Two bodies were a headache. Three were a pattern. What that pattern was, Albany Police Detective Robert Thompson couldn’t yet say, but he’d damn well keep looking until he found it.
He crunched up the gravel drive of Mount Hawthorne School for Boys, snow flurries whipping down from the north, dusting the Easter daffodils and tulips in the neatly maintained flower beds. It had been a fickle spring, by turns balmy and biting. Thompson pulled his muffler tighter around his neck and stamped up the front steps to the stately brick manor house that served as the main wing of the school.
It was abruptly warm inside, smelling of pine wood and chalk dust, and the faint animal reek of two hundred boys between the ages of eight and eighteen. Thompson turned left from the foyer into the office and greeted the secretary, who gave him a harried wave toward the headmaster’s office, phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. “Yes, Mrs. Holland, I entirely understand your concern. Yes, of course the safety of our students is— Yes, I understand that, it is extremely distressing, I agree, but—”
Thompson rapped on the frosted glass window on Mr. Pearson’s door, and the headmaster called, “Come in,” muffled. “Ah, Mr. Thompson,” he added, as Thompson came inside. “Or, I should say Detective, since you’re here professionally.”
“Mr. Pearson.” They shook hands briefly.
“Sit, sit.” Pearson followed his own directive and collapsed back in his chair with a sigh. Pulling off his spectacles, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “So. McCreary.”
“Yes. I’ll finish talking to the rest of the staff and faculty today. Has anything else occurred to you since yesterday?” Draping his overcoat on the back of the chair, Thompson pulled out his notebook and sat.
“No, no, I don’t know. It could have been anyone. The on-campus faculty are allowed to invite guests. Not overnight, of course, but he could have let anyone in.”
Thompson consulted his notes from the previous day’s interviews. “No one remembers seeing any unfamiliar cars on the property that evening, or noticing any strangers in the building or on the grounds.”
“And all we know is that it was someone he knew?”
“All we suspect,” Thompson corrected. “No sign of a struggle or forced entry probably indicate he knew his attacker. But we can’t rule anything out.”
“What a horrible thought.” Pearson pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. He was a portly, balding man, given to flushing and sweating nervously. Thompson wondered if he was nervous because he’d committed a murder, or simply because he had several hundred angry, frightened parents threatening to disenroll their sons if the murderer wasn’t caught.
“I’ll need to talk to some of the students as well.”
Pearson blinked. “You don’t think a student did it, do you?”
“Can you get me the names from McCreary’s class rosters?” Thompson said, ignoring the question.
“He taught lower grades. Surely none of the boys would…the strength alone…” Pearson looked slightly sick.
Gilbert McCreary, like the last two victims, had been strangled. That was largely where the similarities between the three cases ended, unfortunately. McCreary had been killed on school property, with some kind of cloth garotte, possibly a handkerchief or a tie. The murder weapon in the case of Edwin Albans had been left on top of the body: a dish towel, the same one that had been used to wipe any prints from the two tumblers of whiskey on the table in his apartment. The first victim, Oliver O’Brien, had been choked by hand, his small body dumped in the woods, and the finger-shaped bruises on his throat clearly belonged to a grown man.
“The fifth-graders are not suspects,” Thompson confirmed. “I want to speak to a range of different people who knew McCreary, including his students.”
“Yes. Yes, of course. We can arrange it. I’ll call them into the office this afternoon?”
“After I speak with the rest of the staff,” Thompson agreed. His list was alphabetical; he still had Tellerson through Wazowszki, and he hoped one of them would have something new to say, because all he’d heard yesterday was that McCreary was a friendly man, a devoted teacher, quiet but not reclusive, well-liked by students and staff.
The bell rang, and the old building groaned and echoed with hundreds of chairs scraping and feet thudding on the floorboards.
“You’ve resumed classes?”
Pearson nodded. “We wanted to keep routines as normal as possible, after yesterday. We’ve implemented a strict buddy system and the dormitory proctors are supervising the younger students between classes. Curfew has been moved to directly after dinner, and as you know we are encouraging the families of day students to pick up and drop off their children, even if they normally walk to the city bus line.”
Thompson nodded vaguely. His wife had said something about asking Mrs. Lowis around the block to drive Ted. “I’ll speak to those staff members now.”
Two hours later, he’d finished interviewing all the staff except one teacher who was out sick with the ironclad alibi of getting his appendix out when the murder took place. The only thing of any significance he’d learned was that McCreary had mentioned having a lady friend in Montreal, which was noteworthy only in that Thompson hadn’t found any correspondence or a passport among McCreary’s things. Thompson jotted it down as possibly something, probably nothing, and went back to the office.
It was nearly lunch time, and many of the classroom doors were open, groups of students milling in the halls. Someone said, “Hey, you’re Teddy’s dad. The detective.”
More heads turned, and suddenly he had an audience of attentive boys in identical uniform jackets and uniform acne. “Do you know whodunnit yet, officer?” one boy asked.
“Saint Michael did it,” a voice called from the back of the crowd, and a titter ran through the group, smiles, nervous giggles, elbows shoved into ribs. Thompson frowned.
“No, really, do you know who did it?” insisted a shorter, freckle-faced child. “Is he gonna kill another one of us next?”
“That’s quite enough of that,” Mr. Pearson said, coming up behind the group and clapping his hands loudly. “To the dining hall now, all of you. I’ve pulled some of the students from Mr. McCreary’s classes into my office,” he added, as the students dispersed with whispers and backward glances. A familiar face appeared at the end of the hall as the students milled – straight dark hair and dark eyes that caught Thompson’s. Thompson raised a hand in a wave, but Ted turned his head away as if he hadn’t seen, and disappeared around a corner.
A dozen boys between eight and ten or so were gathered in the main office, where the secretary had handed out hard candy. An older boy with thick fair hair leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets. “Ah, Mr. Morris,” Pearson said, “you don’t have to wait here, Mrs. Lawson will keep an eye on them.”
“It’s all right, Mr. Pearson, I don’t mind. I have to walk them back to class after the detective is done anyway, and I’m only missing my study period.” The young man flashed a grin full of straight, bright teeth, and held out a hand. “You must be Detective Thompson. Simon Morris.”
Thompson grunted a response and shook his hand. Morris wore his uniform sweater vest instead of his blazer, and the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up. His forearms were broad and tanned, his grip strong, unexpectedly calloused.
“Well, that’s very good of you.” Pearson beamed at Morris. “Mr. Morris is the proctor for the fifth-grade dormitory, a number of these are his boys. Well, let’s get started.”
They spoke to the boys one by one in Pearson’s office, while the rest waited with Morris and the secretary outside. The picture of McCreary that emerged from the interviews was not unlike what had been shared by the adults: McCreary, who taught lower-grade math and science, was “hard but nice,” and “always explains things if I have a question.”
“Some kids don’t like him, but I don’t know why,” one boy opined. “He’s not bad for a math teacher.”
The worst that he was accused of by the students was playing favorites, which didn’t seem a particularly egregious crime to Thompson, who certainly had favorites among his own children. “When he said to put your pencils down at the end of the test, Vinny Van Horn kept writing and Mr. McCreary made him put his name on the board, but when Timmy Snider did it last week, Mr. McCreary didn’t say anything, just let him turn in the test.”
“Is there any reason that Snider might be a favorite?” Thompson asked.
The boy shrugged, and pointed at the door. “You can ask him.”
Wrapping up that interview, Thompson held the door for the boy and said to the office at large, “Timothy Snider?”
A small, dark haired child looked up from a chair in the corner. Morris, who had been leaning on the secretary’s desk, making a woman old enough to be his mother dimple at him, looked up also. Snider didn’t move. He was so dwarfed by the wooden chair that his toes didn’t touch the ground. Thompson tried to smile encouragingly. “Come in, Mr. Snider.”
No response. “It’s all right, Timothy,” Pearson said, behind Thompson.
Snider glanced at Morris as if looking for permission. Morris nodded encouragingly, and the boy slid down from his chair and slouched across the room, head down. His dark curls fell into his eyes.
“Posture, Mr. Snider,” Pearson said jovially, and the boy straightened his spine but didn’t lift his eyes. He shuffled to the chair by the headmaster’s desk and sat, automaton-like.
“So, Mr. Snider,” Thompson began. “What class did you have with Mr. McCreary?”
“Mathematics,” Snider said, in almost a whisper.
“And did you like his class?”
“What do you think of Mr. McCreary?” Thompson asked instead.
“Did you like him?” Thompson persisted. Silence. “Did he like you?”
“I guess.” It was hardly more than a whisper of air, and then, slightly louder. “I want Simon.”
Pearson looked at Thompson. “Would that be alright?”
Thompson pursed his lips and tapped his pen against his pad. It didn’t do to coddle children, but they clearly weren’t getting anywhere. “Very well.” Going to the door he stuck his head out. “Mr. Morris? Would you step in here a moment?”
“No problem, Detective.” In the headmaster’s office, Morris crouched down by Snider’s chair, hands clasped together between his knees. “Hey, champ. Nervous?”
Snider nodded, eyes fixed on Morris.
Morris made a sympathetic noise, entirely too soft when what Snider clearly needed was a firm hand. “You’re not in trouble. Mr. Pearson and Detective Thompson just want to know what kind of a man Mr. McCreary was, whether anyone would be angry with him or want to hurt him. Do you think he was a nice man?”
“I didn’t like him,” Snider said softly.
“You didn’t?” Thompson said. “Your classmate thought he treated you well.”
Snider glanced at him and looked back at Morris. “I didn’t like him.”
“Why not?” Thompson asked.
There was a short silence, and then, “He made me study extra.”
“He was doing remedial work with you? Catch up work,” he added, when he saw the boy’s incomprehension.
“I wasn’t behind,” Snider protested softly. “I’m not stupid.”
“Well, it sounds like he thought you needed some extra help,” Thompson said, closing his notebook.
Morris blinked slowly, cat-like at him, and looked back at Snider. “Is there anything else you want to tell them?”
The two of them stared at each other in silence for a long moment, and then Snider shook his head so hard his dark curls bounced. Morris nodded and squeezed the younger boy’s shoulder briefly. “Okay, buddy.” He looked at Thompson again. “Is that all?”
“I suppose so,” Thompson sighed, and Morris helped Snider out of the chair.
“He’s awfully soft with them,” Thompson said after the door shut behind both boys.
“Well, they’re young. And they adore him. I wish all our proctors got along with their residents as well as Morris.”
Thompson sniffed, and turned a page in his notebook. “I’ll let you know as soon as I have any further developments. I’m afraid it may be a few days yet before we get the coroner’s report on Mr. McCreary. Potter, the coroner, has been on vacation since Easter and we haven’t even gotten final reports on the two bodies from last week.”
“Terrible,” said Pearson, shaking his head. “Anything else you need from me?”
“I may need to go through McCreary’s rooms again.”
“Of course. In fact, let me give you a master key.” Pearson rummaged in his desk and held up a key tied on a piece of ribbon. “This should let you into any of the buildings on campus.”
The bell rang as Thompson was gathering up his coat and hat. In the office, the secretary was handing extra candy to Snider and another boy, Morris leaning against the door. Thompson cleared his throat, “Could you look up Theodore Thompson’s last class of the day, please?” he asked the secretary.
“I can check.” The secretary closed the toffee jar and leaned over to a file cabinet.
“You’re looking for Teddy?” Morris said. “He’s got art last period, but he said he was getting a ride with Frankie Lowis’s mom.”
Was that what Ava had said this morning? Thompson couldn’t remember. He grunted instead. “How do you know Ted?”
“We have junior-senior History together before lunch.” Morris ushered the two smaller boys out into the hallway and Thompson followed, hat in hand. “Okay you two, chess club, right?” Snider nodded. “Alright, I’ve got eyes on you all the way to the library. I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Bye, Simon,” Snider said, giving a little wave, and the two boys headed off down the hall, to the big library doors at the end. Morris kept an eye on them the whole way, as promised.
Thompson glanced around at the clearing hallway. No one appeared to be waiting for Morris. “I thought there was a buddy system.”
“All the residential students are buddied up with their roommate, but proctors get their own rooms.” He shrugged, pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a silver lighter out of his pocket. “So I’m on my own if the murderer attacks again, but that’s not a bad tradeoff for not having to share with anyone.”
“It’s no laughing matter, young man.”
“No sir.” Morris didn’t look particularly contrite. The lighter flared, his lips pursing as he dragged in to light the cigarette. Smoke curled out of his nostrils. “You could walk me to my room, just in case.”
Thompson opened his mouth to say no and said, “Very well. Lead the way.”
They went down the corridor and up a flight of stairs toward the east wing, Morris ahead of Thompson. The uniform slacks were a little small on him. “You must have an interesting job,” Morris said. “Homicide detective; exciting, I bet.”
“Real life isn’t like those dime novels about PIs.”
Morris glanced over his shoulder, grinning, cigarette wagging in the corner of his mouth. “You mean you don’t sit around drinking bourbon and tracking femme fatales into dens of iniquity?”
“Bourbon occasionally. Femme fatales, hardly ever.” The smoke was giving Thompson a craving.
“That’s a shame.” They reached the landing, with doors all along the hall. Morris tipped his head. “I’m all the way at the end. So what do you do if you don’t have any leads?”
“Keep talking to people. Something will turn up eventually.”
“My aunt always says persistence is a virtue even if you wouldn’t name a baby that.” They reached the door at the end of the hall and Morris leaned against the door jam. “This is me.” He took a drag on the cigarette, held it between two fingers, blew out the smoke.
Thompson cleared his throat. “Well. No murderers here, so I ought to be getting home.”
“Of course.” Morris smiled and pulled out his room key, giving a little wave. “Thanks for walking me. I’ll see you around, Detective.”
Thompson pulled his Coupe de Ville into the driveway, stubbed his cigarette butt out in the ashtray, checked the mailbox, and let himself in the front door. “I’m home.” Some sort of Negro rock was playing on the radio. “Turn that racket off.”
His wife turned the music off with a click. Thompson hung up his hat and coat and leaned over to peck Ava hello on the cheek as he sorted through the mail. “Letter from Johnny.”
“Oh, good.” Ava slit it open with a paring knife. “Still at Atterbery, looks like.” Whenever the Air Force transferred their middle son, the first they heard of it was often a letter with a new post mark. John always claimed he didn’t have enough notice to send a forwarding address, but Thompson, having raised the boy, suspected it was chronic procrastination that the military still hadn’t managed to beat out of him.
“What’s he say?” Ted had beaten him home, and was slouched curled up on the couch, with his socked feet tucked under him.
“You can read it when your mother is finished. Mind your posture,” Thompson added. Ted huffed out an annoyed teenaged breath and sat up properly. He had his sketchbook on his lap. “Saw you at school today. You didn’t come over to say hello.”
“Don’t want to be seen with your old man, eh?” Thompson clapped him on the shoulder. “What’s that you’re working on?”
“Nothing.” Ted drew the notebook against his chest. “Just drawing.”
Thompson sighed. “You know drawing is no pastime for a young man.”
“Don’t they have sketch artists with the police?” Ava said.
“How?” Ted said.
“It’s, well it’s their job, for one thing. They aren’t doing it for fun.”
“How do you think they learned to draw?” Ted asked, sing-song.
“You watch your tone with me young man,” Thompson snapped. “Don’t make me take my belt off.”
Ted shut his mouth and ducked his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Go put that sketchbook away,” he said flatly. “And I’m driving you to school tomorrow. No arguments.”
The V8 engine roared under the hood, and the vents panted hot air that was not quite enough to dispel the spring chill, and not near enough to warm the freezing silence. Ted stared out the window at the bare trees, giving monosyllabic answers to his father’s attempts at conversation. Thompson knew teenagers were difficult, but neither of his older boys had ever been this bad.
He had given serious consideration over the years to the idea that Ted might not be his son. The boy had always been far too sensitive, bookish and uninterested in sports, and in the last several years he had become surly and stubborn to the point of mutiny. Unfortunately, the two of them had the same straight dark hair and blue eyes, the same narrow face, though Ted had gotten Ava’s mouth, which gave him a girlish sort of perpetual pout.
At the school, Ted slipped out of the Coupe de Ville as soon as Thompson parked, and was halfway up the steps to the building before Thompson got out. He thought about calling after his son, demanding the respect a father deserved, but by that time, Ted was inside.
He waited in the office for twenty minutes while Mr. Pearson dealt with two boys involved in some misdeed or other, listening to the secretary repeat identical conciliatory answers on five different phone calls from anxious parents. Finally Pearson sent the two mulish, chastised boys away to their first class and waved Thompson into his office.
“Good morning so far?” he asked dryly as he shrugged out of his coat.
Pearson thumbed an Alka-Seltzer out of its foil wrapper and popped it in his mouth. “I’ve had better. What can I do for you today?”
“Can you think of any connection between O’Brien and McCreary? Other than both being at the school?”
“Well, I believe McCreary had O’Brien in at least one of his classes, but that was years ago. I’ll have Mrs. Lawson check the details. Other than that, I can’t think of any.”
“O’Brien didn’t tutor for McCreary’s classes, or attend a club he supervised?”
“No, O’Brien wasn’t one for math and sciences. English was his best class.”
“Do residential teachers supervise the dormitories?”
“Each dormitory has a staff warden and two student proctors, but McCreary wasn’t a warden. And O’Brien was a day student in any case. I can’t think of any reason McCreary and O’Brien would have been in contact.”
Thompson flipped through his notebook. “I talked to his roommate directly after O’Brien was found dead. Is there anyone else at the school who was close to him?” It was a line of questioning he should have followed two weeks ago, but Albans had turned up dead less than three days after O’Brien, and the investigation moved on.
“Oh, certainly. He was a quiet boy, but he had friends. You could talk to, let’s see, Sullivan, or Briggs. And there’s Morris, of course.”
“That’s right, you met him yesterday. Helpful boy. He’s captain of the rowing team, and O’Brien is coxswain. Was.”
Thompson snapped his notebook shut. “I think I’ll start there.”
Morris’s senior calculus class was in the middle of an exam, but Morris had already turned in his test. He smiled at Thompson as he slipped out of the room. “Thanks for saving me from half an hour of staring out the window till everyone else was done.” He stretched his arms over his head. “Want to walk outside? I’m dying for fresh air.”
After yesterday’s sleet, it was a beautiful, dewy spring morning, though still cold. Flowers were coming up in the beds and lush grass concealing the fact that the lawns were still entirely mud underneath the new shoots.
“Mr. Pearson said you rowed with O’Brien.”
“Yes. Best coxswain on my team.”
“Tell me about him,” Thompson prompted.
Morris shrugged off his blazer and slung it over his shoulder, tipping his face up toward the sun. “Ollie was a little guy, lightweight, which is what you want in a coxswain, but he had the loudest voice when he wanted to use it. When he bellowed at his boat you could hear him all the way across the lake.”
“How long have you known him?”
“He joined the team as a freshman, when I was still a rower on his boat. So, three years ago.”
“Were you friends off the team?”
“You could say that.” Morris was looking away, towards the trees and the mountains. Sunlight gilded his honey-brown hair pure gold, and cast dramatic shadows from his eyelashes across his cheeks.
“That’s not very definite,” Thompson prodded.
Morris glanced at him and shrugged. “I wouldn’t call us friends, exactly, but we saw each other a lot.”
“You weren’t close, then?”
Morris hummed in his throat, a vague assent. He seemed distracted by a budding willow tree.
Thompson cleared his throat. “What do you know about his family?”
“Didn’t you already interview them?”
“I want your perspective.”
“Well, he’s an only child. His dad travels all the time. Sales, I think. His mom is at home.”
“When I spoke to his roommate, he mentioned that O’Brien sometimes had bruises on his body. Did you ever notice anything like that?”
Morris cocked his head. “When would I have seen that?”
“Changing for rowing?”
“Hm. You’re right, I guess sometimes he had bruises. He was a clumsy kid, though. Always tripping over things and walking into somebody’s oar. You think someone was smacking him around?”
“I don’t know, what do you think?”
“Could be. That’s what dads do, right?” Morris fixed him with a level gaze.
“Are you asking me?”
Morris shrugged. “My parents are dead. I live with my aunt. She doesn’t hit me, not even when I was younger.”
No wonder this boy was so strange. A little punishment did wonders for the constitution. “If his father was a little heavy-handed, that wasn’t related to his death. Mr. O’Brien Senior was in Cincinnati at the time of the murder.”
“There you are then,” Morris said, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his trousers.
“Can you think of any connection between McCreary and O’Brien?”
“You think the murders are connected?”
“I’m asking you if they had any relationship. I can’t discuss the details of the investigation.”
“Of course not,” Morris said easily. “As far as I know, Ollie and McCreary didn’t have anything to do with each other. And the school connection doesn’t hold up for Albans, does it? He wasn’t a parent of anyone here, he was a plumber.”
“You seem to know a lot about it.”
“Everyone here knows a lot about it. First one of our boys is killed, and then more people start dying. It’s all anyone is talking about. So you don’t have any leads?”
“I couldn’t discuss it if I did,” Thompson repeated. “Did you have McCreary’s class, when you were younger?”
“No, my aunt enrolled me when I was twelve, already past his classes. I wish I could be more help.”
“Tell you what.” Thompson pulled a card out of the breast pocket of his jacket, stamped with the emblem of the police department. “If you think of anything, give me a call.”
Thompson found O’Brien’s other friends, Sullivan and Briggs, together in the library during lunch, and introduced himself.
“We know who you are,” Briggs said. He was a skinny boy nearly six inches taller than Thompson with thick glasses and gap teeth, and Sullivan was nearly as fat as Briggs was tall. The two of them were both juniors, like O’Brien had been.
Thompson joined them at a small table crammed with volumes of Shakespeare and Chaucer and pulled out his notebook. “How well did you know Oliver O’Brien?”
“As well as anyone,” Sullivan said, and Briggs nodded. He asked a few softball questions, learning nothing new other than O’Brien’s taste in literature – very into the Romantics, whatever that meant. Thompson turned a page in his notebook.
“Did you ever get the impression that anything was wrong at home?”
The boys exchanged glances. There was a short silence in which Thompson’s grip tightened on his pencil.
“His mom was having an affair,” Sullivan said finally. Briggs glanced over his shoulder guiltily, though the library was deserted.
“Really. With whom?”
Sullivan shrugged. “Dunno. He only mentioned it a couple of times. Complained about some guy coming round while his dad was out of town. Then he stopped talking about it, so maybe it ended.”
“When was this?” Thompson asked, scribbling.
“Earlier this year, right before Christmas I guess.”
“That’s very helpful, thank you.” Mrs. O’Brien had said nothing about that in his interview with her, although that wasn’t surprising with her red-eyed, furiously grieving husband on the other side of the wall. “Did he ever mention having altercations with this man? Fights of any kind?”
“No, never.” Both boys shook their heads in agreement.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about Oliver? Did he have other friends?”
“Well, Simon Morris, of course,” Sullivan said.
Thompson cocked his head. “I just spoke to him. You’d say they were good friends?”
“Oh yes. You didn’t see them together very often, except during rowing, but Ollie was always talking about him. Simon this and Simon that.”
Briggs pushed his glasses up his nose and said thoughtfully, “I don’t think he meant to talk about Morris as much as he did. He was sort of secretive about their friendship. He was always staying late to do extra exercises at rowing, and sometimes they would skip lunch to go study together.”
Thompson pressed his lips together, pencil indenting the paper of his notepad. “Really.”
“It wasn’t that surprising,” Sullivan said hurriedly. “He was a private kind of guy. Didn’t like to talk.”
Thompson could imagine what a bookish boy who looked up to someone like Morris might have to be private about. He sniffed. “If either of you think of anything else, Mr. Pearson can get in touch with me.”
The after-lunch bell rang as Thompson stepped out of the library, and boys poured into the hallways, knocking shoulders and bookbags, shouting, laughing. As he watched from the top of the stairs, patterns emerged from the chaos, like seeing currents of wind in a snow flurry. The boys moved in amoebic cliques, elongating, dividing, and reforming. Morris was with a group of older boys, and he waved when he caught Thompson’s eye, and then yelled, “No running, Mitchell,” after an adolescent tearing down the hall. One of Morris’s friends said something to him and he laughed, shaking his head.
An eddy formed in the stream as a boy dropped his bag, spilling papers and books. It was the shy boy from McCreary’s class, Thompson realized as the boy knelt to grab frantically at his scattered possessions. One bigger boy went out of his way to step on some of Snider’s papers, accidental-on-purpose. “Whoops, sorry Spider,” he sniggered. Snider didn’t even look up.
“Hey Dill-mont,” someone called, “Saint Michael says pick on someone your own size!”
The older boy, who Thompson recognized as one of the Delmont boys, scowled at the unknown heckler, but left Snider alone. Morris and a couple of his friends stopped to help Snider as the hall began to clear.
Thompson descended the stairs slowly and headed in the direction of the front office, where he waited until the secretary was off the phone, and then borrowed the receiver to make a call.
“Albany Police Central Station.”
“Marsha, it’s Thompson.”
The station secretary, Marsha, snapped her gum in his ear on the other end of the line. “What can I do ya, detective?”
“Take down this address.”
“Hang on, lemme grab a pen. Okay, shoot.”
Thompson read out the O’Brien home address from his notebook. “Call the phone company and request records for that address going back to last, say, September. And if they give you grief, get a request in for a warrant, will you?”
“Shakedown first, warrant second, you got it, detective. Anything else?”
“Not right now.”
“Sure thing. Oh, by the by, before I forget, the boss said to remind you that the mayor’s campaign dinner is on Saturday and he wants, I quote, to show the big man we’re getting results with his money.”
“Murderers don’t just turn themselves in in time for campaign kickoffs, you know,” he snapped.
“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Was there anything else?”
“That’s all. Tell the captain I’ll be there Saturday, with or without a murderer in hand.”
“Will do.” She hung up. Thompson put the phone back in the cradle and turned. Simon Morris, like a bad penny, was standing in the doorway with a stack of files.
He smiled at Thompson and leaned over the secretary’s desk. “Hi, Mrs. Lawson. These are from Mr. Carlisle. He said to make sure you aren’t working too hard.”
“He said no such thing, you little rascal. Give those here.” She shot Morris an exasperated look and he grinned at her, then turned to Thompson. “How’s the whiskey and femme fatales, Detective?”
Despite himself, Thompson snorted. “They’ve been better.”
“Well, truth is famously a harsh mistress.” Morris’s thick, fair hair was slicked up at the front in a voluminous puff, the way showy musicians wore theirs on the cover of magazines. He smoothed a few stray hairs back into place. “I couldn’t help overhearing, you’re going to the mayor’s campaign thing this weekend? My aunt will be there too.”
“Is she political?”
“No, but she’s wealthy, which is almost the same thing. Make any progress today?”
“Actually, I had a few more questions for you,” Thompson said. “I was on my way out, but as long as you’re here.”
“I’m headed down to the boat house. I can walk you to your car. Return the favor from yesterday.”
Morris led the way down the hall to the back of the building, where the lawn sloped down to the lakeshore, lined with willows, and half a dozen boys already gathered. A frigid breeze cut under Thompson’s coat and he pulled it closed across his chest. “You go out on the water in this weather?”
“Rowing keeps you warm,” Morris grinned. “We only call practice off for lightning.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and set off across the muddy grass in the direction of the cars parked around the west side of the school.
Thompson picked his way gingerly after him, trying to step on clods of earth that looked more solid. “I spoke to some other people who knew O’Brien who said you two were quite close.”
“Oh? What made them think that?” Morris glanced back over his shoulder.
“That you spent extra time together outside of practice, things like that.”
“It was Sully and Briggs, right?” Thompson didn’t think his face gave anything away, but Morris went on, “Nice guys but don’t know anything about sports. You ever row, sir?”
“I was a baseball man, myself.”
“Right, well a coxswain is responsible for his boat’s maneuvers in a race, and his crew’s performance. He works with the captain on strategy, exercise regimes, things like that. Lots of stuff outside normal practice. Or it probably seems like a lot to a couple of bookworms like Briggs and Sully.” He smiled ruefully, an invitation to share the joke.
“That was why you spent extra time together?”
“We also had a science project together last semester,” Morris shrugged. “It’s all just school stuff.”
“Well, that makes sense.” Thompson tugged his coat collar up, wishing he’d brought his muffler again today. “Tell me something. A couple of times now I’ve heard students talking about Saint Michael. Yesterday in the hall one of the boys said Saint Michael was the murderer. Does that mean anything to you?”
“That? That’s just a joke. Saint Michael is sort of our mascot.”
Thompson frowned. “This isn’t a Catholic school.”
“No. Well, that’s why it’s a joke. There used to be a Bible study group — it only lasted a few months, and then we had our very own wars of Reformation, long story — but while it lasted there was this big theological debate about whether Michael was a good guy or sort of a goon. Practically the whole school got roped into the argument at some point.”
“Archangel Michael?” Thompson asked, raising his eyebrows. “A goon?”
“Yeah, you know, if you fight the good fight, but you like the fighting a little too much, does that make you a bad guy? Of course, following God’s orders is the definition of good, so the whole thing was basically joking. But after that, whenever someone did something bad for a good reason, fouled another player in a game or cheated on a test to pass a class, we’d say Saint Michael did it.”
“I’m not a strictly religious man myself but that sounds pretty fishy.”
“Oh, it is,” Morris laughed. “We never claimed to be theologians.”
“Oliver O’Brien was a Catholic, wasn’t he?”
Morris’s face fell a little. “He was.” Lifting his hand absently he touched his chest and then adjusted the knot of his tie.
“Was he offended by it? The joking?”
“He maybe took it a little more seriously than the rest of us. He liked the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye stuff. If someone had it coming to them, he used to say Saint Michael would get them. Some of the other boys picked it up, I guess.”
“I thought students liked Mr. McCreary.”
Morris shrugged. “Not everyone liked him.” His hair was naturally curly, resistant to pomade, and the wind had blown bits of it out of place. He looked up at Thompson through the flyaway strands. “Do you think the murderer thought Mr. McCreary had it coming?”
They rounded the corner of the building, in sight of his car. Thompson shoved his hands in his pockets, fishing for his cigarette case and lighter. “In my experience, most people have justifications for their actions, even murderers.”
“Have you known a lot of murderers?”
“Caught? Yes. Known? I’m not sure we can ever really know a person capable of doing something like that.”
“Don’t most people kill in the heat of the moment? I read that somewhere. It doesn’t seem so strange to me. Like in the war.”
“That’s different,” Thompson said quellingly. The cigarette case was enameled silver, a gift from Ada for something or other years ago.
“Did you serve?”
The wheel of the lighter clicked and flared. Thompson focused his gaze on the catching ember rather than Morris’s face. He puffed in a breath, let it out, cigarette between his fingers. Felt the nicotine rush, nearly instant. “I was already in the police force by that time.”
“My father killed people, probably.” Morris ran his fingers through his hair. “He died at Bataan.”
“I’m sorry.” Thompson cleared his throat, coughed a little from the smoke and the cold. “As I said. Different in war.”
“Well.” Morris smiled suddenly. “You are the expert, sir. It seems like an exciting job.”
“Less exciting than you think. Lots of asking questions and getting no answers.”
“Still stuck?” he said sympathetically.
“Never you mind,” Thompson said, clapping him on the shoulder with the hand not holding the cigarette, and Morris dodged out of the way, grinning unrepentantly at him.
“Hey Morris!” a boy called from across the lawn, near the lakeshore. “Think you’re too good to do warm ups with the rest of us? Get your ass in gear!”
“You can’t talk to your captain like that, Holborn,” Morris yelled back, and then tipped a nod and a wink to Thompson. “I’ll see you, Detective. Good luck with the case.”
The kitchen smelled of coffee and bacon, yellow counters glowing with morning sun. “Looks like it might be a nice day, finally,” Thompson said, shaking his paper open at the table.
“About time,” Ava said at the stove. “Do you want one egg or two?”
“Just one. Coffee? Thanks.” He turned a page as she set a mug down in front of him. “More testimony in Congress about the Reds in Hollywood.”
“Really.” Ava raised her voice. “Ted! Breakfast is ready!”
Thompson shifted the newspaper to one side so she could slide a plate of eggs and bacon in front of him. “They’ve admitted a Negro to University of Texas, apparently.”
“Teddy!” Ava called up the stairs. “You’re going to be late.”
Ted came clattering down the stairs in his school uniform, book bag over his shoulder. “Sorry Mom. Can I just have toast and bacon?”
“No, sit down and eat your eggs. Robert, could you pick Teddy up from school today, please?”
“I’m not going to the school,” Thompson said, turning to the sports section.
“Mrs. Lowis called and said she’s picking Jeremy up early for a dentist appointment, so she can’t carpool. I don’t want Teddy taking the bus on his own, with everything.”
“I’ll be fine, mom,” Ted said.
“See? He’ll be fine.” Thompson sipped his coffee.
“How can you say that? Don’t you think poor Mrs. O’Brien thought her son would be fine the day he was killed? There’s a murderer out there!”
Thompson set down his cup forcefully enough that coffee sloshed out onto the table. “I’m aware of that. He’s not going to snatch someone on the public bus.”
“And on the walk across school grounds from the main road? Do you know the killer’s motives? His operation?”
“For God’s sake, stop shouting, woman. Fine, I’ll drive him home from school.”
“Don’t I get any say in this?” Ted complained through a mouthful of toast.
“No,” his parents said, together. “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” his mother added.
When Thompson arrived at the station, Marsha at the front desk waved a file at him. “Got those phone records, Detective.”
“Thanks. Can I borrow your phone book?”
“Here ya go. Now scram and solve those murders.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Pouring himself another cup of coffee from the battered coffee pot, Thompson settled at his desk and flipped through the records to the previous December, looking for any change in the pattern of calls, seeing nothing. Some of the numbers were recognizable – calls to the school, the utility company, Mr. O’Brien’s work, the office of Saint Andrew’s church.
There was one number frequently called in the middle of the week, and never on weekends. Thompson flipped through the phone book to McCreary, Gilbert. A teacher having an affair with a parent would be a starting place. But he couldn’t find a single call to the McCreary number. Anyway McCreary would have been in his classroom during those hours. Chewing on the end of his pencil, Thompson turned back to the beginning of the phone book for Albans’ number. And there it was, a match.
The O’Brien house was a tidy early-century Victorian, with flower beds full of bare rose bushes, and a lawn in need of mowing, the curtains drawn in the windows. Oliver O’Brien had been a day student, like Ted. There was no sign of life in the house as Thompson parked at the curb, but when he rang the bell, the door was opened by Mrs. O’Brien.
She was a pretty woman, ravaged by grief. All the lights were off in the house behind her. Her thick red hair was braided down her back and her eyes looked small and bruised without makeup. “Detective?”
“I have a few follow-up questions, Mrs. O’Brien. Can I come in?”
“Of course.” She led him into the living room, turning on the lamps as she went and apologizing. “I know it’s in a state, I just haven’t had…everything’s been…well, it’s been difficult. Can I get you water? Coffee?”
“Water is fine.”
She went into the kitchen, and he heard her washing a glass. Letters, condolence cards, and torn envelopes were scattered around the room, a pile of laundry on one chair. “Here you are. I’m so sorry about this. Please sit.”
He took the water and sat on the sofa. “I came to ask whether there is anything else you felt I should know about any of the murders.”
“I heard about the teacher at the school.” Shifting the laundry off the chair she sank down opposite him, twisting the hem of her apron between her hands. “So terrible. Oliver had him in fourth and fifth grade. He seemed nice.”
“Can you think of any other connection between Oliver and Mr. McCreary?”
“No, Ollie hadn’t mentioned him in years.”
“What about between Oliver and the other victim, Edwin Albans?”
Mrs. O’Brien’s hands stilled. Her eyes were wide and rabbit-like.
“Did he have any connection to the family?” Thompson probed.
“We hired him to fix a pipe that burst in the kitchen,” she said faintly.
“When was this?”
“September.” Her knuckles were white.
“Was that the only time he visited?”
The refrigerator hummed and clicked off. Down the street a dog barked. “No,” Mrs. O’Brien whispered finally.
“Tell me what happened,” Thompson said, setting down the water and pulling out his notepad.
“Oh, God.” Mrs. O’Brien curled forward over her knees, hands covering her face. “David had been gone on a business trip for two weeks and the pipe burst, and Edwin came over to fix it and I…I asked him to stay for a drink. I knew it was a mistake, I knew right away, but he was…it was…well, it kept happening, and then when I tried to break it off he threatened to tell my husband about the whole thing, so I just…” Her voice trembled and cracked into silence.
“How did Oliver find out?” Thompson asked.
“He was home sick one day and I forgot to call Edwin and tell him not to come.” Fingers trembling, she pawed through the stack of magazines and mail scattered on the coffee table and uncovered an ashtray, plucking up a near-gone butt. “Do you have…?”
He pulled out his lighter, and she leaned forward to light the cigarette butt. The flare of the flame made the bruises under her eyes look livid. “Did the two of them ever spend time together?” he asked.
“Not…well, only once, I think. I came back from the store on a Saturday and Edwin was here. Alone in the house with my little boy. I don’t know what happened. Ollie never wanted to talk about him, just wanted to know why I hadn’t ended it yet. He hated Edwin so much, I don’t know. I don’t know.” She drew a shuddering breath, cigarette flaring down visibly, and wiped her nose on her apron. “I’m sorry. I should have said something sooner, but I was still in shock over Ollie when I heard about Edwin, and honestly it was almost a relief – oh, God, I don’t mean…” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “I didn’t kill him! I never even thought—”
“Deep breath, Mrs. O’Brien.”
Ash fell from the end of the butt onto her nightdress and the carpet as her hand shook. “You think the same person did it? Who could do that? What would that even mean?”
“Who knew about your affair?”
“Are you sure your husband didn’t know?”
“Of course. And Dave wouldn’t – why would he…our son. What could he possibly… Oh, God, you’re going to ask him whether he knew, aren’t you? I swear he didn’t. Doesn’t! He’s still here, we’re still married. Please don’t tell him. If he knew…I can’t, I couldn’t, not right now, with Ollie and everything else, please don’t say anything to him, Detective.” She was trembling, slow tears sliding down her face.
“I will pursue whatever avenues are necessary in my investigation,” Thompson said, shutting his notebook. “This has been an enlightening conversation. I’ll be back in touch if I have any further questions.” He got to his feet. “You should speak to your husband.”
She crumpled sideways against the arm of the chair, arms curled around herself, chest hitching with sobs. The glowing cigarette fell onto the rug. Thompson stamped out the ember before it could catch the carpet, and saw himself out of the house.
Back at the station he poured himself another cup of coffee and spread out the O’Brien and Albans files together on his desk. A dead lover usually pointed to the husband, and a dead son just as often to a family member, but David O’Brien’s alibi was watertight in both cases. Oliver had not been the only one who knew about the affair, that much was clear from speaking to the boys at the school. It was also possible that Albans might have told people. He was not a man with many friends, and none of the coworkers Thompson had interviewed had mentioned it, but he jotted down a note to call again and follow up.
Sipping his coffee, he looked again at the crime scene photos. Two deaths so close together by strangulation suggested the same killer, but the other differences were stark. O’Brien was scraped and bruised, clothes torn, and had blood under his fingernails from fighting his attacker, who had killed him with his bare hands. Albans had sat down and shared a drink with whoever killed him, and there was no broken furniture or rumpled clothes to suggest a fight, before Albans had been surprised with a kitchen towel around his neck. The third death more closely resembled the second, but lacked the circumstances which connected the first two. All were still awaiting the final damn autopsy reports because Potter, the coroner and medical examiner, was a lazy, negligent bastard who went on vacation for two weeks at a time.
“Detective Thompson?” Marsha called. “Your wife is on the phone.”
Thompson cursed under his breath. “Tell her I’m busy.”
“She said to remind you that you promised to pick up Ted from school.”
“What, she just assumed I would forget my own son? I’m not even late. Am I?” He checked his watch. “I’m not. Tell her she doesn’t need to be such a damn busybody.”
“He’s got it covered, Mrs. Thompson,” Marsha chirped into the phone. “That’s right. Huh-huh. You take care now, hon.”
Thompson grimaced down at the file in front of him, but no new inspiration struck and it was almost the end of the school day. If he didn’t turn up, Ted would probably be more than happy to take the bus, despite instructions otherwise. That thought motivated Thompson to shut the file and get up.
He arrived just after the last bell, but Ted wasn’t one of the day students milling around in front of the school waiting to be picked up. Already annoyed, Thompson parked and went into the office to ask about Ted’s last class of the day. The secretary directed him to the art classroom, which was a large studio with an open space in the middle of the floor, and small tables around the outside, empty easels leaned against the walls between the windows.
Sun was streaming in through the high windows; after the snow flurries earlier in the week the weather had turned abruptly balmy. His son perched at one of the tables, hunched over a sculpture with his sleeves rolled up, hands covered in red clay. The sculpture, Thompson saw, before Ted hastily pulled a sheet of plastic over it, was a male bust, bare to the waist. His lip curled. “What do you call that?”
“Art,” Ted snapped. “Not that you would know anything about it.”
“What’s it supposed to be, an underwear model?”
“Archangel Michael, actually. In the style of Reni.”
Thompson checked his watch. “When I come to pick you up I expect to find you ready, not lollygagging over some worthless art project.”
“Didn’t expect you to be on time, for once,” Ted said, wiping his hands on a cloth.
“You’d better not get any of that dirt in my car.”
Ted shot him a scathing look. “There’s a sink for a reason.”
There was indeed a sink at one end of the classroom, and Ted washed up after he carried his covered sculpture to a shelf. Thompson glared at the single stool in the center of the open room and said, “Meet me in the car.”
A group of boys in shorts were running laps around the grounds when Thompson strode out of the building. Sneakered feet crunched on the gravel pathways, and Thompson paused on the steps to let the herd pass. One boy, shirtless, with thick blond hair coming loose from its pomade, slowed to a stop at the foot of the stairs, letting the others run on ahead.
“Afternoon, Detective,” Simon Morris said, smiling. He was flushed down his chest from exertion, pink nipples standing up in the chill breeze. Sweat glistened in his collar bones.
Thompson cleared his throat. “Afternoon.”
“Found any good leads yet?”
“Actually I think I have found something,” Thompson said.
Morris’s eyes widened, and then he grinned, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Really? Good for you.” He wore a plain necklace with a flat gold medallion threaded on it, about the size of a quarter, with something stamped on the metal that Thompson couldn’t see clearly. It rose and fell on Morris’s sternum with his deep breaths. “What happens next?”
Thompson lifted his gaze back to Morris’s face. “Keep on digging.”
“Like a dog with a bone?” Morris smiled, and then his eyes slid past Thompson. “Hi, Teddy.”
Thompson looked up at his son, coming down the steps with his bookbag slung over his shoulder. “Hi, Simon,” Ted said.
“Hey, have you finished that paper on the Hapsburgs?” Morris asked.
Ted nodded. His cheeks were pink.
“It’s killing me,” Morris said cheerfully. “Can’t keep all the cousins straight, and I keep getting half way through a paragraph and forgetting what my thesis was.”
Ted fiddled with the strap of his bag. “I could, um, help you, if you wanted.”
Morris’s smile widened. “Would you?”
Thompson shifted between them. “We’ve got to get home. Ted, let’s go. Afternoon, Mr. Morris.”
“Bye, Detective. See you, Teddy.” He waved as Thompson herded Ted past him. Glancing back, Thompson saw Morris bent over, stretching his hamstrings, his shorts pulling tight over his ass.
“I don’t want you spending time with him,” Thompson said as they got into the car.
Ted scowled. “Why?”
“He’s a bad influence.” The engine turned over and growled to life.
“He’s top of all his classes and captain of the rowing team. He’s going to Harvard in the fall. How is he a bad influence?”
“I want you to stay away from him. No excuses about homework or essays either. If he got into Harvard he doesn’t need your help with school work.”
“You can’t just order me around for no reason like—”
Thompson thumped the horn, making Ted jump. “I am still your father, and I’m thinking of what’s best for you, and I’m telling you to stay away from that boy!”
Ted gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Sure, dad. Whatever you say, dad.”
“You’re going to regret that attitude,” Thompson promised, and felt the furious pressure in his chest ease some when Ted’s shoulders hunched slightly. One handed, Thompson fished out his cigarette case and lit one as they pulled out onto the main road. The rest of the drive passed in sulky silence.
Ava was in the kitchen when they got home, putting a casserole in the oven. The house smelled like onions and beef. “Hello dear,” she said to Ted as he shouldered through the door. “How was your day?”
Ted mumbled something, heading for the stairs.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Thompson asked, shutting the front door behind himself and hanging up his coat and hat.
Ted halted on the stairs and said nothing.
“Over the table, pants down,” Thompson ordered, rolling up his sleeves.
Ava glanced between them. “Did something happen?”
“Just a little reminder not to talk back to his old man,” Thompson said. “Theodore. Don’t make me tell you again.”
Dumping his bag by the stairs Ted slouched to the kitchen table and undid his pants. Ava went to the sink and began washing up, back turned. School slacks slung around his thighs, Ted bent over the table in his white underwear as Thompson unbuckled his belt and slid it out of its loops.
Ted grunted on the first stroke but otherwise remained silent as the belt cracked against his backside. Dishes clattered loudly in the sink. Thompson gave him fifteen before pausing. “You going to remember how to respect your father now?”
“Yes, sir,” Ted muttered.
“I’ll believe it when I see it.” Thompson patted him on the back. “That’s all for now.”
Ted straightened. His face was brick red but his eyes were dry.
“You did well,” Thompson told him. “Took that like a man.” He patted his pockets for his cigarette case, snapped it open and offered one to Ted. “Smoke?”
Silently Ted hitched his pants up and turned away, stalking toward the stairs. A moment later they heard his bedroom door close, just shy of slamming.
“I don’t know what to do with that boy,” Thompson sighed, putting a cigarette between his lips and flicking the lighter.
Ava said nothing.
Friday Thompson spent mostly at the office. He’d gotten call records for the phone in McCreary’s on-campus apartment, but found no link at all to either the O’Briens or Albans. And indeed, no long distance calls to Montreal where he was supposed to have a girlfriend, but he wouldn’t be the first man who’d lied about his prospects with the ladies. Inquiries to various contacts turned up no one else who appeared to know anything about Mrs. O’Brien’s affair, including her husband.
Thompson wasn’t sure even as the phone was ringing whether he planned to tell Mr. O’Brien. A man had a right to know about his wife’s faithlessness, and deal with it as he saw fit. But to lose the sanctity of his marriage in addition to his son… Thompson had seen illusions shattered often enough to know how precious they could be.
In the end, the man sounded so pathetic in his grief that Thompson only asked whether Albans had any connection to the family, and didn’t explain his line of questioning when O’Brien said vaguely, “Did some plumbing work for us once, I think. I was out of town at the time but I remember writing the check.” There was nothing new to be learned down that avenue.
It was frustrating to have found such a promising new connection only to have it lead nowhere. Thompson returned home at five in a poor temper. Ava had the radio on and was singing to herself in the kitchen. She stopped when the front door closed, and clicked the radio off a moment later.
“What’s for dinner?” he called, shrugging off his coat and hanging up his hat.
“French onion soup.”
“That’s not very healthy, is it?”
“I didn’t add the cheese, so it’s low-fat.”
Thompson grunted at the prospect of French onion soup with no cheese, and went to the downstairs bathroom to wash up. When he returned, Ava was setting two places at the dining table.
“Where’s Ted?” he asked, sitting down and tucking his napkin on his lap.
Ava brought the pot of soup in from the kitchen and set it on a trivet, next to the bowls of bread and salad. “He went with some friends from school to watch a rowing match in Gloversville.”
“Rowing?” Thompson frowned. “You let him go?”
“You’re the one always saying he should take more interest in sports.” Ava raised her eyebrows at him, taking her seat and beginning to ladle soup into her bowl.
“You’re the one worried about him getting murdered,” he snapped.
“Well, you’re the one who wasn’t worried as long as he’s with other boys! He promised me he would be with other students the whole time.”
Gritting his teeth Thompson said, “Next time my son wants to go somewhere, I’d thank you to keep me informed.”
“He’s almost seventeen, for heaven’s sake.” Ava’s knuckles were white around her fork. “Have school sports suddenly become illegal?”
Thompson slammed his fist down on the table so the silverware jumped. “I am trying to do what’s best for this family and keep that goddamn boy out of trouble!”
Ava barely flinched. “I don’t know what could possibly go wrong at a school event for an afternoon. It’s not even an overnight! But I’m sure you know best.”
“He gets his lip from you.” He pointed his spoon at her. “How do you expect him to get home anyway? Am I supposed to go pick him up at God-knows-what time when the team gets back to the school?”
“He said he would get a ride with someone. If you’re worried about having family time together, he’ll be with us tomorrow for dinner at Bobby and Claire’s.”
“Dinner?” Thompson repeated.
Ava set down her spoon with a sharp ting. “Robert, tell me you didn’t forget dinner with your son.”
“I didn’t forget! Of course I didn’t forget. The mayor is having a re-election dinner, the captain wants me there. You know how supportive Mayor Schumaker has been, even after he was off the Police Commission.”
“And we didn’t hear about this scheduling conflict sooner because…?” she asked, with the sort of snooty superiority that women always used when a man made an honest mistake.
“I can’t be expected to keep track of what I have and haven’t mentioned. We can reschedule with Bobby and Claire.”
“At the last minute like this? Claire will already be cooking for tomorrow.” Ava glared at him. “Teddy and I will go without you. And we’re taking the car. You can get a cab to the mayor’s party.”
The rest of dinner was decidedly chilly. Ava did the washing up while Thompson propped his feet up on the ottoman and read one of his automotive magazines. When Ava went up to bed at nine o’clock, he stayed up to wait for Ted. It was quarter of eleven before headlights swept across the front window and a car pulled up to the driveway. With the living room light reflecting off the dark glass, all Thompson could see was the vague shape of his son framed against the blazing headlights, waving back at the occupants of the car.
The key scraped in the lock and then the front door opened and shut. “Who was that who gave you a ride?”
“A classmate’s aunt.” Dumping his bag on the floor, Ted took off his coat and bent to unlace his shoes.
Thompson relaxed slightly. “Next time you want to do something outside school hours, you clear it with me first.”
“I told mom,” Ted said, retrieving his bag from the floor.
“Your mother isn’t in charge of this house. I am. Remember that next time.”
“Yes, sir,” Ted mumbled, scuffing the edge of the carpet with one foot. “Can I go to bed now, sir?”
“May I go to bed. Sir.”
Thompson jerked his head. “Go on.”
Dressing for dinner on Saturday Thompson couldn’t find his best tie, but Ava, who usually found those sorts of things for him, had left early in the afternoon with Ted to make the drive to Schenectady where Bobby and his new wife were living. So Thompson put on his second best tie with his Sunday suit and took a cab to the mayor’s house on South Lake Avenue. It was a stately late Victorian brick building backing onto Washington Park, light spilling out its doors and windows into the twilight, and the drive was thronged with automobiles disgorging Albany’s best dressed and most important figures.
There was a young man with a clipboard and startling white-blond hair taking names at the door. He checked Thompson off his list. “Cocktails right through there. Dinner is at eight with music afterward. Enjoy your evening, sir.”
Adjusting his tie, Thompson braced himself to mingle. The gladhanding had been unavoidable after his promotion to detective, but he’d never gotten comfortable with it. At least Mayor Schumaker’s time on the Board of Police meant that there were a number of old friends and acquaintances from the force attending. Thompson stopped to catch up with Rob Skylar, a former colleague who was now Police Commissioner in Schenectady.
“Wife not with you?” Skylar asked jovially.
“She’s in your neck of the woods as we speak, actually. A visit to our son and daughter-in-law couldn’t wait.”
“Oh, well you know how wives are with daughters-in-law. No grandbabies yet?”
Thompson shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Just you wait. How are your other boys doing?
“Good, good. John’s got promoted to Airman First Class.”
“That’s excellent. He was such a troublemaker, the Air Force is just the thing to whip him into shape. You’ve still got one at home, right?”
“Theodore, yes,” Thompson said, and steered the conversation on.
Half an hour later, Thompson was eyeing the canapes on the side board and wondering how much longer till dinner, when a familiar figure moved into his line of vision, surveying the food also.
“What are you doing here?” he said, before he could stop himself.
Simon Morris turned. He looked older in evening dress, out of his school uniform and with his hair slicked down like a respectable adult. “Hello, Detective. Didn’t I tell you that my aunt was invited?”
He had said something like that. “Didn’t think a stuffy event like this would interest a boy like you.”
“I’m just here for the food.” Morris grinned and popped a vol-au-vent in his mouth.
“I hear you had a rowing match yesterday.”
“That’s right. All the way to Gloversville and back. Weeknight matches are a drag.”
“How’d it go?”
Morris laughed ruefully. “Well, we didn’t come in dead last.”
“Glad to hear it.” Thompson glanced around the room, wondering if anyone was going to notice him making small talk with a teenager. “I’m going to go, ah…” he gestured vaguely.
“Sure. See you,” Morris said easily, turning back to the canapes, and Thompson made his escape in no particular direction. He was standing by the French double doors leading out onto the patio and the park beyond, when a woman’s voice behind him said, “I see you’re acquainted with my nephew.”
Thompson startled guiltily and turned to see a tall woman wearing pearls and a blue cocktail dress a little too modern for someone her age, holding a martini glass. Her hair was colored a fair, sandy shade and there was a distinct family resemblance around the straight nose and generous mouth.
“Morris? He’s at school with my son. Robert Thompson.” Recovering his composure, he held out a hand.
“Oh Mr. Thompson! Or should I say Detective. I’m Harriet Dreyfus, but everyone calls me Hattie.” She seized his hand in a firm grip. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“Dreyfus,” he repeated.
“That’s right. We gave Teddy a lift home just the other night. It’s wonderful to put a face to a name.” She dimpled at him and then put a hand over her mouth coquettishly, a gesture that suited a much younger woman. “Oh! You’re not hunting the murderer here tonight, are you?”
“Not at the moment, Mrs. Dreyfus,” Thompson said. “Mayor Schumaker was the former police commissioner, when I started on the force. The chief likes us to make a show of support for his campaign.”
“What a relief to hear, Detective. Gus has been telling me all about your investigation – he’s quite fascinated with the whole affair you know.”
“Gus?” Thompson asked.
“Augustus, after his mother’s father. Simon Augustus Michael Morris. He prefers Simon but it simply reminds me too much of my late brother.” She pressed a hand against her chest dramatically. “Even after all this time. So he’s Gus at home. I daresay that’s silly and sentimental.”
It was, but Thompson just grunted. You couldn’t agree with women when they said things like that, it was always a trap.
“It’s just terrible to lose family,” she continued. “My husband died shortly after we were married. Boating accident, just dreadful. It was just the two of us out on the lake and I couldn’t reach him without tipping the boat. I was terrified it would capsize and we would both drown. Lord, I still have nightmares about it. And then to lose Simon – Gus’s father, I mean — in the war.” She shook her head. “I feel so awful for the O’Briens. I met their little boy several times. Not a bad bone in his body. A saint, compared to Gus.”
“Talking about me?” Morris appeared at Mrs. Dreyfus’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to report they don’t have any stuffed mushrooms, but the deviled eggs are excellent.”
“That’s a shame, you know how I feel about stuffed mushrooms.”
“I do,” Morris said solemnly. “Can I get you another cocktail, Aunt Hattie?”
“Oh, would you dear?” She pressed her empty glass into his hand. “Get something for yourself, why don’t you?” She turned back to Thompson as Morris left and beamed again. “He can be a troublemaker but deep down, he’s the sweetest boy. I don’t know what I will do without him when he goes away to Boston in the fall.”
“Yes, I heard about Harvard. Congratulations.” Thompson had joined the police force right out of high school, and had been startled when Bobby had wanted to apply to colleges. He expected that kind of thing from Ted, not his eldest.
The dinner bell rang, and people began drifting into the grand dining hall. Thompson was seated between Skylar’s wife on one side and the wife of a city councilman, Mrs. Taylor, on the other. Down the table, Mrs. Dreyfus’s distinctive laugh rang out, and Thompson said casually, “Just met Mrs. Dreyfus. Interesting woman.”
“Oh, Hattie Dreyfus,” Mrs. Taylor said, with the relish that preceded gossip. “She’s quite eccentric. Lives alone in that big house, when she’s not traveling. Very rich, of course. She married young, and was widowed not long after. Less than a year, wasn’t it?”
“I believe so,” Mrs. Skylar said. “Got all his money. He was a good deal older than her, Mr. Dreyfus, from a successful steel family. I used to know his mother before she passed. Mrs. Dreyfus never remarried, and when her brother was killed in the war, she took in his son.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t met her before,” said Mrs. Taylor. “She’s not one for socials at the community center and they don’t attend church” —Mrs. Skylar tutted— “but she’s not particularly reclusive. Has guests from the City in and out all the time, I’ve heard.”
“What happened to the boy’s mother?” Thompson asked.
The ladies exchanged glances. “She died not long after her husband, in an accident. Fell off a bridge,” Mrs. Taylor added meaningfully.
“Something unfortunate in that family,” Mrs. Skylar said. “Whether it’s bad luck or temperament. One tragedy after another. The young nephew seems to be quite well brought-up, so perhaps fortune will take a turn for the better.”
“One can only hope,” Mrs. Taylor agreed. “Now, Detective Thompson, you must tell us all about the murders.”
Dinner was four courses and took too long, and then afterward there was more mingling and dancing in the reception hall. A five-piece band was playing jazzy hits from fifteen years ago in one corner, and Thompson caught a glimpse of Morris dancing with his aunt. He thought it might be nice to dance with Ava if she were here. Thompson had never been an excellent dancer but he was no clodhopper. When they had met, before the war, he and Ava used to go to a dance hall or a square dance every weekend. When had that stopped? With the children, surely, maybe even before. He couldn’t remember. Instead he drifted around the room making political small talk and reassurances about the investigation.
The hour grew late. Thompson’s feet ached from the marble floor and the pinch of his dress shoes. The crowd was thinning, and he scanned the room for the police chief, Hughes, to make his excuses. As he glanced around his eye caught on the familiar figure of Simon Morris slipping out onto the terrace with another young man behind him. It was the bright-haired boy who had been taking names at the door.
For no particular reason except a feeling in his gut, Thompson turned away from the dispersing party and crossed to the patio doors, which stood open, spilling light across the terrace. Beyond the ornate stone balustrade was the nighttime landscape of Washington Park. A set of shallow steps led down to a wide gravel path winding through the trees.
Thompson followed the crunch of footsteps and the sound of male laughter through the darkness, down the path to the lake. His heart thudded loudly in his ears, as if he were on the trail of something more sinister than a pair of boys sneaking away from a party.
The moon was just past full, casting generous illumination as Thompson’s eyes adjusted. Between the trees was the glimmer of the lake. There was a splash and a cheerful yelp as Thompson reached the edge of the lake.
A pile of clothes had been left on the shore. The boys were chest deep in the water, close together, their outlines merged into one shadow. Thompson’s pulse leapt, blood thrumming. Then in an abrupt movement Morris dunked the other boy under the water and stood alone in a spreading ring of ripples, head bent. The disturbed water gradually stilled, long past the time when someone ought to have emerged. Heartbeat lurching, Thompson had just begun to wonder what exactly he was watching, when in a great, gushing splash the other boy came up laughing, and they grappled together with such harmless boyishness that Thompson blinked and shook himself.
The movement attracted attention. The blond boy spotted Thompson over Morris’s shoulder and gave a soft, girlish shriek and splashing back abruptly away from Morris.
Morris turned, scanning the lake shore. “Who’s there?” he called, voice calm and cold.
Thompson cleared his throat and stepped out from the shadow of the trees.
“Detective Thompson?” Morris said, and laughed, tone warming abruptly. “Christ! You’ll give someone a heart attack lurking like that when there’s a murderer on the loose. What are you doing out here?”
“I could ask you the same thing. What are you two boys up to?”
“Just swimming, sir.” Kicking back in the water, Morris stretched out on his back so that his toes pointed at the sky, belly and thighs emerging like the pale underside of some sea creature breaching. If there had been any evidence of carnal activity to be read in his flesh, the cold water had dispelled it. His dick was nestled soft and small between his legs, though his nipples were puckered into two tight, pink pebbles. The other boy had his arms crossed over his chest, looking wary.
“You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
Morris grinned, teeth gleaming white in the moonlight. “Going to stay and watch out for us, sir?”
“Just make sure I’m not fishing either of you out of this lake in the morning.”
“Don’t worry, sir. My aunt knows where I am.”
“And who you’re with?” Thompson asked sharply.
“Yes, sir.” Morris was using his innocent voice, no-idea-why-you’re-asking-officer.
“Well.” He was reluctant to leave. Because of the danger, of course. But boys their age were entitled to reckless behavior and neither of them were his son. So he shoved his hands in the pockets of his suit jacket, feeling for his cigarettes, and said, “Don’t make trouble.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Morris said, smiling, drifting on his back in the moonlit lake.
The ringing of the bedside phone woke Thompson in the pitch dark. He fumbled for the receiver, grunted, “Hello?” On the other side of the bed Ava made a disgruntled noise and pulled a pillow over her head. She and Ted had already been home and in bed when the cab had dropped Thompson off the night before.
“Detective Thompson,” snapped the chief’s voice, “get your ass out of bed right now and meet me at the mayor’s house in fifteen minutes. There’s been another murder.”
Thompson dressed hastily and then spent an extra few minutes cursing and looking for the car keys, which weren’t in his jacket pocket since Ava had used the car last. He found them on the kitchen table. By the time he got out the door, the sky was lightening with the gray before dawn, the grass soaked with dew. His watch said 5:20 in the morning.
The mayor’s street was blocked off with cruisers, lights making a grim circus show play across the nearby buildings. Double parking at the curb, Thompson hurried up the steps to the front door, seeing in his mind’s eye a boy’s lean, rower’s body floating motionless in the lake. “Detective, thank God,” the officer at the door said. “The chief is having a fit.”
“What is it?” Thompson asked.
It was not a body in the lake.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said, standing in the doorway of the mayor’s bedroom.
“I know,” Officer Ledley, the shift sergeant, said with feeling.
There was blood everywhere. The white sheets and pillows were soaked with it, there were splashes on the cream colored carpet and spatters up the nearby wall, giving the leafy wallpaper a cheery holiday appearance. The mayor lay face-up on scarlet stained pillows, mouth gaping, with a deep, bloody gash across his throat.
Thompson removed his hat absently, holding it against his chest. “What do we know?”
“The maid came in an hour ago to lay out his shaving kit and do whatever maids do. Found him like this, started screaming.”
“Jesus,” Thompson said again. “Good Lord. Alright. I’ll need some gloves.”
Billy Willis, who was new on the force and looking slightly green around the gills, had already taken photos of the scene, and Ledley was dusting for prints. Thompson pulled on a pair of latex gloves and moved carefully around the room. Nothing beyond the bed appeared disturbed, and the mayor’s expensive pocket watch lay on the bedside table, but that was inconclusive. “I’m going to need someone familiar with the house to verify whether anything was taken,” he said to Willis who scribbled down a note.
“Yes, sir. His wife?”
“Start there. After this has been cleaned up, for God’s sake. Did someone call the coroner’s office?”
“His guys are on their way.”
“Thompson!” the chief’s voice bellowed from down the hall. “There you are. Do you want to explain to me what the fuck I’m paying you for? You’ve been looking for this bastard for two weeks, you were here in this house last night, and now the mayor is murdered in his bed? Do you have any idea how bad this looks for you? Hell, for me? For the department? If you want a job at the end of the week, you find this guy yesterday.”
“Sir. Understood sir, but it’s not clear this is the same killer,” Thompson began, jaw clenched. “The crime scene doesn’t begin to match what we’ve seen so far. It looks like it was done with a knife or…”
The chief waved a hand cutting him off. “No excuses. I’m taking Detectives Harper and Jones off organized crime, they’ll be on this with you. This is too big to wait on results.” He stopped and ran a hand over his face, grimacing. “Someone’s gotta take the shitstorm that’s coming and if it’s not the sick fuck who did this it’s gonna be the guy who couldn’t catch him, is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Thompson gritted out.
“Good. Now move your ass and do your fucking job. When the reporters from the Times show up I’d better have something to tell them.” He stomped out again.
“Thompson,” Ledley said from the en suite bath. “Someone washed up in here. The taps have been wiped and there’s blood in the sink.” There were drips of it on the tile floor also and a smear below the light switch. A bath towel was crumpled on the floor, stained rusty pinkish. The blood was barely old enough to turn brown, a few hours at most.
“Willis, see if anyone has spotted any blood trail or smears in the rest of the house,” Thompson said. “And get someone dusting for prints at all the entrances and exits.”
“After the party last night?” Ledley’s brows tilted doubtfully.
“Do you want to be the one to tell the chief we didn’t follow protocol to the letter?”
“You’re right, you’re right. At least in here there should be fewer people to differentiate. It’ll take at least until tomorrow to see if any of these prints match to ones we pulled from the previous crime scenes.”
“How likely do you think it is that we find something?”
Ledley shrugged. “Wouldn’t bet my pension on it.”
“That’s about what I thought.” A headache was pulsing behind Thompson’s eyes. “Who else is in the house right now?”
“His wife’s room is down the hall, and two of the help and a secretary sleep downstairs.”
“The wife hear anything?”
“Haven’t gotten anything useful out of her. She was having hysterics, and Officer Peyton took her to the kitchen for a soothing drink.”
Thompson sighed. “Have someone get me as soon as she’s calmed down.”
Detective Harper, usually of organized crime, arrived just behind the men from the mortuary, and the removal of the body was delayed while Harper went over the crime scene again, not turning up anything new. Thompson refrained from rolling his eyes as they compared notes.
As the mortuary men bagged up the body, Thompson said, “Mr. Potter was supposed to get back from Key West this weekend, right?”
“Yes, sir,” the coroner’s deputy said.
“I’d better have his final reports from this body and the others by the end of the day tomorrow, or heads will roll.”
The deputy, who had just stabilized Mayor Schumaker’s partially decapitated head as it went into the bag, grimaced and said, “I’ll tell him you said so, sir.”
The mortuary workers carried the bagged body out on a stretcher, and by the time they had gone, two lawyers, several city council members, and Mrs. Schumaker’s mother had all turned up. Thompson spent an hour corralling all of the civilians without too much disruption to the house, but Ledley was right, getting useful prints off anything other than the crime scene itself was hopeless.
By that time, Mrs. Schumaker’s nerves had been sufficiently pampered, and Thompson interviewed her, with Harper insisting on accompanying him.
Tearfully, clutching her mother’s hand, Betty Schumaker, who was all of twenty-eight to her husband’s fifty-seven, told them that she hadn’t heard anything or seen anything unusual. She’d been alone in her room all night after retiring from the party at half past eleven. There had been the sounds of the last guests leaving and the hired waiters and caterers cleaning up, and then nothing until she’d been woken by the maid screaming.
“We’ll have to get in touch with all the staff who were contracted for the party,” Harper said, and Thompson nodded wearily.
“Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt your husband? Did he have any enemies?”
She blinked incredibly blue eyes at him, their color standing out even more starkly for being swollen red. “He was a politician,” she said in a voice of confusion.
When Mrs. Schumaker had been bundled off with her mother and instructions not to leave the state, Thompson went back to the sitting room which had become a staging area for the investigation.
“We’ve assembled everyone who has a key, or regular access to the house, sir,” said Willis, coming up to Thompson’s elbow. “It’ll take longer to get in touch with all the party guests.”
Thompson checked his watch. It was late afternoon already and all he’d eaten since his unceremonious awakening was a squashed tuna sandwich one of the beat officers had brought several hours ago. “Let’s get started.” He looked down the lineup and saw, with a jolt of recognition, the white-blond young man who had been with Morris the previous night, looking nervous and ill-rested. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing. The young man noticed his attention, and shifted uneasily.
“Mr. Schumaker’s secretary, Gordon Halvorsen.”
“I’ll talk to him first,” Thompson said.
With Halvorsen alone in another small sitting room, Thompson made a show of opening his notebook, flipping through the pages, letting the man sweat, before he finally said, “Tell me about yesterday evening, what you did and where you were, from the beginning of the party.”
“I was marking off guests from the guest list for the first part of the evening, until dinner time.” Halvorsen was seated on an overstuffed couch with an eye-watering floral print.
“And was there anything unexpected about the guest list or the people who arrived?”
“No, sir. The only person who arrived without an invitation was Nathan Royal, the Port Commissioner, and that’s only because his granddaughter’s wedding was supposed to be this weekend, but she ran off to San Juan with the pool boy last week, so there was a change of plans.” Halvorsen fidgeted and clasped his hands between his knees. “There wasn’t anything else. I was watching the door the whole time. The front door, anyway. Right before dinner, I checked in with Mr. Schumaker to see if there was anything else he needed, and he said no.”
“And Mayor Schumaker didn’t say or do anything unusual?”
“I had the rest of the night off. I ate in the kitchen while the formal dinner was being served upstairs, and then I went back up to listen to the music.” He hesitated. Thompson gestured meaningfully. “Mr. Morris and I started talking and…and went for a swim.”
“And after that?”
“Then we – I went to bed.”
“We?” Thompson said.
Halvorsen swallowed. “I went to bed.”
“Would you sign a legally binding statement to that effect?” Thompson asked.
The young man gulped, and said nothing.
Thompson sighed. “How late was Morris with you? Please remember this is a murder investigation.”
Halvorsen squirmed. “This has nothing to do with the murder.”
“It has to do with where you were last night at what time and whether anyone can account for your whereabouts.”
“I went to bed around one and didn’t wake up until I heard Lynette screaming.” Halvorsen’s naturally pale complexion was chalky.
“Did you see or hear anything unusual?”
“Where were you this past Monday, the 27th?”
“That was the last murder, right? I was with Mr. Schumaker all day and attended a gala with him at the Elks lodge that evening.”
“And between the 13th and 15th this month?”
Halvorsen had regained some of his normal color. “I was in Kingston, visiting my parents for Easter. They could confirm that.”
Thompson made a note. “I’ll need a phone number. Can you think of any reason someone might want Mayor Schumaker removed?”
“He certainly had opponents, I don’t know that any of them would kill him. Mr. Benson, running against him this term, has been very vocal against Schumaker’s ties to McCarthy, so I suppose some radical Red might have done it. There were some big bills coming up. He was having meetings with some staff from the Senate Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, about partnering on crackdowns, but that wasn’t common knowledge.”
“Alright.” Thompson flipped his notebook closed. “Since you have no…appropriate alibi for last night, I have to ask you not to leave the area until the investigation is closed. If you decide there is anything else you want to tell me, put a call into the station.”
The further interviews were similarly inconclusive. The household staff consisted of two Negro maids who shared an attic room, a housekeeper, a cook and cook’s assistant who all lived elsewhere, and the secretary. They all, save for Halvorsen, had been with family or one another during the night. No one had noticed anything unusual. Preparation for the party meant that caterers, decorators, waitstaff, and musicians had been coming and going from the house all day Friday and Saturday and the kitchen door had been unlocked for most of that time. The housekeeper had locked it on her way home late Saturday night, after the last of the guests and help had departed, but anyone, even one of the guests, could easily have slipped into an empty room and hidden till nightfall.
In the meantime, the rest of the team, led by Harper, finished sweeping the house from top to bottom, and found no more traces of blood. If someone in the household had committed the crime, their bloody clothes and the murder weapon had vanished without a trace.
It was late by the time Thompson ended up at the station, in the chief’s office with Harper.
Chief Hughes clasped his hands together on top of the desk and said, “Alright, who did it? And don’t say you don’t know.”
Thompson and Harper exchanged a glance. “We are still ascertaining and assessing possibilities.”
“Not good enough. I need results. Pick one of the servants, any of them, I don’t care. Disgruntled employee, easy access; motive, means, and we have a case.”
Thompson grimaced. “I need to check on the alibi for one of the staff but the rest are all accounted for. Mrs. Schumaker is the only one with no alibi at all, and looked at one way it fits a profile. She’s much younger than him, and she’ll have all his money once probate is granted.”
The chief’s face was going red. “You can’t pin this on Betty Schumaker. A lady could never commit a horrible crime like that, just think of all the blood! Anyway she’s Joseph Kennedy’s wife’s sister-in-law’s third cousin once removed. Find someone else.”
“Sir,” Harper said, “I think we have to consider the possibility that the mayor’s death was a mob strike, unrelated to the other three. The dramatic nature of the execution alone.”
“Was there any evidence that the mayor was under pressure from organized crime?”
“His secretary did say that Schumaker was talking to a Senate committee about mafia crackdowns,” Thompson said.
“This just gets better and better,” the chief groaned. “Okay, Harper, you get in touch with the Gambinos and find out if there’s someone they want to take the fall for this. If we can do them a favor at the same time as getting this mess off our plates, two birds, one stone, et cetera.”
“But sir,” Thompson protested, “If you take whoever the mob wants to sacrifice, the real killer will still be out there.”
“Not if you’re any good at your job.” The chief checked his watch and sighed. “Go home you two. Get some sleep, kiss your wives. Tomorrow Thompson will keep looking for whoever really did it, and Harper, I expect you to find someone to put away for the mayor’s murder in the meantime.”
Monday morning, as Thompson came into the station, Marsha pointed at the chief’s door. “Boss-man wants you. Harper and Jones are already in there.”
“So there’s good news and bad news, boys,” Chief Hughes said, puffing on his cigar, when Thompson had arrived after a short detour to the coffee pot. “The good news is we’re getting back-up. The FBI is getting involved. The bad news is the FBI is getting involved. I know,” he added, as they all groaned, “I’m not happy with it either, but it’s a done deal. The Feds will be here by tomorrow afternoon. For now, don’t let it change your investigations. Dismissed.”
“Delightful,” Harper muttered, and for once Thompson agreed with him.
He finished his coffee while reading over the guest list from the mayor’s party, nothing jumping out at him except Harriet Dreyfus and guest. He imagined Halvorsen checking off their names, making eye-contact with Morris over the clipboard. Scowling, he put down the papers and gathered up his coat. “I’m going to follow up another lead at Mount Hawthorne,” he told Marsha. “If the chief asks, tell him yes, it’s relevant to the mayor’s case.”
It was a bright, warm day, now May had nearly arrived, and Thompson squinted against the sun through the windshield all the way to the school. He parked, pocketed his keys, and went up the main steps.
“Hello, Detective Thompson,” the secretary greeted him. “You looking for Mr. Pearson?”
“Simon Morris, actually. What class does he have?”
“It’s lunchtime, Detective. Everyone will be in the dining hall.” She glanced at the window. “Or, on a day this nice, maybe out on the quad.”
Thompson checked his watch. He’d gotten a later start than he thought. “Right. Thank you.”
The dining hall was a spacious, noisy room, smelling of floor wax and boiled corn. Boys congregated informally by age at the long tables, while the teacher on supervisory duty lectured some light-fingered student about stealing other people’s cookies. Thompson scanned the clusters of older boys but didn’t see Morris anywhere.
Turning, he went down the hall to the back doors of the main building, which opened out onto the lawn and the lake, with the other wings of the building curving in on either side. There were groups sitting on the steps and sprawled in small circles in the grass. Some of the boys had discarded their blazers and ties to throw a football back and forth, but Morris wasn’t among them.
Shading his eyes, Thompson scanned the quad, and his eye caught on a pair of boys lounging in the shade of a willow tree down near the lake. His pulse spiked abruptly and he clenched his teeth, striding forward.
Morris and Ted were sitting on an overturned canoe, sharing a cigarette and looking at an open sketchbook in Ted’s lap. Morris had his feet kicked casually out in front of him, his arms braced backward so that one arm was partway behind Ted’s body. Their heads were tipped close together, dark and fair, and both came up to look at Thompson when he stomped to a halt in front of them.
He glared at both of them, appreciating the way Ted quailed, and then said to Morris, “I have a few questions for you.”
“Sure, Detective. No problem.”
“Okay.” Morris got to his feet, brushing off his slacks, and passed the burning cigarette end to Ted. “See you, Teddy.” He followed Thompson up the steps into the building, and then into an empty classroom.
Thompson closed the door behind them and pulled out his notebook. “Where were you last night, between the end of the party and about four AM?”
“Why, has something happened, Detective?”
“Just answer the question.”
Morris chewed his lip, an unusual tell. “I was with the man you saw me swimming with.”
“Gordon Halvorsen,” Thompson said.
“That’s right.” Morris appeared unruffled.
“And what were you two doing?”
“What did Gordy say?”
“I’m not going to discuss another suspect’s testimony with you.”
Morris pursed his lips. “After we swam, we went to his room. Played cards, had a few drinks. Talked.”
“Talked,” Thompson repeated flatly.
Morris met his gaze. “That’s right. It’s something friends do. I left late.”
“Don’t know. Didn’t check my watch.”
“How did you get home?”
“I walked. My aunt’s house is just on the other side of the park.”
“So you spent an unspecified amount of the night with your friend, drinking and talking. Only drinking and talking?”
“Don’t forget the cards.” Morris smiled, and then the corner of his mouth tilted up, grin taking on a dangerous slant, and he said, “Why, you don’t think sodomy would make a good alibi for murder?”
Shocked, something hot rolled in Thompson’s stomach – anger, disgust. He stared at Morris, and Morris grinned back, apparently unashamed. It felt like letting a door slip open, like something had slithered into the room with them. The back of Thompson’s neck crawled. He cleared his throat, cast about for a composed response. “Given that it’s a felony as well as a crime against nature, no.”
Morris shrugged. “Didn’t think so. Was there anything else?”
“Did you see or hear anything unusual at any point in the night?”
“No. It was getting light out when I left, but I didn’t see anyone, or hear anything during the night. Gordy was still asleep.”
Thompson’s stomach clenched. “Asleep after what?”
“A night of cards and drinking, sir.” Morris smirked slightly. His mouth was pink, full lower lip gleaming where he’d been chewing it.
As Thompson watched, the faint grin widened. He yanked his gaze back to his notebook. “You’ll have to come down to the station after school and give a formal statement.”
“Yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Yes.” He snapped his notebook shut. “You stay away from my son.”
“From Teddy?” Morris asked, eyes widening in contrived innocence.
“That’s what I said. I don’t want you talking to him or doing school work together, or anything. If I find out you’ve been… corrupting him—”
“You’ll what?” Morris asked, a mocking curl to the corner of his mouth.
Striding forward, Thompson forced Morris back several steps until he bumped into the blackboard, using every ounce of professional intimidation he possessed to pin the boy to the wall without actually touching him. Morris’s eyes widened slightly.
“Just stay the fuck away from him,” Thompson growled.
They were nose to nose – Thompson himself was not a tall man, and Morris was nearly full grown and athletically built, but somehow the boy contrived to look up through his eyelashes despite their evenly matched sizes. He caught his lower lip between his teeth. “What are you afraid I’ll do, sir?”
“You’re a degenerate. I won’t have your sort near my son.” Thompson could hear the rasp in his own voice. They were close enough that he could see the freckles on Morris’s cheeks, the hints of gold in the sweep of his eyelashes.
“Are you afraid of what my sort might do?” Morris asked, and his breath gusted warm and sweet against Thompson’s mouth. “Or are you afraid he might like it?”
Thompson shoved Morris away, but there was nowhere for the boy to go, so he ended up simply rocking against the wall with Thompson’s hands pressed hard against his chest. His body was warm through his crisp white shirt. Jerking back, Thompson nearly tripped over a desk and swore violently. “You’re playing dangerous games, boy.” He yanked his coat straight, adjusted his hat. “If you lay a hand on my son, I’ll put you behind bars for it.”
The little delinquent seemed amused by that, as if he had no sense of the dangers the world contained. So invincible at that age, so naïve. It made Thompson want to teach him differently, beat that brazen attitude out of Morris with his fists. “You don’t have any kind of a case a good lawyer couldn’t take apart. I’ve been thinking of studying law, did Teddy tell you?”
Thompson almost did hit him at that, but Morris moved faster, slipping out into the hall where there were witnesses. “See you at the station, Detective!” he called cheerfully over his shoulder.
Behind the wheel of the Coupe de Ville, Thompson’s blood was still thumping loudly in his ears. He pulled down the long, tree-lined drive to the edge of the school property fast enough to send gravel spraying up behind the wheels, and when he turned onto the county road he opened the throttle, V8 engine roaring under the hood, burning off some of his mood. Instead of going straight back to the station, he stopped at the coroner’s office, because they were always worth yelling at.
“Have you useless bastards finished my reports?” he barked, when the secretary pointed him through to the examination room.
Mr. Potter pushed his glasses up his nose with the back of a hand not holding a scalpel. “No need to shout, Detective.”
“Not getting results any other way, am I?” He looked at the body on the slab. “That’s not even one of mine.”
“Other people continue to die also, you know,” Potter said mildly. “However, since you asked so politely, I do have Albans and O’Brien ready for you. The results were quite interesting.”
“Oh yeah? I could have used some interesting results two weeks ago, before the next two murders.”
Potter just gave him a disapproving look, as if he were a child throwing a tantrum. He was still fuming when he got back to the car with the two completed autopsy reports under his arm, cigarette jammed between his lips.
With the stack of files on the back seat, he turned the car toward the station again, but was still distracted by the jittery energy running beneath his skin. He checked his watch. Past three in the afternoon. Not too early to get a drink. Just one, to settle his nerves. Then he could concentrate on the reports and actually get something done with the rest of the afternoon.
He drove across the river to a liquor store on the east bank where he wouldn’t be recognized and got a bottle of their best whiskey, which was hardly worth drinking. The first mouthful burned, but the next few went down easier. The wind off the river cut through his coat. Capping the bottle he got back into the car. He drove carefully in a few aimless circuits of the run-down neighborhood, giving himself time to adjust to the initial buzz of the alcohol.
It warmed his stomach and relaxed his shoulders, just enough that he could focus on work. He turned the car back west toward the bridge. At a railroad crossing near the docks he rolled to a stop, waiting for a long line of hopper bottom coal cars, rattling by on the tracks.
A young man in tight Levis and a white undershirt was leaning against a brick wall at the corner, and as Thompson idled they made eye contact through the windshield. Thompson looked away. Coal cars still rolling by. He looked back. The boy licked his lips. He was wearing lipstick, Thompson saw.
Leaning across the car to roll down the passenger side window, Thompson gestured to the boy, who sauntered closer, hips swaying provocatively. Thompson’s heart beat faster, stomach knotted hot with alcohol and disgust.
The hooker rested his tanned forearms on the car door, ass thrust out. “Nice car, Mister.” Thompson could barely hear him over the din of the locomotive, reading the words off his red-painted lips.
“How much?” he asked, raising his voice.
“Five bucks for a blow.” The boy raised five skinny brown fingers, and then gestured illustratively. “Cash up front.”
Silently, Thompson fished out his wallet. The boy opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. Putting the car in reverse Thompson pulled around the block and parked the Coupe de Ville in the alley behind a boarded up pawn broker, out of sight of the main road. Money changed hands and the hooker bent over Thompson’s lap, plucking at his belt.
Tipping his head back against the seat, he closed his eyes. Chilly fingers delved into Thompson’s briefs, and he grunted disapproval, but they were gone momentarily, his dick pulled out through his fly and engulfed without ceremony in a warm mouth. The boy didn’t bother with showy tricks or teasing, just suckled him to hardness and then bobbed industriously over his lap. Thompson heaved in a deep breath and resisted the urge to grab for the boy’s thick curls, hand flexing on his thigh, eyes still squeezed shut.
The vague, floaty heat of a stiff drink narrowed and intensified, building in his balls. Starbursts lit behind his eyelids as he squeezed them tighter, biting his lip to keep a sound inside. His climax surged up abruptly, making his limbs tingle. There was the wet clicking sound of the boy swallowing, and Thompson’s cock twitched again, spurting weakly.
Panting, he opened his eyes. The car windows were fogged. The boy was wiping his mouth, face expressionless. Digging in his coat pocket, Thompson fished out his handcuffs and slapped one around the hooker’s wrist. “You’re under arrest.”
“Motherfucker!” the boy yelped. “You’re a fucking cop?”
“Language,” Thompson said, snapping the other cuff around the passenger side door, so the boy’s nearer arm was wrapped across his body enough to prevent him from lunging across the car.
“You cunt-shitting, cocksucking, goat-fucking, hypocritical son of a bitch! Rot in fucking hell you fucking pig!” The cuffs rattled against the car door with his struggles.
Thompson tucked his still-damp dick back into his pants. There was a red smear of lipstick on one edge of his fly. Lighting a cigarette, he turned over the engine and pulled out of the alley in the direction of the station as the young man continued swearing at him.
At the station, Thompson flicked the butt of his cigarette away on the curb, hauled the boy out of the car, recuffed him with both hands behind his back, and manhandled him up the steps.
“Detective Thompson,” Marsha said, somewhat urgently, as he came through the door. “Finally. There’s a Mr. Morris here giving a statement and he has a Mrs. Dreyfus with him. She’s been asking for you.”
“Dammit.” He’d managed to forget about Morris and his statement for nearly an hour. There was a steel bar bolted to the wall behind the main desk, and Thompson cuffed the prostitute to it, returning the handcuff key to the inner pocket of his jacket. The boy could cool his heels and wait for booking while Thompson dealt with Morris. “I’ll be back for you,” he warned, pointing a finger. The hooker glared at him, mouth twisted in a silent snarl. His lipstick was smeared.
Willis was with Morris at Willis’s desk, both of them bent over a paper. Morris’s aunt turned as Thompson approached.
“Detective Thompson, there you are!” Mrs. Dreyfus exclaimed in an operatic voice that carried across the bullpen. “Am I to understand that my nephew is a suspect in a murder? Haven’t you got better things to do than harass adolescents? He’s a schoolboy Mr. Thompson, for shame!”
Willis grimaced behind her back and gestured to the statement form on the desk in front of him. “We’re nearly done, Detective, sorry.”
“Mrs. Dreyfus, this is all just routine investigation…”
“Routine? Multiple murders are routine? What is the world coming to?”
“We are pursuing every possible avenue,” he assured her. “If you would just—”
“Shit!” Morris exclaimed, and Thompson whipped around. The pen had leaked, getting ink all over the page, ruining it.
Willis swore also. “Damn, we’ll have to start again.”
“Language, gentlemen,” Mrs. Dreyfus intoned, before turning back to Thompson. “I can’t condone you wasting valuable time and police resources investigating an innocent boy when there is a murderer on the loose!”
Thompson bit his tongue on his first response to the description of Morris as “innocent” and said, “Mrs. Dreyfus, I assure you we are making all possible attempts to bring the murderer to justice. This is just part of the procedure.” Out of the corner of his eye he tracked Morris and Willis to the front desk, where Willis retrieved a new pen and clean copy of the statement form from Marsha, and began scribbling at it. Morris was leaning on the desk, saying something to Marsha, making her laugh. Behind them, the prostitute was slouched against the wall, scowling.
“Your attempts didn’t do much for poor Mayor Schumaker! He was a great friend of my late husband’s, you know! They were boys together.”
The chief poked his head around his office door and gave the room an incredulous glance. “Quiet down out here!”
“Chief Hughes,” Mrs. Dreyfus said, “surely you disapprove of how all this has been handled! Such incompetence! To think this has gone on for weeks already. None of us are safe in our beds!”
“A terrible mess, Mrs. Dreyfus. Excuse me, I’m in the middle of something.” Behind her, the chief caught Thompson’s eye, drew one finger across his throat in a slashing motion and mouthed deal with this. His office door slammed, blinds rattling.
“Mrs. Dreyfus, if you would just sit for a moment and calm down…”
“Calm down! I won’t calm down! This is not the time to calm down! It’s a disgrace, you know! An absolute disgrace! You, and every man here ought to be ashamed of yourselves, you—”
“Mrs. Dreyfus!” Thompson roared. “Shut your mouth right now, you hysterical sow!”
Silence fell abruptly throughout the station. Eyes all around the room were on the two of them. Mrs. Dreyfus drew an enormous breath, bosom heaving. “Well—” she began.
“I’m finished with this,” Morris said behind Thompson’s shoulder, and Thompson turned to see him holding up the signed statement. “Aunt Hattie, we can go. Right, Detective? That was everything?”
Thompson pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, for God’s sake, get out of here, and take that woman with you.”
Morris’s mouth flattened, but he merely put the paperwork down on a nearby desk, straightened the paperclip holding the sheets together, and took his aunt’s arm. They swept out of the station together, leaving Thompson fuming.
He turned, with Morris’s statement in one hand, to get the booking paperwork started, and lurched to a halt. The prostitute was nowhere to be seen.
“Where did that boy go?” Thompson snapped.
Marsha looked around, blinking. “I don’t know, sir.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? He was cuffed to the wall right behind you! Did he vanish into thin air?”
“Was he a suspect?”
“No, he was a – it doesn’t matter who he was if we can’t keep track of criminals in our own goddamn station!”
“I’m sorry, sir!” Marsha squeaked. “There was all that shouting and Willis needed that paperwork, and I didn’t realize I was supposed to be watching that kid special-like.”
Thompson slammed his fist against the desk, knocking over a cup of pencils that rolled and scattered on the ground. Marsha scurried to pick them up and Thompson turned, striding out of the station. The hooker, of course, had vanished like the street rat he was, with Thompson’s set of handcuffs, no less. Reaching the curb where the Coupe de Ville was parked, Thompson kicked a tire and swore viciously.
The bottle of whiskey was still in the car. Sliding into the front seat, Thompson tossed the statement in the back on top of the other files, retrieved the bottle from the footwell and unscrewed the cap. By the time he’d drunk several more ounces of it, he had calmed down enough to feel foolish sitting in front of the station in his car with a bottle of whiskey in a paper bag. It was nearly five o’clock anyway. Closing the bottle, he put the car in gear and turned toward home.
He parked in the driveway, only running over Ava’s petunias a little. They were bedraggled by the late frost anyway.
Gathering up the coroner’s files, he checked the mailbox as he passed, out of reflex, and let himself into the house. It smelled like banana bread. Ava and Ted were at the kitchen table with a game of cards spread out between them. Ted was laughing, but the sound stopped when the front door closed.
Hanging his hat on its hook, Thompson tucked the coroner’s files under his arm and flicked through the mail. Ava glanced up at him and began gathering up the cards. Ted pushed back his chair and stood.
Thomspon frowned down at a catalog, addressed to one Theodore Thompson. He flipped it over. “What is this, Massachusetts School of Art?”
“What? Let me see,” Ted said.
“What are you doing getting mail from these yahoos?”
“Nothing,” Ted said, grabbing for it. Thompson turned, holding it out of his reach and squinting at the fine print.
“Student application? Oh no, no son of mine is going to some sort of art college.” Taking the catalog by one edge, he ripped it in two.
“Dad!” Ted yelped.
Thompson doubled them over, ripped them again with some effort, and waved the pieces in his son’s face. “If you have to go to college, you can go to a state school like your brother, but if you think I’m going to let you throw away money and time getting some sort of useless, faggoty arts education, you’ve got another thing coming!”
“Fuck you!” Ted shouted.
“You little—” Thompson raised a fist but Ted dodged around the kitchen table and got one hand on the back door.
“I hate you and I hope I never see you again,” Ted yelled and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
“I’m going to give him the beating of a lifetime when I get my hands on him,” Thompson growled. Ava stood with her back to the counter, knuckles pressed against white lips, glaring at him. He threw the torn class catalog on the floor. “Anything else like this you see gets pitched straight into the trash. I don’t want any more of this nonsense.” He sat heavily at the kitchen table, putting the coroner’s files down in front of him. “And get me a drink. I’ve got work to do tonight.”
He nursed a tumbler of scotch and a cigarette as he spread the coroner’s files out in front of him; flimsy carbon copies of the reports, and photos of both Albans and O’Brien laid out naked on mortuary tables, bruising livid around their necks. O’Brien’s gave the cause of death as asphyxiation by manual strangulation, and gave approximate measurements for the hand that had killed him, about nine inches from thumb to pinkie.
Ava put a plate of roast beef and green beans at his elbow and took her own meal to the dining room without a word. Thompson barely glanced up. He tapped ash into the ashtray and dragged his capped pen along the lines of chicken-scratch, mentally cursing Potter’s terrible handwriting and terrible work ethic simultaneously.
Other external injuries in O’Brien’s file included bruising on his wrists and thighs, both already faded at time of death, and fresh scraping on his palms and knees where he appeared to have been thrown to the ground in the fight that ended his life. The coroner’s note went on, Some inflammation in and around the anal opening. No residue of semen or evidence of immediate sexual activity. Cause indeterminate.
Thompson took another mouthful of scotch. So, O’Brien was a fairy. Not surprising given his attachment to Morris, and everyone’s descriptions of O’Brien as bookish and quiet. Morris, a handsome older boy, was probably an easy figure for adoration, and had no doubt encouraged O’Brien’s attentions, shameless pervert that he was. Popping the cap off his pen with his thumb, Thompson made a note in his notebook to ask Potter, the useless bastard, for a list of other plausible causes of anal inflammation, but under the principle of parsimony, he doubted any other explanation was needed. O’Brien’s deviancy was quite possibly due to immorality in his mother. One never knew, in a household like that.
At the bottom of the page under Additional Details was scribbled, Blood and tissue under victim’s fingernails appears to match time of death — blood type B+; dirt and organic materials on victim’s body and clothes match soil samples 54-1724 through 54-1730, taken from the crime scene. Very little new to learn there.
Thompson flipped to the second file, Edwin Albans. Asphyxiation by ligature strangulation, with cloth fibers embedded in the skin at the abrasion, identified as cotton under microscopic investigation. The dish towel, presumably, although he jotted a note to confirm with the evidence department that the towel from the crime scene was indeed cotton. No internal injuries were noted and no other external injuries sustained at time of death, but the report noted a number of partially-healed scratches on his forearms, biceps and wrists.
Thompson froze, pen hovering over his notebook. He flipped the page over to the additional photos stapled to the report. There were close-ups of Albans’ arms, annotated in pen with the length and breadth of the scratches, but Thompson was gripped by their positioning. He’d seen marks like that before on perps and corpses. They were the marks left when someone fought an attacker who was holding him down from the front, especially if his arms were too short to reach his assailant’s face.
A glance at Albans’ blood type confirmed it. How the fuck had they missed that? But of course, they hadn’t undressed Albans at the crime scene before the coroner’s men took him away and he had been wearing a long-sleeved shirt, with ill-fitting cuffs that hid even the line of crescent-shaped cuts on each wrist, 3-6mm deep according to the report, and each less than an inch apart, where someone with small hands had gripped desperately at the man strangling him.
Thompson fumbled for his glass and found it empty. The bottle was on the counter. Getting up slightly unsteadily, he poured himself two fingers and drank it straight. So, the mystery of O’Brien’s death was solved–would have been weeks ago if it hadn’t been for Potter’s goddamn vacation–and his death had been avenged by someone already.
He stared out the window over the sink, seeing nothing but his own reflection in the black glass. Teddy was out there, he thought suddenly, with a plunge in his stomach. Alone and on foot. A soft boy, not a fighter. Like O’Brien. Thompson sloshed more scotch into his glass and gulped it with a grimace, lit a new cigarette.
Assuming all the strangulations were done by the same person had been a mistake. Thompson’s cigarette had burned down to the filter. He flicked it into the sink and lit a new one. Maybe Harper’s theory about the mob was right, maybe the most recent death was unrelated. That would center all the other murders around the school – someone who knew about Albans’ involvement with the O’Brien family, and someone who knew McCreary.
Going back to the table, he sorted through all the papers again and found on the bottom of the stack Morris’s signed statement. He scanned through it, lip curling at seeing the same details Morris had fed to him earlier at the school. …spent the evening playing cards and talking with a friend. Fell asleep over drinks, departed at an unknown time in the early morning… What was it Morris had said that afternoon, in the classroom? That it had been getting light out when he left the mayor’s mansion? He’d been distracted by Morris’s filthy insinuations and arguing over Ted, but something about that timeline niggled at Thompson’s mind.
He frowned at the dark window. It was past nine now, well into the night even though at this time of the spring sunset and sunrise changed fast.
Thompson’s hand clenched around his glass. Morris had said he left at first light, but the body had been discovered before that. It had still been dark when Thompson was roused by the phone. By dawn on Sunday morning, the house had been already crawling with police.
Setting his glass down by the sink, Thompson shuffled the files on the table into an approximate pile and headed for the front door. “I’m going out,” he called to Ava, shrugging on his coat and jingling the car keys in the pocket.
“What, now? Where on earth are you going?” She poked her head out of the dining room, frowning. “Have you been drinking?”
“Got to look into something,” he said, already shouldering the door open. “When Ted gets back tell him he’s grounded until pigs fly and that he’s not to set a foot out of his room, including to school, until I’ve dealt with him.” The front door slammed behind him.
He had never made the drive to the school at night. Trees leapt up suddenly out of the dark into the pool of the headlights and vanished just as fast. It was possible, Thompson acknowledged to himself, that he was less than sober. Still, he made it to Mount Hawthorne without incident, parking the car and slipping the keys into his pocket.
The dormitories were in the east wing. He still had the skeleton key from his investigation of McCreary’s rooms. It took several tries to fit it into the lock but when he managed the door opened on smooth-oiled hinges.
The building was filled with the thick, warm silence of many people sleeping, and Thompson took the stairs as quietly as he could. He had been up this way before, a week ago, when Morris had invited Thompson to walk him to his room, all innocent provocation. Thompson hadn’t seen it at the time for the magnificent manipulation it was.
He remembered the room, the last door at the end of the hall. He thought about trying the master key, but basic courtesy overruled him and he knocked instead. His gentle raps echoed enormously loud in the sleeping silence. For a long moment there was no response, and then as he lifted his hand to try again, or to try the door handle, there was a soft shuffle of footsteps and the door was pulled open.
Morris stood squinting at him in the doorway, bare-chested, wearing nothing but striped pajama bottoms and the gold medallion around his neck. “Detective Thompson?” he rasped. His voice was rough and low with sleep. “What are you doing here?”
“You lied about your whereabouts on the night of the mayor’s dinner. There are some serious inconsis…sistencies in your statement.” He managed to spit out all the sibilant sounds fairly clearly.
Morris’s eyebrows rose. “Detective, are you drunk?”
“Just answer the question,” Thompson growled.
“We can’t talk here.” Morris glanced down the hall. “Hang on, let me get my shoes.” He vanished back into his room and emerged a minute later with his leather loafers on his bare feet, and his peacoat over his naked chest. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“Shhh. Keep your voice down.” Morris cast a look over his shoulder as he led Thompson back down the stairs. He seemed to know exactly where to step to avoid creaking. “I don’t want to be caught with a drunk man in my room in the middle of the night, do I?”
Thompson gritted his teeth but they’d already reached a door. It wasn’t the one Thompson had come in by, instead it opened out onto the quadrangle, facing the lake. The waning moon hadn’t risen yet, and Thompson could barely see the long expanse of the lawn and the lakeshore at its edge. He startled when a warm hand gripped his, and then Morris was tugging him along, feet making wet sucking noises in the muddy ground.
“What—” Thompson began but Morris shushed him again.
They reached the edge of the lake and a block of darkness resolved itself into the boat house. Morris evidently had a key, as he fiddled with the lock and then swung the door open, gesturing Thompson inside and stepping in after him. The door clicked shut, closing them in pitch blackness. “There,” Morris said in a normal tone. “We can talk freely. Now, what am I supposed to have lied about?”
“The time you left the mayor’s mansion,” Thompson said.
“Oh, that,” Morris said, unconcerned. There was a click and a sudden brilliant light broke the complete darkness. Blinded, Thompson threw his arm over his eyes. When he managed to squint and see anything at all, he realized Morris had a flashlight, propped upright on its silver end and reflecting off the ceiling.
It was not a bright light at all except in contrast to the night, and cast eerie shadows from oars, life jackets, and other jumbled sporting equipment in the shed. It also caught the gold of Morris’s hair and his high cheekbones, while shadowing his eye sockets into dark, depthless hollows. “Yes, I stretched the truth a little. I thought it would be better for Gordy, if I could give him an alibi for the whole night.”
“You realize falsifying a signed statement is a crime.” There was not much room between a row of oars standing up in rings bolted to the wall and some rickety shelving laden with badminton racquets and a rolled up net. They were standing close enough together that Thompson could smell the mint toothpaste on Morris’s breath.
“Gordy didn’t do it, sir.” Morris gave him the contrite look that Thompson had finally learned to disbelieve utterly; head lowered, gazing up through his lashes. He bit his lip and shifted closer, so Thompson could feel his body heat in the chill night air. “Nobody would have the energy for murder after that many orgasms.”
That easy admission hit Thompson like a fist to the gut. “I thought you were sticking to plausible deniability,” he managed.
“I changed my mind,” Morris breathed against Thompson’s ear, making fine hairs rise all over his body. “Why are you here, detective?”
Thompson swallowed. “Because you lied about where you were when Saturday night. Where and when you were. When you where were…where.” The words tripped and tangled on his tongue. Morris’s hand was beneath his jacket, pressed against his belly through his shirt, a little point of radiant heat.
“Surely that’s not the best lead you have.” He clicked his tongue. “That’s hardly anything. I think maybe you just wanted to see me.”
“Been thinking about me, sir?” Morris purred. “I’ve been thinking about you. About how hard you’ve been working on this investigation and how much you deserve a break. I’d like to give you one.” There was his other hand, inside Thompson’s jacket, curling under his waistband. Thompson lifted both his own hands to Morris’s arms, intending to push him away but lacking the strength to do so.
“Close your eyes,” Morris whispered. “Let me take care of you.”
Thompson shook his head, but Morris was already slipping to his knees, undoing his belt just as deftly as the whore that afternoon. That boy’s lipstick was still on his dick, Thompson realized with an unpleasant jolt as Morris pulled his thickening cock out through his fly.
Morris hadn’t noticed, or didn’t mind. He parted his lips and let his tongue loll out, as if awaiting sacrament and Thompson’s cock twitched and lifted to meet it. Morris sighed dreamily, gust of warm breath making Thompson shudder, and gave the tip of his cock an almost chaste kiss. Thompson groaned.
If the boy that afternoon had been a professional, Morris was an artist. Thompson couldn’t remember the last time someone had played with his cock as if they enjoyed it, nuzzling and suckling, speeding up and slowing down, prolonging it. He could barely remember anything outside their little ring of warm light, the close, safe confines of the boat house, and Morris’s mouth on him.
When Thompson grew close again and Morris made to draw back again, Thompson made an urgent noise of protest and grabbed for his head. He threaded his fingers in Morris’s hair, wild with it. The strands were silky under his fingers, the pomade washed out.
In the car with the prostitute, Thompson hadn’t been able to look, but now he couldn’t stop looking. Simon Morris was angelic on his knees, with the warm beam of the flashlight gilding his tousled hair gold, lips stretched around Thompson’s cock. He glanced upwards, light glinting off his eyes, and then they fluttered shut and Morris took his cock deep enough that the head pushed into Morris’s throat.
Tossing his head back with a shout, Thompson came blindingly, dizzyingly, and felt Morris sucking him dry. His knees were weak, and he leaned back against the rack of oars, eyes closed.
Morris took him by one wrist, pressed a gentle kiss against his palm, and tugged his hand to one side. Loose and dizzy with orgasm, feeling every one of the drinks he’d had since 3PM, Thompson let Morris move him. He took Thompson’s other hand also, thumb caressing his pulse point soothingly, and Thompson thought of nothing in particular until suddenly he felt cool metal against his skin and heard the very familiar metallic ratchet of a handcuff closing.
He jerked away but Morris’s grip on his other wrist was suddenly like steel and Thompson wasn’t fast or strong enough to stop the second cuff snapping around his wrist. The chain, he saw as he rattled them, was looped through the bar that held the oars upright against the wall, very like the bar at the station where he had chained the prostitute earlier in the day. In fact, the cuffs were familiar too. In the low light he could see the faint gleam of the Albany PD crest etched in thin lines onto the right cuff.
“What– These are my cuffs! The cuffs that whore stole!”
Morris wiped his mouth on his coat sleeve. “You mean that hardworking young man who gave you a nice blow job before you arrested him? Yes, I kept them after I helped him out of them.”
“You—What– What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Thompson yanked against the cuffs, making them bite into his wrists. “This is—Let me out immediately!”
“I don’t actually have the key. You do, somewhere. I didn’t bring my paperclip.” He shrugged and got to his feet, brushing off the knees of his pajama pants.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re playing at but you had better stop this right now or I’ll…I’ll…” Thompson’s heartbeat was roaring in his ears.
“Or what? I promised you a break, didn’t I?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“A break in the case,” he said, as if Thompson were being thick. “You haven’t figured it out? I think it’s time for you to meet Saint Michael.” Reaching up to his chest he lifted the gold medallion and held it up so it caught the light, close enough that Thompson could see the stamped image of a winged man holding a sword. “Saint Michael the archangel, warrior of the Lord,” he said thoughtfully. The saint’s icon glinted as Morris twisted it from side to side. “The first person to kill in God’s name, one might say. Patron saint of police officers, amusingly enough, and our very own mascot of doing the wrong things for the right reasons.”
“The right reasons,” Thompson repeated. His mind felt like it was dragging through mud – exhaustion and alcohol swamping the deceptive clarity of panic into a useless morass. “Like killing Albans because he killed O’Brien.”
“Very good!” Morris said, teeth gleaming when he smiled. “This was Oliver’s.” The medallion flashed between his fingers as he tucked it back beneath his jacket. “And Oliver was mine.” Morris’s voice dropped suddenly low and vicious, and Thompson felt hairs rise all over his body. “He was mine, and that fucking swine Albans touched him, hurt him, and when Ollie fought back Albans killed him. So I went to his apartment and played nice, and he invited me in for a drink.” His voice turned sing-song. “And when his back was turned I grabbed a dish towel and put it around his neck. I only wish I’d done it sooner, and Ollie would still be alive.” He closed his hand around the medallion of Saint Michael. “Albans took this off Ollie – I guess he thought it was worth something – and I took it off Albans, when I killed him.”
A surge of adrenaline cut through the cotton wool in Thompson’s head. Belatedly, he realized his own life was in acute danger. He tested the cuffs again, gently this time, quietly. No give there. He had the cuff key in one of his pockets, if he could twist around to reach it. Which pocket had he put it in? Fuck. His heart thundered under his ribs, almost painful.
“And the others?” he asked, to keep Morris talking.
Morris lifted one shoulder in a shrug, bone-chilling in its casualness. “Well, then I knew how easy it was. Mr. McCreary liked to diddle the fifth graders. He’d have favorites, like Timmy. Mostly they didn’t tell anyone, or if they did no one believed them, but I promised Timmy I would make McCreary stop, and I did. Mayor Schumaker I just didn’t like, mostly. His wife is too young for him and he laughs at his own jokes.” Morris made a face. “And he’s a McCarthyist.”
“We weren’t sure Schumaker was killed by the same person,” Thompson said, carefully inching his hip closer to his cuffed hands. The tip of his pinkie brushed the opening of his jacket pocket.
“I didn’t mean for it to be so messy.” Morris grimaced. “I don’t like blood. I had to walk home covered in it that night, and Aunt Hattie had to help me get it out of my wool suit. My Italian loafers were ruined. It was potter’s wire, they use it to cut clay off a block. Turns out it cuts flesh too. I probably should have seen that coming, but I didn’t realize it would slice like that. Got the idea to try it from Teddy, actually. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio with him.”
At Ted’s name, a surge of terror swamped all subtlety and Thompson struggled against the cuffs, snarling, “Don’t you talk about my son! Don’t look at him, don’t you fucking dare lay a hand on him!”
Morris held up both hands. “It’s alright! I won’t hurt Teddy. That’s the last thing I want to do. He’s so sweet and smart, and such a talented artist.”
“You get his fucking name out of your filthy, cocksucking mouth, you murdering bastard!” Thompson kicked out and missed Morris’s legs as Morris skipped sideways. His foot hit a mesh basket full of soccer balls, which tipped over with a crash.
“Calm down!” Morris exclaimed.
“Calm down?” Thompson shouted. “You’re going to try to kill me!” He kicked again, and Morris dodged and then slipped up next to him, not quite close enough to headbutt, but too close to kick with any force. Thompson tried anyway, and Morris gave an annoyed huff, swinging a leg over both of Thompson’s and clamping them together with his thighs. Thompson was suddenly absurdly aware that his dick was still hanging out.
“I wish I didn’t have to,” Morris said, so earnest it made Thompson’s skin crawl. “I really do. You want to do the right thing, even though you’re a bad husband and a bad father, and you were rude to my aunt.” He cocked his head thoughtfully. “Sort of the opposite of a Saint Michael type. Doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Maybe you don’t deserve to die for that, but you’re going to arrest me otherwise.” He pulled something out of his pocket that made a silky sound. A school tie, Thompson saw, throat clenching with panic.
“Please, don’t. Morris, Simon, please. You don’t have to do this. Wait, please, stop, stop! Think of my family, my wife, my sons.” His eyes stung and he swallowed convulsively. “Think of Ted. What this will do to him.”
Morris nodded solemnly, wrapping the tie around both hands, with a length between them. “It’s a terrible thing to lose a father. I’ll have to comfort Teddy.”
“No, stop, no!” Thompson thrashed between the cuffs and Morris’s strong body, tears leaking from his eyes, unable to dislodge him. “Stay away from my son!”
“Don’t worry.” The fabric of the tie was smooth against Thompson’s throat. Lit from behind, Simon Morris glowed like a saint. “I’ll take good care of him. I promise.”
aaa aaaaaaaa ok. aa. this one took a long time to warm up and i wasnt sure i was going to finish it but im glad i did. the gradual reveal of thompson’s scummy nature, like. he came off as gruff and rude to start with but diving down into how he’s abusive and homophobic and all the rest. as unlikeable as the real police but much more compelling. simon, on the other hand, my favorite. i’d love to see more from his point of view, but i think telling it from the outside perspective enhanced the flavour. im also, in general, such a fan of urban angel imagery, the intersection of streetlights and halos, the idea of holy corruption. his talk at the beginning about how its all a joke, none of them are actually religious, etc; contrasted with his not-quite-religious fervor at the end- that was really good. thanks for sharing!
Oh SHIT this was a wild ride, A+, I absolutely loved it. Sadly it’s easy to see how Thompson dying probably makes everyone else’s lives a lot better.
I enjoyed how much of this was a genuine mystery: I clicked to some of the clues early on, like how muscular Simon’s forearms were and how uncomfortable Timmy was about his late teacher, and every twist and turn feels earned. Thompson uncovers things at a reasonable pace where even when he’s stuck it feels like the reader is always making progress towards whodunit. He’s also a total bastard, and the text is clearly aware that he is while also trusting people to recognize this fact themselves without needing to make him terrible at literally everything. Simon himself fills the room so much in every scene he’s in that the reveal feels more like an inevitability than anything else! Really engaging period piece. I’m excited to see what you next bring to the table!
God damn, this was so fun!! You had me guessing til the very end, I couldn’t figure out how the threads would come together and it was all so elegant and perfect, especially with Saint Michael coming up at the end, and I loved the way Simon was so casual until he was unhinged, and just– this was good. I really enjoyed it.
Godddd how obviously horny Thompson was for Simon (and other young men) while also like. Clocking them and telling his son to stay away from them. The way he started out kind of sympathetic, because like, yeah he’s trying to solve a murder, but then he’s just. Kind of not nice. And then you’re like, oh he’s also a shit dad, and then Oh, he’s also a shit husband, and then it’s like. Actually this guy sucks a lot! That was a really well-done character arc, even though obviously this asshole doesn’t learn or change (well. until he does lmao).
Simon! Is! Valid!!!
I am also in awe of how well you did this mystery. I figured out some of the pieces, but I couldn’t see how they all came together until the end, when Thompson figured it out. Extremely satisfying!
Oh, that was FUN! Thompson was awful from the get-go — like a laundry list of toxic masculinity — so I’m certainly happy to see him get his just desserts. Somehow I think after a publicly appropriate amount of mourning, his family will be JUST FINE actually. Just sitting here thinking about why he was so perfectly hateable, my mental list is out of control.
I loved watching all the pieces start to come together. Why someone had killed McCreary was my earliest right guess — kid scared of adult men says he didn’t like the guy, others say the teacher was always spending extra time with that outside of class? And fucking Thompson, “Sounds like he thought you needed extra help” oh my GOD. That scene was also telling in that the kid asked for Morris for emotional support.
My favorite part of the big reveal at the end was the throwaway line about Aunt Hattie helping Morris clean up all the blood. With that and the bit about her oh-so-unlucky older husband, I get the feeling some habits run in the family and frankly, I love that for them.
oh, i ADORED this – i love a narrator who can’t see what’s in front of him, who can’t see the harm he’s doing or the reasons for the reactions he’s having even as he describes it, and simon was such a delightful antihero with just the right amount of manipulativeness (is that even a word? it is now!) and charm and righteousness