Tony found a taxi and hunkered down low in the backseat. The cabbie told him his destination was roughly in the middle of nowhere, a good 20-30 minutes away.
“What’re you headed out that way for, anyway?” the driver asked.
“There’s a daycare I’m interested in checking out,” Tony told him. “I’m moving to the area soon. I hear it’s the best.”
“Right,” said the cabbie. Tony wasn’t sure if he believed him. As long as they didn’t do a 180 and return to the police station, he honestly didn’t care.
The Orchard Grove Center for Child Development was a grouping of different sized cottages with sloping red roofs. A long circular driveway connected the center to the main road and a fenced-in playground stood to one side. The playground was empty when the taxi approached and Tony thought the slides and seesaws and swings looked too pristine and unblemished for any self-respecting kid to be having any fun.
He paid the driver and headed for the largest building. Just beyond the door lay a receptionist’s window and just beyond the window lay a receptionist, blond and dour and plump.
“May I help you?” she asked.
Tony cleared his throat. “I’d like to speak to the director, please.”
“Concerning what, may I ask?”
“Well, I’m new to the area,” Tony said. “I’ve heard very good things about this place.”
“One moment, please. Your name, sir?”
“Lang. Anthony Lang.”
The receptionist nodded, picked up a phone, said something in a soft, low voice, and nodded again.
“Ms. Francesco will see you now,” she told Tony. “Down the hall to your right.”
“Thanks,” Tony said. He navigated his way down a stub of a hallway, gave a brief knock and was admitted to a red-carpeted office. The woman who stood before him was elegant and stern. She had iron-gray hair and wore enough makeup to pass for late 40s, though she had to be several years older. Her earrings – a pair of silver daggers – were large without being gaudy. Her eyes were very dark.
“Mr. Lang,” she said, pushing her lips into a genial smile.
“Mrs. Valence,” Tony replied.
The smile disappeared. The dark eyes widened.
“Nobody’s called me that in years,” she said. “Who are you? Are you from that newspaper…”
“No, I’m not,” Tony said. “I’m not here to cause you any trouble, either. I just want some answers. Give me five minutes and I can explain.”
Francesco’s eyes moved toward a gold numeral wall clock by the door.
“I’ll be timing you,” she told him.
Speaking as quickly as he could while still remaining coherent, Tony ran her through Amy’s murder, the investigation, the death of Niccoldi and the threats against him and K.J. By the time he finished, a single tear had formed in the corner of Francesco’s right eye. She promptly batted it away with a handkerchief.
“Typical Simon,” she said, stifling a sniffle. “He always could draw people’s interest, even from beyond the grave.”
“Did he really kill himself?” Tony asked.
Francesco nodded. “I wish that he hadn’t. I wish that it had been someone else who pulled the trigger. It would be easier for me, I think, if he had simply been taken. But no, I don’t believe in elaborate conspiracy theories, Mr. Lang. I will say this, though: that godforsaken university is to blame.”
“How so?” Tony asked.
“How so?” Francesco repeated, injecting a mocking sneer. “Hand. It was that bastard Hand. He forced Simon out. He threatened to ruin him. He said ‘go away quietly or your reputation will be tarnished.’ He….do you know why I returned to this area, Mr. Lang?”
“So I may have the satisfaction, hopefully one day soon, of being around when that horrible man dies.”
“I don’t understand,” Tony said. “Why did the chancellor do this to your husband? He was the university’s biggest star.”
Francesco through back her head and laughed. It was the cruel, pitiless laugh of a woman who had long ago stopped expecting mercy and decency to fall her way.
“Because, Mr. Lang, my poor, misguided husband, brilliant and well-liked as he was, also happened to be carrying on with the chancellor’s daughter.”
Tony stared, aghast. “His daughter?!”
“Emma,” Francesco said, spitting out the word as if were a mouthful of poison. “She was a child, only 14. Simon adored her. We were never able to have children, you see. So he took a fatherly interest. He spent time with her. Mentored her. It was never anything illicit, not like they accused him of. But that girl, that stupid, attention-starved little strumpet, she took it all for love, for desire. She wrote letters. She filled diaries with fantasies and foolish plans. It was only a matter of time before her father found out.”
“Oh Jesus,” Tony said. The pieces were starting to fall into place.
“The last time I saw my husband alive, he was drunk and weeping. He told me he loved Emma, that he loved me, that he never meant for any of this to happen. I was disgusted. I cursed him and left. When I came back the next morning…” The woman’s hands shook while he spoke and Tony could see the worry lines in her face. “…I found the body. He was as dead as Homer and Virgil and the other ancient masters he devoted his life to.”
The tension of the moment was broken by a knock on the door. Both Tony and Francesco turned to see a young woman in a navy blue uniform. A fine white dust coated her brown hair and the front of her skirt.
“Excuse me, Ms. Francesco?” the woman said. “Sorry to interrupt, but could you have someone cover for me while I change please? Joey got into the powder again.”
Tony sniffed the air. That smell, there was something familiar about it…and then it all hit home. It wasn’t perfume that Saruzal the librarian had been wearing, it was baby powder. Baby powder because she wore diapers, just like the killer. A diaper. That was what the flash of white was, he was sure of it now. It was Saruzal!
Cell phone in hand, Tony rushed from the building and dialed K.J.'s number. A grisly chill crept up his spine when he reached her voicemail. Even in police custody, they let her take calls. If she wasn’t picking up, it meant she was somewhere else.