Books · Journalism · Information
|The Prey Series|
An anonymous van, some-kind-of-pale, cruised Summit Avenue, windows dark with the coming night. The killers inside watched three teenagers, two boys and a girl, hurrying along the sidewalk like wind-blown leaves. The kids were getting somewhere quick, finding shelter before the storm.
The killers trailed them, saw them off, then turned their faces toward Oak Walk.
The mansion was an architectural remnant of the nineteenth century, red brick with green trim, gloomy and looming in the dying light. Along the wrought-iron fence, well-tended beds of blue and yellow iris, and clumps of pink peonies, were going gray to the eye.
Oak Walk was perched on a bluff. The back of the house looked across the lights of St. Paul, down into the valley of the Mississippi, where the groove of the river had already gone dark. The front faced Summit Avenue; Oak Walk was the second-richest house on the richest street in town.
Six aging burr oaks covered the side yard. In sunlight, their canopies created a leafy glade, with sundials and flagstone walks, charming with moss and violets; but moon shadows gave the yard a menacing aura, now heightened by the lightning that flickered through the incoming clouds.
"Like the Munsters should live there," the bigger of the killers said.
"Like a graveyard," the little one agreed.
The Weather Channel had warned of tornadic events, and the killers could feel a twister in the oppressive heat, the smell of ozone thick in the air.
The summer was just getting started. The last snow slipped into town on May 2, and was gone a day later. The rest of the month had been sunny and warm, and by the end of it, even the ubiquitous paper-pale blondes were showing tan lines.
Now the first of the big summer winds. Refreshing, if it didn't knock your house down.
On the fourth pass, the van turned into the driveway, eased up under the portico, and the killers waited there for a porch light. No light came on. That was good. They got out of the van, one Big, one Little, stood there for a moment, listening, obscure in the shadows, facing the huge front doors. They were wearing coveralls, of the kind worn by automotive mechanics, and hairnets, and nylon stockings over their faces. Behind them, the van's engine ticked as it cooled. A Wisconsin license plate, stolen from a similar vehicle in a 3M parking lot, was stuck on the back of the van. Big said, "Let's do it." Little led the way up the porch steps. After a last quick look around, Big nodded again, and Little pushed the doorbell. They'd done this before. They were good at it.
They could feel the footsteps on the wooden floors inside the house. "Ready," said Big.
A moment later, one of the doors opened. A shaft of light cracked across the porch, flashing on Little's burgundy jacket. Little said a few words "Miz Peebles? Is this where the party is?"
A slender black woman, sixtyish, Peebles said, "Why no..." Her jaw continued to work wordlessly, searching for a scream, as she took in the distorted faces.
Little was looking past her at an empty hallway. The groundskeeper and the cook were home, snug in bed. This polite inquiry at the door was a last-minute check to make sure that there were no unexpected guests. Seeing no one, Little stepped back and snapped, "Go."
Big went through the door, fast, one arm flashing in the interior light. Big was carrying a two-foot-long steel gas pipe, with gaffer tape wrapped around the handle-end. Peebles didn't scream, because she didn't have time. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, one hand started up, and then Big hit her on the crown of her head, crushing her skull.
The old woman dropped like a sack of bones. Big hit her again, as insurance, and then a third time, as insurance on the insurance: three heavy floor-shaking impacts, whack! whack! whack!
Then a voice from up the stairs, tentative, shaky. "Sugar? Who was it, Sugar?"
Big's head turned toward the stairs and Little could hear him breathing. Big slipped out of his loafers and hurried up the stairs in his stocking feet, a man on the hunt. Little stepped up the hall, grabbed a corner of a seven-foot-long Persian carpet and dragged it back to the black woman's body.
And from upstairs, three more impacts: a gasping, thready scream, and whack! whack! whack!
Little smiled. Murder and the insurance.
Little stooped, caught the sleeve of Peebles' housecoat, and rolled her onto the carpet. Breathing a little harder, Little began dragging the carpet toward an interior hallway that ran down to the kitchen, where it'd be out of sight of any of the windows. A pencil-thin line of blood, like a slug's trail, tracked the rug across the hardwood floor.
Peebles' face had gone slack. Her eyes were still open, the eyeballs rolled up, white against her black face. Too bad about the rug, Little thought. Chinese, the original dark blue gone pale, maybe 1890. Not a great rug, but a good one. Of course, it'd need a good cleaning, now, with the blood-puddle under Peebles' head.
Outside, there'd been no sound of murder. No screams or gunshots audible on the street. A window lit up on Oak Walk's second floor. Then another on the third floor, and yet another, on the first floor, in the back, in the butler's pantry: Big and Little, checking out the house, making sure that they were the only living creatures inside.
When they knew that the house was clear, Big and Little met at the bottom of the staircase. Big's mouth under the nylon was a bloody O. He'd chewed into his bottom lip while killing the old woman upstairs, something he did when the frenzy was on him. He was carrying a jewelry box and one hand was closed in a fist.
"You won't believe this," he said. "She had it around her neck." He opened his fist his hands were covered with latex kitchen gloves to show off a diamond the size of a quail's egg.
"Is it real?"
"It's real and it's blue. We're not talking Boxsters anymore. We're talking SLs." Big opened the box. "There's more: earrings, a necklace. There could be a half-million, right here."
"Can Fleckstein handle it?"
Big snorted. "Fleckstein's so dirty that he wouldn't recognize the Mona Lisa. He'll handle it."
He pushed the jewelry at Little, started to turn, caught sight of Peebles lying on the rug. "Bitch," he said, the word grating through his teeth. "Bitch." In a second, in three long steps, he was on her again, beating the dead woman with the pipe, heavy impacts shaking the floor. Little went after him, catching him after the first three impacts, pulling him away, voice hard, "She's gone, for Christ's sakes, she's gone, she's gone..."
"Fucker," Big said. "Piece of shit."
Little thought, sometimes, that Big should have a bolt through his neck.
Big stopped, and straightened, looked down at Peebles, muttered, "She's gone." He shuddered, and said, "Gone." Then he turned to Little, blood in his eye, hefting the pipe.
Little's hands came up: "No, no it's me. It's me. For God's sakes."
Big shuddered again. "Yeah, yeah. I know. It's you."
Little took a step back, still uncertain, and said, "Let's get to work. Are you okay? Let's get to work."
Twenty minutes after they went in, the front door opened again. Big came out, looked both ways, climbed into the van, and eased it around the corner of the house and down the side to the deliveries entrance. Because of the pitch of the slope at the back of the house, the van was no longer visible from the street.
The last light was gone, the night now as dark as a coal sack, the lightning flashes closer, the wind coming like a cold open palm, pushing against Big's face as he got out of the van. A raindrop, fat and round as a marble, hit the toe of his shoe. Then another, then more, cold, going pat-pat... pat... pat-pat-pat on the blacktop and concrete and brick.
He hustled up to the back door; Little opened it from the inside.
"Another surprise," Little said, holding up a painting, turning it over in the thin light. Big squinted at it, then looked at Little: "We agreed we wouldn't take anything off the walls."
"Wasn't on the walls," Little said. "It was stuffed away in the storage room. It's not on the insurance list."
"Amazing. Maybe we ought to quit now, while we're ahead."
"No." Little's voice was husky with greed. "This time... this time, we can cash out. We'll never have to do this again."
"I don't mind," Big said.
"You don't mind the killing, but how about thirty years in a cage? Think you'd mind that?"
Big seemed to ponder that for a moment, then said, "All right."
Little nodded. "Think about the SLs. Chocolate for you, silver for me. Apartments: New York and Los Angeles. Something right on the Park, in New York. Something where you can lean out the window, and see the Met."
"We could buy..." Big thought about it for a few more seconds. "Maybe... a Picasso?"
"A Picasso..." Little thought about it, nodded. "But first I'm going back upstairs. "And you..."
Big grinned under the mask. "I trash the place. God, I love this job."
Outside, across the back lawn, down the bluff, over the top of the United hospital buildings and Seventh Street and the houses below, down three quarters of a mile away, a towboat pushed a line of barges toward the moorings at Pig's Eye. Not hurrying. Tows never hurried. All around, the lights of St. Paul sparkled like diamonds, on the first line of bluffs, on the second line below the Cathedral, on the bridges fore and aft, on the High Bridge coming up.
The pilot in the wheelhouse was looking up the hill at the lights of Oak Walk, Dove Hill and the Hill House, happened to be looking when the lights dimmed out, all at once.
The rain-front had topped the bluff and was coming down on the river.
Hard rain coming, the pilot thought. Hard rain.
Sloan carried a couple of Diet Cokes over to the booth where Lucas Davenport waited, sitting sideways, his feet up on the booth seat. The bar was modern, but with an old-timey décor: creaking wooden floors, high-topped booths, a small dance floor at one end.
Sloan was the proprietor, and he dressed like it. He was wearing a brown summer suit, a tan shirt with a long pointed collar, a white tie with woven gold diamonds, and a genuine straw Panama hat. He was a slat-built man, narrow through the face, shoulders and hips. Not gaunt, but narrow; might have been a clarinet player in a fading jazz band, Lucas thought, or the cover character on a piece of 1930s pulp fiction.
"Damn Diet Coke, it fizzes like crazy. I thought there was something wrong with the pump, but it's just the Coke. Don't know why," Sloan said, as he dropped the glasses on the table.
At the far end of the bar, the bartender was reading a Wall Street Journal by the light from a peanut-sized reading lamp clamped to the cash register. Norah Jones burbled in the background; the place smelled pleasantly of fresh beer and peanuts.
Lucas said, "Two guys in the bar and they're both drinking Cokes. You're gonna go broke."
Sloan smiled comfortably, leaned across the table, his voice pitched down so the bartender couldn't hear him, "I put ten grand in my pocket last month. I never had so much money in my life."
"Probably because you don't spend any money on lights," Lucas said. "It's so dark in here, I can't see my hands."
"Cops like the dark. You can fool around with strange women," Sloan said. He hit on the Diet Coke.
"Got the cops, huh?" The cops had been crucial to Sloan's business plan.
"Cops and school teachers," Sloan said with satisfaction. "A cop and school-teacher bar. The teachers drink like fish. The cops hit on the school teachers. One big happy family."
The bartender laughed at something in the Journal, a nasty laugh, and he said, to no one in particular, "Gold's going to a thousand, you betcha. Now we'll see what's what."
They looked at him for a moment, then Sloan shrugged, said, "He's got a B.S. in economics. And I do mean a B.S."
"Not bad for a bartender...so what's the old lady think about the place?"
"She's gotten into it," Sloan said. He was happy that an old pal could see him doing well. "She took a course in bookkeeping, she handles all the cash, running these QuickBook things on the computer. She's talking about taking a couple weeks in Cancun or Palm Springs next winter. Hawaii."
"That's terrific," Lucas said. And he was pleased by all of it.
So they talked about wives and kids for a while, Sloan's retirement check, and the price of a new sign for the place, which formerly had been named after a tree, and which Sloan had changed to "Shooters."
Even from a distance, it was clear that the two men were good friends: they listened to each other with a certain narrow-eyed intensity, and with a cop-quick skepticism. They were close, but physically they were a study in contrasts.
Sloan was slight, beige and brown, tentative.
Lucas was none of those. Tall, dark-haired, with the thin white line of a scar draped across his tanned forehead, down into an eyebrow, he might have been a thug of the leading-man sort. He had intense blue eyes, a hawk nose, and large hands and square shoulders; an athlete, a one-time University of Minnesota hockey player.
Sloan knew nothing about fashion, and never cared; Lucas went for Italian suits, French ties and English shoes. He read the men's fashion magazines, of the serious kind, and spent some time every spring and fall looking at suits. When he and his wife traveled to Manhattan, she went to the Museum of Modern Art, he went to Versace.
Today he wore a French-blue shirt under a linen summer jacket, lightweight woolen slacks and loafers; and a compact .45 in a Bianchi shoulder rig.
Lucas' smile came and went, flashing in his face. He had crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes, and silver hair threaded through the black. In the morning, when shaving, he worried about getting old. He had a way to go before that happened, but he imagined he could see it, just over the hill.
When they finished the Diet Cokes, Sloan went and got two more and then said, "What about Burt Kline?"
"You know him, right?" Lucas asked.
"I went to school with him, thirteen years," Sloan said. "I still see him around, when there's a campaign."
"Good guy, bad guy?" Lucas asked.
"He was our class representative in first grade and every grade after that," Sloan said. "He's a politician. He's always been a politician. He's always fat, greasy, jolly, easy with the money, happy to see you. Like that. First time I ever got in trouble in school, was when I pushed him into a snow bank. He reported me."
"But what's even more interesting, is that you were a school bully. I never saw that in you," Lucas said. He scratched the side of his nose, a light in his eye.
Sloan made a rude noise. "I weighed about a hundred and ten pounds when I graduated. I didn't bully anybody."
"You bullied Kline. You just said so."
"Fuck you." After a moment of silence, Sloan asked, "What'd he do?"
Lucas looked around, then said, quietly. "This is between you and me."
Lucas nodded. Sloan could keep his mouth shut. "He apparently had a sexual relationship with a sixteen-year-old. And maybe a fifteen-year-old same girl, he just might've been nailing her a year ago."
"Hmm." Sloan pulled a face, then said, "I can see that. But it wouldn't have been rape. I mean, rape-rape, jumping out of the bushes. He's not the most physical guy."
"No, she went along with it," Lucas said. "But it's about forty years of statutory."
Sloan looked into himself for a minute, then said, "Not forty. Thirty-six."
Another moment of silence, then Sloan sighed and asked, "Why don't you bust him? Don't tell me it's because he's a politician."
Lucas said to Sloan, "It's more complicated than that." When Sloan looked skeptical, he said, "C'mon, Sloan, I wouldn't bullshit you. It really is more complicated."
"I'm listening," Sloan said.
"All right. The whole BCA is a bunch of Democrats, run by a Democrat appointee of a Democratic governor, all right?"
"And God is in his heaven."
"If we say, 'The girl says he did it,' and bust him, his career's over. Whether he did it or not. Big pederast stamp on his forehead. If it turns out he didn't do it, if he's acquitted, every Republican in the state will be blaming us for a political dirty trick a really dirty trick. Five months to the election. I mean, he's the president of the state Senate."
"Does the kid have any evidence?" Sloan asked. "Any witnesses?"
"Yes. Semen on a dress," Lucas said. "She also told the investigator that Kline has moles or freckles on his balls, and she said they look like semi-colons. One semi-colon on each nut."
An amused look crept over Sloan's face: "She's lying."
"In this day and age," he asked, "How many sixteen-year-olds know what a semi-colon is?"
Lucas rolled his eyes and said, "Try to concentrate, okay? This is serious." "Doesn't sound serious," Sloan said. "Investigating the family jewels."
"Well it is serious," Lucas said. "She tells the initial investigator..."
"That fuckin' Flowers," Sloan said, and he laughed. "Might've known."
"Yeah. Anyway, she tells Virgil that he's got semi-colons on his balls. And quite a bit of other detail, including the size of what she calls 'his thing.' She also provides us with a dress and there's a semen stain on it. So Virgil gets a search warrant..."
Sloan giggled, an unattractive sound from a man of his age.
"... gets a search warrant, and a doctor, and they take a DNA scraping and examine Kline's testicles," Lucas said. "Sure enough, it's like they came out of Microsoft Word: one semi-colon on each nut. We got the pictures."
"I bet they're all over the Internet by now," Sloan said.
"You'd bet wrong. These are not attractive pictures and everybody involved knows that their jobs are on the line," Lucas said. "You don't mess with Burt Kline unless you can kill him."
"Yeah, but the description, the semen... sounds like a big Indict to me," Sloan said.
"However," Lucas said.
"Uh-oh." Sloan had been a cop for twenty years; he was familiar with howevers.
"Burt says he never had sex with the daughter, but he did sleep with her Mom," Lucas said. "See, the state pays for an apartment in St. Paul. Kline rents a place from Mom, who owns a duplex on Grand Avenue, what's left from a divorce settlement. Kline tells Virgil that he's staying there, doing the people's work, when Mom starts puttin' it on him."
"Him being such a looker," Sloan said.
"Kline resists, but he's only human. And, she's got, Virgil believes, certain skills. In fact, Virgil said she's been around the block so often it looks like a NASCAR track. Anyway, pretty soon Burt is sleeping with Mom every Monday, Wednesday and Friday."
"How old's Mom?" Sloan asked.
"Thirty-four," Lucas said.
"With a sixteen-year-old daughter?"
"Yeah. Mom started young," Lucas said. "Anyway, Burt says Mom got the idea to blackmail him, because she's always hurting for money. He says she put the daughter up to it, making the accusation. Burt said that she would have all the necessary grammatical information."
"And Mom says..."
"She said that they had a hasty affair, but that Burt really wanted the daughter, and she was horrified when she found out he'd gotten to her," Lucas said. "She says no way would she have done what she would have had to do to see the semi-colons, or get semen on the neckline of the dress. That's something that her daughter had to be forced into."
"Mom was horrified."
"Absolutely," Lucas said. "So Virgil asks her if she'd gained any weight lately."
"She was heavy?"
"No, not especially. I'd say... solid. Plays broomball in the winter. Blades in the summer. Or, more to the point, about a size ten-twelve. She said no, she hadn't gained any weight since she had the kid, eighteen years ago. So Virgil points out that the dress with the semen stain is a size ten and the girl herself is about a size four. The kid looks like that fashion model who puts all the cocaine up her nose."
"Oooo." Sloan thought about it for a moment, then asked, "What's Mom say?"
"She says that they trade clothes all the time," Lucas said. "If you want to believe that a size four fashion-aware teenager is going to drag around in a size ten."
"That's a... problem," Sloan agreed.
"Another problem," Lucas said. "Virgil put the screws on a neighbor boy who seemed to be sniffing around. The neighbor kid says the girl's been sexually active since she was twelve. That Mom knew it. Maybe encouraged it."
"So what do you think?" Lucas asked.
"Mom's on record saying she doesn't do oral?" Sloan asked.
"Jury's not gonna believe that," Sloan said. "Sounds like there's a lot of sex in the family. She can't get away with playing the Virgin Mary. If they think she's lying about that, they'll think she's lying about the whole thing."
Sloan thought it over for a while, then asked, "What's the point of this investigation?"
"Ah, jeez," Lucas said. He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. "That's another problem. I don't know what the point is. Maybe the whole point is to push Burt Kline out of his job. The original tip was anonymous. It came into child protection in St. Paul. St. Paul passed it on to us because there were out-state aspects the biggest so-called overt act might've been that Kline took the girl up to Mille Lacs for a naked weekend. Anyway, the tip was anonymous. Maybe Kline said something to a Democrat. Or maybe... Virgil suspects the tip might've come from Mom. As part of a blackmail hustle."
"Flowers is smart," Sloan admitted.
"And mom's cooperating now?"
"She runs hot and cold," Lucas said. "What she doesn't believe is, that she can't cut off the investigation. She thought we'd be working for her. Or at least, that's what she thought until Virgil set her straight."
"Hmph. Well, if the point is to push Burt out of his job... I mean, that's not good," Sloan said. He shook a finger at Lucas. "Not good for you. You don't want to get a rep as a political hit man. If the point is to stop a pederast..."
"If he is one."
"Better get that straight," Sloan said. "Here's what I think: I think you ask whether it was rape. Do you believe he did it? If you do, screw him indict him. Forget all the politics, let the chips fall."
"Yeah," Lucas said. He fiddled with his Coke glass. "Easy to say."
More silence, looking out the window at a freshly striped parking lot. A battered Chevy, a repainted Highway Patrol pursuit car, with rust holes in the back fender, pulled in. They were both looking at it when Del Capslock climbed out.
"Del," Lucas said. "Is he hangin' out here?"
"No," Sloan said. "He's been in maybe twice since opening night. Where'd he get that nasty car?"
"He's got an undercover gig going," Lucas said.
Capslock scuffed across the parking lot, and a moment later, pushed inside. Lucas saw the bartender do a check and a recheck, and put down the paper.
Del was a gaunt, pasty-faced man with a perpetual four-day beard and eyes that looked too white. He was wearing a jeans jacket out at the elbows, a black T-shirt and dusty boot-cut jeans. The T-shirt said, in large letters, I found Jesus! and beneath that, in smaller letters, He was behind the couch.
Lucas called, "Del." Del looked around in the gloom, saw them in the booth and walked over.
Sloan said, "My tone just got lowered."
"Jenkins said you might be here," Del said to Lucas. "I was in the neighborhood..." He waved at the bartender. "'Nother Coke. On the house." To Sloan, he said, "Whyn't you turn on some Goddamn lights?" And to Lucas, "People have been trying to call you. Your cell phone is turned off."
"I feel like such a fool," Lucas said, groping for the phone. He turned it on and waited for it to come up.
"That's what they thought you'd feel like," Del said. "Anyway, the governor's calling."
Lucas' eyebrows went up: "What happened?" His phone came up and showed a list of missed calls. Six of them.
"You know Constance Bucher?" Del asked. "Lived up on Summit?"
"Sure..." Lucas said. The hair prickled on the back of his neck as he picked up the past-tense in lived. "Know of her, never met her."
"Somebody beat her to death," Del said. He frowned, picked at a nit on his jeans jacket, flicked it on the floor. "Her and her maid, both."
"Oh, boy." Lucas slid out of the booth. "When?"
"Two or three days, is what they're saying. Most of St. Paul is up there, and the governor called, he wants your young white ass on the scene."
Lucas said to Sloan, "It's been wonderful."
"Who is she?" Sloan asked. He wasn't a St. Paul guy.
"Constance Bucher Bucher Natural Resources," Lucas said. "Lumber, paper mills, land. Remember the Rembrandt that went to the Art Institute?"
"I remember something about a Rembrandt," Sloan said doubtfully.
"Bucher Boulevard?" Del suggested.
"That Bucher," Sloan said. To Lucas: "Good luck. With both cases."
"Yeah. You get any ideas about your pal, give me a call. I'm hurtin,'" Lucas said. "And don't tell Del about it."
"You mean about Burt Kline?" Del asked, his eyebrows working.
"That fuckin' Flowers," Lucas said, and he went out the door.
Lucas was driving the Porsche. Once behind the wheel and moving, he punched up the list of missed calls on his telephone. Three of them came from the personal cell phone of Rose Marie Roux, director of Department of Public Safety, and his real boss; one came from the superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, his nominal boss; the other two came from one of the governor's squids. He tapped the phone and Rose Marie answered after the first ring.
"Where are you?" she asked without preamble. He was listed in her cell-phone directory.
"In Minneapolis," Lucas said. "I'm on my way. She's what, four doors down from the cathedral?"
"About that. I'm coming up on it now. About a million St. Paul cops scattered all... ah! Jesus!"
She laughed. "Almost hit a TV guy... nothing serious."
"I hear the governor's calling," Lucas said.
"He is. He said, quote, I want Davenport on this like brass on a doorknob, unquote."
"He's been working on his metaphors again," Lucas said.
"Yeah. He thinks it gives him the common touch," she said. "Listen, Lucas, she was really, really rich. A lot of money is about to go somewhere, and there's the election coming."
"I'll see you in ten minutes," Lucas said. "You got an attitude from St. Paul?"
"Not yet. Harrington is here somewhere, I'll talk to him," Rose Marie said. "I gotta put the phone down and park... He'll be happy to see us he's trying to get more overtime money from the state." Harrington was the St. Paul chief.
"Ten minutes," Lucas said.
He was on the west side of Minneapolis. He took Highway 100 north, got on I-394, aimed the nose of the car at the IDS building in the distance, and stepped on the accelerator, flashing past minivans, SUVs, pickups and fat-assed sedans, down to I-94.
Feeling all right, whistling a little.
He'd had a past problem with depression. The depression, he believed, was probably genetic, and he'd shared it with his father and grandfather; a matter of brain chemicals. And though depression was always off the coast, like a fogbank, it had nothing to do with the work. He actually liked the hunt, liked chasing assholes. He'd killed a few of them, and had never felt particularly bad about it. He'd been dinged up along the way, as well, and never thought much about that, either. No post-traumatic stress.
As for rich old ladies getting killed, well, hell, they were gonna die sooner or later. Sometimes, depending on who it was, a murder would make him angry, or make him sad, and he wouldn't have wished for it. But if it was going to happen, he'd be pleased to chase whoever had done it.
He didn't have a mission; he had an interest.
Emmylou Harris came up on the satellite radio, singing "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," and he sang along in a crackling baritone, heading for bloody murder through city traffic at ninety miles per hour; wondered why Catholics didn't have something like a St. Christopher's medal that would ward off the Highway Patrol. He'd have to talk to his parish priest about it, if he ever saw the guy again.
Gretchen Wilson came up, with "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," and he sang along with her, too.
The day was gorgeous, puffy clouds with a breeze, just enough to unfold the flags on buildings along the interstate. Eighty degrees, maybe. Lucas took I-94 to Marion Street, around a couple of corners onto John Ireland, up the hill past the hulking cathedral, and motored onto Summit.
Summit Avenue was aptly named. Beginning atop a second-line bluff above the Mississippi, it looked out over St Paul, not only from a geographical high point, but also an economic one. The richest men in the history of the city had built mansions along Summit, and some of them still lived there.
Oak Walk was a three-story red-brick mansion with a white-pillared portico out front, set back a bit further from the street than its gargantuan neighbors. He'd literally passed it a thousand times, on his way downtown, almost without noticing it. When he got close, the traffic began coagulating in front of him, and then he saw the TV trucks and the foot-traffic on the sidewalks, and then the wooden barricades Summit had been closed and cops were routing traffic away from the murder house, back around the cathedral.
Lucas held his ID out the window, nosed up to the barricades, called "BCA" to the cop directing traffic, and was pointed around the end of a barricade and down the street.
Oak Walk's driveway was jammed with cop cars. Lucas left the Porsche in the street, walked past a uniformed K-9 cop with his German shepherd. The cop said, "Hey, hot dog." Lucas nodded, said, "George," and climbed the front steps and walked through the open door.
Just inside the door was a vestibule, where arriving or departing guests could gather up their coats, or sit on a bench and wait for the limo. The vestibule, in turn, opened into a grand hallway that ran the length of the house, and just inside the vestibule door, two six-foot bronze figures, torchiers, held aloft six-bulb lamps.
Straight ahead, two separate stairways, one on each side of the hall, curled up to a second floor, with a crystal chandelier hanging maybe twenty feet above the hall, between the stairs.
The hallway, with its pinkish wallpaper, would normally have been lined with paintings, mostly portraits, but including rural agricultural scenes, some from the American West, others apparently French; and on the herringboned hardwood floors, a series of Persian carpets would have marched toward the far back door in perfectly aligned diminishing perspective.
The hall was no longer lined with paintings, but Lucas knew that it had been, because the paintings were lying on the floor, most face-up, some face-down, helter-skelter. The rugs had been pulled askew, as though somebody had been looking beneath them. For what, Lucas couldn't guess. The glass doors on an enormous china cabinet had been broken; there were a dozen collector-style pots still sitting on the shelves inside, and the shattered remains of more on the floor, as if the vandals had been looking for something hidden in the pots. What would that be?
A dozen pieces of furniture has been dumped. Drawers lay on the floor, along with candles and candlesticks, knickknacks, linen, photo albums, and shoeboxes that had once contained photos. The photos were now scattered around like leaves; a good number of them black-and-white. There was silverware, and three or four gold-colored athletic trophies, a dozen or so plaques. One of the plaques, lying face-up at Lucas' feet, said, "For Meritorious Service to the City, This Key Given March 1, 1899, Opening All the Doors of St. Paul."
Cops were scattered along the hall, like clerks, being busy, looking at papers, chatting. Two were climbing the stairs to the second floor, hauling with them a bright-yellow plastic equipment chest.
Lt. John T. Smith was in what Lucas thought must have been the music room, since it contained two grand pianos and an organ. Smith was sitting backwards on a piano bench, in front of a mahogany-finished Steinway grand, talking on a cell phone. He was looking at the feet and legs of a dead black woman who was lying face-down on a Persian carpet in a hallway off the music room. All around him, furniture had been dumped, and there must have been a thousand pieces of sheet music lying around. Beautiful Brown Eyes. Camping Tonight. Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Tammy.
An amazing amount of shit that rich people had, Lucas thought.
Smith saw Lucas, raised a hand. Lucas nodded, stuck his head into the hallway, where a St. Paul crime-scene crew, and two men from the medical examiner's office, were working over the body.
Not much to see. From Lucas' angle, the woman was just a lump of clothing. One of the ME's investigators, a man named Ted, looked up, said, "Hey, Lucas."
"Somebody beat the shit out of her with a pipe. Maybe a piece of re-rod. Not a hammer, nothing with an edge. Crushed her skull, that's what killed her. Might have some post-mortem crushing, we've got lacerations but not much bleeding. Same with Mrs. Bucher, upstairs. Fast, quick, and nasty."
Ted looked up, and eased back on his heels. "Johnny says they were seen late Friday afternoon, alive, by a researcher from the Historical Society who's doing a book on Summit Avenue homes. He left at four-thirty. Neither one of them went to church on Sunday. Sometimes Mrs. Bucher didn't, but Mrs. Peebles always did. So Johnny thinks it was after four-thirty Friday and before Sunday morning, and that looks good to me. We'll rush the lab work..."
"That's Peebles there," Lucas said.
"Yo. This is Peebles."
Smith got off the cell phone and Lucas stepped over, grinned: "You'll be rolling in glory on this one," he said. "Tom Cruise will probably play your character. Nothing but watercress sandwiches and crème brûlée from now on."
"I'm gonna be rolling in something," Smith said. "You getting involved?"
"If there's anything for me to do," Lucas said.
"You're more'n welcome, man."
"Thanks. Ted says sometime between Friday night and Sunday morning?"
Smith stood up and stretched and yawned. "Probably Friday night. I got guys all over the neighborhood and we can't find anybody who saw them Saturday, and they were usually out in the garden on Saturday afternoon. Beheading roses, somebody said. Do you decapitate roses?"
"I don't know," Lucas said. "I don't, personally."
"Anyway, they got four phone calls Saturday and three more Sunday, all of them kicked through to the answering service," Smith said. "I think they were dead before the phone calls came in."
"Big storm Friday night," Lucas said.
"I was thinking about that there were a couple of power outages, darker'n a bitch. Somebody could have climbed the hill and come in through the back, you wouldn't see them come or go."
Lucas looked back at Peebles' legs. Couldn't be seen from outside the house. "Alarm system?"
"Yeah, but it was old and it was turned off. They had a series of fire alarms a couple of years ago, a problem with the system. The trucks came out, nothing happening. They finally turned it off, and were going to get it fixed, but didn't."
"Huh. Who found them?"
"Employees. Bucher had a married couple who worked for them, did the housekeeping, the yard work, maintenance," Smith said. "They're seven-thirty to three, Monday through Friday, but they were off at a nursery this morning, down by Hastings, buying some plants, and didn't get back here until one o'clock. Found them first thing, called 911. We checked, the story seems good. They were freaked out. In the right way."
"Yeah, for sure. They got jewelry, don't know how much, but there's a jewelry box missing from the old lady's bedroom and another one dumped. Talked to Bucher's niece, out in L.A., she said Mrs. Bucher kept her important jewelry in a safe-deposit box at Wells Fargo. Anything big she had here she'd keep in a wall safe behind a panel in the dining room..." He pointed down a hall to his right, past a chest of drawers that had held children's clothing, pajamas with cowboys and Indians on them, and what looked like a coonskin cap; all been dumped on the floor. "The dining room's down that way. Whoever did it, didn't find the panel. The safe wasn't touched. Anyway, the jewelry's probably small stuff, earrings, and so on. And they took electronics. A DVD player definitely, a CD player, a radio, maybe, there might be a computer missing... we're getting most of this from Mrs. Bucher's friends, but not many really knew the house that well."
"So it's local."
"Seems to be local," Smith said. "But I don't know. Don't have a good feel for it yet."
"Looking at anybody?"
Smith turned his head, checking for eavesdroppers, then said, "Two different places. Keep it under your hat?"
"Peebles had a nephew," Smith said. "He's in tenth grade over at Cretin. His mother's a nurse, and right now she's working three to eleven at Regions. When she's on that shift, he'll come here after school. Peebles'd feed him dinner, and keep an eye on him until his mom picked him up. Sometimes he stayed over. Name is Ronnie Lash. He'd do odd-jobs for the old ladies, edge-trimming, garden clean-up, go to the store. Pick up laundry."
Smith shook his head. "Don't have a thing on him. Good in school. Well-liked. Wasn't here Friday night, he was out dancing with kids from school. But his neighborhood... there are some bad dudes on his street. If he's been hanging out, he could've provided a key. But it's really sensitive."
"Yeah." A black kid with a good school record, well-liked, pushed on a brutal double-murder. All they had to do was ask a question and there'd be accusations of racism. "Gotta talk to him, though," Lucas said. "Get a line going, make him one of many. You know."
Smith nodded, but looked worried anyway. The whole thing was going to be enough of a circus, without a civil-rights pie-fight at the same time.
"You said two things," Lucas prompted.
"There's a halfway house across the street, down a block. Drugs, alcohol. People coming and going. You could sit up in one of those windows and watch Bucher's house all night long, thinking about how easy it would be."
"Huh. Unless you got something else, that sounds as good as the nephew," Lucas said.
"Yeah, we're trying to get a list out of corrections."
"Was there... did the women fight back? Anything that might show some DNA?"
Smith looked over his shoulder toward Peebles. "Doesn't look like it. It looks like the assholes came in, killed them, took what they wanted, and left. The women didn't run, didn't hide, didn't struggle as far as we can tell. Came in and killed them. Peebles was probably killed at the front door and dragged back there on the rug. We think the rug should be right in front of the door."
They thought about it for a minute, then Smith's cell phone rang, and Lucas asked quickly, "Can I look around?"
"Sure. Go ahead." Smith flipped open the phone and added, "Your boss was out in the backyard talking to the chief, ten minutes ago... Hello?"
Lucas took the stairs up to the bedroom level, where another team was working over Bucher's body. The bedroom was actually a suite of four rooms: a sitting room, a dressing room, a bathroom, and the main room. The main room had a big king-sized bed covered with a log-cabin quilt, two lounge chairs, and a wood-burning fireplace. All four rooms had been dumped: drawers pulled out of chests, a jewelry box upside down on the carpet.
A half-dozen paintings hung crookedly on the walls and two lay on the floor. Another quilt, this one apparently a wall-hanging, had been pulled off the wall and left lying on the floor. Looking for a safe? The bath opened off to the right side and behind the bed. The medicine cabinet stood open and squeeze bottles of lotion, tubes of antiseptic and toothpaste littered the counter-top beneath it. No prescription medicine bottles.
Junkies. They'd take everything, then throw away what they couldn't use; or, try it and see what happened.
A St. Paul investigator was squatting next to a wallet that was lying on a tile by the fireplace.
"Anything?" Lucas asked.
"Look at this," the investigator said. "Not a dollar in the wallet. But they didn't take the credit cards or the ATM cards or the ID."
"Couldn't get the PINs if Bucher and Peebles were already dead," Lucas said.
The cop scratched his head. "Guess not. Just, you don't see this everyday. The cards not stolen."
Lucas browsed through the second floor, nodding at cops, taking it in. One of the cops pointed him down the hall at Peebles' apartment, a bedroom, a small living room with an older television, a bathroom with a shower and a cast-iron tub. Again, the medicine cabinet was open, with some of the contents knocked out; another quilt had been pulled off the wall.
The other bedrooms showed paintings knocked to the floor, bed-covers disturbed.
A door to a third floor stood open and Lucas took the stairs. Hotter up here; the air conditioning was either turned off, or didn't reach this far. Old-time servants' quarters, storage rooms. One room was full of luggage, dozens of pieces dating back to the early part of the twentieth century, Lucas thought. Steamer trunks. A patina of dust covered the floor, and people had walked across it: Lucas found multiple footprints came and went, some in athletic shoes, others in plain-bottomed shoes.
He browsed through the other rooms, and found a few more footprints, as well as stacks of old furniture, racks of clothing, rolls of carpet, shelves full of glassware, a few old typewriters, an antique TV with a screen that was nearly oval, cardboard boxes full of puzzles and children's toys. A room full of framed paintings. A cork bulletin board with dozens of promotional pins and medallions from the St. Paul Winter Carnival. The dumbshits should have taken them, he thought; some of the pins were worth several hundred dollars.
He was alone in the dust motes and silence and heat, wondered about the footprints, turned around, went back down stairs, and started hunting for his boss.
On the first floor, he walked around the crime scene in the hallway and past another empty room, stopped, went back. This was the TV room, with a sixty-inch high-definition television set into one wall.
Below it was a shelf for electronics, showing nothing but a bunch of gold cable-ends. He was about to step out, when he saw a bright blue plastic square behind the half-open door of a closet. He stepped over, nudged the door further open, found a bookcase set into the closet, the top shelves full of DVD movies, the bottom shelves holding a dozen video games. He recognized the latest version of Halo, an Xbox game. There was no Xbox near the TV, so it must have been taken with the rest of the electronics.
Were the old ladies playing Halo? Or did this belong to the Lash kid?
Smith went by, and Lucas called, "Hey, Johnny... have you been up on the third floor?"
"No. I was told there wasn't much there," Smith said.
"Who went up?" Lucas asked.
"Clark Wain. You know Clark? Big pink bald guy?"
"Yeah, thanks," Lucas said. "When're you talking to Peebles nephew?"
"Soon. You want to sit in?"
"Maybe. I noticed that all the electronics were taken, but there were a bunch of games and DVDs there that weren't," Lucas said. "That's a little odd, if it's just local assholes."
Smith rubbed his lip, then said, "Yeah, I know. I saw that. Maybe in a hurry?"
"They had time to trash the place," Lucas said. "Must have been in here for half an hour."
"Maybe somebody asked them not to," Lucas said.
"You think?" They were talking about the Lash kid.
"I don't know," Lucas said. "They stole the game console, but not the games? I don't know. Maybe check and see if Lash has another console at home."
Lucas found Rose Marie in the small kitchen talking with the state representative for the district, an orange-haired woman with a black mustache who was leaking real tears, brushing them away with a Kleenex. Lucas came up and Rose Marie said, "You know Kathy. She and Mrs. Bucher were pretty close."
"I-ba-I-ba-I-ba..." Kathy said.
"She identified the bodies," Rose Marie said. "She lives two doors up the street."
Lucas would have felt sorrier for her if she hadn't been such a vicious political wolverine, married to a vicious plaintiffs' attorney. And he couldn't help feeling a little sorry for her anyway. "You oughta sit down," he said. "You look tippy."
"Come on," Rose Marie said, taking the other woman's arm. "I'll get you a couch." To Lucas: "Back in a minute."
The kitchen had been tossed like the rest of house, all the cabinet drawers pulled out, the freezer trays lying on the floor, a flour jar dumped along with several other ceramic containers. Flour was everywhere, mixed with crap from the refrigerator. Dried pickles were scattered around, like olive-drab weenies, and he could smell ketchup and relish, rotting in the sunshine, like the remnants of a three-day-old picnic, or a food tent at the end of the state fair.
To get out of the mess, Lucas walked through the dining room and stepped out on the back porch, a semi-circle of warm yellow stone thirty feet across. Below it, the lawn slipped away to the edge of the bluff, and below that, out of sight, I-35, then United Hospital, then the old jumble of West Seventh, and further down, the Mississippi. Cops were standing around on the lawn, talking, clusters and groups of two and three, a little cigarette and cigar smoke drifting around, pleasantly acrid. One of the cops was Clark Wain, the guy who'd explored the third floor. Lucas stepped over, said, "Clark," and Wain said, "Yeah, Lucas, what's going on?"
"You went up to the third floor?"
"Me and a couple of other guys," Wain said. "Making sure there wasn't anybody else."
"Were there footprints going up? In the dust?"
"Yeah. We had them photographed but there wasn't anything to see, really too many of them," Wain said. "Looked like people were up there a lot."
"Nothing seemed out of place?"
Wain's eyes drifted away as he thought it over, then came back to Lucas: "Nothing that hit me at the time. They didn't trash the place like they did some of the other rooms. Maybe they took a peek and then came back down if it was even their footprints. Could have been anyone."
"All right..." Rose Marie came out on the porch looking for him, and Lucas raised a hand to her. To Wain he said, "Gotta talk to the boss."
They stepped back into the dining room. Rose Marie asked, "What do you have going besides Kline?"
"The Heny killing down in Rochester, that's still pooping along, and we've got a girl's body down by Jackson, we don't know what happened there. The feds are pushing for more cooperation on illegal aliens, they want us to put somebody in the packing plants down in Austin... But Kline is the big one. And this."
"Did Burt do it?" Rose Marie asked. She and Kline were old political adversaries.
"Yeah. I don't know if we can prove it," Lucas said.
He told her about the DNA and the size-ten dress, and the girl's sexual history. She already knew about the semi-colons and that Kline had admitted an affair with Mom.
"The newest thing is, Kline wants to do something like a consent agreement," Lucas said. "Everybody agrees that nobody did anything wrong and that nobody will ever do it again. He, in return, pays them another year's rent on the room and a car storage fee for her garage, like twenty thousand bucks total."
"That's bullshit. You can't sign a consent agreement that gets you out of a statutory rape charge," Rose Marie said. "Especially not if you're a state senator."
"So I'll send Virgil around and you tell him what you want him to do," Lucas said.
She made a rude noise, shook her head: "That fuckin' Flowers..."
"C'mon, Rose Marie."
She sighed. "All right. Send him up. Tell him to bring the file, make a presentation. Three or four people will be there, he doesn't have to be introduced to them, or look them up later. Tell him to wear a jacket, slacks, and to get rid of those Goddamn cowboy boots for one day. Tell him we don't need an attitude. Tell him if we get attitude, I'll donate his ass to the Fulda City Council as the town cop."
"I'll tell him..." He looked around. Several panels in the wall of the dining room had been pulled open. One showed a safe door; another, rows of liquor bottles; a third, crockery serving dishes with molded vegetables as decoration.
"Listen. This is a side-show," she said, waving a hand at the trashed room. "The governor wants a presence here, because she's big political and social money. But you need to focus on Kline." She popped a piece of Nicorette gum, started chewing rapidly, rolling it with her tongue. "I don't care who fixes it, but it's gotta be fixed."
"Why don't we just go the grand jury route? You know, 'We presented it to the grand jury and in their wisdom, they decided to indict'? Or not indict?"
"Because we're playing with the legislature, and the Republicans still own it, and they know that's bullshit. Radioactive bullshit. We need to be in position before this girl shows up on Channel Three."
Lucas walked her out to her car; when she'd gotten out of her spot in a neighboring driveway, he started back to the house. On the way, thinking more about Kline than about the Bucher murder, he spotted a red-haired reporter from the Star-Tribune on the other side of the police tape. The reporter lifted a hand and Lucas stepped over.
"How'd she get it?" Ruffe Ignace asked. He was smiling, simple chit-chat with a friend.
"There are two of them," Lucas said quietly. "A maid named Sugar-Rayette Peebles and Constance Bucher. Peebles was killed downstairs, near the front door. Her body was wrapped in a Persian carpet in a hallway. The old lady was killed in her bedroom. They were beaten to death, maybe with a pipe. Skulls crushed. House is ransacked, bedrooms tossed. Probably Friday night."
"Any leads?" Ignace was taking no notes, just standing on the neighbor's lawn with his hands in his jacket pockets. He didn't want to attract the attention of other reporters. Lucas had found that Ignace had an exceptional memory for conversation, for however long it took him to go somewhere and write it down.
"Not yet," Lucas said. "We'll be talking to people who knew the women..."
"How about that place down the street?" Ignace asked. "The halfway house? Full of junkies."
"St. Paul is looking into that," Lucas said.
"Did it look like junkies?" Ignace asked.
"Something like that, but not exactly," Lucas said.
"How not exactly?"
"I don't know but not exactly," Lucas said. "I'll get back to you when I figure it out."
"You running it?"
"No. St. Paul. I'll be consulting," Lucas said.
"Okay. I owe you," Ignace said.
"You already owed me."
"Bullshit. We were dead even," Ignace said. "But now I owe you one."
A woman called him. "Lucas! Hey, Lucas!" He turned and saw Shelley Miller in the crowd along the sidewalk. She lived down the street in a house as big as Oak Walk.
"I gotta talk to this lady," Lucas said to Ignace.
"Call me," Ignace said. He drifted away, fishing in his pocket for a cell phone.
Miller came up. She was a thin woman; thin by sheer willpower. "Is she...?" Miller was a cross between fascinated and appalled.
"Yeah. She and her maid," Lucas said. "How well did you know her?"
"I talked to her whenever she was outside," Miller said. "We used to visit back and forth. How did they kill her?"
"With a pipe, I think," Lucas said. "The ME'll figure it out."
Miller shivered: "And they're still running around the neighborhood."
Lucas' forehead wrinkled: "I'm not sure. I mean, if they're from the neighborhood. Do you know Bucher's place well enough to see whether anything was taken? I mean, the safe was untouched and we know one jewelry box was dumped and another might have been taken, and some electronics... but other stuff?"
She nodded. "I know it pretty well. Dan and I are re-doing another house, down the street. We talked about buying some old St. Paul paintings from her and maybe some furniture and memorabilia. We thought it would be better to keep her things together, instead of having them dispersed when she died... I guess they'll be dispersed, now. We never did anything about it."
"Would you be willing to take a look inside?" Lucas asked. "See if you notice anything missing?"
"Not now," Lucas said. "The crime scene guys are still working over the place, they'll want to move the bodies out. But I'll talk to the lead investigator here, get you into the house later today. His name is John Smith. "
"I'll do it," she said.
Lucas went back inside, told Smith about Shelley Miller, then drifted around the house, taking it in, looking for something, not knowing what it was, watching the crime-scene techs work, asking a question now and then. He was astonished at the size of the place; a library the size of a high school library. A ballroom the size of a basketball court, with four crystal chandeliers.
John Smith was doing the same thing. They bumped into each other a few times:
"Not much," Lucas said.
"See all the silverware behind that dining room panel?" Smith asked.
"Looks like it's all there."
Lucas scratched his forehead. "Maybe they figured it'd be hard to fence?"
"Throw it in a car, drive down to Miami, sayonara."
"It's got names and monograms..." Lucas suggested.
"Polish it off. Melt it down," Smith said. "Wouldn't take a rocket scientist."
"Maybe it was too heavy?"
Lucas wandered on, thinking about it. A hundred pounds of solid silver? Surely, not that much. He went back to the dining room, looked inside the built-in cabinet. Three or four sets of silverware, some bowls, some platters. He turned one of the platters over, thinking it might be gilded pewter or something; saw the sterling mark. Hefted it, hefted a dinner set, calculated...maybe forty pounds total? Still, worth a fortune.
A uniformed cop walked by, head bent back, looking at the ceiling.
"What?" Lucas asked.
"Look at the ceiling. Look at the crown molding." Lucas looked. The ceiling was molded plaster, the crown molding was a frieze of running horses. "The crown molding is worth more than my house."
"So if it turns up missing, we should look in your garage," Lucas said.
The cop nodded. "You got that right."
A couple of people from the ME's office wheeled a gurney through the dining room and out a side door; a black plastic body bag sat on top of it. Peebles.
Lucas went back to the silver. Where was he? Oh yeah must be worth a fortune. Then a stray thought: was it really?
Say, forty pounds of solid silver; 640 ounces... but silver was weighed in troy ounces, which, if he remembered correctly, were about ten percent heavier than regular ounces. Sterling wasn't pure, only about 90 percent, so you'd have some more loss. Call it roughly 550 troy ounces of pure silver at... he didn't know how much. Ten bucks? Fifteen? Not a fortune. After fencing it off, re-working it and refining it, getting it to the end user, the guys who carried it out of the house would be lucky to take out a grand.
In the meantime, they'd be humping around a lot of silver that had the dead woman's initials all over it. Maybe, he thought, they didn't take it because it wasn't worth the effort or risk. Maybe smarter than your average coke-head.
Another gurney went by in the hall, another body bag: Bucher. Then a cop stuck his head in the dining room door: "The Lash kid is here. They've taken him into the front parlor."
Lucas went that way, thinking about the silver, about the video games, about the way the place was trashed, the credit cards not stolen... Superficially, it looked local, but under that, he thought, it looked like something else. Smith was getting the same bad feeling about it: something was going on, and they didn't know what it was.
Ronnie Lash was tall and thin, nervous scared a sheen of perspiration on his coffee-brown forehead, tear tracks on his cheeks. He was neatly dressed in a red short-sleeved golf shirt, tan slacks and athletic shoes; his hands were in his lap, and he twisted and untwisted them. His mother, a thin woman in a nurse's uniform, clutched a black handbag the size of a grocery sack, stood with him, talking to John Smith.
"They always say, get a lawyer," Mrs. Lash said. "Ronnie didn't do anything, to anybody, he loved Sugar, but they always say, get a lawyer."
"We, uh, Mrs. Lash, you've got to do what you think is right," Smith said. "We could get a lawyer here to sit with Ronnie, we could have somebody here in an hour from the Public Defender, won't cost you a cent." Which was the last thing Smith wanted. He wanted the kid alone, where he could lie to him.
Mrs. Lash was saying, "... don't have a lot of money for lawyers, but I can pay my share."
Ronnie was shaking his head, looking up at his mother: "I want to get this over with, Ma. I want to talk to these guys. I don't want a lawyer."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "They always say get a lawyer, Ronnie."
"If you need one, Ma," the Lash kid said. "I don't need one. Jesus will take care of me. I'll just tell the truth."
She shook a finger at him: "You talk to them then, but if they start saying stuff to you, you holler for me and we'll get a lawyer up here." To John Smith: "I still don't understand why I can't come in. He's a juvenile."
"Because we need to talk to Ronnie not to the two of you. We need to talk to you, too, separately."
"But I didn't..." she protested.
"We don't think you did, Mrs. Lash, but we've got to talk to everybody," Smith said. His voice had lost its edge, now that he knew he'd be able to sweat Ronnie, without a lawyer stepping on his act.
Lucas leaned against the hallway wall, listening to the exchange, mother and son going back and forth. The Lashes finally decided that Ronnie could go ahead and talk, but if the cops started saying stuff to him...
"I'll call, you, Ma."
At that point, Lucas was 83 percent certain that Ronnie Lash hadn't killed anyone, and hadn't helped kill anyone.
They put Mrs. Lash on a settee in the music room and took Ronnie into the parlor, John Smith, a fat detective named Sy Schuber, and Lucas, and shut the door. They put Ronnie on a couch and scattered around the room, dragging up chairs, and Smith opened by outlining what had happened, and then said, "So we've got to ask you, where were you this weekend. Starting at 4:30 Friday afternoon?"
"Me'n some other guys took a bus over to Minneapolis, right after school on Friday," Lash said. "We were going over to BenBo's on Hennepin. They were having an underage night."
BenBo's was a hip-hop place. Ronnie and four male friends from school spent the next five hours dancing, hanging out with a group of girls who'd gone over separately: so nine other people had been hanging with Ronnie most of the evening. He listed their names, and Schuber wrote them down. At 10 o'clock, the mother of one of the kids picked up the boys in her station wagon and hauled them all back to St. Paul.
"What kind of car?" Lucas asked.
"A Cadillac SUV I don't know exactly what they're called," Lash said. "It was a couple of years old."
Coming back to St. Paul, Ronnie had been dropped third, so he thought it was shortly before eleven o'clock when he got home. His mother was still up. She'd bought a roasted chicken at the Cub supermarket, and they ate chicken sandwiches in the kitchen, talked, and went to bed.
On weekends, Lash worked at a food shelf run by his church, which wasn't a Catholic church, though he went to a Catholic school. He started at nine in the morning, worked until three o'clock.
"They don't pay, but, you know, it goes on your record for college," he said. "It's also good for your soul."
Schuber asked, "If you're such a religious guy, how come you were out at some hip-hop club all night?"
"Jesus had no problem with a good time," Ronnie said. "He turned water into wine, not the other way around."
"Yeah, yeah." Smith was rubbing his eyeballs with his fingertips. "Ronnie, you got a guy down the block from you named Weldon Godfrey. You know Weldon?"
"Know who he is," Ronnie said, nodding. He said it so casually that Lucas knew that he'd seen the question coming.
"You hang out?" Smith asked.
"Nope. Not since I started at Catholic school," Lash said. "I knew him most when I went to public school, but he was two grades ahead of me, so we didn't hang out then, either."
"He's had a lot of trouble," Schuber said.
"He's a jerk," Ronnie said, and Lucas laughed in spite of himself. The kid sounded like middle-aged golfer.
Smith persisted: "But you don't hang with Weldon or any of his friends?"
"No. My ma would kill me if I did," Ronnie said. He twisted and untwisted his bony fingers, and leaned forward. "Ever since I heard Aunt Sugar was murdered, I knew you'd want to talk to me about it. It'd be easy to say, 'Here's this black kid, he's a gang kid, he set this up.' Well, I didn't."
"Ronnie, we don't..."
"Don't lie me, sir," Ronnie said. "This is too serious."
Smith nodded: "Okay."
"You were saying..." Lucas prompted.
"I was saying, I really loved Aunt Sugar and I really liked Mrs. Bucher." A tear started down one cheek, and he let it go. "Aunt Sugar brought me up, just like my Ma. When Ma was going to school, Aunt Sugar was my fulltime babysitter. When Aunt Sugar got a job with Mrs. B, and I started going to Catholic school, I started coming over here, and Mrs. B gave me money for doing odd jobs. Gave me more money than she had to and she told me that if she lived long enough, she'd help me with college. No way I want those people to get hurt. I wouldn't put the finger on them for anybody, no matter how much they stole."
Lucas bought it. If the kid was lying, and could consciously generate those tears, then he was a natural little psychopath. Which, of course, was possible.
Lucas felt John Smith sign off, Schuber shrugged, and Lucas jumped in: "So what'd they steal, kid?"
"I don't know. Nobody would let me look," Lash said.
Lucas to Smith: "Can I drag him around the house one time?"
Smith nodded. "Go ahead. Get back to me."
"We all done?" Ronnie asked.
"For now," Smith said, showing a first smile. "Don't book any trips to South America."
Ronnie's face was dead serious. "No sir."
Out in the hallway, Mrs. Lash was standing with her back to the wall, staring at the door. As soon as Lucas stepped through, she asked, "What?"
Lucas shrugged. "Ronnie's offered to show me around the house."
She asked Ronnie, "They say anything to you?"
"No. They don't think I did it," Lash said.
To Lucas: "Is that right?"
Lucas said, "We never really did. But we have to check. Is it all right if he shows me around?"
She eyed him for a moment, an always-present skepticism that Lucas saw when he dealt with blacks, as a white cop. Her eyes shifted to her son, and she said, "I've got to talk to the police about Sugar. About the funeral arrangements. You help this man, and if he starts putting anything on you, you shut up and we'll get a lawyer."
"What I want to know, is what these people took," Lucas told Lash. "We know they took some electronics... a game machine, probably a DVD. What else?"
They started with the TV room. "Took a DVD and an Xbox and a CD player Mrs. B liked to sit in here and listen to her albums and she figured out to run the CD player with the remote, and also, it was off here, to the side, so she didn't have bend over to put an album in. The DVD was on the shelf below the TV and she couldn't get up if she bent over that far, Aunt Sugar had to do that," Lash said. He looked in the closet: "Huh. Didn't take the games." He seemed to look inward, to some other Ronnie Lash, who knew about the streets, and muttered to himself, "Games is same as cash."
"Your games?" Lucas asked.
"Yes. But why didn't they take them?"
Lucas scratched his nose. "What else?"
"There was a money jar in the butler's pantry." Lash led the way to the small kitchen where Lucas had run into Rose Marie and the weeping politician.
"This is a butler's pantry?" Lucas asked, looking around. "What the hell is that?"
"The real kitchen is down the basement. When you had a big dinner, the food would get done down there, and then it'd come on this little elevator it's called a dumbwaiter." Lash opened a panel to show off an open shaft going down. "The servants would get it here and take it to the table. But for just every day, Mrs. B had the pantry remodeled into a kitchen."
An orange ceramic jar, molded to look like a pumpkin, with the word "Cookies" on the side, sat against a wall on the kitchen counter. Lash reached for it but Lucas caught his arm. "Don't touch," he said. He got a paper towel from a rack, put his hand behind the jar and pushed it toward the edge of the countertop. When it was close enough to look into, he took the lid off, gripping the lid by its edges. "Fingerprints."
Lash peered inside. "Nope. Cleaned it out. There was usually a couple of hundred bucks in here. Sometimes more and sometimes less."
"Yes. For errands and when delivery men came," Lash said. "Mostly twenties, and some smaller bills and change. Though... I wonder what happened to the change barrel?"
"What's that?" Lucas asked.
"It's upstairs. I'll show you."
Lucas called a crime scene tech, who'd stretch warning tape around the kitchen counter. Then they walked through the house, and Lash mentioned a half-dozen items: a laptop computer was missing, mostly used by housekeeping couple, but also by Lash for his school work. A Dell, Lash said, and he pointed to a file drawer with the warranty papers.
Lucas copied down the relevant information and the serial number. Also missing: a computer printer, binoculars, an old Nikon spotting scope that Bucher had once used for birding, two older film cameras, a compact stereo. "Stamps," Lash said. "There was a big roll of stamps in the desk drawer..."
The drawer had been dumped.
"How big was the printer?" Lucas asked.
"An HP LaserJet, about so big," Lash said, gesturing with his hands, indicating a two-foot square.
"I don't know. I didn't put it in. But pretty heavy, I think," Lash said. "It looked heavy. It was more like a business machine, than like a home printer."
"What means, huh?" Lash asked.
Lucas said, "You think they put all this stuff in a bag and went running down the street?"
Lash looked at him for a minute, then said, "They had a car." He looked toward the back of the house, his fingers tapping his lower lip. "But Detective Smith said they probably came in through the back, up the hill."
Lash shrugged: "He was wrong."
In the upstairs hallway, a brass vase or something like a vase, but four feet tall lay on its side. Lucas had noticed it among the other litter on his first trip through the house, but had just seen it as another random piece vandalism.
Lash lifted it by the lip: "Got it," he said. To Lucas: "Every night, Mrs. B put the change she got in here. Everything but pennies. She said someday, she was going to call the Salvation Army at Christmas, and have them send a bell-ringer around, and she'd give like, the whole vase full of coins."
"How much was in there?"
Lash shook his head: "Who knows? It was too heavy to move. I couldn't even tip it."
"So hundreds of dollars."
"I don't know. It was all nickels, dimes and quarters, so, quite a bit," Lash said. "Maybe thousands, when you think about it."
On the rest of the floor, Lash couldn't pick out anything that Lucas didn't already suspect: the jewelry, the drugs. Maybe something hidden in the dressers, but Lash had never looked inside of them, he said, so he didn't know what might be missing.
On the third floor, they had a moment: Lash had spent some time on the third floor, sorting and straightening under Bucher's direction. "Sugar said Mrs. B was getting ready to die," Lash said.
They'd looked into a half-dozen rooms, when Lash said, suddenly, "Wait a minute." He walked back to the room they'd just left, which had been stacked with furniture and a number of cardboard boxes; a broken lamp stuck out of one of them. Lash said, "Where're the chairs?"
"Yeah. There were two old chairs in here. One was turned upside down on the other one, like in a restaurant when it's closing. At least..." He touched his chin. "Maybe they were in the next one."
They stepped down to the next room. Several chairs, but not, Lash said, the two he was thinking of. They went back to the first room. "They were right here."
"When did you last see them?"
Lash put a finger in his ear, rolled it for a moment, thinking, then said, "Well, it's been a while. I was cleaning this room out... gosh, Christmas vacation. Six months."
"Two old chairs," Lucas said.
"Maybe Mrs. Bucher got rid of them?"
Lash shrugged. "I suppose. She never said anything. I don't think she thought about them."
"Really old, like French antiques or something?" Lucas asked.
"No, no," Lash said. "More like my Mom's age. Or maybe your age."
"How do you know?"
"Because they were like... swoopy. Like one big swoop was the back and the other swoop was the seat. They were like, you know, what'd you see on old TV Star Trek, like that. Or maybe chairs at the Goodwill store."
"Huh. So you couldn't mistake them," Lucas said.
"No. They're not here."
As they went through the last few rooms, Lash said, finally, "You know, I'm not sure, but it seems like somebody's been poking around up here. Things are not quite like it was. It seems like stuff has been moved."
Lash pointed across the room, to a battered wooden rocking chair with a torn soft-seat. Behind the rocker, four framed paintings were stacked against the wall. "Like somebody moved that rocker. When the old lady wanted something moved, she usually got me to do it."
"Was there something back there?"
Lash had to think about it for a moment, then went and looked in another room, and came back and looked at the old rocker and said, "There might have been more pictures than that. Behind the rocker."
"How many?" Lucas asked.
"I don't know, but the stack was thicker. Maybe six? Maybe five. Or maybe seven. But the stack was thicker. One of the frames was gold-colored, but all covered with dust. I don't see that one. Let me see, one said 'reckless' on the back..."
"Yeah, somebody had painted 'reckless' on it," Lash said. "Just that one word. On the back of the painting, not the picture side. In dark gray paint. Big letters."
"I don't know. I didn't look at the front, I just remember that word on the back. There are a couple of paintings gone. At least two."
"There were some pictures down the hall in that third room, the one with the ironing boards," Lucas said.
"No, no, I know about those," Lash said. "These up here had frames that were, like, carved with flowers and grapes and stuff. And the gold one. Those other ones are just plain."
"Chairs that weren't very old and maybe some paintings," Lucas said.
"Yeah." They stood in silence for a moment, then Lash added, "I'll tell you what, Mr. Davenport, Weldon Godfrey didn't steal any chairs and paintings. Or maybe he'd take the chairs, because his house never had much furniture. But Weldon wouldn't give you a dollar for any painting I can think of. Unless it was like a blond woman with big boobs."
They tramped back through the house, and on the way, Lash's pocket started to play a rock version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." He took a cell phone out of his pocket, looked at it, pushed a button and stuck it back in his pocket.
"You've got a cell phone," Lucas said.
"Everybody's got a cell phone. Mom 'n me, we don't have a regular phone anymore."
Back on the first floor, they ran into Smith again. Smith's left eyebrow went up, a question.
"Maybe something," Lucas said. "Ronnie thinks a few things may have been taken. Can't nail it down, but stuff looks like it's been moved on the third floor. Couple of chairs may be missing, maybe a painting or two."
"Tell him about the car," Lash said.
"Oh yeah," Lucas said. "They used a car to move the stuff. Or a van or a truck."
Lucas explained and Smith said, "The Hill House has a security system with cameras looking out at the street. Maybe we'll see something on the tapes."
"If they took those chairs, it'd have to be pretty good-sized," Lash said. "Not a car. A truck."
"Maybe they'll turn up on Antiques Road Show?" Smith said.
"Maybe. But we're not sure what's missing," Lucas said. "Ronnie's not even sure that Bucher didn't get rid of the chairs herself."
Mrs. Lash was sitting in the foyer, waiting for her son. When Lucas brought him back, she asked Ronnie, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. But just wait here for one minute, I want to look at something. I noticed it when the police brought us in..." He went back down the hall and into the music room, his feet cracking through bits and pieces of broken glass.
"He's been a big help," Lucas said to Mrs. Lash. "We appreciate it."
"I'm sure," she said. Then, "I've seen you at Hennepin General. I used to work over there."
"My wife's a surgeon, she's on-staff at Hennepin," Lucas said. "I'd hang out sometimes."
"What's her name?" Lash asked.
Lash brightened: "Oh, I know Dr. Karkinnen. She's really good."
"Yeah, I know." He touched a scar at his throat, made by Weather with a jackknife. Ronnie came back, gestured toward the music room with his thumb.
"There's a cabinet in there with a glass front. It used to be full of old vases and dishes and bowls. One of them had Chinese coins in it. I'm not sure, because some of it's broken, but I don't think there are as many pieces as there used to be. It looks too... loose."
"Could you identify any of it? If we came up with some stuff?"
Lash shook his head doubtfully. "I don't know anything about it. I never really looked at it, except, one time when Mrs. Bucher showed me the coins. It just looks too loose. It used to be jammed with vases and bowls. Coins are all over the floor now, so they didn't take those."
"Okay... Any other last thoughts?"
Ronnie said to Lucas, "'The love of money is the root of all evils.' Timothy, 6:10."
The little asshole was getting on top of him.
Lucas said, "'Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.' Woody Allen."
His mother cracked a smile, but Ronnie said, "I'll go with Timothy."
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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