Read The Best American Mystery Stories 2015 Online

Authors: James Patterson,Otto Penzler

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Anthologies, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Anthologies & Literature Collections, #Genre Fiction, #Collections & Anthologies

The Best American Mystery Stories 2015 (3 page)

A pristine, snowy Saturday morning. The kind they put on magazine covers.

Except our star attraction wasn’t breathing.

Joni Cohen, Valhalla PD’s intern tech, was kneeling beside the girl, collecting her nonexistent vitals.

Tall, gawky, and permanently perky, Joni’s a junior at Michigan State majoring in forensic anthropology. Her class schedule keeps her in constant transit between Valhalla and the capital down in Lansing. Somehow she pulls a 3.9 GPA and still does a first-rate job as a crime-scene tech.

Ordinarily, Joni’s totally absorbed by her work. Whistles softly to herself amid the carnage of a five-car pileup. No tunes today, though. With Santa and his reindeer beaming over her shoulder, she couldn’t even fake “Jingle Bells.”

“So?” I prompted.

“First impression, it’s pretty much what it looks like,” Joni said, frowning down at the angel. “Hypothermia. There are no tracks but hers, no signs of violence. It looks like she took a shortcut across the lawn, headed for a car in the driveway. Maybe felt woozy, sat down to rest a minute? It was eighteen degrees last night and she wasn’t wearing a coat. She nodded out and . . . well. She froze to death.”

“Are you all right?” Zina asked.

“No,” Joni said flatly. “I know this girl. Not personally, but I’ve seen her around the Vale Junior College campus. A freshman, I think.”

“Whoa, take a break, Joni,” I said. “The state police Forensics Unit will be here in a few minutes—”

“No, I’m okay. Really,” she said, taking a ragged breath. “My uncle warned me if I did my internship in Vale County, sooner or later I’d be working on people I knew. At least this girl wasn’t mashed by a road grader. Let’s just—get on with it.”

“Okay,” I said. “Time frame?”

“Her body temp’s twenty-one degrees above ambient. I’d estimate she walked out here around eleven. Actual time of death was probably between one-thirty and three
A.M.
We may get tighter numbers after the autopsy. There’s no scent of alcohol. If she’d been drinking, it wasn’t much.”

“Wasn’t legal either,” Zina said. “I found her purse in the snow beside the driveway. Her driver’s license says she’s Julie Novak. Seventeen. Poletown address, north of the river. But her student ID is from Valhalla High, not the college.”

“Vale Junior College offers advanced courses for gifted kids,” Joni said.

“I’m not sure how bright this girl was, considering,” Zina said. “Do you think her dress is odd?”

“Odd?” I echoed, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Definitely off,” Joni agreed. “It’s more like a prom dress than something you’d wear to a house party. She looks like . . .”

“A snow angel,” I finished. “What are we now, the fashion police?”

“Nope, we’re Major Crimes,” Zina conceded. “And a lot more went wrong for this girl than her taste in clothes. It was seriously freakin’ cold last night. What was she doing out here without a coat?”

“Let’s ask,” I said.

 

The front porch was the size of a veranda, three stories tall, supported by
Gone With the Wind
columns. I hit the buzzer beside the massive front door. No response. Leaning closer, I could hear the faint sounds of tinny TV laughter, somebody yelling for somebody to get the goddamn door. No one came. I tried the knob. It wasn’t locked.

Stepping inside, I felt an instant jolt. Time travel. Frat party funk, the morning after. The aroma of stale beer, cold pizza, reefer, and sex hanging in the air.

Smelled like teen spirit.

I started down the hall toward the TV room.

“Where are you going?” Zee asked, hurrying after me.

“They’ll be in the game room.”

“Who will?”

“Everybody who’s ambulatory.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Once or twice.”

The end of the hall opened into a giant playroom. Pinball machines, foosball, and pool tables lined the walls. In the center, a long, curved leather couch faced a jumbo flat-screen TV.

None of the pool tables was in use, unless you counted a moose-sized lineman who’d wrapped himself in his Val High letterman’s jacket and conked out amid the cue sticks.

Several college-age kids were sprawled across the couch in various states of disarray, bleary-eyed and hungover. Four young guys, three girls, watching a soccer game on the big screen.

“Hey, guys,” I said, holding up my badge. “I’m Sergeant LaCrosse, Valhalla PD. Who’s in charge here?”

They looked at each other, then back at me. A few shook their heads, no one answered. They weren’t belligerent, just baffled and groggy.

“Okaay,” I said, “easier question. Are the Champlins at home? Parents, I mean?”

“I’m Sissy Champlin,” one of the girls said, nestling deeper in the arms of her bull-necked boyfriend. She had a nose ring, spiky blond hair with blue highlights. “My folks are in . . . Toronto, for the weekend. We had a little bash last night. We’re the survivors.”

Her boyfriend was staring at me. Sloped shoulders, head the size of a watermelon. U of M sweatshirt. “I know you,” he said slowly. “You played hockey for Val High back in the day, right? Defense?”

“Have we met?”

“Nah,” he grinned, “I’ve seen you on game film. Mark shows that scrap in the playoffs when you and your cousin wiped out Traverse City’s front line. The refs tossed everybody out. Awesome, man.”

“What’s your name?”

“Laslo. Metyavich. I’m goalie for the Vale Vikings.”

With his dark hair buzzed down to fuzz, he looked more like a Cossack warrior in pajamas from The Gap. He was wide enough to be a goalie, though. “Were you here last night, Laslo?”

“I live here, man. We all do,” he added, gesturing at his bleary comrades on the couch. “Exchange students.”

“A girl left your party last night and—got into some trouble. Julie Novak? Does anybody know her? Or who she was with?”

Again, baffled looks.

“Wait a sec,” Sissy Champlin said, frowning. “Julie? A young chick? Wearing a white formal, like a freakin’ bridesmaid?”

“You know her?”

“I know she came to the wrong party,” Sissy sniffed. “That Indian kid brought her. What’s his name, hon? The geek who tutors the basketball players?”

“Derek, you mean?” Laslo offered.

“Last name?” Zina prompted.

“Some foreign name,” Laslo said, without irony. “Patel, I think. Derek Patel.”

“Any idea where we could find Mr. Patel?”

“He crapped out early.” Laslo shrugged. “Lot of guys did. I think some wiseass spiked the punch. Derek’s probably crashed in one of the guest rooms. I’ll show you.” He started to rise, wobbled, then quickly sat back down. “Whoa,” he said, looking a little green.

“Stay put,” I said. “I know the way.” Laslo slumped back on the couch. Sissy brushed his arm away. She was on her cell phone, frantically texting.

Zina and I headed into the guest wing, an eight-room addition added back in the fifties. Working opposite sides of the hall, we rapped once, then stuck our heads in, scaring the bejesus out of various young lovers. On my third knock, I found an Indian kid conked out atop one of the twin beds, fully dressed in a dark suit and tie. Tall, slender, skin the color of café au lait, thick curly blue-black hair. He sat up slowly, blinking, dazed and confused.

“Derek Patel?”

“I . . . yes?” He shook his head, then knuckled his eyes. Trying to remember his name. I totally sympathized. Been there, done that.

“Do you know a girl named Julie Novak?”

“Julie? Ah . . . sure. She was my date last night. Is she okay?”

“Why shouldn’t she be?”

“She ditched me and went home. Said she wasn’t dressed right. I was in no shape to drive, so I gave her my keys and . . . oh damn! Did she wreck my car? My God, my dad’s gonna kill me—”

“She didn’t wreck your car, Derek. Were you two drinking a little last night?”

“Just the virgin punch,” he said. “Julie’s underage.”

“If you were drinking nonalcoholic punch, how’d you get wrecked?” Zina asked.

“I did a few Jell-O shots with some of the guys. I’m not a big drinker.”

“What about Julie? Did she do a few shots too?”

“No! Only the punch, like I said. I promised her dad—oh God, her old man’s gonna be totally pissed. He hates me anyway. He’s prejudiced, I think. Is he here?”

“No. Put your shoes on, Derek. We have to go.”

“Are you arresting me?”

I didn’t answer, hoping he wouldn’t push it. He didn’t. Glumly slipped into his tassel loafers instead. I sent Zee off to scout the rest of the house while I walked Derek out.

Outside, the scene had gone from Christmas-card quiet to crime-scene chaotic. Valhalla PD prowl cars had sealed off both ends of the circular driveway, their emergency strobes flashing in the gentle snowfall, blocking in the half-dozen cars parked in front of the house. A third prowlie was sitting astride the rear drive that led back to the garage.

The snow angel was blocked from view by the state police CSI van, and the area around her had been taped off with yellow police lines. Techs in black nylon state police CSI jackets were crouched over the vic while Joni looked on. She still wasn’t whistling.

I marched Derek to the nearest prowl car. Joe Van Duzen, VPD’s greenest patrolman, hurried to meet us, six foot, with a blond crew cut. In khaki slacks and his bulky brown VPD jacket, he’s a recruiter’s dream.

“What’s up, sarge?”

“This is Derek Patel, Duze. He’s a material witness. Park him in your prowlie, keep him on ice. He doesn’t leave and nobody talks to him, understand?”

“Copy that. What the hell’s going on in there, Dylan?”

“The morning after the night before, Duze. Don’t lose this kid, okay?”

“You got it.” Duze eased Derek into the prowlie’s back seat and closed the door.

Zina was waiting for me at the front door, her mood darker than before.

“We’ve got problems, Dylan,” she said. “C’mon.”

“What’s up?” I asked, falling into step.

“I found the famous virgin punchbowl,” she said. “In the living room. There are two of them, actually. One with fruit punch, one with margaritas.”

“Sounds right.”

“I also found these,” she said, holding out her open palm. Three small red capsules.

“Oh hell,” I said, feeling my stomach drop like a freight elevator. “Roofies?”

She nodded. “Date-rape drug. Found ’em on the floor near the punchbowls. Both concoctions are murky, but you can see the remains of some caps on the bottom. I think somebody laced both bowls with GHB—” She broke off as I tapped my collar mike.

“Barden? Is your prowlie blocking the driveway?”

“Yes, sarge.”

“Take a walk, check the parked cars in the drive, make sure nobody’s asleep in one. I don’t want any more angels.”

“Angels?” he asked.

“Check the damn cars, Tommy.”

“Copy that.”

“You said you’ve been here before?” Zina asked, as I switched off.

“Right. To parties, back in high school. Mark Champlin was older than we were, but he’d been a three-sport all-star back in the day, and his folks were big athletic boosters. This place was jock central. Parties almost every weekend, free beer, groupies, and Mr. Champlin was good for a few bucks if a player was short. From the looks of this crew, things haven’t changed much.”

“Ever go upstairs?”

“No, it was off-limits. Why?”

“C’mon,” Zee said. “You’re gonna love this.”

She was right. The second-floor rooms were larger, plusher, complete with en suites and walk-in closets. And at the end of the corridor, a single door stood wide open. Its latch was shattered. It had been kicked in.

I rested my hand on my weapon as I eased through, but there was no need. None at all.

“Wow,” I said, turning in a slow circle, taking in the room. “What have we here?”

The bedroom looked like the honeymoon suite at a Vegas bordello. Mirrored ceiling, angled mirrors on the walls, king-size beds in each corner. A larger, circular bed occupied the center of the room, all five of them close enough for easy hopping, covered in what looked like faux ermine.

A large-screen TV loomed over one corner. On a shelf beneath it, a Sony video recorder was flanked by a long row of DVDs. Half of them were clearly commercial porn, garishly labeled. The other half weren’t labeled at all, only numbered. I opened one. No labels inside either, just a handwritten number on the disc that matched the jacket.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think this room’s wired up,” Zee said, pointing out nearly invisible lenses mounted in the mirrored ceiling. “If they’ve been making home movies, I see my future on a beach in Bimini. Check out the gear on the nightstands.”

Against the wall, between the beds, small bedside tables held a selection of lubricants, massage oils, and sex toys. Some had obvious purposes, a few I could only guess at.

“Okay,” I said, still taking in the room. “We’ve got a party going on downstairs, somebody kicks open the door to this playroom, but does no other damage I can see.”

“The beds aren’t even mussed,” Zina agreed. “Maybe somebody was hoping to get lucky later?”

“It doesn’t matter why. The drugs flip this thing from a teenage tragedy to something a lot messier.” I pressed the eject button on the recorder, removed the DVD, and slid it into an evidence bag. “C’mon, let’s round up the usual sus—”

“Hey! You guys can’t be in here!” a kid said. “You know the rules. Second floor’s family only. No guests!” The boy in the doorway was maybe fifteen, wearing a green Michigan State sweater, but I doubt he was college bound.

His heavy-framed glasses housed twin hearing aids. His eyes were wide apart and guileless, with the slight Asian cast of Down syndrome. I guessed his emotional age at ten or twelve.

“It’s okay,” I said, showing him my shield. He glanced at it, but didn’t react. I doubt he knew what it was. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Joey Champlin. You can’t be up here. My dad doesn’t allow it.”

“Do you know how the door got broken, Joey?”

His face fell, and the look in his eyes was as good as a signed statement.

“You—still have to leave,” he repeated.

“Sure,” I agreed. “Whatever you say.” We already had what we needed, and in a house with an all-star dad and an army of jocks, I doubt many folks paid attention to this kid.

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