Angels or Devils: Installment THREE

Installment THREE, Angels or Devils (Chapter 4). Download to your preferred eReader/device or read online. Earlier installments are posted below. For those who’d like a recap, you can download the first three installments in one file.

© A.M. Potter. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 4

With the coroner gone, Naslund sat on the front steps waiting for Chandler. In a nearby Norway pine, grackles chattered vociferously, countering the presence of death. She welcomed their company. The Canada jays were silent. Leaning against a stone balustrade, she went over what she knew with certainty. Not a lot.

Two dead bodies. One clear case of murder: Hayden. One of suicide or murder: Novak. As for motive, she had no firm leads. No evidence of forced entry. From what she’d seen of the castle interior, it hadn’t been ransacked. She could be looking at a robbery gone bad, but why would thieves string up the Novaks? They might kill them, but hang them with neckties? She didn’t see it. The more time spent on killing, the less time left to pillage.

Naslund eyed the large reflecting pool facing the castle. It was as still as the air. Deep within Novak’s estate, there was no wind. The castle was isolated, located in a private forest – a good locale for murder.

She let her mind cycle. There were suggestions from Zupan that financial gain was in play. The old chestnut. Money. Who’d benefit from Novak’s death? His family would certainly be centerstage. Ditto for his business partners. She wondered how often he’d become a devil investor. Depending on the money involved, a jilted partner could turn into a murderer. She’d subpoena all Angels or Devils footage, including the outtakes. Then there were Novak’s many other business ventures. He’d been a multimillionaire well before rising to TV stardom.

Get your blinkers off, she chastised herself. What about Hayden? Just because she was a glamour puss, it didn’t mean she had no money of her own. Someone could have killed her for financial gain. An ex-husband, or maybe Novak, her current husband. However, that undermined the murder-suicide angle. Why would he murder her for financial gain and then kill himself?

Naslund shrugged. What if someone murdered him? Perhaps he’d taken Hayden’s money previously and left it with someone, who then killed him to keep the money. Enough, she told herself. You’re getting convoluted.

It was time to marshal what she knew. As she dictated preliminary observations into her duty phone, Chandler puttered up in his squad car. He drove like a farmer piloting a hay baler: slowly and with deference. Bickell liked that. The chief was always on them to show respect to the public. He spent half his time urging them to be ‘good ambassadors,’ and the other half castigating them for being too lenient.

Chandler raised his hands in disappointment as he reached her. At six-foot-three, two-hundred-and-thirty pounds, even in his mid-forties he resembled a football linebacker. Not surprisingly, he’d once played professionally in Canada. “No fresh tire marks,” he said. “Nothing suspicious.”

“What about the gates?”

“Locked. Both padlocks covered in rust. Haven’t been opened since the Pope kissed a girl.”

She chuckled.

“I’m not saying kissed a boy. That could be last night.”

She nodded. She knew Chandler was a Catholic. He claimed it gave him licence to mock what he called holy fuckers. She overlooked his occasional crassness. If you had to keep all your jokes clean, you’d stop laughing. “Can you relieve Derlago? He’s watching the butler.”

“Butler? Wish I had one.”

“Don’t we all. His suite is above the garage. Send Derlago to the outdoor pool. Post him at the sliding door, in full view of the corpses. No one in, no one out, not unless I say so.”

“Yes, Sergeant. By the way, that’s a suspicious man. Fancy suit, but doesn’t trim his ear hair.” Chandler grinned.

“That is suspicious.”

“I know, only in the movies. But I’m half-serious. He moves like a big cat. A killer cat.”

“Agreed.”

“Why don’t we nudge things a long? Just a tad.”

“Nudge?”

“Set a few snoops in his suite.”

Snoop cameras, she knew. She shook her head. In her undercover days, she’d have done it. Back then, she’d temporarily adjusted rules to snag perps, who didn’t follow rules. She’d tried hard to be a successful criminal — and succeeded. That’s when she knew she had to leave and straighten out. It wasn’t something she ever talked about. It had taken a year. Which was a big reason why she was willing to accept Bickell’s BS. She’d been on the other side, and come back.

“We could catch him in the act,” Chandler insisted. “You know, flushing evidence or throwing it out.”

“Appreciate the thought,” she replied, “but his story checks so far. Anyway, your idea would backfire. One, we don’t have a surveillance warrant. Two, he hasn’t been charged with anything. Innocent until prov—”

“No need to harelip the Pope. Jesus H, I hate being hogtied.”

She nodded heartily. But that was the system. As she now knew, the undercover way was easier, but it was also a good way to torpedo a court case. One glitch and a guilty perp could walk on a technicality.

Chandler shrugged. “Wife says I’m too good for my badge.”

“Too sexy for your uniform.”

Me?” He wiggled his butt, then sashayed away with an exaggerated strut.

She laughed and almost went inside to type her case notes. However, the May sun was warm, strong enough to draw out the scent of pine. The grackles had multiplied. Although not her favourite bird — she considered them long-winded blackbirds — they dispelled the castle’s gloom. It seemed to be growing.

Seeing a patio table in the shade, she fetched her laptop from her car and began making case notes, the least favourite part of her job. When she’d applied to become a detective, she had no idea how much paperwork it entailed: case notes, warrants, subpoenas, reports.

Having almost finished her notes, she looked up to see Inspector Moore’s elongated black Ford Explorer roaring up the drive.

Like her, the inspector had a lead foot. His car reminded her of a hearse, which, given his job, seemed appropriate. Although she’d worked thirty-plus murders, he’d worked over two hundred and fifty. Jumping out of his hearse, he grabbed a CS kitbag and strode purposefully toward her. With his height and bony face, he resembled a skeleton on stilts. If he grew a beard, he’d pass for Abe Lincoln on a diet. At first glance, he looked the same: a tall, thin man who moved with surprising quickness. His gaze said I’ve seen it all before. However, he wore a natty midnight blue suit, not his usual drab grey. His hair was still grey but it was much longer, curling over his collar and ears.

“Hello, Sergeant,” he said and extended his hand ceremoniously.

She stood and shook hands, trying to match his formal demeanor. “Good to see you, sir.” She figured he’d been to private school, or perhaps military college. She’d ask him someday. “Welcome to my temporary HQ.” She gestured at the patio table.

He smiled. “I like it. Al fresco.”

She smiled back. The inspector seemed to have loosened up a bit already. His sartorial style certainly had. A good omen.

“Let’s look at the bodies,” he suggested.

***

Naslund led Moore to the pool area, keeping her investigative opinions to herself. She didn’t want to colour his first impressions.

After donning CS gear, the two detectives nodded to Derlago and walked the pool deck to the shallow end, Moore’s eyes sweeping the tiles. Reaching the corpses, he knelt beside Hayden. He seemed lost in thought. Naslund almost asked what he was thinking. She’d never seen him so unhurried. Another good omen. In their past collaboration, he’d shown one gear only: full speed ahead. Just as she parted her lips, he spoke.

“I see murder.” He pointed to the wire ligature. “Can’t cut it any other way. You?”

“The same.”

“The necktie is a red herring.” He grinned. “A very red herring.”

Well, she decided, the man really was more relaxed. She hoped he didn’t have a joke quota. A year ago, he seemed to be good for one a day, no more.

He turned to Novak’s corpse. This time, she left him to his analysis and took in the complete crime scene. The dark red of the two neckties caught her eye. It reminded her of the bottom band of the Slovenian flag. She’d watched Scotland play Slovenia twice in World Cup prelims. Did the necktie colour mean anything? Maybe it was a message from Novak. If so, to whom? She filed the thought away.

Moore finally spoke. “Another murder. Not Murder Two or suicide. Murder One, planned and deliberate.”

She waited. Moore’s voice, thick and resonant, belied his thinness. It was more measured than the last time she’d worked with him. By slowing down, he’d found another level of authority.

“I don’t see suicide,” he stated. “Hangers sometimes change their minds, try to undo their neck ligatures, and leave evidence: broken fingernails, self-lacerations. No indication of that. Beyond that, look at the position of the Hayden wire crossing, and then the Novak necktie knot.”

She did so.

“Both are below the upper spinal vertebra,” he pointed out, “which suggests assault by strangulation, not hanging. In a hanging, when a body falls, in most cases, the noose knot is jerked upwards. It rides up the neck, ending above that vertebra. In most cases,” he cautioned.

She nodded. Excellent point. She hadn’t paid enough attention to the position of the Novak necktie knot. A bad miss. The forensic pathologist would likely have spotted it, but it was good to have Moore on board. Two sets of eyes, two brains.

“What did the coroner rule?” he asked.

“Cause of death, strangulation. Means, homicide for Hayden. Either homicide or suicide for Novak.”

Moore shrugged. “I don’t like second-guessing a coroner, but when you see something, you see it.”

“Can’t un-see it.”

“True. Looks like two murders. However, re optics for the public, let’s start out by calling this a murder-suicide. It could be. The coroner may be right. I’ll release a press statement this afternoon.” Moore pursed his lips. At first, she saw a kissing codfish. Seconds later, his face morphed into a pondering sage. “Ditch that thought,” he said. “It might be good to announce a double suicide. Hold off on what we actually know. Let the murderers think we don’t have a clue.” He grinned. “We’re useless idiots. Ruling possibilities out when we should be ruling them in.”

She grinned back. “A bunch of Keystone Cops.”

“Exactly. All right, that’s the way to go. Two suicides.” He nodded judiciously. “But I’ll close with a little caveat: pending further investigation. Don’t want to have egg on our faces when we announce the real McCoy. I’ll shoot off a press release after lunch. No live news interviews, not yet.”

“Okay.” She got the impression Moore was thinking aloud for her benefit, trying to teach her the ropes. She didn’t mind. She liked his MO. He didn’t keep his ideas to himself. Other detectives she’d worked with kept their theories private, never airing missteps, believing the way to get ahead was to always look right, regardless.

“Any signs of forced ingress?” Moore asked.

“Didn’t see any. I’ll tell the whitecoats to search for B and E evidence.”

He nodded. “Before I left Central, I looked up recent strangulation cases. There aren’t many in the system. It’s a rare form of murder in Canada, less than twenty in the last three decades. Seventeen to be exact.”

“Good,” she said. Rare was useful. It limited the known perp gene pool.

“All seventeen cases were solved, not that that helps us. But I’ll use it to bolster the troops. Past victories point to future success and all that. Now go and solve this! You know the speech.”

Naslund wasn’t the rah-rah speech type. In fact, she wasn’t given to speeches of any kind — one reason why she wasn’t moving quickly to become an inspector. Besides, these days, she figured the “troops” didn’t need a DI on a high horse to lead them to victory. If finding murderers didn’t motivate them, what would?

Moore turned back to Novak’s body and soon pointed at his neck. “Consider the position of the noose knot again, below the upper spinal vertebra. Looks like we have strangulation from below. By a shorter person.” The inspector continued as if still thinking aloud. “I don’t see Novak standing around while his wife was strangled, or vice versa. There were likely two perps. One to strangle her; the other to strangle him. Possibly more. Maybe someone riding shotgun. And the stranglers were likely strong. Strangulation takes physical strength, not to mention mental strength. You have to have discipline, staying power. All told,” Moore concluded, “I’d say we have a reasonable starting point. But only a starting point. Lots of questions to answer. For example, why were the bodies strung up afterwards? We could have a staging of sorts.”

Naslund agreed. “Perhaps there’s messaging in play.”

“Any idea what?”

She shook her head. She needed to think about it. It was embarrassing enough to have missed Novak’s death as a likely homicide. Nonetheless, she couldn’t be too hard on herself. Moore was a specialist, a homicide detective. She was a generalist, handling whatever came her way. “Why don’t we talk to the butler? Damijan Zupan.”

“There’s a butler?” Moore grinned. “The butler did it. Case closed.”

She chuckled. “If only.”

Moore switched gears. “What’s your read on him? Do you trust him?”

She shrugged. Again, she’d didn’t want to colour Moore’s first impressions.

“Is he more than a POI?” Moore pressed.

“Could be,” she hedged. She wasn’t going to mention Zupan’s remote eyes. Too subjective, not to mention fanciful. In any case, she didn’t believe everything he said. Although people liked to believe each other — belief built cooperation; it was a societal glue — as a detective, she defaulted to the opposite: she distrusted them.

***

Naslund walked the inspector to Zupan’s studio, delivering a synopsis of her two previous interviews with the POI. Zupan was Slovenian, like Novak. He’d been an artillery captain in the Serbian army. He’d served dinner to Novak and his wife the previous evening, and to a guest, Karlos Vega.

Moore stopped her. “The Karlos Vega?”

“Yes. From what I know, Vega is one of Novak’s best friends.”

“Hard to believe. Oil and water, those two, with Vega the oily one.”

“Very greasy.”

Moore grinned.

“Do you want to listen to the audio of my interviews with Zupan?” she asked.

“Good idea.”

She stopped at the wing-back chairs in the foyer and emailed Moore the audio files. While he listened, she retrieved her laptop, sat outside and resumed her notes. Her never-ending notes. Despite the ideal spring weather, she felt trapped. Fortunately, the trap was soon sprung. Moore approached her half an hour later.

“So,” he said, “I’m thinking Vega should be at the front of the POI line in Toronto. What about you?”

She thought Rollo Junior. However, Moore was the boss. “Sure, Vega.”

“It appears he was the last POI to see Novak alive. I talked to the big man. He’s at his Toronto condo. Bloor and Avenue Road area. He’ll entertain us — his words — at 1800.”

“Kind of him.”

“He’s granting us thirty minutes, no more. Apparently, he has to fly to Miami at nineteen-thirty. Private jet from the Island Airport but, still, there’s the limo to the island and the pilot needs runway time.”

“Poor Vega.” She shook her head in mock sympathy. “So little time to add to his billions. Makes you cry.”

“And the likes of you and me, we’ll have to hoof it to Toronto.” Moore winked. “But not slowly.”

“Right. How about my car this time?” Working the Tyler Triple, they’d used his vehicle. “We can have lunch on the go.”

“Good. We’ll stay in Toronto tonight. Rollo Junior is there too, as well as his brother and mother. They all live downtown, but in scattered neighbourhoods. By the way, I hooked Junior for ten-hundred tomorrow.”

Naslund nodded. Fast work. Per the norm with Move-it-Moore.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Moore rolled on. “I also hooked Atlas for eleven-hundred-thirty and the ex-wife for thirteen-hundred-thirty. A family affair. I’ll get Central to book us two hotel rooms. Let’s leave ASAP, right after we’re done with Zupan.”

“It won’t be right after. A Mobile Unit’s on the way. I have to debrief them and get them to process Zupan.” One side of her wanted to stay behind to work the crime scene and consolidate the evidence. It was the way she was wired. Once she started something, she liked to finish it. On the other hand, they had to gather new evidence. The first forty-eight hours were critical. A murder case was like an avalanche. If it lost its momentum, it ground to a halt.

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