Read Bloody Genius Online

Authors: John Sandford

Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller

Bloody Genius (3 page)


Virgil liked all the aspects of living on a farm, except for the farmwork. His parents always had a garden, and the teenage Virgil was expected to put in time picking and pulling and shucking, not because they needed the food, but because it was
good for him
. Later, as a teenager, he’d detassled corn in the summer to make money.

He hated it all. He was a rocker, not a horticulturalist.

Frankie kept an oversized vegetable garden—potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, squash, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, green beans, like that—out behind the barn in what had been, decades earlier, a pigsty. A variety of annual flower and herb beds sprawled along the driveway and the front of the house, and all had to be prepped, planted, watered, and harvested.

A month earlier, Virgil had yanked a stunted orange, dirt-smelling carrot out of the ground, had flicked an earthworm off it, and said, “All of that fuckin’ work for this? Are you kiddin’ me?”

Frankie’d laughed. She’d thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

And she had that clothesline in the side yard, left over from
the seventeenth century or something. She had a perfectly good clothes dryer, but she made Virgil tote the wet bedsheets and blankets out to the line in the summer because, she said, they smelled like sunshine when they were dry. Virgil had to admit she was right about that.

But carrots? You could get a perfectly good bag of peeled carrots at the supermarket for, what, a couple of bucks?

And that was more carrots than he’d eat in a month . . .


He cut 169 at St. Peter, headed north, rolled past the farm fields and suburbs and then up the interstate highway, I-35W, toward the glass towers of downtown Minneapolis, Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore on the satellite radio singing “Downey to Lubbock.” If he could play guitar like Alvin, or the harp like Gilmore, he’d now be famous in Texas, Virgil thought. Part of Texas anyway. Okay, maybe only in Cut and Shoot, but somewhere in Texas.

He parked outside the Minneapolis City Hall in one of the spots reserved for cops, put a BCA card on the dashboard, sighed, and went inside.


The Minneapolis City Hall was not a pretty place, inside or out, and was the most barren public building Virgil had ever been in. Narrow, empty hallways were punctured by closed doors that rarely seemed to open at all. Hard benches that resembled church pews were spotted along the hallways, but he’d never seen anyone sitting on one. Strange things were undoubtedly happening behind all those doors, but he couldn’t imagine what they might be.


Minneapolis Homicide was part of a broader department that included other violent-crime units. Entry was through a tiny, dark anteroom, where a young woman sat behind a window through which she could check visitors. She looked at Virgil’s ID, said, “Let me get somebody.”

The door to the interior popped open a minute later, and a balding cop with a smile and a coffee cup said, “C’mon . . . I’m gonna want to listen to this.”

Virgil said, “Aw, man . . .”

The office consisted of an L-shaped room, its two long, narrow wings wrapping around the corner of an exterior wall of the building. Working cubicles were backed up against the wall, each with two desks on opposite sides. Large windows let light into the space.

The cubicles were not overly tidy; sport coats and jackets were hung over partition walls and paper was everywhere. The cop led Virgil down the hall past a half dozen cubicles, most empty, others with cops looking at computers. He stopped halfway down the left wing of the office, pointed at a cubicle two down from where they were standing, and half whispered, “She’s in there,” as if she were a dragon.


Margaret Trane was a sturdy, fortyish cop with twenty years on the force. She had short brown hair, brown eyes, and was dressed in blue nylon slacks with leg pockets, a white shirt, and a blue jacket. Virgil peeked into her cubicle, where she was peering nearsightedly at a computer screen. She became aware of his
presence, turned, frowned, checked his cowboy boots and T-shirt, and asked, “Yes?”

“Okay. I’m Virgil Flowers . . . I was—”

“I know who you are, Flowers,” she snapped, leaning back in her chair, not bothering to hide her anger. “What do you want from me?”

“A little less hostility would help,” Virgil said. “I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here. If I can figure a way to get out of this job, I’ll be gone.”

“You’re pals with the governor.”

“No. I don’t like the governor. He’s a weasel,” Virgil said. “I once did something that helped him get elected—”

“I know about the school board thing,” Trane said. Her voice was still cold, her eyes as frosty as her voice, and skeptical. “What do you want?”

Virgil shrugged. “Here I am. I thought if I could review what you’ve already done—”

“Everything we’ve done so far has been useless, so there’s not much point,” she said.

Virgil took a breath. “Look. I can start all over, by myself, get everybody confused about who’s doing what, and you won’t see me again. Be a big waste of my time, probably irritate the hell out of a lot of people, including you, but I can do it. Or, I could look at your reports and start from there.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but before she got a word out, a man who’d walked up behind Virgil said, “Margaret, could I speak to you for a moment?”

Trane said, “I’m—”

“I know what you’re doing, Margaret. Step in here.” He pointed to an interview room across the hall. “Right now.”

The man was tall, thin, balding, and black; he wore rumpled gray suit pants, a white shirt, and gold-rimmed glasses. He had an empty holster on one hip. He was a cop who could have done advertisements for an accounting firm. He nodded at Virgil as Trane got up and brushed by him into the interview room. He said, “We’ll be just a moment,” and closed the door.


The cop who’d pointed out Trane had been eavesdropping from the next cubicle. He stepped out with a grin, and said, “That’s Lieutenant Knox. Nothing like getting off on the right foot, huh? Trane’s now getting her ass handed to her by the lieutenant, which will make her even happier than she already is.”

Virgil said, “I can understand why she’s pissed. I would be, too, in her shoes.”

“Yeah, but here you are, a cowboy with actual cowboy boots, likely with horse manure on the insteps, and wearing a band shirt, so you probably enjoy standing around on street corners bullshitting with people. Maggie, on the other hand, does not do bullshit. At all.”

“What’s wrong with my shirt?” Virgil was wearing a vintage Otis Taylor “Trance Blues” T-shirt available only on select internet sites.

“It’s not that often that you see a cop wearing one, unless maybe he’s undercover,” the cop said.

“I’m trying to elevate fashion standards among law enforcement personnel,” Virgil said. “So . . . Trane . . . She smart?”

“Yeah, she’s smart. Smart as she is, the
Star Tribune
says she’s baffled. What pisses her off is, she actually
is
. Baffled. She’s got no clue of what happened over at the U. No suspects, no prints, no
DNA, no murder weapon, no time of death even. She doesn’t even know for sure why the dead guy was where he was. Or how he got there.”

The door to the interview room opened, and Trane scooted out, almost as if she’d been kicked in the ass. She scowled at Virgil as Lieutenant Knox disappeared down the hall, pointed at an empty desk, and said, “That desk belongs to a guy on vacation. You can use it until he gets back. He’ll be back in two weeks, but a highly qualified investigator like yourself probably won’t need more time than that. All the drawers are locked, but you can use the computer. I’ll open my files for you. Let me know when you’re done and I’ll close them.”

Virgil said, “I appreciate it. While you’re doing that, if you could point me to a men’s room . . .”

“I’ll show you,” the other cop said. “I’ll walk you across the street to the cafeteria, give you the lay of the land.” To Trane he said, “We’ll be a few minutes. You should go lie down in the ladies’ room and put a cool, damp hankie on your forehead.”

“Fuck you,” Trane said, but not in the mean voice she’d used on Virgil. She was already settling back in front of her computer.


Virgil had been to the Minneapolis cop shop a few times, but the man, whose name was Ansel Neumann and who was a detective sergeant, gave him the full two-dollar tour. They wound up in a cafeteria in the government building across the street from City Hall. The two buildings were connected by an underground tunnel, the government center tall and now, after a few decades of being modern, a little shabby; the City Hall was old and squat and ugly, with dim, empty hallways with ranks of closed doors and
stone floors that kicked echoes out from your feet when you walked across them.

They ordered some kind of pie, which was yellow and might have been custard, or possibly banana, and Neumann briefed Virgil on the computer system, and what he could expect in Trane’s files, as well as a review of what the media was doing.

“They’ve been all over Trane’s ass—a Channel Three crew ambushed her out at her house during dinner and they spent some time yelling at each other. She’s got a problem.”

“Why take it out on me? I understand not wanting an outsider, but . . .”

Neumann: “Because it suggests she can’t handle the case?”

“I’m not doing that.”

“No, but guess what happens when the governor’s fair-haired boy shows up here and the case gets solved? Who gets the credit? Who’s the village idiot? Trane figures she’s going to wind up sitting in the corner with a pointy hat on her head.”

“Ah, shit.”


When Virgil and Neumann got back to the Homicide office, another cop had shown up and was eating a tuna salad sandwich at the desk on the other side of the cubicle wall from Trane. Trane was again nearsightedly peering at her computer screen. Virgil said, “Margaret?”

“What?”

He tipped his head toward the interview room. “Step in here for a minute. We need to talk.”

She launched herself from her chair, followed Virgil into the room, closed the door, and crossed her arms. “What?”

Virgil held up his hands in a placating gesture. “I don’t think you need my help. I’m not here voluntarily. I’d be pissed if I were in your shoes, and I told Ansel that. I understand. But we’re stuck with it. If we figure this thing out, I’ll disappear. Nobody from the media will ever hear my name. And if anybody asks me, I’ll tell them you ran the show. Because, honest to God, I don’t need this.”

She unfolded her arms. “It’s just . . . insulting, you know?”

“I know how you feel about it. You know Lucas Davenport, right? You must have overlapped.” Davenport had been a Minneapolis Homicide cop before he’d gone on to the BCA, and then to the U.S. Marshals Service.

“Yeah, he’s a friend,” she said.

“He’s a friend of mine, too. We’re almost best friends, in an odd way,” Virgil said. “Give him a call. See what he thinks.”

She agreed, if still a bit grudgingly. “Okay. Let me open the files for you. And I
will
give Lucas a ring.”

CHAPTER
THREE

Virgil spent the afternoon reviewing Trane’s work; the room was cool and damp and smelled like paper and floor wax. He got up a few times, to walk and think, wandering over to the government building. A few people stopped to peer into the office, checking the guy with the blues T-shirt.

Trane asked, “How are you doing?” a couple of times, and he said, “Good. You’re a good reporter,” and she was, and she went away, possibly mollified, possibly to pee.

Her reports were chronological, rather than ordered by subject matter, so Virgil made notes on a yellow legal pad, organized by subject.


There was one picture of the murder victim, Professor Barthelemy Quill, when he was alive, an informal portrait in his laboratory that looked like it might have been taken by a newspaper reporter—it had a newsy look.

Judging from a door behind Quill’s shoulder, he was a tall man, over six feet. He had neatly trimmed hair—originally light brown or blond, now shot through with gray—and a full head of it. The short hair framed a sober oval face punctuated with thin blond eyebrows and sharp blue-gray eyes that said “I went to a private boys’ school and then off to the Ivy League”—the face of a high-level federal prosecutor or Naval officer.

The file also included a couple of dozen digital prints of the body as it was found, as well as close-ups of the entire carrel and the area around it.

The blood from the head wound appeared black against the fair hair both at the site and where it trickled down Quill’s skull and left a stain on the stone-tiled floor beneath his chin. He was wearing gray slacks, a gray shirt, and a black sport coat. The ensemble lent him the aspect of a vampire, especially since his lips were pulled back in a death grimace, revealing a long eyetooth.

Trane had interviewed more than fifty persons who’d known Quill, including his estranged current wife, two ex-wives, two ex-lovers, all the lab employees, colleagues at the university and the neighbors, and a group of academics with whom he was feuding. She’d extracted from them narratives of their relationships to the dead man and accountings of their whereabouts on Friday and Saturday.

The academic feud had taken quite a bit of Trane’s time: she’d conducted interviews with both Quill supporters and Quill haters, and there had been some violence involved.

Trane had had trouble determining the victim’s exact time of death because he’d been known to take solitary walks around campus. Quill left his lab, alone, at one o’clock Friday afternoon,
and hadn’t returned. He hadn’t shown up on Monday, either, which was unusual but not unprecedented. His laboratory director had tried to call him twice on Monday, but Quill’s phone had apparently been turned off. That also was not unusual—famously, he hated being interrupted “by any idiot who can poke a number into a keypad.”

Because Trane hadn’t a time of death—the medical examiner pegged it as being between Friday evening and noon Saturday—she’d been unable to eliminate alibis of the people closest to Quill or those who’d been involved with Quill in the feud, a vicious campus controversy concerning the relationship of medicine to culture.


Quill had an office and lab in Moos Tower, a research center on campus. He would spend mornings there, arriving around eight o’clock after a stop at a Starbucks, where he picked up coffee and a slice of banana or pumpkin bread, which he ate at his desk.

The next few hours were spent conferring with his senior lab assistants and reviewing ongoing work. In the afternoons, he often left the lab to walk and think, sometimes returning to work on into the evening on scientific papers. The lab’s work had been published in all the major medical journals concerned with spinal injuries.

Trane noted that Quill’s assistants called him either Barth—not Bart—or Dr. Quill. He had a medical degree, but had never used it to practice; he also had a Ph.D. in biomedicine and had done advanced work in biorobotics.

After leaving the lab on Friday, Quill had met with a professor
of microsurgery and a professor of radiology at the university medical center. That meeting had lasted until about three o’clock.

He’d been sighted by two medical students at Coffman Memorial Union around three o’clock, at the coffee bar; and may have been sighted by two neighbors, walking near his home, around five o’clock, but that was uncertain.

According to Trane’s reports, Quill lived alone in a large redbrick house on East River Parkway, within long walking distance of his lab. In good weather, he often walked, and occasionally biked, to the university. If he’d actually been spotted by the neighbors, that was the last time he’d been seen alive by any witnesses Trane had been able to locate.


Quill’s estranged wife lived in a condo, owned by Quill, east of the university. At the time of his death, they were negotiating the terms of a divorce. There was a severe prenuptial agreement. Interestingly, the estranged wife would get little of Quill’s money, and no alimony at all, if they divorced while he was alive, but would inherit a substantial fortune if he “predeceased” her.

Virgil said, “Huh,” but noted that the wife had an ironclad alibi—she was also an academic and had been in Cleveland attending a conference on the structure of natural languages. That didn’t mean she couldn’t have had an accomplice to do the killing.

The will—actually, a revocable trust—dictated precisely what would happen with Quill’s estate when he died. Other than his estranged wife, nobody would get more or less if Quill were killed yesterday or thirty years later; but most would get it sooner if he were killed yesterday.

His daughter was an exception. Under the terms of the trust, she was to be paid sixty thousand dollars a year until she was thirty, the money intended to cover her education. After age thirty, she wouldn’t get another nickel—ever. Since she was already getting the payments from the trust, it made no financial difference to her when or whether Quill died.


Trane had gone to Verizon, Quill’s phone service provider, and had extracted a record of where the phone had been. The phone had been turned off around six o’clock on Friday night, but Verizon’s automated system had continued to track it until midnight. Quill had been around his house and neighborhood until about nine-thirty, when he’d driven to an area known as Dinkytown. He’d left his car in a private parking lot and never gone back to it.

After leaving the car, he’d wandered around on foot, with no protracted stops. Then the phone traced a walk across the campus and then across a footbridge over the Mississippi.

At midnight, the phone had been turned back on, in the library—but then, ten minutes later, again outside the library, it had disappeared altogether. At six o’clock the next morning, it popped up again, on the footbridge between the east and west banks of the river. A Google search had been made of Starbucks, perhaps to check opening times. The phone then was carried to the library, which didn’t open until eight, had been turned off again there, was tracked for a few more minutes, then disappeared again. It hadn’t yet reappeared on Verizon’s records. Or been found.

“You’re telling me that he was killed Saturday morning,
before the library opened. He must’ve had a key to an outside door to get up to his carrel,” Virgil said to Trane.

She turned from her computer. “He had a key, no question about that,” Trane said. “We don’t know who gave it to him. Of course, it’s possible that somebody with a key let him in. I talked to an assistant at the library, who said she saw him once very shortly after the library opened coming out of his carrel. Not to say that he couldn’t have been waiting outside and got in the minute it opened, but she had the impression that he might have slept in the library. Doesn’t know for sure. I originally thought he must’ve been killed after six-fifteen, the last time we can locate his phone, but now . . .”

She pressed a hand to the side of her face, thinking about it, and Vigil asked, “What?”

“I keep reminding myself, I know where the cell phone was,” Trane said. “I’m not a hundred percent sure where Quill was—that he was with the phone. The cell wasn’t with the body, and neither were the computer nor his keys. We know he kept his house and office keys on his car fob. He was driving a BMW that night—the BMW that we found in the parking lot.”

“If Verizon can track phones when they’re turned off—”

“They can, if the battery isn’t pulled.”

“—then what happened when it disappeared? He took the battery out?”

“That would be one way, but there are a couple of others. You can buy cases that shield phones from electromagnetic radiation. Maybe he had one.”

“Or the killer did,” Virgil said.

“Yup—or the killer did. It’s possible he was killed at midnight, and the subsequent tracks were the killer’s. It’s also possible that
Quill had a phone shield case. Met somebody at the library, dropped his phone in the case so he couldn’t be tracked, spent the night somewhere—maybe with a woman?—then went back to the library the next morning and was killed there. None of his lab associates ever saw such a case. If he was deliberately blocking his phone at times, he might have kept it a secret. The Verizon records don’t show any previous instances, though.”

“Then if the phone was shielded, it was most likely the killer who did it,” Virgil said.

“You could make that argument. If that’s right, Quill was most likely killed at midnight. But then the killer would have to have had Quill’s access code, because it popped up again the next morning.”

“All this only applies if Quill’s phone had a keypad code. Or maybe a fingerprint code . . .”

“He did have a code and he kept it secret,” Trane said. “We know that from his wives . . . And he hadn’t changed phones since the second divorce.”

“If he kept it secret from his wives, is it possible he was having affairs?” Virgil asked. “Patronizing hookers?”

“It’s possible, and I’ve already asked that question,” Trane said. “Nobody knows of such a history. He apparently was sexually straight, his wives agreed that he was always sexually active, and even a little rough, but he wasn’t driven by sex. He was driven by his research.”

“Rough? How rough?” Virgil asked. “Violent?”

She shook her head. “Nothing like that. Muscly. He manipulated them enough that they sometimes had bruises, but none of them said they didn’t like it.”

“He was a strong guy, then?”

“Not a bodybuilder or a weight lifter, but three times a week at the gym, doing a full circuit, working hard at it. He owned a Peloton bike, it’s at his house, and Peloton records show he worked out almost every day, for exactly half an hour, but heavily. He was in good shape. No, he was in great shape.”

“Yet no signs that he resisted the killer?”

“The killer hit him from behind,” Trane said. “He never saw it coming.”


The murder weapon was unknown. People who’d spoken to Quill at his library carrel said Quill kept a large and powerful laptop computer there. The computer was missing, but Trane had learned from credit card records that Quill had spent more than twelve thousand dollars on a high-end laptop, a DreamBook Power P87, the year before.

She’d found a similar computer, with an identical case, and the medical examiner had confirmed that a corner of it could have done the damage to Quill’s skull, but Trane didn’t have the actual laptop, so that was also uncertain.

Virgil asked Trane, “Is it possible that there was something on his computer or phone that somebody was desperate to get?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? I’ve asked the question, and nobody can think of what it might be. He was a research scientist, but not a loner. There are extensive notes on everything done in the lab. This laptop . . . We know Quill wasn’t a gamer, he didn’t play video games. This thing had fast processors and a lot of storage, and would work well with virtual reality. His top assistant said you might use it to display and manipulate MRI images, yet
he didn’t know why Quill would try to hide that, what he’d be doing with it in a study carrel. They have plenty of computer power in the lab. Still . . . he had a huge amount of power there. He must’ve been using it for something.”

“Maybe he screwed something up, with a patient, and wanted to keep the images where only he could see them.”

“That had occurred to me, too. While there is a lawsuit involving one of his patients, a suicide, I don’t see anything there. Virgil, this is something I’ve been struggling with, thinking he might have a secret life of some kind—but all of his work is very public. I mean, it’s all done as a team. When surgery is involved, he doesn’t do it, a team of surgeons does. I cannot, for the life of me, find anything in his professional life that he’d want to hide.”

“Okay.”

“One other thing: that computer is fairly rare. I’ve been watching the local Craigslist and eBay and Googling laptops for sale, and it hasn’t shown up on any of that. It could be in the river.”


Virgil finished taking notes at three o’clock. Trane had been coming and going while he worked, and when he kicked back from the computer, she was coming through the doorway with a paper cup full of coffee.

“Finished?”

“Not really. I need to think about it all. You get any . . . vibrations . . . from anyone?”

“I got vibrations from a lot of people. Quill was highly respected, but not much liked,” Trane said. “A couple of people hinted that he wasn’t particularly generous with giving others
credit for scientific papers. That’s a big deal for young job-hunting scientists. His ex-wives didn’t like him, either. I asked them why and they said he was arrogant, cold, mean. Everything but violent. He had a child with his first wife, a daughter, who also didn’t like him much, although he supported her and his first wife quite adequately for more than twenty years until his death. His daughter goes to St. Thomas. She’s pretty much a slacker . . . a C to B student, though her mother says she’s bright enough. She doesn’t want to work, that’s all. Doesn’t want to work—ever.”

“Does she inherit anything? Outside that trust?”

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