Authors: Harry Dolan
ALSO BY HARRY DOLAN
Bad Things Happen
Very Bad Men
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The last dead girl / Harry Dolan.
1. Women college studentsâCrimes againstâFiction. 2. Rome (N.Y.)âFiction. I. Title.
PS3604.O424L37 2014 2013030283
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my brother, Terry,
and my sister, Michelle
Rome, New York
The last night of April, 1998
hey put me in a room with white tile on the walls and a pair of long fluorescent lights glaring down from the ceiling. The lights let out a slow, crackling hiss. I had a cut on my temple. It had stopped bleeding, but now it itched. I tried to ignore it.
They left me there alone. Nothing in the room but a wooden table and two chairs with metal frames and padded seats. I sat in a chair, held my hands above the surface of the table. The right one trembledâfaintly, but you could see it. I thought about what could be causing it: more than one thing, but I knew part of it was anger. I made a fist and the trembling stopped.
An hour passed. There was no clock, but they had let me keep my watch. They'd taken everything elseâSwiss Army knife, keys, everything I had in my pockets.
I got up and circled the table under the hiss of the fluorescent lights. Reached for the cut on my temple. Dried blood. I crossed to the door and tried the knob. Locked.
I returned to my chair and picked it up. Thought about smashing something. Maybe the lights: they were glass, they would break. Then I could be angry in the dark.
I walked another circuit of the room, dragging the chair behind me this time. Slightly less childish. The metal legs made a satisfying screech against the floor.
The door opened and a uniformed cop looked in at me and frowned. I put the chair back where it belonged and sat. The door closed. A few minutes later it opened again and a different cop came in, one I hadn't seen before. Dressed in a gray suit, with a detective's gold shield on a lanyard around his neck.
He sat down across from me.
“Why'd you kill the girl?” he said.
His tone was mild, bored, bureaucratic. I studied his face. He had dark hair cut short, a heavy brow, a long, fleshy nose. His skin was olive and he had gone too long without a shave. He must have been around fifty years old. His eyes looked tired.
“Seriously?” I said.
“Does that ever work for you?”
He tipped his head to the side. “Sometimes.”
“A cold open like thatââWhy'd you kill the girl?'âand then they just confess?”
“You'd be surprised what works.”
He turned his chair so he could rest an elbow on the table. Drew a thumb over the stubble along his jaw.
He said, “Why don't you tell me how you think this should go.”
I gestured at the tiled walls. “You could leave me waiting here for another hour.”
“You're not going to get all wounded on me, are you?” he said, his lip curling in a ghost of a smile. “I don't think you're that delicate. And I've been a little busy.”
“You could give me your name.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That's fair,” he said. “I'm Frank Moretti. You're Darrell Malone, but you go by your middle name, David. The girl was Jana Fletcher. Somebody strangled her. She was twenty-five, a law student at Bellamy University. How long did you know her?”
I shrugged. “That's how long it was.”
“Ten days,” he repeated. “That's fast.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing, really. Just that you got close to her in a short time.”
“Is that a question?”
“It's an observation. How did you meet her?”
“It was an accident.”
He gave me the lip curl again. “Isn't that the way it goes. Sometimes I think life is just one long string of accidents.”
“She was in a car accident,” I said. “A minor one. I came along and helped her. Gave her a ride home.”
“And that was the beginning of your relationship?”
“When did you start sleeping with her?”
The question made me frown. “I'm not sure I want to tell you.”
“Because it's none of your business.”
“Actually, it is,” Frank Moretti said. “You could say my business is finding out things that are none of my business. Shall I tell you what I found out tonight before I came in here?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Go ahead.”
“I found out that you started sleeping with Jana Fletcher ten nights ago. That's an intimate bit of knowledge, but the walls of Jana's apartment are very thin, and her landlady, who lives next door, is very observant.”
“Meaning she likes to spy on people.”
“She told me you've been there every night since, and you have your own key. That's a minor detail, but it interests me.”
“It made things easier,” I said. “Jana tended to leave early in the morning. I tend to sleep late. She wanted me to be able to lock up when I left.”
Moretti nodded. “I also learned, from a different source, that you're engaged to be marriedâbut not to Jana Fletcher.”
“What source told you that?”
“I know a reporter at the
. He looked you up in the archives. They ran the announcement in the local section. Quite a write-up. A lot of fanfare. It got me thinking about the name Malone. There's a library on the campus of the university with the name Austin Malone on it. Also a science lab, and a hospital wing. A relative of yours?”
“How did he make enough money to get his name on so many things?”
“Exploiting the masses. What does this have to do with Jana?”
“I wonder about the contrast,” Moretti said. “I was in her apartment tonight. It's nothing much. Nobody in her family ever got their name on anything.”
“What's your point?”
“My point is, she was from the wrong side of the tracks.”
I heard myself laugh. A grim little thing, more like a cough.
“âThe wrong side of the tracks'? Do people even say that anymore?”
“My point is, maybe that was part of the attraction,” said Moretti. “Here's a girl you can impress with your money. She's not like the women you're used to. Maybe she's willing to do things your fiancÃ©e won't do. Maybe she likes it rough. Did she ask you to choke her?”
I felt the skin flush along my arms and on the back of my neck. Something sour twisted in the pit of my stomach.
“You're way off.”
“Maybe I am,” Moretti said, and then went quiet. His tired eyes stared at me. I returned the stare. The fluorescent lights crackled above us. The fingers of my left hand found the cut on my temple and traced it gently.
“You want me to get someone in here?” Moretti said.
His voice was tired like his eyes, and bland. I didn't answer him.
“Someone to look at that cut,” he said. “A team of surgeons maybe? You don't want a scar. It might ruin your looks.”
I brought my hand down to the table. “You're wasting your time.”
He let out a long breath. “I'm trying to understand your relationship with Jana Fletcher. I don't think that's a waste of time.”
“You're chasing down the wrong trail. I'm not the one who killed her.”
Moretti nodded once to acknowledge my denial.
“Did you ever hit her?”
The thing in my stomach twisted again. “Why would you ask me that?”
“That's not an answer.”
“I never hit her.”
“But someone did.”
No trace of doubt in his tone. He was stating a fact.
“How do you know about that?” I said. But then it came to me: the landlady.
Moretti didn't bother to answer me. “Someone hit Jana Fletcher ten days ago,” he said. “Left a mark on her cheek. Ten days. Does that sound familiar?”
“She had that mark the night I met her. I didn't give it to her.”
“Who did? Did you ask her?”
“She wouldn't tell me.”
“It's the truth.”
I watched Moretti drum his fingers on the table.
“Here's what I think,” he said. “The two of you met and something clicked right away. You fell into bed together. It got a little crazy that first night. You hit her. Maybe you were just playing around, but you hit her harder than you meant to. Hard enough to leave a mark. A woman can forgive something like that, if it happens in the heat of the moment. Or as I said, maybe she liked it rough.”
The drumming stopped. “Then tonight, you got carried away,” he said. “You put your hands on her throat. You thought she'd like it. Some women do. But you're a strong guy, you went too far. Too much pressure. I'm not saying you did it on purpose. If you tell me it was an accidentâ”
I felt the muscles of my shoulders tense. Found myself shaking my head.
“I didn't do it. Stop playing games.”
“Have I been playing games?”
“You know it wasn't an accident,” I said. “I found her. I called 911. I saw what she looked like. No one did that by accident.” The memory made me shudder. “You don't really believe I killed her.”
“Why shouldn't I?”
“Whoever killed her broke the door in. Why would I do that? I have a key.”
“Sometimes people stage crime scenes,” Moretti said with a shrug. “They go in with a key. They do something they shouldn't. Then they go back out, lock up, kick the door in. They pretend they found it that way.”
The sour thing in my stomach threatened to rise up into my throat. I tried to relax, tried to settle it back down. The room seemed suddenly warm, the white walls sickly.
“No,” I said. “I can understand why you'd think that, but you're wrong. You're wasting your time.”
“You said that before,” he said mildly. “So tell me, how should I be spending my time?”
I closed my eyes, tried to think. I did my best to block everything out, make it all fade away, even the hiss of the lights.
“Someone hit her,” I said eventually. “That's the place to start. You need to find him. And there's something else.”
I opened my eyes. “You're going to think I'm making it up. But I'm not. If I were making it up, I'd have a better story.”
Something passed over his face. A flicker of amusement.
“Why don't you tell me the story you've got.”
“There may have been someone watching her,” I said. “A week ago. That's what she thought anyway. We never saw anyone. I didn't take it seriously. Not seriously enough.”
Moretti drew away from me, skeptical. “So I should be looking for someone you never saw? Someone who may not exist?”
“I think he exists. Probably he's the same one who hit her. You said you went to her apartment tonight.”
“In back of the house, there are woods. He might have been watching her from there. I think he might have left something behind.”
“I went looking,” I said. “In the woods. I found it near a fallen tree. But I left it there. Because how could I know if it was his? And what would I have done with it anyway?” My voice was speeding up. I made an effort to slow it down. “But you could look for it. It's bound to be there still. Maybe it would tell you something.”
“What are we talking about?” Moretti asked.
“It's a long shot, but maybe it was his and maybe there's something on it. A fingerprint or DNAâ”
“What did you find?”
“A stick? You're telling me you found a stick in the woods?”
“A popsicle stick.”