Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
As Virgil was walking around the garage, a man came out on the back porch of the house across the alley, and called, “Who are you?”
Virgil called back, “State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Are you Joe Lee?”
“That’s me.” Lee came down from his porch and across the alley. “Have you found out anything?”
Virgil shook his head. “I haven’t started looking yet. It’s a St. Paul case, I’m looking to see if it ties into something else I’m investigating.”
“Really.” Lee was a brawny, sunburned man who might have been a heavy-equipment operator, probably in his late fifties or early sixties. “I figured there had to be something else going on. The guy had him on the ground, never did try for his billfold. He just kept pounding him—Terry.”
“You ever see anyone who looked like they were scouting the alley? Somebody who shouldn’t have been here?”
“No . . . nobody but Terry’s girlfriend. I saw her a couple times, in the mornings—I guess she stayed over.”
Virgil thought: Katherine Green? He asked, “What’d the girlfriend look like?”
“Like, I don’t know, a woodpecker.”
“Tall, thin, red hair—she wore it up in a thing, a peak, on top of her head. Like a pileated woodpecker.”
“Good description,” Virgil said. It couldn’t be Green. “The attack . . . You don’t have any idea of what that might have been about?”
“Nope. I talked to Terry once in a while, when we were taking out the garbage at the same time. Seemed like a nice enough guy. I didn’t really know him, though.”
Lee had nothing more to say, and Virgil walked back around the house. The next-door neighbor was still standing there, keeping an eye out for Virgil. He asked, “Do I have to worry about it?”
Virgil said, “I don’t think so. Looks to me like whoever did it was targeting Mr. Foster.”
Virgil gave the neighbor a card and drove five minutes over to Regions Hospital, where he’d spent a few hundred hours as a St. Paul cop, both as an investigator and as a patient.
When he asked at the emergency room desk, he was told that Foster had been moved to a regular room; he was conscious and expected to recover. Virgil got the room number, and as he went up in the elevator, it occurred to him to wonder why neither Katherine Green nor Clete May had mentioned the attack on Foster.
The easy answer was: they didn’t know about it. But he’d ask.
Foster was a mess.
He might have been a good-looking guy, perhaps an inch under six feet tall and in good shape, but now he had bandages
wrapped around his head, completely covering one eye and one ear, and what Virgil could see of his face, as he lay propped up in the hospital bed, was heavily bruised and abraded; he also had a plastic brace covering his nose. Both of his arms, which were in casts that left nothing exposed except his fingertips, were tethered to an overhead rack and suspended.
The one eye that was visible turned toward Virgil, and Foster croaked, “Who are you?”
Virgil told him, and then said, “I was looking for you over at your house. I wanted to talk to you about the Quill murder. Now I’m wondering if what happened to you had anything to do with that?”
“Don’t know,” Foster croaked. “Could you hold that water bottle so I could get a drink?”
There was a plastic cup on the bed tray with a bent plastic straw sticking out of it, and Virgil held it while Foster drank. When he’d had enough, his tongue flicked out to wet his lips, and he said, “Thanks. Least that asshole didn’t bust my teeth . . . I don’t know why this happened. I did three tours in Iraq and Syria, I even got wounded, but I wasn’t hurt this bad.”
All he knew about his attacker was that he was a white man—he’d seen his forearms—and that he was about average height and a little heavy. “The police are calling it a mugging, but I’ll tell you what: he was trying to kill me. That’s how my arms got broken. I kept putting them up so he couldn’t hit me in the head. He had a club—like a nightstick or something, like a police baton. He never tried to get my wallet, but that was maybe because I was screaming my head off, and then Joe Lee was yelling at him and he took off.”
They talked about it for a while, and Foster was insistent that
there was no major drama in his life. He didn’t have a full-time girlfriend, he said, but he wasn’t gay, either, nor was he Jewish or Islamic, and the attack was white on white, so it wasn’t a random hate crime. He’d gone to the Green lecture, where the fight started, but said he’d tried to break it up and hadn’t hit anyone. “It’s all on that video they got, you can see for yourself.”
“You say you don’t have a girlfriend. When I was over at your house, a neighbor mentioned a girl. Had you recently broken up with someone?”
Foster said, “No . . . I don’t . . . Oh, somebody must have seen Sandy. She’s not a girlfriend, she’s just a friend from the U. She’s stayed over a couple of times, but we’re not dating. We’re both up front about that.”
“Women are sometimes less up front than men are. I mean, you think everything is up front but—”
Foster waved him off. “No, no. She drinks a little too much, I drink a little too much, and sometimes when we’ve both drunk a little too much and we’re both feeling a little horny, she’ll stay over. When we’re both sober, then we’re not attached.”
“There’s not another boyfriend who’d be unhappy about those sleepovers?”
“No. She says not, and she’s telling the truth.” And he asked, “Why are you talking to me anyway? Did somebody say something?”
Virgil said, “Because you’re a military vet, which means that you’re familiar with violence. You might even have done some.”
“Well, Jesus, man, I was in the Army,” Foster said.
“So was I,” Virgil said, “I was an MP captain, and I did some violence myself. And I have as a cop. I don’t think your history is a big deal, but when you’re trying to figure out who might have
done some violence, you gotta ask around about who might be capable of it.”
Foster thought about that for a moment, then said, “Yeah, I guess.”
A nurse stuck her head in, glanced at Virgil, then asked Foster, “Do you need the bathroom?”
“Not now,” he said. “Ask me in an hour. My arms are starting to ache again.”
“I’ll talk to you in an hour.”
When she was gone, Foster said, “They don’t like to give me painkillers because they think I’ll become a raging junkie. They can’t see the pain, so they ignore it.”
He had not killed Quill, he said, had never seen Quill at the library, and hadn’t known what he looked like until the confrontation at Green’s lecture.
He was a Cultural Science major, he said, because when he got out of the Army and started at the university, he hadn’t yet figured out exactly what he wanted to do. “I took a whole bunch of classes, a bunch of hours, scattered over a bunch of subjects, and what I found out was that a lot of them were acceptable in Cultural Science. I signed up for Cultural Science because I could use credits I’d already piled up toward a degree. To tell the truth, a lot of Cultural Science is like a magic show. I don’t understand how anybody could believe the shit some of those professors tell you. Even professor Green, she’s sorta out there. But, she’s got some nice . . . Well, hell . . .”
Virgil nodded. “I noticed that. You got something going there?”
Foster gave his head a half shake. “You know, she’s only, like, thirty-four. Same age as I am. I screwed around for a couple years after school, and then I went down to the recruiting office and
signed up. I was in for eight, thinking I might go lifer, but after that last tour in Syria I bailed.”
“Not so bad. Got shot in the thigh. Didn’t do a lot of damage, through and through, but made me think I might want to do something safer, especially since they keep sending you back and back and back,” Foster said. “I’m still in the reserve. If the college thing doesn’t work out, the Army would let me back in, at the same rank and with credit for time served. What I’m saying is, I wound up in Cultural Science, and Katherine’s got that hot bod and she’s my age and not hooked up with anybody. I went to India with her last year, and there were a couple of times when I got the feeling that she liked my looks. You know, Dr. Foster’s female cure.”
“I’m sorta retarded that way,” Foster said. He tried to smile but winced instead. “I got a girl knocked up in high school, she had an abortion, and everybody was yelling at me. I’ve been pretty wary about commitments ever since. But I had the feeling a couple times, in India, that if I reached out and patted her on the ass, she wouldn’t have complained. I’ve got that feeling right now, though this whole mugging thing didn’t do much for my looks. Goddamn near ripped off one of my ears. When I get out of here, I might have a talk with her . . . about things. I’m thirty-four, time’s a-wastin’.”
“I talked to Dr. Green yesterday. She didn’t mention anything about you being attacked.”
Foster tried to shrug, mostly failed, winced again. “I didn’t tell anybody except my folks, and they live up in Black Duck. Nobody to tell her about it.”
Foster said he had no idea of who might have killed Quill.
“There was a lot of hostility between him and the people in Cultural Science, and there are some goofy people in the department, but I can’t say that any of them seem like killers.”
“I talked to Clete May. He thinks Dr. Green is pretty attractive. You don’t think he’d consider you a rival?”
Foster tried to shake his head and mostly failed again. “Wasn’t Clete. We do that bumping-chests thing when we finish bad jobs for Dr. Green. Like setting up a hundred big old Army surplus tents. Or at the lunch table when we were in India. Shit like that. Anyway, he’s lots bigger than me. The guy who jumped me was my size or shorter. Stocky. Maybe fat, but hard to tell in that situation.”
They talked for a while, and Virgil thought he recognized the type. Some guys joined the military for the adventure and the idea that they might turn out to be Rambo. Others joined because they didn’t know what else to do; they weren’t qualified for any particular civilian job and thought they might try the Army.
Foster seemed to fall in the second group: not particularly aggressive, not angry with the world, just a guy struggling with what to do with his life that might have some significance.
He didn’t see anything in Foster that suggested a murderer. He simply wasn’t angry enough.
Back outside, he called Trane.
“There’s an ex–Army guy named Terry Foster, one of the students in Cultural Science.”
“I saw the name, didn’t interview him. We need to look at him?”
“I already did. Somebody tried to beat him to death a couple of
days ago, over in St. Paul. He’s hurt bad and he’s still at Regions. I don’t think he had anything to do with Quill’s murder, but it’s a curious coincidence.”
“When you say tried to beat him to death . . .”
“Attacked him with a club of some kind, broke both his arms when he tried to cover his head, broke his nose; he’s got some scalp trauma . . . He said if a neighbor hadn’t seen what was happening and started yelling at the attacker, he would have been killed.”
“That worries me,” Trane said. “I’ll get with St. Paul, see what they have to say. Push them.”
“Good idea. Right now, I’m told they’re treating it as a mugging. Let me ask you something else: did you do any background on Katherine Green? Check out her love life?”
“No. Should I have?”
“Foster said that Green might have eyes for him, he felt some interest. I’m wondering if the attack on Foster might be a red herring—that it doesn’t have anything to do with the Quill murder but is somebody who’s interested in Green who might be taking out the competition. After talking to Foster, I got the feeling he was targeted. That the attack wasn’t random. That it was an ambush.”
“Well, poop,” Trane said. “I guess I work tomorrow . . . Are you on your way home?”
“I’m meeting my girlfriend and one of her kids over at Davenport’s place and then going home after that. When I found out what happened, I came over here to Regions. Now I’m thinking I should find out where Green is and talk to her about it.”
“She’s over in St. Paul, too. I went to her house. Let me get you that address.”
Virgil considered calling Green to make sure she was around, but after getting her address from Trane, on Mount Curve Boulevard, he realized she must live within a few blocks of Davenport. The interview probably wasn’t critical. And if she wasn’t home, he’d try again on Monday.
She was home.
Green lived in a white clapboard house set high on a bank above the street, with a tucked-under garage and a big deck over it. Virgil pulled into the short driveway, climbed the stairs to the front door, and knocked. Green peeked out through a corner of the drape-covered picture window next to the porch, and Virgil twiddled his fingers at her. The door popped open a moment later, and she said, “Officer . . . ?” the question mark in her tone indicating she’d forgotten his name.
“Virgil Flowers,” Virgil said. “We’ve had an . . . event . . . that I’d like to get your reaction to.”
She pushed open the screen door. “Come in. What happened?”
The door gave onto the living room, which was filled with beige furniture and two side-by-side bookcases filled with texts; an archway to the right led to a generous kitchen with a table and four chairs. Virgil went left, perched on a couch, and she sat on a chair facing him.
“You told me that Terry Foster might have a predilection, or at least a familiarity with, violence, since he was in combat in the Army. Somebody attacked him the night before last, outside his house, and hurt him. Bad.”
“Oh my God! Is he? I mean . . .” Her reaction seemed genuinely spontaneous. She hadn’t known about Foster.
“He’s not going to die, but his arms are broken, and he’s sustained some head injuries,” Virgil said. “The question is, is this related to the Quill murder? I need to talk to you about that.”
“Why would it be?” she asked, frowning. “Wouldn’t it more likely be a robbery? A mugging?”
“There are some unusual aspects to it.” He explained about the ambush, about how the attacker apparently lay in waiting for Foster. “Most muggers want your money and don’t want to kill anybody because then it becomes a big deal. Muggings are usually crimes of opportunity, a random meeting on the street. This guy never demanded anything. He hid, he waited, he attacked.”