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An hour of knocking on doors in the rain and the dark and the cold while the techs finished processing the scene and the M.E. took care of the body, and Sarah had nothing. Nobody wanted to talk to the cops. Of course, even if she’d found someone willing to open their door to her, they only would have lied anyway. Everybody lied. The guilty lied to protect themselves. The innocent lied to protect the guilty. The rest lied because they could. Because it was human nature. Because the police wanted — needed — their help. Because in this kind of neighborhood, kids were taught from the time they were old enough to breathe that you never, ever offered information voluntarily to a cop.
Still, she had to go through the motions. She slid behind the wheel of her silver Ford Focus and blew on her hands to warm them, then reached inside her jacket for a cigarette. Took a last look at the crime scene, the burned trailer beside it, the lone remaining patrol car, the KIRO news van, the cameraman, the TV reporter broadcasting from beneath the requisite oversized black umbrella. Let her thoughts go where they wanted as she closed her eyes and leaned against the headrest and took a long drag, reviewing impressions, sounds, smells, mentally shuffling the information. So many pieces, with no idea yet which ones were important or how they fit. The beginning of a new case was always both exciting and depressing. Intellectually, she relished the challenge of a fresh puzzle. But the downside of being a homicide detective was that each new mystery began with someone’s death.
Right now, the first thing she needed to do — the most important thing she could do — was let the details soak into her mind and into her pores until they became as much a part of her as her own memories. There were so many ways you could go at the start of an investigation, and until the evidence pointed solidly toward one of them, all of the directions were valid. That’s why you had to choose your path carefully. Going down a wrong road wasted time. And when a case involved a missing person — if Tiffany Crane was indeed missing — time was one thing you didn’t have.
The victim: Lance Marsee. Living in his girlfriend’s trailer in a bottom-of-the-pond trailer park that attracted the lowest common denominator. The dregs nobody wanted. Drug dealers. Prostitutes. Thieves. Sex offenders who couldn’t find anywhere else to live.
The girlfriend: Tiffany Crane. Owner of a broken-down trailer in said trailer park and a beater in the driveway. Lot rent paid on time until her boyfriend Lance moved in. Missing, though whether it was by choice or against her will was impossible at this point to say. Presumed innocent until Sarah found out otherwise.
The crime: Single gunshot to the head. Close range; less than six inches, the M.E. was likely to rule judging by the stippling and the fouling that Sarah had noted on the victim’s forehead. Cold. Brutal. Efficient. Committed with what motive and by whom remained to be seen.
She stubbed out her cigarette. Flipped on the wipers and put the car into gear. Twenty minutes later she hung a right into the precinct lot and parked, hunching her shoulders against the wind and the rain as she hurried inside. She peeled off her jacket and draped it over the wooden coat rack in a corner of her office, then pulled the elastic from her ponytail and shook out her hair. Outside the arched windows across the hallway it was fully dark. Except for the spatter of rain against the glass, the station was quiet, the lights dimmed for the night shift.
She refastened her ponytail, then snapped on her desk light and checked her watch. Almost seven. She’d give it till ten. With Jack squared away at Regi’s for the night, in theory, Sarah could work as late as she liked. But she’d been making a concerted effort over the past couple of years to pace herself. It was part of the deal she’d made with her lieutenant. That as far as she was able, she’d get home at a reasonable hour. Get enough sleep. Not forget to eat. Besides, there was only so much she could do until the girlfriend turned up.
She booted up her computer. IAFIS confirmed what the uni had told her at the crime scene: Marsee did not have a criminal record. Tiffany, however, had been arrested twice; once for shoplifting when she was nineteen and a second time one year earlier for possession of a stolen object — a Cartier watch she had allegedly lifted from a customer at the Black Bear Casino where she worked as a waitress. She claimed that the watch’s owner — a Desmond Whittaker — had given it to her as a gift — a seemingly unlikely story at first, in view of the owner’s report that it had been stolen. But after the watch had been recovered and the victim had refused to press charges — most likely because he didn’t want his wife to find out that he was involved with a cocktail waitress — Tiffany’s side of the he-said, she-said became more credible. If she had been guilty of anything, it was naivety for accepting the watch in the first place. For believing a casino high-roller would ever leave his wife for a cocktail waitress.
At any rate, two minor arrests did not a murderess make. While the missing Tiffany was definitely on the suspect list, in theory, anyone at the park could have been responsible for Marsee’s death. Running the location brought up dozens of reports, most centered on the park’s rampant drug trade, methamphetamine apparently being the drug of choice. Judging by the dates of the incident reports, as soon as one meth lab was put out of business, a half-dozen more sprang up to take its place. Sarah felt sorry for the guys working narcotics.
There was one place she could check for Tiffany right now: The Black Bear Casino — if she still worked there after the theft charge. Best not to spook the woman; she probably didn’t have much love for the police after her run-ins. She looked up the number for the casino and dialed.
“Black Bear Casino, how may I direct you call?” It was a man’s voice, oozing customer service.
“Is Tiffany Crane working tonight?”
There was a pause. “I’m afraid Miss Crane is no longer employed here. What is this regarding?”
“I’ll call her at home. Thank you.” Sarah put down the phone. No need to warn the casino’s owners that the police were interested in Native American business affairs. So Tiffany was unemployed. No wonder she was late paying rent.
She pulled out the business card and photograph she had taken from Lance Marsee’s wallet, and laid them on her desk. She did an internet search for the company name on the card; Stratoco turned out to be one of the major players in Seattle’s aerospace industry, with a glossy highly maintained website. She picked up her phone and dialed the contact number, slightly surprised when the call was answered immediately. The space industry clearly worked as late as she did. Two minutes later she put the phone down. Guy Marsee had worked at Stratoco until September, but had left the company, for reasons the woman on the other end had not been willing to discuss. No wonder the single business card had been so dog-eared. It was just a reminder. She would have to go ask her questions in person, both at the casino and Stratoco, but that was a job for tomorrow.
She drummed her fingers on the desk. She needed to see the more personal sides of their lives, or at least what they were willing to share with the world. She picked up her office phone and dialed a number.
“Officer Khan, can you come to my office?”
A moment later a tall uni, barely out of his teens, or so it seemed to Sarah, stuck his head around her office door.
“You wanted me, Detective?”
“Do you have a Facebook account, Khan?”
The young officer grinned. “Doesn’t everyone?”
Khan’s smile wavered. “Did you need me to show you how to sign up?”
“No, I just need access to the site. Please log into your account on my computer.” Khan looked uncomfortable, and Sarah resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I won’t be looking at your profile, Officer, just other people’s.”
Two minutes later she was looking at Lance Marsee’s profile page. People put a ridiculous amount of personal information on the Web. Even when people set their Facebook page to “private,” a great deal of information slipped through — posts they made on other people’s pages; things their friends and relatives said on their own pages about them. Sarah had taken a class last year from a twenty-something who knew more about Facebook data mining than Mark Zuckerberg. When you wanted a quick and dirty overview of someone, social networking sites were hard to beat.
As it turned out, Lance Marsee hadn’t ticked the right ‘privacy boxes.’ Marsee’s educational listing was impressive: a bachelor of science in mathematics, a master of science in astrophysics, and a Ph.D. in the same, all in just under five years, and all from MIT. His personal profile was more Spartan. There were no children listed and a quick sweep of his photo albums revealed no likely candidates. The only family member linked to the account was a Guy Marsee, a brother, whose own profile page showed him to also be resident in Seattle.
Sarah switched her attention to Tiffany Crane’s online profile. No children listed, educated no further than sophomore year, but her romantic history was colorful. Relationship status updates, coupled with wall posts from supportive female friends, revealed that Tiffany was separated from husband #2, who was now in prison for an undisclosed but serious crime. Sarah switched to the SPD database; Edward ‘Eddie’ Crane was doing a ten-year stretch for assault and armed robbery. That was one potential jealous ex out of the suspect pool.
She browsed through Tiffany’s online photo album, and confirmed that she was indeed the woman in the picture with Lance. Judging by the recent photos of an end-of-summer picnic, she’d socialized with her coworkers at the Black Bear Casino; they might have some insights to share. Sarah also spotted the shot of Lance and Tiffany together, a hard copy of which stared at her across her desk. It was one of many photographs of the two together.
Sarah put down her pen. From the outside, Lance and Tiffany seemed to be from different planets. Their pairing sounded like the opening line of a bad joke: “A waitress and an astrophysicist walk into a bar …” What was a girl like Tiffany doing with a guy whose bread and butter was the physical properties of heavenly bodies?
She picked up the photograph and held it under the desk light. Still no clue as to where it was taken, but now that she knew more about his background, Lance looked every inch the stereotypical nerd. Pudgy body and slumping shoulders from too many hours hunched in front of a computer, oversized head to accommodate his super-sized brain (or maybe it was just his receding hairline), shirt buttoned all the way up to his double chin. Then there was Tiffany: casino waitress, multiple ear piercings, ragged haircut that was supposed to look trendy but that to Sarah looked like Tiffany had cut it herself, cropped T-shirt that revealed a rhinestone bellybutton stud and a butterfly tattoo. Pretty enough in an average-to-rundown way. But to Lance the Science Nerd, she must have seemed as exotic as a jungle bird.
Detective John Goddard stood in the open doorway with a file folder in one hand and a Styrofoam cup in the other. She gestured him in. Sarah tended to keep to herself as much as possible — she worked better alone — but when it came to the other detectives, Goddard was all right, even if his current solve rate was less than stellar. Six feet of solid muscle and sandy hair, average-looking in every way, the original Mr. Nice Guy. Goddard tended to talk baseball more than she cared to listen, but baseball season was months away. Anyway, one bad habit was hardly a deal breaker.
He sat down in the extra chair and handed the folder across the desk. “Looks like we’re going to be working together. I picked up a case a couple of hours ago. Man found between a pair of shipping containers at the Port of Seattle. Same last name as your vic.”
“Guy Marsee is dead? I just flagged him as my vic’s only living relative.”
“Well, now he’s a dead relative. Crazy, isn’t it? Two brothers found dead in the same city on the same day. As soon as we made the connection, Oakes sent me down to talk to you.”
Sarah opened the file on Guy Marsee and flicked through it. Apart from the preliminary police reports, there were some recent bank statements, electricity bills, and other mundane paperwork, presumably taken from the man’s apartment. Nothing that leapt out at her. “Any leads? Cause of death?”
“Nothing yet. Gunshot to the back of the head. No witnesses, and the M.E. estimates the body was outside for at least five hours, so probably no trace. The techs are taking apart Marsee’s computer as we speak, but his apartment was as sterile as a clean room. I doubt there’ll be anything we can use on it.”
“My guy was found in a house trailer in Rainier Valley. Single small-caliber shot to the forehead. My best lead is his live-in girlfriend, except that nobody knows where she is. It’s too soon to run a trace on her cellphone, and she’s not been active on social networking for several hours. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy.” Sarah handed over her own thin file and her notes on the couple’s recent work history and online presence.
Goddard thumbed through the pages and passed them back. “It’s never easy, is it?”
Sarah didn’t answer. She didn’t need to. They both knew that real police work was nothing like the way it was depicted on television, where detectives solved a new case every week, and that in less than an hour. In real life, cases often took years to resolve, police labs had to make do with hand-me-down equipment, sometimes purchased by the officers themselves. Officers frequently bought their own fingerprinting tools as well; binoculars, evidence-collection materials — even weapons. As for DNA analysis, good luck getting your results back in under a week. Assuming the sample you collected was large enough to run in the first place, and it wasn’t degraded.
“How do you want to work this?” Goddard asked.
“I’m going to the casino where my guy’s girlfriend worked first thing tomorrow morning, see if I can track her down. We’ve got a BOLO on her, but so far, we’re not getting anything. Then I’m going out to Stratoco to talk to my victim’s ex-coworkers.”
“My guy worked at GenMod Labs. I’m going to head over there as soon as their doors open. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Sarah checked her watch. Seven-thirty. She stood up and stretched, then crossed the room for her jacket.
“I’m going to the hospital. There was a meth fire this afternoon at the trailer next to my crime scene. They found my vic when they were clearing the area. The men were neighbors. I figure the burn victim might know something.”
“I’ll ride along with you. It’s a stretch, but he might have something on my Marsee brother, too. How badly was he burned?”
“I wasn’t close, but it seemed pretty bad.”
“Then we’ll have to hurry.”
Sarah nodded. In retrospect she should have gone to the hospital earlier, but she knew from grim experience how much time detectives stood in waiting rooms, trying to convince doctors to allow them access to critical patients. They cared about the person, not about what information they could yield.
Sarah shook the rainwater off her jacket and put it back on. No doubt Rick would accuse them both of burying their emotions if he’d heard Goddard’s remark, but it was the reality of the job. People did stupid things. They got hurt. Blew themselves up. Some of them didn’t make it. Cops dealt with the fallout and cleaned up their messes so that regular people didn’t have to.
She turned off the desk light and followed Goddard out the door. Welcome to homicide, where the clock never stops.