Read The Best American Mystery Stories 2015 Online

Authors: James Patterson,Otto Penzler

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The Best American Mystery Stories 2015 (4 page)

BOOK: The Best American Mystery Stories 2015
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So we did as he asked. When I glanced back, he was gone.

The next hour flew by in a fury. I had patrolmen seal off the house and herd the kids into separate rooms. We took names, ages, and vital stats. No talking. No breathalyzers either. They were of age, in a private home. How they partied was their business.

All we wanted was info about the girl on the lawn.

What we got was doodley squat.

A few kids knew Derek Patel from school. Nobody seemed to know his angel date at all. Time to change tactics. Maybe Derek had sobered enough for a conversation.

Leaving Zina to finish questioning the final few, I headed out the front door. And went from hangover central into a grab-ass free-for-all.

Derek Patel was sprawled on his back in the driveway, his face a bloody mess. Van Duzen was wrestling with a big guy in a flannel shirt, who was clearly trying to break free to have another go at the kid on the ground.

I came on the run. Crashing into Van Duzen’s opponent from behind, I snaked an arm around his throat in a crude chokehold. I managed to haul him off Duze, but he was bull-strong and enraged. He kept kicking wildly at Derek on the ground. It was all I could do to hold him back.

I drove a quick body shot into his rib cage, but he was so wired he didn’t even feel it. I had no idea who he was or what the hell was up, and it didn’t matter. We had to shut him down.

Throwing my weight backward, I hauled him down on top of me, still locked in a stranglehold. I tried scissoring my legs around his knees to immobilize him, but it was like wrestling a bear. Couldn’t hold him.

Patrolman Tommy Barden came charging up with his nightstick drawn. He slammed it down hard across the big guy’s midsection, driving his wind out, locking him up for an instant. Barden was drawing back for another swing when Van Duzen shouldered him aside.

“Don’t hurt him, damn it! He’s the girl’s father!”

Duze and Barden piled on, each seizing one of the big guy’s arms, pinning him down with sheer bulk. The four of us lay entangled in a squirming rugby pileup in the snow, straining, struggling.

“Mr. Novak,” I panted, trying to keep my tone level. “Stop fighting us, please. I’m going to ease my hold to let you breathe, but I need you to calm down.”

He didn’t reply. For a moment, we lay frozen in a tableau, a violent counterpoint to the holiday display on the lawn.

I released my hold a little. Novak gasped in a quick breath. And then he broke, sagging back against me. Sobbing like a child.

 

I had Duze drive Carl Novak into Hauser Center, the “house” shared by Valhalla PD, the state police, and the Vale County sheriff’s department. No handcuffs. Novak wasn’t under arrest, but he wasn’t going anyplace either.

I ran Derek Patel into the emergency room in my Jeep, pedal to the metal, with lights and sirens. Derek didn’t say a word. Probably couldn’t. His nose was flattened, clearly broken. I guessed his jaw was dislocated as well. I turned him over to the ER staff, and was pacing the crowded waiting room like an expectant dad when my partner rolled in. We stepped out to the corridor, away from the others.

“What the hell happened?” Zina demanded.

“Derek felt woozy, so Duze let him walk around to get some air. Carl Novak showed up, saw his daughter dead on the ground. When Derek tried to talk to him, Novak lost it. Laid him out, broke his nose, maybe his jaw. I warned the ER staff Derek might be high, so they’ll have to run a tox screen before they can work on him. He won’t be talking for a while. Your turn,” I said. “What did you get from the interviews?”

“Short version? Julie Novak left the party early,” Zina said. “Only a few kids noticed and they’re pretty vague on the time. Pretty vague on everything, actually. Half of them are still hammered, the other half are so hungover they wish they were dead.”

“One of them is,” I said. “Any luck with their smartphones?”

“I collected a half dozen. Joni’s downloading them now. She thinks she can patch together a highlight reel of last night’s action—”

“What in the devil’s going on here!” An Indian doctor in a white lab coat bulled between us, grabbing my shoulder, jerking me around. “The staff says you people brought my son into emergency. Beaten! What have you done to him?”

“Yo! Calm down!” I said, backing him off, flashing my shield. “I’m Detective LaCrosse. Who are you?”

“I’m Dr. Patel—”

“Derek’s father?”

“Yes, I—”

“You need to cool down and listen up, doctor,” Zee said, stepping between us. “Your son was assaulted. The man who attacked him is in custody. So is Derek. A girl he took to a party last night is dead, possibly of a drug overdose. Does Derek have access to GHB or similar drugs in your home, doctor? Or your office?”

Patel stared at her, stunned. “Drugs?” he stammered. “Derek? Are you out of your mind?”

“GHB, specifically,” I pressed, keeping him off balance.

“Dear God.” Patel looked away, swallowing. “The, ah, the party Derek attended? It was held at the Champlin home?”

“That’s right.”

“Then I have a—conflict. The Champlins are my patients. By law, I can’t disclose any information—”

“Then you’d better hire your son a good lawyer, sir,” Zina said.

“Wait! Please,” Patel pleaded. “I can’t discuss my patients, but I
can
tell you that my son did not take GHB nor any other drug to that party. He would never do such a thing. And there would be . . . no need to.”

“Because . . . the pills were already there?” Zina pressed. “Are you saying someone in the family has a prescription for them?”

“I can’t comment on that, detective,” Patel said. “But in good conscience, I cannot
deny
it either. Do you understand what I’m
not
telling you?”

“Got it,” Zina nodded.

“Without a release from the Champlins, that’s all I’m free to say. I’m—sorry about before. May I get back to my son?”

“Go ahead,” I said. “But if I were you, doc, I’d get that release. We’ll be talking again.”

As Patel stalked off, my cell phone hummed. I turned away to take the message. Listened, and frowned. “Okay,” I said. “I’m on my way.”

“Is something wrong?” Zina asked.

“That was the district attorney. The Champlins’ lawyer wants a meet-up, at the Jury’s Inn.”

“Looking for a deal?” she said, surprised. “The case just opened.”

“He doesn’t want a deal,” I said. “He says he can close it for us.”

 

I left Zina at the hospital. She’d get Derek Patel’s statement as soon as he could talk.

I headed into Valhalla, a quaint, shoreline resort that’s exploded from a small town into a small city in the past dozen years. Internet money, mostly. Yuppies from Detroit, Flint, and Chicago fleeing the cities to get away from it all. And bringing a lot of it with them.

As a boy, raised in the backcountry, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. But after two tours as an MP in Afghanistan, then police work in Detroit, I’m happy to be back. Most of the time.

The Jury’s Inn is a convenient hangout for cops, lawyers, and media people, catty-cornered from the county courthouse, just up the block from police headquarters. You can order a burger or a beer, cut a plea deal, or nose out a headline without leaving your barstool.

On a snowy Saturday morning, the place was half empty, the jukebox murmuring Motown oldies while three deputies coming off the mid shift swapped fibs and a pair of lawyers huddled over cocktails, dealing their clients’ rights away like penny-ante poker. Our criminal justice system at work.

At the rear corner of the dining room, a massive octagonal table sits apart from the others, ensuring privacy for anyone who chooses it.

Today it was Todd Girard, prosecuting attorney for the five northern counties. Tall, blond, and male-model handsome, Todd is North Shore royalty. Lumber money, a Yale grad. A local legend.

Three years ahead of me in Valhalla High, Todd was a deadeye shooting guard in basketball. Our sports shared part of the same seasons, so we passed in the locker room and hit some of the same parties, including a few at the Champlin estate. We weren’t pals at the time, but I knew who he was. Everybody knew who Todd was.

The Girards own lumber mills, paper mills, and pieces of everything else. Their homes are estates in gated enclaves. A hundred-plus years ago, they rode the timber trains into Vale County and logged off the northern forest like fields of wheat.

My mother’s people, the Métis, mixed-blood descendents of the original French
voyageurs
and the First Nation, arrived around the same time, fleeing a failed rebellion against the Canadian government. In Canada we’d been woodsmen, trappers, and traders. And, finally, rebels on the run.

In Michigan we became loggers, ax-men, sawyers, top men. The LaCrosses and our kin did the grueling, dangerous work that made the lumber barons rich. After the timber played out, the Girards stayed on in their Main Street mansions, to manage banks and businesses and wield the local reins of power. Shrewdly, for the most part.

The Métis stayed on too, doing whatever work came to hand. Lumbermen, merchants, mechanics, and carpenters. A few outlaws.

And one cop.

Todd Girard is Old Money, but doesn’t flaunt it. His lambskin sport coat was comfortably distressed and his jeans were faded. A blue chambray shirt, open at the throat. No tie. Business casual for the north.

In school he was a party animal, but his National Guard unit served a hitch in Afghanistan. He came back changed. We all did. He takes Vale County crime personally now, which keeps his conviction rate in the high nineties.

His number two, Assistant DA Harvey Bemis, was beside him. Suited up in his usual three-piece pinstripe and a U of M tie, Harvey is an eager beaver who looks a bit like one, protruding front teeth, anxious eyes. He’s an attack dog in court, a guy you want on your side. But I’ve never had a beer with him afterward. I think he wears his tie to bed.

The third man at the table was plump and sleek, casually dressed in a tweed jacket over a golf shirt. Jason Avery is the most expensive mouthpiece north of Detroit. His silvery mane was a bit disheveled and he hadn’t shaved. I guessed his Saturdays rarely started this early.

“Detective Dylan LaCrosse,” Avery said. “Thanks for coming.”

“Counselors.” I nodded, dropping into the chair facing them. “I’m here as a courtesy to the prosecutor, but I’m in the middle of a homicide case so I’m short on time. What’s this about?”

“The Champlin case,” Todd said. “I’ve known Mark Champlin for years. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, I’m stepping away from this one. Harvey Bemis will take it to trial if it comes to that.”

“Which I hope to avoid,” Avery interjected smoothly. “We need to resolve this mess before it becomes a disaster for the whole North Shore.”

“What kind of a disaster?” I asked.

“Before I get to that, I’ll need a guarantee,” Avery said. “I’m willing to reveal information damaging to my clients, but this conversation will remain confidential.”

“We’re all gentlemen here, with the possible exception of Dylan,” Todd said drily. “Okay, we’re officially off the record, Jason. What’s your big secret?”

“The Novak girl, for openers. I can close that case.”

I stiffened; so did Todd. He had our full attention now.

“I’m listening,” I said.

“It’s my understanding that the girl drank nonalcoholic punch, passed out on the lawn, and . . . succumbed to the cold. In fact, a tox screen will reveal the presence of a drug. GHB. You have Julie’s date, young Derek Patel, in custody, I believe. As a suspect?”

“He’s one possibility,” I admitted.

“The wrong one,” Avery said flatly. “The punch was spiked. GHB, commonly referred to as a date-rape drug, was added to it.”

“By whom?” Todd asked.

“I’m coming to that,” Avery said. “For the record, the drug was legally prescribed and properly secured under lock and key—”

“It was locked in the playroom, wasn’t it?” I said, getting it.

Avery nodded. “Quite so. GHB is a legal sleeping pill, but on occasion the drug is used by my clients to enhance . . . well. Recreational sex. All those involved are consenting adults. I can supply their names, if necessary.”

“Skip that for now,” I said. “What happened to the girl?”

“Her date, Derek Patel, brought her to the house party. The elder Champlins were away for the weekend, and such parties aren’t uncommon. Their daughter, Sara, was present, as well as a number of exchange students, all of whom are of age—”

“What exchange students?” Harvey Bemis asked.

“Jocks, Harvey,” I explained. “They attend Vale Junior College on sports scholarships.”

“They keep the school competitive and give Mark a new audience for his highlight reel every year,” Todd added. “Cut to the chase, Jason. Who doped the punch?”

“Joey Champlin,” Avery said simply.

The room went dead still. No one spoke for a moment.

“The . . . handicapped kid?” I said at last.

“I’m afraid so. Last evening Joey was watching TV with the exchange students when his older sister ordered him to bed. The boy took offense. He has a history of difficulty with impulse control. He broke into the playroom, grabbed a fistful of pills, and dropped them in the punch as a prank.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Todd said, looking away.

“The boy had no idea what the pills were, or what the consequences might be,” Avery continued. “Joey confessed to his sister this morning. He’s very sorry, but . . .” He opened his hands expansively. “I doubt the boy’s capable of comprehending the damage he’s done.”

“How old is this boy?” Harvey asked.

“Sixteen,” Avery said. “His IQ is in the mid-sixties, which places him in legal limbo between juvenile court and adult incapacity. I doubt he can be tried.”

“He can’t just walk either,” Todd said grimly. “What are you offering, Jason?”

“There’s a bit more to it,” Avery said. “Vale Junior College is being vetted at the state level to become a fully accredited four-year institution. I don’t have to tell you what a blessing this would be for the North Shore. Kids who lack the resources to pursue a higher education downstate could live at home, attend school here.” He glanced pointedly at me.

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