Authors: John Sandford
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
“You gotta be careful, Margaret. You don’t want to play that CD for the wrong guy even if he’s wearing a white doctor’s coat.”
“Not to worry. I’ve got a big gun, and I’m nervous. Now, what are you doing?”
He told her about his interview with Combes. “I believe him.”
“Only one problem with all that,” Trane said. “We know that Quill had cocaine and that somebody had used some of it. Maybe not Quill; maybe he provided it to the hypothetical hookers you were talking about. You say that the drawers in that desk weren’t all that secret because your grandfather had one like that. Well, guess what? My grandfather didn’t, and I’d be willing to bet that ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people out there didn’t have grandfathers who did. Those drawers were secret for normal people. I never would have found that coke in fifty years, and the
Crime Scene guys didn’t, either. That toot was put in the desk by Quill.”
“You’re saying I’m not normal?”
“I thought there was substantial agreement on that.”
Virgil told Trane that he wanted to make a run at Quill’s daughter.
“You know I got nothing useful from her, but go ahead,” Trane said. “Maybe if a cowboy blows softly in her ear, she’ll cough something up.”
“You think she’s . . . needy . . . ?”
“That’s a kind way of putting it, but yes,” Trane said. “She’s a sad sack. She wants somebody to love her, and she’s nice-enough-looking, but she’s annoying. She winds up sleeping with people who want the sex but not the woman. You’ll see.”
“Where am I going to find her?”
“You know, it’s Saturday, so she’ll probably still be asleep, if she’s home. She’s over in St. Paul. Let me give you the address.”
Megan Quill lived in the upstairs apartment of a tree-shaded private home off Selby Avenue, three blocks from the University of St. Thomas. The home was older, pre–World War II, two stories with an attic under the roof, with white clapboard siding and a stingy front porch. Virgil was familiar with Selby from his days as a St. Paul cop—he’d taken any number of calls on the street, including a murder, but miles farther east. He parked under a maple tree and walked up to the front door, which had three mailboxes to one side.
Access to the second-floor apartment was up an interior staircase.
Virgil rang the doorbell, and, a moment later, an elderly lady shuffled up to the door, opened it three or four inches, and asked through the crack, “Can I help you?”
Virgil identified himself, and asked about Quill.
“Well, she’s up. I heard her flush the toilet,” the old woman said, opening the door all the way. She was chewing something
and smelled of masticated bread. “You can go on up, she’s in number one. There’s another ringer by her door, push the button. She has friends over.”
The house smelled of musty wallpaper and bug spray, and the narrow, dark wooden stairs creaked as Virgil went up. A short hallway apparently led to a bathroom at the back of the house with a door that had a silver 2 next to it. Virgil went back the other way, to the front of the house, to a door with a 1. He pushed the button to the side of the door, and, from inside the room, a woman shouted, “What?”
Virgil didn’t want to shout an answer, so he pushed the button again.
“For Christ’s sakes, who is it? I’m not up,” the woman said. “Is that you, Walt?”
Virgil said, as quietly as he could and still be heard on the other side of the door, “Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.”
After a moment of silence, he heard voices, then footsteps coming to the door, which flew open. Megan Quill, standing there barefoot in a cranberry-colored terry-cloth robe, was a fleshy young woman. She was pretty, medium blond, with a narrow nose and thin lips much like her father’s, and hazy blue eyes. Under her left eye, she had a bruise the size of a half-dollar, now going yellow.
At the same time that she opened the door, the door opened on apartment 2, and a white man with the North Korean dictator’s haircut stuck his head out. Quill shouted, her voice shrill as a stepped-on cat’s, “Go back inside, Dick. This is none of your goddamn business.”
The man’s head disappeared and the door slammed. Quill said to Virgil, “I already talked to the police. Like, three times.”
“I know, but I’m new on the case and wanted to chat,” Virgil said. “What happened to your eye?”
“Well, I wasn’t beat up or anything,” she said. “I got all these games stacked up in my closet. Some asshole in high school gave me a wooden chessboard, and when I tried to pull another game out, the chessboard flew off the top and hit me in the fuckin’ eye. I mean, like, Jesus Christ, I thought I was blinded. It only weighed about fifty pounds.”
“Can I come in?”
She walked away from the open door, and Virgil followed, pushing the door shut. Quill had two rooms—a living room, with a bed that folded out from a couch, and a kitchen/dining area. A fat kid, wearing a T-shirt that said “Waterboard Warehouse—America’s Waterboard Super Store,” sat at the kitchen table, cursing at an Apple laptop; and a tall, long-haired blond dude with an earring and wearing a knee-to-neck cook’s apron, but nothing else, was scrambling eggs at the stove. Both the men appeared to be in their early twenties.
A side door led to a compact bathroom that once had been a large closet. Virgil could see a sink, with a medicine cabinet above it, the edge of a toilet, and a handle to a door that probably opened on a shower. There was a fourth door, closed but with no lock, so it was probably a closet.
Quill said to the two guys, “The cops are here.”
The guy at the computer said, “Eh, what’s up, doc?” in a perfect imitation of Bugs Bunny. The dude said, “I was offered some, but I didn’t inhale,” and, “You want some scrambled eggs? They’re really good: I use paprika.”
Virgil shook his head, said, “No, thanks,” then said to Quill, “I need to ask you some questions. If you’d prefer to do it in private,
you could ask your friends to take a walk around the block. The dude might want to put on some pants.”
“No way,” she said. “I want witnesses.”
Quill dropped onto the bed, her robe parting as she did it, exposing her legs to a soft, unblemished mid-thigh. She said to Virgil, “There’s a folding chair in the closet. Or you can sit on the corner of the bed.”
Virgil wanted to look in the closet anyway, so he opened the door without a lock, found four metal folding chairs under a hanger bar that was loaded with jeans and blouses. He pulled out one of the chairs, unfolded it, and sat down.
The computer kid said, “If you lean forward just right, I bet you could see her pussy.”
“Shut up, Jerry,” Quill said, rolling her eyes. She picked up a ceramic ashtray from off the floor, groped in her robe, produced a pack of Camels and a yellow plastic lighter, and fired up a cigarette. She didn’t blow smoke at Virgil, but she didn’t try to blow it away, either.
She said, “Jerry’s obsessed with my pussy. I let him see it, but I don’t let him touch it. Brett can touch it anytime he wants.”
“I appreciate the privilege,” said the dude. Virgil was watching the bare-assed dude: he seemed to be too much in touch with the eggs he was stirring. He was coming down from a high, but from what Virgil didn’t know. “I still vote to let Jerry watch.”
Jerry said, “Props,” and went back to his laptop.
Quill said, “We can talk about it when the cop is gone.”
Virgil exhaled impatiently, as Quill blew another cloud of smoke through her Cheshire cat grin, and said, “I thought you kids vaped.”
“A, I’m not a ‘kid,’” she said. “B, I need the nicotine right now, and I get it from Camels. Like, instantly. And, C, it pissed off my father—he of the dented head.”
“That’s a little crude,” Virgil said.
“Live with it,” she said. “What do you want to know?”
“Eggs are ready,” said the dude.
“Give her a plate,” Virgil told him. “We can talk over it.
“One of the things we try to do is connect a murdered person with anyone who might have a tendency to be violent,” Virgil told Quill. “Not saying you’re lying, but I’d like to see that chessboard.”
She stared at him for a second, the Camel hanging from her lower lip, then said, “Sure. It’s at the top of the pile in the closet. Help yourself.”
Virgil went back to the closet and opened the door. Above the hanger bar, a shelf was piled with old-fashioned board games in tattered cardboard boxes, as though they’d been inherited. Risk, Stratego, Scrabble, Clue, Monopoly.
Quill said, “The chessboard’s up on top. On top of the Monopoly.”
Monopoly was in its thick blue box, and Virgil reached up, grabbed it, pulled it forward, and the chessboard on top of it flew off and nearly clipped his forehead. It clattered to the floor, and Quill started laughing and simultaneously choking on the smoke from her Camel. “Told’ja,” she said. “That motherfucker almost scalped you.”
The fat kid and the dude were grinning at him. The kid said, moving to an Elmer Fudd voice, “You cwazy wabbit.”
“I can see how it could happen,” Virgil said. He picked up the heavy board, four inches thick, with internal drawers for the
pieces, shook it once, then propped it against the wall of the closet.
“You guys play a lot of games?” Virgil asked.
“Jerry does. He’s a fuckin’ psycho, never stops,” Quill said. “Brett and I play when we’re not touching each other.”
“True, dat,” Brett said. “I spent three hours dreaming about that yesterday afternoon. The most beautiful dreams.”
“All right,” Virgil said to Quill. “Now let’s talk about your father.”
He went back to his chair, watching Quill as she switched one leg over the other, sliding the gown another two inches higher. Trane had called Quill a sad sack, but she hadn’t come off that way to Virgil—if anything, she seemed manic.
“Tell me about your history with your father.”
“I hardly knew him,” she said.
“He was a fascist asshole,” Jerry said.
“Jerry speaks the truth,” said Brett. “It’s possible that his death was karmic payback.”
Virgil: “For what? Because he worked hard and didn’t smoke weed?”
Brett: “No. Because he gave the orders about how everybody should conduct their lives and he expected everyone to follow his orders. And if you didn’t spend your life studying medicine, you weren’t worth talking to. You were basically something stuck to the bottom of his shoe.”
“I know a lawyer he spent time with, played handball—they seemed to get along fine.”
“Law, medicine, all the same thing,” Jerry sneered. “You go to college for a hundred years, then work for rich people.”
Her parents had been divorced when she was two years old because, Quill said, her father was never home, he was always pursuing his career. “He didn’t care about Mom. At all. Especially not after I was born. His spermies had done their thing.”
“He always supported you and your mother,” Virgil said.
“That was the least he could do. He was rich and we weren’t. Mom was working on her Ph.D. when they met, and he took her away from it and she never got it. She’s been teaching at a community college ever since, over by White Bear Lake,” Quill said. “Getting the money was better than nothing, but money isn’t the same as having an actual, you know, father.”
Brett was walking around the kitchen area, eating eggs off the cast-iron skillet, and he said, “An actual father gives solid structure to your life.”
Virgil ignored him, and said to Quill, “Sergeant Trane told me that you’d been seeing more of him lately.”
“Only so he could get on my case about schoolwork,” Quill said. “He wanted to see if his investment in me was paying off. When he thought it wasn’t, he’d get pissed off.”
“Not so upset that he didn’t give you that trust fund.”
“Once again, the least he could do,” she said.
“And when he was killed, you got a payday that stretches out for another eleven years.”
“No. That comes from the trust. I would have gotten it anyway. I
getting it anyway.” She snubbed out the cigarette. “Give
me a fuckin’ break, huh? I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even know how to find him if he wasn’t home. Never even been up to his lab. As far as I know, he could be making a new Frankenstein up there.”
“How often were you going over to his house?”
“Maybe every week or two. I’d go over to get money from him. I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about, uh, psychology, should I switch my major to psychology?’ We’d talk about it, and before I left I’d say, ‘Could I get some pizza money?’ and he’d throw me a hundred or a couple hundred. That’s a lot to me, but not to him. I don’t even think he noticed what he was giving me.”
“Doesn’t exactly make the case that he was an asshole,” Virgil said.
“Throwing your daughter a few bucks doesn’t cure you of being an asshole,” Jerry said.
Brett: “He was a global asshole, but he could be okay on the specifics.”
Virgil asked Quill what she knew about her father’s second and third wives. The answer was straightforward: nothing. “Never met either one of them.”
“So you had no idea about any stress, or conflicts, he might be going through?”
“Well, his fight with that lady professor is pretty famous. Made the TV news. They even argue about it over here at St. Thomas. I’d look at her, if I were you.”
“Or his girlfriend,” Jerry said.
Virgil’s eyebrows went up. “His girlfriend. I didn’t know he had one.”
“He did. I believe she was married—she was wearing a ring. I gotta wonder if his wife knew about her. Megan said when he died, the wife got in line for a bundle. If he doesn’t die—and there must be a prenup—she wouldn’t get much, and there’s already a girlfriend set to scoop him up. Of course, maybe the girlfriend’s husband got overheated and took him out. Or maybe the girlfriend didn’t want her husband to find out she’d been fuckin’ Barth and she did him in. Lots of possibilities there.”
Virgil to Quill: “Sergeant Trane didn’t say you mentioned a girlfriend.”
She shrugged. “Jerry hadn’t told me about her when Trane talked to me.”
Back to Jerry: “You don’t know her name? Anything about her?”
“Nope. What happened was, I walked into a Starbucks and saw Barth talking to this good-looking woman. Maybe forty. Reddish hair, cut short, like Olympic ice-skaters used to have. Looked rich: she was wearing clothes like she was going out horseback riding. You know, tall leather boots, tight-ass pants, the whole Brit horsey thing. Like she walked out of a castle to hunt a fuckin’ fox. And that wedding ring. The two were laughing, and I thought, Hmm, because you never saw Barth laughing that much. But then I forgot about it.”
“What made you think they might be close?”
“A week after that, I was over at the U, and I’m pretty sure I saw him walking along with a black German shepherd on a leash. That was a surprise. As far as I knew, he didn’t have a dog.”
Quill shook her head. “Never.”
Jerry: “Then, let me see . . . Saturday? . . . No, Sunday morning . . . I saw the woman again and she was walking a
German shepherd, and it looked like the exact same dog. She went past me, six feet away; she called the dog Blackie, which was pretty clever since he was black.”
“You’re sure it was him you saw with the dog? You said ‘pretty sure.’”
“That’s what I was. Pretty sure. Not positive.”
Virgil: “No idea where we could find the woman?”
“No . . . she was just a woman,” Jerry said. “I can’t even promise there was anything going on there. But . . . I think there was. Why would he be walking that dog when he didn’t even like dogs? That was in the morning, early, like the dog had been with him the night before.”
Quill, Jerry, and Brett all hung out in Dinkytown, a business/residential area adjacent to the University of Minnesota that catered to students, because there was more going on in Dinkytown than around St. Thomas. Quill and Brett both knew this because they had high school friends going to school there.