Authors: Steve Thayer
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Suspense, #Thriller
You can’t be a really good writer unless you had crazy parents
In Memory of Pliny A. Thayer
Katherine E. Harbold
& Leslie H. Harbold
It was a cold act on a hot June day. The temperature was 98 degrees Fahrenheit-36.6 on the centigrade scale. The relative humidity was 69 percent with sticky dew points in the low 70s. The barometric pressure was holding steady at 29.71 inches. A breeze straight up from the Gulf was barely perceptible. Cumulus clouds, those little fluffy ones, dotted the sky, but they had no effect on the afternoon sun. It was broiling.
The monster in the mask stepped out of the dark shadows and into the blinding daylight. Few places are hotter on such a day than the open roof of a downtown parking ramp. The fire in the sky was a roaring furnace cooking the concrete to temperatures that made even breathing difficult. The creature began wheezing. By the calendar summer was still a week away, but already the weather was hell. A hand went over the eyes to reduce the sting of the glare. Because of the hot sun only one lonely car was parked on the roof, off in the corner.
The Sky High parking ramp sat directly beneath the tallest building in town. Towering masts off the top of the skyscraper fed the metropolitan area its electronic diet of television. These giant antennas threw a cagelike shadow across the concrete below. The monster in the mask walked into this cage made of sun rays and took refuge in the steel shadows.
The car was a red Honda Prelude, clean and shiny. The young woman who drove it parked in the same spot every day, on the roof, in the corner, in the shade of the buildings above. Next to the car was a huge transformer, army green in color. Bright yellow stickers pasted on the casing warned of danger.
. The wheezing creature squeezed in behind the transformer. A high stucco wall hid the ghostly figure from view. It crouched and waited.
It was hot inside the mask. A black fly buzzed the leather nose. A hand waved it off. The eyes wandered to the western sky. Tiny particles floated in the dirty brown haze that floated over the city. Another year had passed. The smog was worse. The temperature rose one degree. The humidity went up one sticky percentage point. The hottest part of the day. It would stay this way for an hour; then slowly it would begin to cool.
For some reason the young woman with the red Prelude left work earlier than most. Always alone. She was stylishly thin. She carried a briefcase. She dressed the way a businesswoman should dress-not flashy, but simple and conservative. From a distance, she seemed plain-featured, short brown hair over a narrow face. This was all her attacker knew about her. But she did have one peculiar habit. She always unlocked the passenger door first, placed her briefcase on the front seat as if it were a child, then walked around to the driver’s side and got into the car. It was this silly little ritual that first caught the monster’s attention.
The elevator doors slid open. Right on time. A punctual woman. Her soft footsteps echoed in the lethal heat. Dizzy and nauseous; the wheezing increased. An aching stomach. A frozen heart. Suddenly, the creature was on its feet.
The woman walked through the shadows of the TV antennas and went straight to the passenger side of her car, where she unlocked and opened the door. She gently placed her briefcase on the front seat. Then she closed the door.
Viewed from a distance the assault was almost comical. Her head snapped back so fast her feet flew into the air. Then she was gone, disappearing behind a big green box. No noise. No struggle, except for one kick of her leg. All the pride she carried, all the strength, stamina, and mettle it took for a woman to make it in a man’s world were left in the briefcase on the front seat of her car. In the last seconds of her life, hidden between the wall and the transformer, she was as helpless as the rag dolls of her childhood.
But in the years to come that one kick of her leg would send shock waves through a proud state. One kick of her leg would create an atmosphere of hate in a place where hate was once detested, would cost millions of dollars in police work and legal fees, and would change laws once thought unchangeable.
No, she didn’t kick her attacker. With her neck locked in the crook of a strong arm she was swung around with such force that her leg hit the wall, and by reflex she kicked off the wall, knocking her attacker backwards into the transformer. The electricity bolted on line with a startling loud crunch. For a second, and it was only a second, a bare hand reached out and slapped the green metal and the arm around her neck loosened enough for her to get off one short, piercing scream.
It was the only ray of defense she was allowed. Small bones could be heard snapping in her neck. Her face glowed red to purple. Life spat out her mouth. But her perfume still gave off warm honeysuckle odors. Murder should not smell so sweet. Her head, tight against the mask, gave the wheezing creature an incredible urge to whisper something to her, to somehow explain. But then it was over. She was dead. Whoever she was.
The killer was on bended knees now, hands folded prayerwise over her body. The noisy transformer shut down. City sounds rose like heat from the streets below. A bus pulled away from the stop. A church bell tolled the hour. The offices in the skyscrapers above were insulated, sealed from the real world. The only eyewitness to this murder was a weather satellite twenty-two thousand miles above the earth.
The hidden face tilted back, gazing into the hazy sky, past the television antennas that reached for the heavens. Stared right through the four layers of the atmosphere and into dreamy blue space. With just the feel of a breeze through the eyes of the mask the creature was able to clock the wind. The sun burning the skin gave away the temperature. Moisture in the air was southern. The barometric pressure began falling, ever so slightly. The killer was proud of this knowledge. It took a special kind of animal to read the weather. The monster in the mask examined the cumulus clouds as they drifted by. Breathed the air. Perhaps it was a day away, but there was a storm corning. A big one.
It was getting dark so suddenly that Alice thought there must be a thunderstorm coming on. “What a thick black cloud that is!” she said. “And how fast it comes! Why, I do believe it’s got wings!”
Through the Looking-Glass
Dixon Graham Bell back-stepped with the breeze. He paused one more time on the Nicollet Walk and looked far up Eighth Street, where cars were crawling out of a blue-black wall cloud that extended westward. Above him a dark, greenish cast was spreading over the heavens. Electricity filled the air. The humidity was suffocating. A raindrop slapped his face.
In the Great Lakes States the median time for severe weather is 5:00 P.M., after the sun’s heat has done the devil’s best to make the ground steamy hot and the air ripping mad. Dixon Bell checked his watch. 4:55 P.M. Five minutes to airtime. Perfect. If there is a God, he must watch TV.
He ducked into the Crystal Court Plaza, clapped his hands together, and bounded up the escalators to the skyway level. He pushed the elevator button and impatiently tapped his fingers on the mirrored wall. People were scurrying through the weatherproof skyways, heading for Dayton’s department store, rushing for the bank, or just stopping at their favorite bar-heading home, their workday done. Dixon Bell glanced over his shoulder. The electronic sign on the bank entrance flashed 92°. Next it flashed 4:56. Four minutes to airtime. In a useless act he again stabbed the lighted elevator button. Then he turned his attention back to the darkening sky.
The Crystal Court is a glassy shopping plaza fastened to the base of the tallest, most elegant building in downtown Minneapolis, the
Tower. Its crystal cubes mirror the sun and invite warm rays year round, but they lock out the weather. Today the sun was disappearing fast and with every passing second the weather was becoming less and less inviting. Having a newsroom at the top of this skyscraper was a mixed blessing. It was great for eyeing the sky and watching the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul unfold beneath, but it was nerve-racking when breaking stories were left standing at the elevator fifty-seven stories below.
Angry black clouds drifted toward the big blue tower. Dixon Bell turned and slammed his foot into the elevator door. The bang startled those around him. Could this be the cordial guy they watched every night on Channel 7? Then, as if on command, the elevator doors opened and the Weatherman slipped inside.
He was a big, husky man, over six feet tall. But he was well past forty now, and his husk was turning to fat. Dixon Bell was losing the battle of the bulge. He drank too much beer. He couldn’t keep his shirts tucked in. His butt was getting big, his gut even bigger. It didn’t help that television makes even the most slender person appear fifteen pounds heavier. His dark, curly hair was thick and salted. He had bushy eyebrows. Women thought him cute. In truth, his face would have been clownish if it weren’t for a scar that cast a bitter cloud over his puffy cheeks. But his looks were deceiving. His oversized features played well on television. And when he opened his mouth to talk about the weather, people liked him. They listened. He was a meteorologist and dead serious about it. His gift for reading the weather, and it was a gift, was the envy of his peers.
As the elevator doors finally closed, the bank sign flashed 4:57. Three minutes to air time.
As Dixon Bell was stepping into the elevator at the Crystal Court Plaza, Captain Les Angelbeck was stepping out of the elevator atop the Sky High parking ramp next door. Bloodhounds were sniffing around the entrance to the stairwell. Angelbeck walked up the ramp to the roof level. The area was sealed off with bright yellow tape:
. He ducked under the tape, into the open air, and reached for his cigarettes. It was Marlboro time. In Minnesota the law was as clear as the air had once been: No smoking in public unless you can see the open sky. Today that sky had a very unfriendly look to it. The captain was wearing his raincoat. Always dressed for the weather.
He stepped over heavy cables that ran along the floor and looped over the wall to the television minivans below. A TV reporter was testing his microphone in front of a camera, preparing for a live shot. At the other end of the ramp another reporter was doing the same. The veteran cop recognized them both but couldn’t recall their names or what channels they worked for. They were all stamped from the same cookie cutter-young, slender, clean-cut, and hairy, just short of nerdy, and probably from out of state.
Les Angelbeck was getting old-death-insight old. Retirement had come and gone a long time ago. He didn’t take it. His men told him he looked like Bear Bryant, only shorter. He remembered when the great Alabama football coach retired to relax and enjoy life. He died six weeks later. Retirement kills, not work. Besides, Les Angelbeck’s mind was still sharp, and his hair was still brown. But there was that smoker’s cough. His men called him the Marlboro Man. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. He knew cigarettes would one day cut off his air supply, choke him to death as sure as the young woman found atop this parking ramp had been choked.
As police work goes, in Minnesota the pay is high and the risk is low. The captain had not pointed a gun at anyone since World War II. He liked to remind young cops of that. In a career that spanned forty-plus years, he’d walked a beat in Minneapolis; he’d been an investigator across the river at the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department in St. Paul; he was once a police chief in a sleepy suburb. Now he was with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, or the BCA-the state police. They coordinated metropolitan investigations and assisted smalltown police and county sheriff’s departments in major cases-murders, kidnappings, drug dealing. Two nights a week Angelbeck taught law enforcement at North Hennepin Community College. His position, his experience, and his contacts gave him access to every detail of every criminal case in the state.
Angelbeck found a chalk outline where the victim’s body had been discovered. The transformer and the Prelude were being dusted for prints. An investigator was going over the ramp floor with a magnifying glass and tweezers. Another was doing the same inside the car.
Detective Karl Schoenberger was directing the mop-up team. He was a cold, arrogant cop. “Captain, who called you in?”
“Just in the neighborhood.”
“He got her in a choke hold,” Schoenberger explained. “Knew what he was doing. Made short work of her. No sex.”
“It’s the heat,” Angelbeck told him. “A proven fact the crime rate rises with the temperature.”