plenty of illumination. It was the same set, the same sofa, and the camera was still set in a fixed position. There was the sound of a door opening and closing off camera, a woman’s throaty laugh and then Sean Stuckey appeared, nearest the camera with his arm around a woman’s waist, her head buried, nuzzling his neck.

Karen Hewes was drunk. Not falling down drunk. Not incapacitated. But she was slurring her words and plopped heavily onto the sofa dragging Sean down with her. She seemed oblivious to the camera. Maybe it was hidden pretty well after all, Tony thought, or maybe she just didn’t care. She clumsily unbuttoned Sean’s shirt, never taking her mouth from his while she did.

“Never saw the guy before in her life,” Tony mumbled, repeating what Karen said when Ray showed her the picture of Stuckey. Sean had her blouse open and was roughly kneading her breasts now. Karen was concentrating on his zipper-first one handed, then two.

“No Deanna. Where’s Deanna?” Tony whispered, mesmerized by the scene he was watching. He had allowed himself one or two brief flashes during the interviews, imagining what Karen looked like without her clothes. She was a beautiful woman. He’d been proud of himself for knocking those thoughts down quickly, staying professional. But now here she was, half naked, pulling Sean Stuckey’s great stiffening member out of his pants while he removed her bra and skirt.

“Isn’t this enough, Ray?” His partner had called time out this far along in all the other episodes. Tony felt himself getting aroused.

“Watch.”

“Okay, boss.”

Karen, dressed only in her panties now, was on her hands and knees slobbering all over Stuckey’s huge phallus while he struggled with his pants. Once they were off Stuckey roughly spun Karen around. He glanced over at the camera, a wicked smile plastered to his face, then pulled her back toward him. Tony realized he was positioning Karen in the center of the camera’s view.

“Not much more now.” Ray’s voice was calm. He was concentrating wholly on the video. Stuckey entered Karen from behind, thrusting fully into her. She gasped-a fierce intake of breath at first and then she shrieked, either in pain or pleasure. Tony couldn’t tell which. He found his breath quickening. Karen’s breasts were flapping in rhythm with Sean’s frantic strokes.

“Now. Listen.” Ray cocked his head, not paying attention to the sex on the screen but the soundtrack. Tony listened harder too. There was the sound of pounding. Someone was furiously pounding on a door it sounded like. Then there was a muffled voice.

“Karen?” It was a woman’s voice, shrill and high and panicked. “Karen?”

On the screen Sean faltered, missed a stroke, distracted by the voice and the pounding. The camera wobbled. Karen looked off to the right, back toward where the sound must have been coming from.

The cameraman whispered harshly off screen, “Get the fuck rid of her.” The camera jerked again.

Sean had stopped altogether. Karen’s eyes were closed and she took over the effort, thrusting desperately against Stuckey, slamming her buttocks into him, pleading…begging him to come on.

“Hurry, goddamn it!”

There was a loud crash, the sound of a door being slammed open then a woman’s scream. It wasn’t Karen.

“You bastards!”

Ray and Tony heard the sound of a slap, a hand striking flesh, then another.

A young sounding male voice cried out. “Fucking bitch!”

Stuckey had withdrawn, his penis going limp already. He was bent double, trying to pull his pants up, and waddling almost comically, trying to escape the unseen attacker. Karen collapsed on the sofa, hands over her face, tucked into a fetal position, racked with sobs. The camera tilted and then dropped hard to the floor and the screen went black.

“Listen.” Ray’s eyes were closed tightly. The screen was dark but sounds of a fight, of cursing and shrieking continued. “Listen closely.”

“Never let me have any fun. Never let me have any fun. Never let me have any fun.”

Tony looked into Ray Bankston’s sad eyes. They didn’t know who belonged to the cursing woman’s voice off screen but they had a good idea. They had never heard Deanna Fredrickson speak, but they knew the other voice, the one that kept repeating over and over, “never let me have any fun.”

Karen Hewes.

Chapter 31

“What?” Tony barked into his cell phone. It was late. He was horny. Sue Ellen was tripping through the living room of his small house, dropping clothes and hints, heading down the short hallway toward his bedroom.

“What what? You said to keep in touch,” David Hong barked right back.

“What is it, David?” He leaned back on the sofa, eyes closed. Tony was almost sorry he’d been so abrupt.

“Sean was here.”

“He lives there.”

“What’s wrong, dude? Am I interrupting something?” Tony thought he heard smirking in David’s voice. “Sean was here and…”

A pair of lacy panties sailed into the room and landed on the arm of the sofa.

“…he got a call. As soon as he answered he went to his room and slammed the door. He was yelling at whoever called.”

Tony sat up straighter. “Mad?”

“Got that right. I couldn’t tell who it was but he kept yelling ‘bitch’. I never heard a name.”

“The guy has a lot of girlfriends.”

“Yeah, but…”

“But you gave the Hewes’ woman his number and you think it was her. Look David, I told you things would start banging around in your head.”

“Well it could have been.” Hong sounded defensive.

“And it could have been Angie or it could have been anyone. Did you hear a name?”

“No.”

Tony took a deep breath before he continued. “Look, I’m glad you called. It might be something or it might not.”

“He was plenty pissed when he split.”

“When was that?”

“Ten minutes ago, maybe less.” Tony checked his watch. 11:17.

“Okay. Call me when he comes back…if he comes back.”

“So it might be something?”

David Hong didn’t know about the video clip, that Karen Hewes and Sean Stuckey had history. He hadn’t seen the image of her, curled up, naked and trembling, chanting over and over about not having any fun. David only knew that he had given the woman Sean’s phone number and his detective friend was curious about Stuckey’s comings and goings. What if it was Karen? Was she calling for the first time? Why would she be calling? Tony was lost, sorting through all the what-ifs.

“Dude, you still there?”

“Sorry. Look, it’s probably nothing. Just give me a heads up if he shows.”

“Will do. Agent XXL out.” Tony smiled and closed the phone.

Sue Ellen was leaning against the wall just inside the arch of the hallway, watching him. She was wearing one of his dress shirts, her arms folded across her chest, holding it mostly closed. “Important?”

Tony didn’t allow himself to look at Sue Ellen while he sorted through the last of his questions.

“Probably not,” he said after he’d worked the last bits through and tucked them into bed for the night. “In any case, I’ve got protection duty.” He grinned at her. She turned and headed for the bedroom, laughing softly.

The call came in at 8:15 the next morning. Ray had left word with all of the watch commanders and the communications supervisor to page him if anything came in regarding the Hewes’ address. A silent alarm had just been posted and a unit had been dispatched. Ray and Tony dashed toward the stairs, jackets in hand.

Ray drove, using full siren and lights to bully the traffic aside until they were close to the house. A squad car was parked out front, lights flashing. A uniformed cop was standing at the front of the car talking into his shoulder mic.

“What have you got?” Ray grabbed Tony’s sleeve to stop him from going up to the house while he talked to the patrolman.

“Got no answer when I rang the front bell. I don’t think it’s working. I was just about to knock on the side door. When I looked in I saw a guy with a knife and a woman sitting on the floor, backed up against some cabinets. The woman saw me. I don’t think the guy did. I just radioed for backup.”

Ray and Tony shared a hard look, both knowing the man would prove to be Sean Stuckey.

“Tell ’em to come in quiet. We might know who this guy is. I don’t want him freaked.” The patrol cop nodded and walked away, talking urgently into the radio.

“Stuckey. He got a call last night. David said it pissed him off.”

“Karen Hewes?” Ray’s face was a study in worry lines and hard set. Questions raced through his mind. Could they have anticipated this? Should they have anticipated it? The video? Karen’s denial of knowing Stuckey? It was a disturbing set of events, but until they had the chance to interview them again, to confront their lies, there wasn’t anything more they could have done. It hadn’t felt that urgent.

“There’s no way we could have seen this coming.” It was as if Tony read his partner’s thoughts. “We were minutes from coming over here to front the woman.”

“I know, damn it.”

Tony grasped Ray’s shoulder. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” Tony looked from his partner to the house and back to Ray’s determined face.

“The Fredrickson woman.”

“And the knife.”

Ray looked up at the house, but what he saw was a vision of Deanna Fredrickson crumpled and bloody, a knife stuck in her chest, and the surprised look in her sightless eyes.

“How do you want to do it?” Tony asked. He took out his Glock and chambered a round.

Ray placed a hand on Tony’s arm. “Without gun play, if possible.”

“If possible,” Tony said and nodded.

The patrolman edged next to Ray. “Okay, SWAT’s gearing up. There’s a hostage team en-route and the Watch Captain.”

“I’m a certified negotiator,” Ray said. “We know these people. I’m going to go talk to them.”

“You should wait for the Captain.” The young uniformed cop looked concerned. Tony didn’t recognize him.

“But I’m not going to. We’re going in now.” Ray looked up at the sound of distant sirens. “And you…get on the horn and tell them to shut down those sirens. Right now, officer.”

Ray peered into the kitchen through the side door window. Stuckey and Karen Hewes were huddled on the floor, legs splayed, leaning against the cabinets under the sink. He had one arm around her throat, holding her close and a knife in the other hand pressed under her breast.

“Just shut the fuck up!” Ray heard Stuckey say through the closed door. His voice was high and pleading. It looked like Stuckey was crying.

Tony eased the storm door fully open and set the stop. Ray grasped the door knob and twisted it slowly. It was unlocked. Karen Hewes was wide eyed and trembling, but she wasn’t crying. She saw Ray’s face in the window, saw the knob turn, and a mean, thin humorless smile flashed across her face. Ray saw it. It was brief, just a second-two seconds, at most. It was a look that chilled and puzzled him. Then the sneering smile vanished and Karen started calling out, screaming, yelling, struggling against Stuckey’s grip.

“He’s crazy! Help me! Oh God…”

Ray opened the door, pushed it wide and stepped into the kitchen, holding his empty hands out at his side.

“Sean.” Ray moved further inside and to the right. Tony followed. His hands weren’t empty. He held the Glock two-handed, pointed down at the floor, knees flexed.

“Thank God! He attacked me! Do something…” Karen Hewes was frantic, yelling nonstop. “Do something. He’s going to kill me! Do something!”

“Put the knife down, Sean.” Ray gestured with his palm. “This isn’t so bad yet, but put the knife down, Sean.”

“Shut up you freak!” Stuckey tightened his arm, trying to shut the woman up. Tony could see him straining. He brought the gun up. Ray touched Tony’s arm lightly.

“Oh God. He killed her! He’ll kill me too!” Karen keened.

Ray had to shout over her shrieks. “Knife down! We need to talk, Sean.”

“Fuckin’ A we do! Shut her up!” Karen kept wailing and screaming at the top of her lungs. Every time Stuckey started to say something she screamed louder.

“Karen! SHUT UP!” Tony’s eyes snapped wide open. He had no idea his partner had pipes like that. Ray’s voice boomed over and through the woman’s shrieking. “Now get up, both of you. Knife down! Leave the knife on the floor.”

“She called…” Stuckey was trying to talk. Karen thrashed, twisted, and squirmed, the crying and pleading started up again.

“He’s going to kill me. Do something! Shoot him!” She bucked wildly against him, tugging at Stuckey’s arm around her throat, heedless of the knife.

“I’ve got the shot,” Tony said evenly. Stuckey was looking straight into the pistol barrel.

“Wait!” Stuckey jerked the knife from Karen’s breast and tossed it on the floor. His hand free, he cupped it over her mouth and started to stand, struggled to one knee. Karen, gasping, her pleading throttled, trying to bite him.

“I want you to take me in. You have to listen.”

“We’re listening. Now, let the woman go, Sean.” With a mighty effort Sean Stuckey heaved up, dragging Karen with him, still choking her neck, still cupping her mouth.

“Ever since…” Karen twisted. She wrenched her head from side to side. She kicked at him, tried to stomp on his foot. “She’s been…” Karen’s teeth found skin, she bit down hard. Stuckey jerked his bleeding hand free. The keening and wailing returned.

“He wants money!” she shrieked before Stuckey clamped his hand back over her mouth. He looked at Ray, puzzled…confused.

“Money?”

The room detonated in that instant.

Artillery exploded from the dining room doorway-a spear of flame reached halfway across the kitchen. Sean Stuckey’s head burst into a cloud of gristle and bone, gray brain matter and red mist.

Ray watched, deafened, frozen, unbelieving, as Stuckey’s body tilted, hurled toward the gout of blood and brains that erupted from the side of his ruined head. His feet left the ground, arms flailing, already lifeless, useless…already dead. His body landed on its side, bounced once on the hard tile floor, and settled into a death pose.

Karen Hewes still had her voice, wailing just as loudly as before. She collapsed on the floor, writhing in the widening pool of blood surrounding Stuckey’s body, trying to gain traction, desperate to rise.

Ray looked over at Tony. He hadn’t fired the shot. Tony looked to the right over Ray’s shoulder.

Gary Hewes leaned into the doorway, a smoking rifle still to his shoulder, held down, pointed toward the floor at an angle. He was wearing the same limp pajamas. He also wore a smug satisfied smile. Tony whipped the pistol in his direction, took stance and aim.

“Drop the rifle!”

“Right fucking now!” Ray’s pistol was leveled too, his command voice as loud as the rifle shot.

“Okay. Okay.” Gary Hewes staggered slightly in the doorway and leaned the rifle against the wall. “Got the bastard, though. Got him.” He doubled over into a fit of coughing.

“On the floor!” Ray boomed, moving toward Hewes, pistol in his right hand, fishing under the back of his jacket with his left.

“What?” Hewes, still hacking, looked up at Ray.

Karen crawled over to Tony and was clutching his legs, smearing Stuckey’s blood and brain matter on them, still sobbing and mewling.

“On the floor! He dropped the knife you stupid motherfucker. On the floor!” Hewes dropped to his knees, uncomprehending. Ray forced him the rest of the way down, slammed his cheek into the cold hard tile and wrenched his hands behind him. “He dropped the knife.” Ray ratcheted the cuffs tight.

The front door crashed inward, ram battered open. Picture frames fell to the floor amid wood shards and splinters. Black clad figures poured in, more SWAT officers edged in the back door, automatic weapons tracked right and left, searching for a target.

“Clear!” Ray’s voice boomed again, waving them off.

“Clear! It’s all clear!” Tony shouted.

“What a fucking mess.” The captain was shaking his head, taking in the body on the floor, the blood, and the coughing figure handcuffed on the other side of the kitchen island. He ordered the SWAT team out, dodged the body and pooling blood, shrugged off the cloying hysterical woman and went over to Ray and Tony who were standing over Gary Hewes.

“What happened? You guys do that?” He jerked a thumb towards Stuckey’s body.

“No.”

“You arresting this guy?” The captain was looking down at Gary Hewes. Ray nodded. “What charge?”

“Let’s start with murder.”

“Murder?” Gary Hewes twisted on the floor, trying to get a look at the men standing over him. “Are you fucking nuts? The guy was going to kill my wife, for chrissakes.” The captain looked at Ray.

“We had it under control, Cap. Stuckey, that’s Stuckey over there, he’d dropped the knife. He wanted to talk. He was surrendering.” Ray’s breathing was deep with anger, controlled so the rage he felt didn’t complicate the situation any further.

Paramedics were ministering to Karen, one trying to calm her, the other looking for a wound. Karen, drenched in Sean Stuckey’s blood, was hysterical. Tony hauled Gary Hewes to his feet.

“Then this guy, the husband, lets loose with the deer rifle.” Ray pointed to the scoped long gun leaning against the wall.

“He was gonna kill her. I didn’t know he dropped the knife.”

“Captain, we’re going to have to sedate this woman to transport her.”

Karen struggled against the paramedics’ grasp. Her wails cast an eerie desperate pall over the scene. The captain nodded.

“How did you know he even had a knife?” Tony had a grip on Hewes’ arm and bodily turned him toward the body on the floor. “They were behind the counters. You couldn’t see them from the dining room. How did you know he had a fucking knife?” Hewes tried to turn away from Stuckey’s ruined body. Tony didn’t let him.

“I saw it, okay. And he said it.” Hewes jerked his head toward Ray.

“Not okay. How long were you out there?”

“De Luca, stand down.” The captain glanced around the kitchen. Karen Hewes was quieting, the sedative slowly taking hold. “Let’s take this party downtown, gentlemen. You’re arresting this guy, right?” Ray nodded. “Then we need to get him booked and Mirandized. Play by the rules.”

“How long were you out there, Gary? What did you hear?”

“I said stand down!” The captain’s face reddened. He ordered Ray and Tony out of the kitchen, told them to send a uniform in to collect the prisoner. His experienced eye didn’t see Hewes going down for murder, but he wasn’t going to let technicalities screw things up.

On the way out of the door Ray leaned over close to Tony’s ear.

“Nice try, partner.”

Chapter 32

Ray, Tony, and Carol stood shoulder to shoulder looking over the throng. Deanna Fredrickson’s funeral drew hundreds of people who wanted to pay their respects to the woman who had touched so many lives, people from the hospital and the library board, the soup kitchen at the homeless shelter and even some gym rats.

The ‘Go Girls’, all dressed in somber mournful black, clustered just behind the family. They whispered and daubed tissues, holding onto each other, not wanting to say goodbye to their friend and sister. Erika and Roxy were openly crying, their heads pressed together, arms around each other.

The family stood close together, holding hands, looking up at the polished wooden casket on the altar, closed now, with a large portrait of Deanna facing the gathered host. Tony realized they hadn’t seen or talked to Scott Fredrickson in several days. He didn’t look much better than the last time they’d met, still gray skinned and red eyed.

David Hong, his toothy smile terribly out of place in the sea of sadness, waved at Tony from across the cathedral. He and Hank Swenson were near the back of the church. Tony, stone faced, nodded in reply.

Missing from the scene were Karen and Gary Hewes. Deanna’s best friend was sedated at Regions hospital; still, according to reports, prone to frenzied episodes of screeching and wailing when the drugs wore down. Physically she was fine. Mentally? Ray suspected there was more in play than her recent ordeal but kept his misgivings close for the time being.

Gary Hewes was in jail, but not for long. His lawyers were massaging the judge and the DA’s office and the media for his release. The papers and the TV, reporting on information from Hewes’ attorney and ‘sources close to the investigation’ were hailing his desperate heroic measures in saving his wife from the knife wielding psychopath who was the prime suspect in the Deanna Fredrickson murder investigation.

The three detectives standing together in respectful silence were the investigation, not just ‘close to it’, and not one of them had given the media so much as a crumb.

Tony basked in the praise and congratulations of his fellow officers for closing his first murder in spectacular fashion. Six-plus years on the street and not once had he made the front page of the Trib or the Pioneer Press. They slapped his back and bought him drinks at The Red Door and teased about him being a super sleuth. He’d wallowed in it until Ray had a word with him.

It wasn’t until the casket had been lowered into the grave and the crowd departed that Ray could have a moment with Lakisha. At first Tony held back, intending to give his partner some privacy, but Ray motioned for him to join him.

“Tough day,” Ray said to Lakisha. He had his hands in his overcoat pockets. Lakisha stood close and laid her head on his chest, clutching her own coat closed tight against the cold breath of October’s gray finale. “How you holdin’ up?”

“I’m fine. I think I’m okay.” Ray draped a comforting arm across her shoulder. Lakisha looked up at him, at his solemn face, at his eyes looking off over the cemetery. Tony thought they looked good together and hoped Mr. Marland would stay wherever the hell he was for a long time.

“Is it true what the papers say?” she asked. “That young man Gary shot, did he murder Dee?”

“That’s what a lot of people think. What do you think, Tony?”

Ray shifted his gaze toward his young partner. De Luca just shrugged. He didn’t know, not for sure. A lot of things pointed toward Stuckey. He wanted it to be the case, wanted to be able to close the files and move on but doubt nagged at him so he just shrugged.

Hewes’ lawyers, for all their efforts to convict Stuckey in the press, hadn’t mentioned the most damning evidence the detectives had uncovered. There was no mention of the porn episode. The people ‘close to the investigation’ hadn’t mentioned it either. They couldn’t. The only people who knew about the ‘UrMoM’ episodes were Ray, Tony, Carol, Jonny Kumpula, and a pervert named DuPree.

And Karen Hewes.

“Is Karen on any medication?” Ray asked.

“I don’t know. Why?” Lakisha had a puzzled look on her face that mirrored Tony’s. She wondered why Ray wanted to know. Tony wondered why he was just now asking.

“Just thinking about how freaked out she is. Is that normal for her?”

“Why all the questions about Karen, Rayford?” Lakisha squinted at him, her mystery writer’s instincts on high alert.

“Just curious.”

“Uh-huh.”

Ray flashed a quick disarming smile. “You have a ride? Can we drop you somewhere?”

“I’ve got my car. Are you stopping by Tia and Barry’s? Scott still won’t go back to the house. I think he’s going to sell it.”

“Can’t, babe. Urgent police business.”

Tony was grateful for Ray’s lie. He had no desire to eat hot dish and mill around listening to stories about the dead woman all afternoon. Tony was satisfied that they’d gotten far enough into these people’s lives. He nodded to Lakisha and headed for the car, giving them a minute alone together.

“Good one, boss. Urgent police business.”

Ray, behind the wheel, gave Tony a quick knowing glance. “That’s what it is.”

Tony realized they were heading into the heart of Highland Park, toward the Hewes’ house, not toward headquarters. Ray was up to something so Tony settled back into the seat waiting to find out just what.

“Teaching moment coming up.”

“You have a hunch.” Tony phrased it as a statement, not a question.

“I do indeed.”

“You want to snoop around in the Hewes’ house.”

“It’s a crime scene. We have access now and don’t need to bother any judges about a warrant.” Ray had the half-smile going. Tony was a fine pupil and was going to be a top notch detective someday.

“What are we looking for, Obi-Wan?” Tony tented his hands as if in prayer and bowed to Ray. They pulled to the curb in front of the house. Yellow plastic tape fluttered in the wind, advertising the tragedy that had occurred inside the day before. Ray explained his hunch while they walked to the side door.

“The woman bothers me.”

Tony looked over his shoulder. “The husband bothers me. What if he shows up?”

Ray shared a word with the uniformed officer sitting just inside the kitchen while he signed in and looked over the log of people who had visited the crime scene. He was pleased to note that Jonny Kumpula was the senior evidence tech on the case.

Tony wasn’t happy when Ray led him through the master bedroom. The sheets and blankets on the bed were twisted and stained. They looked diseased-crusted and oily. Tony could smell the flu germs mixed with Mentholatum fumes. He could feel them invading his body, waiting to strike, to lay him as low as they had Gary Hewes.

He found Ray examining prescription vials in the medicine cabinet and making notes. He was ignoring Gary’s prescriptions.

“What are you doing?” Tony asked when Ray dumped one vial out on the countertop and counted the pills.

“Math.”

“Math?” Tony watched Ray jot down dates and other numbers next to the pharmaceutical names.

“This might mean something.” Ray held up an amber vial and shook it. Empty.

“What is it?”

“I have no idea, but I know someone who will.”

“Quite a cocktail, Ray. These from the Hewes woman?” Kumpula didn’t miss much.

Ray nodded. “In her medicine cabinet. Do you know what they’re for?”

“From the same doctor?” Kumpula had fired up a computer and was clicking through several medical websites.

“All from the same clinic. Stilnox? Zoloft? Ducene? I’ve heard of Zoloft but I don’t have a clue what it’s for.”

“Same clinic? Same doctor? Then they meant for them to all be used. She’s being treated for a couple of things at least. Let me read here.” Ray stepped back next to Tony.

“What gave you the idea she might be on medication?” Tony was mildly pissed that his partner hadn’t discussed this before. “And when did it click?”

“In the church, actually. She’s not there, supposedly her closest friend’s funeral and she’s strapped to a bed speaking in tongues. So I started thinking about it.”

“You think she snapped?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. She sure didn’t want Stuckey getting a word in. That’s the impression I got.”

Tony thought back to the day before, to the shooting. Karen Hewes had been screaming the whole time they were in the kitchen. The only time Stuckey got a word in was when he covered her mouth.

“Wish we had a tape,” Tony mused. Ray smiled and started to say something when Kumpula interrupted.

Kumpula looked up at Ray, frowning. “These drugs…in this combo? Your patient is suffering from depression, probably combined with insomnia and anxiety attacks. Probably not bi-polar, but still screwed up pretty bad.”

“Could Deanna’s death have triggered it?” Tony asked. He knew a little about depression. His parents’ death had hit him hard.

“Probably not situational. What about the dates?”

Ray checked his notes. “She’s been on them for a while. Long before the murder.”

Kumpula rechecked the computer screen. “This cocktail could be for panic attacks as well as depression. Does the Hewes’ woman drink a lot?” Ray shrugged. He didn’t know about day to day but he did recall that she hit it pretty hard when they were off on one of the trips.

Kumpula added, “She might have been something of a recluse too, afraid to leave the house.”

“That might be the husband’s doing.”

“I’m reading there can be obsession issues, too. Excessive worry and stress can trigger panic attacks and irrational behavior.”

“Any sexual triggers?” Tony asked, thinking back to the videotape.

“Not that I can see here. We can call one of the Pharm consultants if you want to take it that far.”

Ray shook his head. He wasn’t ready to do that yet. Truth was, he had what he guessed he needed so far. He turned to Kumpula for a summation.

“So what we have is?”

Kumpula wheeled away from the desk and crossed his arms, looking up at Ray. “We have a woman suffering from depression that has problems with panic attacks and impulse control. She’s fairly fucked up, Ray.”

“The shooting couldn’t have helped,” Tony offered.

“I’d be freaked if someone’s head was blown apart right behind me, but that’s not your biggest worry with this gal.”

“What is?” Tony asked.

“Suicide.”

“What’s got you so down, partner?”

Tony and Ray shared a booth at The Red Door. It was mid-shift so the place was quiet. Ray had taken only one sip of his scotch and was staring at the glass, frowning. The few patrons there that knew Tony started the congratulations and kidding as soon as they entered, but now Tony shrugged and told his friends to knock it off. Inside, though, he felt good that the case was being considered closed.

“Are you satisfied?”

“About the case? About Stuckey being the murderer? I guess so.” Tony took a pull from his beer bottle. “You’re not?”

“Not completely. Over at the lab a little bit ago you said you wished you had a tape.”

“Of the scene in the kitchen with Stuckey and Karen? Yeah, I do. It was chaos, Ray. Chaos.”

Ray reached into his jacket and took out a small electronic device. It was his digital recorder, the same one he used the morning they worked the murder scene in Deanna Fredrickson’s kitchen. Tony’s eyes widened, asking with a look if that was what was on the recorder.

“What do you think you’ll learn from it?” Ray waved the recorder in front of him, the half-smile working now.

“Is this one of your teaching moments?”

Sue Ellen burst in the door. Before it closed, startling bright November afternoon sunlight made Tony squint. She spied him after her eyes became accustomed to the bar’s dim interior and made her way to the back of the room.

“No bodyguard?” Tony asked while she pecked her uncle’s cheek and shrugged out of her coat.

“Nope. DEA spotted Garcia way down in old Mexico two days ago. It looks like he’s settling in so we called off the detail. I’m a free woman now.”

Ray smiled at the couple sitting close across from him. They looked good together.

“And two of the LKs in custody are starting to see if they can out-snitch each other. The trial might be postponed and we’re getting some really good stuff.” The bartender delivered a round to the table. Sue Ellen took a healthy sip of white wine.

“Boof says hi,” Tony told her. Ray looked puzzled.

“I’m done for the day. Let’s go see him.” Visiting the part time dog was not what she had in mind.

“Suze, put on your DA hat for a minute, enjoy your wine. I want to lay something out and see if we can make a case.”

“Sure.”

“What case?” Tony decided to have a serious talk with his partner about springing things like this on him.

“It was this tape got me thinking.” Ray started the recording, turned down low so Karen’s shrieking wouldn’t carry far in the bar. Tony closed his eyes and listened. He remembered the look of fear in her eyes and the panic and confusion in Sean Stuckey’s. The knife clattered to the floor. Stuckey got his hand over her mouth, struggled to get a word in. He said he wanted them to take him in. Karen screamed he had come for money, the motive that they had all searched for.

The sound of the gunshot was so loud several people at the bar looked over, surprised.

“Go back, like fifteen seconds.” Tony still had his eyes closed so he didn’t see his partner smile. He heard it again right before the rifle barked.

Money?”

“Stuckey didn’t go over there for money.”

“Nope.” Ray took a long pull on his drink.

“He was asking us a question, asking her a question.”

“Yes he was.”

“So why was he there?”

“She called him.”

“What are you two talking about?” Sue Ellen knew little about the case.

“I went back and watched the clip again, too.”

“What clip?” Sue Ellen asked.

“The porn clip. Quit interrupting.” Tony was focused on what Ray had to say.

“Deanna Fredrickson never recognized Stuckey. She was off screen, right? Stuckey’s back was to her the whole time and then he ran off to the right. She came in from the left. She had no clue what he looked like. She never recognized him as one of her son’s roommates and she probably saw him several times.”

“And he probably didn’t recognize her either,” Tony said.

“But Karen did.”

Tony took a pull on his beer. “Uh huh, and I think Karen wanted to go for another ride.”

“She made the money story up.”

“He had no idea what she was talking about, and he had plenty of dough from the guy in LA.”

“So why did she kill her?” Ray asked, finally voicing his suspicion.

“That’s where it gets murky.”

“STOP!” Sue Ellen held her hands up. “Thank you. You’re saying this Karen Hewes woman killed the Fredrickson woman?” Both Ray and Tony nodded. “Okay, I’ve got my DA hat on. Just lay it out in order, okay?”

It took two more rounds of drinks, a bathroom break, and three bowls of peanuts for Ray and Tony to lay it all out. They described the scene at the strip club, how Lakisha had identified Stuckey as being in the bar. They told her about the aborted video shoot and how they thought it was Dee Fredrickson that had burst in. They told her about Karen boldly lying about knowing Sean Stuckey and about David Hong’s having given her his number. She wasn’t sure she needed to know how big Stuckey’s dick was.

Sue Ellen questioned them about details, coldly separating fact from speculation. She wanted to know how Stuckey ended up being roommates with the son. Neither of them had a good answer. It was fate or coincidence or both. That got a frown.

At the end, she pressed them for a good reason for Karen to have killed her friend Deanna. It was Tony who came up with the best theory, the one that fit with everything they knew.

“Karen recognized Stuckey at the house. She approached him, maybe on the street or at school-she came on to him. She wanted to have some fun. Maybe they even did it, maybe more than once. She wanted Deanna to help her with cover stories for Gary. Deanna knew about the video, the history, maybe even the attraction and she didn’t approve any more now than she did back in LA. Karen freaked out, they fought, and she killed Deanna.”

Ray picked up the thread from there. “Now she has to cover her tracks. She wiped the knife handle with a silk blouse, thus the smeared prints. She wiped the mug in the sink, but forgot to wash it out. Deanna drank OJ, not coffee that morning. The last problem is Stuckey.”

Tony took over. The more they talked it through the more sense it made. “Now it gets complicated for her. Stuckey’s phone gets run over so she loses the way to contact him. She’s panicked because we’re onto him and has to call Hong to get the new number. She fakes the intruder in the yard to get her bedridden and insanely protective husband all worked up and somehow lures the kid over that morning.”

“Why that morning? Because she knew we were coming to talk to her.”

“And the husband’s getting better.”

“She set him up.” Each of them in the booth wore dark, scowling frowns. Sue Ellen’s was the grimmest of all. She took a deep breath and finally looked up.

“I buy it,” she said flatly. “I buy the whole thing. Just one eensy problem, fellas.” She paused for a beat.

“You’ll never be able to prove it.

Chapter 33

“Lakisha?”

Karen Hewes opened the front door wide, surprised to see her friend standing there. Lakisha, bundled in a parka and floppy wool hat, shivered in the doorway. December had been unkind since its arrival. Not only were the frequent icy snows a great nuisance, the blistering cold waves seemed downright cruel so early in the season.

“I was in St.Paul and I haven’t seen you since…”

“Come in. Get in here, girl.” Karen, smiling, wrapped her arms around Lakisha and hugged her close. “It’s freezing out there.”

Lakisha let Karen help her with her coat and hat and followed her into the kitchen. She lagged behind briefly, taking in the room, the doorway, imagining the bullet’s trajectory. In the kitchen she found herself tuning out Karen’s words while she scanned the cabinets and floor for bloodstains or other remnants from the shooting. Silly woman, she silently berated herself, of course there’s nothing to see.

“It is so good to see you.” She was dragged from her grim revue by Karen’s chatter. “Finally, someone’s brave enough to come to the house. Coffee?”

“Well, with the holidays and this weather…” Lakisha made her lame excuses. None of the other ‘Go Girls’ had apparently been burning up the phone lines or rushing to visit Karen either. Lakisha knew that Roxy and Tia had visited her in the hospital. They felt like they had to. She was in there for almost a week. She also knew that Ally was on the fringe of the legal issues Gary was still dealing with.

“So what’s new?” Karen poured mugs of rich smelling coffee and gestured for them to sit. “How’s the new book coming along?”

Lakisha studied the woman across from her. Karen was dressed in a festive red flouncy skirt and a white blouse with a Christmas patterned shell over it. Her makeup was perfect. Her hair had been done recently, cut shorter and highlighted. She looked like she was going out for the day. Actually, she looked turned out for holiday party or an evening out.

“I’m not keeping you from something am I?”

“Lord, no. I was just going to start digging out some of the Christmas crap today.”

“Ah.” Lakisha looked over her shoulder toward the stairs. “Is Gary around?”

“Oh no, he’s got a new project starting. He won’t be back ‘til evening. Why?”

“No reason.” She shrugged, wondering if Karen dressed this way every day. Maybe it was for Gary. She knew Karen didn’t go out much.

“So what are the other girls up to?”

It felt odd to Lakisha to be sitting in the warm cheery kitchen sipping coffee and talking girl talk just feet from where a young man had been killed. It was creepy. Rayford had warned her about that.

“Let’s see, Erika’s got a guy now.”

“Really? I haven’t talked to her since the incident.” A shadow seemed to cross Karen’s face just then, Lakisha thought. “Come to think about it, I haven’t talked to anyone since then.”

Lakisha knew that without being told. The other ‘Go Girls’, all but Ally, had talked a lot since ‘the incident’, as she called it. The general consensus was that they were all a little scared of Gary now and didn’t want to be around him for any reason. Lakisha had other reasons for avoiding her. Karen and Gary wouldn’t be getting any Christmas party invitations. There wouldn’t be any shopping trips or lunches. There wouldn’t be any phone calls.

Lakisha sighed and looked out over the bleak December-barren back yard. The potential for the group to establish some distance from Karen had been there without her prodding, but she knew she was responsible for some of it. It had been difficult, tricky even. By reinforcing doubts about Gary’s stability she had planted the seeds. It was almost childish the way she had encouraged Karen’s segregation; using back stabbing gossip and innuendo like a jealous high school girl trying to kick someone out of the clique.

The microphone clipped to her bra burned like a scarlet letter, but she was glad it was there.

“Earth to Lakisha,” Karen giggled. “You sort of drifted off there.”

“I’m sorry. It’s been like that lately.”

“Is something bothering you, girl?”

Lakisha turned and fixed a determined look directly at Karen. She didn’t speak for a moment. They had rehearsed this a dozen times and a dozen ways and it wasn’t working out like any of the scenarios she and Rayford and Tony had imagined. She was too nervous and too angry to ease into a conversation.

“I’ve got most of it figured out, you know.”

Karen looked puzzled, but there was a wariness behind it that didn’t escape notice. “Figured out what?”

“See, I know you recognized that boy. I saw him in the bar out in LA. I told the detectives that.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You were eye fucking that boy in the bar. Then you were for-real fucking him an hour later.”

Karen sat up straighter. The perplexed look had morphed into a frown, and the wariness was building to anger.

Lakisha bored in again. “But on film? What were you thinking?” There was a long tense pause. Lakisha watched as what she said registered in the other woman’s eyes.

“I didn’t know there was a camera,” Karen said evenly but the first blocks were tumbling from the wall.

“Bullshit. I’ve seen the tape.”

Karen’s eyes became slits. Her lips disappeared into a hard mean line across her face.

“What do you mean you’ve seen the tape?”

“I mean I’ve seen the tape. Whooee, girl. That boy had a bigun’.”

“Where? How? Is it on the internet?” Karen’s eyes began darting, searching for something. A way out? A better answer? A weapon?

“Probably. The detectives showed it to me.”

Karen jerked up. Her chair almost fell when she stood. “What was on it?”

“You were the one there. You know what’s on it.”

“When did it cut off?” Karen shouted the question leaning forward, her fists on the table. Lakisha felt the first twinges of fear. They had talked about this too, had set up some code words. One of them was ‘afraid’.

“I’m afraid I don’t know. I couldn’t watch all of it. What were you thinking, Karen?

“I wasn’t thinking, okay? Jesus, you sound just like Deanna.”

“Did she get on you for fucking that boy?” Lakisha knew that she had, she’d seen the whole thing, suffered through the entire clip. She tearfully confirmed for Ray and Tony that it was Deanna’s voice in the background.

“I was just having a little fun,” Karen snarled. She crossed her arms over her chest and walked slowly away from the table and leaned on a cabinet near the sink, glaring at Lakisha. “You have your fun.”

Lakisha decided to send another message to Ray and Tony. “I’m afraid I do. But Mr. Marland is 85 and he lives in Greece.”

“So.”

“And I don’t do it in front of a camera, for crissakes.”

Karen leaned toward the table and shouted, “I didn’t know there was a fucking camera!”

Some of her hair had come loose. She had sweated enough her mascara had gone from a delicate line to a thick fierce accent around her eyes. She grabbed a pack of cigarettes off the counter and ripped the cover trying to get one out.

“Okay. Okay. Chill some, girl. You didn’t know there was a camera.” Lakisha didn’t feel sorry for her while she watched Karen fight with the lighter for a flame. “Did the boy follow you here?”

Karen’s head snapped up, the lit cig clamped between narrow tight lips. “No he didn’t follow me here and no, I didn’t send for him.” She took a lung burning drag and hurled the used smoke from her lungs toward the ceiling.

“Then how…”

“I just saw him one day. I mean, there he was over at Scotty’s.” Karen barked a nervous laugh. “What are the odds? What are the fucking odds?” She shook her head. Her lip curled in a disbelieving sneer.

“So you jumped him?” Lakisha watched Karen’s nervous eyes dart around the room. She was blinking rapidly and breathing fast and shallow.

“I think you should go.” Karen pointed toward the door. “Get out!”

Some help?” Another code phrase. Lakisha prayed Ray and Tony were just outside the front door now.

“Help?”

“Help me understand, Karen. Why did you kill Dee?”

Karen’s agitation was in full tilt panic mode when Lakisha’s question slapped her. She struggled for words, struggled for air. “I never…if Gary…you don’t understand.” Karen’s voice wavered when she started crying. She turned away from Lakisha and leaned heavily on the counter. Lakisha stood and moved a quiet step from the table toward the archway and the front door.

“The boy never wanted any money did he? I think the boy just wanted to get away from you. Am I getting close?”

“Shut up!”

“But why did you kill Dee? She was your best friend.”

“SHUT UP!” Karen turned from the counter. A black handled knife appeared in her hand. “She was going to…”

“Now Rayford! Knife!”

Lakisha snatched her bag off the table and backpedaled as Karen stepped toward her. There was a crashing sound from the living room. The front door blew in. Lakisha tripped on the edge of a rug and fell backwards, sprawled on her back, the bag still in her hand. Ray appeared in the doorway, a black outline, snow white-bright behind him. Karen squinted into the dim room.

The back door crashed open, the window glass shattered when it slammed into the wall. Tony, off balance, stumbled into the room. Karen whirled. The knife slashed in a whirl of red skirt and red blood and screaming. Karen shrieked again and cocked her arm for another thrust.

A gun barked! Once! Twice!

Karen looked down at her chest. Two bright red stains blossomed on her white blouse. The knife fell to the floor. One hand was still raised, the other tentatively touching the stains. She looked up. Lakisha, lying on the floor in the doorway, was holding a small automatic pistol in both hands. A wisp of smoke curled from the barrel.

The three of them were standing close together at the door of the big white brick house by the lake. Ray and Sue Ellen each carried two bags of fresh produce and groceries. Tony had one bag, the one with the wine in it. The sling on his right arm got him out of the heavy lifting. A snow covered Jaguar was in the drive. She had to be home. Ray rang the bell again.

The door finally opened. Lakisha was wearing jeans and a maroon sweatshirt with a bright yellow M on the front. She wasn’t smiling. Neither was Ray. Tony had a big grin on his face though, and tried to break the tension.

“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas…” He was singing loudly and winced when he nudged Sue Ellen to join him with his bad wing. It worked. Lakisha smiled and stepped back to let them in.

“I know it’s a little early, but hey, what are holidays for?”

It was a week after the shooting, a week after the surgery to repair Tony’s slashed arm, a week after Karen Hewes, still in the hospital, had been charged with the murder of Deanna Fredrickson.

A week after Lakisha Marland had been arrested as a felon in possession of a firearm.

Ray hadn’t known about the pistol. Neither had Tony.

“You a fool, you know that?”

Lakisha took the bag from Tony and kissed his cheek, careful of his slinged arm. She shooed them into her kitchen and surveyed the bounty they began unloading from the Lund’s bags. Tonight would be Italian from the look of things, and Tony de Luca was in charge. They all agreed the boy knew his gravy. But first, it was decided, some wine and some conversation.

They sat in the atrium area, looking out over the frozen lake. New smooth ice was shiny gray-and-blue. Wisps of snow blew across it, dancing across it now and then in a small whirlwind, and after a pirouette or two the ballet disappeared.

“How you holding up?” Tony and Sue Ellen could see the affection in Ray’s smile when he asked Lakisha the question. She had taken the shooting hard, even though everyone assured her she had done the right thing, the only thing she could have.

“I’m still angry.” Angry was a surprise until she explained further. “I know between the tape and what she’s been saying that Karen’s going to prison for Deanna’s murder.” Everyone nodded. “But it’s not enough. I hear there’s a plea.”

Lakisha locked eyes with Sue Ellen. Karen’s fate was in the DA’s hands now, not the detective’s.

“I’ve heard that too. She’d be a fool not to try to finagle one.”

“That ain’t right.”

Tony and Ray stared out at the lake. They agreed with Lakisha, both of them. They had gotten into the lives of all the people involved, just like Ray said they would have to, to solve the crime. Deanna Fredrickson had been a good person.

“If it makes you feel any better we’re going after her on a completely separate charge regarding Stuckey. The premeditation factor…well, the charge is going to be murder in the first for Stuckey.”

Lakisha peered over the lip of her wine glass. “Will it stick?”

“We think once it’s reduced to murder-two it’s got legs. Karen Hewes’ life, as she knows it, is over. I have no doubt whatsoever that justice will be served.”

“Well then, I propose a toast,” Ray ahemed and raised his wine glass. “To rookie detective Anthony, I shoulda’ zagged, de Luca on solving his first murder. And his second, as far as that goes. This one’s in the win column, no matter how it turns out, and you did good, son. Real good.”