Un Lampo di Bianco (A Flash of White)
A Diaper Giallo
NOTE: “Giallo,” literally translated, means “yellow.” It refers to the yellow covers of the cheap paperback novels which inspired a popular and influential genre of Italian films in the 1960s and 1970s. Suspenseful, violent, erotic and shocking, giallo films combined the tension of American detective novels with the flamboyance of Italian opera and theatre. They also served as a predecessor to the slasher films of the 1980s, albeit with more artistic merit and higher production values. Dario Argento is considered the master of the giallo film and this story is intended as an homage to him. If you are easily disturbed, read no further.
The History Club’s coffee social ran late and by the time Amy was able to extricate herself from Prior Hall, it was both dark and pouring. She’d brought an umbrella, but she did not relish the walk back to her dorm, even if it was a straight shot down Campus Boulevard. A stiff gust of wind greeted her as soon as she stepped outside, dumping a sheet of rain in her general direction.
“Ew,” she said as the cold dampness soaked through the legs of her jeans.
Both sides of the street were parked up, and for a minute, Amy wondered why. Then she remembered: faculty awards night. Just a few buildings away, Don was probably soaking up the praise for all the grant dollars he brought in. He said he’d thank her if they gave him a chance to speak. Then again, Don said a lot of things. It was always hard to tell with him. She never knew when he was kidding and when he was being sincere, when he was flattering her and when she was being used, when she should just relax and when she could have a serious problem on her hands. He was a difficult man to read, and at 20, she couldn’t hope to have him all figured out.
Amy crossed from the right side of the street to the left and continued toward her dorm, the rain drilling her persistently. It struck her umbrella with a soft pfft, pfft and the hoods of cars with a harder splat. Given the conditions, the coffee social was a resounding success. Five had showed up, plus her and Mark, and at least three of those five seemed genuinely interested. Thank God, Amy thought. She didn’t want to be running the club solo next year after Mark graduated.
As she approached the Faculty Center, Amy thought once more about Don. Really, she was being paranoid. There was no reason to suspect he’d cross the line with her. It was only her research that had her spooked. She…
The umbrella jerked sharply to the left, propelling Amy off the sidewalk and toward the side of the Faculty Center. It took her a moment to realize that this was not the wind, that someone had grabbed her and pulled her away. She tripped and fell down, into the bushes, the leaves and branches scraping her cheeks and arms as she toppled. She let out a surprised groan, an “ungh” that got lost in the rain.
A gloved hand clamped down over Amy’s mouth and her flight instinct finally kicked in. Her thoughts turned to rape and her groan escalated into a muffled scream. Her legs kicked out, desperate to find footing in the soft grass beside the bushes. It was too late. A razor flashed, her mind shouted “NO!” and her neck suddenly felt very warm. Somewhere, just beyond that wall, Don was probably collecting an award.
The longer the awards ceremony dragged on, the more frequently Tony kept checking his watch. He had no idea what he was doing there. Yes, the chancellor had asked him to come – “Take a look at the family you’ll be joining. We’d be honored if you could make it…” – but it seemed so much like a selling point. He had already reached an agreement to start teaching in the fall earlier that day and he’d been happy about it. But this was a little much.
The ceremony consisted of the university’s various deans taking turns in front of a podium rattling off grants, awards, publications and other honors received by the faculty under their purview. There was applause, it seemed, after every mention, and once in awhile, someone would be called upon to stand. The grants all came from foundations named for people Tony had never heard of and the awards were all ten times longer than they needed to be. It wasn’t enough to be named So-and-So’s Biologist of the Year. No, you had to be the Recipient of the Award for Excellence in the Natural Sciences – Biological Research, for the year beginning……and on and on it went.
This was not his scene. Tony had always purposefully eschewed the label “academic.” He wrote books. Teaching was something he did in between to pay the bills. He was Mr. Lang (if not just Tony), not Dr. He left the theory and the ten-dollar titles to the PhDs. His job was to get young men and women to churn out writing they wouldn’t be embarrassed about while introducing them to books that were better and more influential than his own. That’s what he did at community colleges and at small liberal arts schools and that’s what he would continue to do in a permanent position at a good-sized university.
Tony watched the podium. Another dean was talking. She was an older woman, gray and sexless, and she read slowly from a list in front of her. Tony wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. He waited for the dean to finish, then used the sound of applause for cover while he beat a hasty retreat. He’d stopped smoking a year ago, but if anyone asked, that’s where he was headed. That or he just didn’t feel well, which wasn’t too far from the truth.
It hadn’t been raining when Tony arrived for the awards ceremony, but it sure was when he stepped out.
“Goddamn,” he exclaimed. He’d gone from dry to drenched in an instant.
Tony was about to venture back inside – even if it meant listening to another dean or two – when something darted past him on the sidewalk. A human-sized blur, it moved with speed and urgency before slipping and tumbling to the ground.
Tony took a few steps forward. The runner was laying face-down, stuffing something into the right pocket of a long raincoat. The coat had ridden up during the fall, exposing the light bare flesh of a pair of legs and a hint of something else, something white, closer to the waistline. Tony couldn’t make out details. It was dark and the rain whipped his face. A barrage of droplets stung his eyes.
“Are you OK?” he half-hollered.
The runner responded by yanking down the raincoat, rising to his feet and taking off. Tony stared in disbelief. Some nut wearing nothing but a raincoat runs out across campus during one of the wettest nights in recent memory. That scene was going in a book someday, Tony thought. No doubt about it.
Curious about what prompted this marathon sprint, Tony began retracing the runner’s steps down the sidewalk. When he reached the side of the Faculty Center, he saw something sticking out of the bushes that made him stop. For the second time in five minutes, he came across a pair of legs. These legs were clothed. And, unlike the runner’s, these legs weren’t moving at all.
Tony spent the rest of the night talking to police. It was nearly 2 a.m. before they let him return to his motel room. A campus cop had first crack at him. He was a young kid and scared – he nearly puked when he saw the body – but that didn’t stop him from being a real prick. He wouldn’t let Tony leave or go anywhere or talk to anyone. He made Tony stand outside in the rain while he radioed for his boss and shooed onlookers, occasionally pausing to shoot Tony a look that suggested that this was all his fault. Finally, the chief of campus police showed up. He was older and more conciliatory. He wore a suit. He offered coffee and let him answer questions inside.
It was the last cop that bothered Tony the most. This man, Jackson, was a city detective. He was tall and black and slender, save for a forehead broad enough to be any boxer’s worst nightmare. He wore a wedding band. He had cool brown eyes. When he talked to Tony in the wood-tabled, high-windowed interview room at the police station, his voice was level and undemanding, as if he had all the time in the world.
Jackson, like the other two cops, wanted to know what Tony saw. Tony told all three of them the same thing: he had one outside for some air and a figure ran past him. The figure appeared to be wearing a raincoat. The figure stuffed something into the pocket of said raincoat. The figure did not appear to be wearing any pants. When Tony asked the figure if he was OK, the figure took off.
Tony left out the part about the flash of white. The whole business with the pantsless raincoat runner sounded nutty enough. The addition of that one detail could be what tipped him from credible witness to fruitcake or even possible suspect. Besides, he couldn’t be sure of what he saw or if he even saw anything at all. It was dark and chaotic. There was rainwater in his eyes. Yes, he thought, he felt there had been that flash. But did he really know?
At one point during their conversation, Jackson put down the pen he’d been writing with and leaned in close. A bemused smile spread over his previously blank face and Tony felt himself twitch. Something wasn’t right here.
“I read something interesting about you, Mr. Lang,” he said. “An interview you gave. Said you were interested in exploring…what was it? ‘The point where fact and fiction intersect.’ Said two of your favorite books were In Cold Blood and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Two books about murders.”
Tony felt like he had been punched in the gut. He doubled over and coughed violently, practically choking on air. The dead girl’s face, pale and blood-slicked, flashed lifelessly through his mind. He wouldn’t be sleeping easily tonight. He wondered if he’d sleep easily ever.
“I’m only going to ask you this once, Mr. Lang,” Jackson continued. “Don’t you even think about lying to me. What was your association with Amy Holden?”
“Is that….is she the girl who died?” Tony managed at last. His voice sounded strained and weak.
“Who else would I be asking about?” Jackson asked, his impatience finally starting to show.
“I never saw her before in my life,” Tony said, the words coming as fast as his tongue would allow. “At least not until I found her. I didn’t know her name. And I didn’t kill her. I did NOT kill her. I…”
“Easy,” Jackson said. “If I thought you’d killed her, Mr. Lang, you’d be wearing cuffs right now.”
“Can’t rule anything out just yet.”
Can’t rule anything out just yet, Tony thought. Fuck you, pal. You practically accuse me of murder, damn near give me a heart attack…
“Listen, Mr. Lang,” Jackson explained, his tone back to infinite calm. “At this stage of the investigation, we don’t know what we’re dealing with yet. We are going to handle this the best we can. We may need your help in the future. I’m going to ask that you stay in town for the next few days. We will reimburse you for lodging. We will provide you with a police escort…”
“Escort?” Tony asked. “Am I in some kind of danger here?”
“No way of knowing,” Jackson told him. “I would just exercise general caution if I were you. Also, watch out for K.J.”
“K.J. Smith,” Jackson explained. “Crime reporter for the local paper. Relentless.”
“Right,” Tony said. He wanted an Advil.
A nearly laconic patrolman gave him a ride back to his motel. The patrolman said someone would be by in the morning to check on him and wished him goodnight. That was all he said. Tony was thankful. After Jackson, the last thing he wanted to do was talk to more police.
Tony was also thankful that he’d gone with a Marriott. The room was quiet and clean, the bed pillow-laden and freshly made. Tony double-locked the door, undressed and lay down under the covers. He expected his troubled thoughts – poor Amy, the raincoat runner, that phantom – to keep him up til sunrise, but he was out like a light within 15 minutes.
A knock woke him the next morning. He stared over at the alarm clock. It was 9:30. He had slept after all, even if it didn’t feel like it. But who could be knocking for him at this hour? That patrolman said someone would check on him, but couldn’t they just call.
“Just a minute,” Tony bellowed. He threw on a shirt, leaving it unbuttoned, and slipped into the previous day’s pants. As he walked from the bed to the door, a disquieting thought chilled him. What if it wasn’t the police? He’d just let someone know he was in. Tony’s eyes darted back toward the telephone perched on the nightstand beside the bed. One call would clear everything up, but he quickly dismissed the notion. Since when did he become such a sissy? He was pushing 40. He was neither a frail old man or a scared little kid. He’d been a star wrestler in high school, for chrissakes.
The knocking repeated.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Tony said. He advanced toward the door, ready for an eyeful of whatever lay beyond the peephole.
From the peephole, Tony spied a woman he’d never seen before. She was thirtyish with wavy blond hair and smooth, fair skin. She dressed professionally – white shirt, navy slacks – but not well enough to be a lawyer from the prosecutor’s office. She didn’t have the look of a cop. Curious, Tony unlocked the door and cracked it open, leaving the chain latch in place.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she answered. “Are you Tony Lang?”
“Sure,” Tony said. What the hell, it was too early in the morning to bother with a farce.
“I heard you had quite a night last night, Tony.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
Tony arched an eyebrow. “Who the hell are you?”
“K.J. Smith,” the woman answered. “I’m a reporter with the News-Journal. I was hoping we could talk.”
“You’re K.J. Smith?!” Tony asked. When Jackson had mentioned the “relentless crime reporter,” Tony had pictured a middle aged man with a yellow notepad and a press badge.
“The one and only,” K.J. replied. She seemed amused by his reaction. If he had to guess, he’d say it’s one she’d encountered before.
“Give me 15 minutes and I’ll meet you in the lobby,” he told her before shutting the door.
Tony wasn’t sure why he had agreed to talk with her. He held no particular affinity for journalists, despite having been one for a year. Furthermore, knocking on his door at 9:30 in the morning after the night he had was not a good way to ensure his cooperation. At the same time, he wanted to know what was going on around here. Jackson made it pretty clear he wouldn’t tell Tony any more than he had to. If exchanging information with K.J. was what it took to get him clued in, so be it. Also, if he was being entirely honest with himself, he found her pretty damn attractive.
A shower, a shave and a change of clothes later and Tony found himself in the lobby. K.J. was sitting on a maroon leather chair in an elegantly appointed waiting room, spiral bound notepad out, watching, with envy, Tony imagined, as a gentleman on the other side of the room read the Wall Street Journal. Tony pulled up a nearly identical chair next to her. A vase of indeterminate flowers (Tony could never keep his lilies straight from his irises) stood between them on a small end table. Soft classical music was being piped in from places unknown.
“I was told I need to watch out for you,” Tony said.
“Who told you that?” K.J. asked. “Avis?”
“Avis Jackson,” K.J. said. “I was told he was the lead investigator on this case.”
Avis, Tony thought and started to laugh. I got scared half to death last night by a guy named Avis.
“What’s so funny?” K.J. asked.
“Nothing,” Tony said. “Listen, I’m sorry if I’ve been rude up until this point.”
K.J. waved her arm dismissively. “Oh please. I’m used to worse. Law enforcement types love me at first. Then they realize I’m not this ditsy blonde who will do whatever they say. I get all kinds of looks.”
“I’ll bet. Hey, what does K.J. stand for, anyway?”
“So about last night,” she said, tapping her pen against the notepad.
“Listen,” Tony said. “I’ll make you a deal.”
Her eyes rolled.
“I just want to know what I’m getting myself into here,” he explained. “Your pal Avis won’t tell me anything, except that I shouldn’t leave town and I may or may not be in danger. So I’ll give you everything that happened last night, but I need you to fill in the holes and keep me up to date on this thing.”
K.J. considered his offer, then closed the notepad.
“My editor won’t like me giving you this much information before we run with it, but if I’m right, he’ll love me for the story it will help me get. You want to be in the loop? I’ll do you one better. There’s a tape recorder in my car. I’ll drive and you talk about last night.”
“Drive to where?” Tony asked.
“Campus,” K.J. told him. “I got a tip that Amy Holden was doing some research for this history professor and he’s willing to talk.”
Tony felt a spark. It was the same feeling he got when he hit a dry spell with his writing and a pivotal scene suddenly unfolded before him. He wondered if K.J. felt it too and meant to ask her, but she was already halfway out the door.
He caught up to her at her car, a blue Mazda, practical but sporty. As promised, there was a tape recorded on the passenger’s seat, along with a stack of papers and a jacket K.J. told him he could chuck in the back. And, as promised, Tony talked while she drove. He started with the awards ceremony and brought her all the way up to his interview/interrogation with Avis. He did not mention the flash of white, not because he was reluctant, but because in his hurry to tell her everything, that particular detail eluded him. He was so far into storytelling mode that they were nearly on campus before he realized that the same gray sedan had been following them at a distance ever since they left the Marriott.
The gray car vanished from sight not long after they parked and Tony began to think that maybe they weren’t being followed after all. The events of the previous night had given him the jitters. Maybe they had made him paranoid as well. He said nothing of the gray sedan to K.J., and if she noticed, she kept it to herself.
It was a 10-minute walk from the visitor’s lot to their destination. Blair Hall, the humanities building, was new construction made to look old. Neoclassical pillars adorned the front entrance, while the surrounding walkways intersected at neat, Euclidian angles. Only the abundance of wide windows – a “green” touch to cut down on lighting usage – gave the true age away.
Tony followed K.J. into the building, onto an elevator and down a snaking third-floor hallway. The light tiled floor gave way to dark blue carpeting as they crossed through a doorway and entered an office wing. They stopped walking when they reached the third office on the right. The door was cracked open. A nameplate on the wall beside it read Donald Niccoldi, History. K.J. gave a single knock.
“K.J. Smith, Mr. Niccoldi,” she said. “We spoke on the phone?”
“Come in,” a commanding male voice replied.
They entered and Tony scoped out the surroundings. Niccoldi’s office was much like any professor’s he’d seen, much like his would be when he got settled (if he could get settled after all this mayhem). There was a desk, a computer, a globe, a few chairs and a large bookshelf. The biggest difference is that Tony would stock his shelf with paperbacks, while Niccoldi’s held thicker, dryer volumes.
“Thick and dry” wasn’t a bad description for Niccoldi himself. He was stout without being fat and had wavy hair like Tony’s, only a few shades darker. He also sported a moustache that was on loan from the mid-1980s and favored a dreadful jacket-and-jeans combination – the classic attempt at “cool” and “casual” made by those who understood neither. Tony placed Niccoldi as a contemporary at first, but the wrinkles around his eyes and the stray gray-white hairs near his ears suggested he was at least a decade older. He was a vain 50, a man who dyed his hair and tried too hard to fit in with a younger crowd. Tony already got the sense he wasn’t going to like him.
“Welcome,” Niccoldi said, gesturing toward a chair. That was directed at K.J. To Tony, he offered, “And this must be your photographer.”
“Do you see a camera?” Tony asked. Niccoldi stared at him awkwardly a moment before Tony said, “Tony Lang” and offered his hand.
“Ah, the new English hire,” Niccoldi replied. He shake was weak for a man his size and Tony didn’t like the way he said ‘hire,’ like he was kitchen help. I’m tenure track, pal, Tony thought, same as you.
“Mr. Lang was here last night when…” K.J. began.
“I found the body,” Tony interrupted. Niccoldi went pale and that made Tony smile inside just a little bit.
“Good God,” Niccoldi exclaimed. “That was you? I heard somebody was out there, smoking in the rain when…”
“What can you tell us about Amy Holden, professor?” K.J. asked. She was good at getting him back on topic, Tony thought. Persistent, just like Jackson said.
“Amy,” Niccoldi echoed, clearing his throat. “Poor girl. She was a brilliant student and a genuinely decent human being. Caring, dependable. I’m sorry if this sounds…expected, but it’s the truth.”
“I’ll believe it,” K.J. said. “Everyone I talked to had very nice things to say about her. Could you tell me what kind of work she was doing for you?”
“Research,” Niccoldi replied, his voice tightening. “She was helping me with a book I’m writing.”
He shot Tony a “me too” look and Tony bit his tongue. He’d gotten through three books without any assistants. When he needed to research something – and he often did – he looked it up on his own. Great minds couldn’t be bothered, he guessed. Neither could assholes.
“That must be exciting,” K.J. said with an encouraging smile. She really knew how to turn on the charm. “Maybe I’ll read it when it comes out. What’s it about?”
Niccoldi sighed. “I really shouldn’t be telling you this. If certain people found out what I’m working on, they could get the wrong idea. That would put me in a very bad position.”
“I understand,” K.J. told him as she scribbled something on her pad. “Believe me, I don’t want to jam you up. We can go off the record, if you’d like.”
“Off the record it is,” Niccoldi agreed. He paused to take a sip of something from a cup on his desk. It was probably water, Tony thought. If he was a real writer, it would have been something stronger.
“For several months now, I’ve been working on a local history,” Niccoldi explained. “Legends, lore, that sort of thing. The chapter Amy was most recently assisting me with concerned Simon Valence.”
Both Tony and K.J. drew a blank at the name. Niccoldi seemed pleased by that, as it gave him an opportunity to lecture them.
“Simon Valence was a professor here years ago. A classicist. Very well-respected in his field. I had the pleasure of taking a class with him once. He was brilliant and passionate. He brought dead tongues alive.”
“So what happened to him?” K.J. asked.
“About twenty years ago – I was a graduate student at the time – Dr. Valence abruptly resigned. A persistent rumor swirled that he was discovered having an affair with a student and our erstwhile chancellor, Dr. Hand, forced him out. Shortly after he resigned, he committed suicide. Pistol to the temple. It was both tragic and completely out of character.”
“Do you think this had anything to do with Amy’s murder?”
“I certainly hope not,” an aghast Niccoldi replied.
“This research she was doing,” Tony said. “Where was she looking?”
Both Niccoldi and K.J. glared at him. It was as if they forgot he was in the room.
“The Special Collections department of the campus library,” Niccoldi said. “Dr. Valence’s papers are housed there.”
“Special collections,” K.J. repeated. “Got it. Well, thanks a lot, Professor. We’ve gotta run. I’d imagine the police will probably want to talk to you.”
“I’d be surprised if they didn’t,” Niccoldi said sourly.
Tony and K.J. retraced their steps through the hallway, took the elevator down and walked out the door and past the columns.
“Any idea where the library is?” he asked. “They gave me a tour yesterday, but I’m lucky that I remember my own name, given the circumstances.”
“It’s…” K.J. began.
“Hold it!” a voice from behind them boomed. “The two of you are in very big trouble.”
Jackson stood on the sidewalk along Campus Boulevard, furious. The eternal calm he’d displayed the night before was gone, and in its place emerged the scowling, angry-eyed look of a man ready to do some damage. Parked directly behind Jackson was the gray sedan, a suit-clad detective at the wheel. So much for that mystery, Tony thought.
“Morning, Avis,” K.J. greeted cheerfully. She seemed entirely unfazed. Tony imagined pissing off the police was a daily occurrence for her.
“Goddamnit, K.J.,” Jackson thundered. “You couldn’t wait for the public information officer to put together a release for you?”
“The PIO is slooooow,” K.J. retorted. “Besides, you know me better than that.”
“I’m surprised to see you caught up in this, Mr. Lang,” he said, redirecting his attention toward Tony. “I thought I had warned you about her.”
“You did,” Tony said. “But you’re right – she’s relentless.”
Jackson stiffened. “All right, people. I am going to say this once. This is an open murder investigation. You do not interfere. You do not withhold information. Somehow, you got to Donald Niccoldi – I assume that’s where you’re coming from – before we did. That CANNOT happen again. I don’t want to find out about something that could have helped us today in tomorrow morning’s paper. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Tony said, a touch apologetic. He felt bad now. Sure, he didn’t care for Jackson’s manner, but the man was committed to his job. It was a more important job than his, than K.J.'s. He got so caught up in the pursuit, in that damn spark, that he forgot what was at stake. Jackson was right. This was a murder investigation and that trumps all.
“So talk to Niccoldi then,” K.J. said. She would not give Jackson the satisfaction of an apology. “I’m sure he’ll tell you everything he told us. Maybe even more.”
“Detective Huber will tend to that,” Jackson said, gesturing to the suit in the car. “You will proceed to your next destination and I will join you.”
“Next destination?” K.J. asked.
“Don’t play games with me, K.J.,” Jackson said, waving his finger for emphasis. “I know Niccoldi sent you somewhere. I saw that ‘get up and go’ look in your eye coming out the building.”
“Why don’t you ask Niccoldi then?” K.J. protested.
“Library,” Tony said. “Special collections. Amy Holden was doing some research there.”
K.J. shot him a dirty look, but Jackson nodded approvingly, his anger abated.
“All right,” he said. “We’re going to the library then. I will ask the special collections librarian – Miss Saruzal, I believe – some questions. You may observe. If I ask you to leave, you leave. Anything we feel comfortable releasing will be released to you later.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” K.J. said. She did little to disguise the contempt in her voice. Tony did not envy Jackson – or any cop, fireman, state trooper, judge, or lawyer – just then. Attractive or not, this woman was a nightmare when she wanted to be.
Special collections was housed in the library’s annex. Like Blair Hall, the annex was newer construction, albeit less grand in its design. Special collections occupied part of the first floor. A large square of a room, it featured high bookcases lined with old leather-bound volumes, handwritten pages tucked safely under display glass, obscure artwork hanging regally from wood-paneled walls and a circular desk dead-center.
The woman behind the desk introduced herself as Emily Saruzal. She was not the looker K.J. was, but Tony found her attractive in her own way. It was the buttoned-up look that did it for him, he decided. She dressed in conservative browns, kept her auburn hair pulled back tight and wore just a hint of a sweet-smelling perfume Tony recognized but could not place. She was quite possibly the only librarian Tony ever met who didn’t wear glasses.
Jackson made the introductions and stated the purpose of their visit. This drew a “my goodness!” from Miss Saruzal. Tony guessed she didn’t have very many visitors in special collections. Those that she did have were not likely to be reporters or cops. The occasional professor of English seemed like less of a stretch.
“That poor girl,” Miss Saruzal said, shaking her head. “She seemed very nice. It’s terrible what happened to her.”
“When did she start coming down here?” Jackson asked.
“She was here a few times last semester, I believe. But much more frequently within the past few weeks. She was here yesterday, as a matter of fact.”
“Ah-huh. And did you happen to notice the materials she took off the shelves? I assume nothing in this room is actually checked out.”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Miss Saruzal explained. “Lately, she had been looking into Simon Valence. Are you familiar…”
“Before my time,” Jackson said. “Tell me, did she talk about her research often? Did she seem upset by anything she encountered?”
“Upset? No, not really. I think she seem excited to be assisting Professor Niccoldi. Although…”
“She came across some of Professor Valence’s personal papers and wanted to know if there were more. When I told her they were missing, she seemed disappointed?”
“I’m sorry,” Tony interjected. “But ‘missing?’ How does that happen? I mean, it seems like you run a pretty tight ship down here.”
“Thank you,” Miss Saruzal said, flustered. “We used to be housed in the basement of the main library building. When we moved over to the annex, some things got lost. Thankfully, not too many things, but unfortunately, most of Professor Valence’s personal papers were among them.”
“I see,” said Jackson. He unearthed a business card and slid it across the librarian’s desk. “If you think of anything, anything else at all, please call me directly.”
They exited the building at a loss for direction and only Jackson, impassive as when Tony first met him, did not seem disappointed.
“Well that was a dead end,” Tony said. “Look, detective, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but you might want to talk to the former chancellor. Niccoldi said he…”
“Dr. Hand is not well,” Jackson replied in a grave voice. “Dr. Hand is not to be disturbed.”
“Got it,” Tony said.
K.J. yawned and flipped her notepad closed. “Well, boys, it’s been fun, but I need to hurry back to the office and file. At least I have enough for a follow-up piece. Everyone thinks Amy Holden was nice. Lovely. Call me if anyone else drops dead.”
She turned and began walking back toward the visitor’s lot, leaving Tony uncertain whether he was supposed to follow her or catch a ride back with someone else. Jackson shot him an “I told you” look.
“I see what you mean,” Tony said. K.J. bailed on him, Jackson seemed on guard, and he still had no clue what led to the night before. He was having one hell of a day.
Jackson, in what was becoming typical Jackson fashion, made Tony wait again. He wanted Tony on hand when Detective Huber finished with Niccoldi to see if the good professor had omitted something important. As it turned out, he had not. That did Tony little good, however. By the time the police were done with him and he was able to return to the Marriott, he’d missed lunch by a long shot.
Laying on the neatly remade bed, Tony turned on the TV and channel-surfed for several minutes before finally settling on an episode of Columbo. It was ironic, he thought: he picked the one detective show where everyone knew who did it. In real life, nobody seemed to have a clue. Watching Peter Falk go through his routine reminded Tony that he was no detective, nor a journalist for that matter. He was a writer and that expertise seemed unlikely to help him now.
Still, he couldn’t help but give it a shot. He set up the past two days in his mind like a narrative and tried to make the pieces connect. Amy Holden gets murdered – an inciting incident. But why? What’s the backstory? He and K.J. had both assumed it was because of her research, but maybe not. Everyone said Amy was “nice.” In Tony’s experience, “nice” meant “hiding something.”
One thread at a time, though. Back to the research. Amy looks into Simon Valence and finds something that makes her want to keep looking. Somebody doesn’t like that. But who is her killer? What’s the motivation? Definition through action suggests anger, revenge. Maybe Valence had a widow, children, an old friend looking to keep his name clean. Or maybe it was someone from the university side who wants to keep a lid on things. Jackson said ex-Chancellor Hand was “not well.” Tony took that for old and frail, but what if he meant mentally unbalanced?
The more Tony thought about it, the more outlandish it seemed. The possibilities made his head hurt and no clear connections emerged. When the episode of Columbo ended, he decided to take a nap.
K.J. woke him again, this time with a phone call inviting him to dinner. “We can compare notes,” she offered.
“I don’t have any notes,” he said.
“That’s OK,” she told him. “I have more than enough for both of us.”
She took him to a downtown seafood place with jazz music and outdoor seating. The weather held and the bugs managed to leave them alone. Tony went with crab cakes, his measuring stick for all seafood restaurants. They were decent, but far from the best he’d had. K.J. picked lightly at an oyster salad, devoting more interest to her bottled beer. The attitude she’d copped earlier seemed long gone.
“So I ran Valence through our archive,” she said. “Niccoldi was right. He was a pretty big deal. Won all kinds of awards, got quoted a lot, that kind of thing.”
“What about his death?” Tony asked.
K.J. shrugged and took another swallow of beer. “Not much on that,” she explained. “Cop reporters don’t usually write up suicides. It’s taboo.”
“But but but,” she said, waving a finger. “I did find his obit. He was survived by his widow, Daria. Good luck finding her though. My editor says she split the area after Simon capped himself. Anyway, that’s my day. You get anywhere with the boys in blue?”
“After you antagonized them, I was afraid to ask,” Tony said.
“Oh please,” K.J. said with another dismissive hand wave. “Avis was just being territorial. The chief reads the paper. Any time we scoop the police, it makes them look bad. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“He still seemed very touchy. Especially when I mentioned Hand.”
“Hand’s his benefactor,” K.J. said. She shoveled some salad into her mouth. A kid on a motor scooter zipped by on the street.
“Benefactor?” Tony asked. The crab cakes came with a rice pilaf, which he worked slowly and with little enthusiasm.
“Avis is local,” K.J. explained. “His father was a groundskeeper at the university for years. Hand knew the family pretty well, hired Avis to mow his lawn during summers. Even gave him a scholarship, a pretty generous one for a B-student and a backup wide receiver. So yeah, Avis is a little protective as far as Hand and the university are concerned.”
“Protective enough to…”
K.J. interrupted him by bursting into loud, obnoxious laughter. She snorted. Beer dripped down her chin.
“You think Avis is covering for Hand?!” she asked. “Hand’s pushing 80. He’s in a wheelchair. He rarely goes out in public these days. If he killed Amy Holden, I’ll eat a fucking horse.”
“I don’t like this,” Tony said, frowning. “You seem to know everything and I still can’t fill in the blanks. Meanwhile, I don’t even know your proper name.”
“And with an attitude like that, you never will,” K.J. rebuked. “I’m not the only one you seem to have a problem with. I saw how you were with Niccoldi.”
“An academic, same as yourself. But no, that can’t be. You’re Tony Lang, a writer, a man of the world, right? Well, I’ve got news for you, Tony. You’re no Hemingway. So get over it.”
The words stung and Tony was at a loss for how to handle himself. If a student came at him with that, he could kick her out of his office or drop her from his class. If some snotty critic put that in a book review, he could ignore it or write a rejoinder. If a friend or a lover said that to his face, it could give him reason to reexamine that relationship. But K.J. was none of those things.
“This is stupid,” Tony finally concluded. “People are dying out there and we’re sitting here arguing.”
“Story of my life,” K.J. said. She drained the last of her beer, made a similar effort to finish off the salad and came up well short. “Let me ask you something.”
“You said ‘people are dying.’ Amy’s one. As a man of the world, do you think we’re headed for more?”
“I hope not,” Tony replied in earnest. “But I don’t know.”
Niccoldi lived alone in a decent-sized house not far from campus. It was walkable in a pinch, but he drove anyway. Walking was something he reserved for his leisure. He was a professor, not a peasant.
Between writing his book, preparing his lessons, grading student papers, watching television and the occasional drink with fellow faculty, Niccoldi had little problem filling his time. That was a good thing, too; had he not been so preoccupied, his loneliness might have gotten him in trouble. His wife had divorced him years ago and their daughter went out of state for college. The women who could match his intellect and achievements were stale and haughty and gray. It took young and vibrant and passionate to stoke his fire. In other words, a student.
The thought had crossed his mind on numerous occasions, though he had never acted on it. Ethically, he knew it was wrong. Pragmatically, he knew it would cost him his job. And yet, he just couldn’t see the real harm in it. After all, they were both adults. They would be serving each other’s needs. He would share his wisdom and experience and they their vitality. There was precedent upon precedent for it and it made good logical sense.
He had only recently begun to consider Amy Holden in this way. She was not an overtly beautiful girl. Wholesome, yes, and pretty enough, but with a slight build and too-thick eyebrows that did her face a disservice. Her intellect was similarly unexceptional. She was a good researcher, dedicated, and genuinely interested in the subject matter. However, she lacked a certain fire, a certain boldness historians need in order to confront established truths. Ah…fuck it. Not everyone needed to be a Howard Zinn these days. No, what ultimately drew Amy to him was their proximity. She met with him frequently after class. He picked up a few personal details (she was single, she could play the piano) and shared some as well. She was there and, he sensed, probably willing.
And now she was dead. Niccoldi hoped and prayed that her death was unrelated to her work for him. Let it be a crazed former boyfriend. A mugging gone wrong. A random lunatic. Anything but a path that led back to him….and Valence.
It was the dead professor and not the dead girl that Niccoldi contemplated the night after the murder. He sat at his desk in his study, a half-filled glass of iceless bourbon in one hand while he read over the notes Amy had so dutifully compiled. He paused and closed his eyes and tried to picture the man: his Robert Redford looks, his ever-changing Latin quote on the upper third of the blackboard, the way he walked up and down the rows of the classroom, stopping to call on the student he thought would least expect it. He was everyone’s favorite. Even those who struggled with the work, who cursed him for his arrogance, who rejected the ancient world he so faithfully glorified, loved him in the end.
And yet, he threw it all away. Why, Niccoldi wondered. The rumors had been that it had ended over an affair with a student and Niccoldi believed that at the time. Publically, it was what he suggested to others. Privately, he had his doubts. Surely, a man of Valence’s gifts would realize the foolishness of it. Surely, he would have exercised the utmost discretion even if he did pursue. And surely he would have been protected. Chancellor Hand would not have come down on him the way he did over a fling with Suzy Q. Nobody. No, it had to be someone important. Someone…
Niccoldi opened his eyes. There was an annoying, persistent scraping sound coming from somewhere overhead. Were it daylight, he would have dismissed it as a squirrel on the roof or maybe a bird. But at this hour?
He moved toward the window to investigate. The study was on the second floor of the house and the window overlooked a small stretch of yard and the neighbors’ property. Niccoldi opened it and peered out. He saw nothing but the dark of night.
The black blot of the boot swung down and caught him flush in the face. He felt his nose break and a tooth dislodge. Blood gushed as he went caterwauling backwards, the light carpet beneath him gathering raindrop-sized stains. Somehow, he stayed on his feet.
His vision blurry from the pain, Niccoldi saw a raincoat-clad figure swoop in through the open window. The attacker seized him by the arm and, grunting with effort, whipped him into a bookshelf. Niccoldi was able to turn slightly to dull the impact, but it did him little good. Pain shot through his right shoulder; texts from the upper shelves tumbled and battered the top of his head.
Hurt to the point of mindlessness, Niccoldi turned slowly and woozily and caught another blow – this one from the bourbon bottle – to the face. This time, he went down.
Floorbound and twitching in agony, Niccoldi gurgled blood. He offered a soundless prayer. He thought of his wife and daughter in happier times. He wordlessly apologized for getting Amy – and himself – into this mess.
The attacker knelt down in front of him. A gloved hand held an opened razor. Lifting his gaze against the pain, Niccoldi looked up and spotted a face he thought he recognized just before the shiny blade came down swiftly upon him.
For the second morning in a row, Tony awoke to the sound of knocking. These knocks were louder and more urgent than K.J.'s had been and they were accompanied by cries of, “Police, Mr. Lang. Open up.”
Tony quickly shrugged on some clothes and went to see what the commotion was about. Through the peephole, he spied a uniformed officer, possibly the same one who drove him home the night of the murder.
“What’s this all about?” Tony asked after opening the door.
“Sir, you’re going to have to come with me down to the station,” the officer said. “We’ve received a credible threat on your life.”
Tony searched the man’s face for some hint that this might all be a joke and, finding none, allowed his own jaw to fall slack.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered. His stomach clenched and he was thankful that it was empty.
By the time they reached the patrol car, Tony’s mind had begun to clear and his panic subsided. Based on what he learned yesterday, this could just be Jackson overreacting or Jackson angling to keep him away from the university. He wouldn’t put it past the man.
“Tell me something,” Tony said. “Did Detective Jackson send for me?”
“Yes, that’s right,” the officer replied.
“So Avis arranged a pick-up. I thought only Enterprise did that.”
The patrolman either didn’t get the joke or didn’t find it funny enough to laugh.
At the station, Tony was shepherded into a second-floor conference room. It was a friendlier space than the interrogation room. Padded rolling chairs surrounded an oval-shaped table. A bureau housed carafes of coffee and ice water, in addition to the requisite donuts. It was a stark contrast to what Tony thought of when he pictured police stations: cluttered cubicles and crowded holding cells.
As expected, Jackson and K.J. were seated at the table.
“So you got one too?” K.J. asked.
“One what?” said Tony.
Jackson presented him with a clear plastic evidence bag. Inside the bag was a white envelope and its former contents. STAY AWAY OR YOU’RE NEXT, a typewritten note cautioned. Scotch-taped to the bottom of the note was a scrap of white fabric that had been stained red. It could have been wine, Tony thought, but he knew it wasn’t wine or ketchup or anything besides human blood.
“Someone left this for K.J. at the paper,” Jackson explained. He was calm again, but serious. “We found an identical note slipped halfway under your door.”
“Donald Niccoldi is dead,” Jackson continued. “The blood-soaked scraps were cut from an undershirt he was wearing at the time of the murder. We believe whoever killed him sent the threatening notes. We believe the same person or persons killed Amy Holden.”
“Good God!” Tony exclaimed.
“By law, we’re allowed to detain you for up to 24 hours without charge. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, at least until I can get a material witness order. We’ll try to keep you comfortable and we’ll try to resolve this as quickly as we can, but in the meantime, you aren’t going anywhere. Believe me when I tell you, Mr. Lang, that this is for your own good.”
The debriefing complete, Jackson rose to exit. Tony was too dumbfounded to say anything to him on his way out. Had he just been arrested?
“I….” he said, sinking deeply into a chair. “How in the hell did this happen?”
K.J. yawned. She had at least been able to dress for work before Jackson brought her in. “Beats me,” she said.
“You seem to be taking this awfully well.”
She took a deep breath. “Avis and I had it out earlier,” she explained. “I told him he couldn’t do this. I said I’d sick my editor on him. I threatened him with bad press, with lawsuits. Want to guess how that turned out?”
Tony could only shake his head.
“I’m sure that I’ll thank him for this someday,” K.J. said. “But right now, I’m pissed.”
“I’m the one who got dragged out of bed this morning,” Tony reminded her.
“Oh, I can top that,” K.J. said, grinning sardonically. “I did a little digging and found out that Daria Francesco, Valence’s widow, returned to the area a few years ago. She runs some fancy private daycare out in the country. I called over there and asked for her. Whoever I was talking to hung up as soon as I mentioned the paper. I think if I could get through to her if I dropped by. If I wasn’t in a fucking police station.”
“Maybe I should take a run at her,” Tony suggested.
K.J. gave him a sympathetic pat on the head. “Get some coffee, hun,” she said. “You must really be out of it. See, in case you didn’t notice, you’re in a police station too.”
“They can’t really hold us for a whole day, can they?” Tony asked.
“Sure can,” K.J. replied. “I think I’ll be out before then. My editor’s probably on the phone right now, pleading his case to the chief. It’s you I’m worried about. You’re the one who saw the killer. If Jackson gets that material witness order signed, you’re stuck.”
She looked around the room wide-eyed and craned her neck toward the doorway. A uniformed officer stood sentry just outside the door. Tony wondered if it was the same cop who drove him. He wondered how badly the officer must have screwed up to draw this for an assignment.
“We have to get you out of here,” K.J. said in a low whisper.
“How?” Tony whispered back. “Like you said, I’m in a fucking police station.”
“I’ll create a distraction,” K.J. suggested, pushing a sheet of paper into his hand. “You get out of here and go see Simon’s widow. There’s the address.”
Tony shrugged. It sounded harebrained and risky, but he was out of options. He watched as K.J. walked to the doorway and sidled up to their guard, temporarily blocking his field of vision.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“Down the hall to your left,” the officer replied. “If you aren’t back in ten minutes, I’m going to send a female officer in after you. Just so you know.”
“Aren’t you worried I’ll climb out a window?” K.J. asked.
“We’re on the second floor, ma’am,” the officer replied. “You look like you know better.”
While they talked, Tony crept out of the room and began walking down the hall in the opposite direction. His heart was racing, but he willed himself not to panic. Eyes forward, he thought. Look like you belong.
Somehow, he made it out. There was foot traffic in the hallway, but nobody stopped him. He took the stairway down and strolled out the front door. The front desk receptionist even wished him a nice day. Jackson would undoubtedly be furious when he found out, but Tony tried to put that out of his mind. He had other business to attend to.
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.