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Authors: J. D. Robb

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Crime, #Crime & mystery, #Thrillers & Mystery

Innocent in Death (2 page)

BOOK: Innocent in Death
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“Okay. Where were you before you went to Mr. Foster’s classroom?”

“I had lunch period, and my study group. Ray and I got permission from Ms. Hallywell to leave study group a few minutes early to speak with Mr. Foster. I have the pass.”

She started to reach into her pocket.

“That’s okay. You went inside the classroom.”

“We started to. We were talking, and we opened the door. It smelled awful. That’s what I said, I said: ‘Holy jeez, it really stinks in here.’” Tears rained again. “I’m sorry I said that, but—”

“It’s okay. What happened then?”

“I saw him. I saw him on the floor, and there was like, oh, gosh, there was all this vomit and everything. And Ray screamed. Or I did. I guess we both did. And we ran out and Mr. Dawson came running down the hall and asked us what was the matter. He told us to stay there and he went back. He went inside. I watched him go inside. And he came out really fast, with his hand like this.”

She clamped her free hand over her mouth. “He used his talkie, I think, to call Principal Mosebly. And then Ms. Mosebly came and called the nurse. And then the nurse, Nurse Brennan, came and took us to the infirmary. She stayed with us, until Mr. Kolfax came and he took Ray with him. I stayed with Nurse Brennan until my mom came.”

“Did you see anyone else go into Mr. Foster’s room, or leave it?”

“No, ma’am.”

“When you were walking from your study group to the classroom, did you see anyone?”

“Um. I’m sorry. Um. Mr. Bixley was coming out of the boys’ restroom, and we passed Mr. Dawson on the way. We showed him our pass. I think that was all, but I wasn’t paying attention.”

“How did you know Mr. Foster would be in his classroom?”

“Oh, he’s always in his classroom before fifth period on Mondays. He always has his lunch in there on Mondays. And the last fifteen minutes is when he allows students to come in and talk, if they really need to. Even before that he doesn’t mind if it’s important. He’s so nice. Mom.”

“I know, baby. Lieutenant, please.”

“Nearly done. Melodie, did either you or Rayleen touch Mr. Foster, or anything in the classroom?”

“Oh, no, no, ma’am. We just ran away. It was awful, and we ran away.”

“All right. Melodie, if you remember anything else, any little thing at all, I need you to tell me.”

The child rose. “Lieutenant Dallas? Ma’am?”

“Yeah?”

“Rayleen said, when we were in the infirmary, Rayleen said that they would have to take Mr. Foster away in a big bag. Do you? Do you have to?”

“Oh, Melodie.” Angela turned the child into her, held tight.

“We’re going to take care of Mr. Foster now,” Eve said. “It’s my job to take care of him, and I will. Talking to me helps me do my job, it helps me take care of him.”

“Really?” Melodie sniffled, sighed. “Thank you. I want to go home now. May I go home now?”

Eve met the girl’s drenched eyes, nodded, then shifted her gaze to the mother. “We’ll be in touch. I appreciate your cooperation.”

“This has been very hard on the girls. Very hard. Come on, sweetheart. We’re going home.”

Angela draped her arm around Melodie’s shoulders and walked her from the room. Eve pushed away from the desk, followed them to the doorway. Mosebly was already heading for the pair.

“Principal Mosebly? Question.”

“I’m just going to escort Mrs. Miles-Branch and Melodie out.”

“I’m sure they know the way. In your office.”

Eve didn’t bother to sit this time, but simply leaned back on the desk. Mosebly steamed in, fists knotted at her sides.

“Lieutenant Dallas, while I perfectly understand you have a job to do, I’m appalled by your dismissive and arrogant attitude.”

“Yeah, I get that. Was it Mr. Foster’s habit to bring his own lunch and beverage to work?”

“I…I believe it was. At least several days a week. We have a nutritionist-certified cafeteria, of course. And state-approved vending. But many members of the staff prefer to bring their own, at least occasionally.”

“He generally eat alone? At his desk?”

Mosebly rubbed her thumb and forefinger over her forehead. “As far as I know he took his lunch in his classroom two or three days a week. A teacher’s work encompasses more than can be done during school hours. There are lesson plans, grading, reading, lecture and lab preparations. Craig, like most of the staff, was also pursuing his own further education, which requires study and writing, and so forth. He’d lunch at his desk so that he could work while he ate. He was dedicated.”

The anger seemed to drain out of her. “He was young and idealistic. He loved teaching, Lieutenant Dallas, and it showed.”

“Did he have any problems with anyone on staff?”

“I’m really not aware of any. He was a friendly, easygoing young man. I felt, both personally and professionally, that we were fortunate to have him on our faculty.”

“Dismiss anyone lately?”

“No. We have very little turnover here at Sarah Child. Craig was in his second year with us. He filled a hole left by one of our teachers who retired after fifty years of service. Twenty-eight of those years were given right here, at Sarah Child.”

“How about you? How long have you been here?”

“Three, as principal. I have twenty-five years in education, and in administration.”

“When did you last see Mr. Foster?”

“I saw him briefly this morning.” As she spoke, Mosebly went to a small cold box, took out a bottle of water. “He’d come in early to use the fitness facilities, as he did routinely. All staff are permitted to use the machines, programs, the pool, and so on. Craig made use of the privilege nearly every morning.”

She sighed as she poured water into a short glass. “Would you like some, Lieutenant?”

“I’m good.”

“I had a swim myself this morning, and was just leaving the pool area when he came in. We said good morning. I complained about the traffic, and kept going. I was in a hurry. I heard him dive in,” she murmured, then took a slow sip of water. “I heard the splash as I opened the locker room door. Oh, God.”

“What time was that?”

“About seven-thirty. I had an eight o’clock phone conference, and I was running behind because I’d spent too long in the pool. I was annoyed with myself, and barely spoke to Craig.”

“Where’d he keep his lunch?”

“Why, in his classroom, I suppose. Possibly the lounge, but I don’t recall I’ve ever seen him put anything in or take anything out of the friggie or cupboard in there.”

“Would the classroom be locked?”

“No. The school is, naturally, secured, but individual classrooms aren’t locked. There’s no purpose, and the Sarah Child program is based on trust and responsibility.”

“All right. You can send for the second witness. Rayleen Straffo.”

Mosebly nodded, but there was nothing regal about it this time. “What about the other students? My staff?”

“We’re going to need to interview the staff before any leave the building. You can dismiss the students, but I’ll need your registration list.”

“Very well.”

Alone, Eve pulled out her communicator to tag Peabody. “Status.”

“The body’s just being transported. The ME on the wagon concurs with your poisoning assessment, though he won’t commit until the vic’s on the slab. The sweepers are on scene. It looks as if the vic was working on his comp at TOD. Putting together a pop quiz for his next class.”

“There’s a motive,” Eve said dryly.

“I hated the pop quiz, and question its constitutionality. I did a quick check of the comp, and found the vic sent out an e-mail from that unit to an [email protected] at twelve-oh-six today. No communication in or out prior to.”

“Wife’s name is Lissette. Content?”

“Just a sweetheart note, offering to pick up dinner on the way home from work. Recipient responded in the same tone, in the affirmative, at fourteen-forty-eight. Return post was not read.”

“Okay. I’m waiting for the second wit. I’ll send the principal back to you, have her set you up somewhere. Get started on interviewing the staff and let’s nail the time line in each case. I’ll take my share of them in here once I finish with the kid. Meanwhile, verify the wife’s residence and place of employment. We’ll notify after we leave here.”

“And the fun never ends.”

Eve clicked off as the door reopened, and again Mosebly entered with her hand on the shoulder of a young girl.

This one was blonde, with a cascade of curls held back from her face with a violet band. The band matched her eyes. They were puffy at the moment, red-rimmed, dominating a face of dewy skin with a slightly tipped-up nose. The mouth, rosy and bottom heavy, quivered.

She wore the same kind of uniform as Melodie, with the addition of a small gold star pinned to the lapel of the blazer.

“Rayleen, this is Lieutenant Dallas. Lieutenant, Rayleen is here with her father, Oliver Straffo. I’ll be just outside if I’m needed.”

“Have a seat, Rayleen.”

“Lieutenant.” Oliver kept his daughter’s hand in his. His voice resonated in the room, like a good actor’s in a theater. He was tall, gilded like his daughter. But his eyes were a cold steel-gray. She’d met them before. In court.

High-powered, high-dollar, high-profile defense attorney, she thought.

Crap.

2

“I’M ALLOWING THIS INTERVIEW,” HE BEGAN,“ in this place, at this time, because I feel it’s in the best interest of my daughter’s emotional well-being. However, if I don’t like the tone or the texture of this interview, I will stop it and take my daughter away. Is that clear?”

“Sure. I was going to dig out the thumbscrews, but I don’t remember where I left them. Have a seat. Rayleen, I just need you to tell me what happened.”

Rayleen looked at her father first, got his nod. Then she sat, as he did, with admirable posture. “I found Mr. Foster. Melodie was with me. It was awful.”

“Explain to me how you found him. How you got to his classroom at that time of day.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She took a deep breath as if to prepare herself for an oral report. “I was in my study group, but I wanted, especially, to talk to Mr. Foster about the project I’m working on with Melodie. It’s worth a full quarter of our second-term grade in U.S. history, and I wanted to do the best I could. I’m ranked first in my grade, and this is one of the most important projects of this term.”

“Okay, so you left study group for Mr. Foster’s classroom.”

“Yes, ma’am. Ms. Hallywell gave us a pass so we could go to Mr. Foster’s class early. He always has his lunch there on Mondays, and he lets students come in during the last fifteen minutes to talk to him, if they need to.”

“What time did you leave study group?”

“I have the pass. It’s time-stamped.” Again she looked at her father for permission, then drew the pass out. “Melodie and I each have one. That’s the school rule. It says twelve forty-seven P.M. ”

Eve made a mental note to walk the route to gauge the time it would take. “You went directly from study group to the classroom.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am. Loitering in the hallways between classes is an infraction, and three infractions within a thirty-day period results in a loss of privileges.” Her voice went prissy, reminding Eve that Rayleen was just the sort of kid she’d done her best to avoid in the cell block of school. “I don’t have any infractions on my record.”

“Good for you. How long did it take you to get from study group to Mr. Foster’s classroom?”

“Oh, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes. Maybe three? I’m not absolutely certain, but we went right there. We were just talking, about the project, and some ideas for it. The door was closed, so we knocked first, then we opened it. And it smelled bad. It smelled sick, I guess. Melodie said something about the smell, and…” She pressed her lips together. “I laughed. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know, Daddy, I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right, Ray. Of course you didn’t know.”

“Then we saw him. He was lying there, and he was…” She hiccupped twice, then simply crawled out of her chair and into her father’s lap.

“It’s all right, baby. It’s all right, Ray.” His eyes lasered into Eve’s as he stroked Rayleen’s hair. “Lieutenant.”

“You know I need to finish this. You know it’s vital to get the details as quickly as possible.”

“I don’t know what else.” Her voice was muffled as she pressed her face to her father’s chest. “We ran, we ran away. And Mr. Dawson was there, and he said to stay where we were. I sat down, I think. I sat on the floor, and we were crying, and Mr. Dawson came back. His hands were shaking when he took out his talkie and called Principal Mosebly.”

“Did you see anybody else go in or out of the classroom?”

“Principal Mosebly went to the door, then she called for the nurse and they took us—Melodie and me—to the infirmary.”

“On the way to the classroom, did you see anyone?”

“I think, yes, I think Mr. Bixley came out of the boys’ room, the restroom. He had his toolbox because one of the sinks was stopped up. That was before, before we passed Mr. Dawson and showed our passes. I went in first, into the classroom first. I was the first to see him.”

She lifted her tear-streaked face. “I don’t see how Mr. Foster could be dead. I don’t see how. He was my very favorite teacher.”

Her shoulders shook as she clung to her father.

“You can’t need any more from her,” Oliver said quietly. “I’m taking her home.”

“If she remembers anything else—”

“If she does, I’ll contact you.”

He rose, and carrying his daughter, strode from the room.

Eve started with Eric Dawson. He was a science teacher, in his middle fifties, and had been instructing at the academy for fifteen years. He carried a little paunch, and since his shirt buttons strained over it, Eve assumed he was in denial over it. His sandy hair showed a little glint of gray at the temples. Pockets of fatigue dogged his light brown eyes.

“I didn’t go in,” he told Eve. “No more than a step or two. I could see…Anyone could see Craig was gone. I’d been annoyed with the girls, all that screaming. I thought they’d seen a spider or something equally foolish.” He paused, passed a hand over his face. “But as soon as I saw them…Even silly girls don’t reach that level of hysteria over a spider.”

“Did you see anyone else, other than the two girls?”

“I’d just left Dave Kolfax and Reed Williams in the staff lounge. We’d had lunch together, as we sometimes do. And I passed Leanne Howard going in. I was going to the chem lab to set up for the next class.”

“When did you last see Mr. Foster alive?”

“Oh, God. God. In the lounge, before classes this morning. I was having a coffee, and he had a tube of Pepsi from Vending. He didn’t drink coffee. I used to tease him about it. We talked a little about a mutual student, Bradley Curtis. His parents are divorcing, and Brad’s grades have been sliding. We agreed it was time for a meeting with the parents and a counselor. Then, ah, Reed came in. Yes, to grab a coffee. When I left they were talking about some action vid they’d both seen recently. I didn’t see him again until…”

“How did you get along?”

“With Craig? I liked him quite a lot. Quite a lot,” he repeated quietly. “I was, well, unconvinced when he first came on staff last year. He was so young—the youngest member of the teaching staff. But he made up for a certain lack of experience with enthusiasm and dedication. He cared a great deal, a great deal about the students. He must have been ill and not known it. He must have had some sort of condition. To die that way. It’s inconceivable.”

The sentiment was echoed by every staff member Eve spoke with. She finished up the session with Reed Williams, English department.

No pouch on this one, Eve noted. He had a strong, lean build that told her he took advantage of the fitness center facilities. His hair was a deep, rich brown tipped with gold to simulate sun streaks. His square jaw was deeply clefted under a firm mouth. His eyes of sharp, bottle green were heavily and darkly lashed.

He was thirty-eight, single, and wearing a suit that she estimated had cost him a stinging slice of his monthly pay.

“I saw him this morning, in the fitness center. He was doing reps when I came in. I don’t like to talk when I’m working out, so it was just a…well, a nod of acknowledgment. I’d say we were in there together for about twenty minutes. He headed out, waved. He generally took a swim after a workout. I was in there another ten minutes, I’d guess. Grabbed a shower, dressed. Then I saw Craig again in the lounge, with Eric. Eric Dawson.”

“Did Mr. Foster have anything with him?”

“With him? No, just a tube of Pepsi. We talked vids for a few minutes, then headed off to class. I ran into him again in the staff restroom.” Williams smiled slightly and showed a single dimple in his left cheek to go with the cleft. “Just a kind of ‘How’s it going?’ as we used the facilities. I guess that was right about eleven. Just before. The classes start on the hour, and I wasn’t late.”

“How did you get along with him?”

“Fine. We got along fine.”

“You both liked action vids. Did you hang out socially?”

“Now and again, sure. I went to his wedding last year—most of the staff did. We had a beer together a couple of times.” He shrugged. “We weren’t best pals, but we got along. Mirri would know him better, socially.”

“Mirri.”

“Hallywell. English department, Drama. They saw each other outside the school.”

“On a social level.”

“Sure.” He smiled a little again, and there was a smirk behind it. “They have a standing date Wednesday nights. To study.”

With the initial interviews done, Eve tagged Peabody again. “Bixley.”

“Hernando M., Maintenance. He was dealing with a plumbing problem in the boys’ john down the hall from the scene. He passed the two wits and Dawson on his way out.”

“Buzz?”

“No. He’s late sixties, worked here for twelve years. His two grandsons attend on his employee tuition rate. Seems like a solid type.”

“Hallywell.”

“Mirri C. Finished her about fifteen minutes ago. English department, runs the Drama Club and directs the school plays. I’m about to interview the last on my list. Is there something about Hallywell? I didn’t get a buzz from her either.”

“I want a quick followup. If she’s still here, I’ll track her down. Find me when you’re done.”

“She was pretty broken up—Hallywell. Might check one of the washrooms. I’d say she’d need to compose herself before she left.”

Following Peabody’s advice, Eve tried the staff restroom closest to the lounge where Peabody was conducting interviews. The door required a key card; Eve used her master.

And found a woman sitting on the floor in front of the bank of sinks, weeping.

“Mirri Hallywell.”

“Yes. Yes.” She choked back a sob, sniffled, mopped at her face with a tissue. The face was splotchy from the crying jag, the pale blue eyes swollen from it. She had dark hair worn in a brutally short Caesar style and tiny silver hoops in her ears.

“I’m sorry. Are you with the police? I’ve already talked to a detective.”

“My partner. I’m Lieutenant Dallas. I need to ask you a few more questions.”

“Oh, God, oh, God. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.”

Eve crouched. “It’s rough when a colleague’s killed, so suddenly.”

“It’s horrible. We weren’t just colleagues. We were friends. We were good friends. None of this seems possible.”

“How good friends?”

Mirri let her head fall back. “That’s a terrible thing to imply, a terrible thing to think about someone like Craig. Someone who can’t speak for himself anymore.”

“I speak for him now. That’s what I do.”

“Then if you’re going to speak for him you should know he loved his wife. They loved each other. I envy that, what they have together. I’m her friend, too. I’m her friend, and I don’t know how to begin to help her through this.”

“You and Craig saw each other every week, outside work.”

“We had a study date on Wednesdays.” Fire came into the ravaged eyes. “For God’s sake, is that what everything whittles down to for people like you?”

“If it was innocent, why get pissed off?” Eve countered.

“Because he’s dead. He’s dead.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “We were both working on our Master’s degrees. We’d go to the library or a coffee shop, study together for a couple hours. Maybe have a beer afterward. We’re going out—I mean, oh, God, I mean we were supposed to go out tomorrow, to the vids. Craig and Lissy and this guy they fixed me up with. I hate being fixed up, but they talked me into this one last month, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. So we’re doing a double date.”

“Mirri, if you and Craig had anything going, now’s the time to tell me.”

“There’s nothing to tell. I’m not so desperate I’d poach a friend.” She scrubbed her hands over her face. “I was going to call Lissy, come in here and call her, even though they said we weren’t to contact anyone. I thought, I need to do that for her, she needs to hear about this from a friend. But I couldn’t.”

Mirri drew up her knees, pressed her face to them. “I just couldn’t. I didn’t know what to say, how to say it, and I didn’t have the guts to try.”

“That’s for us to do.”

“What can you say?” Mirri demanded. “What can you say to someone like this? She’s expecting he’ll be there when she comes home. And he won’t be there. Not tonight, not ever. What can you say?”

Then she sighed, pushed herself to her feet. “It’s not your fault. I wish it were. I wish it could be your fault and I could scream and rave at you for it. Would you tell Lissy…would you just tell her how sorry I am, and that if I can help, if I can do anything…I’ll be there.”

Lissette Foster was an editorial assistant for a small publishing house with offices in midtown. The background Peabody accessed listed her as twenty-four, a native of Martinique who had moved to New York to attend Columbia. The only blight on her record was an underage drinking rap when she’d been nineteen. She’d been given probation, and community service.

Her mother remained in Martinique. Her father’s whereabouts were unknown.

“So,” Peabody continued, “speaking of the islands, how was your vacation?”

“It was good.” A week of sun, sand, and sex. What could be better? “This snow’s starting to stick.”

“Yeah, we’re supposed to get maybe four inches. Are you looking seriously at the wife?”

“She’s first on the list. Spouses tend to be.”

“Yeah, but newlyweds? I know how it’s supposed to be tough the first year, adjusting and whatever, but poison? It’s sneaky and distant. A spouse gets pissed, it’s usually bloodier, and more personal.”

“Usually. If his lunch was poisoned, where did the lunch come from? Consensus is, from home. Wife had the easiest access. Although consensus also is the vic left the bagged lunch in his classroom. Unlocked room. He comes in early, dumps his stuff in the classroom, heads to the fitness center. Again, fairly easy access for anyone.”

“Motive?”

“Other than the pop quiz? Not clear as yet. The wit? Rayleen Straffo is the fruit of Oliver Straffo’s loins.”

“Oh, shit! Seriously? Does she have horns and a tail?”

“If so, well hidden.” Eve tapped her fingers on the wheel as she thought of Straffo. “He could get a lot of screen time with this, playing the Daddy card. Outrage, concern, blah, blah.”

“It’d be just like him. You’re going on Nadine’s new show this week. You can balance his bullshit.”

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