Riley had never realized there were so many churches in town. She parked at the curb in front of the First Baptist Church of the Savior, looking at the businesses that flanked it. The church was a narrow storefront of cream-colored brick wedged between a pizza parlor and a pawn shop. The single window of the church was completely filled by an eight-by-ten painting of Jesus, and the glass front door had a sign inviting passersby to “come worship with us!” Riley could hear live music coming from within and wondered how an organ could fit into the tiny space, not to mention worshippers.
An exterior stairway was draped with wet laundry, various pieces of garbage caught in the railings. Riley walked upstairs to the plain green door and knocked. She stepped back as she waited for a response, using her tongue to work out whatever was caught in her teeth. Bacon, she thought. She smiled, still surprised that Gillian had gone to the trouble to cook her breakfast.
“Better get used to it,” she had said. “Organic food is the best. None of that greasy stuff from the diner. Did you know their eggs come in a milk carton? All goop-ified. It’s really alarming.” She had punctuated her argument by cracking another brown egg on the side of the bowl and saying, “Seconds?”
Breakfast had been nice, it was normal, it was almost enough to make her forget about Marchosias and his threat against Gillian’s safety. Almost. Riley pushed thoughts of the demon out of her mind and focused on getting her partner out of bed so they could actually go to work. Riley waited a few more seconds before trying the knob. The door was unlocked, and she felt a twinge of unease. Would Marchosias go after Priest? Could he? She stepped inside. “Priest? Everything okay… in here…? Wow.”
To call the apartment spartan would be an understatement. An empty bookcase separated the foyer from the living room, and she could see the rest of the apartment through the wooden boards. She stepped around the bookcase to the empty living room, and raised her eyebrows when she saw what was on the floor. She took off her sunglasses and said, “I could come back if this is a bad time.”
Priest was lying spread-eagle on the floor, naked except for a half-slip over her lower body. Her wings were extended, lying beneath her like a pillow. She shook her head in answer to Riley’s question and said, “No. It’s fine. They’re almost done.” The corners of her lips curled up and she twisted her body against the floor. “Early morning mass. Their praise rises through the floor and washes over this entire apartment. It’s… invigorating.”
“I’ll bet,” Riley said. Priest’s breasts were flat at the moment, due to her position, her nipples plain, pink, barely distinguishable from the rest of her skin. Riley was surprised to find that, for the first time in her adult life, she was looking at a half-naked woman and feeling absolutely nothing. She spotted a shirt on the floor and bent down, tossing it to Priest with a flick of her fingers. “Going to have to cut the sponging short this morning. We got a call.”
Priest sighed and pushed herself up off the floor. She took the shirt Riley had tossed her and stood up. “I’ll dress quickly.” She turned to walk away, and Riley watched as the large white wings folded in on themselves. The feathers seemed to mold against Priest’s back and rearranged themselves until they faded from view.
“Freaky,” Riley muttered. She went to the window and leaned against the sill, checking out her new partner’s view. She could see the elevated train track two buildings over, and wondered how loud it got when the train went by. It would make the people in the church worship louder, and that would make Priest buzz like a bug zapper. Win-win. A handful of windows in the building across the street were still dark, and she could see vague shapes of people moving within. She was in the middle of making up stories for each of the residents when Priest returned.
She wore a knee-length tweed skirt and a button-down dress shirt. She was rolling up the sleeves when she came back into the living room. Riley gestured at the empty floor and said, “You need furniture? I know a guy.”
“That’s not necessary.”
Riley shrugged. “Suit yourself. Come on.” They left the apartment and Priest followed Riley down the stairs. “We have a body on Talbot. Hathaway called me in the middle of breakfast.” Actually, the call had come just after Gillian, robe held aside to show her legs, had settled in her lap for a little replay of the night before. She tried to keep the frustration from her voice as she walked to her car. “You up for your first full-blown investigation?”
“No time like the present,” Priest said. She opened the passenger door and looked toward the church again. She smiled and said, “Maybe I should drop in sometime. Put some money in the collection plate.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Riley said. She put her sunglasses back on and said, “C’mon. Body isn’t getting any deader, but we kind of have a time crunch.”
Priest nodded. “First forty-eight hours of a homicide are the most important.”
“You been reading up on the police handbook?”
Riley nodded and got into the car. “Well, don’t let them fool you. Those things are nothing like real life.”
“Yeah,” Riley said. She pulled away from the curb and said, “Real life is worse.”
The apartment building was a few blocks away from the decay of No Man’s Land, one of the few buildings that seemed to be doing whatever it could to hold off its own decline. As Riley got out of the car, she looked up at the apartment windows and counted four flower boxes and the majority of the windows were actually washed and clean. There was no garbage piled on the sidewalk, and the door was protected by a well-maintained buzzer system. Every occupied apartment had a clearly-written tenant name next to the button.
Riley pressed the button for apartment 2-B and said, “Or not to be…”
Riley glanced over her shoulder at Priest. “Soliloquy by Hamlet. Shakespeare.”
Priest nodded. “Oh. I’m not very up on pop culture.”
A man’s voice came through the tinny speaker. “Who is it?”
“Detectives Parra and Priest.”
The door buzzed, and Riley pulled the door open. She ushered Priest inside and said, “Five hundred years ago is not pop culture. It’s ancient history.”
“Says you,” Priest said.
The lobby was tidy, but not clean. There was evidence of water damage on the ceiling and walls, and the floor tile had definitely seen better days. Leaves that had blown in through the front door congregated under the stairs. Riley led the way upstairs and stopped on the second floor landing. Every apartment door was open, and a black man wearing a rumpled fedora stood before Apartment 2-A like a sentry. His needle-thin arms were crossed over his chest, his chin thrust forward as if in challenge. “I saw everything,” he said. “You need an eyewitness, I’ll testify, you bet.”
“Thank you, sir,” Riley said. “For right now, please go back into your apartment. Okay?”
The man reluctantly left his station, turning toward 2-B as he backed up. “You go easy on her, hear?”
Riley stopped at the threshold of 2-B and knocked on the freshly-painted doorframe. The kitchen stood to her right, and a short hallway to the left most likely went to the bedrooms. Straight ahead was the living room, where two uniformed officers were standing guard. One of them saw Riley and nodded as she stepped into the apartment. “Officer. Is Mrs. Post…?”
A woman came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. She wore a turtleneck and a pair of old blue jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Her feet were bare, toes unpainted. Her entire body seemed to be shaking. “Hi. Are you the detectives? Please come in.” She touched the back of her hand to her lips and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Riley watched Mrs. Post return to the sink, which was filled with frothy white bubbles. She lifted a plate from the water, looked at it, then returned it to the sink. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I just wandered in here and started doing the dishes.”
“It’s all right,” Riley said. She looked at the rack of dirty dishes and then smiled. “I’m Detective Parra, and this is my partner, Detective Priest. Why don’t you tell us what happened?”
The woman said, “I’m Anna Post. I… I was still in the bedroom. I heard someone come into the apartment and start shouting. And…” She swallowed hard and began to shake, wrapping her arms around herself.
“It’s all right,” Riley said. “We’ll get the rest of the information from the officers. Priest, will you stay with her?”
“Yes, of course.”
Riley went into the living room where the other policemen were waiting. She took in the scene. A man lay facedown on the floor between the couch and coffee table, his hand stretched toward the TV in the corner. He wore sweatpants and a white T-shirt, blood staining the carpet around him. A handful of framed pictures flanked the only window in the room. The wall next to the TV had piles of old magazines and newspapers stacked against it. Some of the newspaper stacks had empty beer cans standing on top of them. The coffee table had two plates, the remnants of breakfast cooling upon them.
Riley smelled sausage and pancake syrup and was very aware that organic food had nothing on greasy hash browns from the diner. Of course, the service at home was second to none. She glanced at the officer closest to her and said, “What’s the story?”
The officer, a man named Cooley, said, “Woman says she heard people screaming and came out of the bedroom in time to see someone stab her hubby. She screamed, guy panicked and ran out of the apartment. She was too shocked to try and chase him.”
“Anyone get a description?”
“Old guy next door. We were about to go take his statement.”
They left Riley alone in the living room and she walked around to get a better view of the dead man. She knelt next to his outstretched hand, eyeing his knuckles without touching anything. The skin was raw, broken, and she wondered if he’d had time to fight the robber before the knife came out. The couch was in full view of the front door, which meant Mr. Post would have seen the burglar coming into the house. So why did he stay at the couch? A big guy like this wouldn’t just stand back and let someone come into his home. All the burglar would have to do is step to his left and he would have been in the bedroom where the wife was.
So why had Mr. Post stayed on the couch while someone broke into his apartment?
Riley walked back to the door and eyed the frame. It was pristine. Maybe Mr. Post unlocked it when he went to get the newspaper. She turned to the kitchen to ask Anna if they subscribed to the daily paper. Priest was sitting at the dining room table, holding a tiny white teacup with both hands. Anna was, at the moment Riley looked, bending over to place something in the recycling bin. When she leaned forward, her sweater rode higher on her torso to reveal the small of her back.
Three purple blotches shaped like purple diamonds marred her skin just above her belt.
Riley looked at the mountain of dish soap in the sink and retreated to the living room. She looked at the framed pictures on the wall and noticed a pattern; the man always had his hand on his wife’s shoulder, and she was always leaning slightly away from him with a forced smile. In every photo, the man was obviously the focus. His wife, if she was in the picture at all, stood at his side like a prop.
The table next to the couch had a stack of magazines – sports and fishing, mainly, with one dedicated to guns and ammo – and the remote control. On the opposite side of the couch was a single crossword puzzle book. Riley picked it up and eyed the entries. Tiny letters, drawn with a gentle hand, filled the boxes. She was no handwriting expert, but she doubted the woman who had finished the puzzles would be able to take down a man of Mr. Post’s size.
At least, not without a damn good motivation.
The officers returned from interviewing the neighbor. Cooley stopped in the living room doorway and read off his notepad. “Black male, average height, average weight. White T-shirt and black track pants. Shouldn’t be too hard to find him.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to find ten of him,” the other officer said.
Riley nodded and the downstairs buzzer sounded again. Cooley pressed the button. “Name, please?”
“Gillian Hunt, ME.”
“Come on up.”
Riley glanced at the body again. “You guys ever been to this apartment before?”
“Not us personally,” the one who wasn’t Cooley replied. “It’s pretty well known around the station, though. A lot of loud ‘disagreements.’ The neighbors sometimes complained about the guy yelling and going on tirades. Mr. Winston next door said that people tried to avoid him on the stairs and in the laundry room.”
“People claim he stole their laundry.” Riley and the officers turned toward the kitchen door. Anna stood, looking at her husband’s body, one hand pressed against her cheek. “He didn’t. He just sometimes… he would switch stuff. He would put one person’s shirt in someone else’s washer. As a joke. He… thought it was funny.”
Riley put her hand on Anna’s shoulder and the woman flinched slightly. “It’s okay, Anna.” To Cooley, she said, “Why don’t you take her outside for some fresh air?”
“This is Officer Cooley,” Riley said. “He’s going to make sure no one bothers you while you’re outside refreshing yourself, okay? Take as long as you need.”
The officer led Anna out of the room as Gillian and her assistant arrived. Gillian wore her street clothes, a dark blue windbreaker zipped up over her blouse. She barely glanced at Riley as she entered the apartment and went toward the crime scene. “Detective Parra.”
“Dr. Hunt,” Riley said. They walked to the body together. Gillian put down her bag and knelt next to the man, craning her neck to look at his face. Riley examined the man herself, trying to see what Gillian saw. Mr. Post – she wasn’t even sure of his first name – had a bit of a jowl, scruffy growth of beard on his cheeks and chin. His hair was shaggy and hung over his eyes. Riley figured he must have been quite the stud twenty years and a hundred pounds ago.
Gillian’s gaze had moved to the hands. “Oh, we’ve seen knuckles like these before…”
“Yep,” Riley said. She looked around the living room and said, “I’ll be right back. I want to check something.”
“Take your time.”
Riley went down the hallway to the bedroom. The bed was made, and fresh flowers stood in a green vase next to the bed. Dirty clothes littered the floor around a tall white hamper, but Riley could tell where Anna had tried to make the place presentable. The room smelled of air freshener, obviously sprayed around the time of the phone call to police. Even in her current condition, she didn’t want people to see a dirty apartment.
Riley looked at the wall behind the door, stretched to look behind the dresser, lifted every painting to see if it covered a hole in the drywall. A quick survey of the rest of the apartment told her that the walls weren’t the source of his bruised knuckles. She returned to the bedroom and looked in the dresser on the rumpled side of the bed. She wrinkled her nose as she gave a cursory examination of the items inside.
Lots of couples used toys, and she was sure a lot of them had paddles like this in their bedrooms. She took a rubber glove from her pocket and used it to pick the paddle up. She turned it over and saw the domed heads of four screws drilled into the face. She shuddered and put it back down. That was not good clean fun no matter who you were. She pushed the drawer back in and wondered just how much of Anna Post’s body was covered with hard-to-see bruises.
“Riley.” She turned around to see Priest standing in the doorway. “There was no intruder.”
Priest nodded and said, “I think she was on the verge of confessing to me. Perhaps if we were to speak to her at the station…”
“She’s not going to the station,” Riley hissed. She grabbed Priest’s arm, hauling her into the room as she pushed the bedroom door closed. “Listen to me, Caitlin. This guy abused her. He treated her like shit. I don’t know what set her off this morning. Maybe he just happened to hit her when she was in arm’s length of a knife. Whatever it is, it’s not our problem.”
“She murdered a man, Riley.”
“Oh, for…” Riley paced toward the bed. She pointed at the drawer. “There are sex toys in that dresser. At least, that’s what they appear to be on the surface. To me, they look more like torture devices. Even having sex with her was like a kind of abuse. He got off on causing her pain. She was barely a person in her own house.”
Priest said, “That doesn’t give her the right to murder a man.”
“Yes, it does. We call it self-defense.”
“I don’t know…”
“What is our job description?”
Priest frowned. “To enforce the law.”
“To catch bad guys. To stop them from breaking the law. What happens if we go out there and arrest that woman? She would have to spend time in jail overnight, most likely, until she’s arraigned. And if the judge doesn’t buy the self-defense angle, I doubt she could afford the bail, so she’s going back to her cell until trial. Who knows when that will be, or if she’ll survive. Then if and when she does finally get out, odds are that she’ll be hooked on one drug or another.”
She sighed and paced the short distance to the wall. “Our job is to serve and protect. We haven’t done either for this woman. We couldn’t stop her husband from beating her, so she took care of it herself. The least we can do, the very least, is make sure that it ends here.”
“Are you sure about this, Riley?”
Riley nodded. “Absolutely positive. We’ll put out the neighbor’s description, and we’ll do whatever we can to close the case.”
“Looking for a suspect we know doesn’t exist.”
“Anna Post will probably never commit another crime in her entire life. Putting her in prison won’t solve a damn thing. Putting her on trial won’t help anyone. It’s one of those rare situations when doing the wrong thing is to do the right thing.”
“Does this sort of thing come up often?”
“Too damn often,” Riley said. “Remember what I told you about crime novels and real life? Well, sometimes real life can be tricky. It’s up to us to decide, sometimes at the drop of a hat, what we’re going to do in a certain situation. People’s lives depend on us making the right decision. I think this is the right thing to do. If you don’t agree, then maybe you should wait in the car.”
Priest shook her head. “No. I trust your judgment.”
“Glad to hear it.” Riley stepped around Priest and opened the bedroom door. They arrived in the living room just as Gillian stood up and pulled her gloves off.
Gillian glanced at Priest and said, “I don’t believe we’ve met. Dr. Gillian Hunt.”
They shook hands, and Gillian glanced at Riley. “Detective Parra. Could I have a word with you in private?”
“No,” Riley said.
Gillian blinked. “Um… it’s about the victim. I really think–”
“That Detective Priest and I need to get the neighbor’s description out as soon as possible. Make sure whoever did this doesn’t get away. Good thought, Jill. It’s just what I was thinking.”
They stared at each other for a moment and then Gillian nodded. “Right. The suspect.” She glanced at Priest and said, “I’ll get the body taken care of and see you guys at the office. Case seems pretty open and shut to me, though. The… intruder stabbed the guy three times in the chest. He fell and bled out.”
Riley walked back into the living room. “He fell where he was standing?”
“And how long did it take him to bleed out?”
“About fifteen minutes. The wounds were big and nasty. He went fast.”
Riley went to the coffee table and stood where the killer would have been. She mimed stabbing someone three times, then looked at the ground. There was a bloody wedge-shaped mark on the carpet. The killer dropped the knife. And then… Riley turned and looked at the wall behind her. The newspapers and magazines had been disturbed.
The truth of what had happened played in her mind like a movie. Mr. Post said something to his wife, maybe started beating on her again. She had a knife with her, for breakfast, and she probably didn’t even think before she started stabbing. Then she dropped the knife and backpedaled, probably sat on the stack of newspapers in shock and watched her husband bleed to death. The only pity Riley felt was for Anna. But even if everything had happened exactly as she imagined, she couldn’t picture Anna Post coming up with the fake suspect all on her own. Then it dawned on her.
“I wonder who actually called 911.”
Priest shook her head.
Riley figured it was the neighbor, Mr. Winston. Anna had probably either screamed or started crying, and Winston came over to see what happened. The cover-up was his idea.
The officer returned with Anna Post. She looked at the body bag, and sniffled, the sleeves of her sweater pulled down over her hands. “I just… came to get some things. The officer told me I would probably want to spend a few nights somewhere else.”
“Do you have somewhere to go?” Riley asked.
Anna nodded. “I have a friend.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Dr. Hunt, are you…?”
“We’re done here. We just need to move the body.”
Riley nodded. “We’ll leave you to that.” She walked over to Anna, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, “We’re going to do everything in our power to find the person who murdered your husband. No matter how long it takes. But you have to prepare yourself. We may never find him. Do you understand?”
Anna frowned and finally, for the first time, met Riley’s eyes.
“Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” Anna finally managed. “I-I understand.”
Riley nodded and said, “Come on, Priest. Let’s get the killer’s description out there.”
“You got it, boss.”
They left the apartment, and Mr. Winston came out of his apartment. “Well, you goin’ make an arrest?”
“Yes, sir,” Riley said, not breaking stride as she went past him. “Just as soon as we find the young man you describe. Might be hard without a better description, but we’ll do our best.”
Winston seemed to relax. “Well, all right. Guess we can’t ask much more of you than that.”
“We’ll let you know if we make any progress, sir.”
Priest remained silent until they reached the street. “So this is it?”
“No, we’ll put the description out on the wire. We’ll get about a hundred calls by the end of the day by people swearing up and down they saw the kid. We may follow up on a couple of them. Just to have something to do. But none of them will lead anywhere. This time next week, Hathaway will tell us to put it into the cold file and move on.”
“You’ll have an unsolved case on your record.”
“I have a couple already. And they haunt me.” She looked up at the building with its flower boxes and polished windows, the desperate attempt to have something nice in a world that was doing its best to pull everyone down into the mud. She admired the effort, and she was going to do everything in her power to reward it. “This one won’t.”
Gillian was helping her assistant lead the gurney out of the building, Mr. Post’s body filling a black rubber bag on top of the mattress. She met Riley’s eyes across the street and nodded once. That single nod contained understanding, acceptance, and the full knowledge of what Riley had done. Riley returned the nod, then opened her car door. “Come on. Let’s get something for breakfast. My treat.”
“Oh, yeah? Where are we going?”
“Let’s try and find a place that serves organic food.”
Priest shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”
Riley pulled away from the curb, passing Gillian at the back of the Medical Examiner’s van. She lifted her hand as she passed, and Gillian mimicked the move. When they got to the curb, Riley looked in the rearview mirror and saw Anna Post coming out of the building. Officer Cooley led her to his car, but she still looked dazed.
Anna had a whole new life standing in front of her. A life without the man who had made a sport out of slapping her down. Riley prayed she made it, but her job was done. She pulled away from the stop sign, turning the corner and leaving Anna Post and her new life behind her.