It was fifteen minutes before closing time when I heard a pair of unexpected sounds -- a soft thud, followed by a low groan. What was that?
“Maria, is that you?” I called out. My colleague didn’t reply. I tried again. “Are you okay?”
It wasn’t like her to play games, especially so close to closing time. I decided to find her, just to make sure she was okay. “Maria?”
She still didn’t answer me. What was going on?
I felt a hand grip mine. The fingers were icy cold. Turning around, I found myself facing the assistant librarian. Terror pulled her face taunt; her eyes were as big as saucers, her mouth a thin line that seemed to be stifling a scream.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered. She pointed at the stacks behind me. I reluctantly let my feet shuffle in that direction, unsure of what I would find.
Nervously peering over the spines of dusty, unread novels, I spied a figure slumped in the reading chair. Her hair was silver. Her dress was blue. It was Felicity Dawson. There was a crimson stain spreading across her chest.
With my heart pounding, I anxiously tip toed towards the nook, but I never got there. That’s because my path was suddenly blocked by six feet of solid attitude. On his head he wore a balaclava, but I could see his eyes were dark brown. The second I saw the glint of that blade, I was out of there, screaming at the top of my lungs. When Maria passed me, in a burst of energy born of sheer panic, and rounded the corner to the stairwell, it was all I could do to keep going, knowing there was a killer on my heels. That’s when I remembered I had a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in my hands. In a move that surprised even me, I turned rapidly and aimed that book at the black-hooded assailant. Lucky for me, he didn’t have time to duck. The blow struck him in the temple; it was enough to distract him, and I took advantage of the opportunity to flee.
He watched her flip the pages one by one, bidding his time. At this hour, the library staff was occupied with the late crowd, but he was safe behind the dusty bookshelf, in the corner that housed the works of Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest of the philosophical relics.
His breath came in short bursts now, his excitement rising. He felt that warmth flow through his loins as he began to rehearse every movement in his mind. He would come up behind her and catch her unaware. That gasp of terror was his favorite part of the killing. It was music to his ears, the song of death. It always ended in a crescendo as the last of the air in the lungs was given up to the power of his grasp on the knife. In that last moment of life, he watched the spirit leave the body and float up into the air, another soul freed from the earthly coil.
Downstairs in the vestibule, a voice called out the ten-minute warning -- the library was closing. It was time to make his move. Felicity Dawson didn’t know it, but she was about to become famous....
Twenty minutes later, the disgruntled lieutenant shook the rain off her London Fog raincoat and carefully hung it on a hook in the cloak room. She pulled on a pair of disposable booties and climbed the stairs to the second floor, thinking about the second scotch and soda she had left on the table at Willie’s Steakhouse. She had desperately wanted to toss it down before she left the restaurant, to feel the burn as the Dewar’s hit the back of her throat, but she knew better. It only took one question from the defense attorney to discredit her when this went to trial, and it would -- no ifs, ands, or buts. She was going to nail this bastard. When asked how many drinks the lieutenant had on the night she showed up at the murder scene, she could honestly answer: “One.” She would do this by the book. She wasn’t going to be the cop responsible for blowing the most important serial murder investigation in Hawthorne County. Eeeny, Meeny, and Miny; three bodies had turned up in three weeks. Was this number four?
She paused at the top of the stairs and observed the staged scene. The victim was still sitting in the chair, her face now surreal and mask-like in death. It was obvious this was no random killing. The body had been repositioned for maximum effect. There was a red stain across the victim’s chest and three letters scribbled on now-pale forehead in red marker: MOE. The Hide-and-Seek killer had struck again. And out goes y-o-u!
Liz was lost in thought as she straightened the shelves in the natural history section. Ten minutes more and she would be out the door and on her way home. She could hear the pitter pat of the first rain drops on the window. Perhaps the expected storm would hold off just a little longer, just until she made it through the front door of 119 Borland Court. After that, she didn’t care how hard it rained.
There was something unnerving about that human moan. It sounded like someone in pain. Placing a tattered copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species back in its proper place, she turned and took three steps towards the main aisle. Another grunt broke the stillness, and this time it was followed by a softer thump. Liz listened carefully. Why did she suddenly feel like tucking herself out of sight?
“Is someone there? Are you okay?” Her voice sounded tiny in the open second floor space. She heard another thud and this time it sounded like it came from the sitting area out by the main stairs. She headed in that direction. “We’re about to close!”
Liz listened as furtive feet padded across the floor. She heard the squeak of the door that led to the back stairs. Someone was on the move. Maybe she had interrupted a romantic rendezvous when she called out. It wouldn’t be the first time. She sighed, shaking her head, and continued her rounds, ready to turn off the lights.
With a sigh of relief, she caught sight of the woman sitting in one of the comfy arm chairs next to the book cart and recognized her. Felicity Dawson was catching up on her reading. Liz wasn’t alone after all. Her case of fright was just a matter of things going bump in the night and an overactive imagination.
“We’re closing now, Felicity. Why don’t we walk downstairs together?” she asked the elderly woman. “There’s still time to check that book out if you want to take it with you. Felicity? Are you okay?”
She got no response. Moving forward, she reached out a hand, stopping in midair. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Had poor Felicity had a heart attack? Liz’s first inclination was to rush forward. But then her eyes lit on the angry red blotches on the poor woman’s chest. “Oh, good heavens! Not another one!”
It was just his bad luck to catch the case -- if only he hadn’t hesitated when Paulie Dubiel invited him for a beer at Loco Pete’s Taco House, Daniel Elder would have been standing here in his place, in front of the slack-jawed woman whose chest had been stabbed with a ferocity that was unmistakable. Shrugging, Carbonaro pushed his own regret aside and examined the wounds.
There were two and both of them looked deep. This was a confident killer, a powerful one. It’s not that easy to get a knife blade through the chest without striking bone. Judging from the way the dress draped the body, he didn’t think this was a sexual crime -- there were no panties down around those ankles, no torn stockings, no obvious marks of mutilation of the victim.
And yet, as he studied the figure, it seemed to him that the killer must have known his victim. What little detail was screaming out for his attention? The purse...it was by the woman’s side. With his gloved hand, he unzipped it, reached into the middle compartment, and pulled out a navy leather wallet that contained sixty two dollars. The Massachusetts license identified the victim as 71-year-old Felicity Dawson of 112 Vauxhall Court, and judging from the prim, pinched expression on the face, Carbonaro guessed she wasn’t known as a party girl. “So tell me, Felicity. Who did you piss off and why?”
His fingers trembled as he held the rare first edition in his hands. It was as beautiful as he had imagined it would be. All those months of planning, of rehearsing -- now it was finally his. Roncalli’s Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Lady from Lennox was such a small book, its leather cover frail, peeling. He didn’t think his buyer would mind much. The woman was an English professor up in Toronto. She promised to pay him top dollar.
He wasn’t expecting the sudden sound he heard. It was a quiet chuckle. Whirling around, he came face-to-face with his nemesis, Roland Wyatt.
“I’ll take that, Bobby,” Wyatt grinned. “Thanks for doing all the heavy lifting for me. Now, if you’ll turn around, I’ll be on my way. No hard feelings, buddy.”
That was the last thing Robert Nelson heard until he regained consciousness some twenty minutes later. Rubbing the lump on the back of his head, Nelson sat himself up and leaned his back against the bookshelf. Two months of planning was down the drain. Wyatt must have been stalking him, lurking in the shadows, just waiting for the opportunity to take the goodies and run.
The unexpected sound of police sirens split the night, jerking Nelson from his ruminations. With a groan, he forced himself to his feet and stumbled out of the Special Collections Room of the library. He nearly tripped over the pair of legs lying in his path. They belonged to a woman. Even in the low light, he could see that. But what he saw next sent a chill through his body. There was a knife sticking out of the woman’s chest. “That bastard! He set me up!”
She had spent three hours that night, searching through the books. Celine wasn’t really sure what it was that Inspector Smith expected her to find. He insisted she would know it when she saw it.
“It’s got to be here somewhere,” he told her. “We know our suspect left a message for his contact at the dead drop.”
“Do you realize how many books there are in this section alone?” she inquired. He shrugged, shaking his head.
“It doesn’t really matter. What matters is a Nazi spy planted a message in a book, and if we don’t find it, all hell could break loose. We must know where the exchange will take place.”
“We need more help,” she insisted. “I could call in some of the other librarians.”
“No, this is very confidential. We can’t risk it. But let me go to the diner and get us some coffee. It’s the least I can do if we’re going to be up all night. I won’t be long.”
After the door closed behind him, she turned back to the task at hand, flipping through pages, trying to spot an extra punctuation mark on the printed page, hoping to find a note tucked inside the book. There was nothing. How had a German spy managed to use the public library for his dead drop? It was the perfect place, she had to admit. With so many books, his handler would easily be able to retrieve the message, as long as no one else borrowed the book from the shelf. What did that mean?
Perhaps the spy had planted the information in a reference book. That was certainly one possibility. Or had he placed it in a book that didn’t circulate? The library housed the Peterman Collection, rare books donated by the late Harvard professor. Could that be where the secret message was hiding?
Celine gave it some thought. The only people, other than library staff, who would have access to the Peterman Collection were serious bibliophiles and scholars. Admittance was limited, due to the nature of the priceless works, all first editions. Celine felt her excitement rising as she crossed the room and entered the director’s office, in search of the key that would unlock the Peterman Collection. She retrieved it from the hook on the inside of the small wall safe and made her way down the hall.
Moments later, she twisted the door knob and let herself in, her hands trembling as she felt along the wall and pressed the light switch. The Venetian crystal chandelier came to life, illuminating the rich patina of mahogany bookshelves and the occasional glint of gold leafing on leather-bound tomes.
On the large library table in the center of the room was a single volume, open to page forty eight. Picking it up, she examined the cover. It was Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Why hadn’t this book been returned to the shelf?
Felicity Dawson was the librarian in charge, an older woman who had worked at the library for several decades. She was required to keep a detailed log, noting each visitor and the respective books requested from the Peterman Collection. Patrons were not allowed to take books from the shelves themselves. They would sit and wait for Felicity to bring them to the table. Where did Felicity keep that logbook?
“Help me!” said a weak voice, breaking the silence. “Please help me!”
“Mrs. Dawson?” Celine turned away from the table and approached the large desk over by the window cautiously. On top of the desk sat the pressboard book of names. “Is that you?”
The silver-haired librarian was lying crumpled on the floor, a crimson stain spreading across her chest. Celine could see the woman was struggling to breathe.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you, Fraulein,” said a soft male voice, coming up behind her suddenly. “Place your hands upon the desk and don’t move. If you behave yourself, I will let you live.”
As terror gripped her heart, Celine did as he asked. Keeping her gaze on the notebook, she stood motionless as a black-gloved hand reached over her shoulder and removed it.
“I am leaving now. Do not turn around or I will be forced to kill you too. And that would be such a pity, for you are such a lovely young woman. In another place, another time....”
Not in a million lifetimes! Celine grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut against the onslaught of tears. We would never get together!
A moment later, she heard the sound of the door shut and the scrape of the key in the lock. Whirling around, her eyes wild with fright, looked to the door. The Nazi spy was gone. Her gaze instinctively fell upon the table. So was Darwin’s first edition.
“It was him,” Ignatius Lagner growled. “He did it.”
“How do you know?”One of the forensic techies working the murder scene glanced up as he brushed the wood surfaces of a book cart, looking for viable prints.
“She confided in me that she was afraid of him, that he had a violent side that came out at odd times. All she ever had to say was a wrong word or two and he would go ballistic.”
“Were they dating?” Lagner’s young protégé, Jacob Muldaur, joined the conversation.
“No, no. They didn’t have that kind of relationship. She was helping him with some research.”
The corpse of the deceased assistant librarian was still prone on the floor, awaiting a black body bag for the trip to the morgue. Evidence tags were scattered around the room like clouded sulfur butterflies in search of dandelion nectar. There was a droplet of blood here, a piece of broken glass there. Books were scattered across three work tables in reference department. Branko Djokovic had done it -- the perp could deny it all he wanted to, but Lagner knew it was true. He wasn’t sure how he could prove it yet, but he would. The arrogant professor of Slavic studies would slip up, and when he did, the policeman would be there to catch him.
Glancing around the room, Lagner took in all the details. Djokovic wasn’t a tall man, or even an unusually strong one, but Felicity Dawson wasn’t really a powerful figure herself. Just barely five feet and wearing a well-worn face that put her on the other side of sixty, the woman with the encyclopedic recall of reference facts had been sitting at her desk just before closing time. The killer had attacked her from behind.
“This isn’t your normal killing,” Lagner said aloud. “The murderer knew how to aim the knife at the chest. I’m guessing our suspect has had some military training. Muldaur, get in touch with the powers that be and get the skinny on our suspect. If Djokovic is a Serb, maybe he fought during the Kosovo war.”
“Yeah, but why would he kill the lady? I mean, she was a librarian, for God’s sake.”
“Yes, I was here in the reference department at the time of the murder,” the attractive woman in the blue tailored silk blouse and black pencil skirt told Jensen Orne. He perched carefully on the edge of the contemporary metal and wood box that served as her desk, trying to seem casual. The top of it was clutter-free. There was computer monitor positioned in front of the earnest librarian and three magazines to her left. The top issue, Science Today, had a photo of the Hubble telescope on it, along with a neatly written note clipped to the cover. A small cube of note paper sat on the opposite corner of the desk, along with a leather pen holder that contained two ballpoint pens.”May I ask why you want to know about that, Mister....”
“Orne, Jensen Orne. I’m an attorney for Harvey Plotkzer,” he told her, watching her reaction. She struck him as a highly organized, detail-organized person. He decided a direct approach was his best bet. “Can you tell me about the events of that night? What time did you get to the library?”
“I got here about three and I didn’t leave until the police told me I could. It was six minutes past nine.”
“Did you see what happened, miss?” He glanced over the desk, trying to catch sight of a name tag or desk sign, but didn’t find one. The point was moot. She caught on quickly.
“I’m Lauren Myers. Not really. But I can tell you that Harvey wasn’t in the room. He came in after Felicity Dawson was stabbed.”
“You saw him come in?” Now the defense attorney was alert. His client might be a homeless man, without a penny in his pocket or a place to crash, but things were looking up. If there was a witness who could place him at the scene after the murder took place, that was definitely a positive development.
“Sure. I remember looking up because I heard Felicity cry out. It was a horrible gurgling sound. He was over there by the book cart and we both hurried over to the stacks and that’s when we found her.” Lauren smoothed the barely visible wrinkle on her skirt, tidying herself. She had good eye contact and the professional demeanor of someone used to working with the public. She was also easy on the eyes. Juries like attractive people, especially if they don’t come with any attitude.
“But that’s not what the cops say. They claim Harvey Plotzker confessed to the killing. They have a signed statement.”
“I’m telling you that he wasn’t anywhere near there,” she insisted. “There just wasn’t time for him to have attacked her and escaped out the back, only to run back inside. Besides, why would he try to help her after he just tried to kill her? Why would he come back and implicate himself in the killing after he got away? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“So, you can prove he’s innocent?” Jensen gazed down at that sweet, sincere face and decided Lauren would make a great witness on the stand. She seemed like she’d be able to handle the prosecutor’s relentless questioning.
“Maybe yes, maybe no -- it all depends. It’s a matter of countering the prosecution’s case. The onus is on them to prove their claims that Plotzker stabbed the victim. It’ll be hard if I can find other witnesses that can back your story.”
Keller sat in a chair facing the door, a thick file folder on the desk in front of him. He’d been working this case for the better part of three months. This was his sixth trip to the murder scene
He could see the circulation desk twenty feet from the door. Three librarians were conversing at the counter; the day shift was over and their replacements were catching up on the events of the day. He let himself take in the details as the clock moved closer to that hour when Felicity Dawson was stabbed to death in the Special Collections Room.
Opening his photo file, he stared down at the evidence documented that night. He knew three important facts to be true. Felicity Dawson had been discovered dead inside a locked room, two deep stab wounds in her chest. None of the librarians had noticed anyone coming or going, despite the fact that the circulation desk was staffed at the time of the killing. And the door had been bolted from the inside. The first cops to respond to the emergency call had entered the Special Collections Room through the side window. Sue Russell had used her Maglite to shatter the glass and unlock it as the first responder on the scene. Keller tapped on the table with his pen. How the hell did the killer get out without being seen?
The experienced homicide cop let his gaze follow the routine activity at the circulation desk as he went over the details one more time. There were only three staff members and four library patrons in the building at the time of the murder.
Librarian Lillian Harcourt claimed she checked books in and out at the desk while Felicity Dawson shelved books and Annemarie Fortuna was upstairs sitting at the reference desk. The last time Felicity was seen alive by her two colleagues was ten minutes before the body was discovered.
Of the four patrons, two were in the reading room, at the back of the building, one was upstairs in the reference department, and the fourth was on a computer, reading magazine articles for a school project. The patrons in the Reading Room were able to alibi each other. The patron in the reference department was talking to Annemarie about a recent junior varsity hockey game at the high school team. The patron on the computer left a time-stamped search of his activities that was easily verified.
The two patrons in the reading room reported they saw Lillian pass by the door to the Reading Room twice; the first time was just before Felicity disappeared and the second was about five or six minutes before the alarm was sounded and the search was begun for the missing librarian.
As Keller sat there, it suddenly dawned on him. Not only did he know who killed Felicity, he knew how it was done. Cell phone in hand, he called the assistant prosecutor.
“I need a warrant, Gus. I’ve solved the crime.”
“Who did it?”
“But how? The door was bolted from the inside. She was interviewed right after the body was found and there was no blood on her.”
“The answer is simple. Lillian wears a vinyl apron and latex gloves when she cleans the messier items that are returned in the book drop. And as for how the door got bolted from the inside, Felicity did that trying to escape from her killer.”
“But the knife was found on the floor inside the locked room!”
“That’s because Felicity pulled it out herself, after she locked herself in. It explains why there was so much blood. But I suspect that if we test the carpet behind the circulation desk, we’ll find Felicity’s blood there too.”
“But I don’t understand....Why didn’t the investigation turn up the blood on the night of the murder?”
“We were so convinced that Felicity was attacked inside the Special Collections Room, we never considered any other possibilities. The carpet by the circulation desk is commercial grade in a multicolor pattern. It’s enough to hide a few blood spatters, especially if the victim bled out elsewhere.”
“What about motive, Keller?”
“Well, that’s what helped me solve the case,” Keller laughed. “I just saw Felicity’s husband swapping spit with Lillian Harcourt.”
John Palecek sat up, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled as he rocked back on his heels. He glanced around at his surroundings, trying to understand the senseless crime. Felicity Dawson had been a sixty-something librarian just a few hours ago, but the two deep stab wounds to the chest transformed her into the lifeless corpse he saw before him. What could have been the motive?
“What do you say, Doc? Can we move the body yet?” The young man in the gray jumpsuit was eager to bag the body.
“Just give me a minute, Stevenson. I’m just filling in for Dr. Larson while he’s out with the flu. It’s been a while since I’ve been out of the lab. Hey, Howie,” Palecek hailed the lead homicide detective. “Show me that stuff again.”
Howard Filipkowski brought the stack of books over to a library table in his nitrile-gloved hands, setting them down carefully. Palecek stood up and walked over. There was something nagging at him, something at the scene that bothered him.
“You found the knife?” he asked the investigator.
“We did. Bagged and tagged.”
“Great. Now, tell me again. These are the books you found stacked by the body?”
“They are, Doc. All five of them were in a single pile on the reference librarian’s book cart.”
“Do they mean anything to you?”
Palecek grimaced. There were two books on deadly bacteria, one on types of antibiotics and infection control, one on Carlos the Jackal, and one on international fugitives. “What did you say you found underneath the victim?”
“An empty aerosol bottle. Why?”
“I think someone was doing some research .”
“What kind of research?”
“Looks like someone was trying to figure out how to create an aerosolized weapon.”
“Say what?” Filipkowski was taken aback. “What kind of aerosolized weapon?”
“Could be anything from anthrax to vibrio.”
“Holy crap, Doc! How does that tie in with our victim? What motive would the killer have for murdering Ms. Dawson?”
“Maybe she figured out he was using her to do the research. Maybe she confronted him with her suspicions. Or maybe he just needed to clean up loose ends before he launched his terror attack.”
“How does that help me find the killer?” Filipkowski growled, scratching his head. “I don’t want to find out the guy succeeded in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
“How did he get his hands on the information he needs for the project, Howie?”
“My best guess? If he’s already on Homeland Security’s watch list, he wouldn’t want to rouse suspicions by doing online searches at home. That means he probably logged onto a library computer to do his research. Judging from the fact that three of these books were on loan from other libraries, he probably put in a request for them. The guy probably thought no one would put two and two together, but Felicity started to wonder what was going on. You think we have a shot at identifying him, Doc?”
“I do,” the coroner nodded. “Check with local pharmacists to see who got a prescription for a super antibiotic, one that would protect him from whatever killer bacteria he chose to use for his dastardly deed.”
Karl Dormutter came to under the glare of the emergency light in the stairwell of the Lurton Public Library, lying on the cold, hard vinyl-covered landing between the first and second floors. Rubbing the back of his head, he winced. The blow he’d taken had resulted in a good-sized lump, but at least the skin wasn’t broken. There was no need for stitches. He wondered how long he had been there, unconscious, and even how he had gotten there. Last thing he could remember was his conversation with Felicity Dawson, the reference librarian. She was telling him about the twenty-year-old unsolved murder of Kay Warren just before everything went black.
Groaning, the Lurton Daily News reporter reached up and grabbed onto the oak banister, pulling himself to his feet. He climbed the eight steps back up to the reference department on the second floor. There had to be something to the tale Dawson had told him. She’d hinted that there was a local connection to the murder of Kay Warren. He had follow-up questions for her before he searched the newspaper archives once more.
He pulled on the handle of the fire door, letting himself back into the reference department. Dormutter hoped Dawson hadn’t left for the day.
There was a crowd gathered around the reference desk. He recognized three librarians and a couple of patrons. His gut told him something was very wrong.
The journalist strode across the carpet like a man on a mission, determined to have his questions answered by the reference librarian. It was the first real lead he’d had on the recent killing of a popular local children’s author, Roxanne Riley. If there was a connection between Warren’s murder twenty years ago and Riley’s ten days ago, it would mean the killer had to be at least thirty five or forty years old. Were there other bodies? Was he on the trail of a serial killer?
“Excuse me!” He tried to push his way past the assembled crowd on his way to the reference desk. “Pardon me!”
“Oh, my God!” Linda Zolos cried, recoiling, horror etched on her face as she stared at Dormutter. “He killed her!”
Now the others were staring too. Margie Vincent was pointing at him.
Dormutter glanced down at his button down shirt, saw blood now staining the light blue oxford cloth, and realized he’d been a real patsy, a big chump, a complete idiot.
“Hands in the air!” screamed a uniformed officer, gun drawn. A moment later, she was joined by a small battalion of cops in black. Dortmutter’s arms were wrenched behind his back. A moment later, he felt the tug of the plastic straps as his hands were bound. Somebody didn’t want Karl Dormutter solving this case.
“Bag and tag!” Andrea Sanducci called out, staring down at the open wallet on the floor beside her right foot. A large splatter of blood about the size of a quarter was still wet on top of the smooth tanned hide surface.
A youthful technician sauntered over with his bag. Bending down, he positioned a yellow evidence marker beside the brown leather billfold and slid a ruler in front of the red splotch. He positioned his Nikon just a few inches above it before snapping a couple of photos. Checking them on the small digital screen, he nodded and replaced the camera in the bag. Fingers carefully extended, so as to not disturb the other evidence next to the wallet, he retrieved the ruler and then the wallet. “Looks like the killer stabbed her after he went through the wallet, Andy.”
“You think, Murph?” she replied sardonically. He was only confirming what she had already decided.
“Sure. Check it out.” He pointed to something barely visible beneath the corpse. “See? It’s the vic’s license.”
“And why, pray tell, would the killer need to remove the license from the wallet?” asked Javier Rojas, joining the pair. The large man got to his knees awkwardly and took a closer look at the small plastic rectangle half-buried under a plaid skirt. He pulled out a small pen light and aimed it at the surface. “Is that a fingerprint?”
“Looks like it,” Todd Murphy acknowledged. He used a pair of tweezers to extract it. “I’ll get it to the lab.”
Half an hour later, the body of Felicity Dawson was lifted onto a stretcher and enveloped in a black bag. As the team from the coroner’s office wheeled it away, Andrea Sanducci stared at the scene before her, taking in all the details. Her partner moved around, his eyes intensely scanning every surface before him. There had to be some little clue, some telltale sign that would point to the killer’s identity.
“What do you suppose happened here, Andy?” the big man wanted to know. “You think it was just a flat out robbery that went bad?”
“Don’t know, Havie,” she admitted. “The killer took the knife with him, so we don’t have the murder weapon. There’s money still in the wallet, along with the credit cards.”
“Maybe the perp panicked. If he didn’t plan to kill her....”
“That’s just it. The wallet was probably what triggered the stabbing, especially if the victim resisted. But the thing that baffles me is that the killer had this confrontation with Ms. Dawson, who’s in her late sixties, maybe early seventies. Why didn’t he just give her a push and run away? Why stab her if robbery was the only motive?”
“Maybe she knew the guy, Andy. Maybe she recognized him. Or her.”
“You think a woman could have done this?” Andrea turned to her partner, surprised.
“Sure. Why not? Dawson wasn’t exactly an imposing figure. She spent her days and nights around books. That doesn’t usually suggest a vic that might fight back.”
“Then how do you explain this?” the investigator inquired of her partner, pointing to a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species that was jammed under the library’s book cart. “I think maybe she hit the killer with the book and that’s what enraged him...or her.”
“Thus proving Darwin’s contention of natural selection,” Javier contended. “Librarians were not bred to rule the world. It’s like a giraffe going up against a lion; not a battle that will end well for the vegetarian. Not enough protein. Not enough muscle mass.”
“Guess who!” said a voice from out of nowhere. I suddenly found my eyes covered by a pair of masculine hands as I sat at the reference desk in the Horton Valley Library at seven thirty.
“Would it be the man I’m having dinner with tonight?”
“It’s possible.” He kept his hands where they were. I caught a whiff of Drakkar Noir and found myself growing flushed. Bryce was in the mood to seduce and that was always a good thing.
“I hate to say this, but I’m going to need another fifteen minutes or so. I promised Felicity that I’d cover the reference department for her while she finished her monthly report. Do you mind?”
“Depends. What am I going to get for being such a good sport, Alisha?”
“I guess I’ll have to make it up to you after dinner,” I smiled knowingly. I already had an idea where I was going to start as soon as we got back to his downtown loft.
“I guess you will,” he agreed. His hands moved down to my throat, even as his lips brushed my right ear. “I’ll go wait for you downstairs in the reading room.”
I watched him walk away, wanting to stop him, to lead him down the row of books in the rear of the library, where the light didn’t penetrate. I longed to press myself against him and feel him respond.
“Ow!” The soft cry of a woman interrupted my train of thought. Bryce stopped and turned back to look at me.
“What was that?” he asked. Before I could answer, there was a loud commotion. It sounded like books falling from the shelves somewhere in the 900 section.
We both hurried down the aisle, navigating our way through the maze of steel bookcases. Just as we turned the corner, there was silence. I clutched Bryce’s hand, holding him back.
“I don’t like this. What’s going on?” I whispered. My intuition told me there was danger ahead.
“Don’t worry,” he replied, squeezing my hand. “I’ll protect you.”
“But who will protect you?” I wondered. I felt myself being pulled along and fought the urge to flee. A growing sense of foreboding seemed to slip over me like the black silk dressing gown waiting for me back at Bryce’s loft.
He stopped unexpectedly and uttered an odd sound. I took a step to the side and peeked over his shoulder, wanting to see what had changed his demeanor. In the shadows of the reading nook some ten feet away, Felicity Dawson was slumped over the book cart. She wasn’t moving.
“Wait here,” Bryce instructed me. He left me cowering against the bookshelf. My heart was pounding hard inside my chest. When he returned less than thirty seconds later, there was consternation in those hazel eyes. I felt the taunt tension in his muscular body as he gripped my hands and whispered into my ear. “Let’s go. We have to call the police.”
“We can’t do anything for her, Alisha. She’s dead.”
“Dead?” I gasped.
“Shh!” He pulled me closer, trying to reassure me.
“But that means the killer is still here,” I moaned, “right here in the library!”
“Ah, how is my dance partner this evening?” Rick appeared at the top of the stairs, his cheerful face a welcome sight after the lousy day I had had.
“Better now that you’re here.” I offered him my cheek for a quick peck before turning my attention back to the book in front of me. I inserted the publisher’s illustrated cover into the plastic protector and slipped this over the book, taping it into place. “I’m stuck on the reference desk for another fifteen minutes. The boss lady wants these books done before I leave tonight.”
“In that case, I think I’ll go peruse the magazines.”
“You’re leaving me?” I heaved a half-hearted sigh.
“The sooner you get it done, the sooner we can trip the light fantastic.”
I watched him disappear with a bit of regret. This was supposed to be our night to rehearse our salsa dancing. After six weeks of classes with Madame Olga, we were about to graduate. There was a final competition tomorrow night. I was counting on those three free tango lessons the winning team would receive to seal the romantic deal with Rick.
Classically handsome he was not. His face bore the marks of his ten-year professional ice hockey career. His nose, broken several times, was slightly skewed to one side. Beneath his left eye was a faint scar, the result of direct contact with the end of a hockey stick. But when I was in his arms, all I could think about was the heat of his hand on the small of my back and the curve of his mouth just inches from mine. Sometimes when we danced, I would lean in just for the chance to sniff his aftershave and that’s when I would lose myself in his embrace. He was all man and I loved everything about him. But without those free tango lessons, what chance did I have to win his heart?
I should have been out of here almost an hour ago, but the gods of circumstance were not working in my favor. Anything that could go wrong at the library today did. Our director, Hilda Aucoin, went on a financial rampage and slashed the budget for every department when the board of directors nixed her plan to expand the third floor. Then our reference librarian, Julianne Molin, went home just before lunch with a migraine. And the icing on the catastrophe cake came when cataloguer Mary Duquesne had a very public argument with a patron that turned ugly. She’d be lucky to keep her job after the nasty things she spat at Tim Little. That’s why I was, as an unwilling draftee, covering the reference desk and processing new books for circulation.
“There must be something in the air. It’s like everyone is conspiring to keep me from Rick,” I muttered to myself. “What else could go wrong?”
Glancing at the wall clock to my left, I wondered where Felicity Dawson had gone. The assistant librarian should have been back from shelving those books by now. It was her job to walk through the second floor to announce closing time.
“I guess that’s now yet another of my duties,” I groused to myself. I started at the 900 section, and worked my way down the Dewey decimal system, checking left and right for late night patrons as I walked past each long row of steel shelving. When I got to the 700’s, I thought I heard a footfall.
“We’re closing in ten minutes,” I called out. Footsteps seemed to hurry away in the wrong direction. “Excuse me, but we’ll be closing!”
I heard the ladies’ room door shut thirty feet away. “That door should have been locked.”
It wasn’t usual for patrons to help themselves to the key that we kept behind the reference desk. Whoever it was had to know where to find it. Had Felicity taken ill?
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. I reached the science section. The overhead fluorescent light illuminated the area with such a bright glow, there was no mistaking what I saw -- it was the horrifying sight of Felicity slumped against the bookcase. On the carpet by her feet was a copy of Darwin’s The Origins of Species. Her eyes seemed to have trouble focusing and she was struggling to speak, without much success. That’s because someone had plunged a knife into the poor woman’s chest and left it there. Two red spots on her crisp white blouse seemed to grow larger with each passing second as the life ebbed out of her. She held out a thin, bony hand to me and uttered a tiny groan before her eyes rolled upward and she slowly sank to the floor.
I rushed forward and dropped to my knees, stunned. It was hard to avoid bumping into that black handle projecting from the blade in her chest as I tried to cradle her in my arms in my pitiful attempt to comfort her. My mind raced to decide what should I do -- pull out the knife or leave it where it was? I’ve got to get help.
“Rick!” I frantically felt for a pulse. Where was that damn carotid artery? My cold, shaky fingers felt along the curve of her neck, searching for some hopeful sign of life. I found none. Her unblinking, unbelieving blue eyes stared up at the heavens, as if pleading for mercy. To my horror, her chest fluttered a few times and then all movement ceased. “Rick!”
“What?” He appeared suddenly, a copy of Business Week in his left hand. A frown creased his brow. “What the hell....Is she dead?”
“I think so,” I said, suddenly shivering. “Call 911! The killer’s getting away!”
“You call 911, Zoe. Which way did he go?”
“Ladies’ room? Not much of an exit plan,” he remarked with more than a little skepticism, wasting time.
“That’s where the fire escape is located!” I informed him. “Don’t let him get away!”
“Well, now we’re talking,” he called over his shoulder as he hastened after the killer.
I pulled out my cell phone. My fingers were thick and unwieldy, totally useless as I tried to dial. I waited for what seemed like a lifetime.
“Rockland Police Department. What is your name and where are you?”
“Zoe, help!” Rick hollered.
“Ma’am? Do you need assistance? What is your location?”
“Zoe!” There was no mistaking the desperation in his voice. Something was terribly wrong. Even as I ran towards the ladies’ room, I clutched the cell phone in my hand and managed to get the words out.
“Library...second floor...there’s been a murder! Maybe two!”
“I need to speak with you. It’s about a crime I witnessed.” The hushed whisper caught me by surprise. “Please?”
I looked up at Felicity Dawson’s face as it hovered two feet from my ear. The elderly librarian seemed stricken by some kind of gut-wrenching terror.
“Mrs. Dawson, if you saw someone commit a criminal act, you have to tell the police,” I told her, as kindly as I could. “I’m not a cop.”
“I know you’re not, Gibby,” she whispered. “That’s why I’m asking for your help.”
“I’m being blackmailed! If I go to the police and tell them what I know, I’ll be an accessory to the crime!”
“It sounds like you need to sit down with a criminal attorney. I know several. Why don’t I give you a few names?” I pulled out one of my business cards. Susan P. Gibson, Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded. I flipped it over, intending to write upon the back, but Felicity stopped me.
“Please, Gibby. Just five minutes of your time. Meet me in the alcove, by the biographies.”
“Why don’t you just sit down now and we’ll talk here?”
“You don’t understand....” She glanced nervously over her shoulder, her eyes scanning the area. “The crime happened here... in the library.”
I sat back in my chair, putting down my ballpoint and giving her my complete attention. “What kind of crime?”
She shushed me, putting her index finger to her lips, and then held up her hand, showing me all five fingers, before she whirled around and disappeared behind a bookcase.
With a resigned shrug, I checked my watch. I’d been coming to the Port Jackson Library ever since I read my first Dr. Seuss book. Hundreds of books later, I still frequented the place, only now I usually did research for cases I worked, which could involve anything from tracking a missing person to catching a cheating spouse. Felicity was a fixture in the library, the mousy lady who always had an armful of books. What kind of crime could she have witnessed? Did someone swipe a copy of Goodnight Moon?
After saving my digital notes on my laptop, I powered it down and packed it in my briefcase, and then I closed the business directory I was using and returned it to the reference desk.
“All done for the day, Gibby?” Margaret Timmonds gave me a friendly nod as she took the heavy clothbound volume from me.
“I am,” I replied nonchalantly. “Thanks, Maggie. Have a good night.”
I took my time as I made my way over to the alcove, stopping here and there to pick up a book. I figured I might as well act like a private investigator and give myself some cover, even though I was fairly certain Felicity’s overactive imagination was driving her fear and getting her panties in a bunch. I might as well humor her by pretending to take her seriously. After all, she was no spring chicken and the stress wasn’t good for her ticker. The sooner I convinced her there was nothing to worry about, the better.
Rounding the corner, I came face to face with a disturbing sight. Splayed upon one of the two plaid club chairs was a disheveled Felicity Dawson. Her mouth hung open in a silenced scream. Her blue eyes bore the empty gaze of the dead. Her chest, never an ample bosom by any stretch of the imagination even in her younger days, was now defiled by a hunter’s knife. Blood leaked from two stab wounds, soiling the crisp white blouse that had been her librarian uniform for as long as I could remember.
How the hell had I screwed this up? I stood there staring at the lifeless body of a woman who had asked me for help less than five minutes ago. Did I take her seriously when she confided she had a problem? Nope. I was too busy trying to humor the old lady, so I could get back to working my client’s case.
My mind raced through the chronology, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. No sound of a struggle, no grunts or groans that alerted me to the murder, even as that hunting knife was plunged into that bony chest. This was not a sloppy killer. Two strikes, both hitting their mark -- where was the bastard? No one had come near me in the five minutes that I took to reach the alcove. The only person I had seen was Maggie.
Hindsight is normally 20/20, but in this case, I was definitely near-sighted, so it was more like 20/40. I should have insisted she tell me the nature of the crime she had witnessed. Was it a violent rape...a petty theft...extortion...an act of terror...embezzlement? I felt like kicking myself, but that would have to wait. With my cell phone in hand, I pulled up my contacts list and pressed the icon of Officer Friendly.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Susan?” said the terse voice on the other end. “Let me guess. It wasn’t enough that you got the dog. I suppose you’re calling to tell me you want me to start paying support for McGruff.”
“No, smart ass. The dog is fine. I’m standing in the library and guess what I’m looking at?” I asked my soon-to-be ex-husband, chief of the Port Jackson Police Department.
“Not really. She’s got a knife sticking into her chest and she looks very dead.”
“And you didn’t think to call 911 because....”
“She asked me to meet her because she needed advice on a crime she had witnessed at the library. She wouldn’t tell me anything more than that, but she was scared.”
“Yeah, well...let me transfer your call to dispatch. You can tell someone who cares about your latest snafu.”
“That’s cold, Quinn.”
“Coming from you, Susan, that’s rich. You’re the expert on cold.” He transferred the call before I could think of something clever to say, and as I waited for the dispatcher to pick up, I wondered how I was going to fix this mess without Quinn’s help. That’s what you get for telling the guy you married that he’s keeping you from reaching your full potential as a crime solver, Gibby. Now you have no choice but to prove to him you’ve got what it takes to do the job.
“And you found the body of Felicity Dawson here when you did your final rounds, just before the library was to close?” I studied the nervous woman sitting in the chair next to me in the meeting room. My laptop was on the table. Every now and then, I leaned forward to add to my notes.
She was about forty, dressed in navy slacks and a cream-colored knit top. Her face was void of makeup, save for a light brushing of mascara on her lashes and some shiny lip gloss. On her feet were sensible navy shoes with silver buckles. Her hair was going gray naturally, cut into short curls. The one word that instantly came to mind was “ordinary”.
“Yes. And I called the police right away.”
“Take me through this one more time,” I pushed her. Twenty minutes later, she was twitching in her seat, feeling uncomfortable. That was fairly normal for the guiltless. When you start to feel you’re a suspect in a murder, you tend to withdraw your cooperation. It’s the guilty who pour on the charm, fighting hard to convince you of their innocence. Liars are like that.
“Can I go now?” Donna Palumbo nervously asked me. She was at her breaking point, just on the edge of tears. In another few moments, she’d fold up like a soggy paper bag in the rain and break apart, but without a tale to tell, there was no purpose in my pursuing her. I’m not in the business of obtaining false confessions.
“Sure. I’ll be in touch.”
Next up was Tammy Lin. She took her colleague’s vacated chair next to me, eyes wide, and waited patiently for me to speak. I sensed she was trying hard to restrain herself. That usually meant I was about to get a break in the case.
“How long have you worked at the library?” I asked. I judged her to be about fifty.
“Twenty five years.”
“That’s a long time,” I responded. “You must know many of the patrons.”
“Yes.” She played with the buttons on her cardigan sweater, fingertips fidgeting.
“You’ve probably even noticed things as you went about your duties as a librarian.” I turned my gaze away from her. I didn’t want to spook her. “Have you ever felt uncomfortable around any folks?”
“What...what do you mean by uncomfortable?” she asked me. I looked back at her.
“Has anyone ever acted improperly towards you or anyone else inside the library? Or tried to contact you at home, out on the street, in the grocery store?”
She hesitated, on the brink of spilling something. I reached over and lifted my paper cup of coffee, giving her plenty of time to gather her courage. Taking a slow sip, I licked my lips and set the cup down, trying hard not to scowl at the taste of now cold coffee.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” she said, more to herself than to me. “I’m probably just imagining it.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?” I told her gently. “You never know. Sometimes what seems like no big deal to you turns out to be a very big deal to us.”
“It’s just that...there was this man who started coming in about six weeks ago. He used to sit and stare at the painting on the wall.”
“Which painting?” I inquired, suddenly interested.
“The one just outside the Special Collections Room.”
Now I felt the first stirrings of excitement awakening in my soul, just tiny little tinglings at the moment. There were pieces of the puzzle emerging and soon I would have a pattern; that pattern would eventually form a portrait of the killer, and once that portrait was painted by facts and forensics, there would be no mistaking Felicity Dawson’s murderer. I would recognize him the minute I saw him.
Differences Between Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers: Part One
Differences Between Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers: Part One