Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Murderous Passions: Chapter One


Murder is such an up-close and personal venue.

Especially if the weapon of choice is a garrote made with piano wire. The C-string. With wood handles carved with a craftsman’s precision to fit the end of the wires for a firm, deadly grip.

Yes. A garrote is a very intimate form of death. It requires strength. Perseverance. Patience. It’s not like shooting someone with a 9mm. Stand ten feet way. Aim at the chest. Pull the trigger and then walk away. The garrote is not mundane and pedestrian. To kill with a garrote means you have to stand close to your victim. As close as two bodies intertwined in a lover’s embrace. You have to stand close enough to feel the victim’s body heat. Smell the victim’s fear. Taste the victim’s blood.

It’s messy.

The victim doesn’t die by strangulation so much as by drowning. If the proper technique is used the carotid artery is severed. Blood spurts everywhere. The victim downs in his own blood. A macabre sense of retribution. Dying by drowning in your own blood.

Yes. Garroting is very personal. Someone choosing this method meant the killer wanted to enjoy the act of snuffing someone’s life out. Like a wine connoisseur wanting to savor ever passing second of a rare wine.

The victim was Dr. Walter Holdridge. The Walter Holdridge. Nobel prize winner in Physics and for the last dozen years the academic catch for our own Anderson University. The victim lay sprawled across a computer terminal in the basement of the campus’ Computer Sciences building. Very dead. Very messy. And promising to be a case which would bring a lots of publicity to the university. Publicity of the unwanted kind.

Anderson University is a synonym for ‘money.’ It’s in the dictionary. Look it up in Webster’s and the number three definition will say, “Anderson University–and lot’s of it.” The campus is six blocks of downtown prime real estate. Sculptured lawns, big platters of well manicured flower beds, and red brick buildings of various architectural styles which somehow blend together describes the school. It has 3,000 students and each student is in the top three percent in the nation. Smart kids. Rich kids. Money and lots of smarts.

For a cop that’s a bad combination.

The tiny room the victim claimed as his own was all white. White walls. White ceiling. White tiles for floors. The only thing not white in the room was the black vinyl office chair, two small black chairs sitting against one wall, the CRT screen, and the keyboard. There was also the professor’s scruffy looking leather briefcase lying on one of the chairs. A big thing, looking as old as the professor himself, heavy and locked tightly shut. Everything else was pure white. Add in the fluorescent lights in the ceiling and one had the impression of the movie character HAL in the movie, 2001.

The professor’s dark blood contrasted sharply with the white. Reminding me, gruesomely, of a surreal painting. Ah! Murder as an art form! The ultimate sacrifice to create the ultimate piece of art. A thin crease in my lips told me I was grinning. Sometimes I have very bizarre thoughts. And my sense of humor needs working on as well.

The price you pay, I suspected, for working in Homicide too long.
Behind me I heard my partner, Frank Morales, step into the room and grunt in curiosity. Turning, I nodded and he looked at me and shrugged.

“Must have been a bleeder.” Frank grunted, shoving hands into his pockets.

“Yeah, must have,” I nodded my eyes returning to the body. “Who called in the report?”

“Campus security. The prof’s student-assistant came down here and found him. Dispatch sent Gonzales and Charles over in a black-and-white to take the initial squawk.”

Officers Alonzo Gonzales and Tubby Charles were two beat officers who’s beat would include the campus. Good men. Good beat cops who preferred remaining beat cops.
“Where are they now?”

“Upstairs interviewing anyone who was in the building at the time the body was discovered.”

I nodded, frowned, and looked at the blood again.

“Lot’s of blood.”

“Yeah, a lot of blood,” Frank repeated softly, nodding. “Garroting someone is messy. But this. This is really messy.”

“The prof put up a heck of a fight. Maybe some of this belongs to the killer. When are the lab boys due?”

“Any time now.”

I nodded.

“Okay, find the security guys who found the body, and the ones who were on duty during the approximate time of the murder if there was a shift change. Interview everyone.”

Frank turned on a heel and left. I frowned and glanced at my watch. Technically the lab boys are supposed to come in and do their thing before the investigating detectives begin poking around. Technically. They weren’t here yet, so what was I supposed to do? Frowning, I turned and stepped out into the hall directly in front of the room.

The hall was an exact copy of the room. All white. White ceiling, white walls, white tile floors; fluorescent lighting. I read somewhere about polar explorers worried about walking into a situation where everything turned white, leaving no way to ascertain a horizon or any sense of direction. Snow blindness they called it. I could understand the worry. I actually felt a slight sense of vertigo. Welding goggles came to mind. Something to cut down the glare of everything white.
The hall was one side of the basement. It was wide, empty, and ran past nine other rooms exactly like that of the crime scene. To my right and to my left the hall ran maybe one hundred feet in each direction. Staring in one directly and then the other I found it most curious. All that blood in the room behind me. Lots of blood which covered both the victim and had to cover the killer as well, yet the pristine white halls were absolutely spotless. Not even a shoe scuff mark could be seen decorating the white tile. Either our killer was damned lucky in getting nothing on him. Or damn fastidious. Pulling on my ear thoughtfully I turned and reentered the room.

I quickly searched the man’s pockets. I know I should have waited for the crime team to arrive first. Although, I didn’t and I hurriedly, but efficiently, searched the corpse. Keys, wallet, change in his pockets, a second set of keys on a single key ring, and two pens and a mechanical pencil comprised the man’s possessions. His wallet had three credit cards and fifty bucks in cash in it. There was a driver’s license, a university medical card, a couple of phone numbers hurriedly written on two pieces of paper and folded in half before being inserted into the wallet. There were two library cards; one for the campus library and one for the city’s. What was not in the billfold was any kind of a photo. No wife, no kids, not precocious grandchildren. Nothing. As I carefully put everything back into the billfold and inserted it back into the man’s rear trousers pocket I found myself wondering what that meant. No photos.

Although, I did find one curious item. A torn paper, ripped from a memo pad, with the words “Gamma-ray outbursts!!!!!” scribbled across it. Written so fast it was barely discernable. With five exclamation points. Folded in half, it was in the man’s upper left hand shirt pocket. It appeared like something one might find in a physicist’s pocket. However, there was something in the way it was so hurriedly scribbled which made me curious, as I folded it and slipped it back into the pocket.
There were bruises around the man’s mouth and jaw. The man’s well manicured fingernails looked messy. Meaning, with luck, there might be some skin material of his killer there. Only a good going over in the morgue would tell me that. Coming to my feet I turned and decided to take a good look at the briefcase.
It was a big clunker of a leather briefcase. Engraved into the metal latch were the letters WH. The leather handle was sweat-stained from years of toting things around in it.

Where it opened the leather was worn and grooved. Old, worn, but still serviceable. Like an old friend who should retire but can’t because he would be missed too much. Nevertheless, the clasp showed no markings of someone trying to open it. Gently lifting it with a finger it weighed enough to make-do for a temporary anchor for the Queen Mary.

Frowning, I stepped back to the cubicle’s single entrance and looked the scene over again. We had a murder of a physics professor, a professor in a small private, and I should say very expensive, college who prided itself on its academic reputation of elusiveness in its selection of students. First glance suggested it was not a murder by impulse. No thief suddenly caught in the act of burglary turning and killing his discoverer here. The garrote, a weapon of intimacy, suggested premeditation. To use a garrote one had to be willing to take a chance; a chance of his would-be victim being more ferocious in his defending himself, and taking the chance of being caught in the act itself. This grisly picture before me looked more like an execution. Someone really disliked the idea of the good professor taking one more unnecessary breath on this planet.

I stepped out of the room, and looking down the white hall, saw the lab boys lugging in their gear herding down the hall, and behind them, Frank strolling down the hall with a scowl on his face. Nodding and waving the tech boys into the room I waited for Frank to pull up beside and tell me what, or who, had just rained on his parade.

“Christ, this is going to be a bitch, Turn. A royal bitch.”

“How so?”

“Finished talking to the security guards. Get this; in order to get down here you have to have an identification card. It’s a magnetized card which directly connects into the campus’ mainframe. It recognizes your number and then unlocks the door to let you in. Except, you don’t automatically get in. After the computer scans the card you then have to have your thumb print scanned.”

“That’s a lot of security for a computer research area like this. What’s down here so important?”

Frank’s scowl darkened as he nodded in agreement.

“Apparently the research computer they’ve got down here is very fast, very experimental, and very expensive. The Air Force is interested in it and they have a couple of research grants being worked on here. So they added a third layer of security to monitor anyone coming or going. At each end of the hall there is a guard assigned to monitor those who come and go. Anyone who wants in has to scan his card, scan his thumb print, and then sign his name in a log book, indicating the time he entered and the time he left.”

“So we should know who was in the basement at the time of the professor’s death, right? We find out approximate time of death, then we check the log book and computer logs, and we have our killer.”

A wicked little grin spread across the thin lips of my pasta-loving partner. Frank had this twisted sense of humor I found amusing. He loved to irritate others. He enjoyed portraying himself as a thick-headed, stupid cop who wore badly fitting cheap suits. Furthermore, then he would say something or do something which was astonishingly brilliant. He hated to investigate cases which contained any form of a puzzle in it; an incongruity, if you ask me because of his high I.Q., yet he loved to torment me by adding layers upon layers of additional complexity to an already complex case. The little twist of his lips on his cement-block head told me another little wrinkle was coming.

“Oh, but you’re gonna love this, Turn. Ready? From 2: p.m. to 5:40 p.m. the only person is the victim. His student assistant comes in at 5:40 to see if he needs anything before she goes back to the dorm. That’s when she found him.”
“Well, before the professor arrives? Anyone check in but not check out?”

“Nope. The two security officers covering this area swear the students who came in before two were gone by the time the stiff arrives. When the professor comes swinging down the steps with his briefcase, something he did like clock work every day, he was alone. No one was down here, except for security, during that time.”
So there it was. A genuine, honest-to-God puzzle. Someone knows the professor’s habits; knows he comes down here to do work, precisely at two. Either the killer is down here waiting for the professor, and somehow knows he is going to be in that given cubicle and no other, or he somehow has a way to bypass all the layers of security and enters unseen. Or there was, possibly, a third alternative.

“Yeah, don’t say it,” Frank grunted, frowning and shaking his head no. “It could be one of the security officers. I thought of that too. No joy there, chum. My hunch is both are squeaky-clean boy scouts and ex-marines. If it was one of them it’d have to be one hell of a reason. Except, I doubt that’s gonna pan out. So, my bucko, you have one hell of a case in front of you! Moreover, I am sooooo glad you have it and I don’t!”

I smiled, sighed, and shrugged. Glancing at my watch I noticed it almost seven o:clock. I actually had hopes of going down to where I kept my cars stored and working on the Road Runner for an hour or two tonight. That wasn’t going to happen. We still had the initial investigation to do. Hours of assembling the sometimes dissimulate pieces of the puzzle, and doing it by the numbers in a procedure every working cop knows inside and out. We’d be lucky if we rolled into our beds by midnight.

“No surveillance cameras?”

“Nope. To be installed next week.”

I nodded, wondering if this too was planned or if it was just a dumb stroke of luck for the killer.

“Who’s the student assistant?”

Frank looked down at the small spiral notebook he used to jot down everything, flipped a couple of pages, and found the name.

“A graduate student by the name of Alicia Addams,” he said, looking up and grinning even more insidiously. “ She’s up stairs in the professor’s office waiting to be interviewed. I thought you might want that one. You know . . .playing the brilliant young Shylock of a detective and interviewing the pretty young damsel in distress.”

I grinned and patted the little man on the shoulder as I stepped around him.

“That’s Sherlock, bub. Not Shylock. So, why don’t you go talk to the security guys again. See if they can give you more about our victim and about anyone who might want to see a physics professor dead.”

The computer lab in the basement was only half of the basement. Also down there were a series of chemistry, biology, and physics laboratories. The building we were in was called Aimes Hall. It housed the departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Four floors up from the basement was the floor where most of the professors had their offices. Stepping off the elevator I found Dr. Holdridge’s office quickly enough. I followed the sounds of someone sobbing, and between her sobs, blowing her nose into a wad of tissues.

“Alicia Addams?”

“Yes . . .yes, I’m Alicia.”

Surprise. I had this impression female grad students in physics had to look like some Russian female mud wrestler. Foolish me. Alicia Addams was in her twenties, with long brown hair, green eyes, and long, finely chiseled gams. Her face was not pretty. Nevertheless, it wasn’t ugly. However, save for her legs, she was wearing a one-piece blue dress, her legs were crossed as she sat in a chair in front of the dead stiff’s desk. They were long and nice to look at. Very nice.

Her eyes were red and her face was puffy from a long jag of crying. The wad of Kleenex in her hands looked like shredded mush. On the corner of the desk, and just out of reach, was a freshly opened box. Stepping into the closet-room sized office I reached for the box and handed it to her.

“Detective Sergeant Turner Hahn, Southside Division. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Yes, I know. The two officers in uniform told me you would want to talk to me.”
I nodded and glanced at the office. It looked like what you might expect a Physics professor’s office should look like. Books everywhere. The wall immediately behind the desk was nothing but books from ceiling to carpeted floor and a small computer desk with a very large CRT screen. The interior wall was bare except for a set of photos of a living Dr. Holdridge standing either beside, or shaking hands with, a number of distinguished looking men. The exterior wall had a long and narrow slit of a window which looked down on the campus commons below. The last wall was more photos.

I was impressed with the man’s desk. It had the look of precision to it. Mostly bare, with the few papers on it stacked in a neat stack, yet what caught my eye were the three pens placed with unerring accuracy directly onto the middle of the desk’s surface. They were precisely aligned. Looking at them the word ‘perfectionist’ crossed my mind.

“You were the professor’s student assistant?”

“Yes. For two years now. I’m working on my Master’s degree in physics and chemistry.”

“When did you see the professor last? That is, before you found him in the lab below.”

“Oh, let me see . . .” she sighed, sniffling, and starring up at the ceiling for a moment or two to think. “This morning around ten, I think. He was here in the office working and I just popped in to ask if he needed anything.”
“Okay, how did he look and sound?”

“He was upset. Really angry. He told me he didn’t want to be bothered until later this afternoon when he went down to work on the computer. Really, I’d have to say, it was just another normal day.”

“Normal? An upset professor is normal?”
A whiff of a smile momentarily played on the girl’s lips before disappearing. Tears welled up and she hurriedly pulled out of the Kleenex box a dozen or more and buried her face in them for a short jag of crying. It ended with her blowing her nose loudly before she looked up at me.

“That was Dr. Holdridge, detective. He was always mad at someone. He was a great teacher and a brilliant mind. I have never heard anyone explain Quantum Mechanics so clearly like he could. Except, he was . . . he was . . . hard to get along with. He was tough. Tough and abrasive. He made a lot of demands on his students and on his peers. He often said he could not tolerate fools and he thought humanity in general were fools of the first order.”

Ah. A perfectionist and egotist.

“So who had angered him this time?”
“Oh, that’s simple. The head of the department, Dr. Murphy. Lots of his peers angered the professor. Although, Dr. Murphy was special. He would usually become livid if he got into a row with her.”

“Dr. Holdridge was not the department head?”

“Oh, no. No way. He wanted to be. He campaigned for it. Plus, he made no effort to conceal his ire at being superceded by a woman as chair. Furthermore, there was no way Dr. Holdridge would ever become the Physics department head. He was just too . . . too severe. He could make the most brilliant of his students feel like a stuttering idiot when he dressed them down. He could have the entire faculty on the verge of mutiny with some of his biting commentary. To be a department head, especially the department head in physics, you have to be something of a skilled diplomat and politician. You have to smooze with the alumni and with big-time business leaders. To be a top-drawer department you need lots of people and lots of corporations donating huge sums of money. You have to be colleague with your peers. I am afraid Dr. Holdridge was not that kind of personality.”

The personality of the late Doctor Walter Holdridge sounded like that of a Rottweiler with rabies. That kind of personality guaranteed the creation of a lot of enemies. The question was, was the killer on the campus? Or were there more out there we hadn’t heard about?

“So who else on the faculty could yank the professor’s chain?”

Again, that whiff of a smile played across the plain, yet attractive, face of the student. For a brief moment a small flicker of humor lit her green eyes, making her ever more attractive. I wondered if this smiling girl, this feminine geek, might also have a motive for murder.

“Oh, goodness. Everyone, at one time or the other, yanked the professor’s chain, detective. Just get a campus directory and go down the list. That would include the janitors for this building and the gardeners, the electricians, the plumbers. Everyone.”

I sighed and sat down in one of the small chairs beside the desk and directly opposite the child. Funny, here she was in her twenties, and not bad looking, and I was a single male barely in my forties. Nevertheless, somehow I was thinking her as if she was a child. A kid. Someone barely out of puberty. I was looking at her more like a father might look at his daughter.

Frankly, I didn’t like the thought. Although women and I was like mixing nitroglycerin and gasoline together, and any relationship with a woman, including my brief marriage, usually fell apart with a sudden finality to it, nevertheless I still liked to gaze upon a good looking woman. I thought there might be a chance I might find a girlfriend. One who actually found me both attractive and interesting. One I could actually tolerate and appreciate.

Hell, it was a thought. A hope. Everyone has to have a measure of hope in their souls.

“So who else on the faculty could repeatedly anger the professor?”

“Hmmm, let me see,” she began, furrowing her eyebrows and thinking for a moment before answering. “There’s Dr. Armand Pellieur. He’s head of the Chemistry department. His office is next door. Dr. Pellieur is very good at agitating the professor.”

“And then there’s Dr. Hodgeskins. He’s one of the professors in the Archeology department. There’s no love lost between there. Between those three, Dr. Murphy, Dr. Pellieur, and Dr. Hodgeskins, that would be the list.”
I nodded.

“So tell me about this afternoon. Was it usual for the professor to be in the basement at that time of the day?”

“Yes. Every day. You could use the professor to set your watch. Every day exactly at the same time.”

“So, you usually checked in to see how he was doing?”

“Every day,” she smiled weakly, more tears flowing down her ruby cheeks, her lower lip beginning to tremble. “Clockwork.”

“It was you who found the body?”

For an answer she broke into a fit of hysterical crying. More Kleenex left the box in one rapid sweep of the hand. I waited in silence for the moment to pass. You learn to be patient as a cop. Especially when you’re investigating a murder.

“Yes, I came in precisely at 4:15. That’s when the professor wanted me to interrupt him. That’s when I . . .found him like that.”

“What did you do?”

“I . . .I screamed. Screamed like a silly little girl. It was then I went running to find Ralph.”

“Who’s Ralph?”

“He’s the campus security officer on duty at the south entrance. I say hello to him every day at that time. I found him and we both ran back to see if the professor might still be alive. However, he wasn’t. Ralph told me to follow him. We called the police from the phone down in the basement.”

So. There it was. A dead professor with a piano wire around his neck and an entire university as primary suspects. Swell. I smiled with an appreciation, again, of Frank’s uncanny ability at sniffing out tough cases with the least amount of knowledge and handing it to me with a smirk on his face.

Well, that’s okay. That’s why I’m paid by the city. I’m a cop. Besides, truthfully, I like what I do.

“Thank you, Miss Addams.” I said, coming to my feet and stepping toward the entrance. “We might need to contact you again with more questions later on. Please stay in town until the investigation is done. Here is my card. If you think of anything else don’t hesitate in giving me a call. Okay?”

She reached out and took the card I held in my hand. Her face came up and there was this certain look, a look I was all too familiar with, clearly painted on her face. Shit. Here it comes again.

“Detective, somehow you look familiar. You look like an old movie star. Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean old. Just, your face, seems so familiar to me. Although, I can’t seem to remember the actor’s name.”

Clark Gable. Yeah, I know. You must think I am an arrogant sonofabitch with an ego problem of my own if I think I look like Clark Gable. However, that’s a mistake. It’s not an ego problem. It’s genetics. One look at my mug and you can’t help but have the impression a bigger, taller, Clark Gable is standing in front of you. Besides, I don’t like it. It’s a curse.

I’m not Clark Gable. I don’t think I look like the dead actor. Although, others do. Then women, for some reason, latch onto it right from the get-go. Maybe you think that’s good. Women being attracted to me. Nevertheless remember; my wife tried to poison me. Twice. At the time we were only married for three months. That should tell you something about my success with women.

I smiled and half turned as I stepped out into the carpeted

“Where might I find this Dr. Murphy?”

“I think she’s downstairs in one of the labs.”

“Thanks,” I said, nodding, and turning away.

No. I’m not Clark Gable. I’m Turner Hahn. Cop. Nothing more and nothing less. Deal with it.

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