"Mmmmmmm-oh fer cryin' out loud," Joanna Powell said as she began to dig herself out of her heavy down blanket. Once she had found the corner of the blanket, she cast a bleary-eyed glance at the digital clock on her nightstand - twelve to five a.m. on Tuesday, April 12th.
"Urgggh," she said and reached for the telephone. "Mmmmyeah...?"
'Good morning, Jo, it's Vernon Kransky.'
"Whaddahell you want at this ungodly hour?"
'There's been a homicide, Jo. You're needed.'
"It's ten to five in the morning, Vern!"
"Well, can't the night shift deal with it...?"
'They're already here. It's one of those all-hands-on-deck situations, Jo.'
"Who got bumped off? The Mayor?"
'Not quite. The Lou is adamant that you show up.'
"Don't worry, I'll be there. What, where, who?"
'It's a nasty one. Male vic at the Jeremy Malone Boarding School, fifteen Locklin Park Lane, Granford Heights.'
Joanna's face turned dark and she ran a hand through her mahogany brown hair. "Shit... please tell me it's not a young child...?"
'It's a teenager. Eighteen, I believe.'
"Mmmm. Still not good."
"All right, I won't be long. Vern, you better have some coffee ready when I get there."
'Will do, Jo. See ya.'
"Shortly," Joanna said and put down the receiver. After rubbing her face a couple of times, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and began to scratch her entire body in an attempt at getting rid of the sleepiness.
Almost as an afterthought, she turned around and looked at the female form lying on the other side of the double bed. Betty Johansen, Joanna's partner of three years, was still sleeping soundly, and Joanna knew from experience that it would take a minor explosion to stir Betty from her sleep before she was ready.
Chuckling, Joanna got off the bed and began to get dressed for work - dark shoes, dark slacks and a dark blazer over a tan V-neck blouse.
After scribbling a brief note and pinning it to the pillow, Joanna sneaked out of the house, locked the front door behind her and began the short walk down the garden path to her unmarked police car, a dark blue Ford Crown Victoria. Even though it was April, and therefore technically spring, a plume of vapor exuded from her mouth with each breath.
Turning on the car's interior lights, she looked at herself in the rear view mirror, quickly establishing that she looked like...
"Shit," Joanna said out loud, trying to get the strands of brown hair she had missed folded back into the ponytail. Her eyes were usually baby blue, but now they were a very unhealthy red, due to the long hours she'd had in the last few weeks, and the lines around them seemed to be even deeper than usual.
"Thirty-nine years old going on eighty. Great. And now I have to get up at five flippin' o'clock in the Goddamned morning," she said out loud as she turned on the engine and backed out of the short driveway.
Holding the Crown Victoria on the brakes, Joanna looked longingly at the dark house, wondering why the hell this investigation couldn't wait until daylight. With a sigh, she shook her head, turned on the flashing red light mounted on the dashboard and drove away.
The drive to Granford Heights from her house in the suburbs was mercifully free of hassle - the main freeway wasn't yet congested like it would be later on in the morning.
As Joanna turned off the wide Nadine Boulevard and onto Locklin Park Lane, she couldn't help but feel just the teeniest bit annoyed that her plans for the morning had been scuppered. She had spent so little time with Betty lately that she was worried they were drifting apart, and she was too fond of the kind, loving woman to allow that to happen.
The parking lot in front of the boarding school was awash with police vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and Joanna had real trouble finding a place to park so she wouldn't accidentally get in the way of anyone.
Once she got out of the car, a light drizzle assaulted her from above and she flicked up the collar of her overcoat to at least try to stay dry. After placing the small leather-clip with her badge in her top coat pocket, identifying her as Detective Second-Grade Joanna Powell, she ran across the gravelly lot and into the administrative building of the boarding school.
The glass windbreaker opened up into a hall held in white tiles, chrome and glass, and Joanna alternated between being impressed by the decor and scoffing at the ridiculous amount of money it must have cost.
"Vern?" she said at once, flipping down the collar.
"Over here, Jo," Vernon Kransky said, leaning against a wall while writing something down in his notepad.
"Where's my coffee?"
"Right here." Vernon handed Joanna a Styrofoam cup filled to the brim with steaming hot coffee.
At first glance, the two detectives didn't seem to be well matched - Where Vernon was in his late forties, five foot six with an angular face, bushy eyebrows above horn-rimmed reading glasses and a crew cut to hide the first strands of gray, Joanna was six foot even with a soft, friendly face and shoulder-length mahogany brown hair that she had usually tied into a ponytail - but their results spoke for themselves: in the four years they had worked together, they had closed more cases than the rest of their squad combined.
"Black, two sugars?" Joanna said as she took the Styrofoam cup.
"But of course."
"Thanks, Vern... Now... what the hell is going on here? I've never seen so much brass in one place before," Joanna said, looking at the vast number of uniformed police running around - several of them wearing all kinds of fruit salad on their blues.
"The vic used to be the son of a wealthy industrialist... uh, let me see... his name was Mark Gerlach."
Joanna whistled and nodded in an impressed fashion. "Wow, the son of Aaron Gerlach, the steel magnate?"
"Yep. The principal called the police and Gerlach the elder... who called the commish, who called the Chief of D's, who called the Lou who went into a frenzy and sent out a scramble call to all of us. This is top priority, Jo."
"Sounds like it. Well, where's the body?" Joanna said and took a long swig from her coffee.
"Then what the hell are we doing down here?"
"Brass wanted to take a look first."
"Figures. Who found the body?"
"The principal, a Miss... I had to write down her name. It took more than a line in my notepad. Oh, yeah, Liliana Elena Anastacia Zinovia. With a Z," Vernon said, moving his reading glasses down to read his notes.
"You heard me. With a Z."
"That's quite a mouthful. Is she upstairs, too?"
"Naw, just saw her. Where did she go... there, the woman with the ash-blonde hair. See her?" Vern said, pointing at a woman wrapped in a warm blanket that was standing at a hot drink vending machine.
"Yep. I think I'll go talk to her while we wait."
"Good luck. Once she had given me her name, she clammed up," Vern said with a chuckle.
"I'll just use my natural charm," Joanna said and reached into her coat pocket to find her own notepad.
On her way over to the principal, she emptied the cup and threw it into a garbage bin. It was difficult to overlook that the woman with the weird name was extraordinarily pretty. 'Hell, not just pretty, more like drop-dead gorgeous,'
Joanna thought to herself.
The other woman wasn't particularly tall, probably five foot five or six, with long, wavy, ash-blonde hair that disappeared down underneath the blanket she had been wrapped in. A pair of titanium-colored wire-rim designer glasses sat astride the bridge of her regal-looking nose, and Joanna thought they complemented the other woman's face so much that they had to have been custom-made for her.
The woman shuddered and pulled the blanket closer. She took a long swig from a cup she was holding and studied everything that was going on in the hall with large, slightly disbelieving eyes.
"Miss Zenobia? I'm detective Joanna Powell," Joanna said, holding out the clip with her badge.
"It's Zinovia, actually," the woman said in a voice that was far richer than her petite frame hinted at. An excited little shiver raced down Joanna's back at the sound of the woman's voice. Up close, she could see that the ash-blonde's eyes were spring green with little flecks of hazel in them.
"Pardon me. I've been told you're the one who found the body?"
"Am I being questioned?"
"Oh, no, this is just a little preliminary thing to get a feel for what's happened here."
"Oh. Well, yes, I found the body."
"Were you able to identify Mr. Gerlach at once?"
"Yes... I h-had only just spoken to him."
"Really? At what...? A quarter past four in the morning?" Joanna said; her blue eyes gaining a sharper look.
"I know it sounds strange, but yes. Maybe twenty minutes prior to f-finding him, we had a brief conversation in my office. It was four a.m. I'm usually not up that early, but this was an urgent matter."
"Mmmm, it must've been," Joanna said and made a note in her notepad. "The conversation... what was it about?"
"He'd had a visitor in his room after lights-out. I called him in and he admitted to it."
"Oh. And that's a big no-no?"
The ash-blonde woman turned her face towards Joanna and furrowed her brow. "Well... yes, of course it is. We have rules, and the rules must be adhered to."
The woman spoke with just the faintest hint of a foreign accent, but Joanna couldn't quite place it. It didn't sound Spanish, German, French or Italian or any of the other major accents one would run into in the Great Melting Pot, but the voice had a melodic trill that Joanna thought was quite sexy - especially when combined with the rich timbre.
"Did you sanction him for breaking the rules?" Joanna said, looking into her notepad.
"Yes... Detective, I didn't kill him, if that's what you're getting at."
"No, of course not, Miss Zin..."
"Ahem!" a gruff voice said next to Joanna. The voice belonged to Lieutenant Nicholas Barnes, a hard, strict officer whose face was rarely less than thunderous. "Detective Powell, you and Detective Kransky are needed upstairs," he continued, making sure that Joanna got the message.
"Yes, Lou," Joanna said and waved at Vernon. "Miss Zinovia," Joanna continued, wearing a professional, but courteous smile. The principal offered a faint smile in return that soon faded from her face.
Joanna and Vernon took the stairs one flight up and turned right, walked through the double doors and entered the hall where the body was located.
The victim was naked and lying on his right side with his arms on the ground in front of him. The body was placed diagonally across the hall with the legs pointing at a door to one of the offices. As Joanna put on a pair of blue latex examination gloves, she noted there wasn't any blood.
Two detectives from the night shift stood above the body, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and - judging by their grins - apparently swapping humorous anecdotes.
"Mornin', fellas," Joanna said, nodding at her colleagues.
"Hey, Jo. Vern," Detective Corbin Thomas said. Like so many others in the police force, he was a square-built, beefy man in his late thirties. His regular partner, Detective William 'Bill' Larsen, was of a very similar build, except that he had a few extra pounds of lard around his hips.
Joanna fiddled with the thumb of her left glove that she couldn't get to line up properly. Studying the body on the floor closely, she stored all the information in her brain.
"So... what's going on here?" Joanna said, kneeling down next to the dead body.
"Male vic, as you can see. Mark Gerlach, eighteen. He has a fresh bruise on his solar plexus, ligature burns all around his throat and neck, and petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes, indicating that the cause of death was strangulation," William Larsen said, reading from his notepad.
"Fresh bruise on the solar plexus...?" Joanna said and tried to crane her neck so she could see for herself.
"Our preliminary theory is that the perpetrator must've given the victim a hard blow there to wind or stun him, then wrapped a wire or some such around his neck."
"Sounds about right. Nasty."
"Yep. Most likely indicating a male perp. No further cuts, bruises or abrasions on the body. Naw, scratch that, he has two broken fingernails on his right hand. Doesn't look like there's any tissue under his nails, though, so no DNA."
"Oh yeah, I see it," Joanna said, picking up the victim's right arm.
"There are no scuff marks on the floor and no indications of a fight here, so I think it's a fair bet to say that he was killed elsewhere and then carried here," Corbin Thomas said.
"Where does this door lead to?" Joanna said, pointing at the door behind the victim. The door had '28' written on it in self-adhesive letters.
"That's the office of the principal's secretary."
"Oh, really? Interesting," Joanna said and made a note in her notepad. "And the principal's office is...?"
"Number twenty-seven, the next one up the hall," William Larsen said, pointing his thumb backwards over his shoulder. "Actually, it looks like the two offices are connected on the inside as well."
"Right. That can't be a coincidence."
"No valuable items on the body, but he doesn't have any marks or indents after piercings, jewelry or finger rings either, so I'm guessing he wasn't wearing any," Corbin Thomas said.
"He's circumcised, but that didn't help him either," William Larsen said with a grin.
"He's tall. The perp must've been a big guy," Vernon said, walking behind the victim to get a look at the back.
"Did you find his clothes?" Joanna said, looking at William Larsen.
"No, we haven't, but we haven't been in the vic's dorm yet... it's further down the park. That's a bit of a weird thing, by the way. This is only the administrative wing, and as far as we can tell, he didn't have any business here."
"The principal has just told me that she and the vic had a conversation roughly twenty minutes prior to her finding the body," Joanna said and got back up.
"Did you talk to her when you arrived?"
"No, she was all hysterical when we got here. You know, woman-like," Detective Larsen said and winked in Joanna's direction.
"All right, the conversation gives him a reason to be here, but that doesn't explain why he's naked as a jaybird," Corbin Thomas said, closing his notepad.
"Would it be possible that he and the principal had a little fling? You know, some kind of kinky business where they were playing tag around the admin wing after dark in their birthday suits? I mean, she had plenty of time to get dressed afterwards," William Larsen said, taking a swig from his coffee.
When the three other detectives all stared at him, he shrugged and cleared his throat. "ANYway," he said and looked down into his cup.
"I very much doubt the principal did it, Bill. For starters, she's at least five inches shorter than the vic. She would've needed a footstool to reach his neck," Joanna said, still fiddling with the reluctant thumb of her glove.
"Maybe he was on his knees," William Larsen said with a small grin.
"Fact is that the vic didn't have any business here after the conversation he'd had with the principal... especially not in the buff," Vernon said.
"Yeah," Joanna said and started rubbing her chin.
"All right, I think we need to move away from the administrative building. Who wants to search the dorms and who wants to talk to the principal?" Vernon said, putting his hands in his coat pockets.
Corbin Thomas and William Larsen looked at each other, performing identical shrugs. "We'll take the dorms," Corbin said after a brief pause.
"Then we'll go back to the principal. Jo, would you mind..."
Vernon was interrupted by a couple of knocks on the double doors behind them. When the detectives turned around and looked, they could see the coroner's team waiting outside, tripping impatiently on the spot to get on with their business.
"Oh great, the ghoul squad is here to tag, bag and stack the poor schmuck," William Larsen said and drained the last drops out of his coffee cup.
On their way back down the stairs, Joanna took off her latex gloves and put them in her pocket. "Vern, when we speak to the principal, would you mind if I took the lead? We seemed to have a good rapport before."
"You're welcome, Jo. You'll do the talking, I'll do the listening," Vernon said with a chuckle.
The two detectives walked out of the stairwell and into the hall that was just as crowded with brass as it had been before. The Lieutenant was still talking to the principal, and outside, several television crews had begun to line up their lights and cameras.
When Lieutenant Barnes spotted Joanna and Vernon, he waved them over to him and they duly complied.
"Lou?" Joanna said once they were standing next to the uniformed man.
"Detective Powell, once the news teams are ready to go live, I want you to lead the press conference."
"Uhhhhh, okay. Shouldn't we follow the chain of command and have one of the first-grade detectives be the spokesperson?" Joanna said, scrunching up her face.
"Perhaps so... but I want you to do it, Detective Powell. Right, I'm needed elsewhere. This nasty business has really stirred up a hornet's nest, so I'll most likely be in meetings all day. Detective Powell, Detective Kransky," Lieutenant Barnes said, nodding at the two detectives.
"Lou," Vernon said, tracking the uniformed officer with his eyes.
"Bah, I know exactly why he wants me to lead the press conference," Joanna said, running a hand through her hair. "It's because he wants to use me as a poster girl for the progressiveness of the police force."
Joanna dug her hands into her coat pockets with a dour expression on her face, already imagining the whispers from some of her colleagues about 'hogging the limelight' - or worse.
"Jo, we'll deal with that later. Right now, I think we should talk to the principal," Vernon said, patting Joanna's shoulder.
"You're right," Joanna said, clearing her throat. "But not out here. Look at her, she's on the brink of breaking down."
Vernon turned his head to look at the principal who was still standing next to the vending machine. She had grown paler since they had spoken to her last, and she looked quite lost in the hectic activity in the main hall. She was just standing there, staring blankly into space and looking very much like she was about to burst into tears.
In two steps, Joanna was at the principal's side, wrapping a comforting arm around the petite woman's shoulders. Initially, the principal appeared to be surprised over the consolatory gesture, but she soon relaxed and leaned into Joanna's touch.
A few tears began to trickle down the principal's cheeks and Joanna knew that they had to get her somewhere private in a hurry before she would lose it completely.
"We have a few questions for you, Miss Zinovia. Is there a conference room or something we could use down here?"
"Y-yes. Th-through the double doors... into the next h-hall," Liliana Zinovia said in a frail voice, sniffing hard to stop the tears.
Joanna looked over her shoulder and into the hall behind them. It was identical to the one upstairs.
"Vern...?" she said, nodding at her partner.
"I'm on it," Vernon said and opened the double doors to let Joanna and the principal through.
The three of them walked slowly down the hall with Liliana Zinovia's entire body leaning against Joanna's.
After walking past three locked doors, they finally found an unlocked one and stepped inside. Vernon hit the light switch, activating several rows of strip lights in the ceiling.
It turned out to be a small conference room with a rectangular table in the center and eight chairs around the edge of the table. Joanna carefully placed the principal on one of them and then dug into her coat pockets to find some paper tissues for the sobbing woman.
Liliana Zinovia took off her glasses and put them on the table. Even in the midst of such a tragic situation, Joanna couldn't help but notice that the principal looked even better without the glasses than she did wearing them.
The principal wiped her spring green eyes and blew her nose hard, and then looked for a garbage bin for the spent tissues. Vernon found one and held it up.
"Thank you," Liliana said in a hoarse voice.
"You're welcome, Miss Zinovia," Vernon said and took off his overcoat.
Joanna did the same and then sat down on a chair facing the principal. Vernon flipped open his notepad and worked his ball point pen so it was ready to write.
"Miss Zinovia... first of all, I know this must be very hard for you, but we need to talk about what happened here tonight. I'm sure you want Mr. Gerlach's killer found."
"If you can, please give us a detailed description of the evening and night."
"Well, I... we had lights-out at eleven o'clock as always. At eleven fifteen, the dorm masters and mistresses called in and said that everything was quiet. I was doing some paperwork in my office at the time, you understand," Liliana said, looking at Joanna.
"I do. Please go on."
"I retired to my apartment on the top floor of the admin wing just after midnight."
"Do you always work this late, Miss Zinovia?" Vernon said, looking over the top of his reading glasses.
"Unfortunately, yes. The paperwork is massive, especially here in the Spring. Well, I fell asleep until, oh, quarter to four a.m. where one of the dorm masters called me to say that he had caught an intruder in the Kentucky house."
"In the what?" Joanna said, furrowing her brow.
"Oh, I'm sorry... all of our nine dorms have been named after States. Sorry, Detective, I should have told you that earlier," Liliana said and put on her glasses.
"Don't worry about it. The dorm master called you...?"
"Yes, to say he had found an intruder outside of Mark Gerlach's room. Detective, this isn't unusual. They're teenagers, you know."
"Say no more," Joanna said with a chuckle.
"Quite. Well, the dorm master escorted the intruder, who was a young woman, by the way, out of the dorm and then brought Mark Gerlach over to see me in my office. We talked, I sanctioned him and he left. Then I went back upstairs to my apartment."
"What was the sanction and how did he react to it?"
"Oh, it was just additional kitchen duty. He accepted it without drama. This wasn't the first time he'd been busted."
"Why did you come back down, Miss Zinovia? Did you hear anything?"
"No. The talk had given me a headache so I couldn't fall asleep. Then I discovered I was all out of Aspirin so I put my work clothes back on and went down to get one from the vial I keep in my office. This was just after twenty past four, a.m. I entered the hall, minding my own business wh-when..." Liliana's voice trailed off and she visibly got the shivers.
"All right, let's not go any further tonight. Miss Zinovia, thank you for your time. A female police officer will be assigned to you. She'll spend the rest of the night and all of tomorrow with you in your apartment and at work," Joanna said and got up from the chair.
"Oh, but that's very impractical. It won't be necessary, Detective..."
"Standard procedure, I'm afraid."
"Oh... what about the blanket?" Liliana said and held out the corner of the protective blanket she was wearing.
"Keep it for now. We have a million of those things. Miss Zinovia, we need to talk to the dorm master who called you. May we have his name, please?"
"Charles Buford Smith. He goes by Buford," Liliana said and got up from the chair.
"Ah, yes. He's an old-fashioned fellow. I'm sure he's still over at the Kentucky House. He doesn't like leaving his post before his shift is over, come hell or high water."
"I see. All right, we'll go talk to him now. Have a calm morning, Miss Zinovia."
Liliana chuckled dryly and ran a trembling hand across her forehead. She let out a sigh and looked Joanna directly in the eye. "Thank you, Detective Powell."
After Liliana Zinovia had been escorted away by a female officer, Joanna and Vernon got together to compare notes.
"So...?" Joanna said, looking expectantly at her partner.
"Hmmm, it appears they're running a tight ship, but we can't say for sure until we've talked to this Buford fella."
"What I'm wondering is why the body was dumped in front of, or rather, near the principal's office. Makes it seem personal, almost like a crime of passion," Joanna said, tapping her index finger against her lips.
"With these things, it usually is."
"Yeah. I think we can cross the principal off the list of suspects, though. I can't see her strangulating a man six inches taller than her. But then again, her hands were strong, did you notice that?" Joanna said as the two of them left the conference room to go to the Kentucky House.
"I did, yeah. She probably does that... what's it called...? Pellets?"
"Pilates. I wouldn't be surprised if she did, Vern. That or Yoga. All women in our age bracket do. It suspends the pull of gravity... for a little while, at least," Joanna said with a throaty chuckle.
"I wouldn't know, Jo."
The moment Joanna opened the door to the gravelly parking lot, she and Vernon were assaulted by a barrage of flashes from the journalists and the news teams.
"Aw, Jeez!" Joanna croaked, covering her eyes with her hand.
"Detective!" -- "Detective, over here!" -- "Can we have a statement, please...?" -- "Detective! When will the press conference be held?" -- "We're wasting live time, you know!" all the reporters said over each other.
"Yeah, yeah. I don't know any more than you do. From what I've heard, the press conference will be held later," Joanna said out loud. "Preferably some time next year," she mumbled to herself, making Vernon chuckle.
The rain was still a steady drizzle so the two detectives wrapped their overcoats tightly around themselves and increased their speed to get to the dorm faster. Just as they went past the dorm called Ohio, Corbin Thomas came out of a door and waved at them.
"We better check it out," Joanna said and changed course, quickly followed by a grumbling Vernon.
All the dorms were three-story buildings that had clearly been designed in a classic Americana-style to invoke a sense of nostalgia in the beholder, and all of them were pulled back thirty feet from the main path that went through the campus inside Locklin Park.
The entrance grafted onto the front of the dorm was identical to the one in the admin wing, a pair of glass double-doors. On either side of the doors, small bronze plaques had been bolted onto the red brick wall proudly displaying the names of famous alumni who had once graced the hallowed halls of that particular dorm.
Joanna stopped briefly to take a look at the names, but none of them rang any bells. She had to chuckle when she read a short graffiti that had been smeared on the wall next to one of the plaques: 'Not Ohio, Oh-My-O!'
"What's up, Corbin?" Joanna said once they were inside.
"Nothing, I just wanted to hear what you got from the principal."
"Did you lose Bill somewhere along the way?" Vernon said.
"He's on the can."
"Hmmm. Well, we didn't get much. She told us that the dorm master in the Kentucky house called her on the phone regarding an intruder in the-" Joanna said.
"An intruder?" Corbin said, his ears picking up instantly.
"Not that kind of intruder. Apparently, that's their lingo for when one of the boarders has a visitor after the curfew," Vernon explained.
"Oh... never mind."
"Yeah, well, we're going over there to talk to him. Did you get anything?" Joanna said.
"Not much yet. Ohio is an all-girl dorm, and the dorm mistress didn't want to let us talk to any of the boarders without a chaperone... but the young ladies are reluctant to speak to us with the mistress present. So far, it doesn't seem like the girls here knew much about Mark Gerlach."
"Hey, Powell, do you want to swap assignments?" Corbin suddenly said, wearing a cheeky grin.
"Nah, they're twenty years too young for my tastes. We better stick to the original plan."
Behind them, the sound of a flushing toilet was heard and William Larsen soon stepped out into the hall, wiping his hands on some tissues.
"Damn, that's a nice crapper," he said, wadded up the tissues into a ball and threw it back into the bathroom. "Did you get anything?" he continued, shutting the door behind him.
"Not really, Bill. We're about to talk to the dorm master over in Kentucky," Joanna said.
"If he's anything like the dorm mistress here, you better watch your asses."
"Thanks, Bill. We will."
Five minutes later, Joanna and Vernon entered the Kentucky house. Much like Ohio, the names on the bronze plaques didn't mean a thing to either detective.
"I'd like to know if it's just me who's out of the loop or if these people aren't really prominent at all. I've never heard of any of 'em," Joanna said as she held the door open to Vernon.
"Oh, they're prominent people all right," a booming voice said from inside the hall. A rotund, slightly flushed man stepped up to the door and put out his hand.
"Buford Smith, how are ya?" he said, shaking hands with both detectives.
"We're fine, thank you. I'm Detective Powell and this is my partner, Detective Kransky. I'm sure you've been updated as to what's been going on."
"Yes, I have. A tragedy," Buford Smith said. Studying him closely, Joanna wasn't really sure if he meant it or not.
Buford Smith was in his early fifties with a balding head and an impressive salt-and-pepper walrus-like mustache - to compensate, Joanna thought - and he was dressed in a dark blue sweatsuit similar to the ones used at the police academy. Looking down, she noticed that he was wearing trainers, no doubt so he'd be able to sneak through the halls unnoticed.
"We need to ask you a few questions, Mr. Smith," Vernon said and flipped open his notepad.
"Oh, please... call me Buford."
"All right. Buford, please give us a few details on this intruder you caught earlier this morning," Vernon said, looking over the rim of his glasses.
"Well, there's not much to say, actually. It was a young woman, oh, nineteen or so. Regular clothes, quite pretty with short, spiky hair and a whole row of ear rings in her right ear... you know the type," Buford said with a shrug. "I caught her sneaking out of Mark Gerlach's room. It was just a coincidence, really. If I'd gotten there thirty seconds later, I'd never have caught her."
"Was she one of the boarders or someone not connected to the school?"
"I honestly don't know, Detective. I haven't seen her before, but then I'm not that familiar with our female boarders."
"Right. Did she try to resist?"
"Oh, no. They almost never do. At least, not when they're not hippies or something."
Joanna stifled a chuckle. She was quite sure that the Jeremy Malone Boarding School had never even seen a hippie, not even back in their heyday.
"Why was it Mr. Gerlach who was brought to the principal and not the intruder?"
"That's just the way we do it here, Detective."
"How well did you know Mark Gerlach, Buford?" Joanna said.
"Well, I knew him like I know all the others, I suppose. He wasn't on our soccer team so I only talked to him now and then. Nothing apart from that, really. He never made much trouble, except that he had a tendency to have a visitor every once in a while. That's why I didn't make much of last night's incident."
"Was it the same girl every time?"
"No, they were different girls. Sometimes, it was some of the other male boarders from the dorm sneaking over for a beer, you know. Nothing major."
"Did you notice a fight, a struggle, or anything? Did you hear anything unusual?" Vernon said.
"No, nothing. Nothing at all, and that's what I just can't figure out. I mean, at night, this house is quiet as the grave... uh, bad choice of words... anyway, really quiet. I'd be able to hear a mouse farting down the other end of the hall," Buford said, nodding to himself.
"All right. Do you have any further questions, Vernon?" Joanna said.
"Not at this moment, no," Vernon said and closed his notepad.
"Detectives, do you know what's going to happen this morning? I mean, we can't keep the boarders locked up in their quarters all day," Buford said.
"We don't have an answer to that, but there's to be a press conference later on. Perhaps principal Zinovia will address it," Vernon said.
The mention of the principal's name made Buford Smith lick his lips and look from one detective to the other, clearly going over something in his mind.
Joanna picked up on it at once. She didn't want to pressure the dorm master into anything so she kept her mouth closed, hoping that he would come forth himself. When the moment passed, Joanna made a mental note to make further inquiries later on.
On legs that felt slightly wobbly, Joanna stepped up on a small dais and faced the camera teams and their many powerful, burning hot spotlights. Liliana Zinovia was standing somewhere behind the detective, looking less out of it than before, but still quite pale.
Joanna looked at her wristwatch which read six-thirty a.m. The news teams had asked for the press conference to be delayed until they were all broadcasting live in their various morning shows, and Joanna had agreed. Wishing it was all over, she began to adjust her hair, her overcoat, the leather clip with her badge, her eyebrows, the skin under her eyes to probe if she had any bags - she didn't - and finally her hair again.
A small drop of sweat annoyed her tremendously by trickling down from her hairline and into the collar of her blouse, but just as she wanted to do something about it, all the reporters were cued, soon talking over each other in a cacophony of voices, all introducing their pieces to their producers in the vans parked outside the park.
Without warning, a vast number of boom mikes were thrust forward at Joanna, some from below, but most from above. She felt cornered and boxed in, but instead of bolting, she applied her best game-face and resigned herself to answering the questions.
A barrage of questions were flung at Joanna, but she kept calm and cut through the chatter by pointing at a blonde reporter from one of the nationwide TV stations.
"Detective, can you confirm that the victim is Mark Gerlach, son of the steel magnate Aaron Gerlach?" the reporter said.
"Yes, the victim is Mark Gerlach." Looking around, Joanna picked a man for the next question to keep everything balanced.
"Can you give us the cause of death, Detective?"
"The victim was garrotted with a wire or a similar tool."
"Roughly four o'clock this morning."
"Why?" The question raised a few snickers among the reporters and Joanna arced an eyebrow in the man's direction.
"I do not have that information at this time, Sir."
"Is it true the body is naked?" a female reporter shouted out of turn. Joanna knew that if she answered the question, it would appear that she had lost control over the press conference so she chose to ignore the reporter. Instead, she pointed at a young man holding an electronic recorder in the air.
"Lee Cross from youngamerica.com... Detective, was this a random or a targeted killing?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Cross, we don't have that information at this time."
"Are you saying that the other boarders might be at risk?" Lee Cross said, making the other reporters shut up and stare at Joanna, creating a tension that was almost unbearable.
In her mind, Joanna started counting down from three, the amount of time she knew would be allotted to her to come up with a satisfactory answer.
"Mr. Cross, we believe the boarders at random are not at risk. At no point during our investigation have we come across evidence that suggests that this tragic event is the work of a madman."
The answer seemed to be enough to keep the reporters at bay, but Joanna started biting the inside of her bottom lip.
A few more questions followed, but it was soon clear to everyone that Joanna was running out of answers. She felt someone tug her jacket, and when she looked down, Liliana Zinovia put on her glasses and nodded at her.
"Uh, I now give the word to principal Zinovia," Joanna said and stepped aside to let Liliana through.
The barrage of questions returned at full strength, but Liliana just brushed them off. After confirming that she was the one who had found the body, she unfolded a piece of paper and began to read a statement aloud.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the staff of the Jeremy Malone Boarding School is deeply affected by the terrible tragedy that has taken place tonight, and we wish to extend our heartfelt condolences to the Gerlach family," Liliana said in a far stronger voice than Joanna had expected her to have.
"I would like to use the moment to send out a reassurance to all the parents of our boarders that your children are safe here, or at least as safe as anyone can be in our modern, violent world.
We have arranged a plenary meeting for the staff and the boarders at a quarter past seven in the central dining hall where we'll hold a vigil for their lost friend and a Q and A-session for the questions they'll undoubtedly have. Parents are welcome at the plenary meeting," Liliana continued, adjusting her designer glasses.
In the brief pause, the reporters all started shouting again, but Liliana just put up her hands.
"I will not take any questions now. Mr. Gerlach's parents are on their way here. I'm sure they'll organize another press conference once they arrive. Thank you," she said and stepped off the dais.
Two days later, Thursday April 14th.
At a quarter past ten in the morning, a yellow taxicab pulled up in front of the five-story concrete building that was the stationhouse for the Fourteenth Precinct. The back door of the taxicab opened and Liliana Zinovia stepped out.
After looking around briefly, she crossed the sidewalk and went up a short flight of stairs that would take her to the main entrance of the police station.
Joanna sat behind a mountain of paperwork when the phone on her desk rang. She reached around the smallest pile and picked it up.
"Detective Powell," she said, pinning down the receiver between her cheek and her shoulder.
'Detective, there's a woman here to see you. A Miss Zinovia,'
the front desk Sergeant said.
"Oh, really? Uh, tell her to go into the waiting room. I'll be around in a flash."
'Will do, Detective,'
the Sergeant said before hanging up.
Joanna leaned forward on her swivel-chair and put her elbows on the desk. 'Hmmm, interesting,'
she thought. For some reason, she wanted to look her best for the principal, so she tucked a few strands of unruly hair behind her ears and adjusted her V-neck blouse so her bra strap wasn't showing.
After tapping a brief tattoo on the only free space left on the table top, Joanna got up and walked out of the office.
Liliana Zinovia stuck out like a sore thumb in the waiting room across the hall from the front desk. She was exquisitely dressed in a skirt suit that was such a dark shade of blue it was almost black under the strip lights, with matching high-heeled shoes that were equipped with little, golden buckles. Her hair and makeup were picture perfect and her posture was borderline regal.
A closer look revealed that her spring green eyes were reddish and puffy and that she had tried to conceal it with an eyeliner, but all in all, she looked like a finely cut diamond, and Joanna began to suspect that she was a very special lady indeed.
"Miss Zinovia?" Joanna said after opening the glass door to the waiting room.
As Liliana looked up, she sent Joanna such a dazzling smile that the detective's knees almost started knocking.
"If you will come with me, please?" Joanna continued.
Liliana picked up a short jacket and put it over her arm. Joanna noticed a rather wide gold bracelet on Liliana's left wrist that she hadn't seen the other morning. At once, she felt that the wide bracelet was out of place on the petite, delicate woman's body.
"This way, Miss Zinovia," Joanna said, holding the door open for the principal. As Liliana walked past her, her nostrils caught a whiff of a fancy perfume and she hurriedly checked her own pits for traces of Eau de Sweat.
The walk back to Joanna's office was educational - she had expected the principal to take short, frantic lady steps, but she was taken thoroughly by surprise when Liliana strode through the hall using long, forceful steps, aided by a slit in the skirt that revealed quite a lot of her legs when they moved past each other.
"It's the next door left, Miss Zinovia," Joanna said, trying not to stare too much at the principal's rear end as it wiggled its way along the hall. Her high heels clicked and clacked on the linoleum floor, creating quite a spectacle.
Following Joanna's directions, Liliana turned left at the next frosted glass door. As soon as she had gone through the doorframe, she stopped dead in her tracks and stared wide-eyed at the many piles on the desk. "Are all of those from my case?"
"Oh, no. Some of them are, but not all," Joanna said and closed the door behind her.
"Isn't it... I don't know... dangerous to keep the door open like that? Even though it's a police station, there are plenty of shady types around."
"That's very true, but on the other hand, if we can't feel safe inside a police station, where can we feel safe? And besides, the ventilation is on the blink. With all the paper, it gets really stuffy in here if the door is closed for too long."
"Oh. Smart," Liliana said and hung her jacket over the backrest of a swivel-chair, revealing an ivory-colored shirt where the top two buttons had been undone.
"Please have a seat, Miss Zinovia. Do you want some coffee or something? A soda pop?" The split second the words left Joanna's mouth, she felt stupid. 'Of course a woman like that isn't gonna say yes to a soda pop. Jeez, Jo!'
she thought, wanting to slap herself silly.
Liliana turned to look at the coffee maker that looked like it had been simmering for most of the morning.
"No, thank you. I'm fine," she said with a polite smile.
"All right. Well. What can I do for you?"
"I was just wondering if you've had a breakthrough in the case yet...?"
"I'm afraid not, Miss Zinovia. We're still wading through the statements," Joanna said as she sat down in her chair.
Liliana nodded and looked down. She leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs which revealed more high-quality thigh than Joanna had seen for months. The detective found herself gripping the armrests of her swivel-chair.
"Is there anything I can do or say that would help you?" Liliana said. "Detective?" she continued when Joanna didn't answer at once.
"Uhhh, yes... yes. Ah, has your school ever received any death threats or anything like that against any of the boarders?"
When Liliana realized what the detective's eyes were trained on, a small smirk played on her lips and she hastily smoothed down her skirt.
"Well, not death threats as such, but we've received a few angry, even aggressive letters over the years."
"Oh, really?" Joanna said, snapping out of the carnal thoughts that had invaded her mind.
"Yes, but we've never acted upon them... well, apart from sending them to the law firm who represents us."
"Miss Zinovia, in my professional opinion, you should have contacted the police. In this day and age, we need to be made aware of every single incident. Take it from me, none of us wants to experience a school shooting," Joanna said, tapping a pencil against the desktop.
"You're right, Detective. The originals are with our lawyers, but we still have copies of them. If you want to take a look at them, perhaps you could do so the next time you're at the school...?" Liliana said, cocking her head.
"Yes. Now, have you ever received any threats against Mark Gerlach specifically?"
"I'm quite sure we haven't."
"Tell me about Mark Gerlach. In your own words, if you please."
"Well... I, uh... I hardly knew him, Detective. I only bumped into him once in a while. At one point, it seemed like he was in my office every other day for breaking one of our rules, but it turned out that he was just going through a rebellious phase. His parents are quite strict, I believe."
Joanna nodded with a grunt. She remembered seeing Aaron and Annabelle Gerlach's faces in the business papers, and they definitely didn't look like people you'd want to go to a ball game with.
"But since then, he's been on his best behavior. Of course, with the exception of having a visitor on the night in question," Liliana said and took off her glasses. She pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a short sigh.
"How are you holding up, Miss Zinovia?" Joanna said, wishing she could offer something that would give the knockout blonde some solace. She pulled out her desk drawer but could only find an empty bag of sweets and a coffee mug she had forgotten to clean. Grimacing, she shut the drawer again.
"Oh, I'm... I'm fine, thank you. It's been rough, I won't lie about that."
Liliana nodded and started wiping off the lenses of her glasses. When she was satisfied, she put them back on and looked directly at Joanna.
Joanna could sense that the principal was trying to tell her something, but before the blonde woman had time to overcome her doubts, someone knocked on the door. Inwardly cursing a blue streak, Joanna turned her head towards it and shouted "It's open!"
Vernon Kransky stepped inside, carrying yet another pile of files. "Oh, hello, Miss Zinovia," he said, looking over the rim of his reading glasses.
"Good morning, Detective."
Joanna studied the principal's body language intently, searching for any kind of clue as to what it was she had wanted to say. When she couldn't really deduce anything, she felt rather annoyed over the fact that this had been the second time someone had been interrupted when they were trying to tell her something.
"I better leave," Liliana said and picked up her jacket. "It was nice talking to you, Detective Powell. Would you mind keeping me informed of your progress?"
"Of course not. Come on, let me help you out," Joanna said and got up from her chair.
Three minutes later, Joanna closed the frosted glass door behind her and folded her arms across her chest.
"Vern, you gotta work on your timing. She was about to tell me something when you came."
"Sorry. Buford Smith was trying to tell us something as well, but he clammed up," Vernon said as he signed off a report.
"If you think about it, it sounded like he wanted to tell us something about the principal, actually."
Scratching her hair, Joanna walked back to her swivel-chair and picked up the top file from one of the piles. Before she opened the folder, she leaned back in her chair and began to hum.
"I don't think we know everything that's going on at that boarding school, Vern," she said after humming a few bars of an unidentified tune.
"Brutal initiation rituals, sex, dope. It's always one of those three," Vernon said with a chuckle.
"With all those teenagers, there's bound to be some dope around, but this is way more than just a couple of joints being passed around. Initiation rituals ...? Hmmm, doesn't feel like something of that sort. That leaves sex. After all, Mark Gerlach was naked when he was found. When *she* found him," Joanna said, putting the unopened file down on her desk.
"It's worth looking into. Online porn, perhaps?"
"Could be. Anything is possible these days." Sighing, she put her arms behind her head.
"True. Of course, if we were still young and spry, one of us could go undercover at the school to try to flush out the rats," Vernon said with a mischievous grin.
"Oh, ha, ha. Very funny," Joanna said and threw a paper clip at the other detective.
As the end of Joanna's shift approached, she had just about given up ever finding an opening in the Gerlach case. Yawning widely, she put yet another file on top of the tallest pile. The stack of files was placed near the edge of the table and it had a nasty look to it, almost like it was planning on tipping over at any moment.
With a grumble, Joanna got up from her chair and began to distribute the tall pile into several shorter ones to stop it from falling over.
"Hey, Jo. Get anywhere today?" Detective William Larsen said from the doorway. As usual, he was holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
"Nah. It's been slow going. The truth is in here somewhere," Joanna said, patting one of the smaller piles.
"You know, sometimes I think we're actually archaeologists instead of cops."
"Heh, I agree. Or possibly even librarians."
"Yeah," Bill Larsen said and took a long swig from his coffee.
"Well, anyway. See ya 'round, Bill," Joanna said and grabbed her overcoat from the coat hanger.
Half an hour later, a quarter past eight p.m., Joanna parked her Crown Victoria in her driveway and jumped out of it almost like she didn't want to spent another moment in it. On her way up the garden path, she noticed that Betty's pride and joy, a fair-sized flower bed filled with all sorts of colorful flowers, was looking great.
Pausing briefly, Joanna looked around their garden. It wasn't much, just an eight by ten yard patch of grass with the flower bed in the center and a few bushes around the edges, but Betty really put her heart and soul into it and everything looked spot-on perfect.
Looking at the garden, Joanna felt a pang of irrational, almost childish jealousy inside her. Growling at herself for even thinking in such a way, she shook her head angrily and stomped up the rest of the garden path until she reached the front door.
"Hey, hon, I'm home!" Joanna said, slamming the front door shut with the heel of her shoe.
"I'm in the kitchen gettin' ready to feed the horde!" Betty Johansen said from around the corner.
"Great! I'm starving," Joanna said and hung her overcoat on a hallstand. "I'm just gonna lock up my gun," she shouted and bounded up the stairs to the first floor, taking two steps at a time.
Flying into their bedroom, she sat down on the bed and took her shoes off. Then she got up and unclipped her sidearm and its holster, and put those items and her badge into a metal gun cabinet.
After looking into the full-size mirror on the closet, she realized she needed to fix her hair again, so she did - then she flew back down the stairs and went into the kitchen.
Betty was busy pouring the water from the potatoes and Joanna stood back and let her finish. As Betty put the potatoes into a dish, Joanna observed her silently.
'Betty is a good woman. Warm, friendly, loving... but everything about her is average. She's of average build, she has average looks... not pretty or plain, just average... and she has average tastes in food, music and TV; she has an average sense of humor and she likes to dress in average clothes. Her eyes and her hair are in an average shade of brown... and she's average in bed,'
As usual when she thought badly of her lover, she was immediately struck by a strong sense of guilt. Betty had been a rock-solid support for her when she had been involved in an unjustified shooting incident three years previously, and Joanna knew that the warm, if average, woman didn't deserve such crap. Betty could have anyone she wanted, but she had chosen her, the big, dumb cop.
Pushing the negative thoughts away, Joanna walked up stand behind her lover and pulled her brown hair free of her neck.
"Hey, Bets," Joanna purred, leaning down to give Betty a sloppy kiss on the neck.
"Hey, baby," Betty said. She put down a spoon, turned around and wrapped her arms around Joanna's torso.
Joanna looked at Betty's sparkling brown eyes and got another guilt-driven kick in the rear end. The two women inched closer and exchanged a loving, little kiss on the lips.
"How was your day, hon?" Joanna said, placing her hands on Betty's rear end.
"Eh, so-so. Nothing much happened at the General. We were introduced to a new Doctor who'll be starting her rotation soon. I think she's a bit of a slave driver. She's got that look in her eye, know what I mean?"
"The other nurses I spoke to all agreed. Ah, she's only going to be there for a while. I'll manage," Betty said, kissing Joanna again before moving away from her grip to tend to the frying pan sizzling on the stove.
"What are we having?"
"Pork chops, cream gravy and potatoes."
"Great. I could eat a cow."
"How about a pig instead? They're pork chops after all."
"Sounds good to me," Joanna said and pinched Betty's rear end, earning herself a 'Yeow!' and an evil glare.
"Just for that, you get to do the dishes today!" Betty said in a mock growl.
"Yes, dear. It's my turn, anyway."
"Oh... I forgot. Anyway, are you still working on that boarding school case? Ten minutes ago, Channel 11 was running a clip from the press conference the other day."
Just hearing the words 'boarding school' made Joanna think of Liliana Zinovia, of the way she had walked through the hall at the precinct house, of the way her skirt had revealed so much of her thigh, and of the way traces of her perfume had lingered in the air even hours after she had left.
"Uh... yeah. Yeah, I am," Joanna said, snapping back to reality. She cast a quick glance at Betty and was relieved to see that she hadn't noticed her zoning out. "It's the weirdest case I've worked on for a long time. We've got no perpetrator, no motive, no witnesses... hell, we're not even sure we have a crime scene."
"Gives me the creeps," Betty said, shivering to underline her words.
"It's just... I don't know... weird."
"Anyway, dinner is served. Wouldya mind grabbing the water from the fridge?" Betty said, picking up the dish with the potatoes and the frying pan with the chops.
"I'm on it."
After eating dinner and doing the dishes, Joanna took advantage of Betty going into the bathroom by shuffling over to stand at the window overlooking the garden.
In her heart, she knew that her relationship with Betty was slowly coming to an end, but she couldn't find the right moment nor the right words to say it out loud.
'You're a coward, Joanna Powell. Plain and simple,'
she thought to herself. Shaking her head, she moved away from the window and walked back into the kitchen to turn on the coffee maker.
"You're really quiet tonight, hon," Betty said as she came out of the bathroom.
"I have a lot on my mind, Bets."
"Do I want to hear about it?"
"Well... not unless you want to be creeped out."
"Go sit down, the coffee is already on," Joanna said with a smile that faded as soon as Betty had turned around.
A few minutes later, Joanna came into the living room carrying two mugs of coffee. She put both down on the low table and then sat down next to Betty.
"Let's see what the news guys have to say," Betty said and picked up the remote.
"Wanna watch a movie tonight, hon?" Betty said and began to run her fingers across Joanna's neck.
"Oh, I... wouldya mind if we didn't? I'm kinda wasted right now."
"I can fix that. I have magic fingers," Betty said and turned off the dull talk show they had been watching since the news had ended. In a flash, she moved over to sit behind Joanna, stretching her legs out on either side of Joanna's much longer limbs.
"Just relax, baby. Let my fingers take you to heaven," Betty purred in Joanna's ear. When Joanna's only reply was a throaty chuckle, Betty began molding the muscles in the detective's neck and shoulders.
A bit later on, Joanna felt Betty's hands move down her torso and around her front. Finding two perfect peaks there, Betty's experienced hands soon picked up where they had left off.
Joanna leaned back into her lover's touch and let out a sensuous sigh. Her nipples were already hardening and she felt a sorely needed buzz racing through her system.
Betty's hands soon lifted up Joanna's blouse and began to caress the soft skin on her belly. Even though Joanna's body reacted to Betty's touch, she couldn't help but wonder how it would feel to have Liliana's hands on her instead.
Growling in frustration, she tried to push all thoughts of the beautiful, petite blonde out of her head, but she wasn't entirely successful.
Betty misinterpreted the growl and stopped caressing Joanna's skin. "Baby, is something wrong?"
"No... only that... only that we're going too slowly," Joanna said to save the situation.
"Oh... tee-hee. Well, just watch this, baby," Betty purred into Joanna's ear as she let her fingers glide down underneath the waistline of Joanna's slacks.
The next morning saw Betty shimmy around with a smile on her face and a jaunty little tune on her lips. Humming merrily, she was so focused on preparing breakfast that she didn't even notice Joanna standing in the doorway with an unreadable expression on her face.
"Thanks for last night, baby," Joanna said once Betty had sensed her presence.
"No, thank you, baby. We had a great time, didn't we?"
Grinning, Joanna nodded and quickly closed the distance between them. She pulled Betty into an embrace and gave her a loving squeeze. "It was really nice," Joanna whispered.
"You've been so busy with all these late nights and everything. A woman has needs, you know!" Betty said, pointing at Joanna with a plastic spoon. When that didn't have the desired effect, she poked the tall Detective in the ribs instead.
"I know, I know. Ouch!" Joanna said and rubbed the spot where she had been poked. She retaliated by diving down and giving Betty another kiss, this time on the tip of her nose.
"I put your bowl of Cornflakes on the dinner table. The milk is on the top shelf in the fridge. Do you think you can find it yourself, Detective?"
"I'll manage. Boy, you're feisty this morning," Joanna said with a chuckle.
"That's what gettin' the big O does to a woman."
"Mmmm. I need to remember that," Joanna said, not wanting to mention that even though she had been so needy the night before, their lovemaking hadn't been enough to make her climax.
She quickly found the milk in the fridge and poured some of it over the cereal. As she was closing the carton, she cast a glance at Betty who was busy putting two slices of bread in the toaster. Sighing, Joanna put the milk back in the fridge.
"Drive safely, honey," Betty said and gave Joanna a big kiss right on the lips.
"Ohhhhh!" Betty said, groaning loudly over the ancient joke.
Holding a Driver's Mug full of freshly brewed coffee, Joanna winked at her lover as she went past her, quickly ducking out of the way before Betty thought of slapping her rear end with the newspaper she was wielding.
"See you tonight, Jo."
"See ya, babe," Joanna said and offered a wave with her free hand.
A short while later, she unlocked the Crown Victoria and got into it. After putting the Driver's Mug into one of the cup holders, she turned on the engine and reversed out of the driveway.
Joanna looked up at the house but Betty had already gone inside. With a sigh, she turned on the radio to drown out the suddenly deafening silence.
'... gang-related shootings Downtown. At a press conference last night, senior detective Sean Duffy from the First Precinct said that there was no need for the public at large to be concerned, and that the police force expect the perpetrators to be brought to justice within the next few days. In other news, yesterday's air traffic controller strike still...'
"Yeah, right. 'Bring them to justice within the next few days'. Yeah, right," Joanna said, taking a couple of large swigs of her coffee.
After driving up the on-ramp to the freeway, Joanna suddenly found herself at the tail end of an endless queue of cars. In the far distance, reflections of flashing red and blue lights could be seen, giving away the reason for the unexpected traffic jam.
"Awwwww, great. Just what I needed. Jeez!"
Realizing that she wouldn't be going anywhere fast, she turned off the engine, leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. It wasn't long before images of a certain blonde principal invaded her mind. She thought of how Liliana might look when she danced, of how she might behave when she was at home; of how it might feel to hold her hand or to kiss her lips - and how it might feel to make love with her.
As the images in her mind became increasingly explicit, Joanna opened her eyes and rubbed her forehead.
"You've got it bad, Jo. You've got it so bad you're gonna turn into a wreck pretty soon if ya don't snap out of it and keep an eye on the life you already have," she said to her own reflection in the rear view mirror.
When the traffic jam didn't seem to be going anywhere, she reached into her overcoat and dug out her cell phone. After a few rings, Vernon finally picked it up.
'Detective Kransky. Jo, is that you?'
"That's right, Vern. I'm stuck in the traffic jam from hell up here on the freeway... I'm gonna be late."
'Okay. I tried to call you last night.'
'Your phone was off.'
"I was busy."
'Right. Well, yesterday, I took home a couple of the files to try to look at them with fresh eyes, you know-'
"You're married to the job, Vern."
'Beats both my ex-wives, lemme tell you. Anyway, I studied the statement Charles Buford Smith gave us, and I think we should lean on him a little bit. He didn't tell us everything.'
"I agree. Tell you what, if I get out of this God-awful traffic jam before I retire, I'll head straight for the..." Joanna's voice trailed off as she suddenly went from A to L to Z in her mind, specifically where the trip would end up and who would be there.
'Jo? You still there?'
"Oh, yeah, I'm here. Uh, must be a bad connection. Anyway, I'll drive to the boarding school and give Mr. Buford a little squeeze."
'That's a good idea, Jo. You want me to call ahead?'
"No. I want it to be a surprise to him."
'All right. Come in when you're done, okay?'
"That's the plan. Talk to you later, Vern."
Joanna hung up and put the phone back in her pocket. She looked at herself in the rear view mirror again. 'Oh, shit... was this such a good idea...?'
she thought, unable to come up with an answer.
An hour and ten minutes later, Joanna drove through the gates and up the gravelly drive that would take her to the admin wing of the Jeremy Malone Boarding School. After she had parked, she checked her wristwatch which read ten past nine, a.m.
For once, April showed the friendly side of itself with clear blue skies and a strong sun prompting Joanna to take off her overcoat and leave it in the cruiser.
She looked down at herself, once again feeling the need to present herself in the best possible way to the principal. She was wearing a pair of black cotton jeans, a chocolate brown turtleneck and a black blazer. 'It'll have to do,'
she thought, making sure that her fly was zipped.
On her way across the gravelly parking lot, she clipped her badge onto her belt and buttoned the blazer so the service pistol on her hip wouldn't stand out so much.
Suddenly realizing that she didn't actually know if Charles Buford Smith was even in the admin wing, she came to an abrupt stop and looked at the path snaking its way through the park. The nearest dorm, Ohio, was just barely visible through the leafless trees.
"Hmmm..." she said and looked through the glass double-doors at the hall of the admin building.
'If I ask someone here where Buford is, they might call him and tell him before I can reach him... on the other hand, if I go to Kentucky and he's not there, someone there might tell him. All right... Kentucky it is.'
Ten minutes later, Joanna came back up the path, grumbling under her breath. Taking a firm grip on the bars on the double doors, she swung the glass door open and stepped inside.
She quickly spotted an office directory hanging on a wall and began to go down the list, looking for the office of 'Smith, Charles Buford'.
"Bingo," she said out loud, thumping her index finger down on the line that showed Buford's name. "Office 3-22," she continued, already on her way over to the same staircase she and Vernon Kransky had used on the morning of the murder.
Knock, knock, KNOCK!
When Joanna tried to turn the door handle, she discovered that it was locked. "Jeez, this isn't my day," she said out loud and spun around on her heel.
Instead of wasting time chasing after the elusive dorm master, Joanna went down to the second floor and found the door to the secretary's office. After knocking briefly, she opened it and stepped inside.
It looked like any other office - bare floors save for the protective underlay under the swivel-chairs, strip lights in the ceiling, large windows with net curtains, a few plants here and there and a few colorful prints on the rare sections of the walls that weren't covered in bookshelves.
A woman in her late fifties was sitting behind a computer, typing furiously. As Joanna walked into the office, the woman looked up and rolled her chair back.
"Good morning," the woman said with a smile.
"Good morning, ma'am. I'm Detective Powell from the Fourteenth Precinct. I'm here to talk to one of your dorm masters, Mr. Charles Buford Smith. I can't find him and I was wondering if you knew where he was?" Joanna said, showing the other woman her badge.
"Buford Smith...? Well, at this time of the day, he should be in the gym," the woman said, turning around to pick out a ring binder from one of the shelves.
"The gym?" Joanna echoed, having a hard time picturing the portly man anywhere near a gym.
"Yes, he's one of our coaches. Ummm, let me see, Sanford, Shinz, Smith... there he is, Smith, Charles Buford. Nine to eleven, a.m... yes, he's at the gym like I presumed. With the weather being so fine today, perhaps he's out at the courts or on the soccer pitch."
"Do you have a guide so I can find the gym or the courts?" Joanna said, wearing her most charming smile.
"But of course, Detective. Hang on, it's here somewhere... Oh, if you go over to the windows and look to the left, you might be able to see if someone is down on the soccer pitch," the secretary said, pointing at the windows.
"Thanks. I guess I could try that," Joanna said and walked over to the left of the two windows. After pulling the net curtains aside, she leaned forward and looked left, almost pressing her face against the glass to see better.
Roughly one hundred yards away from the admin building, several men were playing soccer on a grassy field. One of them was decidedly less agile than the others and when the figure took off a blue baseball cap, Joanna soon recognized Buford Smith's rotund shape and his balding head. "Yep, he's down there. Thank you," Joanna said, nodding.
"You're welcome. Do you want me to call ahead, Detective?"
"No. That's quite all right, thank you."
The sound of a door creaking softly reached Joanna's ears. Before even a single word had been spoken, she knew exactly who it was that had joined the room.
"Oh, hello, Detective Powell. Is this a social call?" Liliana Zinovia said in a rich timbre that immediately sent a shiver racing down Joanna's spine.
"Principal Zinovia," Joanna said, trying to act as business-like as possible to stop herself from looking like she was about to drool all over the floor.
An amused expression flashed across Liliana's lips, and she cocked her head and shot the detective a curious look. Walking further into the office, she put three pages of handwritten notes down on the corner of the secretary's desk. "Mrs. Weidemann, would you mind typing these up for me? Thank you."
Trying to look everywhere but at Liliana's legs that were swept in a loose pair of royal blue capris that came to just below her knees, Joanna realized too late that she was still standing in the exact same spot she had been in when the principal had entered the office. Her eyes slowly glided up towards Liliana's face, past a dark blue indoor blazer that covered a white, frilly blouse.
"You didn't answer my question. Are you here to see me, Detective?"
"Uh... no, I'm not, Miss Zinovia. I'm here to talk to Mr. Buford Smith."
"Buford? Do you think he can help you with the case?"
"That's what we're hoping, yes."
"Detective, I can't believe Buford has anything to do with that horrible event," Liliana said, losing the cool facade for a moment.
Joanna took that as a cue and began to move towards the door. "I'm afraid I can't divulge too much information at this time, Miss Zinovia."
Inches before Joanna had made it to safety - she had already put her hand on the door handle - Liliana Zinovia threw her a curve ball.
"Would you like to go for a coffee or something after you've talked to Buford, Detective?" Liliana said, wearing a perfectly angelic smile.
Joanna licked her lips; first once, then twice. After wiping off her suddenly clammy palms on her cotton jeans, she cleared her throat and returned the smile. "That would be... beneficial, Miss Zinovia. I have a few questions for you as well. We might as well, uh..." Joanna said, mentally slapping herself on the back of her head for being so illiterate. "Uh, get some coffee while we... talk."
"All right. I'll be in my office for the rest of the day, so you know where to find me."
"Good day, Miss Zinovia. Mrs. Heidemann," Joanna said and quickly removed herself from the office.
"Weidemann, dear!" the secretary said loudly, but Joanna had already left.
On her way down the stairs, Joanna pulled out in her turtleneck hoping to get some fresh air down her front. At first, her face was a curious mixture of giddiness and confusion, but confusion eventually won out.
She had only just reached the hall when she came to a screeching halt. "The guide! I didn't get the damn campus guide!" she said and slapped her forehead. "Jeez, what am I... fifteen years old? Hell, I wasn't this befuddled when I really was fifteen..." she mumbled to herself on her way outside.
A few minutes later, she walked through a gate in a mesh fence and onto the grassy field she had seen from the office window. Buford Smith was still on the field, but some of the players had left.
When Joanna approached Buford, he was busy putting several white-and-black-checkered soccer balls into a big net, and he didn't notice the detective until she was standing next to him.
"Good morning, Mr. Smith," Joanna said in a steely voice.
"Detective? Oh, I... I didn't hear you coming."
"Mr. Smith, I need a word with you."
"Hey, that sounds official... and please call me Buford," the man said with a grin. When he noticed that Joanna's face was set in stone, he sobered up and put down the net.
"On the morning of the murder, when we were talking, you reacted strangely when I mentioned the principal's name. Why?"
"Oh, you know, it's..." Buford said and waved his hand.
"No, I don't know. That's why I'm asking."
Buford looked at some of the young men playing soccer. He licked his lips and leaned in towards Joanna.
"Not here, okay? Over by the benches."
"All right. But it's time to tell me."
"I know, Detective. Boys! Go practice some penalties. I'll be there in a short while!" Buford said to the remaining players who all nodded or gave him a thumbs-up in return.
Pushing someone's sweatshirt aside, Buford sat down on one of the benches that had been placed at the sidelines of the soccer pitch.
Joanna kept standing with her arms folded across her chest and her legs slightly apart - a pose she knew had the ability to intimidate anyone save for hardened criminals.
"Well, Buford, I'm listening."
"Look, Detective... I don't have first-hand knowledge of this. It's just a nasty rumor floating around the faculty," Buford said, looking at Joanna. A few beads of sweat had formed on his forehead and he took off his baseball cap and wiped his brow with his sleeve.
"I still don't know what you're talking about."
"Well, I... oh, shit. Scuttlebutt has it that principal Zinovia holds certain private parties every once in a while."
"Certain private parties? You need to be a bit more specific than that."
"Dammit, Detective... I don't know anything more than that! I don't know what's going on at those parties, but... but the principal is popular among the boarders because she's young and... and good looking, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were experimenting with... with, uh, recreational drugs or something like that."
"Come on, Buford. Principal Zinovia is hardly a dopehead."
"No, but... I don't know, Detective, and that's the truth. There's no way in hell I'll ever be invited to one of those parties so I'll never know for sure. If you want to get to the bottom of it, you'll need to ask someone who's attended one of 'em."
"Like some of the boarders. I know that one or two from 'Kentucky' have been there. I accidentally overheard a conversation where they talked about it, but they clammed up as soon as they saw me."
Joanna furrowed her brow. "Was Mark Gerlach ever at one of those parties?" she said, smoothing down her right eyebrow.
"He might have been. I can't say for sure... but I suspect it."
A few minutes later, Joanna walked away from the soccer pitch and back towards the admin building. On her way there, she unclipped her cell phone from her belt and dialed Vernon's number.
"Vern, it's Jo. I'm at the boarding school. I just got some interesting facts from Buford. The local scuttlebutt has it that the principal has been organizing something referred to as private parties."
"That's what Buford said, but I don't think so. I think it's the other thing."
Vernon whistled at the other end of the connection. 'Now we only need the rock'n'roll. Anyway, how do we take it from here? There are several children of influential people staying at that school. If this gets out, it could get messy.'
"Influential people's children have sex, too, Vern. I guess that's common knowledge."
'That's obviously a non-parent speaking.'
"Heh, yeah. The principal asked me out for coffee earlier on. I think I'll take her up on it and see if I can get a few answers out of her."
'If you're not back by nightfall, I'll send out an APB on you.'
"Oh, ha, ha. You're killing me, Vern."
When Joanna returned to the secretary's office, she felt more prepared and less confused than when she had been there the first time, slightly more than thirty minutes earlier - unfortunately, her state of perfect Zen evaporated into thin air the second she saw Liliana Zinovia sitting on a chair by the windows.
The principal had crossed her legs in a very ladylike manner and she was holding a dusty blue summer jacket and wearing a broad, if enigmatic, smile.
Joanna's left eyebrow slowly arced up her forehead at the sight, a gesture that was rather comically mirrored by Liliana lifting her foot.
"Did you find Buford Smith, Detective Powell?"
"I certainly did, Miss Zinovia."
"Good." Liliana's foot resumed its wiggling motion. "I take it you're ready for the coffee now...?"
"Uh... certainly," Joanna said, once again mentally slapping herself over the head for using the same words too often.
"Please, call me Joanna. Or Jo... all right?"
"Only if you'll call me Liliana," the principal said with a wink.
"Certai... yes, Liliana."
Liliana got up from the chair and walked closer to Joanna.
"Jo, I think it would be a wrong signal to send to the boarders if we left in your squad car. How about we took my car instead?"
"Left? I thought we were going to have the coffee here?"
"No, I know a fantastic little coffee house not far from here. It's only a few blocks away."
"Uh, yes, all right. We can do that, sure, no problem," Joanna said, suddenly feeling the need to pull out in her turtleneck all over again.
"That's your car?" Joanna said, pointing at a charcoal gray Ford Taurus.
"Yes, it is. Were you expecting something else?" Liliana said and pressed a small button on the key fob to unlock the car.
"A Lexus at least. Or a Porsche Convertible. I don't know... something luxurious that would match the owner."
"My, my, Jo. I do believe you're trying to flirt with me," Liliana said with a laugh as she got behind the wheel.
Liliana turned on the engine and put the shifter in Reverse. Pausing, she turned her head to look directly into Joanna's eyes.
When Liliana didn't speak for several seconds, Joanna began to feel scrutinized and she scrunched up her face and looked away. "Is there something wrong, Liliana?"
"No, I'm just trying to gauge your intentions."
"My inten... uh... buh... I can assure you I'm only looking for some coffee and a few answers to a f... uh, some questions I have," Joanna said, blushing furiously.
"Mmmm," Liliana said and released the brake. After reversing out of her parking space, she drove slowly around the admin wing until they had reached Locklin Park Lane.
The silence inside the Taurus was deafening as Liliana turned right onto Nadine Boulevard, headed for Midtown West. As they pulled up to a red light, Liliana activated the turning signal and looked at Joanna again.
"Jo, what I'm about to say may shock you."
"Well, I've been a homicide detective for four years and a beat cop for eight before that. I doubt a boarding school principal could say anything that would shock me," Joanna said with a nervous chuckle.
"Let's see." Before Liliana had time to speak her mind, the traffic lights turned green and they went around the intersection and up the crossing boulevard.
A block and a half later, Liliana pulled over and entered a car park belonging to the 'Heaven In A Cup' coffee shop.
"You never said what it was," Joanna said once Liliana had turned off the engine.
"Jo Powell, I want you. Badly. I want to fuck you harder than you've ever been fucked. Right now. Right here," Liliana husked.
Once Joanna remembered how to breathe again, she felt two raging fires inside her body: one was her face and her neck being flooded with the warmest blush she had ever experienced. The other was her libido grabbing her by the scruff of her neck, screaming in her ear to accept the unusual offer. While all that was going on, her mind was mentally slapping her cheeks repeatedly to get her to walk away from it.
"O... kay, that's... look, this isn't..." she stuttered, not sure what she actually wanted to say.
"Are you afraid?"
"No, but... I'm with someone."
"Is she here?"
"Look, Liliana, I'm flattered, but this just..."
"We're both adults, Jo. It's all right for us to feel an instant attraction. To want an instant gratification. We're both playing for the same team, aren't we?"
"I want you, and I know you want me. I can feel your pheromones way over here," Liliana said, holding up her hands in a jokey gesture.
Initially, Joanna had wanted her mind to win the battle over her libido, but all those ethical thoughts flew straight out of her head when Liliana put a warm hand on her thigh. The sensations successfully bodyslammed the ethics, and all she could do was to nod - or rather, that's what she thought she did. In reality, her head jerked forward a few times to match the explosive nature of her breath.
"Let's skip the coffee," Liliana said and reversed out of the parking space.
Ten minutes later, Joanna found herself being pulled up a flight of stairs in an apartment building further up Fillmore Boulevard. Liliana led her by the hand, using such a strong grip that Joanna couldn't have run even if she had wanted to.
Even though she had said she wasn't afraid, she felt petrified to the core - not for what they were about to do, but for what she was going to say to Betty afterwards.
Her mind was completely blank. All she could do was breathe and walk; walk behind the principal that she had read all wrong.
Once they reached the landing on the second floor, Liliana dug into her pocket to find her keys. After unlocking the front door to her apartment, she pushed it open and gave Joanna a come-hither look of such intensity that she felt her vaginal muscles clench briefly.
The apartment was quite neatly furnished, but none of the women had time to comment on the shade of the curtains. Liliana pulled the detective through a hall and into a bedroom that was dominated by a queen-sized bed.
With trembling hands, Joanna began to pull her turtleneck out of her cotton jeans; watching wide-eyed as Liliana took off her designer glasses and the dusty blue summer jacket with gestures designed to drive the detective wild.
Joanna completely stopped what she was doing when Liliana began to move her hands up her own body, pulling her frilly shirt up and squeezing, fondling, caressing her breasts through her lacy bra.
The principal locked eyes with Joanna and began to move towards her, shedding her blouse and her bra, slowly gyrating her hips left and right in a lazy, seductive dance. Sighing sensuously, she put her hand between her legs and threw her head back in exaggerated ecstasy.
Joanna was frozen in place, still staring wide-eyed at the ash-blonde being in front of her who may have looked like a boarding school principal but who acted like Aphrodite incarnate. Snapping out of her trance, she stepped out of her boots and pulled the brown turtleneck over her head, shivering from the rush of cool air on her superheated skin.
By the time Liliana put her hands on Joanna's hips - still swaying to a rhythm only she could hear - she was only wearing the pair of royal blue capris. Unsurprisingly, Joanna's eyes were trained on the pair of gently wiggling breasts not far from her.
"Do you want to go all the way?" Liliana whispered, reaching up to fondle her pert breasts again.
"Y-you mean this isn't all the way now?"
Liliana closed the distance between them. "This is just the beginning," she whispered seductively. Looking briefly at Joanna's lush lips, she leaned in and claimed those very lips in a fiery, all-consuming kiss that merely fanned the flames already burning brightly in both women.
Joanna began to fumble with the latch on her bra, but Liliana calmly put her hands on the detective's shoulders and pushed her backwards onto the bed. Once she was down, she bounced back slightly from the soft mattress.
"Let me," Liliana whispered and straddled Joanna's hips. With ease, she unhooked the recalcitrant latch and pulled the bra aside.
She broke out in a wolfish grin when Joanna's breasts were liberated from their confines, and she took the two mounds and gave them a firm, but not unpleasant, squeeze.
"Ohhhhhh, baby," Joanna said, unable to do anything but feel.
Liliana got off Joanna's hips and knelt down on the floor between the detective's long legs. After working the zipper on Joanna's cotton jeans, she began to pull them off, but the service pistol dug itself into the mattress.
"Jo, your gun... take it off."
Joanna complied by reaching down and removing the holster from her belt. Her hands were so limp that she wasn't able to hold onto the holster, and it landed on the carpet with a bump.
"Raise your hips," Liliana whispered. The moment Joanna lifted her rear end, Liliana pulled the cotton jeans down past her hipbones; grinning broadly when a pair of black panties saw the light of day.
Quickly disposing of the jeans, Liliana reached down and pulled off her capris and her own panties - then she hooked her thumbs inside Joanna's panties and began to slide them off, careful not to do it too fast despite the needy whimpers emanating from the detective.
When they were both naked, Liliana took Joanna's mile-long thighs and pushed them outward and upwards, fully exposing Joanna's glistening sex. Instead of going down on her, Liliana slid upwards between the long legs, rubbing the full length of her body against Joanna's sensitive, flushing skin, feeling the detective's juices coat her throat, chest and stomach.
Joanna's rock hard nipples were too tempting to pass up on so Liliana began to suckle one of them; taking the hard nub in her mouth, she let her tongue sweep across the tip, causing Joanna to groan and arc her back off the mattress.
Joanna looked down, just catching a glimpse of Liliana's tongue flicking across the tips of her nipples. She groaned again, unable to fathom that she was being screwed so comprehensively by a woman she hardly even knew.
Sighing, Liliana continued her little trek upwards, coming to a stop when her thigh was resting against Joanna's slick sex.
Even the faintest touch of the silky smooth thigh sent a wave of pleasure through Joanna's system and she couldn't stop a throaty moan from escaping her lips.
Because of the difference in height, Liliana's face was only at the upper part of Joanna's breasts, but she wasn't slow in using that to her advantage by nibbling on the soft, tender skin she found there.
"Jo, how far do you want me to go?" she whispered, hoping to hear the right answer.
"Gawd... do it... I'm ready... do it," Joanna croaked, wrapping her arms around the body on top of her.
Liliana grinned and moved her forearms under Joanna's upper body, ending up with a firm grip on the tall woman's shoulders so she had something to drive against.
She slowly began to rock her hips in a rhythm that would ensure that her thigh would grind against Joanna's dripping wet center. The moment she started, Joanna tightened the grip she had around Liliana's body and began to moan loudly.
Liliana soon picked up the pace, and before long, their bodies moved as one in the ancient, carnal dance.
Joanna felt her body responding to each of Liliana's moves with one of its own; thrusting, pushing, grinding over and over again into Liliana's thigh that had turned quite slick from the copious amounts of fluids emanating from Joanna's center. The lack of friction slowly began to frustrate her and she started to whimper, hoping that her lover would do something about it.
Liliana did, by changing position. Soon, the two women were back at full speed, getting the maximum out of their unexpected joining.
Joanna's climax came closer and closer, and near the end, all she was able to do was to hold on to Liliana's body as a powerful tidal wave threatened to drown her from the inside out.
When her orgasm finally came, a burning hot wave swept through her body, sending her crashing over the edge so decisively that she felt she was falling from the top of the Empire State Building. Bucking repeatedly into Liliana's thigh, she allowed the orgasm to work its way through her system by letting out a strangled, choked up cry that eventually turned into an all-out moan.
To allow Joanna to come down gently, Liliana continued the rhythmic motion for a few more thrusts, but then slowed down and stopped. Chuckling quietly to herself, she climbed up Joanna's body and placed a kiss on her lips.
"I guess I don't have to ask if you liked that...?" she whispered, laying down a line of little kisses on Joanna's jaw and throat.
"I... I c... I can't b-believe we j-just did that. I..."
"Shhh. We did. We both wanted it, and we did it. Like it should be."
As Joanna's breath slowly came down to regular levels, she opened her eyes and looked around the bedroom. The room was tastefully decorated with abstract paintings on two of the walls, a full-size mirror and several closets. From her position on the bed, she was looking straight up at a ceiling lamp that resembled origami, and to her right, a window was covered by a set of venetian blinds.
Liliana was still on top of her, but the nudity and the intimacy suddenly felt invasive for Joanna so she gently pushed the naked woman away.
Realizing what she had done, Joanna sat up on the edge of the bed, buried her face in her hands and let out a long, trembling sigh.
Liliana rolled over onto her right side and propped her head up on her arm. "What's wrong, Jo?"
"Gawd, I... I can't believe I just cheated on my girlfriend. Jesus!" Joanna said, rubbing her forehead over and over again.
"Well, you did. You saw something you wanted and you went for it," Liliana said with a shrug. With her free hand, she began to draw a doodle on Joanna's naked back, but her hand was brushed away.
"Is that all you have to say?" Joanna said, turning around to look at the naked principal.
"Jo, the way you're acting makes me think this was your first spontaneous fuck. That can't be right...? Not the way you look," Liliana said and resumed her doodling on Joanna's strong back.
The tender touch made Joanna shiver and she jumped off the bed to get away from it. "Yes, it was!" she said, angrily running her hand through her hair that had broken loose from the ponytail.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't think someone like you would be willing to live in a box your whole life."
"In a box? What the hell are you talking about?" Joanna said and began to scoop up her clothes.
"The little box labeled Women's Place in Society."
"That doesn't have anything to do with it! I just cheated on my girlfriend!"
"Well, just invite her over the next time," Liliana said, rolling over onto her back and putting her arms behind her head.
"Yeah, right. Besides, there's not gonna be a next time. Can I use your shower? I don't want to go to work smelling like... this."
"Sure. First door on the left out in the hall."
Joanna bent down to pick up her service pistol. A glance at Liliana's naked body gave her a small, but quite pleasant, jolt and she quickly left the bedroom before she succumbed to her libido again.
Ten minutes later, Joanna came out of the bathroom fully dressed. Sighing, she clipped the holster onto her belt and tucked her hair into a ponytail.
"Jo, you never asked me the questions you said you had for me...?" Liliana said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
"One or two of 'em have been answered now," Joanna said and walked over to stand in the doorway to the bedroom.
"Yeah. Liliana, you're hosting sex parties over at the school, aren't you?"
"With the boarders?"
"Yes. Nothing wrong in that, Detective. They're all above the legal age."
"Has Mark Gerlach ever been to one of them?"
Liliana licked her lips and looked down. She nodded.
"I need the names of the other participants. They might know something," Joanna said.
"All right, I'll make you a list, but... Jo, you must promise me to keep everything low-key."
"I can't give you any promises, Liliana. We're chasing a killer."
"It's not for my sake, it's for the boarders."
"No promises," Joanna said in a steely voice. A sudden suspicion entered her mind and she cocked her head. "This list... there'll be both men and women on it, right?"
"No, only men."
Joanna scrunched up her face and started tapping her index finger against her lips. "In that case, I guess you're only the organizer and not a participant?"
Liliana let out a saucy chuckle and got off the bed.
"I don't believe in labels, only in fluidity, Jo. If you insist on slapping a label on my sexuality, 'Bi' is the one that comes closest."
"Oh... I didn't know."
"There are thousands of things you don't know about me, Detective," Liliana said as she began to pick up her clothes. Soon holding an armful of garments, she walked over to the window and opened the venetian blinds, allowing the sunlight to stream into the bedroom and to illuminate every square inch of her near-perfect physique.
Joanna had to swallow several times at the sight of Liliana's planes and curves being illuminated by the sun. When the principal insisted on staying at the window, Joanna spun around in a sudden fit of shyness. "I'm beginning to realize that now."
"Well, go ahead and ask me. Ask me anything, I'll answer it, I promise."
"Liliana Zinovia, who *are* you?" Joanna said with her back turned towards the principal.
Liliana chuckled and closed the blinds. "My birth name was Liliana Elena Anastasia Zinovia Apostolidis, but since that's such a bitch to write on forms, I legally changed it to Liliana Zinovia when I turned eighteen. My parents were immigrants from Greece, they arrived just after the Second World War. I've lived in the Big City all my life, save for a few years where I lived upstate with my ex-husband. I turned forty late last year, and I've been the principal of the Jeremy Malone Boarding School for two years, nine months, uh, seventeen days and probably a few hours. Anything else you need to know?"
"Maybe later," Joanna said, still digesting all that information.
"Give me ten minutes to shower and then I'll drive you back to your-"
"No, thanks. I'll catch a cab," Joanna said, walking past the naked Liliana to
grab her blazer.
"You run hot and cold, you know that?"
"You said it wouldn't look good if you left the school in a cruiser... well, I say it won't look good if I return with you. Might get people talking."
"I care." Joanna put on her blazer and patted her pocket to check if she had her wallet. Suddenly overcome by the worst mixed emotions she'd ever felt, she began to blush. "Thanks for... for today, Liliana. I'll talk to you later," she said quietly before she left the apartment in a hurry.
A while later, Joanna paid the driver and stepped out of the yellow taxicab. As she was walking the brief distance to her Crown Victoria, her head was buzzing with what she had just done and the possible implications and results of her actions.
Her body was still humming from the afterglow; the best one she'd had in years. 'The best one I've had since hooking up with Betty,'
Joanna thought, feeling her guilty conscience weigh down on her shoulders like a ton of bricks.
The sun was even stronger now so she took off her blazer and put it on the back seat next to the long-forgotten overcoat. Just as she got into the hot Crown Victoria, Liliana's charcoal gray Taurus came up Locklin Park Lane and crossed over the gravelly parking lot, disappearing around the corner of the admin wing to get to the private parking on the other side.
Joanna tracked the car with her eyes, unsure of what she was supposed to do now. With a sigh, she reached for the ignition key.
Once Joanna reached Nadine Boulevard, she realized that Vernon Kransky would notice at once that something was wrong, so she decided to stall going to work.
'I'm several hours late, anyway. What's another thirty minutes?'
she thought, looking at her wristwatch which read twenty past eleven a.m.
To take her mind off what she had done, she tried to turn on the radio, but the entire dial played nothing but rock'n'roll oldies, dreary talk radio or religious broadcasts. Growling to herself, she turned off the radio and rolled down the driver's side window instead to get a blast of Big City air.
At the end of Nadine Boulevard, she turned right onto Third Street, intent on drowning her sorrows in a small bar she had often frequented - unfortunately, the street was blocked by a large semi-truck unloading goods to one of the other bars.
"Aw, crap... crap!" she said out loud and engaged in a three-point turn. Once she had completed the maneuver, she rolled back to the red light at Nadine and Third.
Joanna rolled her eyes and stuck her head out of the window, looking at the skies. "You're punishing me, right? Whoever you are, you're punishing me. Crap, I might as well go to work."
When the red lights turned green, Joanna mashed the gas which made the heavy V8 engine in the front of the Crown Victoria roar to life. She took the intersection on two wheels, but slowed down as soon as she had made it into the inside lane.
Settling down to a steady cruise, she put her arm on the window sill and let out a long sigh. 'From now on, it'll be going from bad to worse. God, what the hell am I going to say to Betty? "Hi, sweetie pie, guess what? I had my brains fucked out today by a spicy little doll!" Jesus, what am I going to say to Betty...?'
Without really thinking, Joanna turned onto Fillmore Boulevard and started to look for the apartment building she had just left. When she found it, she pulled over at the curb in a no-parking zone. To be safe from any nosy beat cops, she turned on the red emergency light on the dashboard.
Looking at Liliana's fifteen-story apartment building, Joanna could see that it was solid middle class rather than upper-class. On the right side of the unmanned main entrance, a ramp sloped downwards to the attached parking garage, and on the left side, a small, temporary newspaper stand had been erected.
The newspaper stand appeared to be selling paperbacks as well and Joanna's buzzing mind came to the conclusion that if she found a little gift for Betty, her own guilty conscience would be eased.
She turned off the red emergency light and moved away from the curb, looking for an opportunity to make a U-turn. When it finally came, she quickly swung the Crown Victoria around and parked in front of the newspaper stand.
"Hello, Detective, how may I help you?" the owner of the stand said. He was an elderly African-American man that appeared quite frail at first glance but whose eyes didn't miss a beat.
"You're selling paperbacks as well?" Joanna said, looking at the vast selection of newspapers.
"That's right. Only second-hand, though, but I've got a lot of great titles. Looking for anything in particular, Detective? Crime dramas, romance, sci-fi, biographies..." the man said, pointing at various piles of books.
"Biographies... would you happen to have the recent one on the actress Laurie McCanless?"
"Shoot, don't think I have, no."
"You were here earlier today, weren't you? Not too many six-footers like yourself running around these parts."
"Uh... yeah. I was here."
"On official business?" the man said, leaning forward on his little chair.
Joanna could tell that he was fishing for some juicy gossip, but she simply put on her game face and shook her head. "I'm afraid I can't divulge any information at this point, Sir."
The man chuckled and leaned back. "All right. Sorry I couldn't help you with the biography."
"Ah, it was a long shot, anyway. I'll just buy the Tribune instead," Joanna said and dug into her pocket to find a few coins for the newspaper.
"Thank you, Detective. Have a nice day."
"Same to you, Sir," Joanna said and walked back to her cruiser.
Twenty minutes later, Joanna stepped into her office and put the newspaper down on her desk. She hung her overcoat and her blazer on the hallstand and then sat down in her chair. As her rear end made contact with the wooden surface, a brief, stinging pain shot up from her privates that had been given quite a workout in the rendezvous at Liliana's apartment.
A new wave of guilt swept over her and she pinched the bridge of her nose to get away from it. When it had receded, she started shuffling around to find a spot that wouldn't give her a constant reminder of her dirty little secret.
Moments later, Vernon came into the office carrying an armful of files. Stopping in the doorway, he shot Joanna a pointed look and arced his bushy eyebrow.
"I know, I know. Good morning, Vern," Joanna said, unable to hold her partner's look. Instead, she grabbed a folder and opened it, pretending to be reading the print on the inside of the cover. She was sure Vernon could tell exactly what she had been doing, but she couldn't take the conflict at that time.
"Mornin', Jo. Did you get anything from Buford? Apart from what you already told me over the phone?"
Joanna licked her lips and leaned back in her chair. The movement created another brief stab of pain and she quickly shuffled forward again. "Not really. He's further out of the loop than he thinks he is."
"Mmmm. What about the principal? Did you get anything out of her?"
Joanna dropped the ball point pen she had just picked up and it clattered noisily to the floor. As she was ducking down to hide her acute blush, she took a deep breath and shook her head. 'This is not going to work. This isn't going to work at all...'
"Yeah. She admitted to hosting sex parties at the school, and she said that Mark Gerlach had visited at least one of them," Joanna said when she came back up, clutching the ball point pen in her hand.
"Whoa, really? Well, that points the spotlight at a scorned lover or a sex game that went wrong. Hell, if that turns out to be the case, Bill Larsen will never let us forget that he called it first."
"And she's preparing a list of the, uh... participants."
"Excellent work, Jo. That should bring us a bit closer."
"Thank you. In addition to that, I got a little background info on her, but nothing that'll help us move on, I don't think," Joanna said and took the top folder from the nearest pile.
As the day wore on, Joanna's guilty conscience took a heavy toll on her social skills. By the time her shift was ending, she snapped, barked and growled at anyone brave enough to go near her.
Outside their office, Vernon stood next to William Larsen, speaking with him in hushed tones. They were both observing Joanna who was hunched over her desk, writing a report by hand while wearing a sneer that said 'stay away' in no uncertain terms.
Even though the two detectives tried to speak quietly, Joanna's ears picked up everything they were saying.
"It's been getting worse and worse all day. Don't know what's bugging her and I'm too scared to ask!" Vernon said, chuckling.
"Probably her time of the month. Happens to even the best of 'em. You should've seen one of my exes, Vern. Man, she turned into Godzilla on a regular basis. No matter what I did or didn't do, what I said or didn't say, nothing was ever right or enough for her. Drove me nuts, that."
'She would have to be Godzilla from the get go to spend more than ten minutes with you, Bill,'
"Nah, I don't think it's Jo's time of the month. She doesn't usually act that way when it is. Although, she did commandeer one of my cushions, so I guess you could be right."
'If I told you the real reason, you'd both go into cardiac arrest, you big sissies.'
"Maybe she's discovered she's pregnant," William said and took a long swig from his indispensable cup of coffee.
"Jo Powell pregnant? How? By immaculate conception?"
"Hey, stranger things have happened in the police force."
'Are you quite done talking about me like I'm not here...?'
Joanna thought, turning her head towards the two detectives.
"Women. Can't live with 'em, can't chain 'em to the... Evening, Jo," William said when he noticed that Joanna was looking at him. He waved at her but she just sneered and went back to work.
"Uh, yeah. Godzilla. Anyway, I better get down to my office. Nice talking to you, Vern," William said before making a hasty exit.
'You big chicken!'
After giving William Larsen a thumbs-up, Vernon moved over to stand in the doorway. "Are you gonna work late tonight, Jo?"
"Yeah. I have a ton of paperwork to go through and because I got here so late, there's a lot of it left."
"It can wait until tomorrow, it's eight thirty in the evening."
"I'd rather do it now, thanks. Go home, Vern. I'll... uh, I'll lock up when I'm done."
"Did you call Betty yet and tell her?"
Once more, Joanna dropped the ball point pen she was using, and once more, she let out an impressive series of cusswords when she ducked under the table to pick it up.
"You oughtta. You know how nervous the wives can get. She's a good woman, Jo. She doesn't deserve that kind of aggro. Call her. See ya tomorrow," Vernon said and tapped his knuckles on the doorjamb.
"Yeah... you're right. I'll call her. See ya, Vernon."
As soon as Vernon had left the doorway, Joanna leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. She sat like that for several minutes before she got up and closed the door to the corridor.
On her way back, she picked up the old-fashioned landline phone and carried it back to her desk. After sitting down carefully, she stared hard at the telephone, almost like she was trying to establish a connection with her eyes alone.
Finally making the decision, she picked up the receiver and began dialing her own number. When she reached the second to last digit, her courage deserted her and she slammed the receiver down onto the hook again.
On the second attempt, she only made it as far as the third digit.
"Oh, Goddammit!" she said out loud and threw her hands in the air.
On the third attempt, her fingers dialed Liliana's number instead on their own accord. When Joanna realized what was happening, she put down the receiver with such force that several pieces of paper fell off the desk and fluttered to the floor.
Growling, Joanna got up and began to pace her office. In her mind, the telephone was taunting her quite severely. Even though it looked perfectly innocent, she knew that it had been possessed by an evil spirit that prevented her from reaching out to anyone.
She stopped pacing, hunched over and let her shoulders and arms shake loose, like she'd been taught in the department's anti-stress classes. It seemed to do the trick because she went straight back to the phone, picked up the receiver and dialed her home number.
'Betty Johansen speaking.'
"Hey, babe, it's me," Joanna said. To her own ears, her voice trembled quite badly, but she hoped that it was only her imagination.
'Hey, Jo. Are you working late tonight?'
"Yeah, it's been one hell of a day. I won't be much longer, though. Did you plan dinner yet?"
'Uh, well, I've brought some sausages out of the deep freeze, yeah.'
"Put 'em back in. We're going out to eat tonight."
'Super, Jo. What's the occasion?'
"Oh, just that... just that I love you. And I've been working late so often recently, sooooo... you know."
At the other end of the connection, Betty fell silent, and for a split second, Joanna felt an irrational fear that her lover had already heard some rumors, knowing that nurses were second to none when it came to gossip.
'Awwww, I love you too, hon. Great! What time will you be here?'
"Forty-five minutes, roughly... is that okay?"
'Sure! Where are we going?'
"Anywhere you want to go, babe. Uh, provided that we can pay for it."
'I'll think of something. Neato! Talk to ya later, Jo. Love ya!'
"Love you, too," Joanna said and hung up. The words grated on her ears - and her soul - and she suddenly realized with alarming clarity that the whole deal would end badly, no matter how hard she tried to smooth out the bumps.
Joanna walked up the garden path to her house with a niggling, stinging pain in her crotch and a throbbing one in her heart. The evening had turned chilly so she was wearing both her blazer and her overcoat, wishing that they would turn carnivorous and swallow her whole.
When she reached the door, she didn't even have time to put the key into the lock before Betty had opened it, wearing a very nice white button-down shirt and a pair of blue jeans that Joanna had given her for her birthday.
"Hi, baby!" she said, pulling Joanna into an embrace. "I dressed up for you. Like it?"
"Yeah, you look good tonight. Not that you're ever not... you know, looking good, ha ha."
"That's easy for you to say, Mizzy smooth talker," Betty said and stood up on tiptoes to place a loving kiss on Joanna's lips.
When their lips met, Joanna felt like the biggest S.O.B. to ever walk the earth and she was unable to respond much to Betty's kiss.
"I've made up my mind. I think we should try out the Santa Domingo Steakhouse downtown. That's the new Argentinean place. It got great reviews in the Sunday papers. Is that all right with you?"
"Oh, sure. Anything for you, babe."
"Oh... well, in that case, perhaps we should stay at home instead? That seemed to work a treat yesterday," Betty said, sliding her hands into Joanna's rear pockets.
Joanna's heart skipped several beats and she could only manage a strangled, little squeak. "Oh, uh... uh, I'm really hungry. So, Santa Domingo Steakhouse sounds fine," she croaked.
"All right. Let me get my jacket. I'll lock up, you can go down and start my car, okay?"
Betty shimmied away from the doorway and back into their house, leaving Joanna standing all alone. The detective nodded to herself and began to shuffle back down the garden path, turning left when she reached the grass to go to the garage where Betty's forest green Mazda was parked.
Ten minutes later, the two women drove through the busy streets of the Big City. Where Betty talked nonstop about the restaurant's reviews in the Sunday papers and what she wanted to order, Joanna was quiet as a mouse, sitting with her hands in her lap in the passenger seat and thinking about the other car ride she'd had earlier in the day.
When Betty noticed that Joanna was unusually quiet, she put a hand on the tall woman's thigh, a gesture that spooked Joanna far more than it should have.
"Hey, Jo, are you all right? Did something bad happen today? If it did, you know I'm willing to listen."
"I'm... I'm fine, Bets. Really. It's just this, uh... the murder case out at the boarding school. It's scrambling my brains. We just can't seem to get a damn break. We've spoken to dozens of people, but none of them can give us any leads."
"Oh, yeah. I figured it might be that boarding school thing. Can you believe that the victim... what was his name?"
"Gerlach, yeah. Can you believe that he's been forgotten already? His parents must be beside themselves with grief, yet there wasn't anything in the papers today, not even a paragraph."
"I guess that's how it goes. There's always something new that grabs the front page," Joanna said quietly.
"It's tragic, in my opinion. Anyway, did you hear about the gang-related shootings downtown? It sounded scary. I hope they won't show up while we're there."
"I caught some of it. I think it's just a couple of gangs fighting a turf war. Nothing unusual over in downtown, I'm afraid. Happens more than you think."
"I'm glad I'm not working at the Community Hospital. Oh boy, they must get a lot of poor, miserable people there, being down on Jefferson and everything."
Betty turned her head to look at Joanna's curiously stony face. "Listen, Jo, are you still good for going out to eat? If you're not, we can-"
"Hell, yes. I invited you out, didn't I? No, let's go and eat. If I get drunk on some strong Argentinean beer, the world we live in might actually make some sense for a change," Joanna said, only partially joking.
Betty chuckled and turned left onto the Twelfth Street bridge that would take them across the Monroe river. "All right... but I'm not carrying you up the stairs and into bed tonight. You're on your own there, pal."
"Yes, dear. I'll behave... or sleep on the couch." 'That's where I'm headed anyhow,'
One week later, Thursday, April 21st.
Joanna's Crown Victoria sped through the congested streets, ducking and diving between seemingly the entire City's fleet of cars, vans and trucks. The siren was going at full blast and the red emergency light on the dashboard and in the headlights were flashing away furiously.
When she finally reached the entrance to Locklin Park Lane, she took the turn on two wheels, wrestling the heavy Ford around the corner. Almost at once, she had to pull over for an ambulance going the other way with full lights and sirens.
Once the ambulance had passed her, she stepped on the gas and entered the gravelly parking lot where patrolmen were cordoning off the path to the dorms to stop a horde of camera crews from gaining access.
After stopping in a cloud of dust and gravel, Joanna jumped from the car and hurried into the admin building, ignoring the shouts from the reporters.
She ran up the stairs taking two steps at a time, barging past a couple of uniformed policemen who were going the other way. After she had gone through the glass double doors and entered the hall where Liliana Zinovia's office was located, the first thing she saw was a pair of bare legs sticking out of the door to the secretary's office.
"Hey, Jo," Vern said calmly, holding his indispensable notepad.
Finally arriving at the grisly scene, Joanna could see that the new victim was another naked young man. She breathed a sigh of relief, trying to camouflage it by pretending to be winded from the run.
"His name is Brian Roper. He's nineteen. Cause of death is manual strangulation, as you can see. He's got petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes and his tracheal bone appears to be broken. It's fairly similar to Mark Gerlach," Vernon said and pointed at the young man's neck.
Joanna nodded, putting on her blue latex examination gloves and kneeling down next to the dead body. She gave the torso a gentle push to look at the black line around its throat.
"Is he from the Kentucky dorm as well?" Joanna said in a slightly croaky voice.
"No, he's from the one called North Dakota."
"Where's the principal, and who was in the ambulance?"
"Principal Zinovia is downstairs in the same conference room we used last week. She's being debriefed by a crisis counselor. It was her secretary... uh, Nancy Weidemann, who found the body. She had one hell of a shock, as you might imagine."
"Yeah. Poor woman. Vern, I need a blow-by-blow."
"All right. Here's what went down according to principal Zinovia. She told me that before the ambulance arrived, she had a brief moment alone with her secretary. When Nancy Weidemann came to the office to open for the day, at ten to eight, she thought she saw a man dressed in dark clothes loitering outside the admin wing. Apparently, she didn't think much of it at the time."
"'A man' ... Jesus, there are hundreds of men here. Was Lil... I mean, was principal Zinovia able to add to that description?"
"I'm afraid not, Jo. Anyway, after Nancy Weidemann had unlocked the door to the office, she began to make some coffee. At a few minutes past eight, she heard a weird sound from the hall."
"What kind of weird?"
"I don't know. She went to check, but she only made it to the door. When she turned the handle, the body tipped over and fell into the office."
"It must have been resting against the door."
"Probably. And poor Mrs. Weidemann spent the next fifteen minutes screaming her lungs out. Principal Zinovia was able to hear it way up in her apartment. She ran down here at once and then called us."
"And she didn't see anyone on her way here?"
"Well, when she heard that Mrs. Weidemann had seen a man dressed in dark clothes, she remembered that she had seen someone matching that just outside the admin building, but she told me that she wasn't entirely sure if it was real or if she had imagined it."
"I need to speak with her," Joanna said and spun around, but Vernon grabbed her arm.
"Jo, we're not done here. First things first. Just before you got here, I arranged with the first officer on site to come and brief us. You need to be present for that or else I have to relay everything to you afterwards."
"Of course. Yeah. Sorry," Joanna said rubbed her forehead. She looked up and down the hall for the uniformed cop, but he wasn't anywhere in sight. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand. "Wow, the school is gonna get hammered by the press and the parents. So are we, for that matter," she said, discreetly wiping a bead of sweat off her brow.
"Yeah, that's going to be so much fun. I can hardly wait. Anyway... two things of note here. One, Brian Roper doesn't have a bruise on his solar plexus like Mark Gerlach did. Two, unlike Mark Gerlach, Brian Roper's tracheal bone is broken which means the killer had to apply extreme force to get him down. Also, he has a visible indent after a finger ring, appropriately enough on the ring finger of his left hand," Vernon said, pointing at the victim's left arm.
"Hmmm?" Joanna said and knelt down again. As she picked up the arm, she could clearly see where the ring had been. "Yeah, I see it. Where does that fit in?"
"On the surface, it doesn't. But I'm thinking the perpetrator might have taken it as a souvenir or a trophy," Vernon said over the rim of his reading glasses.
"A trophy? Good theory," Joanna said and let go of the victim's arm. "Brian Roper. I remember his name from the list Miss Zinovia gave us. He was one of the party-goers," she continued.
"I don't think there's much doubt anymore, Jo. It's someone who's pissed off at those parties. Maybe at the moral decay... maybe because he wasn't allowed to take part, that's hard to say, but it's definitely someone who's angry and upset that something like that is taking place here."
"Charles Buford Smith," Joanna said somberly.
"Could be. We need to take him in for questioning."
She went back to checking Brian Roper's body, uncovering a few interesting little facts. "He's a different type than Mark Gerlach. Beefier and with broader shoulders. Got a tattoo on his back near his shoulder blade... the usual, a tribal pattern of some kind," Joanna said.
"Yeah, he's one of the athletes... a real all-American," Vernon interjected.
"Another connection to Buford. You know, I think I may have seen this guy the other day. I think he was one of the young men playing soccer when I spoke to Buford down at the soccer pitch."
"And he hasn't been circumcised," Joanna said, looking at the victim's genitals.
"Is that important?" Vernon said with a chuckle, tapping the butt of his pencil down onto the notepad.
"Probably not." Joanna started biting her cheek. Looking at the victim gave her a strong pang of jealousy; images of Liliana being with Brian Roper at one of the parties ran through her mind and she had to shake her head to get rid of them.
"He looks like he was a strong fella. Jo, can you see Buford taking him down?"
"Well... not really, I'll admit to that. The toxicology report on Mark Gerlach didn't show any signs of sedatives in his blood, but he was less brawny than Brian Roper so Buford might not have needed it. Hence the bruise on Mark's solar plexus." Joanna leaned across the body and moved her hands around the back of the skull. "He doesn't have any bumps or abrasions on his skull," she continued.
"I'll tell the coroner's to rush the toxi report," Vernon said and made a note on his notepad.
"Detectives?" a female voice said behind them. When Joanna glanced in that direction, she saw that the voice belonged to a uniformed officer who looked like she was fresh out of the academy.
"Yes?" Joanna said, still holding the victim's head in her hands.
"I'm officer Teri Warren. I was told to report to you."
"Right. You were first officer on site?" Vernon said, pushing his reading glasses further up his nose.
"That's right, Detective. When my partner and I arrived, we quickly established that the reported dead body was indeed that. The secretary who had found him was completely hysterical, so we requested an ambulance for her. The principal was calmer and she informed us that she might have seen a man dressed in dark clothes at the stairs down the other end of the hall. We quickly set off in pursuit, but we never saw anyone anywhere. We returned to the principal, and... I guess you know the rest."
The first thing through Joanna's mind when officer Warren had finished giving her report was the surprising fact that Liliana had been alone with the body while both police officers had pursued the suspected perpetrator. 'Why would she do that?'
she thought. Her eyes moved to the indent on Brian Roper's finger. 'Did she take the ring? Did it incriminate her somehow?'
Joanna got up and took off her latex gloves. Wearing a deep frown, she began to go over the permutations in her head. "Officer, how long were you pursuing the man the principal mentioned?"
"How long...? Oh, not more than three-four minutes. Maybe five. The parking lot was deserted when we came out of the door a floor down, but it was possible to see quite far around the campus. Nothing moved anywhere," the officer said. After a brief pause, she continued: "We didn't have access to a K9 unit, so we couldn't do much more, Detective."
"I wasn't accusing you of anything, officer," Joanna said pensively. She looked down at the missing ring again and began to rub her forehead.
"Will that be all, Detectives?"
Joanna looked at Vernon who nodded an affirmative reply.
"Yes, you can go back to... no, wait," Joanna said and set off after the young officer.
"When you arrived, were there any cars down in the public parking lot? That's the one in front of this building."
"Hmmm, let me see... yes, there was one car. A dark late-model sedan. Why?"
"Because there are no civilian cars down there now."
"Oh... shit. We should've performed a more thorough check," Officer Warren said sheepishly.
"You didn't happen to catch the license plate, did ya?" Joanna said with a wistful smile.
"All right. Go back to your partner."
"Thank you, Detective," Officer Warren said, thankful that she didn't have to suffer a chewing-out.
"Now what?" Vernon said as he watched the young policewomen exit the hall.
"Now we pick up Buford and make him squeal," Joanna said in a steely voice.
Three hours later, Jo stepped out of interrogation room #3 to get a mouthful of fresh air and a respite from Charles Buford Smith's incessant whining.
The air inside the small room was stale and stinking of sweat which was coming off the portly gym teacher by the bucket-load, partly because of the high temperatures and partly because of the things he'd had to reveal to the detectives.
Joanna undid the two top buttons of her button-down shirt to get some fresh air down her front. April had turned quite summery and the air-conditioning was already running on maximum everywhere, except in the interrogation rooms that were deliberately kept warm and stuffy.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Lieutenant Nicholas Barnes come towards her with determined steps, making her groan inwardly.
"Detective Powell, I've been told that you have a suspect in the boarding school homicides?"
"A possible suspect, Lou. But, yes. He's in I-R three as we speak," Joanna said, pointing behind her with her thumb.
"Excellent. Is he connected to the school?"
"Yes, he's a dorm master and the gym teacher."
"Oh... how long have you had him in there?" Barnes said, looking with glee at the closed door.
"Just about an hour now, Lou."
"Do you think you'll get a full confession today, Detective? The press is really on our backs for allowing the killer to run free for so long."
Joanna chuckled dryly and closed the buttons of her shirt. "Well, we might, but it'll take a while. In the mean time, we-"
"So you don't like him for the two homicides?" Barnes said, clearly surprised by Joanna's statement.
"I didn't say that, Lou. These things aren't always straightforward. In the mean time, we can nail him for aiding and abetting a fugitive. Turns out that Buford is hiding his half-brother who is wanted for parole violations. Buford gave up that information hoping that we might use it to cut a deal with him."
"On two homicides? Hardly. Hmmm. Hmmm!" Barnes said, nervously rubbing his chin. "We need to get some kind of results today, Detective. It's imperative we do. I have the Chief of D's breathing down my neck. We need some results!"
"We'll get some results, Lou, but it might not be today. Like I said, these things aren't always straightforward."
"Today, Powell," Nicholas Barnes said, pointing his index finger at Joanna. Once he had made his point, the Lieutenant turned around and walked back up the hall.
Joanna kept standing at the door for a few moments, grumbling severely under her breath. Just as she was about to go back inside the interrogation room, one of the phone operators came out into the hallway, holding a note in her hand.
"Detective Powell, just in time. There's a caller for you on line three," the operator said.
"All right. Thanks. I'll be there in a flash," Joanna said and knocked on the door to the interrogation room. After opening it, she shot Buford a steely, no-nonsense look that made him squirm in his seat. "Vern, let's take five. I have a phone call waiting."
A few moments later, Joanna threw herself into her swivel-chair and pressed the flashing knob on the phone. "Detective Joanna Powell speaking."
'Are you in charge of the Jeremy Malone murders?'
a male voice said.
'I have some information for you.'
"Oh? And your name is?" Joanna leaned forward on her swivel-chair and rummaged around her busy desk for her trusty notepad. Finally finding it, she picked up a ball point pen and got ready to write.
'I'm the Caped Crusader.'
"Oh, ha, ha. If you're bullshitting me, you'll be sorry."
'I'm not. Can you meet me at the playground across from the precinct house in, say, five minutes?'
"Why not come here?"
'Don't want my face all over the news, thanks.'
'And trust me, I'm not bullshitting you.'
"Good. Five minutes," Joanna said and hung up. She looked at Vernon who was leaning against the doorframe. "I'm just gonna pop out for a few minutes, Vern. Someone may have some info for us on the boarding school case."
Getting up, she made sure her service pistol was firmly in place and then she grabbed her blazer from the backrest of her chair.
Vernon looked above the rim of his reading glasses and made a sound that resembled a harrumph. "You need some backup?"
"Stay safe, Jo. You know how many nuts there are out there."
Four minutes and forty seconds later, Joanna crossed the street in front of the precinct house and entered the park, headed for the small playground. Even against the very colorful, noisy background of what seemed to be a battalion of small children playing, she easily spotted a young man sitting at a park bench, sipping a can of Diet Coke.
Walking towards him, she put her hand near her service pistol so she could draw it quickly if the need arose. The man was white, roughly twenty and he had an effeminate air about him. His hair was white-blond and very short, and he wore blue jeans and a black Rokkstarr sweatshirt with the hood folded down.
"Let me guess, you must be Detective Powell?" he said once Joanna was close to him.
"That's right. And you're the Caped Crusader."
"Actually, my name is Maurice Jerrod. Everybody calls me Mo. I just didn't want to tell you over the phone in case you recorded it."
'Maurice Jerrod. I remember that name from the list Liliana gave me. So Mo Jerrod has been to the parties, too...'
Joanna thought, studying the young man intently. "All right. Hi, Mo. What brings you here?" she said, still standing on the opposite side of the park bench.
"Please, Detective... have a seat. You're making me nervous."
Joanna quickly scanned the area. When she found nothing unusual, she sat down and put her left hand on the tabletop - the right was still near her gun.
"I have some info on Mark Gerlach, on Brian Roper, on Liliana Zinovia... and on what they were doing together in principal Zinovia's apartment after dark," Mo said conspiratorially.
Joanna looked the young man straight in the eye, debating with herself if she should tell him that they already knew most of what he was about to say. "Oh?"
"First of all, Mark was gay but Brian was straight."
"Is that relevant for the case?" Joanna said, reaching into her pocket for her notepad.
"Yes and no. Anyway, in the daytime, the dear principal exudes class, right? Well, let me tell you... nights, when the mood hits her and the crowd is the right one, Liliana the principal turns into Mistress Liliana... and boy, oh boy does she know how to throw a party."
Joanna began to grind her teeth; her mind was rapidly flooded with images that very much confirmed Mo's statement of 'when the mood hits her'. " 'Mistress' ...? Like a dominatrix?"
"She doesn't do the stuff with latex and the chains and whips, no. Her tools are acres of black leather, elbow-length gloves, high heels, a black half-mask that covers her eyes... and..." Mo leaned in towards Joanna and lowered his voice. "... a ten-inch ivory strap-on dildo that she wears on a harness underneath her leather outfit."
Joanna's heart skipped several beats and she stared blankly at Mo's face. The Mistress part had been surprising enough to her, but this latest tidbit almost blew her mind. Her eyebrows went down, then up, then down again. As she processed the new information, she started chewing on her cheek to try to get the images of a fully equipped Liliana out of her head.
"Where do Mark Gerlach and Brian Roper fit in?"
"Oh..." Maurice went into a snicker that made Joanna narrow her eyes. "Well, Mark was mostly on his knees... from what I've heard," he continued, snickering again.
"Very funny. You said he was gay...? What's a gay man doing having sex with a woman?"
"Once they got started, they apparently didn't look at each other. Mark was on his hands and knees and Mistress Liliana was behind him... do I have to spell it out for you?"
"No, I guess you don't," Joanna said and made a few more notes.
"Word has it that Liliana scared off her first husband because she got her kicks from ramming him doggie-style... take it from me, Detective, any straight guy would run away from that."
"That's definitely hearsay, Mo, let's stick to the facts. You know, I can't see a buff fella like Brian Roper accepting such a... uh, such an approach."
"He didn't. From what I know, he and Mistress Liliana did it the old-fashioned way. The Mistress is quite flexible. Uh... no pun intended, but quite apt in this case," Maurice said, snickering loudly.
Hearing that, Joanna really started grinding her teeth. 'I knew it. I knew it from the minute I saw those broad shoulders and those strong arms. I damn well knew he and Liliana had done it!'
she thought, swallowing angrily.
Another thought flashed through her mind and she cocked her head. "Mo, have you had sex with Miss Zinovia?"
"Oh, no, no, no. I've never been to any of those parties."
"Then how do you know all these details?"
"Look, Mo, I need to be frank with you. I've seen your name on a list of the people attending the parties. Principal Zinovia has supplied the list to help us with the investigation."
Maurice grimaced and started drawing a random pattern on the top of the wooden bench. "Oh... well... all right. I didn't know that. Will the list be made public?" he said, suddenly a lot paler than before.
"We'll do what we can to keep it hidden, but we can't give you any promises."
"Shit. I've been at the parties, but I haven't had sex with Mistress Liliana. I'm a bit of a voyeur, but not really a... do-er, if you know what I mean."
"So you were watching her having sex with some of the boarders?"
"Yep. Several times. The incident I talked about with Mark Gerlach happened at the first party I attended. I saw Brian, uh... taking her at the second party."
"Mmmm," Joanna said as she made a final note and closed the notepad.
"Does that count against me, Detective?"
"What I'd like to know is why you're telling me these things?"
"Oh, only to show you that there's more to Miss Zinovia than meets the eye. Literally," Maurice said, winking.
"Mo, who you do think killed Mark and Brian?" Joanna said, looking the young man squarely in the eye.
"Well... don't you have Buford Smith in for ques-"
"Forget Buford, who you do think killed those two men?"
The direct question made Maurice's face take on a serious note that hadn't been there earlier in the conversation. He shrugged and started fiddling with his fingernails. "I honestly don't know, Detective. I'm sure principal Zinovia didn't have anything to do with it. She was too fond of both of them, Mark in particular."
"Even if he wanted to end their relationship or something similar?"
"They never had one, they were only fuck-buddies, Detective. And let me tell you, there are plenty of other fish in that sea. Plenty. All principal Zinovia has to do is to bat an eyelid and they'll be lining up outside her office. Even though she's an older woman, she's still got it."
Joanna's left eyebrow twitched at the notion of a forty-year old being called 'an older woman', but she chose not to make a comment. "Mo, how many parties have you been to?"
"You said Mark and then Brian were the principal's sexual partners at the first two parties... who was she with during the third?"
"No one. She performed an erotic dance for us. Didn't do anything for me, but the straight guys loved it."
Joanna thought. "When was this?"
"Two weeks ago, a couple of days before Mark's murder. The parties are held every three weeks. Well, I guess they won't be, now."
"Was Mark at the party where the principal danced for you?"
"Yes, I believe he was. Brian wasn't there, I think he had a cold or something. Maybe he was still sore... he and the principal really went at it!" Maurice said with a snicker, prompting Joanna to remember her own soreness from the other day.
"Mo, do you know how long principal Zinovia has been organizing the parties?"
"Did you ever see anyone there who looked like he or she didn't belong? Perhaps someone older...?"
"Hmmm... no. Mistress Liliana was the only one there over twenty-five. Oh, wait a minute, that's not right. In the third party I went to, there was a man as well. I guess he was in his late twenties or so. Kinda rough looking, a bit of a bruiser. I remember wondering what the hell he was doing there."
"Did he participate in the... uh...?"
"No, but he got most of Mistress Liliana's attention during her dance. When I asked around, people thought the principal had invited him. Actually, he looked like he had taken a wrong turn at a monster truck event somewhere," Maurice said with a snicker. Moments later, the smile faded from his face. "Gawd, could he be the killer?"
"Right now, we're keeping all possibilities open, Mo. Who knows, it might even be Mrs. Weidemann," Joanna said and got up.
Maurice laughed nervously and followed Joanna away from the bench. "Detective, please try to keep my name out of the headlines. Okay?" he said, folding up the hood.
"I'll try, Mo. But like I said before, no promises."
"That's good enough for me. Later."
When Joanna returned to the stationhouse, she needed a few moments for herself before she could resume interrogating Buford Smith, so she went into the ladies' room and stepped into the first available stall.
After locking the stall-door, she closed the lid on the toilet, sat down on the bowl and buried her face in her hands.
The powerful memory of Liliana Zinovia dancing for her in the apartment mixed with what Maurice Jerrod had told her about the things happening at the parties, and pretty soon, she had quite a buzz going - a buzz she knew only one thing could quell.
Someone else entered the ladies' room and Joanna quickly flushed the toilet so she didn't have to come up with any sort of excuse. Exiting the stall, she washed her hands and splashed some water in her heated face. She could feel her nipples straining against the fabric of her bra and she briefly considered going back into the stall to take care of business herself.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror to gauge how badly she was flushing. Satisfied that it wasn't too bad, she wiped her hands and her face on a paper towel and exited the ladies' room.
"Joanna Powell, that has got to be *the* longest five minutes I've ever experienced," Vernon growled the instant she met him in the hall.
"I'm here now, ain't I?"
"Buford Smith has lawyered up."
"Not long after you left, Buford demanded a lawyer, and just now, a court-appointed attorney showed up, claiming one C.B. Smith as his client."
"Son of a bitch..." Joanna said and punched her fist into her open palm. "Buford must be keeping something else from us. This can't be about his fugitive brother. Do we have anything on him? Anything at all?"
"Not in my opinion, no. We need to let him go. For now."
"Shit. Perhaps it's for the better. He isn't a killer, Vern," Joanna said and ran a hand across her brow.
"I agree. He's a big-time sleazeball, but not a killer."
Joanna scrunched up her face and put a finger across her lips. "Just out of curiosity, I think I'll take a look at his half-brother. Who knows, we might get him to shovel some dirt on Buford. After all, he doesn't owe him anything."
Ten minutes later, Joanna put the receiver back down on the telephone and leaned back in her swivel-chair.
"Anything?" Vern said, adjusting his glasses.
"Buford's half-brother is an electronics wizard. In a drunken stupor, he gave one of the salesmen in an electronics store downtown a bloody nose. That's how he violated his parole."
"The original sentence was for setting up unauthorized surveillance equipment. Basically, he had set up a concealed camera in a nightclub's restroom. The images were transmitted to his home computer and then he distributed the best shots on the Net."
"Oh, what a charming fellow."
Joanna turned around in her chair and began to massage her temples with her index fingers. "Vern, I have a theory, but it's a wild one, so you might wanna throw one of your loafers at me."
"Go on," Vern said, chuckling.
"What if, in exchange for his silence, Buford forced his half-brother to set up a concealed camera or two somewhere in the boarding school...?"
Vern whistled and leaned back in his chair. "The showers?"
"The showers, the conference rooms, Mrs. Weidemann's office... the principal's apartment up on the sixth floor...?"
"That's certainly a wild theory, all right."
"While I was away, I spoke to one of the people on the list Miss Zinovia gave us, Maurice Jerrod. He was one of the party-goers and he told me a few, uh, juicy details. The parties all took place in Liliana Zinovia's apartment."
"Wow, and if Buford caught that on tape or disc or whatever, that would be one hell of a motherlode."
"For blackmail, though. Not murder. And it's a pretty big 'if'."
"I know. But it's a start. Tell you what, since we lost Buford to the lawyers, I think I'll get one of the tech guys, go out to the boarding school and scan for gizmos," Joanna said, got up from her chair and grabbed her blazer.
After stepping out of her Crown Victoria, Joanna got a flashback to her days directing traffic as she helped the driver of a large, ungainly police van into a parking space that was really too small for it.
"C'mon... c'mon... stop!" she said, giving the driver a thumbs-up.
Once the engine had been turned off, she and the driver went around the back of the van to open the rear doors, revealing that the van was packed to the roof with all kinds of electronic equipment. Joanna chuckled as she looked at the terrifying amount of knobs, dials and little flashing lights that were everywhere inside the van.
The driver, Miguel Ammanato, put a few devices into a holdall which he proceeded to throw over his shoulder.
"Ready when you are, Detective," Miguel said.
"Right. It's over here."
A few minutes later, Miguel put down the holdall in the center of the main hall and began to sweep the walls, the floor and the roof with a hand-held device.
"Nothing here so far. Nope, it's clean," he said after checking the readout on the device.
"And you can see it just like that?" Joanna said, looking over the technician's shoulder.
"Yes. It's fairly simple to use, actually."
"For you, perhaps."
Miguel chuckled and hoisted up in the heavy holdall.
"Hey, let me get that. I'll carry the luggage, you can sweep the rooms," Joanna said, taking the holdall off Miguel's shoulder.
"Thanks, Detective. All right, where to next?"
"Hmmm. Through here. There's a conference room right down the hall."
"Still nothing?" Joanna said. When the conference room and the secretary's office had both come up clean, she had begun to doubt her idea. Now, they were standing outside Liliana Zinovia's private apartment on the sixth floor, but the device still couldn't pick up anything.
"Still nothing, Detective."
"We need to go inside. I hope Lil... I mean, principal Zinovia is up for it," Joanna said and knocked on the door.
A minute went past and Joanna was about to call it off when the door to the apartment opened. Liliana was standing in the doorway, looking a wreck with red, puffy eyes and an ashen face. She was wearing a red silk kimono and slippers, and she was looking so fragile that Joanna was afraid she might keel over.
"Jo? What are you doing here?"
Once Joanna recovered her voice, she cleared her throat and pushed Miguel into view. "Hi, Liliana. This is Officer Miguel Ammanato, he's a computer specialist. We're here to perform a sweep for electronic surveillance equipment."
"Surveillance equipment...? In my apartment? Where the hell would that come from?"
"It's a long story, I'm afraid. May we come in?"
"Now? Look, I'm..."
"Liliana, I need a word in private," Joanna said quietly.
"Miguel, would you mind? It'll only be a minute," Joanna said, putting her hand on Miguel's shoulder.
"Of course not. I'll be down the hall. Just call me."
"Yep." Joanna watched him walk down the hall and then she stepped into the apartment. "Liliana, we believe that there's a risk someone has planted one or more hidden cameras in here. To record the parties."
"A c-... a camera... who?" Liliana said, unable to hold Joanna's gaze.
"Someone associated with Charles Buford Smith."
"I... can't believe that, Jo. I just can't," Liliana said, putting her hand across her forehead.
"For your sake, I hope it's a wrong hunch, but we need to check. All right?"
"How long will it take? I'm... I'm so very tired."
"I don't know. A few minutes."
"I... all right," Liliana said, sighing deeply. Nodding, she stepped aside to make way. Joanna stepped back out into the hall and whistled after Miguel who came at once.
As the technician started performing a thorough sweep of the apartment, Joanna let her trained eye roam over the items found there. Much like Liliana's other place, the apartment was tastefully decorated with a tan wall-to-wall carpet, a couple of abstract paintings on the walls and fairly modern furniture. There didn't seem to be much in the way of personal effects, and Joanna made a mental note to ask Liliana about it later.
The apartment was divided into five rooms: a bedroom with an attached bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen, a medium-sized living room and a large, elegant lounge partially hidden behind a semi-closed folding door.
Liliana was sitting on a couch, looking quite frail. Her hands were folded in her lap, a posture that almost made it look like she was praying.
"I haven't found anything so far. I only need to check in there, and then I'm done," Miguel said, pointing at the semi-closed folding door.
"Go ahead," Liliana said in a thin voice.
Joanna licked her lips and furrowed her brow, wondering why the normally so vibrant principal had been affected quite so badly by Brian Roper's murder compared to Mark Gerlach's.
"Detective?" Miguel soon said from inside the lounge. Joanna offered Liliana a quick smile and then she set off after the technician.
"Yeah?" she said, closing the folding door fully shut behind her.
"You were partially right. It looks like there's been a camera here, but it's gone now," Miguel said. The technician was balancing precariously on top of a chair he had pulled over, holding the shell of a smoke detector in his hand.
"Then how the hell can you see there's been a camera there?"
"Because the smoke detector has been gutted and four of the little plastic ribbons have been broken off. Look," Miguel said, pointing at a hole in the plastic casing.
"Yeah? I don't get it."
"I guess you had to know where to look to see it. The side with the hole was turned towards the couches and the section of the room that looks like it's been raised, right there," Miguel said, nodding at the far end of the room. "With a wide-angle lens, they would've been able to get both couches, the floor in between and that raised area."
Getting a sneaking suspicion that Liliana's reaction had more to do with the camera than with the murders, Joanna nodded and punched Miguel's hip. "Excellent work, Miguel. Do you think you can get out of the parking space yourself?"
"Sure. What do you want me to do with the empty casing?"
"Give it to me. I know exactly what to do with it," Joanna said and scooped up the plastic smoke detector.
A few minutes later, Joanna shut the door to Liliana's apartment from the inside and went over to sit a small distance away from the frail-looking woman.
"Here," she said, putting the empty casing down on the cushion. "This used to be a camera casing. You're being blackmailed, aren't you?"
Liliana blinked a few times while she digested Joanna's words. After a brief pause, she nodded.
"I need the details, Liliana."
"After the police had left around lunch time, a small envelope was delivered to me by a messenger. It contained a DVD and a small note advising me not to contact the police," Liliana said. She sighed deeply and reached out for Joanna.
Joanna quickly swept the empty casing off the cushion and moved over to sit next to the stricken woman. She didn't hesitate for a second but immediately wrapped her arms around the principal and gave her a strong squeeze.
Liliana leaned her head against Joanna's shoulder and let out a trembling sigh. "Well, I couldn't contact the police. If I did, my life would be ruined."
"What's on the DVD?" Joanna asked, even though she already knew the answer.
"A ten-minute highlights show from the parties. Jo... I h-haven't told you every-"
"Shhh, Liliana. I already know about your... uh, special outfit."
"You do? How?" Liliana said, turning her head to look at the Detective.
"Maurice Jerrod told me earlier today."
"How much money did the blackmailer want?"
"Twenty thousand dollars."
"Do you have it?"
Liliana shook her head and let out another trembling sigh. "No. Not even close. Not even if I sell my car."
"What did you do with the note and the DVD?"
"It actually said I should burn it after reading, but I didn't. It's in an envelope in the drawer in my nightstand."
"I'll get it. I need to see it," Joanna said and got up from the couch.
"Vern, it's Jo. I have some interesting news. I was right, there was a camera here. Turns out that principal Zinovia has been the victim of an extortion attempt," Joanna said, standing in the bedroom and holding a slimline case containing a recordable DVD.
'Oh, really? Photos?'
"No, a DVD. They used a wide-angle lens in a smoke detector. It's fairly good quality; faces and... uh... other body parts are recognizable."
"There's a note as well, but it's been printed on a common ink jet printer on common copy paper. Won't do us much good. Principal Zinovia was warned not to go to the police, but I-"
'But we got there first.'
"That's right. It's gotta be Buford and his half-brother. Do you think we have enough to get a search warrant?"
'I think we do, Jo. Let me handle that. I'll call you when I know more.'
"All right, Vern. Talk to you later," Joanna said and terminated the connection.
"Jo?" Liliana said in a weak voice.
"Yeah?" Joanna put her cell phone in her pocket and went into the living room. She sat down on the couch and took Liliana's hands in her own.
"Stay with me... please. I'll let you go home to your girlfriend tonight... but I need you here right now."
"I'll stay. By the way, my partner will call me later with the details, but I think we have a good shot at getting a search warrant for Buford's house."
"Is that good news?"
"Too early to tell, but hopefully it will be."
Liliana nodded and got off the couch. "Please help me to bed," she said, putting a hand on Joanna's shoulder.
When Joanna's jaw fell down to her chest, Liliana got a brief sparkle in her eyes but she quickly sobered up again. "So I can get some rest, silly."
"Oh... I can do that," Joanna said and rose from the couch.
Friday, April 22nd.
Two unmarked police cars were parked at the curb on a sleepy street in a sleepy part of the Big City. A third official vehicle, the ungainly van with all the electronics, was parked a further hundred yards back to be out of the line of sight from the house they were watching.
"What time is it?" Joanna said as she re-tightened the Velcro straps on her bulletproof vest. She and Vernon were sharing Joanna's Crown Victoria and the car behind them was driven by two detectives from the local precinct, Harry Karpac and Nick Moore, there to actually deliver the search warrant.
"Six fifty-eight a.m., Jo."
Joanna flipped her hair out of her vest and looked casually out of the windscreen at Charles Buford Smith's house, located roughly one hundred yards away.
"One-four-William-oh-one to one-four-William-oh-two. Miguel, are you ready?"
'I'm ready, Detective.'
"Good. We roll in two minutes. Once we're in, we'll call you."
"One-four-William-oh-one to two-three-William-oh-one. Are you boys ready as well?" Joanna said, looking in the rear view mirror at the car behind her. The driver of the second car raised his thumb and Joanna waved in return.
'We're ready, Detective,'
Harry Karpac said in a velvety voice.
"They're all ready, Vern," Joanna said and turned the ignition key.
"Let's do it," Vernon said, holding his service pistol between his legs.
Joanna stepped on the gas and raced around the corner, parking at an oblique angle in front of a dark late-model sedan that was parked outside the house. In a flash, she and Vernon were out of the car and secured the narrow path up to the house.
Joanna knelt down and made a sweep of the area, looking down the barrel of her pistol. When she couldn't see any threats, she shouted at the second team who came out of the other squad car carrying a Door Buster.
In the next house, two dogs began to bark like crazy, and Joanna cursed loudly. The barking soon drowned out any sounds that might come from the house, making the operation more dangerous than it needed to be.
The two detectives from the Twenty-Third Precinct arrived at the house and knocked on the front door. "Mr. Ronald James Wayne, this is the Metro Police Department! We have a warrant for your arrest and a warrant to search these premises issued by justice of the law, Lance Avery! You're advised to open the door at once! We shall break it down if the door is not opened within ten seconds!"
When the ten seconds ran out, the detective holding the heavy Door Buster swung it at the lock, forcing the door open in a shower of splinters. Once the door was fully opened, the detective let go of the tool and ran into the house with his colleague, their pistols drawn and ready.
"This is the Metro Police Department! Mr. Ronald James Wayne, we have a warrant for your arrest and a warrant to search these premises. We strongly suggest you give yourself up immediately!" Harry Karpac shouted.
Joanna and Vernon quickly followed their colleagues into the house, keeping their weapons drawn to act quickly in case a fire fight broke out.
The two detectives from the Twenty-Third Precinct went through the house, repeating their warning. When they had been through all the rooms, Nick Moore came out into the living room, shaking his head. "The nest is empty, Detective Kransky."
"Did you find any electronic equipment?"
"No, not even a television set."
"That can't be right. Look for a hidden door or a hatch or something. Maybe Ronald James Wayne keeps his stuff in the basement?" Joanna said, holstering her service pistol.
"Good idea. Call in Miguel, he might be able to help," Vernon said and went into the bedroom where he went to work on the closets.
Joanna unhooked the walkie-talkie and keyed the mic. "One-four-William-oh-one to one-four-William-oh-two. Miguel, we need you to come and perform your magic."
'I'll be there in a couple of secs, Detective.'
"Copy that. Powell out," Joanna said and shut off the walkie-talkie. She looked around the living room. It was clear to her that it had been a few years since the house had seen a cleaning maid.
At first glance the carpet looked all right, but a closer look revealed a myriad of stains; some easily identifiable, some less so. There were no flowers or plants anywhere in the living room and the walls were mostly covered in non-descript wallpaper held in a tone that had been all the rage in the 1970s.
"Detective Powell," Miguel said, standing in the doorway, carrying his heavy holdall.
"Miguel. Let me help you with that," Joanna said and took the holdall from his grip.
"Thanks. Well, this looks... hmmm. Like my cousin's dump. No, on second thoughts, his is nicer," Miguel said, looking around the house.
"Interesting to know. Listen, we can't find any electronic equipment anywhere. We need you to sweep the house for gizmos, like last night."
"Will do, Detective. Won't take me long, I don't think," Miguel said and dug into the holdall. Seconds later, he booted the hand-held device and began to scan the floor and the walls.
A small bookshelf behind a stained couch caught Joanna's eye and she went over to it to see which titles such a household would have. When she came closer, she immediately recognized the colorful spines as being DVDs and a further study revealed that they were all porn.
She turned around and looked at the far wall of the living room. When the room didn't offer any logical place to put a television set, she scrunched up her face and tapped her index finger against her chin. After a brief pause, she dug into her blazer pocket, found her blue latex examination gloves and put them on.
She picked out the first of the DVDs and turned it over to look at the pictures on the cover. The porn itself was fairly benign, but the sound the box produced was a curious rattling one, prompting Joanna to open it to see what was wrong.
The disc had broken free of its lock, breaking off a few of the little teeth in the process. More interestingly, it was a regular recordable DVD, not a store-bought disc.
Licking her lips, Joanna scooped up all the DVDs, opening them one at a time - they were all home-made.
"Vern!" she shouted, putting the discs back into the proper boxes, and then the boxes into a plastic bag marked EVIDENCE.
"Yeah?" Vernon said, peeking around the doorway.
"They must have some electronic equipment somewhere. They've got a shelf full of DVDs, but no TV. They're all home-made and all the discs are the same brand, so I'm guessing they have a DVD burner somewhere."
"You know, a regular laptop could do all those things."
"Yeah. Any luck?"
"No. Miguel can't find anything."
a voice said from the other end of the house. Joanna and Vernon briefly looked at each other and then moved quickly through the living room and into the kitchen.
Harry Karpac was standing hunched over with half of his body inside a small alcove that acted as a storage room. Grunting, he pulled out a cardboard box filled to the brim with DVDs in clear jewel cases, in black plastic boxes and in 100-piece spindle cases.
The detective took the items out of the cardboard box and built three piles on the kitchen floor.
"The spindle cases are still wrapped, so they're obviously new," the detective said. "Those in the jewel cases and the black plastic boxes appear to be used. Look, they have visible data on them," Harry said, showing Joanna and Vernon that one of the DVDs had clearly been used.
"Excellent. We need to get all of them bagged and tagged, including the unopened spindle cases," Vernon said, patting the detective on the shoulder.
Joanna began to bite her lips. 'If I was the one planning an extortion, especially one with so sensitive recordings, I wouldn't keep them where they could be so easily found. Hmmm...'
she thought, moving away from the kitchen.
Going into the narrow hall connecting the living room and the bedroom, she began to turn every single closet and drawer upside down, searching for an envelope similar to the one she had seen in Liliana's apartment. On a shelf in one of the closets, she discovered several car radios that she suspected had been stolen, and she promptly took them out and put them on the floor so they could be tagged.
When the search yielded no other results, she mopped her brow and let out a long sigh.
She shuffled into the bedroom and began to pace back and forth between a large bed and a smaller, narrower bunk that she presumed was for Buford and Ronald James Wayne, respectively. When she realized she wasn't going to find the missing master DVD, she sat down on Buford's bed and buried her face in her hands.
"Think, for Chrissakes, Jo... Think! Where would you hide material of such value? It's twenty grand, you wouldn't put it with the common porn," she said out loud, looking around the bedroom.
Her eye caught something out of place, and at first, she wasn't sure what she was looking at. Then she realized that the carpet at the foot of the only closet had a small fold in it that indicated that the closet had recently been moved.
The closet had already been searched by one of the other detectives, but he had apparently not paid attention to the carpet. Joanna cocked her head, got off the bed and walked over to the closet. The far side of it was resting against the wall, but it wasn't a snug fit, there was a narrow crevice.
Joanna grabbed hold of the closet with both hands and really put her back into moving it. Pushing it in the direction of the fold in the carpet revealed more and more of the wall behind it - and eventually a white envelope that had been scotch-taped to the wall.
Baring her teeth in a triumphant grin, she ripped the envelope off the wall and opened it at once. Inside, she could see a slimcase containing a DVD and a copy of the extortion note she had read at Liliana's apartment.
"Got it! Got it for Chrissakes!" she shouted, punching the air.
Vernon, Miguel and the two detectives from the Twenty-Third quickly came into the bedroom, staring at the jubilant detective. Joanna soon realized that she was behaving out of character and she settled down at once, feeling the beginnings of a blush tinting her cheeks.
"Uh, I got it," she continued, showing the envelope to her colleagues.
"Great work, Jo. When it's bagged, we're done here. We need to get back home so the tech-heads can examine the disc," Vernon said.
"Miguel, did you find a laptop or anything like that?" Joanna said, putting the envelope into a clear plastic bag.
"No, all the rooms are clean. I suspect he's using a wireless modem on the laptop. I did find a few cables in a trashcan that looked like they had been cut recently. Probably from when he was preparing the smoke-detector-cam. I guess I'm done here...?" Miguel said, pulling the holdall up his shoulder.
"Yeah, you can go back to the station, Miguel. Thanks a lot," Vernon said.
"You're welcome. You know, one of these assignments, I'd like to actually find something," the technician said, chuckling.
Carrying the plastic bag with the envelope, Joanna followed Miguel out onto the front porch and then veered off to the right, walking over to the Crown Victoria.
A small crowd of neighborhood kids and a few adults had gathered outside, eagerly waiting to see if any dead bodies were carried out of the house, but they separated like the Red Sea for Moses when Joanna approached them to go to the car.
After putting the bag of evidence in the trunk of the squad car, her eye caught a man standing at the edge of the small crowd. There was something familiar about his build and his posture, Joanna thought. He was wearing black jeans, a black Metallica t-shirt and a baseball cap pulled down so far that his eyes were hidden.
His face was mostly obscured by the shadow created by the brim of the cap, but one thing did stand out like a sore thumb - a walrus-like salt-and-pepper mustache.
Joanna immediately made the connection and began to edge her way around the back of the crowd. Unfortunately, a couple of the children began to squeal at the sight of her service pistol, blowing her cover.
The man with the mustache turned his head to look at what had caused the kids to squeal - a split second later, he set off running down the street.
"Aw, hell!" Joanna shouted and set off after him. Behind them, the children started squealing for real, alerting Vernon and the other detectives who came out onto the porch to see what was going on.
Unlike his rotund half-brother, Ronald James Wayne was fit and athletic and Joanna had trouble keeping up with him. She ran as fast as she could, but the suspect was slowly escaping her.
"Halt! Metro Police!" she shouted, but her words had no effect.
After sprinting down the sidewalk for more than a block, Ronald James turned sharp right in a T-junction, headed onto a street where the houses were even more run down than those on the street they had just left behind. At once, Joanna knew she had run into a bad neighborhood - the faces of the people running out to watch the chase were unfriendly at best, hostile at worst, and some of them began to shout obscenities at her.
Behind her, she could hear at least one of the squad cars turn the corner on two wheels, and moments later, Vernon roared past her to cut off the running man.
Ronald James was running too fast to stop, so he bumped into the fender of the police car with full force and fell on top of the hood. Before he could roll down from it, Joanna was at his side and reached behind her to take her handcuffs off her belt.
The fugitive struggled like mad but Joanna managed to pacify him and then to slap the cuffs on him. Badly winded, she opened the back door of the Crown Victoria and threw Ronald James head-first onto the back seat.
"Ronald James Wayne, you have the right-"
"Read him his rights later, Jo. We need to get the hell outta here!" Vernon said, putting the car into Reverse.
Moments later, an opened can of beer came sailing through the air and struck the car's windscreen. When the beer splattered all over the front of the car, Joanna jumped in and Vernon gunned the engine, making the squad car shoot backwards.
Several angry young men wearing the colors of one of the local gangs, white trainers, black oversized pants, a white sleeveless T-shirt and a red bandanna, came out onto the street and began to hurl insults at the police car and the people inside.
Another can of beer soon followed the first one, but it missed the car, instead cracking wide open as it hit the pavement.
Vernon had his foot on the floor, still in Reverse. Once they reached the T-junction, he turned left to make the car go up the left street. After it had righted itself, he slammed on the brakes and yanked the shifter on the steering column into Drive.
As the car raced back past the street they had just left, several more cans of beer sailed through the air, but the car was going too fast to hit.
"Jesus, this is a friendly neighborhood!" Joanna croaked, pulling out in the collar of her dusty yellow blouse. "I'm glad I don't work the Two-Three on a permanent basis."
"Yeah, no kidding," Vernon said, constantly checking the rear view mirror. "We're clear. They're not following us," he said and slowed down to the speed limit.
Upon returning to Ronald James' house, Vernon pulled over at the curb and activated the windshield washers and the wipers to get the beer off it. Soon, the familiar smell of beer spread through the car, making both Vernon and Joanna wave their hands in front of their noses.
"Pheeeew!" Joanna said with a dry chuckle. She turned around to look at the man on the back seat. He had lost his baseball cap in the confusion, and his balding head made the resemblance between him and his half-brother even more obvious.
"Must be bad genes, huh, Ronald?" she said before stepping out of the Crown Victoria and opening the back door so she could talk unhindered to the prisoner.
"Ronald James Wayne, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"
"Suck my dick, bitch!"
"Aggressiveness will not help your case. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"
"I need a firm yes or no, Mr. Wayne."
"Yes, for fuck's sake! Yes!"
"Excellent. Stay," Joanna said and shut the car door.
Moments later, the two detectives from the Twenty-Third Precinct came out of the house and crossed the street to take a look at the catch of the day.
"Well done, Powell. Wow, I can't believe you went up Pearson Street. That's the worst hellhole in this entire 'hood... you were lucky to get out of there in one piece. I see you got a baptism of beer, though," Harry Karpac said.
"Yeah, it got a little hairy there, I'll admit. Anyway, we got what we came for. We have the envelope and the man sending it," Joanna said.
"You know, I don't quite understand how this is connected to the two homicides?"
"Well, we're not quite there yet. But we're working on it," Joanna said with a chuckle.
"All right. Well, now it's back to the stationhouse to fill out the paperwork," Detective Karpac said, earning himself identical groans from all the present police officers.
An hour and a half later, Joanna pushed Ronald James Wayne down on the same chair in interrogation room three his half-brother had used the day before. After unlocking the handcuffs, she put them in the holster on her belt and sat down facing the suspect. A moment later, she leaned in towards Vernon and whispered a few words in his ear, making the older detective nod in agreement.
Ronald James leaned back in his chair and rubbed his wrists. His face was the definition of pissed off, and he looked like he wanted nothing more than to see the two detectives sitting opposite him drop dead.
"Mr. Wayne, you have been arrested for not stopping when instructed to by an officer of the law," Joanna said, looking at a pile of papers on the table top.
"In addition to that, at three minutes past seven a.m., four Metro police officers entered your house on grounds of a warrant for your arrest concerning various violations of your parole, and also on grounds of a search warrant issued by justice of the law Lance Avery. In the resulting search, we uncovered a large amount of pirated pornographic DVDs."
"So fuckin' what? It's not kiddie porn. Who gives a fuck about pirated skin flicks these days?"
"We do, Mr. Wayne." Joanna reached into a small bag that stood at her side and pulled out the plastic bag with the envelope and the slimcase containing the DVD.
"Mr. Wayne, do you recognize these items?" she said and put the plastic bag on the table.
"Are you sure?"
"I said no, didn't I?"
"We have a positive match, Mr. Wayne. Your fingerprints match those found on the envelope and the DVD case."
"Scientific evidence, Mr. Wayne."
Ronald James leaned back in his seat and shot the two detectives the Evil Eye. "Can we cut a deal?" he said after a brief pause.
"Depends. Remember that you can request an attorney at all times, Mr. Wayne."
"Don't want no fuckin' attorney. Buncha fuckin' Jews the lot of 'em," Ronald James said and crossed his arms over his chest.
"What do you have for us?" Vernon said, leaning in towards the table.
"My half-brother Buford is the brains behind it."
"Is that a fact?" Vernon said, making a few notes in his notepad.
"Yeah! At least that's what he thinks. Fuck him, he ain't got no brains. He's as dumb as shit, the fat fuck. Told me he had an idea that might give us some dough and all I had to do was to go into an apartment and set up a hidden camera."
"Where?" Joanna said.
"What do you mean where? How many cameras do you think I've put up, anyway?"
"Answer the question, Mr. Wayne."
"Well, in the blonde babe's apartment, of course. Up on the sixth floor of the school. Buford gave me the keys for it an' told me I couldn't make a mess."
"Would this person you're referring to as the 'blonde babe' be principal Liliana Zinovia from the Jeremy Malone Boarding School?"
"Only heard her name once, but it sounds about right."
"What was the purpose of installing that concealed camera?"
"Buford told me that the blonde babe invited a few friends over for a fuckfest now and then, and I thought, hey, might be a good deal. You can never get too much pussy on the TV, you know?" Ronald James said and broke out into a nasty little laugh.
Joanna bit her tongue hard to stop herself from going across the room and slapping the suspect silly. Vernon noticed and took over.
"Mr. Wayne, I strongly advise you not to use such vulgar language when your case is taken to court. It will not impress the judge."
"And the recordings?" Joanna said, finally calming down enough to get her voice under control.
"Fuckin'-A, baby! Buford was right. Jesus fuckin' Christ, that little blonde babe was fucked to the core by a big stud with a buzz cut. Oh, yeah, baby, she was nailed to the floor. I've watched enough porn to know that it wasn't simulated. Turned me on but good that did!" Ronald James said and groped his crotch to show his excitement.
This time, Joanna almost had to swallow her tongue to stop herself. The corners of her mouth twitched and her nostrils flared, almost like a tigress smelling blood. She clenched her teeth hard together to get her blood pressure down to human levels and put her hands flat down on the table top.
"How often did you record from the... uh, events?" Vernon said, putting a hand on Joanna's thigh underneath the table to get her to calm down.
"A couple of times. Four times, I think. I've only watched that one time with the babe and the stud, though. Buford wouldn't let me see the other ones. No idea why."
"What were you originally planning to do with the recordings, Mr. Wayne?" Joanna said in a hoarse voice.
"You have to talk to Buford about that. I was only in it for the pussy."
"How did it turn into an attempt at extortion?"
"Well. This is where we talk about that deal, okay? Setting up the camera, no big deal. Recording some people fuckin' their brains out, no big deal. But blackmail is a whole 'nother thing altogether, ain't it?" Ronald James said, leaning forward on his chair.
"That's right, Mr. Wayne. Extortion is another thing altogether," Vernon said.
"Yeah, figured as much. Uh... can I get a Coke or something? My throat's real dry."
"Regular or Diet?"
"Regular. Don't drink no Diet shit."
Two minutes later, Joanna put the unopened can down on the table. Ronald James reached for it at once and cracked it open with his fingernails. He drained half of it a single gulp and let out a resounding belch that almost made the lamp above the table sway.
"Charming, Mr. Wayne," Joanna said icily.
"Hey, ain't that what Coke is for? What about that deal?"
"Well, if you can prove without doubt that your half-brother, Charles Buford Smith, was the driving force behind the attempt at extorting Miss Zinovia, we will consider letting you off the hook for the unlawful access and the illicit recordings," Vernon said, tapping the tip of the pencil down onto his notepad.
"Consider letting me off the hook? Fuck it, man, I want a total pardon. I wanna walk outta here like a freebird. Or fly, or whatever," Ronald James said and emptied the can of Coke. After belching loudly, he chucked the can into the corner of the interrogation room.
"Mr. Wayne," Joanna said in a voice that dripped of saccharine. "I'm afraid you got it all wrong. If you aren't more cooperative and forthcoming with certain items and facts, there's a risk we might pin the entire extortion attempt on you. What do you think Buford is going to say if we present a similar deal to him?"
Ronald James's jaw became slack and he turned just a little bit paler.
"Well, I... Aw, fuck it, I was just in it for the porn! You gotta believe that! I didn't know anything about no blackmail shit before Buford told me that he thought we could make a quick buck on the recordings. And even then I thought he meant selling the clips to the triple-X traders or something. Never blackmail!"
"Mr. Wayne, please give us a detailed description of what went down between yourself and your half-brother. From the beginning, please," Joanna said.
"I... uh, got into a fist fight with a salesman in the HomeTech shop down on Eighth Street. I managed to escape the cops and then I went straight to Buford, the dumb fuck. After a couple of days, he asked me if I could install a hidden camera for him. I said sure, he gave me the keys, and I did it. I already told you all this...?"
"It's just for the record. Go on."
"I rigged the camera with a very small wireless transmitter. The camera didn't have any recording device, it was far too small for that, but it sent whatever it picked up via the Net to an anonymous video hosting service. Then Buford used my laptop to download it and burn it onto DVDs."
"Well, like I said before, I guess Buford created four DVDs, one of each of the fuckfests the camera recorded. They were an hour and a half each, sorta. Well, when he saw the clarity of the images... he should've known, my work is always the best... anyway, when he saw the clarity, he got dollar signs in his eyes, man. That's when the, uh... the extortion thing came into play."
"And he created a highlights package of the four events and sent it to the victim?"
"I don't know if he used material from all four fuckfests. I only saw the one with the stud. Anyway, he sent it to the blonde babe, yes, and someone else as well."
Joanna looked up and arced an eyebrow. "Someone else...?"
"Buford told me he sent it to the blonde babe's ex-husband. Can you believe that shit? I mean, the way that foxy chick was doing the horizontal mambo, I'd never, ever let her go. He must be a fruit to let someone like that go. God, could she fuck!" Ronald James said and let out yet another of his trademark nasty laughs.
"Principal Zinovia's ex-husband received a copy of the extortion DVD?" Joanna said, not quite believing her ears.
"Yeah, man, are you deaf or somethin'?"
"When was this?"
"Oh, ten-twelve days ago... naw, it may have been closer to two weeks... dunno, but no more than that."
Joanna looked pointedly at Vernon. They both arrived at the same conclusion: Mark Gerlach had been murdered only days after Liliana's ex-husband had received the DVD.
"Liliana? It's me, Jo. I have some good news and some bad news," Joanna said, putting her legs up on the desk. She picked up the cord for the phone and started twisting it between her fingers.
'Hi... I'd like the good news first, please,'
Liliana said in a voice that was still quite frail. Joanna furrowed her brow and took her legs off the desk.
"Are you all right? Do you want me to come over and..." she looked around, checking if anyone was close enough to hear what she was about to say "...tuck you in again?"
'No... no, not tonight. Thank you, but it won't be necessary. What was the good news?'
"Well, we've busted the extortionists, so you don't have to worry about that anymore. It was Buford and his half-brother, Ronald. He admitted to recording the parties. They got four of them."
'Ohhh, that's... that's pretty good news, Jo!'
Joanna could clearly hear the elation in Liliana's voice and that gave her a sinking feeling in her stomach. She began to rub her brow, ruing the decision to tell Liliana the good news first, regardless of what the principal had wanted.
"There is a problem, though. You weren't the only one who received a copy of the DVD with the highlights from the parties."
'Wh-what are you saying? Someone else has it? Someone else has s-seen me...?'
"I'm afraid so, Liliana. The DVD was also sent to your ex-husband."
The connection was silent for so long that Joanna was worried that Liliana had fainted. When the principal finally spoke, her voice had been reduced to a hoarse croak. 'He's going to kill me, Jo.'
"No, Liliana, listen to me. There's no way we'll allow that to happen. Tomorrow morning bright and early, Vern and I will call him in for a chat. If he as much as looks at me funny, I'm gonna bust his ass!"
'God, he killed Mark and Brian... You couldn't stop that, could you? He's going to kill me, Jo, I know it.'
'Jo, I... I thought everything would b-be all right... but now...'
Through the connection, Joanna could hear Liliana begin to cry, and she jumped up from the chair and grabbed her blazer. "Liliana, I'm coming out to you. Please don't do anything stupid. I can be there in fifteen-"
'No! No, I don't want you to come here!'
'I don't want you here, Jo.'
Liliana said flatly and hung up, leaving Joanna to stare dumbly at the dead receiver in her hand. With a groan, she put the receiver back on the phone and sat down with a bump in her swivel-chair.
Sighing, she leaned forward and buried her face in her hands.
Feeling utterly miserable, Joanna dragged herself up the garden path to her house.
The weather had changed yet again; a cold front had entered from the north, making the evenings windy and chilly. The night before had even seen some ground frost that had hurt several of Betty's precious flowers. Their drooping heads matched Joanna's mood perfectly.
She looked up at the cobalt blue sky, wishing the damn boarding school case would blow over with the same speed as the gray clouds that were racing across the heavens. Beyond the clouds, the first few stars had broken through the blue and were twinkling at her.
"Jo? Is that you?" Betty said, standing in the open front door, looking down the garden path.
"Yeah, it's me."
"I heard a car door slam, but when you didn't come in, I kinda got a little worried."
"No need, Bets. I was just looking at the sky," Joanna said, walking up the final stretch of the garden path. Once she reached Betty, she gave her a nice, if bland, kiss on the lips.
"Hey, hon," Betty said, brushing her nose against Joanna's. "Rough day?"
"Boy, you have no idea," Joanna said and hung her blazer on the hallstand.
"Do you want to bump going to the Cineplex until tomorrow, then?"
"The Cineplex...? Aw shit, Bets, the new Laurie McCanless movie... I'm sorry, I completely forgot," Joanna said, slapping her forehead.
"It's all right, Raw Bounty will still be playing tomorrow. Naw, let's have some home entertainment tonight instead. You look really beat up," Betty said, tracing the side of Joanna's face with her index finger.
"Are you saying I'm old and wrinkled?" Joanna took Betty's fingers and gave them a little kiss.
"I plead the Fifth, Detective."
"You should! What's for dinner?"
Betty leaned her head back and let out a loud belly laugh. "You still have your priorities straight. Meatloaf, lingonberry jam and sweet potatoes."
"Mmmm, sounds great. Do I have time for a shower first?"
"Sure," Betty said and placed a kiss on Joanna's lips.
At bedtime, Joanna studied her reflection in the mirror while she was brushing her teeth. She thought she had 'fraud' written all over her face and she wondered why Betty couldn't see it.
She took a step back to look at Betty who was already in bed, reading a novel. Betty sensed Joanna's eyes on her and she turned her head and smiled broadly.
Joanna winked back at her, feeling even worse than before.
After rinsing her mouth, Joanna clicked off the light in the bathroom and padded over to the bed where she sat down on the empty side. Reaching behind her, she pulled off the band that held her ponytail in place and shook her head several times to get her hair to spread out over her shoulders.
"Mmmm, baby, that gives me a great idea," Betty said, putting the book away.
Joanna was still facing away from her lover of three years, not wanting to show Betty the emotions that were plainly visible on her face.
"C'mon, Jo, get over here," Betty said, patting the empty place next to her.
Joanna nodded and got into bed. When she was settled, Betty rolled over to her right side and began to trace her fingers down Joanna's face and throat.
Making love to Betty was the absolute last thing on Joanna's mind and she was trying desperately to come up with a valid excuse not to go ahead with it. Several times, she thought she had found one, only to realize that it was as lame as all the others.
"What's wrong, Jo? You're acting like a marble statue," Betty whispered in Joanna's ear.
"I'm just not in the mood tonight, Bets."
"That's a first."
"I just... not tonight, okay?" Joanna said with a sigh.
"Sure. But you owe me," Betty said, brushing her lips against Joanna's cheek and giving her a little love-nibble in the process.
"I'll make it up to you, I promise. Hey, tomorrow, perhaps we can act out a scene from Raw Bounty?" Joanna said with a weak smile.
"Oooh, now you're talking! You sure know how to spoil a girl. That's a deal, Jo. Can't wait!"
"Great. Now let's get some sleep. I'm beat. Love you, Bets."
"Love you, too, doll," Betty said, tickling Joanna's earlobe.
They both turned off their reading lamps at the same time, leaving the bedroom in darkness. After a few minutes, Joanna turned over onto her right side, staring blindly into the dark room.
'He's going to kill me. He killed Mark and Brian... You couldn't stop that, could you? He's going to kill me, Jo, I know it.'
'No, I don't want you to come here!'
'I don't want you here, Jo.'
Liliana's earlier words echoed through Joanna's mind, creating a deafening cacophony of sound inside her head. She felt she didn't know left from right anymore - or even wrong from right - but she equally didn't know how to get back to normal.
Behind her, Betty moved closer and spooned her body up against Joanna's. The nurse was already sound asleep, and with a grunt, she wrapped an arm around Joanna's chest just below her breasts.
As she felt Betty's touch, a brief smile fluttered across Joanna's lips but it soon faded away into nothing.
'What the hell is wrong with you, Joanna Powell? Look at you... look at what you have... why do you want to throw all this away just to chase something as temperamental and elusive as Liliana...?'
She tried closing her eyes, but as soon as she did, Liliana's upset voice returned to ring in her ears -
'No, I don't want you to come here!'
'I don't want you here, Jo.'
Saturday, April 23rd.
"We appreciate you coming in on a Saturday afternoon, Mr. Caulfield," Joanna said, opened the door to interrogation room two and turned on the strip lights.
David Caulfield stepped inside the smallish room and put his sports jacket across the back rest of one of the chairs. He looked around, nodding appreciatively.
Chuckling inwardly, Joanna thought that it was a good thing she had chosen the recently renovated room two instead of the far more grotty room three.
"Mr. Caulfield, do you want some coffee?"
"Yes, please. Black, two sugars."
"I'll be right back," Joanna said and left Liliana's ex-husband with Vernon.
A few minutes later, she put a Styrofoam cup of coffee, a stirrer and two sticks of sugar down on the table. "We don't have any sugar cubes, only these things," she said.
"It's all right. I'll experiment," David Caulfield said and ripped open one of the sticks.
Joanna sat down and began to study the man sitting opposite her. He was in his late thirties and he had a certain distinguished air about him, but he wasn't as slick as she had thought he would be.
He was fairly handsome with delicate facial features, dirty-blond hair, grayish eyes and a well-groomed full beard cut in the fashion so popular with the intellectuals. He was fit and slim, and he had narrow shoulders and hips.
When Joanna looked at David Caulfield's hands, she started fearing they were headed down a wrong path yet again - the hands were those of a teacher or a white collar worker and definitely not hands that could be used for punching someone so hard in the solar plexus that they would be rendered defenseless.
She began to chew on the inside of her cheek, but hid it by looking down into her notepad.
"Mr. Caulfield, I presume you have a suspicion why you're here today?" she said, shooting him a steely gaze.
"Yes, Detective. The attempt at extorting me."
"Indeed. When did you receive it, what was your reaction and what did you do with the material sent to you?"
"Oh, that's a lot at once. Mind if I split that up in several answers?" David Caulfield said with a smile. When he noticed that neither of the two Detectives were returning the smile, it faded from his face.
"Right. Ahem. Well, I received an envelope with a printed note and a DVD in a slimcase sometime before lunch on Friday, April Eighth. I didn't understand what it was so I opened it at once."
"It didn't arrive by mail?" Vernon said.
"No, I'm guessing it had simply been pushed through my letterbox. I work very early in the mornings, you understand."
'He's trying to set up an alibi,'
Joanna thought at once and made a note of it.
"Where was I...? Oh, yes, I opened it at once but didn't understand a bit of what it said. Well, I could read it, of course, but it was completely irrelevant to me."
"Did you keep the note?" Joanna said.
"No. I burned it. It said I should, so I did."
"You don't think that was overkill?"
"No, I didn't want my wife or my kids to find it."
"Sounds reasonable enough. Did the note mention anything about the amount of money the extortionist wanted out of you?"
"Yes, it was twenty thousand dollars. I don't have that kind of money. Frankly, it might as well have been a million dollars."
"Did you watch the DVD?"
David Caulfield shrugged and looked down at his hands clutching the cup of coffee. "Yes. Thank God I used my laptop instead of the DVD player in the living room. If my wife or my kids had walked in on me, I would've been divorced for the second time by now."
"What did you do with it? Did you burn that as well?"
"No, I put it in a private drawer in my desk."
"Were you shocked by the contents of the DVD?"
"Look, Detective... shocked isn't the right word. I was... oh, I'm not sure what the right word actually is," David Caulfield said and leaned back in the chair. "Gobsmacked... caught by surprise... perhaps even slightly disgusted."
"The reason why Liliana and I divorced was that I simply couldn't handle her infidelity anymore. From the start, she insisted that we kept our marriage open, meaning that we were free to pursue other, uh, interests."
"Meaning that you were allowed to screw around if you met someone who turned you on?" Vernon said, looking above the rim of his reading glasses.
"Well, if you want to be vulgar about it, yes. And just for the record, I never did. Liliana... well, that was another story. After two years, I just couldn't cope with her insatiable lust anymore. We were living together in a really nice cottage up in Maughan County, but Liliana was spending more time in the Big City than she was at our home. In the end, I just threw in the towel. So, no, Detective, I wasn't shocked when I discovered what was on the DVD."
"Mmmm," Joanna said, making a new note. She remembered what Maurice Jerrod had told her about Liliana's alter ego, the Mistress, and she considered asking David Caulfield what he knew about it. Before she had time to do so, he leaned forward and spoke again.
"I do feel sorry for her, though. She's a good woman at heart, if a little wild," he said quietly.
"Mr. Caulfield, pardon me for being so insensitive, but how did you meet in the first place? You seem like very different types," Joanna said.
"I just fell head over heels for her. Have you met her, Detective? Well, stupid question. Of course you have. Liliana Zinovia is a woman unlike any I've ever encountered. She has the ability to... to snare you in with her charms and her charismatic personality. She's almost like one of those carnivorous plants," David Caulfield said and chuckled over his own joke.
'Oh, boy, don't I know it. I wonder what David Caulfield would say if he knew that I've had a taste of his ex-wife's charms and charismatic personality,'
"Mr. Caulfield, just to be on the safe side, we need to establish where you were on the mornings of Tuesday, April twelfth and Thursday, April twenty-first?" Vernon said.
"Why? What do you need that for...? Wait a minute, the murders at the school! Jesus Christ, you can't believe that I had anything to do with the murders at the school!" David Caulfield shouted and got up from his chair. In an instant, Joanna shot up from her chair and put her hand near her service pistol.
"Sit down, Mr. Caulfield. This was just a simple question. There's no need to get agitated," Joanna said calmly.
Reluctantly, David Caulfield sat down, but he began to tear his hands through his hair almost at once. "That's easy for you to say! I can't believe you're accusing me of having anything to do with those murders!"
"We're not, Mr. Caulfield. We just need to establish where you were on those two dates."
"I was at work! Both days. I work at the McMahon Produce Auctions down on West Nineteenth Street. I work from two a.m. to ten a.m. every morning. There must be three hundred people there you can ask. Trucks haul in fresh produce from upstate and then we hold auctions. I'm one of the accountants helping the auctioneers. My direct superior is Andrew Finch and he can verify what I've just told you. I...!"
"All right, all right, Mr. Caulfield. That was all we needed," Joanna said, jotting down the information in her notepad. "Detective Kransky, do you have any further questions?"
"No, I think we're done for today."
"For today?!" David Caulfield whined. He was about to get up from his chair again but a steely glare by Joanna convinced him to stay seated.
"Just a figure of speech, Mr. Caulfield. We're done," Vernon said and closed his notepad.
"What do you think, Vern?" Joanna said after they had escorted David Caulfield to his car.
"He didn't do it. His reaction was genuine."
"That's how I feel, too. I'm going to call to confirm his alibi anyway, but it's gonna check out, I'm sure. Shit."
"My sentiment exactly."
On the way back to their office, Joanna was so deep in thought that she almost missed the door. 'Why did Liliana say that 'he' was going to kill her...? David Caulfield didn't show signs of having a temper apart from getting up from the chair, and that was a perfectly reasonable reaction given the circumstances. Hmmm. There's something she's been holding back from me... but what?'
Absentmindedly, Joanna sat down on her chair and found the local directory in one of her drawers. When she had it, she picked up the receiver and called the number listed for McMahon Produce Auctions. After letting it ring eight times, she put the receiver back down on the phone.
"No luck?" Vernon said, putting on his jacket.
"No. They're not open at this time of day. I need to call them tomorrow morning. There's almost no point to it, but I guess we need to do it."
"Yeah. Are you going home now?"
"I think so. I promised Betty a trip to the Cineplex and she'll use my hide for a trampoline if I don't keep that deal," Joanna said and grabbed her blazer from the back of the swivel-chair.
Monday, April 25th.
Joanna rolled up the sleeves of her shirt, wishing that she had gone for less warm clothing. Vernon sat behind his desk, grinning at her and showing her his short-sleeved shirt.
"Ha, ha, very funny, Vern. Just so you know, it was in the low fifties when I left this morning."
"That's what the blazer is for, Jo."
"Like I said, ha, ha."
A knock on the door to their office made the two detectives turn their heads as one.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Lieutenant Barnes said. Like always, Barnes was in full uniform with black shoes, black pants, white shirt and a black tie - Joanna wondered how he didn't melt from the inside.
"Not at all, Lou. What's up?" Vernon said.
"I need a status update on the boarding school homicides."
"In my office, if you please," Barnes said and walked back out of the door before he'd heard an answer.
Joanna and Vernon looked at each other and let out matching groans. Sighing, Joanna began rolling down her sleeves again.
Three minutes later, Joanna knocked on the door to the Lieutenant's office which was located in a corner of the main squad room.
"Enter!" Barnes said, putting away a file.
After getting in and closing the frosted glass door behind them, Joanna and Vernon sat down on two rather uncomfortable chairs that had been placed in front of a mahogany desk. In case anyone in the squad had forgotten the name of their Lieutenant, Barnes had a rectangular plaque on the desk that said 'Lieutenant Nicholas Barnes.'
"So, where do we stand on the boarding school case?" Barnes said, leaning back in his chair and twiddling his thumbs in his lap.
For once, Joanna was grateful that she was only a second-grader - she didn't have to deliver the bad news. She glanced expectantly at Vernon who was looking somewhat resigned.
"It looks like we're at a dead end, Lou. The case is not a complete loss, though. We've pinned the attempted extortion of principal Liliana Zinovia and her ex-husband David Caulfield on Charles Buford Smith and his half-brother Ronald James Wayne. Both men have admitted to various crimes, including unlawful access, installing a concealed camera, illicit recordings and planning an extortion."
"But the two homicides?" Barnes said, cocking his head.
"Not much luck there, Lou. Smith and Wayne didn't have anything to do with that. Buford Smith has a solid alibi for both murders and Wayne is a data thief, not a murderer."
"People can change, Detective Kransky. And besides, I read in your report that Ronald James Wayne physically injured a salesman and that he has a foul mouth. In my opinion, he fits the typical profile of a killer."
"Well, that's true to a certain extent, Lou, but we're pretty sure he didn't perform the actual homicides."
"What of Miss Zinovia's ex-husband?"
"A similar story, I'm afraid. He has a solid alibi, confirmed by his employer and several people at his workplace."
"But he did see the DVD. That must have made him angry and upset, perhaps upset enough to murder the two people seen to have sex with his ex-wife. It's worth digging into," Barnes said, resuming his twiddling.
"Lou, there's no connection whatsoever between David Caulfield and the two victims, Mark Gerlach and Brian Roper," Joanna said, crossing her legs at the knee. "He couldn't even know their names without doing a lot of detective work. I mean, he couldn't very well print out a screen capture of the DVD and show it around the campus, could he?"
"No, but... I'm not sure what you're getting at, Detective?"
"The only way to get that info is to get the paperwork from Mrs. Nancy Weidemann, principal Zinovia's secretary. Mrs. Weidemann is still admitted to the Killarney-Hayes Sanitarium after her shocking experience, but her replacement, a Miss Karen Stephens, is adamant that such information is strictly off-limits for anyone not directly connected to the boarding school."
"Well, the fact is that they're dead. And since they didn't kill themselves, somebody else did."
Faced with that kind of logic, Joanna could only nod. In her mind, she began to tie together a few loose ends. What Karen Stephens had actually said over the phone was that no one outside the faculty could get a list of the boarders - but one of the people they had been looking at had very much been a part of the faculty at the time.
"Charles Buford Smith," Joanna said out loud.
"I'm sorry, Detective?" Barnes said, putting his elbows on the mahogany desk. "Didn't Detective Kransky say three minutes ago that you had rejected the notion that Mr. Smith was the killer?"
"Yes, he did, Lou. But I've just realized there's one thread we haven't tried to unravel yet," Joanna said excitedly. She turned her head to look at Vernon, but he appeared to be as puzzled as Lieutenant Barnes was.
"Well, in that case, I won't hold you up any longer. Go back to work," Barnes said and began to shuffle a few files around.
Vernon and Joanna quickly got out of the uncomfortable chairs and exited the office.
"What was that all about? Which thread didn't we unravel yet?" Vernon said.
"I'll tell you in a few minutes. First, I need to make a phone call."
"Hello, Miss Stephens, it's Detective Powell again," Joanna said, looking out of the window with the telephone in her hand.
'Hello, Detective. Did you forget something before?'
"In a manner of speaking, yes. I need to speak with principal Zinovia, but the direct number doesn't seem to be working right now. Would you mind patching me through to her office?"
'I'd love to, but principal Zinovia was not feeling well today so she has gone back up to her apartment.'
"Oh... I don't have the number for that."
'There's no phone up there, Detective.'
"Oh. Right. Thanks, Miss Stephens," Joanna said and hung up.
After putting the phone back down on the desk, Joanna began to smooth out her eyebrows with her index finger. "Vern, I'm just gonna pop out to the school. I'll be back in a couple of hours," she said and grabbed her blazer.
"Hang on, hang on, Jo. You need to tell me which thread we haven't unraveled yet," Vernon said, putting his hands in the air.
"Yeah, you're right. Well, here it is: I was thinking that Buford may be the link between David Caulfield and the two victims. If Caulfield really did get disgusted by the video clip, there's a possibility he contacted the one who sent him the extortion note, namely Buford. Buford could easily have provided Caulfield with the names of the victims."
"Well... all right. But why?"
"Maybe Caulfield saw this as an opportunity to get even with Lil... I mean, principal Zinovia. After all, it must've hurt his feelings and his male pride that he wasn't man enough to curb her wanderlust."
"Mmmmmm, I'm not convinced, Jo. In my professional opinion, David Caulfield doesn't have enough chutzpah to kill anyone."
"True, but you know how easy it is to rent some muscle these days. Anyway, it's just a theory for now. I'm hoping to get principal Zinovia to talk about her ex-husband." 'And why she said that he was going to kill her.'
"Okay. But please keep me up to date in the future."
"I will, Vern. See ya."
Thirty minutes later, Joanna knocked on the door to Liliana Zinovia's apartment on the sixth floor of the admin building. Once she had knocked, she took a few steps back so she wouldn't spook Liliana when she opened the door.
When the door remained firmly shut, Joanna tried knocking again. "Liliana, are you in there? It's me, Jo. We need to talk-"
Even as Joanna was speaking the sentence, Liliana opened the door with a whoosh. Her face held a thunderous expression for the first few seconds, but then it softened and she stepped aside to let Joanna in.
"Hi, Liliana. You look much better now than you did the other day," Joanna said, wondering why she felt so nervous. She stepped inside the apartment and took a coat hanger off a hallstand. Looking around, she put her blazer on the coat hanger and then put both items back on the hallstand. "You know, I didn't really get to see much of the pad when I was here the first time. It's really a nice place you have here."
Joanna noticed that Liliana still hadn't said a word and she turned around to shoot the blonde woman a puzzled look. Liliana was barefoot and wearing the same red silk kimono she had been wearing the other day, and all in all, Joanna thought the ash-blonde woman looked fantastic. "Is something wrong?"
"Did you catch the killer yet?"
"Uh, no, but..."
"Then I'd say something is very, very wrong," Liliana said and stomped into the kitchen.
Joanna furrowed her brow as she tracked the principal with her eyes. She scratched her hair and decided to follow Liliana into the kitchen. "Yeah, sure, but... how are you feeling?"
"Oh, super. Considering I have a bullseye on my back, everything is hunky-dory. You want some instant coffee?" Liliana said sharply, holding up a glass of coffee beans.
"Yes, please. Liliana, you need to tell me why you think you have a bullseye on your back. We've spoken to David Caulfield and, frankly, apart from a few very farfetched theories, I can't see that he's the one doing this. So far, the-"
"You've spoken to David? Why did you do that?" Liliana said, turning around so fast that a few coffee beans spilled from the glass.
Joanna narrowed her eyes. "Now you've lost me completely. Of course we were going to talk to David Caulfield. Why on earth shouldn't we? Not only did he also receive the DVD, you told me yourself that 'he' was going to kill you. Who could you mean if not your ex-husband...?"
"You. Don't. Understand. Anything!" Liliana hissed, slamming the glass of coffee down on the kitchen table.
"Then give me some Goddamned clues, Liliana! Everything about you is smoke and mirrors! Jesus... you said I blew hot and cold, but you flip-flop so much you're barely comprehensible sometimes!"
"That's because it's my ass on the line here, Detective. Once this case is done and dusted, you move on to the next one. But me, I'll be crucified once this comes out. And trust me, it will come out."
"You're doing it again, Liliana! It's almost like there's a huge chasm between us whenever we talk... it's almost like we're not speaking the same language. If you have any information that will lead us to the killer, then it's high time you hand it over," Joanna said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I have three words for you, Detective. You have spoken to The Wrong Caulfield!"
"David Caulfield is a wuss, a... a... a kitten without claws. He couldn't even hurt a fly unless you push him very, very far, and you can take that completely literally. His brother is another story."
"David Caulfield's brother?"
"Yes! Roger Caulfield. His nickname is Rocky and he does everything he can to live up to it. With Mark Gerlach, it could've been anything, but when Brian turned up dead as well, on my doorstep no less, I knew it couldn't be a coincidence... I just couldn't connect the two in my mind. When you told me David had also received the DVD, everything fell into place."
"Did you screw around with Rocky while you were married to his brother?" Joanna said in a steely voice.
Joanna pinched the bridge of her nose to stop a sudden, explosive headache. "And you admit to adultery just like that?"
"David and I had an agreement. We were free to chase anyone we wanted to," Liliana said, waving her hand dismissively.
"I'm guessing he didn't count on it being his own brother...?"
"I wouldn't know. But here's the clincher: Rocky is nuts. He's a possessive freak. When I'd had my fun, I drove back to David, but Rocky followed me and forced my car off the road. He slapped me around and told me that I was his," Liliana said, absentmindedly touching the side of her face where Roger had hit her.
"When did all this happen?"
"Close to two years ago."
Joanna walked up to Liliana and put her hands on the shorter woman's shoulders. "Liliana, in your opinion, did Rocky Caulfield kill Mark Gerlach and Brian Roper?"
"I'm sure of it, Jo. He must have stumbled over the DVD somehow and worked his way from there."
In Joanna's mind, the pieces of the puzzle snapped together. David Caulfield had received the DVD. Roger Caulfield had found it and, not knowing what was on it, had watched it out of sheer curiosity. Then Roger had found a way to contact Buford to get the names, promising the portly gym teacher a sum of money or possible a larger slice of the pie. With the names, it would have been no task for Roger to go to the school, find either Mark or Brian and kill them.
"I'm glad you finally told me, Liliana. I wish you had done it sooner, though."
Joanna leaned down, intending to pull Liliana into a hug, but a female voice cutting through the silence stopped her.
"Baby, what's taking you so long?"
Joanna spun around like a greased lightning and stared wide-eyed at a pretty thirtysomething brunette standing in the doorway to the bedroom. The woman was naked, save for a sheet that covered her assets, but it was sheer enough for Joanna to see that she was very well put together indeed.
Joanna stared so long at the other woman that her eyes started hurting from the lack of blinking. She wanted to speak, but her throat had contracted itself so badly she could hardly breathe.
Instead, she turned her head to look at Liliana. The principal was standing with a neutral expression on her face and her hands on her hips.
"So?" Liliana said to Joanna.
Joanna felt the floor underneath her feet begin to wobble. She was hoping it was an earthquake, but she knew better. She briefly looked back at the other woman and then stomped out of the kitchen before she did something she would regret.
She grabbed her blazer from the hallstand and left the apartment, slamming the front door so hard that dust fluttered to the ground in her wake.
Feeling lightheaded and unsteady on her feet, Joanna walked into her office and sat down with a bump in her swivel-chair. Vernon looked up in surprise, grimacing when he noticed that Joanna hadn't even bothered to take off her blazer despite the stuffy conditions in the office.
"You look like you've seen a ghost, Jo...?"
Without speaking, Joanna rose from the chair and went over to the coffee maker. Taking the glass pot, she poured herself a cup of coffee and chugged it down in one gulp.
"Two ghosts? Maybe a whole pack of 'em...?" Vernon prodded impatiently.
"Nothing like that," Joanna croaked.
"You went out to see the principal. Is she all right?"
"Well, what came out of it?"
"She gave me the name of the killer."
"She what?" Vernon said, spinning around so fast that his elbow bumped into a pile of folders sending them flying onto the ground.
"We spoke to the wrong Caulfield, Vern. The killer is David's brother, Roger a.k.a. Rocky Caulfield.
"I'll be a sonofabitch... what's his last known address? Sounds like we need to move quickly." Rolling his eyes, Vernon leaned down and began to scoop up the folders.
"I don't have it. We need to find him the old-fashioned way. I only know that he used to live upstate somewhere," Joanna said with a sigh. She took off her blazer and threw it onto the backrest of her chair.
"Upstate... didn't David say he and the principal lived in Maughan County?"
"Yeah. And from speaking with Liliana, I'd hazard a guess and say that Roger did, too."
"All right, that's a start," Vernon said and picked up the directory. After finding the number for the Sheriff's Office in Maughan County, he took the receiver off the hook and dialed the number. While he waited for the connection to be established, Joanna sat down in her chair and rubbed her face repeatedly.
"Jo, you should be doing a song-and-dance act, but you look like something the cat dragged in. What's wrong?"
"Ah, it's nothing. I just caught the principal in the act with someone. I wasn't expecting that, so..."
"It shouldn't have been too big a surprise, Jo. After all, that's what David... oh, good afternoon, deputy, this is Detective Vernon Kransky from the Fourteenth Precinct. We're on the lookout for someone and we've been told that he lives in your County. We need a current address for him ... Yes. The name is Roger Caulfield a.k.a. Rocky Caul- ... that's C-a-u-l-f-i-e-l-d ... Yeah, I'll hold."
Vernon looked up and gave Joanna a thumbs-up. She nodded and went back to playing with one of the buttons on her shirt.
"Hello? Sheriff McCrawley? How do you do, Sir ... yes, that's right. We need the address of ... he doesn't live there anymore? When did he move? ... Four months ago?"
Joanna threw her hands in the air and growled loudly.
"Do you know his current whereabouts? ... We need to speak with him regarding the homicides at the Jeremy Malone Boarding School ... No? ... All right, thank you, Sheriff," Vernon said and hung up.
"Back to Goddamned square one!" Joanna said and slammed her fist down onto the armrest of her swivel-chair.
"We'll put out a nation-wide APB on him. Don't worry, he can't disappear completely."
"Unless he's a latter-day D.B. Cooper."
"Don't even think that, Jo. All right, we need to contact David Caulfield and get a recent photo of his brother. No, better yet, ask David to come in again. He could've told us this info the other day. Now we have to give him a good squeeze," Vernon said and put the directory back in his drawer.
"I'll do it. I feel like breaking some balls right now," Joanna said and shot up from her chair.
"Jo, before you do... what's going on between you and the principal? And don't lie to me, we're too good friends for that."
"I... okay." With a sigh, Joanna let herself fall back in the chair. She put her elbow on the armrest and started rubbing her face.
"Have you sampled the forbidden fruit?"
When Joanna just pinched the bridge of her nose instead of replying, Vernon got up and walked around the desks. After clearing a corner of Joanna's desk, he pulled up in his pant leg and sat down.
"Jo, if you were a guy, I'd say you'd been thinking with your dick... you know what, I'm still gonna say that. It was a stupid thing to do."
"Vern, I hear ya for Chrissakes! It... it just happened. I didn't plan it, neither did she... I don't think... anyway, it just happened... it was a spur of the moment kinda deal."
"Doesn't make it any better, Jo. You should've put your foot down."
"I didn't get the opportunity."
"So you're saying she raped you?"
"Of course not! Aw, Jeez, Vern, you read too many pulp novels. If I hadn't liked the things that went on, I would have left. I would've stopped it dead."
"But you didn't. You stayed for the whole show and probably the encore as well."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Joanna chuckled dryly over Vernon's words. "Just for the record, I didn't stay for the encore."
"Hmm! Jo, I can't stress enough how lucky you are that the Zinovia woman didn't turn out to be directly involved with the homicides. If she had been, you might as well have bent over and kissed your ass and your career goodbye."
"And then we have Betty."
"Yeah. She's going to kill me."
"Let's hope not... Jo, what are you going to do about it?"
"Wrong answer, Jo. Here's what you're gonna do: You stay away from principal Zinovia. Far away. You probably need to talk to her on the job, but stay far away from her on any other level. You hear me?"
"Jo, do you understand?"
"Yeah, I understand."
"Okay. You're too good a detective to throw it all away just because of some skirt. And besides, you just told me you caught her with someone else. I'd say that she's already over you, right?"
"Then there's no problem in you forgetting all about her, Jo," Vernon said and got off the desk. As he walked past Joanna, he gave her shoulder a little squeeze.
After her shift was over, Joanna left the police station and drove randomly through the Big City, going up streets and down boulevards, turning left and right until she only had a vague idea of where she was.
The Crown Victoria seemed to decide for her where she should go. After a long drive that didn't clear her mind like she had hoped it would, she pulled over at the curb in a no-parking zone in front of a mom-and-pop grocery store.
She turned off the engine and looked to her left.
Liliana's apartment building was brilliantly illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun, making an image of Liliana standing naked in front of the venetian blinds flash through Joanna's mind.
Feeling terribly guilty and strangely excited at the same time, she reached into her pocket to find her cell phone. After finding her own number in the registry, she put the phone to her ear.
'Betty Johansen speaking.'
"Hey, baby, it's me."
'Oh no, don't tell me you have to work late again!'
"I'm afraid so, hon."
"I know. I'm really, really sorry, but... but there's no way around it."
'Damn, and here I was, preparing some Mexican meatballs and devil rice...!'
"Save some for me, okay?"
'Sure, but they won't taste nearly as good cold.'
"We can always nuke 'em. Baby, I have to go. I know you're upset, but I promise to make it up to you somehow."
'You better. This is starting to get really annoying, Jo.'
"I know. It can't be helped."
"Love you, too, Bets."
As she closed the phone and put it back in her pocket, Joanna looked at herself in the rear view mirror. A few moments later, she had to look away.
A flash from a headlight in the left hand side mirror made Joanna look to her left. A very familiar charcoal gray Ford Taurus came up in the outside lane, activating its turning signal when it was fifteen feet behind the police car.
Joanna observed Liliana waiting for a gap in the traffic so she could turn into the parking garage. Much to Joanna's relief, the ash-blonde woman was alone in the car.
When a car going in the opposite direction flashed its headlights at the Taurus, Liliana quickly took advantage. A few seconds later, she was going down the ramp to the parking garage, moving out of Joanna's line of sight.
Joanna grabbed hold of the lever for the car door, but stopped at the very last moment. She closed her eyes, thinking hard about what she was about to do.
With a sigh, she opened the door and climbed out of the Crown Victoria. She soon found a gap in the traffic and ran across the busy boulevard. The temporary newspaper stand wasn't there anymore, replaced by a street hustler with a small table who was trying to trick the pedestrians into playing Diamonds.
While Joanna was running across the lanes, she noticed that the hustler packed up his stuff and sprinted up the boulevard like the devil himself was on his tail.
Slightly winded, Joanna arrived at the main entrance and immediately began to search for the right button. When she found 'L.E. Zinovia', she pressed the small knob and prayed that Liliana wanted to talk with her.
'Yes? Who is it?'
Liliana's voice said from a small loudspeaker on a panel next to the door.
"Liliana, it's Jo. I've come to... uh, I've come to apologize for my behavior."
No reply was forthcoming, and at first, Joanna didn't know if that was a good or a bad sign. After a brief pause, the door was buzzed open, and she quickly stepped inside.
She took the stairs up to the second floor two steps at a time and she was soon standing at the door to Liliana's apartment. Just as she raised her hand to knock, Liliana opened it.
The two women watched each other silently for nearly a minute. The tension that built up between them was so thick that Joanna started to worry that Liliana would never speak to her again. Mentally grabbing herself by the scruff of her neck, Joanna cleared her throat
"Liliana... I've come to apologize. I behaved like a... like a..." she mumbled.
"Spoiled brat?" Liliana said, cocking her head.
"You took the words right out of my mouth, ha ha. May I come in?"
The silence returned, but mercifully for Joanna's peace of mind, it didn't last as long as the first time.
"Well... why not. Come in," Liliana said and stepped aside.
For the second time that day, Joanna stepped into one of Liliana's apartments. For a moment, she was worried that some naked chick would surprise them there as well, but she told herself to get a grip.
"The living room is to the right," Liliana said, putting a warm hand on the small of Joanna's back.
Feeling very self-conscious for some reason, Joanna turned right and went into the living room. Like the bedroom had been, the living room was furnished in a simple, yet elegant fashion, with a steel gray wall-to-wall carpet, several white bookcases lining the walls, a futon arrangement made of black velvet and a white sideboard with a medium sized television set on it.
Joanna took off her blazer and threw it over the back of the couch. "You have a very nice apartment, Liliana."
Liliana moved over to a desk that had been placed against the wall opposite from the TV. On the desk, a laptop was in the last stages of booting, but as soon as it was done, Liliana turned it off again and closed its lid.
"Please, Jo, have a seat."
Joanna tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth didn't want to play along. She walked around the couch and sat down, crossing her legs at the knee. Moments later, she leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees instead, thinking that it looked more sincere.
"Well, I... I'm really sorry for behaving in such a juvenile fashion out at the school, Liliana. That woman just caught me by surprise."
"I understand. Apology accepted, Jo," Liliana said, sitting down in a leather armchair opposite Joanna so she could look the detective in the eye.
"Who was she?" Joanna said, looking down at her shoes.
"Just someone I met."
"Oh. Well, it's not my business, anyway."
"You're right, it isn't. But let's not talk about that anymore. Today, I've requested a leave of absence from the school."
Sighing, Liliana leaned back in the chair and began to play with her fingers.
The principal was wearing a pale gray business suit Joanna hadn't seen her in before but that she really liked. 'The color is a perfect offset for her eyes and her hair,'
"Well, I needed to move faster than the board of directors," Liliana said after a long pause.
"Did they give you an offer you couldn't refuse?"
"Not yet, but they were going to," Liliana said with a shrug.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Ah, I'll... I'll find something else. The board of directors is worried that it could get scandalous. They've probably heard some rumors about the parties," Liliana said and began to unbutton her short jacket. Once she was done, she took it off, revealing an off-white V-neck blouse that clung to her like a second skin.
Joanna's eyes narrowed and she had to swallow several times at the sight.
Liliana got up from the chair, turned around and walked out of the living room. As she did so, Joanna's eyes were firmly trained on the principal's rear end that was wonderfully accentuated by the form-fitting skirt.
Joanna sighed and mopped her brow, wiping off the beads of sweat that had suddenly appeared on it. Liliana came back in and sat down again, crossing her legs in a very lady-like fashion.
"Liliana, there's something I've been meaning to ask you... Buford and his half-brother recorded four of the parties. Maurice Jerrod told me that in the three he visited, he saw you, ummm... uh..."
"Fuck Mark Gerlach and Brian Roper."
"... have sex with Mark and Brian, yes. And in the last one, you performed a dance."
"That's right. And?" Liliana said slightly defensively.
"Well, I was wondering what you were doing in the first of the shows that was recorded?"
Liliana licked her lips and looked up at the ceiling. "Well, I did a floor show with a young French-Canadian who was visiting us in an exchange program. His name was Yannick... something."
"The only reason he's still alive is that he went back to Montreal a couple of days after the party," Liliana said matter-of-factly.
"Oh... it was too much for him?" Joanna said with a cheeky grin.
"No, that was the plan all along. The party doubled as his farewell-bash. Joanna, why are you here?"
The question completely knocked the wind out of Joanna's sails and she felt her face and neck turn red in an instant. Reaching up, she put a finger inside her collar to get some air, but when that didn't work, she undid the top two buttons instead. "I c-came to apo-"
"B.S, Jo. You could have done that over the phone."
"I c-came to tell you that we couldn't see each other anymore."
"I didn't know that we *were* seeing each other...?" Liliana said, flicking her hair out of her collar, a move designed to exacerbate Joanna's blush.
"You came here looking for sex, didn't you? You were hoping we'd end up in bed."
Joanna simultaneously shrugged, nodded and shook her head. "Oh, hell, I don't know what I was doing. I just drove around town... and then I ended up here."
Liliana got up and walked over to stand in front of Joanna. Reaching down, she took the detective by the hands and pulled her to her feet. "I think it's time for you-"
"For me to leave, I know," Joanna said and began to move away, but Liliana kept her firm grip on Joanna's hands.
"No. I think it's time for you to act on your instincts, Detective."
Liliana moved Joanna's hands over to rest on her snug blouse. When Joanna still seemed conflicted about the whole deal, Liliana pulled the detective down and claimed her lips in a ferocious kiss.
While she was being kissed senseless, Joanna heard a voice in her ear screaming that what she did was wrong, wrong, wrong - but she didn't care one little bit. Instead, she grabbed hold of Liliana's blouse and pulled it clear of the tight skirt. When her probing fingers ran across the silky smooth skin she found there, Liliana reacted by pushing her hips against Joanna's thighs and letting out a prolonged moan.
Moments later, Joanna pulled Liliana Zinovia towards the bedroom, intent on devouring every last inch of her lithe body.
Concluded in Part 2