TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 13
Her partner, Matthew "Vik" Jessenovik, were completing a canvass of a neighborhood where a questionable death had occurred. The body had been found this morning. The preliminary report from the medical examiner indicated death by hypothermia. The state's attorney wanted to know if there was criminal negligence on the part of the absentee owner of the house where the body was found. When contacted at his office in Barrington, the landlord resisted that the man had died because he chose not to turn on the heat, or simply forgot, since he was over seventy. Marti didn't expect to prove anything one way or the other. The other two residents in the building had refused to speak with them. Those who lived in the houses on either side became fearful as soon as Marti and Vik identified themselves as police officers. They shook their heads and murmured "Nada, nada," with nervous smiles.
Now Marti headed for the apartment building directly across from the one where the man had lived, stepping into the ruts made by tires in the snow-covered street. Ice had frozen in patches. She watched where she walked, careful not to slip and fall. Vik trudged along beside her. They had both arrived at the precinct before daybreak this morning and worked through the day without going outside. The only daylight she had seen had been through the window. Now it was dark again, and late to be knocking on doors.
"Damn, it's cold," Vik said. He had forgotten his gloves again and alternately blew on his hands and shoved them down into his pockets.
Winter had settled in early this year. There had been no January thaw and tonight's cloud cover concurred with the weatherman's prediction of snow. A few flakes were falling now. The wind blew hard and cold off the lake, making Marti's face tingle. She tugged at her scarf until it covered her nose. Her cell phone rang as she reached the curb. Another body had been found at a house on Julius Street. She glanced at her watch. It was a little before 10:00 P.M.
"Now what?" Vik asked. The brusqueness of his query implied that he didn't want an answer, and Marti understood why. It was only mid-February and so far this year they had investigated sixteen questionable deaths.
"We've got another one," she said.
"That's great, just great," Vik muttered. He sounded frustrated but didn't remind her that "this isn't Chicago," because she had worked on the force there for ten years.
"A suspect was found with this one and taken into custody," she said.
"You're kidding." Wiry salt-and-pepper eyebrows almost met across the bridge of his nose. His face was craggy, his beaked nose skewed from a break years ago. At six two, he was four inches taller than she was, but not more than ten pounds heavier than her 165. "Maybe our luck is changing."
"Let's not get optimistic. Nothing else has been going our way," she reminded him. "And nobody's been to the scene yet, except for the uniforms who got the call. They're waiting for the medical examiner and evidence techs. Janet Petroski is with the family."
Coroners were elected in Illinois and Janet believed that in that position, as a nonmedical professional, her initial responsibility was to the living. She visited with the bereaved and did whatever she could to help.
"Well," Vik said, "since there's nothing we can do there yet, we might as well finish up here. Not that anybody will know anything about some old guy who froze to death, but at least they'll still have some idea of what we're talking about. By morning, he'll be history."
"It probably is a waste of time," Marti agreed. "But I don't think we'll have much time to follow up tomorrow."
Salt made pockmarks on the ice-crusted steps. Vik coughed as they approached the front door, then blew his nose.
"Can't shake this," he complained. "I wonder what a night's sleep would do."
It was a secure building, with a lock on the front door as well as an inner door just past the mailboxes. They had called ahead and the building manager was waiting for them. There were eight apartments, four up and four down.
"It's pretty late to be bothering people," the manager said. A down jacket gave him bulk, but his face was thin and his hands bony. Marti guessed his age at midtwenties, young for this kind of job.
"If you could answer a few questions for us, maybe we wouldn't have to bother anyone else," Marti said.
"Like did the guy who owns that three flat across the street provide his tenants with enough heat?"
The man shrugged. "Look, I've got a job to hold on to, got a kid to support. Can't answer questions like that."
Marti thought maybe that was the answer to her question. Unfortunately, what people did not say could not be admitted into evidence.
"So, we talk to the tenants," she said. "Mind waiting here?"
He looked at her, brushed at thick blond hair, limp and oily, then nodded.
They started on the second floor. The first two people they spoke with didn't bother to hide their annoyance at being disturbed, even though they hadn't awakened anyone. There was no response at apartment 203. A woman opened the fourth door and looked up at them without taking off three security chains. She wasn't more than five feet tall and two of the chains were above her head. She looked to be at least seventy, and was wearing a puffy nylon cap. It was hot pink and decorated with flowers. Marti decided that it must be a sleeping cap since the woman had on a furry turquoise bathrobe that dragged on the floor and the white mask dangling from her neck didn't have any holes for the eyes.
"And just what do you two want, coming here at this hour of the night?" She sounded more interested than annoyed.
Marti glanced at Vik. From the way his face was scrunched up he had all he could do to keep from laughing. "We just need to ask you a few questions about the building across the street."
"You mean where old Jerry died. What about it?"
"Was he a friend of yours?" Marti asked.
"Yeah. He plays-played-a mean game of Scrabble. What killed him, the cold?"
"Now, why doesn't that surprise me. Law says you got to keep the place at sixty-three degrees at night. Most days his place wasn't that warm. And that landlord, always complaining how the furnace didn't work right." She called the landlord a few choice names.
Vik raised his eyebrows at the woman's profanity, but still looked ready to laugh.
"Ought to be a law against people like him owning buildings," the woman went on. "The one time Jerry called to complain about the heat, the fool had nerve enough to tell him that old people were always cold and to get himself a sweater. Didn't want to hear about the thermostat saying fifty-six degrees. Said it didn't work right. Some landlord." This time she added a curse to the names she called him. "The other two bought heaters, but Jerry, he was too worried about how much it would increase his electric bill." Her eyes filled with tears that spilled onto her cheeks. "Bad when you get old and the kids move away or just don't give a damn." Marti wondered if the woman was talking about Jerry now or herself. So far they hadn't been able to find any next of kin.
"Jerry has family?"
"No, not since his son died a few years back." She wiped at her eyes. "Poor Jerry. Damned shame. I gave him blankets, I did. Told him to call the city and complain, but it's too hard finding a place you can afford to risk getting put out."
Marti glanced at Vik. Clenched jaws and a scowl had replaced his urge to laugh.
"We'll get someone over there tonight," he said. "Have them check on the others and make sure they're okay. Those space heaters could be a fire hazard."
"You need to make that landlord live there for a week."
"I wish," Vik said, as they walked down the hall toward the stairs.
"Aha!" a voice said behind them. Turning, they saw a man brandishing a long, wide-blade sword.
"What the hell ..." Vik said. He reached for his weapon. Before he or Marti could unholster their guns, the man stood inches away from them. He was pointing the sword at Vik's stomach. The edge of the blade was razor thin and looked sharp.
"Police," Vik said. "Put that thing down now."
"Sure you're cops," the man said. Two small horns protruded from near the top of his head. He was dressed in a black cape and tights.
Marti could feel her heart pounding. Bile rose in her throat. Her vest wouldn't stop that sword.
"I've got you now! You can't fool me. I told her that if she ever broke into this place I would get her."
They backed up as he jabbed the sword at them.
Marti realized that the chain that hung like a half-moon scar on his face was connected to a stud in his nostril and another in his earlobe. She spoke in a quiet voice. "Would you mind putting that down."
"So you can kill me? Do you think I'm stupid? I saw you snooping around. I heard you asking questions about me."
He kept jabbing as he spoke. As they backed up, Vik, to her left, moved at an angle away from her. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Marti touched the wall and fought down the panic that came with being cornered.
"Let's talk about this," she suggested. "I'm not sure what you mean by that."
"You found out, didn't you? You know."
Maybe he was supposed to be on medication but had stopped taking it and she could talk him down.
"We really need to talk about this," she said. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
"I wouldn't tell you anything. I know she sent you here to kill me."
He was focused on her now. The tip of the sword was pointing at her midsection.
"I'm not here to hurt you," she said. "I just wanted to be sure that you were all right. That nobody was bothering you. I want you to feel safe here."
"Right, like Calunga Morgalota cares about that. I'm a Corigon. She wants me dead. She wants all Corigons dead."
"No, she doesn't," Marti said. It sounded like science fiction. "Not yet. You haven't been here long enough. She needs you to stay at least another six months so that she can complete her mission."
"She does?" He hesitated.
In that moment they both rushed him. Marti went to the right, got behind the man and grabbed his arms. Vik brought his fist down on the man's hands. The sword clattered to the floor.
It was almost midnight when Marti and Vik arrived at the house on Julius Street where the most recent death had occurred. Marti drove past the squad cars parked at the wood-frame house with the wraparound porch, and noted the scene-of-crime van and the medical examiner's vehicle. She circled the block and pulled into the nearest available parking space. The house was a large Victorian hemmed in by smaller well-kept homes on bigger lots. It was a densely populated part of town, but instead of a crowd, neighbors clustered on their porches, or stood in small, quiet groups with scarves wrapped to their noses, collars turned up, and hats pulled down over their ears. Snow, light but persistent, continued to fall, buffeted by the wind. Vik waited while she got her camera bag out of the trunk and they approached the house together. A uniform met them at the door. They wiped their boots on the doormat and stepped inside. The first thing Marti noticed was the quiet. She couldn't hear anyone crying.
"This was called in as an accident," the uniform told them. "An ambulance was dispatched and the paramedics were with the victim when I got here. There was nothing they could do. I cleared the room, then found out the suspect had been found at home, alone, with the body."
"Who's the victim?" Vik asked.
"Graciela Lara. Sixteen-year-old Hispanic female. Both she and the suspect were placed here by the state. We've got José Ortiz, age fifteen, in custody. Do you know Joséph Ramos?"
Marti thought the name sounded familiar but she couldn't place him.
Vik shook his head.
"It's his house, and he's running for alderman." "What does he want?" Marti asked. Just their luck, a politician. "Nothing specific, not yet anyway, but he's already making noises about how the investigation is being conducted."
"We'll handle it," Vik said.
"First door on the right."
Marti entered a room that looked like what her momma called the company room, a place for those infrequent guests you didn't know well enough to invite into the family room or the kitchen. Everything-furniture, carpet, walls-was a neutral off-white, relieved only by the figurines that curtsied and twirled in bright colored skirts on shiny mahogany tables. Pottery and vases, just as colorful, were lined up on the mantelpiece. The fireplace lacked smoke marks. There was a pile of unlit logs.
A woman, dry eyed and composed, sat on the edge of a chair. Her hands were folded in her lap. Her tan pant suit blended with the decor. A teenaged girl sat on the floor near the fireplace, head down, straight dark hair falling forward. When the girl looked up, her eyes were dry. A boy, short and rotund, who looked to be younger than the girl, was standing near a potted plant, as far away from the others as he could get and still be in the same room.
The man standing by the window turned to face them. He was several inches shorter than Marti and had the beginnings of a paunch. "So, this is how Lincoln Prairie's finest respond to a call from the Hispanic community."
The woman looked up at him, tight-lipped and silent.
Neither Vik nor Marti replied.
"I suppose I should thank you for not waiting until morning."
Vik took out his notebook and flipped to an empty page. "Mind telling us where you were tonight, Mr. Ramos."
"Where I was? What about ..." He waved his hand. "There's a dead girl upstairs."
"There's nothing we can do there, sir, until the evidence techs give the okay."
Ramos's dark eyes narrowed. "They've been up there for over an hour. I bet it wouldn't take this long to process a scene if you were east of Sherman Avenue."
"This isn't about neighborhoods, sir," Vik said. "It's about following the correct procedures."
"Oh, sure," Ramos said. "Which is why you showed up two hours after I placed the emergency call."
"An hour and forty-seven minutes, sir."
"Your usual response time?"
"Then I'm sure you'll be able to explain that lapse to your commanding officer."
"Yes, sir," Vik told him. "Now, if you could please tell me where you were."
When Vik had established that everyone in the room lived in the house, determined that they couldn't think of anything that was different about the place when they returned from when they had left, and made note of their whereabouts all evening, he said, "Let's make sure I've got this right.
Copyright ©2002 by Eleanor Taylor Bland
Eleanor Taylor Bland is the author of nine previous mysteries featuring Marti MacAlister, most recently Whispers in the Dark. She lives in Waukegan, Illinois.