Sam Middleton held the door open for his ex-wife and daughter before joining them as they descended the steps of the funeral home. Leaves of brilliant colors blew in every direction as they made their way across the parking lot to Ann’s white Toyota Camry. Sam stood and watched Ann search absentmindedly in her purse for the car keys, the tears welling up in her eyes for the third or fourth time that day.
He glanced over at Amy, who seemed oblivious to her mother’s grief, and Sam silently wished that she would at least make an effort to console her. But Amy simply stood there apathetically and Sam was once again reminded of how dramatically his little girl had changed since the divorce last spring. She seemed almost a stranger now—no longer the sweet, freckle-faced little kid who was so considerate of others. Amy had become defiant and selfish—seemingly overnight—and was so wrapped up in her own little world that it was downright scary. Through some force unknown to him, his little bundle of joy had evolved into a bitter, incorrigible young lady of fourteen.
Ann suddenly broke down and started weeping. Sam stepped over and put his arms around her comfortingly, feeling a little awkward as he did so.
“Why, Sam?” she sobbed. “Why did Marsha have to die? She was so full of life, so happy! Who in the world would want to do that to her? And what will Dave and Tommy do now?”
Sam hugged her tightly, patted her back. “It’s certainly a horrible situation. I guess they’ll just have to try to put all the pieces together and get on with their lives without her. Just as the rest of us will have to do.”
She buried her face in his chest and Sam’s heart bled for her. He had known Ann was going to take it hard when he’d called to give her the grim news of Marsha Bradley’s murder, but he had never conceived that it would absolutely devastate her like this. She and Marsha had been best friends since grade school and had been joined at the hip in the years since. That was a lot of memories shared together, a lot of closeness. And for Marsha Bradley to die abruptly like that, in such a horrific way.
Ann pulled away and faced Sam. “Do you know if they’ve found any clues yet?”
Sam stared at her gaunt, lovely face. “I checked with Roger this morning and he told me they still don’t have much to go on. Tommy’s still in shock, and no one’s going to interrogate him until he calms down. The shrink seems to think that could take awhile. And since Tommy is the only witness they know of so far, Roger doesn’t think much of anything’s going to break until they can question him. Poor kid. I guess he’s so traumatized they’ve had to practically force him to eat.”
“Is Dave going to be able to handle all of this, you think? He looked absolutely awful in there.”
“My guess is once the shock’s worn off, he’ll be out for blood. I just hope they find this creep soon. The whole town’s pretty stirred up, as you can imagine. Probably forming a lynch mob as we speak,” he added with a wry grin.
Ann managed a weak smile. “God, am I ever glad I don’t live in this place anymore!”
Sam ignored her remark. “The police are advising everyone to be on the lookout for anything suspicious and recommending that parents enforce a ten o’clock curfew for their kids.”
“Are you covering the story, or is that a stupid question?”
“Yes, to both,” he replied dryly.
“Well, keep me informed. I want to know everything that happens, okay?”
He let turned to Amy. “Why so quiet, kiddo?”
Amy shrugged her shoulders and replied, “Nothing to say. I just want to go home.”
Sam went over, kissed his daughter on the cheek and whispered in her ear, “Look after your mother, okay? She needs all the emotional support she can get right now.”
Amy remained expressionless and replied, “Okay, Dad.”
Sam held her bright green eyes in his a moment and felt the familiar pang of remorse gnaw at him—just as it always did whenever he said goodbye to his estranged family. He missed them more than they would ever know.
Amy, as if reading his mind, suddenly gave him a big hug.
“I miss you, Dad.”
“I miss you too, honey.”
Just as quickly as it began, this magical moment ended.
“Can we go now, Mom?”
Ann unlocked the car door and got it in.
“We’re on our way.”
“Be careful, both of you,” Sam said. “I’ll call you as soon as I learn anything.”
Ann looked up and squinted from the glare of the sun coming from behind him. “Thanks, Sam. Take care of yourself.”
She started the engine and backed the car out. He waved to them as they pulled away.
As he headed across the lot to his gray Grand Cherokee, Sam’s head was reeling from the events of the day. He felt numb and more alone than he’d felt in a long time. Marsha Bradley’s murder and ensuing memorial service were agonizing enough. But seeing how hard Ann was taking it, and then watching her drive away into the sunset along with his kid—leaving him here in this godforsaken town while they headed to a new city and a new life—was just about more than he could handle right now. Although Columbus was only a couple of hours away, it might as well be somewhere in China.
Sam floored the accelerator and pulled into the alley, turned onto Grant Street and headed north. Traffic was light for a Saturday afternoon, but then it was always light in this little burg of 21,000. One of Smithtown’s few assets was its intrinsic charm; the rolling foothills that virtually surrounded the entire town, the fine old houses with their neatly manicured grounds, and the nearby state forest located to the west just outside the city limits. Otherwise, the town was a bust. An economically anemic place heading nowhere fast.
Smithtown was comprised for the most part of white middle class folks, coexisting with a smattering of impoverished but determined southern Ohio hillbilly farmers. Minorities existed to a considerably lesser degree, with the Indian and Asian American professionals—mostly physicians—equaling, if not exceeding the town’s black population. Smithtown’s County Hospital seemed to draw immigrants in search of a place to practice medicine like a streetlight to moths.
As he waited impatiently for a traffic light to change, Sam wondered for the umpteenth time why he remained in this depressing place. With the exception of his job as a reporter at the Smithtown Observer, there was virtually nothing else holding him here. Especially now that he’d split up with Ann. Even his parents had moved on, happily retired and basking in the Florida sunshine.
His game plan had fallen apart, he admitted to himself grimly. He had always had this crazy dream of being a novelist and moving his family to New England after his first bestseller to spend the rest of his life writing novels in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace. Now he was forty years old, no longer had a family to move anywhere and his “bestseller” was yet to be written, stalled on page sixty-three where it had lain dormant for months.
Sam hung a right onto Court Street and heaved a long sigh. The divorce had been the beginning of his undoing, no doubt about it. He missed Ann and he missed his kid. His motivation to write was shot—his two greatest sources of inspiration now in a car heading north on Route 23 en route to Columbus. To a new city and a new life.
One mistake was all it had taken to end their once happy marriage of seventeen years. He’d screwed up royally by letting his dick do his thinking for him. One measly night in the sack with that beautiful young thing had blown everything all to hell. Had he seen the consequences beforehand, he would never have let it happen. But it was too late now. Ann had been relentlessly unforgiving and hadn’t budged an inch. She had surprised him. He’d never realized she was so strong-willed.
The joke was on him.
Sam shut his eyes for a moment in an effort to exorcise these nagging thoughts. When he opened them again, he focused on the road and thought about the matter at hand: Marsha Bradley’s murder.
After he arrived at the Observer, he would pore over every minuscule detail the police had documented concerning the case, as well any background info he could find on Marsha and David Bradley for the article he was writing for Monday’s paper. He needed to call Roger and set up a time to visit the Bradley residence and take some shots for the article, just in case he needed them.
Smithtown Police Detective Roger Hagstrom was Sam’s best friend and had been for practically three decades. He’d been with the Smithtown P.D. for twenty years and was one hell of a good cop—when he was sober, that is. Roger had a serious drinking problem and many were the times that Sam had had to bail him out of the fixes he’d gotten himself into. His hangovers were legendary and he frequently missed entire days of work as a result of them. Sometimes he’d even get himself blasted while on duty, never failing to create some major problems.
But the Smithtown Police Department was very small—only fifteen officers and patrolmen in total—and they needed Roger Hagstrom badly enough to overlook his shortcomings. Roger Hagstrom was second in command, so they more or less had to. His only superior, Chief Frank Thompson, admired and respected Roger’s skills as a detective and tolerated his tardiness and occasional inebriation on the job up to a point; his only stipulation being that Roger not make the chief’s special leniency toward him public knowledge.
Sam often tagged along with Roger on his assignments. It wasn’t a particularly unusual situation; cops and journalists frequently worked closely together, especially in a little town like Smithtown. What made Sam and Roger’s relationship unique was the way in which they complemented each other. They were a good team and often aided one another in achieving their respective goals.
Besides the benefits attained from their working relationship, Sam had another reason for occasionally joining forces with his friend: it was interesting as hell. Murder cases were few and far between in Smithtown, but there were plenty of other crimes going on all the time: dope deals gone bad, burglaries, armed robberies, bar stabbings and shootings. A pretty lively town for its size, crime-wise. The nose-diving economy seemed to have a lot to do with it.
Sam pulled into the parking lot of the Observer and shut off the ignition. The parking lot was as desolate as he’d suspected it would be. The Observer had no Sunday paper and everyone had already cleared out for the day. He walked over to the side entrance of the massive stone columned building and entered. He made a beeline through the ornate lobby to the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor.
When he reached his floor, Sam strode past the reception desk to the editorial offices. His office was located at the far end on the left, near the coffee machine. He cued up a pot on the Bun-O-Matic before entering his office and switching on the overhead lights.
He stepped over to the window and opened the blinds, peering out at the view outside. Directly below him was downtown Smithtown; five square blocks of dead or dying businesses being strangled by the slumping economy. Further north was the Hilltop section of town where the majority of Smithtown’s less unfortunate resided. It sprawled either way a few miles, bounded by the Scioto River to the west and a range of foothills to the east. It was early October and autumn was making its debut in southern Ohio. The trees were flecked in bright shades of reds and yellows and it wouldn’t be long before the hills looked as though they were on fire.
Sam rolled his swivel chair out from under his desk and sat down. The large oak desk was in its usual disarray, littered with files, sections of last week’s papers and no fewer than three used coffee mugs strewn randomly around a black plastic ashtray in desperate need of emptying. He tidied up the papers a bit and carried the dirty coffee mugs out to the sink by the coffee machine. He returned, switched on the computer, located the police file on Marsha Bradley in a drawer and pulled out its contents.
A cold chill ran down his spine as he stared incredulously at the eight-by-ten glossy photograph on top. It was an image of Marsha Bradley lying nude on her living room floor, face-up, her eyes frozen in a hideous expression of terror. A narrow red welt running across the width of her neck where she had been strangled to death was crisply rendered in the photo, as were her breasts with the words May Day—one word per breast—meticulously inscribed in red lipstick by her murderer. And as if all of this wasn’t appalling enough, Marsha’s assailant had crammed the lipstick vial into her vagina, its end barely visible between her splayed legs.
The autopsy performed on Marsha’s body concluded that this final gruesome act had been performed after her assailant had strangled her to death. No weapon had been found at the scene, but the coroner’s hunch was that Marsha had been strangled with a lamp cord or similar object. Prior to her murder, she had been brutally raped and sodomized. Her assailant’s semen and hair samples had been sent to a lab, pending DNA analysis.
Sam laid the photograph aside and studied the police report. The victim, Marsha Lynn Bradley, nee Stilson, had been a white female, 5’6”, 118 pounds, brown eyes, thirty-nine years old. Her husband, Doctor David Lee Bradley, had discovered her body on the night of October 8, at 9:47 P.M. The victim’s son, Tommy, age five, had been present in the house when the body was discovered, locked in his bedroom closet. The child had been in a state of severe shock and too traumatized to speak when police arrived at the scene. There had been no signs of physical trauma to the child.
Preliminary investigation revealed no apparent signs of forced entry and nothing had been stolen. Curiously, there had been no apparent signs of a struggle at the scene. The entire house had been searched and dusted for fingerprints and it was later determined that none of the prints belonged to anyone other than the victim, her immediate family and Mary Willis, the housekeeper. The lipstick vial was confirmed to have belonged to the victim. No usable prints had been found on it.
The victim’s husband had been questioned. David Bradley had reportedly been at a friend’s house, Matt Timmonds, helping him install drywall in his garage. Bradley had left his house at around six-thirty P.M, shortly after dinner, and remained at the Timmonds’ residence until he’d returned home and discovered his wife’s body. Bradley’s alibi was corroborated after an interrogation of Matt Timmonds. David Bradley, at least at this point in the case, was not being considered a suspect in the murder. His DNA had been collected and would eventually be compared to the suspect’s.
Sam glanced down at the right-hand margin near the bottom of the report and saw Roger Hagstrom’s barely legible scrawl: “No clues, no leads.” He could almost read his friend’s frustration in the sloppy bold pen strokes.
Sam had been out of town the night Marsha had been murdered. He’d driven to Huntington, West Virginia to interview a local disc jockey for an article regarding the recent format change of Smithtown’s only radio station from rock to country music. When he arrived back in Smithtown shortly after midnight, Sam had played back the message Roger had left on his answering machine advising him to get in touch with him ASAP, that something “really big” had happened. Sam had promptly called the police department to learn that Roger was at the Bradley home investigating a murder. Sam had arrived at the Bradley’s just as they were wheeling Marsha’s body out.
Roger Hagstrom had been sober and in rare form. He’d never seen his friend as exasperated and stressed-out over a case in all the time he’d known him. Roger had later confided that he felt particularly uneasy about the murder and that he had a gut feeling that Marsha’s assailant was going to be very tough to nab. Besides the fact that the police had little to go on beyond the forensic evidence, his bet was that the murderer wasn’t a local man. He based this on what he already knew of Marsha Bradley. She had been an extraordinarily friendly, easy-going woman who was well-liked by everyone in town who had known her. The odds were slim there was anybody capable of disliking her enough to commit such a heinous assault. Her rape and murder in fact appeared to have been premeditated, well thought out in advance and executed without a hitch. Of course, Roger had gone on to say, someone local could have done it—nothing was impossible—but the odds were stacked against this. He conceded that until some sort of clear motive was established, this case would likely remain a mystery.
There were a couple of other things that bothered Roger. One was the message the assailant had left on her body. ”May Day.” God only knew what it meant, he’d told Sam, but it implied something he hoped wasn’t the case here. A serial killing. It was often standard M.O. for a serial killer to leave either an object or message of some kind behind for the police and the rest of the world to try and figure out. It was all part of the psyche of a deranged, cold-blooded murderer to challenge the public, as if to say, “Well, now that I’ve done this, what the fuck you gonna do about it? I’ll even give you a running start. All you have to do is figure this out.”
And another thing was bugging Detective Hagstrom. The fact that there had been no signs of forced entry or a struggle in this case. No signs of trauma whatsoever were present on her body other than the welt on her neck. This suggested that Marsha Bradley may have known her assailant, perhaps even intimately, and that she’d trusted him enough to allow him into her home. This was the most unsettling aspect of the whole case, Roger had declared. If Marsha Bradley had indeed known her assailant intimately, it posed a number of disturbing and delicate questions that needed to be asked and answered.
Sam set the report down and went out to the coffee machine. He poured himself a mug and added a shot of milk before returning to his desk. He lit up a cigarette and stared pensively at the blinking cursor on the computer monitor.
Sam was no detective by any stretch of the imagination, but there was one thing that wasn’t quite jibing in Roger’s theory of Marsha Bradley’s murder case. If Marsha had indeed known her murderer, then why was the detective so keen on thinking he wasn’t a local man? It would seem more likely that he was, and that Marsha was having an extramarital affair with him, as unfathomable as that may be. Had the murderer been an absolute stranger who just happened to have blown in from out of town, Marsha would most certainly have given her assailant one hell of a struggle during the rape, one would assume. Unless of course she had been either drugged or unconscious during the act, neither of which being the case. The autopsy had shown no signs of drugs in her system and only a slight trace of alcohol. Dave Bradley told police his wife had drank a glass of white wine with dinner that evening.
Sam had brought this up to Roger the day before, and Roger reiterated that his theory was by no means ironclad, and that he wasn’t by any means ruling out the possibility that Marsha Bradley’s assailant had been a local man. But Roger had then countered by asking Sam what the odds were of Marsha Bradley having an affair in Smithtown, Ohio and not a single person ever having known about it, or even suspecting it? Sam had to agree that it was hard to conceive, considering the little town’s penchant for gossip and flinging rumors around like there was no tomorrow. Never once had there been a shred of gossip Marsha Bradley was having an affair with anyone, period. The Bradley’s marriage was seemingly rock-solid.
Roger had gone on to say that there was really only one thing he was absolutely sure of, regarding the murder case. Marsha Bradley’s assailant was as clever as he was demented. He had somehow managed to pull the entire thing off without leaving a single tangible lead. Not one of the neighbors questioned had seen anyone enter or leave the Bradley house on the night of the murder. Nor had they seen or heard anything unusual that night; no strange cars parked in the vicinity, no dogs barking, nothing. It was becoming more and more apparent that the only person living who might possibly have seen the murderer was little five-year old Tommy Bradley.
Tommy Bradley was probably their only hope, Roger declared. The boy had to have seen or heard something that night. After all, there was little doubt that the perp was responsible for locking the youngster up in the closet. The big problem now was the fact that nobody could interrogate Tommy until the psychiatrist gave the green light, and that could be weeks, maybe even months. In the meantime, the murderer’s trail would only get colder and colder.
Smithtown Police Chief Thompson had decided it best to keep fairly tight-lipped about the case for the time being as far as the public was concerned. Sam wasn’t permitted to report any of the details concerning the murder, other than the fact that Marsha Bradley had been sexually assaulted prior to being murdered by strangulation. Nothing was to be mentioned about the message left on her body, the possibility that it might have been a serial killing, nor that the only concrete evidence found so far had been nominal forensic evidence. “There is no need to get the entire town in a panic that there might be a serial killer on the prowl,” the chief had contended. Thus, until something broke in the case, the Observer was to portray Marsha Bradley’s rape and murder as little more than an “unfortunate loss to the community” and blatant testimony to the “extreme violence in today’s society.”
Sam had vehemently objected to keeping the case so hush-hush. He argued that the public had a right to know the facts about the murder. Public knowledge, he insisted, may actually help to open things up. Somebody might come forward with vital evidence who may have otherwise remained silent, for instance. Or, if the killer had been a local man, there was always a chance that someone local might point a finger at him, having learned the details surrounding the case. Roger was sympathetic to Sam’s argument, but Chief Thompson had refused to budge an inch. He’d told Sam, in his infinite wisdom, that it might be a good idea to advise the public to be on their guard and to impose a curfew on their kids. But beyond that, he was not to report any more than what had been established. Sam had been forced to comply.
Sam took a long drag off his cigarette and stubbed it out. He didn’t like being muscled around like this, and he’d let George McNary, the managing editor of the Observer, know it. McNary, of course, had given him his usual pompous recitation about freedom of the press and how he’d believed in it unconditionally when he’d been a rookie reporter back in the “good old days.” But, McNary had gone on to say, times have changed and one must adapt. Hence, the old fart had wimped-out as he often did, and Sam again found himself praying for the day when the ultra-conservative, stubborn dick-head finally retired.
Sam had already written two follow-up articles concerning Marsha Bradley’s murder and now wondered how much more he could expound upon it. The piece for Monday’s edition was supposed to tie in with the memorial service today, and its intent was to more or less eulogize one of Smithtown’s most beloved and popular citizens. That was fair enough, he thought, but he’d much rather be reporting the facts of the case, or better yet, that her murderer had been apprehended.
He glanced down at the police photo and once again felt a cold chill shoot down his spine. He’d known Marsha Bradley well, and like everyone else who’d known her, couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to murder such a wonderful woman.
A wave of contempt suddenly swept over him. Somehow, he thought, they would catch the low-life asshole who did this and he would pay dearly for it.
He wanted to be there when it happened.
He needed to return to the murder scene as soon as it could be arranged. Maybe, he thought, the police had overlooked something. It was a long shot, but there was always the possibility. It had happened before, hadn’t it? As thorough as Roger and his men were, Sam had seen first hand how they sometimes missed seeing the forest for the trees in the past. That edge was sometimes missing in police work, that overwhelming drive to leave no stone unturned, that driving motivation to capture the full picture.
Sam was now motivated to the max, certainly more than a handful of Smithtown cops would ever be. This had been a dear friend, an innocent woman, a loving wife and mother, who had been assaulted and robbed of her life. His ex-wife’s best friend. Sam had made a pledge from the beginning he wasn’t going to sit on his hands while Marsha’s murderer was still at large. He would do what ever was in his power to see that the bastard was brought to justice.
He tried to imagine himself in Dave Bradley’s shoes right now. What if it had been Ann instead of Marsha who’d been murdered? How would he deal with it? Could he deal with it?
He didn’t even want to think about it.
Sam picked up the phone and dialed Roger Hagstrom’s number.