Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
“You know what?” Brett asked. “I don’t think anybody in the feud had anything to do with it. I think there were people already in the library for something that didn’t have anything to do with Professor Quill. Something illegal. He caught them and they killed him. You know, that’s a big place. If you were up there late in the day, you could hide out, get yourself locked in, sleep there, probably go down in the basement—they’ve got a coffee place down there—get something to eat. A street guy, in there to steal stuff, or even some student who ran out of money . . .”
“What could you steal in the library?” the man asked. “Books? Who wants books?”
Brett shrugged. “There’s all kinds of stuff laying around. You don’t think about it, but people leave stuff in their offices—cameras, office equipment, tools. If you were strong, you could get out of there with a printer, or something, sell it at one of those used-computer places. Good money, if you’re on the street.”
Quill snorted. “You’ve thought about it.”
Brett: “Well, yeah. I had to drop out the first semester of my third year. I went to Spain that summer using my school money, and the folks wouldn’t give me any more. Said I had to make it up.”
“Fascists,” Jerry said. He was back poking at his cell phone.
“Ah, they’re good folks,” Brett said. “Anyway, seeing all the
shit people leave around in university buildings, it was sort of tempting to pick some up.”
Quill: “You do it? Go outlaw?”
Brett shook his head. “Nah, I chickened out. Got a job pushing a broom over at the HarMar Mall.” He did a comic head turn, checking the street with narrowed eyes as if a cop might be listening. “I’ll tell you what. There was this storage area over at the mall, stuff they used in the restrooms. Toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning stuff. They’d order like six months’ supply at a time, in these big cardboard boxes. I’d push it a couple feet forward from the back wall—you couldn’t tell—and I’d sleep back there. I had a foam mattress and a sleeping bag. I’d get off at two in the morning, shave and take a sponge bath in the restroom, and bag out. Get up at eleven, brush my teeth, hang out until it was time to go to work. My own little apartment.”
“Cool,” Megan said.
Jerry shook his head. “Pathetic.”
The unknown man said, “I admire that. You gotta do what you gotta do. Did you go back to school?”
Brett flashed his smile. “Yeah. I graduate this winter.”
“Great.” He turned back to Megan as he started to step away. “Like I said, I’m sorry about what happened.”
She said, “Yeah, thanks. It’s all a mystery.”
He ambled away, and Brett, looking after him, said, “That was sort of weird. Guy on the street like that coming up to you.”
The guy got in a car fifty yards away, did an illegal U-turn, went past them, holding up a hand to wave. Megan nodded, and said, “I’d fuck him.”
“Fuck me,” Jerry said.
“No way. Why don’t you fuck Elaine? She’d do it, if you’d tell her where the sniper’s nest is.”
“Fuck that. She’ll never get past it,” Jerry said. “She’s hung up.”
“And you won’t get laid. She’ll probably figure it out, sooner or later, so you might as well make it sooner and get laid.”
“Good point.” Jerry was looking at the man in the car, who’d stopped at the light down the street. He said nothing about Elaine, but he did say to Brett, “You’re right. That was weird.” He lifted his cell phone and took a shot of the car.
“You don’t think . . .” Quill turned and watched as the car accelerated through the now green light and went on down Cleveland Avenue.
“That he might have done it? That he was checking us out to see what we knew?”
“Oh, fuck no,” Brett said. “Did he seem like a killer to you? He didn’t to me.”
“You can never tell,” Quill said. “The killer could be anybody.”
That night, at dark, the man was waiting outside Nancy Quill’s condo when the Jaguar pulled into a visitor’s parking slot. He knew the Jag, and the man who got out of it, and Quill as well, who waited for the driver to walk around and open the passenger door. He did, and they went up. The man looked at his watch. It was eight-twenty; her date had picked her up at six o’clock, they’d gone to a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis, and now they were back.
The man said, “C’mon, nail her. Give me something. Give me something.”
But at eight twenty-five, the visitor walked out the condo’s door, climbed in the Jag, and drove away.
The man shook his head, turned on the radio, and headed for home.
The man lived in an older area of St. Paul called Frogtown. The access to his rented house lay down a narrow unpaved alley. He turned in, followed his lights to the garage, which wasn’t rented with the house—the owner used it to store lumber for his woodworking hobby—and parked beside it.
He got out of the car, looked up at the stars as he walked past the garage, and because he was looking up, instead of down, he caught the rush coming in from the side. He never actually saw much but felt that rush and put up his right arm and caught the club on his forearm, which broke, and he went down, screaming, and the attacker was all over him, a stout man in a black coat and a ski mask, nothing of his face visible. The club came down again, a flash of yellow wood, maybe a two-by-two, and the man put up his broken arm and caught another blow, which broke another bone, and he rolled, shrieking with pain, and the attacker was still there, swinging again, and the man put up his other arm, caught the blow, and his left arm broke, and the attacker cursed, and the man couldn’t make out the words but it definitely sounded like a curse, and he rolled twice more, bellowing.
The attacker tried to hit the man’s head and managed to scrape the side of his skull and rip his ear. And then somebody else was shouting, and the attacker swung once more, catching the man on the left side of his rib cage, cracking ribs, and then the attacker ran away . . .
Another man stood over him, and said, “Oh, man . . . Oh, man, are you okay? . . . Are you . . . I’m calling the cops . . . I’m calling an ambulance . . . Lay still . . .”
And the man heard the second man shouting into his cell phone, and, a little while later, a cop came, the man registering the flashing lights, which seemed to add to the pain in his arms and rib cage and the fire in his scalp, then an ambulance was there, and they picked him up and took him away, and the cool pillow felt good behind his head . . .
Trane met Virgil at Quill’s house the next morning at eight o’clock. She was looking fashionable in a dark blue blouse and black slacks, with low-heeled black boots. Virgil was wearing the same thing he’d worn the day before, except that he’d changed to a “Lamb Chop” T-shirt.
Trane was unlocking the door as Virgil walked up, and she said, “My rational side says there’s not a chance in hell. My gut thinks I’m onto something. After you were talking about it last night, I had that damn song stuck in my head until I went to sleep, and this idea popped up. The song didn’t go away, though. Probably going to be with me all day. ‘Home, home on the range / Where the deer and the antelope play . . .’”
“Stop, please,” Virgil said. And, “You know how to destroy any earworm?”
“You hum that Walt Disney thing, ‘It’s a Small World.’ It’ll kill anything, but it’s such a miserable song, such complete shit, it
won’t stay stuck in your head on its own,” Virgil said, as they climbed the stairs to Quill’s office. “It’ll kill, but it won’t hang out.”
“Like whoever murdered Quill,” she said.
“Over in that direction,” Virgil agreed.
In the office, they turned on the CD player and, a minute later, were listening to “Home on the Range.” Virgil picked up a remote and skipped to the next track, and “Git Along, Little Dogies” came up.
“This is awful,” he said, and he pushed the skip button again.
A man’s voice. “Man, you can’t go ahead with this. It’s unethical at best, it’s dangerous at worse. You could kill him . . .”
Trane said, “Oh my God,” just like a Valley girl.
A second man on the recording, maybe Quill: “He’s going to die. And soon. Maybe he’s got a month. Probably less. Right now, he’s willing himself to die. He’s given permission—”
Third man: “His permission is worthless. The only time he can give permission is when he’s in extreme pain and he’ll do anything to stop it. If he gives you permission, he gets opiates. If he doesn’t give permission, you’ll argue some more, and that delays the dope. You can’t do that. You were essentially torturing him to get what you want.”
The second man again: “You guys have to sign off on this. There’s a good possibility that we’ll never encounter this situation again. If this works as it should, it’ll be a major breakthrough. We’re talking about tens of thousands of lives around the world.”
First man: “That you might not even be able to write about, to publish, because the ethical problems are so clear.”
Second man: “We can have that fight later. After it’s done. Maybe we could . . . obfuscate the precise circumstances to some degree.”
Third man: “Oh, bullshit. The committee’s not going to sign off on this. You go strutting in there like a peacock and expect them to fall over?”
Second man: “They’ll fall over if you recommend we go ahead. Listen, they’ll go ahead if your . . . if your, I have to say, inaccurate suggestion about his state of mind isn’t mentioned—”
The recording cut out. Trane looked at Virgil, and said, “This can’t be an original recording. Not on a CD.”
Virgil nodded. “You’re right. It’s a rerecording. But why? Blackmail? They were talking about human experimentation. If it’s blackmail, why hide it behind a couple of cowboy songs?”
“I don’t know about that part,” Trane said. “I’ve got a doctor I could talk to about the experimentation, see if he can clarify the situation.”
“He might not want to. He might even have to report it to somebody, and we wouldn’t want that to happen until we’re ready for it,” Virgil said.
“He won’t report it.”
“I’m sure, and I can get it done in a hurry,” Trane said. “The fact is, I’m sleeping with him.”
“That’s more information than I needed,” Virgil said. “And that doesn’t guarantee—”
“The other thing is, he’s my husband,” Trane said.
“Ah. Then we’re okay. I was wondering where those Louboutin boots came from on a cop’s salary. I saw the red soles when you were walking up the steps outside.”
Fists on hips. “You’re were thinking I was crooked?”
“I was thinking you were looking good,” Virgil said.
know how to dodge a bullet,” Trane said, with another of her uncommon smiles.
Trane wanted to talk to her husband, who was planning to spend the afternoon with his sketching group but would still be at home. “After I talk to him, I’m going back to wife number three. Maybe she knows exactly what situation they were talking about—who they were going to experiment on.”
“I’ll see if I can find Combes,” Virgil said. And, “Hey, Trane, you did good. I wouldn’t have thought of the CD in a hundred years.”
“That makes us even,” Trane said. “I never would have seen the tricky desk.”
Virgil called Davenport about Combes. Davenport went away for a minute, then came back and gave him a phone number for a lawyer named Carleton Lange, who referred him to a lawyer named Shelly Carter, who gave him Combes’s personal cell phone number, and said, “Don’t tell him I sold him out to a cop.”
Combes was on the sixteenth green at his golf club about to putt, he told Virgil, but would be done in half an hour or so. “Come to the clubhouse, I’ll meet you in the grill. You can grill me.”
Combes lived in the prosperous St. Paul suburb of North Oaks, which was north of St. Paul and had a lot of oaks and, from what Virgil had been told, had a decent, private golf course set among architecturally challenged McMansions. He’d never been
on the course, which wasn’t disappointing since he ranked golf only slightly above thumb wrestling and joggling as a sport. He suspected the members wouldn’t let him on the greens anyway.
Saturday traffic slowed him down, and though North Oaks was only ten miles or so from Quill’s house, it took a half hour to make the trip. Combes had just come off the course when Virgil walked in from the parking lot. He was a beefy, sun-reddened, square-jawed guy with square white teeth, his brown hair going a little gray at the temples, maybe looking like a high school tight end gone slightly to seed. He had on a red golf shirt like Tiger Woods wore—and maybe still did—and plaid golf shorts.
He was sitting with three other men when he was pointed out to Virgil. As Virgil walked over, he stood up to shake hands, and said to his friends, “Gotta talk to this guy. Be right back.” They got a table away from other patrons, and Combes asked, “What’s up? This is about Barth? . . . Wanna beer?”
“No, thanks, I’m working. I’d take a Diet Coke.”
When Virgil had his Coke, he said, “We’re talking to a lot of Barth’s friends . . .”
“I hear you’re dead in the water. If you’re talking to me, you must be deader than I heard.”
“We’ve started to make progress in the last few days,” Virgil said.
“How’d you get my cell phone?”
Virgil lied. “I don’t know. I’m friends with Lucas Davenport, who you know, and I asked him to make some calls. He did and got me the number.”
“Huh. I’ll tell you something about Davenport and basketball: you don’t want to be standing in the paint when he’s coming
through,” Combes said. “He’ll lay that hockey defenseman shit on your ass and you’ll wind up in the bleachers.”
“He said you can shoot,” Virgil said.
Jock bonding. Combes was pleased. “I do have my moments.” Then, “So . . .”
“Yeah. How close were you and Dr. Quill?”
“Hell, not real close—we didn’t go out drinking or anything. He came to my Christmas party most years; he kinda liked my old lady. We did play handball most Friday afternoons when we both were in town.”
Virgil dropped his voice. “Here’s the thing, Jack. I mean, you’ve done criminal law, you know what we do. We’re looking for people who Dr. Quill might have been involved with, and who might have a propensity to violence.”
Combes: “That’s not me.”
Virgil took a nip of his Diet Coke, and said, “That’s not where I was going. We pretty much tore apart his house and we found the remnants of an eight ball of cocaine hidden in a desk drawer. You’ve dealt with druggies. Did you ever see any sign that Dr. Quill was using cocaine? Did you ever see him with anybody who might have been dealing it to him?”
Combes was already shaking his head. “You gotta know that I’ve defended a lot of these guys, court-appointed deals. Sure, I know the signs. All of them. I can look at two guys and tell you which one is a coke freak and which one is a methhead. I’ll tell you this: Barth Quill never in his life used cocaine. He didn’t know any coke dealers. The whole idea is laughable.”
Combes shook off the interruption. “No buts. Look. What you
really want to know is if I might have slipped him a little coke. If I might have introduced him to one of my clients. The answer is no. If I’d even suggested that he might like a little chemical fun, he would have crossed me off his list of friends. You know the phrase ‘rectally challenged’?”
“That’s the lawyer version of ‘He’s got a corncob stuck up his ass.’”
“I know that one,” Virgil said.
“Well, that was Barth. He was a guy who’d get out of the shower to pee. A good guy, but stiff.
stiff. You’d say something a little off-color and it would take him five seconds to decide to laugh, and you knew he didn’t approve.”
“Then why was he a good guy?”
Combes shrugged. “He just was. My wife went into the university hospitals to get her tits done up and she was in there three days. He stopped in twice a day, brought her flowers, chatted with her. Talked to her surgeon, explained some technical stuff to her. That was Barth. He had his own street guy, this beggar, who’d wait for him outside the hospital buildings every morning, and Barth would give him ten bucks. Every day. Told me that with ten bucks you could get enough calories at a Burger King to survive. Probably kept the guy alive. Because he thought he should. He didn’t want anyone to thank him, either. It wasn’t charity. It was his duty.”
“His wives didn’t like him much,” Virgil said.
“’Cause he was stiff, and he could have a mean mouth. He didn’t want to be that way, but he couldn’t help it. He could dance, by the way. He was a hell of a dancer. Ask his wives about that.”
“But no cocaine.”
Virgil kicked back in his chair, looking at Combes. He knew the kind of guy Combes was. He might have tasted a little cocaine from time to time, probably drank a little too much, probably was okay to his wife, probably had a couple of kids—and they were probably pretty good kids—probably liked to watch a ball game in the evenings—any kind of ball you could name—probably knew his way around a fishing boat but wasn’t a fanatic about it, probably slapped backs. Lots of probablys, but Virgil thought he was probably right.
And, Virgil thought, he was telling the truth. That was always disturbing in a source.
Virgil sighed, stood up, stuck out his hand. “Jack, I appreciate it. I probably won’t need to, but if I do, I might call you again.”
“Anytime,” Combes said.
Combes went back to his friends, and Virgil walked out to the parking lot. As he was pulling out, Combes came out of the clubhouse and waved him down. Virgil pulled up next to him and dropped his side window. Combes said, “Had a thought. Maybe talk to Barth’s daughter. She’s a college kid, kinda out there. I was thinking about the coke. He mentioned one time that she was having some problems, hanging out with the wrong people. I don’t know exactly what that meant. Could have meant, like, slackers. In Barth’s eyes, that’d be as bad as dopers. He might have meant something rougher, though. I don’t know. But he was bothered.”
“I thought he didn’t have much to do with his daughter,” Virgil said.
“He didn’t until she started going to college and messing up. Then they talked. At least occasionally. He mentioned once that
she’d been over the night before. It might have been about money—probably was, to some extent. And I might not know what I’m talking about. She might be a real princess.”
“I’ll check,” Virgil said. “Thank you.”
Virgil drove out to the street, pulled over, and called Trane. Trane was in her car. “I talked to my husband. He’s an internist, not a research scientist, but he knows some things. Basically, he said that the university would have a committee that would have to approve human experimentation. With what was on the CD, there’s no way they would give it. He also thought that there was no way that Quill could have avoided getting it, either—no way around the rules. As it turns out, that doesn’t mean anything for us.”
“It doesn’t? There could be a motive . . .”
“I talked to Nancy Quill. She listened to the recording and the first thing she said was, ‘That’s not Barth. None of them is Barth.’”
Virgil thought about it, silently, until she said, “Hello? You still there?”
“Then why would he have the recording? After he got it, why would he keep it? Why would he have been listening to it just before he died? I can’t believe that CD was in the player for very long—he obviously listened to a lot of music and he had about a thousand CDs in there.”
“I don’t know the answers to any of that,” Trane said. “Was he doing something with the computer, in the library, he didn’t want anyone to know about and somehow tied into the CD? Maybe he reviewed the CD before he met somebody over there to talk about it?”
“How about this? Quill was given the CD by one of those
guys arguing against human experimentation. Something bad happened—like the experiment went bad and the patient died,” Virgil said. “Quill did know who it was on the CD. He planned on giving it to the committee, or maybe even the cops, but he wanted to check it out first to make sure he wasn’t being played.”
“And somebody on the CD killed him to keep the secret safe. Because if the secret wasn’t kept, some big shot doctors could be looking at murder charges.”
“I like that,” Trane said. “I like that a lot. But who are the other people?”
“What doctors? And when?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Maybe talk to some of his medical associates, the guys who actually do the surgeries for him. Find out what they think.”