Authors: K.L. Murphy
For DavidâÂwho makes me laugh every day,
and for Cameron, Thomas, Luke, and MeredithâÂwith all my love
to kill her,” the man said, his voice on the tape muffled. “It was an accident. I swear.”
Straining to make out the words, the therapist leaned forward and listened for his own response. “Tell me about it,” he prompted. “What happened?”
Alone in the office, the hour late, the doctor settled back in his chair, stroking his trim brown mustache. In the few moments of silence that followed, the only sound was the faint whirring of the tape player. When the patient spoke, he described the violent death of the girl. Twice, he stopped, his words stilted and sentences fragmented. Brows furrowed in concentration, the therapist made occasional notes in the book lying open on his desk. Clicking off the tape, he replaced it with a cassette from a more recent session. On the new tape, the doctor spoke first. “Why were you afraid of her?”
The patient snorted. “Humph. You'd know if you'd ever met her.”
“But I haven't.”
The man's drawl was slow and precise. “And you never will. That's for sure.”
The man sighed. “You know why not.” The doctor recalled the patient had waved a well-Âmanicured hand in the air, his lips turned down in a pout. “I don't want to talk about her today. Let's talk about something else.”
He stopped the tape. With each session, Dr. Michael pushed harder and dug deeper. If the patient could open up a little more and face the painful memories head-Âon, they might find some answers. For both of them, he was eager to make this happen sooner rather than later. He chewed on the end of his pen and restarted the tape. “I think we need to clear the air about this, George. Perhaps it would help you to move forward.”
“I can't,” George insisted, his voice cracking. “Don't you understand that I can't?”
Dr. Michael stopped the tape a second time. He adjusted the glasses on his nose and wrote one word in the notebook:
. He tapped the pen against the page. Over the last several weeks and months, Dr. Michael had grown increasingly concerned for this patient. Early on, he'd been horrified by what he'd learned, but later, as George's story unfolded, his feelings had changed. Yes, George's actions were reprehensible, but weren't there mitigating circumstances? Was his pain and suffering justified? The doctor frowned and hit the play button again.
“Okay, but what about the other thing we talked about?”
George had eyed him warily. “What other thing?”
The patient's response surprised the therapist. George had expressed fear and reticence before, but also a deep desire to be free of the past. The idea of confession, of doing the right thing, had once attracted him. “You know what I'm talking about, George. It's time to come forward.”
The man had shaken his head, hot anger erasing all traces of his Southern accent. “No, I can't now.”
“Maybe not now, but in time.”
“No.” A redness had risen from his neck to his cheeks.
“Don't give up, George. You're ready. You'reâÂ”
“Would you get off it?” The patient had jumped to his feet, his voice thundering. “Just leave it alone. Please.”
The doctor flinched, the patient's recorded voice exploding in the empty office. Once again, he paused the tape and stared unseeing at the walls of his office. Maybe he wasn't the best therapist for George. In his profession, he heard secrets every day. Dr. Michael was required to keep those confidences, but this time it bordered on criminal. He ran his hands through his thinning hair. Even with all the progress they'd made, George had begun to fight his advice to come forward and speak the truth. The therapist was convinced somethingâÂor someoneâÂwas working against him. Even more disturbing, however, were his patient's moods, increasingly erratic, and at times even violent. Maybe he wasn't helping George after all.
The old air conditioner rumbled to life, chugging and blasting puffs of frigid air. As the cooling system drained the power, the lights flickered and died, plunging the doctor into darkness. “Damn.” He shivered, cursing the old building's faulty wiring. When the lights came on again, he blinked and rubbed the goose bumps on his arms. As he rifled through the box of tapes, his thoughts returned to George. Dr. Michael suspected the man's guilt, like a virus, had infected every aspect of the patient's life. He believed the only medicine came in the form of a full confession. If George remained silent, he might never recover.
A creaking noise made him look up. He waited, cocking his ear toward the door. “Sandy?” He called his secretary's name and glanced at his watch. He couldn't imagine why she would return to the office at this hour. “Sandy?”
Silence. Several minutes passed and his shoulders loosened. He inserted another tape into the machine. The ancient air conditioner rattled and sputtered a second time. “Ah,” he said out loud. Cold gusts of air blew across the back of his neck, and he blinked in the darkness until the shadows disappeared in the light. He shook his head, and pressed play.
“Tell me again about the accident,” he heard himself say. “Tell me exactly how it happened and everything you remember.”
“What's the point? I wish I never had to think about it or be reminded of itâÂever again!”
“I know, but let's do it anyway, okay?”
“Sure. Okay.” George had cleared his throat. “When I first went to the boathouse that day, I wanted to take my mind off things, off her. I was cleaning the boat, and she surprised me, showing up without any warning. She started in on me, wanting to end things. I couldn't let her do that, you know, considering the situation. I tried to talk to her but she just wouldn't listen.” George had paused. When he'd spoken again, his voice sounded far away, lost in the past. “It was so hot that day, and I remember her skin was sweaty, her face kinda red. I was worried about her, but when I tried to tell her, she just got mad again. I tried to be patient, I did, but then I started to get mad, too.”
Listening with his ear turned toward the machine, the doctor returned to making notes. A bang followed by a soft thump made him sit up straight and put down his pen. He froze, hands pressed against the wood of the desk. He waited, but the air conditioner did not rumble to life. Again, he called his secretary's name, and again, there was only silence. As the minutes ticked by and he heard nothing, he felt silly. George and the stories of death must be getting under his skin. With his reading glasses in his right hand, he walked around his desk and stepped through the doorway. The office door remained closed. Eyes scanning the outer office, he spied a fallen picture frame. He exhaled and picked up the frame. The image of Sandy and her husband smiled at him. He glanced around again, shrugged, and placed the silver frame back on Sandy's desk.
Footsteps approached from behind. The doctor's head shot up in the second before the knife ripped into the flesh of his back. Dr. Michael screamed and his knees buckled. The gold-Ârimmed reading glasses slipped from his fingers and landed softly on the carpet. Dr. Michael fell forward. He clawed at the desk, struggling to keep himself upright. Blood poured out of the ugly gash, staining the cream-Âcolored rug. Disoriented, he reached out for the phone on the desk. As he picked up the receiver, the knife slashed a second time and then a third. The phone slipped from his grasp and hit the desk with a clatter. He could feel the life draining from his body, hear the hollow sound of his own breath. He inhaled through his mouth, pushed up from the desk, and turned his head. Eyes wide, he fell backward. He knew his killer.
“Why? Why?” the doctor gasped.
His assailant said nothing. The killer stepped around the man and replaced the phone, silencing the hum of the dial tone. Dr. Michael slumped to the floor. Blood thumped in his ears. He could hear the raw, ragged sounds coming from his chest. His killer's feet came into view and he saw the knife drop onto the carpet near his glasses. The doctor struggled to crawl away, his hand outstretched. The gold of his wedding band glittered under the office's soft lighting. The killer reached down with a black-Âgloved hand and pocketed the wire-Ârimmed glasses. Paralyzed, the doctor heard the office door open, then click shut.
The doctor's eyes glazed and blurred. He gasped one last breath. Down the hall, the cassette tape played on and the droning voice of his patient drifted across the quiet of the small office.
“I wanted to confess then, but I didn't. Then later, when I had the chance, I still didn't come forward. And then, of course, it was too late.”
stood over the victim. “Who discovered the body?”
A short, squat, uniformed policeman stepped forward. “I believe it was the guy's secretary.” He glanced at a notebook in his right hand. “Her name is Sandy Watson. She came in at eight-Âthirty this morning, her usual time according to her, and found the victim lying on the floor.” Jerking a thumb, he indicated the private office behind him. “She's in there with Smitty. Pretty upset, too. Apparently she's been with the guy for years.”
Scanning the outer office, the detective noted a single hallway leading to a coffee room and bathroom. An alcove to his right contained two well-Âworn leather chairs. A short stack of magazines sat neatly on a wooden table tucked between the chairs. Dozens of medical journals and books filled a walnut bookcase along the wall behind the secretary's desk. A crack ran along the top of the plaster wall from the door to the corner, just below the heavy molding. The building was old, but it was neat and clean.
The office occupied the second floor of a converted rowhouse on a quiet street in D.C. The neighborhood was just far enough from downtown that daytime traffic was light and the street was empty at night and on weekends. Cancini sighed. The murder rate in this section of town was low, almost nonexistent.
“What do ya think, boss?” asked a third officer. “Some psycho patient?”
Cancini didn't answer. He snapped on a pair of plastic gloves and crouched next to the body, careful to avoid the bloodstained carpet around the victim. The doctor lay on his stomach, face turned in profile. The detective shifted his weight, moving a little closer. A white dress shirt, shredded by long tears, clung to the man's back. The deep wounds, covered by blood and fabric, made it difficult to guess how many times the victim had been stabbed. Maybe three, possibly four. Either way, Cancini knew those details would be determined by the coroner. Picking up each of the victim's hands, he inspected them for skin under the nails or any signs of a struggle but saw nothing. Instinct told him the therapist lying on the floor had never seen the attack coming.
The presumed murder weapon lay only inches from the body, blood already hard and crusty on its surface. Bending closer to examine the knife, he dared not move it before the precinct photographer had taken all the requisite shots. A stickler for procedure, Cancini knew from experience how the little things, seemingly insignificant facts like the placement of the murder weapon, could tie the evidence together into a solid and seamless case. He studied the knife from end to tip. Ordinary wooden handle. Large, shiny blade. Very much like the kitchen knife he had in his own home. He made a mental note to have someone check out the brand of knife and where in the city it was sold.
He stood, his glance raking the young officer who'd spoken moments earlier. “Did you just ask me to speculate on this case, Wilder, after I'd been here all of, what, two minutes?”
Wilder flushed. “Uh, no, sir, I didn't mean anything. I was onlyâÂ”
“Good. Glad to hear it.” His eyes swept the room again, and he peeled the plastic gloves from his hands. He stepped around the front of the desk, circling it slowly. Most of the items on the desk had been pushed forward, leaving the edge closest to the victim clear. He shifted his gaze to Wilder. “It's too early to theorize,” he said. “Without any evidence, that is. This isn't an episode of
Law & Order
, you know. It won't be over in an hour.”
The two young officers exchanged looks. Wilder stared at the floor. “Sorry.”
Cancini said nothing. He knew his own reputation. He didn't tolerate mistakes, laziness, or anything short of his expectations. He wasn't unfriendly, but he wasn't friendly, either. Partners didn't stick around. His last one transferred to Vice after only six months. SmithsonâÂSmitty to the guys in the departmentâÂwas his latest and hadn't been around long enough to quit. Still, hardheaded and stubbornly ambitious, Wilder often volunteered to be a part of Cancini's team. The detective decided the man was either brave or stupid.
Standing up straighter, Wilder took a breath. “What do you want me to do? Knock on a few doors? See what's what in this place?”
Coming back around the desk, the older detective held up one hand. He crouched again, his bony butt resting on his heels. Turning his face in profile, he looked into the ashen face of the victim. Up close, Cancini saw a slight indentation on the bridge of the man's nose. He rocked forward, his eyes never leaving the man's face. After a moment, he stood, his bones creaking as he uncurled from the floor. “Does he look surprised to you?” he asked.
Both officers took one step closer. “Well, his eyes do look kinda open, don't they?” Wilder said. “But it could be the shock of having someone knife you in the back, you know.”
“Possibly,” Cancini said. He shoved the rubber gloves into his jacket pocket.
The squat officer bent forward at the waist. “I don't know. Maybe it was the killer himself that surprised the vic. Maybe he knew the guy.”
“Maybe.” Cancini kept his tone noncommittal. He waved a hand and both officers stepped away, their backs ramrod straight. “It looks like he might have worn glasses. He's got a mark on his nose. Has anyone seen a pair?” Both officers shrugged. Cancini made a note to check with his partner, then nodded toward the door. “Any sign of a break-Âin? Forced entry?”
Wilder shook his head. “No. I heard the secretary say the door was closed when she got here, but not locked.”
“I don't suppose we'd be lucky enough to have any videotape, maybe at the front door of the building?”
“That would be nice, but no,” Wilder said. “The security in this building is pretty poor.”
“Figures.” He brushed his hand over his spiky hair. “How many keys to the place?”
“According to the dead guy's secretary, only three. The doctor had twoâÂkept a spare at homeâÂand she had the third,” answered Smitty. The tall, lanky detective stepped out of the dead man's private office.
“How's the secretary doing?” Cancini asked.
“Not great,” Smitty said. “I think she's pretty torn up. Blames herself for letting him work late.”
Cancini arched one dark eyebrow. “Why would that be her fault?”
Smitty shrugged his thin shoulders. “She's sort of the mother-Âhen type, I think. The lady says the doc only worked late when his wife was out of town. Otherwise, he left at six like clockwork. Last night he worked late.”
Each of the men let that sink in. The time of death would be pinned down by the medical examiner, but if the secretary was telling the truth, the doctor was murdered sometime between six the previous night and eight-Âthirty that morning.
“Has anyone located the wife yet?”
“The secretary says the wife was speaking at some convention in Chicago. I tracked down her hotel room, but no one answered,” Smitty said. “I've got a contact up there who's gonna try and find her at the convention and have her give me a call. Then we'll get her back here as soon as possible.”
“When did the wife leave for Chicago?”
“Okay.” He nodded, facing Smitty. “Let's confirm the time she departed and find out if she was seen by someone, anyone, last night.”
White-Âblond hair fell over the slender detective's face. He seemed about to say something, thought better of it, and grunted in agreement. “Anything else?”
Cancini considered the dead man sprawled on the floor. He guessed late forties or early fifties. Plenty of time to make enemies. “Yeah, go ahead and start a check on the guy's family. Find out if there were any kids, ex-Âwives, bitter siblings. Also, find out what kind of relationship the doctor and his wife had.”
“You suspect the wife, boss?” Wilder asked, flinching under the detective's dark gaze.
“Jesus, Wilder. You're giving me a headache,” he said. “I have no evidence, remember? I'm just following procedure.”
“Stop saying you're sorry.” Cancini rolled his eyes. “Sometimes the insurance money looks good or someone's playing around. Who knows? Let's check on both of those. Still, considering what this guy did for a living, listening to Âpeople pour out their personal problems .Â .Â . like I said, who knows?” Wilder's head bobbed up and down. “It's wide open right now.”
Smitty spoke up. “The secretary keeps the appointment book, knows all the patients by name. She might be able to tell you a few things.”
“Good.” Cancini scanned the outer office again. His eyes came to rest on the jumble of items pushed to one edge of the secretary's desk. He wanted the crime scene preserved as quickly as possible. “Where's the photographer?”
“On his way,” said the uniformed officer with the tree-Âtrunk body. He checked his watch. “He should be here any minute.”
“Good. Can you wait for him and make sure he gets everything in this office?” The man nodded. “I want the coffee room, office door, and every angle around this desk and the body.”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Wilder, I need you to wait for the coroner. And stay with the print guys, too. I don't want anything missed this time,” Cancini said. Wilder sucked in his breath but said nothing, nodding.
Cancini looked toward the doctor's private office. He had a lot of questions for the secretary, but he didn't relish the task. She could be in shock, fragile. She'd had no time to grieve and was about to be bombarded by a pushy homicide detective. Yet it had to be done. She would be at her most revealing without intending to be. Later, when she had time to think about things, she would most likely clam up and hide behind a lawyer, even if she was guilty of nothing. Or worse, she would invoke all the doctor-Âpatient privacy rights that so often stymied a homicide investigation. Such was the way of the modern world. After more than twenty years on the force, the investigations had not gotten easier, even with all the forensic advances. Cancini believed that for every step forward achieved by science, the legal system itself took two steps back. Even a guilty man, a man who had confessed every detail of a horrific crime, could find himself free on a technicality. He squared his shoulders and stepped through the door.
A small woman sat perched on the edge of the couch. Bent forward, she held her head in her hands. Her hair, medium brown and streaked with gray, hung in a short ponytail at the base of her neck. A few stray pieces had fallen loose, partially obscuring her pale, tear-Âstreaked face. He cleared his throat once. Stifling a sob, she lifted her head and blinked. In an instant, Cancini understood Smitty's snap judgment of Mrs. Watson. Her face, kind and compassionate, reminded him of someone's mother or grandmother. Light brown eyes shimmered with tears. The interview would not be easy.
He stepped forward. “Mrs. Watson, my name is Detective Cancini.” He gestured at the sofa. “May I?” Her lips quivered. After a moment, she nodded once. He sat and took both her hands, wrapping them in his. “I'm sorry for your loss.”