Subject: Excerpt from ACCOUNTABLE
Traffic inched along on Lakeview Drive as drivers craned their necks for a peek at the police cars and medical examiner’s van
in front of the condo development just south of the river. Whether it’s a wreck on the highway, fire trucks down the block, or a crime scene crawling with cops, tragedy is fascinating…when it strikes someone else.
The all-news station resonated through the speakers in my Escape and I got lost in the hypnotic pulse of blue lights on the roof of the squad ahead of me until the anchorman said, “Bedford Police are still searching for a homeless man in connection with the murder of a local bank executive. Gary Noonan is wanted for questioning in the death of David Lukas, director of operations for Lakeview Bank, who was gunned down last week at the construction site of the bank’s new branch on Mission Street. In other news…”
I cut my eyes to the stereo. That’s it? Where’s the part about Dave being funny, kind, and compassionate? That his life ended after only thirty-four years. Or that he was buried yesterday, leaving a wife, parents, and friends behind whose lives will never be the same.
I switched off the engine but the horrible details of that day droned on in my head.
An electrician witnessed an altercation between Dave and Noonan at the branch around eight o’clock that morning. Noonan
entered the building through a back door that workers propped open to unload supplies. In loud, slurred speech, he told Dave he wanted his house back because if the bank could afford to build a new branch, it didn’t need another foreclosure. Dave calmed him down and gave him a number to call for assistance and Noonan staggered out.
Eleven hours later, my husband was dead.
The security cameras weren’t online yet, and there weren’t any witnesses because no one who’d willingly talk to the police ventured out in that neighborhood once the sun started to set. The contractor was a half block away when he heard what he thought were gunshots, but by the time he drove back to check things out, the shooter had fled. Noonan’s status changed from person of interest to suspect after his black Ford pickup was spotted on a traffic cam two blocks from the branch within the timeframe of the shooting.
It’s still hard to comprehend Dave was killed over a foreclosure. He had no responsibility for loan decisions, so how the hell could he become collateral damage in the mortgage mess?
Blood drummed in my ears and I put my head against the rest and closed my eyes.
Maybe I should’ve taken the week off like Mom and Dad and everyone else urged me to do. But why? So I could sit around and brood? Like I’m doing now?
I drew in a deep breath, held it, and let it escape slowly through my mouth.
Four-out-of-five mental health professionals would say the best way to cope with a critical incident is to return to a normal routine as soon as possible, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. Of course, they might change their recommendation if they knew my routine but…
With a few more deep breaths, the thumping subsided and I opened my eyes. “Who cares what the shrinks would say?” I said
aloud. “This is just another day at the office so I need to haul my ass out of this car and go to work.”
I wiped my palms on my thighs, crawled out of my SUV, and started to weave my way through the gawkers clogging the sidewalk.
I didn’t recognize the uniform posted at the door, and he assumed I lived in the building because he stopped texting and his
eyes followed my low-rider jeans down to my shoes and then drifted back up to the center of the V-neck tee under my blazer. He adjusted his Bedford PD baseball cap and flashed a smile that would get him laid if he were in a bar.
The smile slid from his face when I parted the left side of my jacket to expose my shield. “Benchik. Homicide.”
He slipped the phone into his pocket. “Fifth floor, Detective. Unit five-ten.” I nodded and he entered my name on the crime scene log.
My heart rate climbed along with the elevator and I repeated Just another day at the office in my head until the doors parted on the fifth floor. Several men and women spoke in hushed tones as they huddled at one end of the hallway bordered by twelve units. I flashed my shield again to the uniform posted outside 510 and he handed me a pair of paper booties. I tugged them over my shoes and paused in the doorway to examine the frame and latch for jimmy marks or scratches. Both looked clean, so either the victim opened the door or the killer had a key.
I entered the loft and stood in the living room. Voices echoed from the end of the hall on the right and I looked toward them—toward the spot where the victim lay and to where I should go because I always meet the victim first. Except today I needed a little extra time to work up to it, so I pulled a pair of latex gloves from my pocket, snapped them on, and surveyed the room.
The top of the desk along the left wall was neat and the drawers were closed. Abstract paintings hung straight on several walls. The leather couch was parallel to the entertainment center/fireplace on the wall to the right, and matching chairs sat at right angles to the couch. Tiffany lamps were centered on end tables. There were no wrinkles in the Oriental rug or broken vases on the floor.
I turned toward the dining area and kitchen behind me to the left. Four chairs stood upright around the empty pub table.
I walked over to the end table on the far side of the room and stooped over for a closer look at a photo in a crystal frame. A woman in her mid-fifties, with a round face and shoulder-length black hair, stood with her arm around a younger version of herself, dressed in a black cap and gown. The frame next to it held a more recent photo of the young woman huddled around a small table with a brunette who was about the same age. They were toasting with green drinks—probably appletinis. I had a picture just like it taken with my best friend, Connie Warren, when we celebrated our thirtieth birthdays in Vegas two years ago. Of course in my picture, Connie and I were hoisting beers.
I scanned the room again and concluded that if a struggle occurred, it didn’t happen out here. And I had stalled long enough,
so I followed the voices and found Detective Greg Payton in the bathroom, his back to the door, as he watched Deputy Medical
Examiner Leilani Norris tend to her patient in the porcelain bathtub.
Leilani had been at the bank Wednesday night too. When she arrived, she promised to take good care of my husband, and it took everything I had not to cry out when she kneeled beside him to do what I’d seen her do to so many victims before. Payton had been the one to persuade me to stand back and allow her to work. He walked me to the cruiser, propped me against the front fender, and remained at my side like an overprotective Labrador.
Though it’s been two years, I could still picture his embarrassed smile the day we became partners and I told him he reminded me of an actor on Judging Amy named Richard T. Jones—partly because of his clean-shaven head but mostly due to his kind eyes and soft-spoken nature. My heart ached for him because he’d seen too many bodies even before he joined the force. First, those claimed by the gang violence that besieged Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project where he
grew up, and then his fellow soldiers killed by snipers or IEDs during his Army Reserve unit’s deployment in Iraq. But in spite of the horrors he’d witnessed, his faith remained strong. I knew he’d been in church when he got the call this morning because he was wearing a jacket and slacks rather than his off-duty uniform of jeans and a T-shirt.
I suspected the call interrupted Leilani’s Sunday routine as well—an hour at the gym followed by her weekly Tai-Chi class in Veterans Memorial Park. Her petite frame often fools people into believing she survives on yogurt and salad, but we’ve eaten together enough for me to know that while she favors her Native Hawaiian mother’s physical appearance, she inherited her French father’s love of food, and she depends on disciplined exercise to maintain a healthy weight.
Leilani had planned a career in orthopedics, but as a third-year med student at Columbia, her path veered sharply in September 2001. She volunteered to help catalog victims’ remains from the Twin Towers and subsequently switched to forensic pathology. Her first week as an ME three years ago coincided with my first week in Homicide and we grew up on the job together.
She could’ve dispatched one of her staff MEs to the bank that night, but instead she skipped a night at the ballet and worked clear into Thursday morning to finish Dave’s autopsy. And Payton forfeited sleep and precious time with his family to chase every lead with the rest of the squad. Like Connie, they both hovered close to me at the wake and funeral, ready to lend whatever support I needed.
But please don’t let me need it here and now. I squared my shoulders, stepped across the threshold, and said, “What have we got?”
They pivoted toward me like targets on the academy’s practice range.
“Val!” Leilani’s perfectly plucked dark brows arched and the pitch of her voice reminded me of someone who got busted planning a surprise birthday party.
“What are you doing here?” Payton asked. The pitch of his voice didn’t change. It seldom did. Always clear and calming. Like a hypnotist.
I pointed at the tub. “Homicide.” I swung my finger toward my chest. “Homicide cop.”
“You were supposed to take some time,” Payton said.
“I did. Three days.”
His eyes cut to Leilani, pleading with her to talk some sense into me, but she knew it would be futile to try. “We both know she’s lolo,” Leilani said and she tossed her head to reposition her long black ponytail down her back before leaning into the tub again.
“Crazy is right,” Payton said. “How did you even find out about this?”
“I heard the traffic report on the radio. They mentioned delays due to police activity and the medical examiner’s van on scene, so I called Dispatch, and after a bit of badgering, Bevin gave me the address. Do we have an ID?”
“Adriana Ortiz,” he said. “Twenty-eight. Single. Lived alone.”
I clenched and released my fists to ease some tension before I stepped up to the tub and looked down to see the young woman from the photos. My stomach flopped at the sight of the punctures
peppering her flesh. “It looks like he used her for a dartboard.”
“I counted twenty-seven stab wounds,” Leilani said. “The wound to her chest is likely the cause of death, but the odd thing is
the other twenty-six wounds were superficial. Deep enough to cause considerable pain but not enough to kill her.”
“She was tortured,” Payton said.
Their voices sounded muffled, as if I were underwater and they were poolside.
“You have a time of death?” Payton asked Leilani.
“Best estimate right now is between three and five Friday afternoon.”
The wounds looked so tiny compared to a bullet hole.
Even from twenty feet away, I saw the blood soaking the front of Dave’s white shirt, and I winced, as if the bullet had struck my own heart. Which in a way, it had.
I squeezed my eyes shut and fought to push the image into the place in my mind where I try to compartmentalize the job, but it was too soon and the image was too vivid.
I ran across the parking lot and dropped to my knees on the pavement. His hand still felt warm when I grasped it in both of mine, and I closed my eyes, convinced that I’d open them to find it was all a horrible nightmare.
I opened my eyes and the punctures on Ortiz’s body pulsed upward like some 3D horror movie. A hot wave washed over my body and my legs wobbled. I reached out and braced my palm against the tiled wall above Ortiz’s bathtub to keep from falling over.
Keep it together! I shouted in my head, and I breathed slowly, deeply until the faintness passed. When I felt steady, I moved my head around a little, pretending like I’d propped my hand against the wall for a better look at the wounds. I pushed back and asked, “Any guess on weapon?”
The awkward silence told me I’d failed to fool them, but they graciously let it go.
“Entry points are clean, indicating a sharp point,” Leilani said. “And given the small diameter and smooth edges, my guess would be an ice pick or an awl.”
I turned to face them. “What the hell is an awl?”
“It’s a tool used to punch holes,” Payton said.
“In what and by whom?”
“Wood or leather,” he said. “Belts. Custom woodworking. That sort of thing.”
I walked over and opened the cabinet above the vanity. Ortiz kept an assortment of over-the-counter pain and cold meds, as well as four toothbrushes in the boxes. Either she changed her brush every three months like the box advises or she had frequent overnight guests. And one of them could be our killer.
I surveyed the vanity. She kept a brush and hot rollers in the corner, along with her makeup, for which she showed no sign of
brand loyalty. The cabinet under the sink housed cleaning supplies. I closed the door and looked around.
“What’s wrong?” Payton asked.
I shook my head. “It feels like something’s missing.” I scanned the vanity again but couldn’t put my finger on it. “Who found her?”
“Maintenance guy,” Payton said. “Name’s Dwayne Stuckey. Our vic called earlier in the week to report a problem with the garbage disposal. She scheduled the repair for Sunday because she’d be out all day. He didn’t know where she was supposed to be.”
“I noticed there were no signs of forced entry. I assume Mr. Fix-it has a key?”
“He does,” Payton said. “Said he was replacing the faucet in three-twelve on Friday afternoon so we’ll have to verify. He also
told me he saw a guy with a ponytail hassling our vic Thursday evening. Guy was Hispanic. Under six feet. About one hundred and fifty pounds.”
“Maybe Fix-it had a thing for her but he’s too blue collar so she wouldn’t give him the time of day,” I said. “He decided to take
a shot anyway but things got ugly and she got dead. Then he made up the story about the work order and the mystery harasser to cover his tracks.”
“Theories are good.” Payton studied the body. “Her lipstick’s smudged. Maybe the killer covered her mouth with his hand and
we’ll get DNA.”
“She has abrasions on her wrists indicating restraints,” Leilani said. “I can’t see any fibers, but they could be very small, or he could’ve used something smooth. Like an electrical cord.”
I snapped my fingers. “A hair dryer. That’s what’s missing.”
“She probably kept it on the vanity,” Payton said. “Killer grabbed the first thing he saw.”
“I doubt she had an ice pick or awl lying around the house,” I said, “which means the killer brought a weapon with him but had to improvise to tie her up.”
“Probably figured the weapon would be enough to intimidate her but she turned out to be scrappier than he thought.”
I glanced back at the tub. Dried blood caked around the drain like the caramelized surface of crème brulée. “I suppose all the trace evidence was washed away.”
I heard a thump and rattle and turned to find Officer Todd Argus, our best evidence technician, unlatching his case. “Off for
three days and you already forget who you’re dealing with, Benchik?” Argus tsked at me. “I can find anything.”
A lot of guys on the force look like their head sprouts from their shoulders with no neck in between, but not Argus. He has a relatively small head on a longish neck and long, thin fingers. His appearance is sort of unfortunate because within the department, an evidence tech is referred to as an ET.
He focused his digital camera on the bathtub. When the flash fired, I flinched. Argus had been on call Wednesday night, and when he snapped his first picture of Dave, I lunged at him and tried to rip the camera from his hands.
“Come on,” Payton said. He slipped his strong hand under my arm and swung me around toward the door. “Let’s go do our job and let the doc do hers.”
Copyright © 2016 E.V. Stephens
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