I look back and second-guess myself about Andrew McAfee, imagine I could have seen further into the cloud of dangerous secrets that surrounded him. But I know nothing that happened can be changed, no dead brought back to life. I had no way of recognizing the tangled webs all around me at the very time I thought I had found sanctuary.
* * *
A middle-of-the-night call used to mean a dead body. All that changed when I moved twelve miles out of Kansas City to this little college town. Not only did I trade the war zone of inner-city policing for a peaceful college campus, but I owned a house, a dog, and plants that were actually alive. Now, my collie, Lady, was barking at the ringing phone, unaccustomed to disturbances at two in the morning.
I jerked awake in practiced reflex. My first thought was of murder, but my new reality came back to me. Couldn’t be Homicide. Was it my ex-husband to tell me my dad had wrecked his car while driving drunk?
I grabbed the phone from the bedside table. “Bannion here.”
“Chief! It’s Dave Parker. I found a body!”
On automatic pilot, I swung out of bed, wondering how the hell that brand-new hire for the campus police had managed to find a corpse on Chouteau University’s pristine campus. Wilma Mankiller, the survivor cat I’d brought from the city, jumped from her side of the bed and hid. She knew the phone ringing in the middle of the night meant I’d be storming around with no patience for pets.
“Where? Report, Dave.” I pulled underwear and a sweater from drawers.
“Sorry. I just never…”
I seized one of my old black Homicide pantsuits from the closet and started to dress. “Slow down and breathe, Dave.” I heard him take several uneven breaths. “Now, report.”
“Sorry, Chief. I was making rounds, going past the News offices like you wanted.”
I had asked the whole department to keep a special eye on the Chouteau University News editor in chief, Andrew McAfee, after breaking up a fight between him and his news editor and hearing from the faculty adviser about sexual assault and theft claims against him. My second-in-command belittled me in front of night and morning shifts for using woman’s intuition. Frank Booth thought I stole the chief’s job from him—though they’d never have hired him since he lacked investigative experience. I retaliated by claiming I was using detective’s instinct. Then, I insisted everyone keep watch for trouble from McAfee.
“A light was on in the inner office so I opened the door,” Dave continued. “To make sure it wasn’t someone it wasn’t supposed to be. It was McAfee. I thought he’d just fallen asleep till I got close enough to see the blood. God!”
Blood. Damn! I fastened my belt and put on my shoulder harness. “Manner of death, Dave?” Pulling open the drawer in my night table, I checked my gun before holstering it.
He took a long, deep, steadying breath. “Back of his head’s smashed in.”
“Did you touch anything?” My voice jerked as I ran down the stairs to the front door.
“Just the door. When I went in. Once I saw him, I backed out quick into the hall and … I guess I panicked. I haven’t called it in to Dispatch yet or anything. I called you because it was like you knew. Having us keep an extra eye on him and all.”
That extra cop-sense at the back of my skull had niggled at me ever since my run-in with Andrew McAfee. I’d lived down the street from him, his wife, and his stepson, who walked my dog and mowed my lawn, but I’d never really met Andrew until breaking up that fight and learning he was probably stealing money from his student reporters.
“Your first time finding a body is hard, Dave. You’ve done fine. Kept the scene intact.” I reached my car and unlocked it. “Call Dispatch and have them contact Gil and the coroner and the county evidence techs. Tell Dispatch not to send anyone else over there. I’m on my way to you. I don’t want anyone messing up the scene. Keep everyone out till I get there or Gil does.”
“Okay, Chief.” His voice sounded less strained.
“And, Dave,” I added, as I started the car and peeled away from my peaceful house into the night, “you did fine.”
* * *
My name’s Marquitta Bannion, but everyone calls me Skeet. Don’t ask. My mom is Cherokee and nutty. They’re not necessarily connected, but I’m not responsible for what she decided to name me. I left the Kansas City Police Department six months ago after becoming their highest-ranking female officer, and I’m now chief of the campus police force of Chouteau University in nearby Brewster, Missouri. Some, like my ex-husband, might see it as a comedown. My best friend and surrogate mother, Karen Wise, tells me not to worry about what they think, but she’s the one who talked me into coming here in the first place. I wanted to get away from the city and the job that ate my life—and, most of all, my dad and the Internal Affairs investigation that led to his retirement. Between Big Charlie and me, the name Bannion used to mean a lot in the KCPD. I didn’t like seeing that change, so I left—force, father, and ex-husband. It was an easy decision.
My Cherokee grandmother always said, “If you’re waiting for things to be perfect in life, young lady, you’ll be waiting a long time.” Though I’ve always ignored what my mother told me and finally learned to ignore Big Charlie, I listen to Gran. I’ve learned not to wait.
* * *
I made that short drive back to campus in record time and parked illegally in front of Moller Hall. Using my master key to let myself in, I paced through the dark, echoing building, carrying my crime scene kit from the trunk of my car.
The shadows moved with me as I headed to the offices of the university’s student-run newspaper. At the end of the hallway, Dave Parker stood nervous watch in the gloom surrounding the pool of light that poured through the office door. With his young face, he could have been one of our students, if not for the uniform.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
Beads of sweat stood out on his ashen face despite the chill of the hallway. Dave had recently graduated from the regional police academy and joined our department just two days earlier. Night patrol had seemed a safe, innocuous place for him to start.
“Are you going to be okay here? Or should I ask Bill to trade with you? He’s seen dead bodies before.”
Dave shook his head resolutely. “I’m okay. You don’t have to drag the sergeant out. It was just a shock at first.”
I nodded and smiled to reassure him. “What have you done, and what have you touched?”
“I left the lights on,” he said. His hand twitched in the direction of the light twice before he got it under control. “I turned on these in the newsroom as I went through to the office where I saw lights already on. When I came out, I left them on.” He grimaced. “I didn’t think to turn them off at first. I just wanted to get out and call you. Then I figured it’s best if I don’t add any more fingerprints.”
“That’s fine. No sign of anyone?” I set my kit on the floor and opened it.
He shook his head vigorously. “I checked pretty good.”
He probably had, dismayed at standing watch alone in a place that might be hiding a murderer. I squatted on the cold tile floor and dug through my bag to pull out surgical gloves. “So you just touched that light switch and the door to the office?”
“And the body. I checked for a pulse. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?” He looked at me, frowning and biting his lip.
“You handled this like an old pro.” I stood and slipped on the gloves.
His face relaxed and regained some color. “I sure didn’t want to mess up something this major.”
I smiled at him. He was going to be worth bringing along. “Was the exterior door to Moller locked when you entered?”
Dave nodded. “Had to use my master to open it.”
I frowned. Either the killer had an office in Moller or access to a Moller key or master.
Closing my kit, I picked it up. “Is Gil on his way? And the coroner?”
Dave nodded. “Dispatch said she’d send them out and notify the sheriff’s office for techs.”
“You keep watch here. Only those people get in. Call Bill to cover the front in case the media show up. He can keep them out.”
As Dave nodded and pulled out his radio, I headed into the newsroom of The Chouteau University News, eyes scanning the room. To my left, a bulletin board fluttered with flyers, a large poster from the movie Front Page beside it. On the next wall, another bulletin board held the last issue of the News, comments in ink scribbled all over the pages. The work of the faculty adviser, I assumed. Six desks crowded the room. The staff would tell us if anything was out of place.
I took a deep breath before moving through the door opposite the hall. No matter how many I’ve seen—a lot—I never get completely used to corpses. I’d never have made an undertaker.
Facing me in the shallower room inside was a beat-up wooden desk. The body sat behind it, bloodied head resting on the desk surface. Moving into the room and to the side, I smelled the coppery blood scent and the odor of feces and urine, an inevitability of death. Another reason for the deep breath before entering. Death stinks.
I could see the face of the dead man, Andrew McAfee. Since the blows damaging the skull had come from behind, his face was basically undamaged. Andrew didn’t look surprised or in pain. He looked unconscious, with the faded waxiness of death and mottling where blood had settled in the cheek on the desk. He wore jeans and a striped sweater. The blood on the back of his head had darkened in the thick hair, so he hadn’t just been killed.
I remembered two days earlier when I’d had to break up a fight between him and his news editor, Scott Lampkin, Scott furious and accusatory, Andrew mouthy and profane. He’d been so angry, so irritating, and so very alive. Andrew had obviously been headed for trouble, but I hadn’t expected it to catch up with him quite so soon or so violently. I hoped Scott Lampkin had a good alibi. I liked that kid, but he’d had a real mad-on for Andrew.
Hearing voices in the hall, I whirled to see Gil Mendez pulling on gloves as he spoke to Dave. I moved around the room, checking for signs of violence other than the dead man at the desk. A large hole in the plaster wall next to the door caught my eye, and I walked over to it as Gil entered the newsroom.
“Come on back. Found something here.”
Gil crossed the threshold next to me as I measured the hole in the wall. His eyes were fixed on Andrew’s bloody head, and his face looked pale but determined. “First dead body?” I’d forgotten that when it came to violent death, most of my force was going to be as inexperienced as young Dave.
Gil turned to face me. “No, but my first murder victim.” He looked a little shaken, but his voice was steady.
I smiled at him. “Probably not a lot of that here.”
I indicated the hole in the wall with a jerk of my head and silently cursed myself for not pointing. I couldn’t break that habit, formed so young because my mother and Gran would never point a finger. Gran always said a pointed finger carried power, and it was rude to inflict your power on others. I don’t buy all that, of course, but I still have to make a conscious effort to point like normal people do. “This looks recent,” I said quickly, hoping Gil hadn’t noticed.
I knelt where flakes of plaster lay crushed against the flat-pile carpet. “Not scuffed into the carpet yet. Still right on top of the fibers.”
As I stood again, Gil examined the smashed-in wall. “Looks like something heavy did this. Same kind of thing that would do that to a man’s head.”
I nodded. “That’s what I thought. I’ve looked around. Don’t see anything that’d do either. At least not in this room.”
Gil nodded. “You think he took it away with him.”
“He may have brought it with him and taken it away again.” I shrugged. “We won’t know about that until we find out what was usually in here.”
On the desk sat a phone and a folding double frame with pictures of Tina and Brian Jamison, my neighbors, Andrew’s wife smiling, his stepson looking very serious. I would have to tell them both that murder had invaded their lives.
“Wonder if the techs will be able to pull anything from those?” Gil asked, pointing to a stained copy of the News and other documents on which Andrew’s bloody head lay.
“You’d be surprised what they can find.” I looked around the room for anything else that might have done this job on Andrew’s head.
A waist-high bookcase ran the length of the wall to the left of us. On top of it were several piles of books and papers and a cardboard box. I walked over to check inside the box. An eight-inch-tall trophy lay on shiny conference programs and brochures.
“Did you know the News won a trophy for best reporting?” I asked after reading the engraving and tilting the box to better read the program cover. “At a regional conference of campus newspapers. I wonder why the trophy wasn’t out on display in the newsroom?”
“Think it could be our weapon?” Gil asked from across the room near a pair of french doors.
“Not the right size or shape, I’d think, and it looks clean, but Sid’ll know for sure.”
He turned back to the doors, examining the catch. “Skeet, these have been opened.”
I left the box undisturbed and hurried over. All the old french doors in the building had had deadlocks installed. Keys were kept in the campus locksmith’s storeroom; those to any student office would never have been handed out. Security policy.
This one had been unlocked and opened from the inside, however. Whoever exited through it had pushed it closed but not quite all the way. I inspected it closely. Old and stiff. It had been locked so long that it wouldn’t quite swing shut. From the outside, it might well have looked as if it were, though. Someone thought he’d been slick.
Voices in the hall pulled my attention away. “The county guys. Why don’t you bring them up-to-date?”
He nodded and headed away from the murder victim with relief on his face. I knelt to check the low sill for any visible footprints. Nothing certain. A smudge. Maybe the evidence techs could get something from it, though. And they could check outside once the latch was dusted. If the murder had been committed after the evening’s storm, there should be footprints.
“Look at this. Got the heap big chief out in the middle of the night.” The sneering voice came from behind me. I turned to face the skinny form of Dud Bechter, my least-favorite tech from the Deacon County Sheriff’s Office.
Like the town police force, the campus police didn’t have evidence technicians on staff or a lab, even a less-sophisticated one like the county’s, to process crime scene findings. So, in any major crime investigation, we relied on Sheriff Dick Wold’s techs and lab.
The sheriff was a crony of my resentful second-in-command, Captain Frank Booth. Wold also didn’t approve of women officers, let alone chiefs, and he’d made this quite clear when we first met. I’d made it equally clear that I expected professional cooperation, or I’d just turn to KCPD and tell the media and voters why in his next election. Since then, I’d had no problems getting the help I needed, but from the attitude of some county officers, I could tell the sheriff was still seething.
“Whatcha got?” Dud set down his kit on the edge of the bookcase. “Must be somebody important to bring the chief out at this hour.”
I gestured his partner, Cal, over to me. “We’ve got a possible footprint here. I don’t know if it’s enough to get anything, but—”
“But we’ll try,” answered Cal with an easygoing smile. I never understood how he could bear to work with Dud. He headed over to the corpse with a camera to take photographs.
Gil returned to the room with Sid Ambrose, the county coroner. Sid had an ambulance team with him, which surprised me. Since the county ambulance service had been put under the sheriff’s supervision, it had deteriorated to the point that everyone expected to wait thirty minutes or more when one was needed. As usual, Sid looked half asleep, clothes wrinkled and hanging awry, but he could describe most of the room if I quizzed him. I’d come to have great respect for the sloppy old man when he was with the medical examiner’s office in Kansas City before he retired to be Deacon County’s part-time coroner, a less stressful job that added to his pension and left him with time to fish.
I acknowledged his languid wave as he trudged over to the body.
“Who do we have here, Skeet? Do we know?” His voice rumbled like a truck on the highway through town.
“Student employee. Editor of the campus newspaper. Andrew McAfee.”
“Does the young man have any family here in town?” Sid drew on gloves and flicked on a small penlight. He leaned forward to shine the light into the bloody mess that was the back of Andrew’s skull, whistling under his breath.
“Yes. A very nice wife and stepson.”
“You haven’t sent anyone to notify them already, have you?” Sid hated it when hysterical survivors showed up at his scenes.
“No. I’ll do that myself when I’m done here. They’re neighbors.”
“So you knew this guy? Should we take your prints, too, Chief?” Dud snickered.
“Sorry to disappoint you. The wife and kid are the ones I know.”
“How well do you know them?” Sid asked in his usual death-scene growl. “I suppose the wife will want to come down and make the official identification? And fall apart in my morgue?”
“They can’t help it if they start to cry when they see their loved ones all cold and dead.”
Sid harrumphed and went on examining the death wound. “Don’t see why she couldn’t let you ID. Save herself the trip down.”
“Because they never do. People always have to see for themselves before they can believe in death. It’s human nature, Sid.”
He snapped off his penlight and straightened up with a groan. “Animals are smarter.”
“Look at this and tell me if you think it could have been done by whatever did the damage to the vic.” I made myself point to the hole in the wall with a deliberate effort.
Sid walked over, carefully avoiding the pile of plaster at the base of the wall. “Yes. The same object could have hit this wall. Have you found anything? It would be damn bloody. Something heavy and rounded but rough or carved on at least one side. Not a smooth surface.”
“Could it have been this?” I indicated the trophy.
“No. You’d need something more rounded and much heavier. A rock or paperweight.” He looked into the distance for a moment. “Or the weighted handle of something carved or rough surfaced.”
“Chief, do you see the problem I do?” Gil looked from the body to the hole in the wall.
I nodded. “If whoever did this threw whatever it was into the wall first, why on earth did Andrew let him come up behind him with it in his hand? And if he did it afterward, why aren’t there any traces of blood on the plaster?”
Sid led the ambulance team over to the body. “Are you ready for us to take him away?”
I nodded, and the team began to maneuver the corpse into a body bag for the trip to the morgue.
“Have you got a time of death for me, Sid?” I asked.
Still whistling, he peeled off his gloves with a snap. “Ten P.M. to one A.M. That’s it for now. I may be able to narrow it down some with the autopsy. Then again, I might not. You know how these things go.”
I nodded. “At least that gives us a time frame. I’ll send Gil over to witness the autopsy.”
“Breaking in the boy the hard way?” Sid grinned.
I gave him a rueful smile. “He’s all I’ve got. It’s a far cry from KCPD Homicide here. He’ll do fine.”
I looked around the room. Gil sorted through papers on the desk. Dud fingerprinted the french door. Cal had finished with the plaster and was measuring the hole in the wall and photographing it.
I walked over to Gil. “Stay and see the rest through.”
“You going to break the news?” he asked.
I nodded. “I’ll head for home after I get the wife settled and someone to stay with her. God knows how long that’ll take, and I have to be up early to meet with the chancellor. If you need me for anything, just call.”
Gil looked at me quizzically. “Sure you want to leave me in charge when you know I’ve never done a murder?”
“You’re a good investigator. Look at that vandalism-and-theft case you just closed. The only way you’ll ever get experience of a murder is to handle one.”
I smiled to encourage him. Gil was my only investigator and had two left feet, falling all over himself from nervousness. When he was investigating a case for the department, however, he was a different man, logical, rock solid. He was the most valuable member of my team.
“I’m not leaving you holding the bag. We’ll both be investigating this baby. But you’re capable of handling crime scene ops. You’ve done it before. It’s pretty much the same thing, now that they’re carting off the body. Just make sure they look for footprints outside the windows. That ground’s wet. It should hold some.”
Gil smiled broadly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
I turned to stare at the body bag being lifted to the gurney, then back at Gil. Gil looked as grim as I felt. “I never thought I’d see something like this in Brewster.”
“It’s happened here now. Our job is to catch the guy who did this and make sure he can’t do it again.” I looked back at the medics strapping down the body bag. Turning back to Gil, I patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll have a sunrise meeting with the chancellor. Get some rest once you’re done. I want you to witness the autopsy, and you don’t want to do that when you’re exhausted. Trust me. We’ll be working irregular hours. Rest and eat whenever you can.”
I headed out through the echoing halls into the night to call on Tina and Brian. I hated the idea of bringing such terrible news to two people I liked.
Violence always threw the world out of balance. I knew this from Gran’s earliest teachings. The Cherokee are big on balance. They think imbalance allows dangerous forces into the world. I had to agree. My job was to bring this small world back into balance again, and tonight I had a long way to go.
Copyright © 2012 by Linda Rodriguez