The corner hadn't changed in the time he'd been away. The same vendor shilling the same crummy coffee sat outside the same tiny bodega where he'd always gotten his groceries. People still walked back and forth, bustling, in rushes of crowds on regular schedules. There might be more trash blowing in the spring breeze than he remembered, but the neighborhood was comfortably familiar and no one recognized him.
He liked that. He looked up and saw the blue sky, closed his eyes and breathed in the filthy city's air. "It's good to be home," he said out loud, exhaling slowly.
"Welcome back, Frank."
The young lady was coming up the empty sidewalk dressed in Gucci leather coat and riding boots. She didn't smile.
"Hansen," Frank said. "You called." He sipped his swill coffee.
"Got a weird one for you. The kind you used to handle before," Hansen said taking his coffee cup and sniffing.
She made a face and held the cup out away from her. "This is gross. I'll show you where the good coffee is." She tossed the cup, still more than half full, into the trash bin that said "T'ank you" in a robotically Russian voice.
Hansen studied him and then gave him a tight smile. "You look good. The city agrees with you."
"Freedom agrees with me," Frank said. "Bettie, too."
"How is she?"
"Very well, thanks," Frank said with honest politeness. "She'd rather I weren't working for the police, even as just a consulting detective, but hey - we gotta eat." He stuffed his hands in his pants pockets, put on his best William Powell smile and rocked on his heels. "Which way?"
The crime scene was already well traveled with all the labrats doing their scientific things. A library the size of a small ballroom was full of investigators and police all waiting for them. The body was sprawled behind an antique oak desk that might once have been neatly kept but was now a riot of strewn papers that had deluged to the lush carpet in a couple of spots. That there were only three windows in the room: two of which were immediately behind the desk and separated by an overfull bookcase.
Hansen waved over a uniform who was swishing his hand over the small screen of his personal tablet. "Butler, what you got?"
Hansen tapped him on the chest. "Don't be a smart-ass on this one."
"Right," the officer said and read off his handheld screen. "Beltran, Terrence G.; fifty-seven years old, dead about six hours. According to the household staff he locked himself in here around midnight and then when they came to rouse him..." The officer shrugged.
"Anything else?" Hansen tapped her foot. "Because you really don't want to waste our time."
"Cause of death is strangulation," the officer said. "At least according to the labrat, there."
"I can hear you," the medical examiner said. "I'm right here." She came over. "Bethany Simms," she said and shook Frank's and Hansen's hand.
"So?" Hansen looked around the room and sighed. "How'd he die?"
"Someone choked the shit out of him, detective," Bethany said. "The filament used is embedded in the skin about an inch deep. Whoever did this was stronger than strong. He's been dead about four, maybe as much as six hours."
"What are his connections? He big in the community?" Frank knelt down and looked at the body. He could see the where the fibril stuck out just under both sides of the man's jaw and he traced the red mark that looked like a terrible thin smile across the front of the man's neck.
"Where've you been, man," Butler, the officer, said. "Under a rock or something?"
"Incarcerated, actually," Frank said. "I've been in the Well for over ten years. You wanna bring me up to speed?" He didn't look up.
If Frank's tone hadn't gotten the officer's attention, Hansen's glare did. "Uh, sorry," he said, then quickly added, "Beltran's a financier - scores money for developers of newtech."
"Newtech?" Frank looked up at him.
"Spacey stuff," the officer said. "Richard Branson-level space station development, is what I've read. He's done interviews in WIRED and NEW SCIENTIST."
"Good," Frank said and turned to Hansen. "Follow the money."
"His son and daughter are here," Officer Butler said and nodded to the back of the room.
"I'll get with them in a bit, thanks," Frank said. He looked the dead man from head to toe then stood up and rubbed his hands together. "So: the vic is strangled in a locked room by a very strong thread. Right so far?" Bethany and Butler both nodded.
"Doesn't look like a big fight, does it?" Frank looked around. “Strangling someone is work. I'd've expected more mess."
Hansen was taking notes.
Frank looked around the room, then pointed at a corner. "There," he said and turned to the officer. "Look in that ventilation duct to see if it's big enough for a person of any size. Check for scratches around the screws and dust. If there's a lot of dust that hasn't been disturbed, forget it."
Butler looked at him with disbelief.
"Go," Frank said and waved his hand at the officer, who walked past them and began moving furniture to get up and look at the grating. "Bethany?"
"Here," she said. "What's up?"
"Was there any indication that Beltran had been drugged?"
The medical examiner shook her head. "No. Just strangled."
"Are you doing the autopsy?"
"Okay, then I need you to be there anyway and I want you to look for anything out of the ordinary. Beltran was a drinker, but he won't have any alcohol in his system," Frank said. "The sideboard there."
Hansen and Bethany Simms looked over and saw a decanter and two glasses, untouched. "The lack of any kind of defensive wounds, the lack of a satisfying fight is bothering me. I'm betting you won't find foreign fibers on his clothes or skin under his fingernails, either." Frank reached into his jacket pocket and handed a card to Bethany. "Please call as soon as you know about those things. Lovely to meet you."
Frank turned and walked toward the dead man's children. Hansen was scribbling furiously on her tablet computer and Bethany whistled. "He always like this?"
"Nope," Hansen said. "Here's my card, too. Make sure you call, okay?"
"Dad was working on a big deal project for Barrowman Space Industries," the son was saying. He was a big man, muscled, not terribly handsome but catlike in his small movements. His receding hairline made him look older than he was, somewhere in his late twenties. The daughter was five or six years younger and athletically thin. Both had dark hair and brown eyes. "He had enemies, though."
"That was mostly in his head Derek." The daughter dismissed her brother with a sneer. "Daddy was loved by a lot of people he worked with. The rest of them respected him."
Frank stroked his chin absently, as he listened to the exchange. As Hansen joined him, Frank reached out and touched the daughter on her shoulder. "Miss Beltran," he said.
"Mrs. Parks," she said. "I got married two years ago."
Frank smiled. "Congratulations. Mrs. Parks, was your father a religious man?"
"Do you mean, Did he believe in God or Did he go to church?"
"He would go to holiday masses and then twice a year otherwise. Our birthdays."
"I see," Frank said. "Did he celebrate the holidays here?"
Derek straightened and smoothed his shirt front. "Why is that important?"
Frank only looked at Derek. Hansen looked up from her tablet and said, "Is it a secret?"
"No," Mrs. Parks said patting her brother on his shoulder. "Only that he didn't celebrate Christmas or New Year's and that caused a lot problems for us when we were younger. The other kids all got presents and a nice long vacation from school."
"Why didn't he celebrate Christmas?" Frank narrowed his eyes and was intent on Derek's face.
"Said he didn't believe in it any more," the younger man said. " Mom died on Christmas day."
"How did she die?"
"Cancer," Mrs. Parks said. "Late diagnosis and fast metastasization. Brainstem glioma. I was two and Derek nearly four. She died in her sleep and fairly quickly."
"You say that so casually," Derek said and turned away from them.
"How do you get along with your father?" Frank focused his attention back on Mrs. Parks. "Did you have any --- difficulties with him?"
"Only the normal things between a parent and child," Mrs. Parks said. "He hated my husband, thought I shouldn't have married. He treated Derek like a dog in front of his business partners."
"Shut up," Derek said. "You don't have any idea, so shut up." He faced her and there was anger on his face, rage behind his eyes. Frank reached out but did not put his hand on Derek.
"Be calm, Mr. Beltran," he said. "You've been very helpful so far and we've intruded on your grief long enough. Will you be available if we have any other questions?"
"Yes," Mrs. Parks said. "There is the funeral to see to and Daddy's last wishes. His will. All that."
Frank reached into his coat pocket and produced two of his cards and handed them to each of the dead man's children. "Thank you," he said. "If you think of anything, anything at all that might help us in our investigation don't hesitate to call." He nodded then whirled away, walking out of the room. Hansen made eye contact with both Mrs. Parks and Derek and said, "We'll be in touch, I'm sure," and jogged after her partner.
Outside the palatial mansion, at the car Hansen had brought them in she finally caught up to Frank. "You going all Sherlock Holmes on me, old man? What was that about?"
"Hm?" Frank was lost in thought, rubbing his chin. "What?"
"That performance in there," Hansen said. "You've never been like that the entire time I've known you. What was that all about? Some kind of detective theater?"
"A little bit, maybe," Frank said and smiled. "Do you think they're involved in the old man's death?"
"You're the consulting, you tell me."
"There's something odd about both of them," Frank said. "It's possible she used him as the device to murder him. Can we get the floor plan? Houses this big," Frank waved a hand at the expansive front, "usually have secret passages."
"I can get what's on file with the city," Hansen said. "That'll tell us who was contracted to build it at least."
"Good. Now," Frank said rubbing his hands together. "Let's get a drink and then I want to know everything there is about the other murders. Particularly the settings and the murder weapons."
"What are you after?" Hansen pressed the fob that blinked the lights on her car and opened the locks. She pulled the driver door out and stood looking over the roof at Frank.
"The killer, of course," Frank said. He opened the passenger door and got in the car. He waved both hands forward over the dash. "Let's go."
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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