The late afternoon sun warmed Sergeant Cory Marin’s shoulders, making her feel like a lizard basking in the warmth as she checked email. Official traffic was light, with the brass and her detectives just coming back on rotation after the holidays. For the past several years, Cory had volunteered for holiday duty, preferring to work rather than face her empty apartment alone. But this year, her two youngest detectives, Alex and Mac, both unmarried with no families in town, had volunteered to be on call, and she had taken rare time off to spend the holidays with her father, Jack Riley, and her partner both in and out of work, Marty Washington. She had the sense that her life was solidifying at lightning speed. She had gone from alone to, as her friend Janelle put it, instant family in a few short weeks.
On Christmas morning, she had gotten out of bed early to make French toast stuffed with guava jelly and cream cheese, and they had opened presents together, Jack sitting cross-legged beside the tree and playing Santa Claus. She and Marty and Jack had celebrated New Year’s Eve together. Jack had lit the table with candles and made oyster soup and standing rib roast, finishing with bread pudding and whiskey sauce for dessert. He assured her that the whiskey had burned off in the cooking and it was perfectly safe for the baby.
He had raised his glass of wine. “To new life.” He nodded to Cory’s belly. “Yours and mine both.”
Cory raised her sparkling grape juice. “Here’s to marvelous food and sharing it with family.”
“Cooking is a sign that I’m alive again,” Jack had said, his eyes smiling. “I stopped cooking after Anne died.” He faltered, his eyes on the table. “Not cooking was a form of mourning, I suppose.”
Jack had lost his wife, Anne, to breast cancer a year ago, a blow that followed hard on the death of their daughter in a car accident two years before. He had closed his house in Atlanta and traveled, wandering from one country to another for six months. When he had come home at last, he happened to see Cory answering questions about the Fletcher Manning case on a show he’d TiVoed. He had recognized her at once as the spitting image of a girl he had gone out with one spring break in New York. Although he had gone back to college at Emory and never again heard from Cici Marin, he recognized Cory at once as his daughter. She was Cici Marin but with his green eyes. When he contacted Cory, he opened the door to a new chapter in both of their lives.
On New Year’s Eve, they had not watched the festivities in Times Square because neither she nor Marty could watch that crowd without being aware of what a logistical nightmare it would be to protect all those people from possible attack.
They had sat out on the deck listening to the night sounds of the ravine. It was a warm night, almost balmy. She had drunk sparkling grape juice from a flute and Marty and Jack, champagne. They had heard the pop of fireworks like gunfire in the distance, had watched the pastel green and pink glow of chrysanthemum explosions over the tops of trees.
The next morning had dawned cold and clear. Marty had taken a phone call and donned the Irish cable-knit sweater she had given him for Christmas and bustled off to his mom’s house to see about a malfunctioning heater. Cory dreaded these sudden cold snaps because they brought a rash of house fires, too often with fatalities and a scene to be secured.
She scrolled her email and clicked on a message from her friend Janelle Ramos, who had gone to the Dominican Republic just after Christmas to bury her grandmother.
“Memé duly feted as per her request. Coffin driven through town in back of pickup, music blasting. She had her last party. I hope you remembered to open all the doors and windows in the house and sweep the bad spirits out and let the good spirits in.”
Cory had remembered.
Even though it was a cold New Year’s Day, with Jack Riley’s help, she had thrown open the doors and windows and symbolically swept each room. Jack had taken the broom from her and swept his rooms, which Cory considered the ones with the worst mojo since they had been Fletcher Manning’s rooms.
The kitchen held the strongest memory of Fletcher, standing tall and handsome behind the stove, a glass of wine in his hand.
But she felt satisfied after she swept the house, not exactly safe from Fletcher Manning’s reach, but protected by Jack Riley and by Marty. Even without their solid presence in her life, she felt strong again, strong enough to withstand anything Manning might throw at her in the future.
She typed a reply to Janelle. Yes, she had swept the house, and she hoped Janelle was remembering to take time for herself in the midst of Memé’s funeral, that she had found a place she could dance under the stars.
Cory didn’t know when or if Janelle would get the message. There was no Internet in Memé’s hillside village, and Cory had no idea of what Janelle would be facing in the DR alone. Part of Cory felt guilty for not going with her, but part of her was happy she had stayed home to have Christmas with Jack and Marty.
Thankfully, the holidays had passed quietly, with nothing more memorable than a handful of fabulous meals for which Cory had a new tightness in her waistband to thank.
It was half past three when her radio buzzed with a call from dispatch.
“Sergeant Marin,” she answered.
“We got a body, white male, early twenties Bivens Arms Apartments. Patrol says homicide.”
“Let me talk to whoever’s on the scene.”
After a moment, Schwartz was on the line. ”Hey, Sarge.”
“Hey, Schwartzy, What’d ya got?”
“Oh yeah. You’ll want to bring the A team.”
“Yeah. It’s a messy one.”
Cory’s stomach gave a flutter. “How messy?” she asked.
“Messy and strange,” he said flatly. “You got to see it.”
It was clear he didn’t want to elaborate on the radio. “We’ll be there in fifteen,” she said.
When she hung up, she dialed Marty Washington’s extension.
“Yo,” he said, his voice deep, and—she couldn’t help but feel it in her stomach—sexy.
“We need to roll. We’ve got a body at Bivens Arms Apartments.”
“Shit,” he said. “Not a good way to start the year.”
“There goes the five percent,” she said, referring to the five percent reduction in crime the chief had promised the city commission. As if the department could control the crime rate. “Schwartz said the scene was, and I quote, messy and strange. He said to bring the A team.”
“Shit,” Marty repeated, his voice grim. “You coming with?”
“Oh yeah. I’m out the door now.” She hung up, slipped on her jacket and pulled open the door that faced the Pit, the warren of gray-carpeted detective cubicles. Marty was already on his feet, pulling a navy jacket over his pressed white shirt and tightening a pale blue tie. He was an imposing man, tall and broad-shouldered, his body lithe as the college ball player he had once been.
He met her at the doors to the elevator. He glanced over, his dark skin taut over high cheekbones and forehead. His hair was close cropped, his brows dark above blue gray eyes, their paleness a surprise. At six foot three, Marty towered over her, her head barely clearing his shoulder as they stood side by side in the elevator.
“What do we know?” he asked.
“Not much. Forensics and ME are on the way. UPD is there. I imagine it’s a circus.”
“UPD? Why is the university in on this?”
“They were the first on the scene. Not sure why,” she said as the elevator doors opened, and they stepped out.
“Do they have a name?” Marty asked.
Cory glanced down at her notepad. “Apartment is leased to an Antonio Rodriguez, sounds like an international student.”
Marty shook his head. “Not another student. Damn.”
Their last case had been the brutal murder of a boy who had ripped off a handful of college kids to the tune of three thousand dollars. They had beaten him to death in what the defense called a night that got out of hand.
They crossed the light-filled lobby that was uncharacteristically empty, and Marty pushed the lobby door open, holding it for her, a gesture she found unsettling no matter how often he did it. She glanced up as she passed him. “I’m perfectly capable of opening my own doors, you know.”
He grinned, his eyes lighting on hers. “So you tell me, but my mama would have a fit.”
She liked the way he said mama, slow and respectful.
The afternoon was cold and clear, the temperature having plummeted on New Year’s Day and never risen above fifty.
She drove because she couldn’t be a passenger without giving directions, a fact Marty had long since accepted. She turned left on Sixth Street, driving past the old rail station converted into a downtown campus for Santa Fe College, serving the east side of town in an effort at community outreach.
At the new roundabout on Second Avenue, brand new student apartments rose on both sides of the street, a facelift for this side of town, the university spreading inevitably eastward where the land was still cheap. She headed west toward Thirteenth Street, past the Innovation Institute that rose on one corner of the sprawling parcel that had once held Alachua General Hospital, since demolished. Two new innovation dorms, their designs angular and modern, had opened in the last year.
On the ride to Bivens Arm, they were both silent. It was not a good sign that the year was beginning with the murder of a student.
The Bivens Arms Apartment building sat on the edge of Bivens Arm, a hundred acre lake ringed by houses set back behind cypress and pine trees. No docks or boathouses disturbed the pristine appearance of the lake, and only glimpses of green lawn hinted at the presence of houses.
Nice, Cory thought as she got out of the car and looked up at the apartment tower, one of the nicer in town, a simple eight-story, sandstone-colored cube surrounded by balconies. GPD and UPD patrol cars were pulled up to the lobby entrance. The two University Police sat in their car monitoring their computer screens for calls. A lone blue-uniformed GPD patrolman stood inside the glass lobby, his hands on his belt, his eyes on the near distance. As Cory crossed the lobby she watched a ripple of motion disturb the pale reflective surface of the lake, an alligator cruising slowly but deliberately toward a blue heron standing on dark stilt legs in the shallows.
She didn’t recognize the patrolman, Abrams from his nametag, who nodded as they showed their badges.
He was five-eight, one eighty, Cory guessed, built like an action figure, broad in the shoulders, narrow in the waist and hips, like most patrolmen, like Mike, her ex. Abrams’ blond hair was buzz-cut like a Marine’s, but his face was boyish, his clean-shaven cheeks and neck flushed with either excitement or the heat of the building, his brown eyes bright with mingled fear and self-importance. “Apartment six B,” he said, his voice tense.
“What can you tell us?”
“No sign of forced entry, no sign of a struggle. Vic is on the bed, multiple stab wounds. That’s about it. Oh, hold on.” He took a step to the side and raised his arm, palm out in a stop sign to someone behind Cory.
She turned to see a petite, shaggy-haired girl, her eyes and nose red from crying, a tissue clutched in her hand, rising from a bench against the wall. Beside her, his arm around her protectively, was a short, dark-haired boy who looked Indian.
“Who are they?” Marty asked Abrams.
“Vic’s girlfriend and best friend. She called UPD when he wouldn’t answer the door and wouldn’t answer his phone. He was supposed to be having a bowl party or something.”
Abrams motioned for the girl to sit down.
“She go inside the apartment?” Cory asked, eying the pair. The boy was rubbing her shoulder, speaking to her quietly.
Abrams shook his head. “UPD got the super to open the door, kept her out. When he saw what was inside, he got her downstairs, told her she couldn’t go in because it’s a crime scene. I think she’s figured out he’s dead.”
Cory nodded. “Keep her here. We’ll want to talk to her when we come out.”
Abrams looked like he was struggling for composure.
“This your first murder scene?” she asked gently.
He responded without meeting her eyes. “Yes, ma’am.”
She nodded. “Thanks for holding down the fort.” Would a kid straight out of the Academy even know what that phrase meant?
She and Marty pulled on gloves as they rode up the elevator, preparing themselves mentally for how bad messy and strange might be. The elevator opened onto a marble-tiled hallway, a blue uniform standing outside one of the units overlooking the lake.
“Hey Schwartzy,” Cory nodded to the middle-aged man with what looked like a three-day salt and pepper stubble. “Growing a beard?”
Schwartz ran a hand over his face, testing the grit of the sandpaper. “Thinking about it. Tired of shaving every morning. If I can ever get past the derelict drunk look.”
“No worries. Stubble is the new GQ look.”
He rolled his eyes.
“What do we have?” she asked, nodding to the door.
“Girlfriend called UPD,” he started, but Cory cut him off.
“Saw her downstairs. What’s inside?”
“A very dead kid. We assume it’s Antonio Rodriguez, the apartment tenant, but no ID. Someone expressed their dislike a number of times with a good-sized blade.”
“Student?” Cory asked as she reached for the door.
Schwartz nodded. “According to the girlfriend. UPD took one look and backed out. Called it in.”
“Thanks. Anyone else here?”
He shook his head. “You’re the first.”
She and Marty pulled on booties, and she pushed the door open with her toe.
The door opened onto a large, glass-walled room that overlooked the lake. The place had been searched, the cushions on the couch and chairs lifted, disarranged as if someone were looking for something under them. Not a run-of-the-mill robbery, she thought, because the flat screen TV was still on the wall, all the gadgets on shelves below it. More likely someone had been looking for drugs or money. But the search was by no means a thorough one. Drawers were pulled open but not emptied. Perhaps they were looking for something large, a phone or laptop maybe? Either they had found what they were looking for quickly, or they had been disturbed, or they only wanted to give the impression the room had been searched.
She glanced over to see Marty toeing open the bedroom door. From his sharp intake of breath and the look of revulsion on his face, she knew it must be bad.
Glad she had eaten only a light lunch, she took a breath and stepped toward the bedroom door.
What looked like a Spiderman mannequin lay splayed on a rust-spattered sheet, but when she stepped closer, careful not to step near the trail of bloody drips leading from the bed to what must have been a bathroom, she saw that it was the naked body of a young man, his out-flung arms and his upturned face painted royal blue, his bloody chest riddled with knife wounds. The blood had dried to a rust color, giving him the appearance of wearing a Spiderman outfit, but with the chest red, the arms and head blue.
She looked up at Marty, whose eyes flared in disbelief.
“Holy shit,” he said, one gloved finger grazing a blue arm. He held up his finger to reveal blue pigment. “It’s like chalk-line chalk or tempera paint.”
“What’s chalk-line chalk?”
“In construction, when you need to draw a straight line over a long distance, you pull a chalk line and snap it.” His fingers mimicked the release of a string.
She cocked her head. Marty never ceased to surprise her. “How would you know that?”
“Habitat for Humanity.”
She nodded. Marty volunteered one weekend a month building houses for low-income families, families that would not have been able to afford a home if they had not qualified for a program in which they worked side-by-side with volunteers to build their own.
She looked back down at the body. The boy’s face beneath the distraction of blue pigment was handsome, the nose aquiline, the brow high and proud, the lips perfectly formed, sensual. She could make out a clipped mustache and GQ beard tracing the line of his jaw and chin. Beneath the blue powder, his hair was stylishly cut, short on the sides, long and wavy on top. Cory could imagine dark hair falling over his forehead in a sexy, casual look. Her guess was that he had been a player.
“What’s with the blue?” she asked.
“Hell if I know.”
“Crime of passion?” she asked, staring down at the bloody mess of his chest.
“Ya think?” Marty asked in his well duh voice.
“You get a boy-on-boy vibe?”
“Hard to say. Somebody pretty pissed off. Spurned lover is my guess.”
“He was a player,” she observed. “Look at that beard and hair.”
Marty nodded. “Looks like he rolled the dice once too often, pissed off the wrong man or woman.”
“You think a woman could have done this?”
“It’s sexual,” he said, his eyes on the body. “Looks like the perp might have been straddling him. No blood spatter below the waist.” He lifted the sheet that covered the lower half of the body.
Cory followed suit. The boy had on blue jeans, the snap open, the zipper down a few inches like a cheesecake shot in a woman’s magazine. She lifted the bottom corner of the sheet, bare feet.
“No sign of defensive wounds,” Marty observed. “No signs of a struggle. Looks like he just lay there and took it.”
“Unconscious?” she asked.
“Would have been messy,” she said, turning to follow the trail of bloody droplets to the bathroom where it led into the shower stall. She and Marty stood to either side of the blood trail. “Looks like he showered to clean up.”
“No evidence of a towel,” Marty added. “Damn. Must have taken it with him.”
A towel would have given them plenty of DNA. If the perp was naked when he straddled the victim, he could have showered, dressed, and walked out looking perfectly normal. When she looked up at Marty, he had turned back to the room, his face drained of color.
“Holy shit,” he said, his eyes on the wall behind her.
She turned to see red letters, maybe twelve inches high, scrawled across the beige wall, REDRUM, the Rs and the D written backwards as if written by a dyslexic. She stepped closer. The letters looked like a caricature of a horror movie poster, shaky letters dripping blood. They had to have been written in the victim’s blood. She shivered at the possibility of an occult meaning.
“What do you think the perp used to write this?” she asked.
Marty stepped to her side, careful to avoid where the perp must have stepped. “See those brush marks? Looks like a paint brush or maybe the creases in a loose rubber glove.”
Cory looked around the floor for a paintbrush but saw none. She looked from the corpse to the wall. The perp had dipped something in the vic’s blood and taken a couple of steps to the wall to write these letters. It meant something. She tried to associate the letters with a person’s name but couldn’t. Was it a reference to alcohol? “Red Rum,” she said aloud. “Is there a red rum?”
“Don’t know,” Marty said, his face close to the letters. “A reference to something they drank together?” He stood back, considering. “Is the red a reference to blood? As in they drank blood together, like rum, like an intoxicant?”
“Don’t go there,” Cory shuddered. The last thing they needed was some sort of demonic murder, Satan worship or paganism. She turned to the room. “Let’s take a look around. Murder weapon, ID, wallet?”
As if on cue, Marty nodded behind her and she turned to see a white linen shirt crumpled where it had been tossed a few feet from the bed, not a drop of blood on it, the Ralph Lauren logo visible at the collar. A fastidious and expensive dresser. Definitely a player.
“Any sign of a murder weapon?”
They glanced around but saw nothing.
“Maybe he took it with him,” Marty said.
“Or her,” Cory corrected him.
“Or her.” Marty’s eyes were on the knife wounds on the chest of the corpse. He tilted his head. “Looks like a double edged knife, serrated maybe.”
“I never heard of a double edged serrated knife. Have you?”
Marty shook his head. “We’ll have to leave it to the Medical Examiner.”
“It’s good that it’s a unique weapon.” She straightened. “Maybe we’ll find it in the perp’s possession, and it will cinch the case.” It was good to have irrefutable evidence, preferably DNA evidence, to bring before a jury these days. In the age of CSI TV shows and in the wake of highly publicized cases in which death sentence convictions, particularly of black men, were overturned based on new DNA evidence, juries insisted on hard proof.
There was a sound of something knocking against the bedroom door, and they turned to see Alton James, their forensics investigator, standing in the doorway, slight and wiry, already suited up in white disposable scrubs, booties, and shower cap. The only part of him that was visible was his face, which had the drawn, haggard look of a cowboy or a smoker. The corners of his blue eyes spider-webbed with white creases in his leathery-brown skin. On weekends Alton rode with a motorcycle club, six or eight mostly graying Viet Nam vets duded up in silver-studded, black leather vests and chaps, their hair worn long, Willie Nelson style. Alton’s ponytail was hidden beneath his shower cap.
“Well, damn,” Alton said after one look at the body. Then he followed their nod to the letters scrawled on the wall. “Shit,” he said. “I’ve seen that before.”
“You have?” Cory asked in disbelief. Did they have some sort of serial on their hands?
“Not me personally. I was in college. I remember seeing a picture in the paper of that exact thing,” he nodded to the scrawled letters. “Years ago.” He set his case on the floor beside the bed. “Professor was murdered by a couple of gay transients he picked up at a bar not far from here. Tied him up and smothered him with a plastic bag. Wrote that on the wall,” he nodded to the scrawled letters. “But it was in ketchup from the fridge since there was no blood. Got a compact?” he asked Cory.
Cory shook her head. What in the hell would he want with a compact?
Alton nodded to the letters. “You hold a mirror up, and it spells MURDER backwards. Something out of The Shining or a Stephen King novel or something.”
“Could this crime be related?” Washington asked.
Alton shook his head. “Unlikely. Caught the kids in Wyoming. They’d stolen the professor’s car and were using his credit cards all across the country. Trail lead right to them. They were both convicted, so I assume they went away for a good long while. You could see if they are out.”
“What were their names?” Marty asked, his notepad out.
“Damned if I can remember. You can look it up.”
If the backwards MURDER came from The Shining, Cory was thinking, it would be useful to know who had watched it recently. It was not a recent enough film to be available from Redbox. She’d have to check whether it was available on Netflix. What were the chances that Netflix would divulge someone’s viewing history even with a subpoena? She would have to call Video Rodeo, the one store in town that still rented movies, to see if they had it.
Alton raised his arms at the elbows like a surgeon ready to operate. “You guys shouldn’t be in here. Vamoose. Move over and let Alton take over,” he said in his best Satchmo voice.
They backed out and did a quick circuit of the kitchen and living room before a fingerprint tech showed up to bar them here as well.
A set of keys sat on the counter, but no sign of a cell phone or wallet. She glanced at the room. No sign of a computer.
She took note of the two plain white plates, two forks, two knives, and one hand-blown green glass in the dish drain, suspecting there would be no DNA evidence on any of it. She depressed the pedal of the brushed aluminum trashcan and peered inside. Styrofoam take-out containers on top of a brown paper bag. She lifted one of the containers out by the corner, dark paste residue beside a greasy slick of oil. She took a whiff, onion and cumin, roast pork and black beans, she’d bet. There were half a dozen Latin restaurants in town. No way to know which.
She spotted the second green glass on the coffee table. It was a quarter full of what looked like milk. She stooped to smell the contents, yeasty like rising bread. If it was milk, it had been doctored.
“Let’s go talk to the girlfriend and her buddy,” Marty called from the doorway.