Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
“Okay, take it back to three. I don’t want Internal Affairs taking up residence in my shorts.”
A lawyer arrived, but it wasn’t Jones, it was Hardy. He jumped out of his green Range Rover, looked at Virgil as though he couldn’t believe his eyes, then strode across the lawn, and Virgil
said, “Mr. Hardy,” and Shrake said, “Watch your hair. There’s a robin up in the tree that’s been trying to shit in ours.”
Hardy looked up in the tree for a second, wiped his hand across the top of his head, then turned back to Virgil, and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for Mrs. McDonald’s attorney of record. As a courtesy. Before we take her in.”
“A courtesy? Take her in? For what? And, by the way, I’m one of her attorneys of record. In addition to Robin Jones.”
“We find that interesting,” Virgil said. “And that’s what we want to talk to Mrs. McDonald about. You guys filed a nuisance suit against the university, which is prepared to take you on, with one of the smartest and most admired men in the Cities ready to testify that everything you claim is bullshit. Then it turns out that one of your clients lures—”
“She didn’t lure anybody!” Hardy shouted. “They were lovers.”
Shrake snorted. “A famous rich doctor is in love with a hooker when he could date any one of a thousand single women in the Twin Cities for free? Tell me another one.”
Virgil rode over both of them. “Lures him into the library, where he’s killed and therefore can no longer testify in your lawsuit, which Robin Jones has said he might split and sue Quill’s estate separately? Did I get that right?”
“No. It’s like you’re taking crazy pills.”
Another car arrived, a Mercedes SL550 with its hard top down, and Hardy said, “Here’s Robin.”
The top on the Mercedes started up, and Shrake said to Hardy, “You know those billboards of yours? ‘Call me Lare’?”
“You ought to call yourself Batman since your sidekick’s named Robin. You could put—”
“You know how many times I’ve heard that joke?” Hardy asked. “About a million. You should be embarrassed.”
Shrake shrugged, but in fact he was. Nothing like being the millionth guy to tell a bad joke.
Jones got out of the car and hurried over, a briefcase under his arm. Virgil pegged him to be in his early thirties, with a well-tailored light blue summer suit that was too expensive for his age. You tended to look at him, with his car and his suit, and think, Asshat. He nodded at Hardy, and said, “Glad you could make it. I wanted to talk to you before I file a criminal complaint against these two.”
Shrake yawned again and scratched his ribs.
Jones to Virgil: “You’re Flowers? That’s the most disrespectful outfit I’ve ever seen on a cop. A poetry shirt? They’ll be hearing about that, too.”
Virgil looked down at his shirt; it took a minute, but then he tumbled: Poe. Jones must have thought that Edgar Allan’s first name was Larkin. It made him smile.
“You wanna go inside?” Shrake asked. “I’m sweating like a blind lesbian in a sushi bar.”
“Hey! I don’t want to hear that misogynistic kinda talk. And before we go inside, I want to tell you you’re not taking Mrs. McDonald anywhere,” Jones said. “Not to the BCA, not to Hennepin . . .”
Virgil said to Hardy, “Robin’s giving me a sharp pain in the ass.”
“That’s another count,” Jones sputtered. “That’s another—”
“Shut up, Robin,” Hardy said.
They went inside and found Ruth McDonald in the La-Z-Boy with the leg support down; she was huddled in like it was a cave, protecting herself from the wildlife.
She raised her head, and said to Virgil, “I did not kill my husband.”
Jones blanched. “What!” He turned to Virgil, “Did you accuse this woman—”
“Shut up, Robin,” Virgil said. He turned back to McDonald, and said, “We want to hear your story before we decide what to do. I can tell you, my colleague and I have handled a lot of suspicious death cases, and this is one of them. I need to hear the sequence of events the day he died, and more about his physical condition. From what I’ve heard, it seems almost impossible that he could have done what you told the medical examiner.”
“He did it because he was desperate,” Jones said.
Virgil to Jones: “We’re talking to Mrs. McDonald. You can say ‘Answer that’ or ‘Don’t answer that,’ but nothing else. You can’t answer for her.”
Virgil to Shrake: “You got your cuffs?”
Hardy: “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! . . . Robin, shut up. And stay shut up.”
Virgil said, “Thank you. Now, it seems impossible—”
“It was because he was desperate. Robin is exactly right,” McDonald said. “He was in pain. The drugs couldn’t stop it without his mind getting all fogged up. Before the operation, he didn’t have much pain.”
“But he couldn’t move at all, as I understand it,” Virgil said.
“He could move a little. His thumb and forefinger, some muscles in his upper arm. After the operation, he could move more, but not enough to mean anything to him. And the pain was on top of the disappointment,” McDonald said. “Then, when they could see the operation hadn’t worked, Quill and his pals just let him go. ‘Sorry, we’ve done everything we can, have a nice life.’ The criminals.”
She began to cry. Hardy moved over to her and patted her shoulder.
“Was there anybody around the house that day?” Virgil asked.
Hardy handed her a tissue from a pocket pack and she took it, wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and said, “No, nobody. Mr. Jones left, and I told Frank I was going to run to the store and I’d be right back.”
Shrake: “Wait. Mr. Jones was here?”
They all looked at Jones. Jones shook his head, and said, “I left well before Mrs. McDonald left for the store.”
“How do you know when she left for the store?” Virgil asked.
“Because we talked about it,” Jones snapped.
“Did you have a key to the house?”
“No, of course not. I’m her lawyer, not a close personal friend. I didn’t have any need for a key.”
Virgil said, “Huh.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it just keeps getting more interesting,” Virgil said.
Shrake said, “I’m with you, big boy. This is getting fascinating.” To Jones: “Exactly what percentage do you get if you win this lawsuit? Thirty?”
“Completely irrelevant,” Jones said.
Shrake asked Hardy, “What do you think? Was the question ‘completely irrelevant’?”
Hardy’s eyebrows went up, the corners of his mouth went down. “Maybe not completely irrelevant, but if you’re suggesting that Robin came back here and . . . attacked . . . Mr. McDonald, then you’re way out of line. The question may not have been irrelevant, but the answer is clear: he, or our firm, would get paid whether or not Frank died. Look, Frank could talk perfectly well. If we wanted to get a big award, we would want nothing more than to be able to wheel Frank into the courtroom to testify. To talk about his pain and the promises that Quill made. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to him. His death by suicide weakened our case, it didn’t make it stronger.”
“But the death of Dr. Quill did,” Virgil said.
They argued about that for a few minutes, then Hardy said, “Believe what you want to believe, but I’ll tell you—and this is the truth—I represent Abby Cohen and Mrs. McDonald, and they were both involved with Dr. Quill, in vastly different ways, in what is a gigantic, pluperfect coincidence.”
“It never occurred to you last night?”
“Of course it did, but not before then,” Hardy said. “Abby never told me that she’d been with Quill. I had no idea. Now things are fucked up. I dunno. I’d already decided I’d have to sign off as counsel to Abby. I was planning to talk to another guy this morning about taking over the case—not somebody at my firm—and I’m probably going to wind up paying him out of my own pocket.”
When they finished working through it all, Virgil said to McDonald, “We’re not going to take you in to question you. Somebody from the BCA or the St. Louis Park Police Department will want to have further conversations with you. Please don’t leave town, go on vacation, without telling Agent Shrake. He will give you a business card—”
“I’m not going anyplace anytime soon,” she said.
“Good. But should your plans change, notify Agent Shrake,” Virgil said. “We’ll leave it to you to further notify Mr. Hardy or Mr. Jones should we need to continue our interviews.”
“I don’t see,” Jones began, “what you could possibly hope to achieve—”
“Shut up, Robin,” Hardy said. And to Virgil: “We’re good with that. Frank McDonald committed suicide. Remember this: there is a huge coincidence here and it’s meaningless. If you want to find out who killed Quill, you’d do well to keep that in mind.”
Virgil followed Shrake out the door but hesitated before closing it, and he heard Jones say to Hardy, “I resent that ‘Shut up, Robin’ shit, by the way.”
Hardy said, “Something for you to think about, Robin. You’re a civil lawyer, you’re not a criminal lawyer. Those guys are cops. They know what they’re doing and you don’t. So please, shut the fuck up . . . Ruth, sorry about the language.”
Virgil went on down the steps behind Shrake.
Before they went to their separate vehicles, Shrake said, “I dunno, I might have taken her in, to ramp up the stress. To see what would come out of that.”
“I thought about it, but the lawyers are all over us—they won’t let her say a thing. And the chances of a conviction are zilch unless she admits it,” Virgil said. “We’d be wasting our time. I’d like a good close look at Jones, though. I expect your thirty percent guess was close to the mark.”
“Or more. This guy who attacked your Army guy, Foster . . . Would Jones fit?”
“Not real well. Foster’s not tall, and he said the attacker was his height, but stocky,” Virgil said. “Jones might be too tall, and he’s not especially stocky.”
“Okay. You want my opinion, I’ve got a couple,” Shrake said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald killed her husband, or at least helped him kill himself. In fact, I’d say it’s likely. One thing
I’ve noticed about nurses is, they see so much death that it no longer affects them much. It’s not that they’re hard. It’s that death comes to seem like a natural, ordinary thing. She could very well have thought that she was doing him a favor. A loving favor. No thought of money, which might have come later. But—and it’s a big ‘but’—I doubt that she would have anything to do with the murder of Quill. If Jones killed Quill, he never would have told McDonald what he was going to do. There wouldn’t be a conspiracy that you could break down.”
“I agree,” Virgil said. “Next opinion.”
“About Quill. If the killer was planning to murder Quill, why didn’t he have a better weapon? You think he might have been hit with his own computer? Why? Why would anyone do that? It couldn’t have been planned that way. So either he wasn’t hit with a computer or the whole encounter was an accident. From what you told me, I think you have more to learn from the hooker. The small details. Like, the exact circumstances of the attack. Was Quill ambushed, was it planned? Or did he and the killer stumble onto each other? The killer couldn’t have known about the hooker because he never looked for her.”
“What do you think about Foster? Was it a mugging? Or was the attack involved with the Quill murder?”
“Don’t think it was a mugging.”
“If it wasn’t a mugging, then either it was involved with the Quill murder or he’s involved in something else dangerous that he’s not telling you about. That seems unlikely, a grad student. Maybe you should check his Army record, see what kind of a discharge he got. But probably that attack is somehow related to Quill. In my humble opinion.”
“I’ll buy it all,” Virgil said. “You’re right about all of it. I need to talk to our hooker. I’ll call Trane and see if we can get together.”
Shrake headed back to St. Paul.
Virgil called Trane, filled her in on the McDonald interview, and asked about a new interview with Cohen. The trial that Trane was attending was right across the street from the jail where Cohen was being held.
“How long would you need to talk with her?” Trane asked.
“If she cooperates, ten minutes.”
“I’ll be out of here later this afternoon. I’m not sure about the time. What if we pick a time—like, five o’clock? I’ll be out of here for sure by then. We’d have to call Hardy, tell him what we want to do,” Trane said.
“I’m parked right behind him,” Virgil said. “I’ll grab him when he leaves McDonald’s.”
“Worth a try,” Trane said. “I want to talk to her about the cocaine at Quill’s house, too.”
As she said that, Hardy and Jones walked out of McDonald’s house and started down the front walk to their cars. Virgil said to Trane, “Here’s Hardy. I’ll call you back in five minutes.”
He got Hardy and made the offer. “There’s some possibility that Abby Cohen killed Quill, but I also have some reasons to think that she didn’t. What we need from her is ten minutes of honesty. I don’t care about the prostitution charge, and neither does Trane. If she cooperates, I can talk Trane, and whatever county attorney’s involved, into cutting her loose. She might have to testify in a trial, but we wouldn’t necessarily want to hit her with all the other stuff . . . If she cooperates.”
“If you can do that, I’ll recommend that she goes along,” Hardy said. “How long before you know?”
“Trane would have to make some phone calls.”
“We’d want some paper on it,” Hardy said.
“That’s why she’d make some phone calls. We’d like to get it done as soon as we can.”
“I’ve got a thing I’ve got to do early this evening, I can’t get out of it, but I’m good any time before six,” Hardy said.
Virgil called Trane, and Trane said, “All right. Let’s say we meet in my office at five o’clock and walk over to the jail.”
Virgil passed the word to Hardy, who agreed to meet them at the Homicide office unless Virgil or Trane called it off.
Virgil had three hours before he had to be in Minneapolis, so he fought the afternoon traffic across the Cities to St. Paul, to Regions Hospital, where he found Terry Foster trying to read a newspaper.
“This is awful,” Foster said from his bed. “I’m developing a deep sympathy for the physically handicapped.” He dropped the paper, which landed out of reach on his stomach, and asked, “What’s up?”
“Who in the hell beat you up?”
They spent forty-five minutes digging around the problem. Foster swore that he was not involved in anything that could get him attacked. “I have nothing to do here but think about it,” he said. “I’m not dumb, but I can’t get anywhere. You’d know better than me, but I’d think if somebody gets murdered, it has to be for some big, important reason, right?”
“Most of the time, yes. But, you know, you get these little
ratshit murders where somebody didn’t respect somebody else or somebody tried to rip off somebody’s else’s weed,” Virgil said. “Murders for a dollar forty-two.”
“I didn’t do any of that. The guy had to be after me, it wasn’t random. I’m sure of that now after thinking about it for two hundred hours. He must’ve known where my parking place was . . . I keep thinking it had to be because I was poking around, but I’ve been over every possibility. Every word. I get nothing. Except . . .”
“That computer. Somebody kills Barthelemy Quill, it’s a big deal. I keep thinking about that computer. There had to be something on it. That was a thing in Iraq and Syria—you had guys running around with laptops, and some of them had really heavy shit on them. Top secret shit. Maybe that was the deal here. Maybe . . . Maybe if you went to his lab and looked at the computers there you could find some talk back and forth with the library computer that would give you a hint.”
“Not bad,” Virgil said. “The Minneapolis Crime Scene guys have his home computer. I’ll spend some time with it.”
“Gotta be the laptop. That’s all I can see as a motive . . . This woman he was with, it couldn’t be jealousy . . .”
Virgil shook his head. “She was for sale, and Quill knew it. It wasn’t jealousy. We were thinking that maybe she let somebody in to take pictures for blackmail reasons . . . Or maybe a robbery . . . Except he had a lot of cash on him and it wasn’t touched . . .”
“Well, why couldn’t it still be that? Didn’t mean to kill him but did, and ran in a panic?”
Virgil grimaced. “It could be. But it doesn’t feel right . . . Just doesn’t feel right . . .”
Before he left, Virgil picked up the newspaper lying on Foster’s stomach and helped him pinch it between his suspended hands. “How much longer?”
“Don’t know, exactly. Less than a week, I hope. They’re telling me six to eight weeks before the bones completely knit . . . I’m a fuckin’ mess,” Foster said. “If that asshole comes back, if he gets in here, I’m helpless.”
“You could call for help,” Virgil said.
“Yeah, there’s that,” Foster said. “And I will. I do already.”
Outside in the Tahoe, Virgil checked his watch: he still had almost two hours before the meeting at Trane’s office and he was only fifteen or twenty minutes from the university. He could make a quick stop at Quill’s lab to ask a couple of questions.
He left the Tahoe in a university parking structure and walked over to the lab; there were only three people inside: two women researchers and the lab director, Carl Anderson. He got them together, and said to Anderson, “The last time I talked to you, you convinced me that Quill couldn’t be doing something on the sly because there are too many people involved.”
“That’s correct,” Anderson said, and the two women nodded in agreement.
“But that’s with the surgical procedures. Here’s the thing: he was over at the library in a secret space that even the authorities—university authorities, cops, whoever—would have a hard time spotting. The library knew he was there, and some of you folks knew, but it was not obvious. If the FBI had raided him, they could miss it. Or if they found it, it might take a while. Everybody agree?”
They all agreed, and one of the women, whose name was Ann-something, said, “I work here, and I didn’t know about it.”
“Okay. What I’m asking is, what could he do with an extraordinarily fast laptop that he would want to keep in a secret place and that would have something on it that would be worth killing for? That has to do with his research?”
The three looked at one another and simultaneously shrugged.
Virgil: “Goddamnit, people, I’m asking for speculation here, not evidence, not proof.”
The second woman, who was named Rosalind-something, said, “Okay. Suppose he detected something in our lab results that the rest of us haven’t seen. We’ve been working on microinsertion of adipose-tissue-derived stem cells into traumatically damaged spinal cords. Now, if he spotted something significant, that could be valuable to a biology-based medical company.”
Anderson said, “But then you have to ask, what would Barth have gotten out of it? A, money. But he already had more money than he needed and gave a lot of it away. B, anonymity for an important scientific discovery. But one thing Barth was known for, that pissed off a lot of people, was that he always wanted credit. He wanted the full credit for what came out of the lab. His name always came first on the papers.”
Rosalind leaned back into the conversation. “How about this? What if he was using the machine to review the work of other teams and he didn’t want anyone to know about it? He’s always said there was a lot of bad science going on. What if he found a whopper in our area? A paper that got something wrong, maybe committed outright fraud, and he was using his machine to work through the numbers and demonstrate that? That might be worth killing for.”
Ann nodded. “Never thought of that. You know, with these
new online papers, the open publication business, there’s a lot of bad science. If he found something and was going back and forth with that person, you might have somebody who needed to both get rid of Dr. Quill and get ahold of the laptop.”
“How would they even know about the laptop?” Virgil asked. “Or where it was?”
“We’re not computer people, but I think a real hacker could do that,” Ann said.
Rosalind said, “How about this? He found something bad and got some hacker at the university to access that lab’s computer system. Once he knew how to get in, he could get in anytime. That’s just typing. So he’s sneaking around in there, pulling out stuff, and the other lab spots him and calls in some security service to find out who’s hacking them. They find out where the computer is and go after it.”
They all looked at one another, and then Ann said, “I see one big problem with that, from your perspective.”
“Tell me,” Virgil said.
“If the computer’s in the river, and Dr. Quill is dead, and you don’t have any other evidence, DNA, fingerprints—any of that—how would you ever find out what was going on and who was involved? I think you’d be, you know, screwed.”
“Wish you hadn’t said that,” Virgil said. Then, “A woman who works in the library told me she’d seen a man hanging around Dr. Quill’s carrel last winter. Had kind of brownish red hair, a little porky, a ponytail . . .”
Rosalind put her fingers to her lips, turned to Anderson, and said, “Boyd Nash.”
Anderson leaned back in his chair as if slapped. “Oh . . . Let’s . . . Ah, Jesus . . .”
Virgil registered the name but couldn’t remember exactly where he’d seen it. “Who’s Boyd Nash?”
“He’s this guy. You know, those guys who drive around the country looking for antiques they can buy cheap? They’re called pickers?”
“Antiques?” Virgil said. “I don’t—”
“Nash is like a picker, but he doesn’t pick antiques, he picks scientific ideas. He’s a giant asshole.”
“And a creep,” Rosalind said. “He dyes his hair so it’s auburn, but he’s got all this furry white hair coming out of his ears.”
Virgil: “Wait a minute. He does something with patents? Did you guys tell Sergeant Trane about him?”
“I might have mentioned him in passing,” Anderson said. “I don’t have any good reason to think he’d hurt Barth, but he’s such a greedy, criminal pissant.”
Rosalind: “He did patent trolling. The most unethical . . . I don’t think he still does it, he got in some kind of trouble.”
“Tell me about patent trolling. Sergeant Trane mentioned it, but I don’t remember the details,” Virgil said.
“Nash has some kind of technical or scientific background. He’d look for companies or labs that were doing research toward a certain product. Something that can be monetized. What he did was, he’d figure out what must be part of that product when it’s finally produced.”
“Give me an example,” Virgil said.
Ann jumped in. “Supposed you knew Apple was doing research on cell phones, so you draw up plans for a tiny microphone, or speaker, because you know the phone will have to have those things. Then you say your tiny speakers are to be used in cell phones and you patent them without any research at all,” she
said. “When the iPhone comes out, you sue, claiming it infringes on your crappy patent. Usually, it’s a bunch of unethical lawyers, and all they have going for themselves is the willingness to sue forever and be a nuisance until the company they’re suing finally buys them off.”