Read an Excerpt
Twenty-five years ago
Ted Duffy loved to swing the axe. He loved the motion—pulling back, stretching his body taut like a crossbow then releasing the power in his muscles. He probably put more into it than was necessary to get the job done. He didn’t care. This was his workout, his therapy, his outlet for the toxic emotions that built up inside him all week.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
There was a rhythm to it he found soothing, and a violence he found satisfying.
Day in and day out he dealt with people he would sooner have sent to hell: the dregs of society, sickos and perverts. The things he’d seen would make the average citizen vomit and give them nightmares. He lived in a horror story, fighting a losing battle with no end in sight.
He’d been working Sex Crimes for seven years now. His initial efforts to remain detached from the grime of it had gradually worn him out. His plan to do a brief turn in the unit then use it as a springboard to a more prestigious position in another department had eventually crumbled and collapsed in on itself.
Turned out he was damned good at the job that sucked him into the filthy gutter of human depravity. And the longer he did it, the better he became. And the better he became, the harder it was to escape. The harder it was to escape, the bigger the stain on the very fabric of his soul. The deeper the stain soaked in, the greater his understanding of the minds of the predators he hunted. The greater his understanding, the more his idealistic self chipped away, the more the filth soaked into him until the only thing he recognized of his original self was the face in the mirror every morning—and even that was eroding.
He had always been a good-looking guy, with chiseled features and smooth skin and a thick head of jet-black hair. The face that stared back at him these days as he shaved had aged twice as fast in half as much time as his twin brother’s. Every day the lines seemed deeper, the eyes emptier, the hair thinner and grayer. He was becoming something he didn’t want to recognize, inside and out.
And so he chopped wood on the stump of an elm tree out behind his house.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
He lived in an older neighborhood of square two-story clapboard houses with front porches that had mostly been closed in against the brutal Minnesota winters, and backyards separated by tall, weathered privacy fences. His property backed onto a large, rambling park that surrounded one the city’s many lakes. The park let him have the illusion of living in the woods.
Mr. Lumberjack, living in the woods, swinging his axe.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
Despite the cold wet weather, he was sweating inside the layers of clothing he wore—thermal underwear, a flannel shirt, a down-filled vest. He hated this time of year. Every day was shorter than the last. Night began to fall in late afternoon. Winter could arrive on any given day, and stay until April. They had had an ice storm on Halloween and a blizzard on Veteran’s Day, followed by three days of rain that had caused flash flooding in low-lying areas. The odd day of stunning, electric blue skies and a paltry few lingering fall colors couldn’t make up for the stretches of bleak gray or the damp cold that knifed to the bone. It buried its blade between his shoulders as he wiped the moisture from his face on the sleeve of his shirt, and hoisted the axe again.
The temperature was dropping quickly. The intermittent spitting rain that had been falling off and on all afternoon was giving way to a pelting snow that cut like tiny shards of glass, stinging his ruddy cheeks.
Every winter he bitched about the Minnesota weather and vowed to move to Florida the day he retired from the police department. But if he moved to Florida, he wouldn’t have any reason to split wood. What would he do for his sanity then?
Like he stood any chance of getting away from here anyway, he thought, looking up at the house, where lights had come on in the kitchen and in one bedroom upstairs. His family all lived in Bloomington. Barbie The Ball Buster’s family was entrenched in the southern suburbs. The kids had all their cousins and friends here.
Maybe he should go alone. Maybe everyone would be happier if he did.
He sighed and picked up another chunk of wood, set it on end on the stump, stepped back and swung the axe.
Mr. Lumberjack. Mr. Sex Crimes Detective of the Year. Featured speaker at conferences all over the Midwest. Expert on the subject of human degradation.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
He tried to concentrate on the silence between the small explosions of the axe striking the wood. He sucked cold air into his smoke-blackened lungs. His heart pounded too hard from the effort. The muscles in his shoulders cramped. He felt like he might have a heart attack at any moment.
Barbie would revive him and kill him again with her bare hands, furious to be left with the kids and the mortgage and the Catholic school tuitions.
Theirs was a marriage in the way of many couples—a partnership of paychecks that didn’t stretch far enough, intimacy a thing of memory, the future a projected image at the far end of a treadmill that ran too fast.
Some days all he wanted was off.
They resented each other more days than not. His wife had ceased to think of him as a man. He was a paycheck, a roommate, a pain in the ass. He had sought validation elsewhere. It wasn’t hard to get. Consequently, it didn’t mean anything. And the spiral of his life went down and down. He didn’t like what his marriage had become. He didn’t like what he had become.
His grandmother had always warned him about purgatory. Hell’s waiting room, she used to call it. Purgatory had become his life.
Sometimes he wondered if death could be so much worse.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
The final two sounds seemed to come from far away, like an echo.
Ted Duffy was dead before he could wonder why.
The first bullet hit him between the shoulder blades as he held the axe high over his head. It shattered bone and deflated a lung, tearing through a major artery. The second bullet struck him in the head, entering above the right ear, exiting below the left eye.
He dropped face-first to the ground at the base of the tree stump, his eyes open but seeing nothing, blood pooling beneath his cheek and seeping into the new-fallen snow.
“Duffy was a great guy.”
“That’s not one of the criteria for picking a cold case,” Nikki Liska argued.
Gene Grider narrowed his eyes. He had a face like a bulldog, and breath to match. “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you need a Midol or something?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “What decade did you crawl up out of, Grider? Smells like 1955.”
Grider had worked Homicide before her time, but not that long before her time. He had put in thirty years, doing stints in Homicide, Robbery, and Sex Crimes. His last few years on the job had been spent working special community initiatives—jobs Nikki would have thought required a lot more charm than Grider could scrape together on his best day.
“It’s twenty-five years since Duff was gunned down,” he said, slamming his hand down on the table. “Twenty-five years this month! It’s a disgrace that this case has never been solved. This is what I’m coming out of retirement for. We’re finally getting a dedicated cold case unit. This case should be front and center!”
“It’s not like nobody’s worked the case,” Liska said. “People have worked the case all along.”
“On the side, with no money,” Grider complained.
Which was exactly how the majority of cold cases were worked all over the country—piecemeal, if at all. Cold case units were far more common on television than in reality. In the real world, police departments operated on taxpayer dollars, funding that was continually being cut to the bone. Homicide detectives all had their old unsolved cases that they continued to chip away at when they could, and passed them on to other detectives when they transferred or retired. It was a wonder any of them got solved, considering.
“The same as all of these cases,” Nikki pointed out.
She had spent the last two months going half blind reviewing cold cases dating back to the mid-seventies. Of the two hundred cases she had evaluated, she had pulled sixty seven for the final round of reviews. Grider had looked through another two hundred and pulled fifty nine. They had whittled the list down to a hundred, and now had to prioritize. They would be lucky if the federal grant money being used to set up the unit got them through half the cases on their short list.
“This isn’t the same thing,” Grider snapped. “Duff was one of us. Where the hell is your loyalty?”
“This isn’t about loyalty,” Liska said. “It can’t matter that Duffy was a cop—”
“Nice to know what you think of your peers,” Grider sneered.
“Oh, get off your high horse,” she snapped. “It’s about solvability. We’ve got a limited budget. We have to go after the cases we have a hope in hell of closing. You couldn’t close Duffy’s case in twenty-five years for a reason—there’s jack shit to go on. He was shot from a distance. There were no witnesses, no fingerprints, no DNA, no trace evidence of any value,” she said, ticking the points off on her fingers.
“We’re supposed to spend money and man hours going back over a case not likely to ever be solved?” she asked. “What case doesn’t make the cut because we’re giving priority to an unsolvable crime? The serial rapes from 1997? The child murder from 1985? The hit-and-run death of a father of six? Which one do we leave out? All of those cases have forensic evidence that can be retested with better technology than before. All of them are potentially solvable.”
The new Homicide lieutenant, Joan Mascherino, looked from Liska to Grider and back like an impassive tennis umpire.
She was a neat and proper woman with auburn hair cut in a neat and proper style. Perfectly polished in her conservative gray suit and pearl earrings, she was Liska’s height—short. Kindred spirits in the world of the vertically challenged—or so Nikki hoped.
She had learned long ago to take any advantage she could get in this profession still dominated by men. She certainly wasn’t above playing the girls-gotta-stick-together card when she could do it subtly. But Joan Mascherino hadn’t gotten where she was by being a pushover. In her mid-fifties, she had come on the job when discrimination against women was a way of life, and still worked her way up the ranks to lieutenant. Running Homicide was just another feather in her cap on her way to bigger things. Rumor had it she would be on her way upstairs to rub elbows with the deputy chiefs in the not-too-distant future.
Homicide’s last boss, Kasselmann, had used the closing of the Doc Holiday murders as a springboard to being named Deputy Chief of the Investigations Bureau—as if he’d had anything to do with solving the serial killer’s crimes. He just happened to be sitting in the office at the time.
Mascherino had come over from Internal Affairs just in time to be handed the plum of putting together the cold case unit, which would—initially, at least—be high profile and put her in the media spotlight.
Gene Grider, retired for eighteen months, had come back to work this unit, offering himself at part-time pay, which made him very attractive to the number crunchers trying to squeeze every penny out of the grant money. But it also augmented Grider’s pension, and allowed him to bring his own agenda along with him. His agenda was Ted Duffy.
And so went the law enforcement food chain.
Nikki had her own agenda too. She had leveraged her role in closing the Doc Holiday cases to get Kasselmann to recommend her to this unit. When she caught a case in Homicide, it wasn’t unusual to be on for twenty-four hours or more, straight. In Cold Case, there was no urgency. There were regular hours, giving her more time with her boys.
She had spent the better part of a decade in Homicide. The unit was her home away from home, her family away from family. She loved the job, was very good at the job. But RJ and Kyle, at fourteen and sixteen, were growing into young men, struggling through the pitfalls of adolescence as they made the transition from boyhood to independence and maturity. They needed an adult available, and she was it. God knew their father didn’t qualify for the job.
It had been during the height of the Doc Holiday hunt that Nikki had realized she didn’t know enough about what was going on in the life of her oldest son, Kyle. The lives of teenagers were so much more complicated now than when she was a kid. They could be lost so easily while she was looking away—lost literally and figuratively. No matter how much she loved her job, she loved her boys a million times more.
News of the grant money coming in for a cold case unit had started circulating at the perfect time. She would still be investigating homicides, but the urgency and long hours of a fresh case would be removed. The challenges would be different, but she would still be fighting for a victim.
Except that at the moment she was fighting against a victim. Another detective, no less.
“If Ted Duffy’s murder isn’t on this agenda, I’m out of here,” Grider threatened.
Like he was some kind of super cop. Like he was Derek Jeter coming out of retirement to save the Yankees or something.
“And every cop in Minneapolis is going to be up in arms about it,” Grider said, cutting a hard look at Liska. “Except this one,” he muttered, then put his attention back on the people he wanted to sway. “Duffy’s is the only unsolved homicide on the books involving a police officer. It’s a black eye on the department. And I would think now—especially now—that would mean something.”
Liska sat up straighter, incredulous. “Is that a threat? Is that what you’re trying to so cleverly slip into that rant? You’ll set a fire amongst the rank and file if you don’t get your way?”
Grider shrugged. “I’m just saying people are already on edge.”
“You’re a fucking bully.”
Lieutenant Mascherino cut her a disapproving look. “We can do without the language, Sergeant.”
Nikki bit her tongue. Great. She had a mouth like a sailor on holiday, and a schoolmarm for a lieutenant.
They sat at a round white melamine table in a war room commandeered from Homicide. Round tables were supposed to foster feelings of equality and cooperation, according to the industrial and organizational psychology expert the department had wasted taxpayer dollars on during the last remodeling of the offices. The same expert had recommended painting the office walls mauve, and had told them they needed to remove the U bolts from the walls and floors in the interview rooms so they had nowhere to cuff violent offenders if the need arose, because the threat of physical restraint might be deemed “intimidating.”
Nikki could still see the look on her partner Kovac’s face as they listened to the presentation. Nobody had a better “Are you fucking kidding me?” face than Kovac.
Weeks later a suspect had yanked a useless decorative shelf off the wall of an interview room and cracked Kovac in the head with it. He still had a little scar. Nikki had kneecapped the suspect with her tactical baton before he could do worse. Kovac had a head like an ox.
Mascherino exchanged a look with Chris Logan, the chief assistant county attorney. Logan was a big handsome man in an expensive suit, tall and athletic with a thick shock of black-Irish hair streaked with gray. Fifty-ish. Brash. Aggressive. Intimidating in the courtroom or in a conversation.
Logan’s role in this meeting was to give his blessing to cases he thought might have the potential to reach a trial and be prosecuted successfully. The Duffy case offered nothing for him to sink his teeth into as a prosecutor. He would want witnesses, evidence, forensics—at the very least, a viable suspect at this stage of the game. And yet, he didn’t jump to dismiss Grider’s sales pitch.
He was certainly aware of the contract tensions between the city and the police union, recently made worse by the mayor’s threats of deep budget cuts and layoffs. But if any of that concerned Logan, he wasn’t going to show it. He had to be a hell of a poker player.
He rubbed a hand along his jaw as he weighed the pros and cons.
“We owe Duff one more try,” Grider pressed. “All we need is for one person to talk. That’s all it takes to crack a case like this.”
“After twenty-five years, why would anyone talk?” Nikki asked.
“Maybe they got a conscience,” Grider said, “or found Jesus, or now hate the person they were protecting back then.”
But none of that seemed likely, and even if someone talked, they still had no physical evidence to speak of, only hearsay or uncorroborated accomplice testimony. Nikki sighed.
The case she had pulled as her number one candidate was the 2001 rape and murder of a young mother. There were two solid suspects. They only needed a couple of puzzle pieces and a little luck to make the case. The victim’s mother had already been in touch with her to lobby on her daughter’s behalf.
“Have you read the entire Duffy murder book?” Logan asked her.
“Enough to know there isn’t—”
“That’s a no,” he said. “Maybe you need to take a closer look.”
“I’ve personally read through sixty-seven other cases that are more promising.”
Logan didn’t blink.
“Re-interviewing friends, family, co-workers. Going through the file with a fresh eye,” he said. “That’s not a huge investment of time. A few days. A week at the most. If nothing turns up, at least we gave it a shot.”
“It’s a good case for the media,” Grider said, sweetening the deal. “The twenty-fifth anniversary of the murder of one of the city’s finest. The news coverage might shake something loose.”
And there was nothing a politically ambitious prosecutor liked more than a free media spotlight. It was no secret the current county attorney was considering running for the senate. Everyone assumed Logan was next in line to take over as top dog for Hennepin County. If he decided to champion the Duffy case, he could get that initial news exposure that would come at the launch of the new unit, and curry favor with the police union at the same time. Two birds, one stone. To the cops, he would look like a hero for re-opening the case, and, if after the media had moved on to other news, the case didn’t get solved, that would be the fault of the investigators. No downside for Logan.
Nikki sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. She wouldn’t admit defeat, but she would have to accept it. Fine. Let Grider have his one case. It would keep him out of her hair while she devoted herself to her dead young mother.
Unlike Homicide, where the detectives worked together, and had multiple cases going at the same time, in Cold Case each of them would be working one case at a time, working the cases until they were either solved or had exhausted all hope, then moving on to the next one.
Logan drummed his fingers on the tabletop and gave a decisive nod. “Let’s do it. That’s our headliner.”
Mascherino stood up and went to the long white board on the wall behind her. “All right, then. We start with the murder of Ted Duffy.”
She chose a marker and wrote the name at the top of the board in neat cursive. Grider looked at Nikki and smiled like a shark. She rolled her eyes away from him toward the third member of their team, Candra Seley, who shrugged and spread her hands, mouthing her opinion: He’s such an asshole!
Seley, on loan from the business and technology unit, would primarily be reviewing evidence, processing and reprocessing test results, performing witness and suspect background checks, compiling witness lists, and constructing time lines. Liska and Grider would be the feet on the ground.
Grider got up from his chair smoothing his tie over his protruding belly like some kind of fat, preening, ugly duck. “I’ll get right on it.”
“No,” Mascherino said calmly. “The Duffy case goes to Liska.”
“What?!” Liska and Grider blurted out simultaneously.
“That’s my case!” Grider argued, his face turning red.
“It’s time for a fresh pair of eyes,” the lieutenant said firmly. “That’s the whole point of a cold case unit—getting a fresh take on an old crime. I’m sure Sergeant Liska will appreciate your input when she asks for it, but this is her case now.”
“But I know this case inside and out! I know these people!”
“That’s just my point. I want someone who doesn’t know any of the people involved. Someone who has no preconceived ideas going in. That’s the only way a case this stale has any chance of being solved.”
Grider paced behind the table. Nikki could hear him breathing in and out like he’d run a hundred yards.
“She doesn’t even think the case deserves to be investigated!” he shouted, pointing at her like he was fingering her for a witch.
“I don’t think it deserves to be a priority,” Nikki corrected him, pushing her chair back and getting to her feet. He was still half a foot taller than she was.
“You said it was unsolvable.”
“Well, in twenty-five years you certainly haven’t proven me wrong.”
“So it’ll be just fine with you if you don’t solve it either,” Grider said sarcastically. “You’ve already got your excuse ready.”
Nikki felt like the top of her head might blow off. Furious, she walked up on him, her hands jammed at her waist. “Are you implying that I won’t do the job? You think I’m a bad cop? Fuck you, Grider! I didn’t ride in here on a powder puff. I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am. I’ll put my record in Homicide up against yours any day of the week. I don’t have any moldy age-old unsolved murders with my name on them.”
Grider looked at the lieutenant. “How am I supposed to work with her?”
“You’re not,” Mascherino said. “You’ve got your own case to work. Take your number two and run with it. Nikki, you’ve got priority for Candra’s time.”
Logan unfolded himself from his chair, looking at Nikki. “Press conference at five in the government center.”
“Today?” She glanced at her watch. It was nearly four.
“Plenty of time to go powder your nose and put on some lipstick,” Logan quipped.
“Speak for yourself,” Nikki snapped, gathering her notes from the table. “I’ve got a case to review.”
“The guy’s a freaking twitch,” Sam Kovac said. “The first thing he did when we got him in the box was puke on the floor.”
He sat at his desk watching the feed from the interview room on his computer screen. His new trainee—he refused to use the word partner—was just down the hall, taking his turn trying to get information out of Ronnie Stack. Stack—thirty-four, meth head, bone-thin, pasty white-was a nervous sewer rat type: furtive, thin lips quivering, narrow eyes darting all around the room, rubbing his hands together like he was washing, over and over.
“Is he high?” Tippen asked, watching over Kovac’s shoulder like a vulture. He was built that way too: long and bony with a permanent slouch, a beak of a nose, and keen dark eyes. They had worked together for years.
“No, but I’m sure he wants to be.”
This fact would hopefully tip the scales in their favor. Stack wanted out of that room—maybe badly enough to give them what they wanted: information on the murder of a drug dealer known as BB. Stack was a known associate of BB, and had reportedly been with the dealer shortly before somebody stuck a knife in his throat and caused him to drown in his own blood.
Stack was not under arrest. This was a non-custodial interview. He was free to get up and leave any time he wanted. It amazed Kovac how few people exercised that right. They seemed to think that option was some kind of a trick.
“How’s the kid doing?” Tippen asked, helping himself to the other desk chair in the cubicle.
The Kid, Michael Taylor, fledgling homicide detective, was Kovac’s third trainee in as many months. Of the other two, one had gone back to his old job in Sex Crimes; the other had transferred to a sudden opportunity in the Business Technology unit. Neither had been cut out for Homicide as far as Kovac was concerned—an opinion he had made abundantly clear.
Bottom line: He didn’t want a new partner. He was too old and cranky to break in a new one. He and Liska had been partners for so long, they were comfortable together, their styles meshed, they had learned to tolerate each other’s annoying habits. They were like an old married couple that never had sex. He wanted that back. Instead, he had to take this kid and try to make him into something he could live with.
Taylor showed some promise, he admitted grudgingly. He had been an MP in the army. After two tours in Iraq he had opted out of the service and come home to Minneapolis. He joined the force and set his sights on making Detective, rising quickly through the ranks. He had come to Homicide from Special Crimes to bulk up his resume before he was fast-tracked to further stardom. At least, that was what Kovac believed. The kid was too handsome and too sharp to loiter in the trenches with the rest of the grunts. He had Big Things written all over him. His sheer perfection rubbed Kovac the wrong way.
He shrugged at Tippen’s question. “We’ll see.”
He turned up the volume on the computer speakers. Taylor was sitting, looking relaxed, looking like he could just sit there for the next two or three days. He had his shirtsleeves rolled perfectly halfway up his forearms. Even this late in the day his shirt still looked freshly starched, perfectly tailored to showcase his broad shoulders and trim waist.
“Good thing Liska transferred out,” Tippen said. “She’d be all over Taylor like stink on a billy goat.”
Tippen resembled a billy goat, Kovac thought, with his long homely face, sporting a goatee and mustache these past few months. His vintage beatnik look. He claimed it played well with the coffee house chicks.
“The guy is hot,” Tippen went on. “If I was a woman, I’d fuck him.”
Kovac made a pained face. “Oh, Jesus, don’t put that in my head!”
“Taylor’s too young for Tinks,” Elwood Knutson announced, joining them in the cramped gray cubicle, taking up all remaining available space. He was built like a Disney cartoon bear, and had a similar pelt of hair.
“Don’t tell Tinks that,” Kovac advised. “She’ll pluck your eyeballs out and feed them to you.”
“Merely an observation,” Elwood murmured, hunkering down closer to the screen. “She’s not the cougar type.”
“He’s not that young anyway,” Kovac muttered. The kid made him feel like a dinosaur. “He’s thirty-four.”
“And how old are you now, Sam?”
“Old enough to remember dial-up telephones. I’ve got shoes older than this kid,” he confessed. “And a couple of neckties, too.”
He turned his focus back to the computer screen.
“You know,” Taylor was saying to Stack, “we’re just not making the progress here I thought we would, Ronnie. You seemed so eager to cooperate, but you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“Maybe I don’t know anything more than you know,” Stack said, pushing his limp blond hair back from his face.
Taylor shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve overestimated you. I think you want to help us out here,” Taylor said. “BB was your friend, after all.”
Stack’s eyes darted side to side. “He wasn’t really my friend. I mean, I knew him, but . . .”
Taylor leaned forward a bit. Stack leaned back.
“Now, there you go—trying to distance yourself when we have witnesses who put you with BB shortly before his death,” Taylor said. “Now you’re suddenly telling me maybe you and BB weren’t such good friends after all when I know you’d been staying at his house. You have to know what this makes me think, Ronnie.”
Stack nibbled at a hangnail as he curled in on himself, turning himself into a human comma on the other side of the table, trying to make himself smaller and smaller, as if he thought he might eventually become so small Taylor would find him physically insignificant and let him disappear.
“It makes me think maybe we should be looking at you as a suspect instead of a possible witness.” Taylor’s voice was quiet and even, matter-of-fact. “Should we be looking at you that way, Ronnie?”
“N-no.” The twitch wiped his arm across his forehead. “It seems really hot in here. Aren’t you hot?”
“Me? No. I spent two years in Iraq fighting for your freedom in the ninth circle of Hell. I know what hot is. It’s not hot in here. I mean, we’ve got the fan going and everything.”
Without another interview room available, they had had a janitor come in and clean Stack’s vomit off the floor, then brought in a little desk fan to blow on the wet carpet and dissipate the smell of puke and cleaning agents.
“Did you have some kind of beef with BB, Ronnie?”
“Did he have some kind of beef with you? Maybe you pissed him off. Maybe he caught you stealing.”
“No!” Stack protested—too fervently. Like a guilty man. “I’m not like that. I’m a nice person. I’d do anything for anybody. I’d give you the shirt off my back,” he said, tugging at the collar of his dirty, puke-stained, olive-colored sweater. The color made him look like maybe he had a liver disease—or maybe he did have a liver disease. Fucking junkie.
“I’m always getting blamed for shit I didn’t do!” he whined.
“But isn’t it true you were mooching of BB for a long time?” Taylor asked in that calm, even voice that was somehow more unnerving than a shout. “You were sleeping on his couch, eating his food, taking advantage of his kindness.”
“It’s not like I didn’t help him,” Stack said indignantly. “I watched his dogs when he was out of town.”
“You watched his dogs while you were sleeping on his couch and smoking his dope and eating his food, and helping yourself to the meth.”
“He owed me something for all I did.”
“You felt entitled,” Taylor said, nodding.
“I did all kinds of stuff for him,” Stack claimed.
“Like selling his dope and sticking the money in your pocket? How did he feel about that?”
“I never did that! He would have killed me!”
“So you only did it while he was out of town and you were looking after his dogs?” Taylor said. “Because you were entitled to that much.”
Stack shifted in his seat, agitated. “No! I told you. BB would’ve killed me.”
“So maybe you beat him to it.”
“I’m really hot,” Stack said, tugging again at the collar of his sweater.
“It’s probably just nerves,” Taylor said. “I mean, here you sit with a homicide detective telling you you might be a suspect in the death of your friend. Maybe I’m trying to visualize you sticking that knife into BB’s neck, shoving that blade down his throat, listening to him gurgle as he drowned in his own blood. Hell of a way to go, sucking that blood down in big gulps.”
Stack twisted and turned in his seat. He looked like he might puke again. Taylor rose from his chair, smoothing his tie down with one hand.
“I’d be nervous if I was in your place, too, Ronnie,” he said. “You’ve got a couple of drug busts on your sheet already. BB was a drug dealer. Most people won’t have to try too hard to stretch that story to fit, you know what I’m saying? I’ll guarantee a jury isn’t going to be interested in all your poor, poor Ronnie sob stories.”
“Fuck you!” Stack spat the words at him.
Taylor ignored the insult. He hadn’t changed the tone or volume of his voice since the beginning of the interview. Pretty damned impressive, Kovac thought, though wild horses couldn’t have kicked that confession out of him.
“Tell you what, Ronnie,” Taylor said. “I’m going to step out for a moment to confer with Detective Kovac. I’ll tell you right now, he wants to hold you on this. He’s not as patient as I am. While I’m out, you try to refresh your memory for me. Otherwise, Kovac’s going to come down on you like Thor’s hammer. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”
“Who’s Thor?” Stack asked stupidly. “Oh. Like in the movie?”
Taylor just looked at him, then left the room.
“Well played, young man,” Tippen said, impressed.
“I like his style,” Elwood agreed.
Kovac growled a little in his throat as if to say he wasn’t convinced just yet.
As soon as Taylor was out the door of the interview room, Stack got up and started to pace, holding his stomach, bending over a little.
“Oh, man. Oh, man,” he muttered.
“I don’t know,” Taylor said, joining the small crowd in the cubicle. “We’ve been at this for two hours already and he hasn’t given us anything useful.”
“Except that he now sounds more like a suspect than a witness,” Elwood said. “Well done.”
Taylor shrugged it off. He had shoulders like the fucking Rock. No possible way he bought his shirts off the rack.
“Ronnie Stack didn’t stick a knife in a drug dealer—not face to face,” he said. “He doesn’t have the balls for murder.”
“No, but I’d say there’s a good chance he knows who did,” Kovac said. “We’ll go back in together. If he knows anything, he’ll tell us now.”
“Can we take a couple of minutes?” Taylor asked as Sam got up from his chair. “The smell in that room is making me nauseous. I think the dude ate a head of cabbage for lunch. Anyhow, I don’t know how much more we can squeeze out of him before he uses the L word.”
“That all depends on what you mean by that,” Elwood said, pointing at the computer screen. “I think he’s about to squeeze out something right now.”
Kovac turned his attention back to the screen. “What the fuck is he doing?”
Ronnie Stack was hopping from foot to foot as he undid his pants, chanting, “Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit!”
“No fucking way!”
Even as they shouted their protests, their interviewee yanked his pants down and squatted over the room’s tiny wastebasket, his ferret face squeezed tight.
“I’ll call maintenance,” Taylor said, turning away, looking a little green beneath his tan.
“Good luck with that,” Kovac said. “They’re not coming back after the puke, not the guys on this shift.”
“Welcome to the big league, Kid,” Tippen said, slapping Taylor on the shoulder. “You scared the shit out of him, you get to clean it up.”
“Noooo, no, no,” Taylor said, shaking his head. “I’m calling in a hazmat crew. I’m ready to puke right now. I’m not going back in there!”
“Somebody better go back in there,” Elwood said, pointing at the screen again.
Stack was crying now, crawling on his hands and knees across the floor, his pants still undone.
“What now?” Kovac asked, watching their person of interest make his way toward the fan.
At first he thought Stack was just trying to get away from the smell. Then he picked up the cord of the fan, raised it to his mouth, and tried to bite into it.
“Fuck!” Taylor shouted, bolting for the interview room.
The rest of them watched the action on the screen—Taylor bursting into the room, shouting, yanking the cord of the fan out of the wall before Stack could light himself up like a Christmas tree.
“Oh, my God!” he said, reeling at the stench. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He pursued Stack as the junkie jumped up and stumbled backwards, hiking up his pants. “Were you born in a barn? Shitting in the trashcan? Seriously? Who does that? We have plumbing here!”
Stack stepped back, stumbled, kicking over the wastebasket, spilling the contents onto the floor. Overwhelmed by the stench, Taylor unloaded his lunch all over their suspect to the groans and shouts of his fellow detectives.
“The Kid gives his all,” Tippen said.
“We’re going to have to burn sage in that room,” Elwood murmured seriously.
Kovac shook his head at the ridiculousness of it all. “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Kovac thought about that as he stared into his drink. He wished he was as young as he had been the first time he had said he was too old. The big 5-0 had come and gone. He was on the steep downhill side of making his thirty years on the job. He had always said he would make his thirty and move to a climate where he could wear bad Hawaiian shirts year round. Now that thirty was looming on the horizon, he had to admit he hated Hawaiian shirts and that the idea of retirement scared the crap out of him.
“Hey, move over, Methuselah. I need a seat and a stiff one,” Liska said.
“But would you like a drink?” Tippen asked.
Liska gave him the finger. Ever the lady.
They had a corner booth at Patrick’s, an Irish bar owned by Swedes, conveniently located halfway between the sheriff’s office and the police department. Any fool trying to rob the bar would have thirty or forty guns drawn on him all at once. The place was always packed with cops—off-duty cops, retired cops, cops just finished with their shifts, cops grabbing a meal before they went to work.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, Ms. Liska?” Elwood asked. “Isn’t it a school night?”
“Speed is taking the boys to a wrestling meet at the U of M,” she said, sliding into the place they had made for her.
“Hot sweaty guys groping each other, and you’re not going?” Tippen asked, arching a brow. “Are you unwell?”
“Momma needs a vodka. What a rotten day.”
“Please. How can you even break a sweat in Cold Case? Your vics have all been dead for years.”
“Like my love life,” Liska lamented on a sigh.
“Maybe that’ll pick up now that you don’t have to worry about going on a date smelling like a fresh corpse.”
“Always looking on the bright side, Elwood. I miss that,” she confessed, looking around. “Where’s the noob? I spent all day staring at Gene Grider’s ugly mug. I need some eye candy.”
“He had to go home on account of the stench,” Kovac said.
They filled her in on the fiasco.
“That’s so gross!” she laughed. “You guys have all the fun!”
“See what you’re missing out on, Tinks?”
Kovac had given her the nickname Tinker Bell On Steroids when she first came into Homicide. Tiny but fierce, and woe to the person who crossed her. She wielded a mean tactical baton. The name had quickly been shortened to Tinks for practical purposes. She was five feet five of dynamite with silver-blond hair cropped short and sticking up all over in one of those trendy finger-in-the-light socket cuts. Her blue eyes had a gaze that could cut steel.
The waitress brought her a vodka and tonic without Liska having to ask. She took a long drink.
“Don’t rub it in,” she grumbled. “So what happened to the twitch?”
“We had to call him trying to bite through the electrical cord a suicide attempt,” Kovac said. “So, he’s in the loony bin at HCMC on a psych hold. Now, of course, he’s going to get a lawyer, and that’ll be that. Taylor had him that close to spilling his guts,” he said pinching thumb and forefinger nearly together.
“He actually did do that, just not the way you wanted,” Liska said. “I suppose none of you saw me on TV, seeing how you were in the midst of a literal shit storm. The cold case unit is officially launched. I’m the poster girl, thank you very much.”
“Did you wear a bikini?” Tippen asked.
“You’re such a perv.”
“Don’t undersell me,” Tippen said, pretending offense. “I am the perv.”
“Whatever,” Kovac snapped, not in the mood for their usual banter. “What case gets the big spotlight?”
“That’s stupid,” he said. “No one’s ever going to solve that case. There’s jack shit to go on.”
“My words, exactly,” Liska said. “But Grider bullied it through, then Mascherino gave it to me. I thought Grider’s head would explode.”
“They were pals back in the day,” Kovac said. “Grider and Duffy.”
“Did you know Duffy?”
“Yeah. He was a prick.”
“Salt of the earth, best cop to ever walk the earth—according to Grider.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a prick, too,” Kovac said as he raised his burger to his mouth.
“I’ve already seen that for myself. Was he a good cop? Duffy?”
He chewed, nodded, swallowed. “Yeah, he was. I had just made detective the year Duffy bought it. I was low man on the totem pole in Sex Crimes. Duffy took all the plum cases, the high-profile stuff. But he solved them, so who was going to complain? He was sex crimes detective of the year three years in a row. Plenty of rapists and pedophiles hated him. When he got whacked everybody figured it was someone he’d put away, but nothing ever panned out.”
“And now it’s all on me,” Liska said with a facetious cheer. “Yay!”
“Maybe the new media attention will shake something loose, get somebody to talk,” Elwood said.
“I hope so. After I spent an hour trying to convince everybody the case is unsolvable, I all but guaranteed Grider I can close it.”
“Don’t let your mouth write a check your ass can’t catch, Tinker Bell,” Kovac warned.
She reached over to his plate and stole some French fries, like she always did. “You’ve got to quit eating this junk, Kojak. Between the fried food and the cigarettes—”
“I quit smoking.”
“Yeah, like twenty-nine times. Are you smoking these days? And remember, I asked a question I probably already know the answer to.”
Kovac scowled. “Then you probably also know I’m going to tell you to fuck off.”
“I expected nothing less.”
This was how it was with them. She nagged him like a wife, always had. But there had never been anything sexual between them. She was more like an annoying kid sister he would have walked through fire for.
He couldn’t fault her reasoning for transferring. She wanted to be a good mother to her boys—and she was. She had managed to raise two good young men with no real help from her jerk-off ex-husband. Kovac just missed her. That was the plain fact of it. They worked well together. He felt a little like he was missing a limb without her.
“Everything changes, Kojak,” she had said to him months ago when she had made her decision.
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” he had answered.
Everything changes, Kovac thought to himself as he drove home through a cold bleak rain, but he absolutely didn’t like it. His mood matched the weather. He hated this time of year, this bitter season of raw cold and gray skies, knifing winds and days that grew shorter and shorter. The year was old and dying like the few remaining leaves on the trees. It made him feel empty and alone. And he felt it most coming home to his nondescript box of a house in his tired nondescript neighborhood.
This night he didn’t even have the energy to hate his next-door neighbor’s lunatic mishmash Christmas decorations that already cluttered his yard—plywood cutout snowmen and tin soldiers crowding around a nativity scene. An army of Santas mounting an attack on the house. At least the cranky old bastard wouldn’t light it all up until the day after Thanksgiving.
It occurred to Kovac that he was probably also considered to be a cranky old bastard by most of the neighbors. He didn’t fraternize. It was tough for him to relate to civilians and vice-versa. What did he have to talk about? Death, depravity, autopsy results, potential suspects who shit in trashcans from the fear of talking to him.
He wasn’t exactly party material, unless the party was full of cops swapping war stories and gallows humor. Like a more than average number of his peers, he had two failed marriages to his credit, but the neighborhood ladies of reasonable age shied away from him because of his general attitude. He had been assured he wasn’t scaring them off with his looks, even though his hair was more gray than brown and his face was a slightly asymmetrical roadmap of his life. He had character, like a beat-up old alley cat. Liska advertised him as a “poor man’s Harrison Ford,” whatever the hell that meant.
Anyway, he had pretty much abandoned the relationship idea as a self-fulfilling prophecy of wary anticipation, disappointment, and bitterness.
Feeling sorry for himself, he fell into his recliner and turned on the television. The Travel Channel was showing something left over from Halloween—A Killer’s Tour of London, a guided tour of gruesome historical murder sites with costumed reenactments of the crimes. Further proof that people were just plain nuts, he thought glumly.
“Chin up, Kojak,” Liska had said to him tonight as they left the bar, giving him an elbow in the side and a cheeky, if forced, grin. “Maybe you’ll get a good juicy double homicide tomorrow. That’ll cheer you up.”
If that was the best thing he had to look forward to, what the hell did that say about his life?
The house was quiet and dark at last after the chaos of the boys coming home. And when she thought “boys,” Nikki included her ex-husband. In many ways, Speed Hatcher had never matured past 17. When he spent time with Kyle and R.J., he didn’t play the role of father as much as big brother. He wanted to be friends with them. He wanted to be the good guy, never the authoritarian, never the disciplinarian, never the one to soothe hurts or sort out problems. He wanted to clown and show off and be one of the guys. That was Speed: an overgrown boy living out the badass fantasy.
Kyle was long since over it. Her quiet, serious, sensitive boy tolerated his father, but hadn’t fallen for Speed’s Best Buddy bullshit for years. He had long been more mature than his dad in most ways. R.J., two years younger, had always been more little boy to Kyle’s little man. Now, as a teenager, he was beginning to see who his father really was, but made a conscious decision to pretend otherwise.
When they came home from these outings it was always the same: Speed, too exuberant, too loud, trying too hard to sell himself. Kyle, too quiet with an underlying current of anger. R.J., mirroring his father’s behavior, but lacking the same bravado, confused and agitated by his feelings. And Nikki, simmering and ready to snap at her ex, wanting to protect her sons from the emotional damage he did with all good intentions.
At least she had invested in therapy so she understood her own shortcomings, even if she did continue to make the same mistakes again and again. At least she knew why.
“What do you want from me, Nikki?” Speed said with the usual exasperation as they had their usual argument after the boys had gone upstairs to bed. “It’s always the same bullshit with you! You rag on me for not spending enough time with them, then you rag on me when I do!”
What she wanted was for him to become an entirely different person inside the Speed suit. That wish was no more realistic now than it had been during their marriage. The reckless bad boy with the sexy grin had caught her eye when they had both been in patrol uniforms, but what made him a hot, exciting lover lost its charm in the long term. Much as she hated to admit it, she had been one of those stupid girls who had believed he would change for her.
“It’s nearly midnight and the boys are just getting to bed,” she said. She sat back against her desk in her tiny home office and crossed her arms. “It’s a school night, Speed. I asked you to have them back by ten.”
He shrugged it off. He stood in front of her with his hands jammed at his waist. His square jaw was set, his blue eyes narrowed and glinting like steel. He was shaving his head these days. The sharply carved mustache and goatee had been dyed dark. The shoved up sleeves of his University of Minnesota T-shirt revealed the lower half of an inked mural on his left arm-the archangel Michael vanquishing Satan.
It suited him. He worked undercover narcotics in the St Paul PD. Half the time even he didn’t know if he was the good guy or the bad guy. He slipped in and out of character as easily as changing his shirt.
“So we’re a little late—”
“The wrestling meet was over at nine-thirty.”
“We stopped for burgers—”
“You stopped for pizza on the way there.”
“They’re growing boys.”
“Who need their sleep.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Nikki. So they go to school tired one day. Big fucking deal.”
“Kyle has an algebra test tomorrow,” she said, trying to hang on to her temper. “If you would ever bother to show up at a parent-teacher conference, you would know he struggles with math.”
He made a face. “He wants to be an artist. He’ll never use algebra in his whole life.”
“Except to get into a good college.”
Nikki shook her head, as if in amazement, though there was no surprise here. “And
there it is.”
Speed threw up his hands and turned around in a little circle. “Here we go again! Don’t you ever get sick of singing the same fucking song, Nikki? ‘Cause I sure as shit get tired of hearing it.”
“That’s funny,” she said on a bitter laugh, “because I’m pretty sure you never listen to anything I say. Or is it that I just sound like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon to you: Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.”
“That’s about it,” he agreed. “If Kyle wanted to stay home and study, why didn’t he? He could have said no.”
Nikki slapped a palm to her forehead. “Oh, my God, you are so fucking obtuse! First, why should Kyle be the adult in the equation? That’s supposed to be your job. Second, of course he wants to spend time with you more than he wants to study algebra. You’re his father. He loves you at least as much as he resents you.”
“Ouch! Fucking low blow, Nikki!” he said, cringing. “You’re such a bitch since you changed jobs. Don’t take it out on me that you left Homicide—”
“I did that for the boys,” she shot back. “It’s called making sacrifices for your children—a concept completely unfamiliar to you, I know.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m an asshole and you’re Super Mom.”
“I do what needs to be done. You do whatever you want.”
“Then you won’t be surprised when I leave.”
“Why would that surprise me? You do it all the time.”
R.J.’s voice came down the stairway. “Mo-om! I don’t feel good!”
Nikki gave her ex a nasty look. “That’s your cue to leave anyway—parental duty calling.”
“Suck it, Nikki.”
“Go home,” she said, tired of it. She pushed past him on her way to the stairs. “I don’t need another child to deal with. Two is my limit.”
Nikki sat on the bed beside R.J., his head on her shoulder as they waited for the antacid to soothe his upset stomach. He was already bigger than she—taller and heavier, and stocky like his dad—but that didn’t stop him being her little boy when didn’t feel well.
In the shadowed amber light of the lamp on the nightstand she took in his room. Posters of sports stars, a pennant from a Twins game, a shelf with trophies and awards he had won in football and hockey. His new passions were wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu—also one of Kyle’s sports. Several family room lamps had paid the price for witnessing their matches.
Kyle was her neat freak. Everything in his room was just so, bed made, clothes put away. R.J.’s armchair was overflowing with laundry—dirty, clean, and borderline. Athletic shoes littered the floor.
He had inherited his father’s blond cowlicks. His dimpled smile was all Speed. He was going to melt a lot of hearts. Unlike his father, R.J. was utterly lacking his father’s talent for lying. Everything was right on the surface with him. If he did something to get in trouble, he was the first one to say so, telling her the story in great detail, admitting any and all culpability. He didn’t have a devious bone in his body.
Nikki hugged him tight.
“Feeling any better?” she asked quietly.
“A little,” he said. She could feel the weight of gravity in his pause. “I wish you and Dad didn’t hate each other so bad.”
Nikki winced internally. “I don’t hate your dad, R.J.. We just push each other’s buttons, that’s all.”
“I hate it when you guys fight,” he said with a hint of little boy whine in his voice. “And you fight all the time.”
Speed wasn’t around enough to qualify for “all the time,” Nikki thought, but she didn’t say it. She didn’t want to call attention to the obvious. At any rate, that would only open the “But you made us move away from him” argument.
She had moved them away from their dad, leaving St. Paul for Minneapolis on the excuse of a shorter commute to work and Kyle’s scholarship to a top arts high school. In truth, she had not moved to keep Speed away from the boys, but to keep the boys from noticing that he didn’t give a shit most of the time. The list of times Speed had disappointed them by not showing up was long. Nikki had decided it was better if they blame her for moving than think about how many times their father had let them down.
“You fight because of us,” R.J. said, a little tremor in his voice. “Because of me and Kyle.”
Nikki wanted to crawl in a hole. She and Speed at least tried to keep their voices down when they were fighting, as if that would keep the boys from feeling the pall of bitterness between them. Kids were so much more astute than adults ever gave them credit for.
“Your dad and I love you both so very much. Don’t ever think we don’t,” she said, holding him close, wondering how much of his upset stomach was junk food versus the stress of hearing his parents argue. “We just don’t agree on how to show it.”
“Well, I wish you’d figure it out,” he said with just enough petulance that it was almost funny. Almost.
“I promise we’ll work on it,” Nikki said. “You know I lay awake nights worrying about screwing you guys up for the rest of your lives. I’m trying not to. You get that, right?”
“You do okay, Mom.”
“And Dad does the best he can,” he said. “His best just isn’t the same as your best, that’s all.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
“I’ll try harder to remember that,” Nikki said, closing her eyes against the sudden rise of tears.
“You’re welcome. You’re pretty darn smart, you know.”
“I try hard,” he said. “That’s the most you can ask from a guy.”
She thought her heart would burst with love for him.
He drifted off to sleep not long after. Nikki stayed, sitting on the bed beside him, watching him sleep, listening to him breathe. She had always loved this part of motherhood when they were small, just being with her boys as they slept, when the house was quiet and dark, and she could pretend that their lives could be perfect and free of hurt or trouble.
Unwilling to make herself get up and leave, she dozed off, propped up against the pillows beside R.J. as the tic tac, tic tac of sleet began to tap against the window.
The whispers came in the night, seductive and sinister, like snakes sliding into bed beside her.
Trust me. Let me help you . . .
Trust me. Let me comfort you . . .
Trust me. Let me touch you . . .
In the dream she was eight, she was twelve, she was seventeen, nineteen—all at the same time. Her reaction was instant: fear, dread, her heart rate doubling, a terrible chill running through her like the blade of a sword. She woke with a gasp, a cold sweat drenching her. But she made no overt movement. Out of old habit, she lay as still as possible as she took in her surroundings, just in case she had awakened into a nightmare.
She made a visual inventory of the room in the glow of the nightlight: the bedside table draped in soft blue fabric, the chair with her robe tossed across the seat and arm, her slippers, the blue drapes that flanked the window . . .
As the roar of her pulse subsided, she became aware of the tic tac, tic tac of sleet against the windowpane.
She was home, in the present, safe. Her husband, Eric, sighed and stirred on the other side of the bed. Evi held her breath, hoping she hadn’t disturbed his sleep. He turned over and settled, and she relaxed a little.
As many times as he had told her he didn’t mind waking up with her in the night, she still hated doing that to him. It upset him to know she was upset and that there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t erase her bad memories. He could only help her try to make better, happier ones. Every day they were together accomplished that.
She slipped from the bed like a wraith, barely disturbing the covers, and moved soundlessly out of the room. The house was cold. She wrapped her robe and her arms around herself and went down the hall to her daughter’s room.
The same amber nightlight as in her own bedroom glowed in Mia’s room—and everywhere else in the house, for that matter. She couldn’t tolerate absolute darkness. The light just kissed Mia’s cheek as she slept, letting Evi see her daughter’s long eyelashes and rosebud mouth, her small hand curled beside her pillow. At five years old, Mia declared herself to no longer be a baby, but her thumb was always at the ready as she slept, just in case.
Evi crept into the room and carefully rearranged the blankets around her daughter’s shoulders, making sure the nose of her teddy bear poked out above the covers. Her heart swelled with love as she watched her child sleep. And just at the edge of that love lay the familiar fear that this couldn’t all be real. She couldn’t have such a perfect life with such a perfect family. How could she have met a man as good and kind as Eric? How could she be lucky enough to have him love her? How was it the universe had given her this beautiful child to call her own, to raise and love?
“Too good to be true” was the theme of her daily existence.
She and Eric had been married six years now. Maybe when they had a decade together she would start to let her guard down, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Doubt was the last and biggest hurdle she circled around and around, never quite brave enough to attempt to clear it. At least the pace at which she ran around it had slowed from frenetic to familiar over the years. Her therapist was satisfied with that much. She didn’t share Evi’s disappointment in herself at her inability to be perfectly happy.
She had the perfect husband, the perfect child, the perfect home, the perfect job. Why could she not be perfectly happy? Was she ungrateful? No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Was she weak? Did she know deep down that she didn’t deserve any of it? That was her greatest fear—what if that one remaining voice of criticism was right after all?
“You have to convince yourself that voice is wrong,” Dr. Price had told her so many times over the years. So many times that Evi had long ago become too embarrassed to even bring up the subject anymore.
Leaving Mia’s room, she went downstairs to the living room and curled up in a corner of the sofa with her knitting, and turned the television on to keep her company and distract her from her anxiety.
The dreams left an emotional aftertaste that lingered. She didn’t have them every night, or even every month. Long stretches of time could pass between them. When she had gone without them for a long time, she could almost convince herself that they would never come back. And once they returned, she despaired of them ever letting her sleep in peace.
A local channel was rerunning the ten o’clock news, showing the weather advisories and pre-emptive school closings. Temperatures were hovering just at freezing with precipitation coming in a mix of rain and sleet. The only vehicles advised to be on the road overnight were the trucks from the department of transportation that were out laying down sand and salt in anticipation of intrepid morning commuters.
Mia would be disappointed to not have school. Unlike Evi, her daughter was a social butterfly, friendly and confident. Those were traits Evi had to work at. She loved her job and the kids she worked with. She was proud of the work she did and the accomplishments of the Chrysalis Center, but none of it came easily to her. Her daughter, on the other hand, had the confidence of a child who had never known what it was to not be loved completely. Mia would always have that. No matter what else happened in her life, she would always know that she was loved absolutely.
That had to be one of a mother’s greatest accomplishments, Evi thought. She wondered how differently her life would have turned out if she’d had that kind of unconditional love as a child.
No matter, she told herself, because her life had turned out like this—perfect. And as she thought it, and as she smiled wider, she felt the residual anxiety from the dream crumble away.
She focused on her knitting—a winter scarf in shades of pink. She had a stack of scarves in a variety of colors and textures already stashed away in the gift closet, Christmas presents for the girls she worked with-her extended family of troubled teenagers.
“Isn’t the news depressing enough the first time around?” Eric asked as he came into the living room in red plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a faded black t-shirt that had been through the wash too many times. He slouched down onto the sofa beside her, blond hair tousled, a sleepy smile on his handsome face.
“I missed it the first time around,” Evi said. “I was doing your disgusting hockey laundry.”
“You are so beautiful,” he said. “Have I told you in the last two minutes how beautiful you are?”
He smiled at her like he was trying to pick her up, like he was sharing an inside joke, shining brown eyes always ready with a wink.
“You are the perfect husband. But your hockey laundry still stinks,” Evi chuckled. “FYI: Mia doesn’t have school tomorrow.”
A firefighter, Eric’s work schedule was twenty-four hours on and forty-eight hours off. He took full opportunity of his days off to be the househusband and to be involved in his daughter’s life. He was, in the opinion of all of Evi’s friends, the perfect modern man.
“If this sleet keeps up, we’ll all have the day off,” he said.
“I’ve got a big meeting—” Evi started.
Eric narrowed his eyes. “I don’t want you driving if the roads are bad. Never mind that you’re a safe driver. These first bad weather days leading into winter people lose their minds. You’d think they lived in Miami and had never seen snow.
“Stay home and play Frozen with us,” he suggested. “Mia might let you be Elsa. Once. Only once. I get to be Kristoff and Olaf.”
“I’ve been informed I don’t sing well enough to be Elsa.”
“I love you anyway.”
“Trouble sleeping tonight?” he asked, trying to slip that in casually.
“I’m fine,” Evi said. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. A little TV, a little knitting . . . I’m fine.”
“It’s the pressure of being a local celebrity,” Eric said teasingly.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune had recently run a weekend feature story on Chrysalis and their work with victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. In her capacity as the center’s senior social services case worker, Evi had been pictured and quoted, speaking out about the difficulties faced by victims who had aged out of the foster care system, but didn’t meet the requirements for most women’s shelters.
“I’m last Sunday’s news,” she said.
She had been a little uncomfortable with the spotlight, brief as it had been, but publicity for the center was always welcome. The article had generated interest by several local TV and radio stations in the week that followed, but media attention since had moved on to new stories.
Evi dropped a stitch in her knitting as one of those new stories filled her television screen with photos and graphics. Her heartbeat quickened. A strange cold flush ran over her from head to toe.
New Cold Case Unit Targets Unsolved Homicides
The photograph took her back in time. Ted Duffy in a suit, looking authoritative, his face set in stern lines as he accepted an award, his wife Barbie and his twin brother standing in the background, clapping.
“Using half a million dollars in federal grant money, the Minneapolis Police Department, in conjunction with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, will launch a dedicated cold case unit this week . . .”
The unit’s first case would be the unsolved murder of decorated sex crimes detective, Ted Duffy.
Eric looked from Evi to the TV and back. “What? Do you know that guy?”
“No,” she lied, setting her knitting aside. She turned back to her husband with a smile. “A dedicated cold case unit will be a godsend for a lot of victims’ families from back when. Kate Quinn will be knocking on the door of that unit first thing tomorrow.”
“While we sleep in,” Eric said, getting up from the couch. He held his hand out to her and pulled her up and into his arms. “Let’s go back to bed, Mrs. Burke. We’ve got some serious snuggling to do.”
Evi pressed her cheek into his shoulder and hugged him tight. “That’s the only place I want to be.”
In the here and now with the man of her dreams. But when she closed her eyes, she only saw the faces of her past.
Sleet began to pelt the windows around one-thirty in the morning. The sound woke Professor Lucien Chamberlain from a shallow sleep. He fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand and checked the time on his phone.
Beside him, his wife slept on, undisturbed by the rapid tic tac tic tac of the ice pellets striking the glass. Of course, she had taken to wearing earplugs to bed because she claimed he snored. Ridiculous. He didn’t snore. She snored. She snored especially when she had been drinking, and she had been drinking more than usual lately.
She thought he didn’t notice. She thought she had become so adept at hiding it over the years that she could fool him. The truth was, he didn’t care anymore. As long as she didn’t embarrass him in public or in front of his peers or their neighbors, he ignored her.
That was—and had been—the state of their marriage: tolerance and co-habitation. He had no interest in her as a woman any longer. He never really had. His life was about his career. She had her committees and charities. They were companions for social events.
She had never been a beautiful woman, he thought as he looked at her in the dim light from the bathroom. She had started leaving a nightlight on after stumbling into the shower by mistake one night, injuring herself badly enough that she had needed to go to the emergency room.
The hospital staff had jumped to the conclusion that Lucien had beaten her, and had called the police. It still made him furious to remember how shabbily the police had treated him, and how the neighbors had reacted when Sondra’s eye had blackened and her bruises had ripened—the surreptitious stares and quickly averted eyes. As if they could believe he—a highly respected member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota-would ever have been so stupid and brutish as to punch a woman in the face.
He had resented Sondra for putting him in the position to be judged and gossiped about. Her overly eager attempts to explain away the bruises had only made him seem all the more guilty. And the more irritated he became, the more obsequious she became, until he questioned the logic of ever having married her in the first place.
No, she was not a beautiful woman, and at fifty-eight her plainness was giving way to a heavy, matronly look he didn’t like at all. He told her to diet and exercise. It didn’t help. He believed she secretly ate sweets and hid the evidence. He had once gone through her dresser drawers when she was away visiting her mother, but had found nothing incriminating, only a vast collection of foundation garments she never appeared to wear.
He had married her for her family connections, and, to a lesser degree, her money—better, more logical reasons than looks or lust. They had been together nearly thirty years.
He watched her sleep now, envious. He had always been a light sleeper. His brain was always working. Now he would lie here, driven mad by the incessant tic tac tic tac while his mind worried at the day-to-day annoyances of academia, and the power struggle going on in the history department.
He fretted because he hadn’t published anything recently. And that thought automatically brought the rush of bitterness that he had never been able to sell his book on the comparative similarities and differences in the warrior cultures of medieval China and Japan, his masterwork.
He should have already been named head of East Asia studies, not fighting for the title. If he had a published book that was well-received by his peers, the university would not have been able to deny him. He would have been the clear frontrunner. Instead, he was in competition with Ken Sato and some Vietnamese woman from UCLA.
Sato, who never failed to irritate with his unconventional lifestyle and his unconventional teaching methods. He suspected Sato was being considered for the job largely because he was Japanese, and the chosen star of that pompous ass and committee member, Hiroshi Ito. Lucien had considered suing on the basis of racial discrimination if Sato—or the Vietnamese woman, for that matter-were to get the position. He was far more deserving. But then again, he worried what a lawsuit would do to his reputation. Reputation was everything in academia.
If Sondra’s father had still been alive, his influence at the university would have negated all other issues. What terrible luck that he had died of a heart attack nearly a year past. Lucien was beginning to feel the powers of the universe were against him. And now, to further complicate his life was this ridiculous business with Diana and the office of conflict resolution. The mere thought of it infuriated him. The conniving little bitch-jeopardizing his promotion, forcing him to take the actions he was about to put in motion . . .
No wonder he couldn’t sleep.
Tic tac tic tac. The sound was relentless.
Then came a sound out of time, out of place. A sound that seemed to come from another part of the house. Downstairs.
He sat up in the bed and strained to listen. They lived in a lovely old established neighborhood. But there were plenty of criminals in the run-down parts of the city. Crime was no longer a rarity in Minneapolis. He blamed Minnesota’s overly generous public assistance programs for ruining the work ethic of the poor minorities.
He’d had a home security system installed years ago. Sondra had the jewelry she had inherited from her mother. He had a valuable collection of Asian antiques he had accumulated over the years, most notably artifacts of generations of samurai and ninja warriors. Had Sondra forgotten to set the alarm after dinner? It was her responsibility. He often worked late in his study, too engrossed in his work to be bothered with household details.
Tic tac tic tac tic tac . . . thump.
Or was it just the wind? There was a shutter loose on one of the study windows. The handyman service was supposed to have come four days ago to fix it, but it had been banging against the house earlier in the evening. He had snapped at Sondra for hiring the incompetent fools in the first place.
She had originally called them to clean the rain gutters and put on the storm windows. The service was unreliable, their workers rude. Lucien had written a scathing review of their work on Yelp after the storm window fiasco. The owner had promised to rectify the situation in a timely fashion, but they had yet to show up. They were in no hurry to do a job for which they would not get paid. Now the shutter—which they had probably purposely loosened in the first place-would drive him mad the rest of the night with the syncopated combination of bang, thump, tic tac tic tac tic tac of the freezing rain on the windows.
He wasn’t going to get a minute’s sleep, and he had yet another meeting with Foster, the department chair; the director of undergraduate studies; and Hiroshi Ito, professor emeritus, first thing in the morning. He needed to be sharp, to present himself at his best. The decision on the head of East Asia studies would be made before the Thanksgiving break. He would go into the meeting with confidence, sure in the knowledge that he an ace to play that Ken Sato could never trump, but still, he wanted his sleep. He wanted to look as confident as he felt.
Maybe if he closed all the doors between the stairs and the study, the sound would be muffled enough not to bother him. It was on the other side of the house from the master bedroom.
Giving his wife another resentful glare, he threw the covers back and slipped out of bed. A creature of habit, he put on his dressing gown, adjusting the sleeves of his pajamas so the cuffs showed, and tying the belt in a tidy knot. He paused at the head of the stairs, just in front of his pair of eighteenth century Qing dynasty carved rosewood chairs and the spotlighted Qing period portrait on silk. He paused and listened.
Thump bump, thump bump, thump . . .
Yes, the shutter. After his meeting tomorrow he would take a moment to go on Yelp and write another scathing review of the handyman service.
He made is way down the stairs with the bearing of a king, the amber glow from the tiny art spotlight floating ahead of him, ever dimmer and more diffuse. He didn’t bother turning on a light at the bottom of the stairs. The white of the streetlight at the end of the block came in through the transom above the front door. Turning, he made his way toward the back of the house. His study was just beyond the dining room. He would shut the study door, and shut the heavy pocket doors to the dining room on his way back.
Bang thump . . . bang thump . . . bang thump . . .
The sleet tapping on the windows seemed louder to him down here for some reason. His level of irritation rose as he realized he must have neglected to turn off the lamp in the study. The glow came into the dining room from across the far hallway. The dining room seemed cold and drafty. The diaphanous white curtain at the French doors to the patio drifted into the room, fluttering like a ghost in a movie.
The chill he felt then came from within.
One of the doors stood open a foot or so—just enough for a person to slip inside.
Lucien stood frozen, unable to think, unable to move.
The dark figure came from the direction of his study. A ninja! he thought in astonishment. A silent intruder dressed entirely in black, even the hands covered, even the head was covered in black, only the eyes showing. Eyes looking straight at him, shining black, like an animal’s.
Lucien drew a breath to call out, but no sound came out of his suddenly bone-dry mouth. It felt as if the walls of his throat were stuck together, cutting off his air, as if an unseen hand had him by the neck.
In the next instant, the violence began like a sudden, terrible storm. The ninja came at him, and was on him before he could do more than stagger back and slam into the dining room table. The strength and power of the assailant was overwhelming. He felt like a frail old man, like his bones would snap and crumble to dust beneath the other’s strength.
And they did. His collarbone shattered beneath the first strike. He could raise only one arm up to protect his head and it went numb as he was struck on the wrist.
The attacker’s fists were like iron, raining down blow after blow. Lucien scrambled to get away, falling toward the open patio door, landing on one knee on the hardwood floor. His kneecap exploded with pain. Even as he tried to crawl for the door, he looked back over his shoulder.
The faint light caught for a second—not on the fist of his assailant, but on the weapon he clutched in one hand. The nunchaku—two handles fashioned of iron-hard oak, connected at one end by a short horsehair rope. The ninja wielded the weapon as a club, bringing it down with vicious intent, striking his head once, then twice.
His vision blurred as his eye socket collapsed. He heard the crunch of his skull fracturing beneath the second blow. He lost consciousness before he could register the next strike. He was unaware as the assailant kicked him viciously in the ribs, then stepped behind him and brought the himo—the horsehair rope that linked the two handles—beneath his chin and used the ancient weapon as a garrote to choke him until his tongue came out of his mouth, swollen and purple.
The assailant dropped him to the floor in a heap, and dropped the bloody nunchaku beside him. Shards of bone penetrated the left frontal lobe of his brain, severing neural pathways, disconnecting the structures vital for forming thought and emotion. The damage set off an electrical storm, sending random signals to his limbs. His arms and legs jerked and twitched like a marionette with a mad puppet master.
The assailant stood back and watched by the silvered light that fell through the patio door, mesmerized as the victim’s arms and legs jumped and flopped. The movement subsided slowly until the man lay still on the floor.
The face was caved in like a smashed jack-o-lantern. His right cheek was lying in a pool of blood. The left eye hung from its shattered socket by a tangle of nerves and blood vessels. The nose was a lump of mush. He was still breathing in irregular fits and starts, gurgles and wheezes, causing tiny bubbles to form in the bloody mess of his mouth. Several teeth lay scattered on the Oriental rug.
The weapon lay near the man’s mangled left hand, as if he had been the one wielding it. Blood and hair stuck to the heavy oak handles.
Pulling a cell phone from a pocket, the killer leaned down close, and took a photograph of the victim’s face, then took another from slightly above, making sure to get the weapon in the picture, feeling almost giddy with the rush of excitement.
Killing felt good, satisfying, exciting. Very exciting. Empowering.
In no hurry, not concerned about being found, not concerned that the police might be coming, the assailant rose and went back into the study. A small lamp gave enough light to view the collection of ancient weapons mounted on the walls and in display cases. Knives and daggers, helmets and fearsome painted facemasks of long-dead warriors from the other side of the world. And swords. Long, curving swords, some with elaborate scabbards and handles of carved wood, some with etched steel blades, some simple and plain. All of them deadly.
One of the swords was chosen and carefully lifted down to admire, and an idea formed and slithered through the mind like a viper. The blade hissed as it was slipped from its scabbard. The light shone down the length of it. The edge was tested against the pad of a thumb. A tiny bead of blood welled up and ran down the blade. The sight of it brought an almost sexual stirring within.
The woman’s voice was far away and tentative.
“Lucien? Are you down here? You should be in bed! You have that meeting in the morning.”
The voice was growing louder, coming closer.
The assailant went very still. Dead calm.
“Lucien? I hope you’re not eating something at this hour. You’ll get your acid reflux back,” she said as she came into the dining room. “Why do you have the door open in this weather! Everything is getting wet! What are you thinking?”
She came around the side of the table, stopping at the sight of her husband lying dead in a pool of blood.
She looked up and shrieked as Death came straight at her.
The scream died in her throat as the sword struck her in the side of the neck.