The late summer sun was making its steady ascent into a cloudless morning sky when my cell phone rang.
I broke stride, mopping the sweat from my forehead with my t-shirt. Still fighting for breath, I grabbed the phone from the pocket of my running shorts, and flipped it open. “Buddy Steel.”
I had been jogging along a barren stretch of Freedom Beach, all the while sidestepping mounds of dried and drying seaweed that disfigured the grainy white sand. A pair of gulls eyed me suspiciously. The smell of burnt wood rose from the remains of a beach fire.
“Sorry, Buddy,” Sheriff’s Deputy Johnny Kennerly’s disembodied voice crackled into the phone. “But we’ve got one.”
“One that requires your presence.”
“Perhaps you might want to be a little less obtuse, John.”
“Who’s Henry Carson?”
“What about him?”
“Well, for one thing, he’s dead.”
“And for another?”
“It appears he was murdered.”
• • • • •
Still in my running shorts, but having added a green Boston Celtic hoodie, I pulled my Sheriff’s cruiser to a stop in front of Freedom High School.
A phalanx of news personnel and their equipment, along with a handful of gawkers, had already gathered and several began shouting questions at me as I strode past them and into the building. I was met at the door by Sheriff’s Deputy Marsha Russo.
“Nice legs,” she commented as I approached her.
“Witty. Where’s Carson?”
“In his office. Fourth floor.”
We stepped into the closest elevator and Marsha pressed four.
“Talk to me,” I said.
“Not pretty. Killer used a steak knife.”
At the fourth floor, the doors opened onto a chaotic scene. The narrow hallway was filled with small groupings of students, most of them simply standing around watching the goings on in silence. One young woman was crying.
“What are they doing here?”
“Classes have been suspended for the day.”
“Can we disperse them? Get them out of here.”
“Be my pleasure,” Marsha said as she led me to Henry Carson’s office, a small room, sparsely furnished, with a single window that overlooked an air shaft.
Johnny Kennerly stood in front of the office door, in conversation with Coroner Norma Richard. A team of State forensic officers huddled together, awaiting the green-light to begin their investigation.
I nodded to each of them, then followed Johnny into Henry Carson’s office.
“You’re the first one in,” Kennerly said.
“After how many school personnel?”
“The building maintenance supervisor. The principal. A security officer. No one else.”
“They disturb anything?”
“Not that any of them will admit. Maintenance man found him when he was making his morning rounds.”
I stepped carefully around several pools of blood and approached the body. The late Mr. Carson was seated on a wooden armchair in front of his desk, facedown, a stainless-steel steak knife protruding from his neck.
Large quantities of blood had flooded the desk en route to the unpolished wood floor where it had congealed.
I stepped away and looked around the office, a cramped affair boasting a desk, the armchair on which the body now rested, a pair of straight-backed chairs facing the desk, and two wall-sized bookcases, each filled to overflowing.
I turned to Johnny. “What do you think?”
“I think he’s dead.”
“That’s very helpful, John.”
“Should we admit the hordes?”
“I don’t see why not.”
I stepped to the door and motioned for Marsha Russo to join us. “You know the drill?”
“Is there a Mrs. Carson?”
“There is,” Kennerly said.
“Does she know?”
“Principal phoned her.”
“I’ll want to talk with her. And the principal. Would you please make appointments for me with both of them? I’m going home to change clothes. I’ll be back in an hour.”
“You’ll inform the Sheriff,” John said.
“And Her Honor?”
I nodded again.
“Some fine way to start the week,” Marsha said.
I shook my head in agreement. “It’s always something.”
The Sheriff to whom John referred is my father, the Honorable Burton Steel, Senior, now in his third term but currently debilitated by the early onset of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Her Honor is my father’s wife, my stepmother, the estimable Regina Goodnow, the Mayor of Freedom. I stopped by their house, my childhood home, to deliver the news in person.
As is generally the case when I get my first glimpse of my father these days, I’m forced to conceal my shock at the level of his deterioration. Once a powerful and towering figure, the old man’s disease had diminished him considerably.
When he had received his diagnosis, he summoned me and insisted I join him in the San Remo County Sheriff’s Department. I had been living in Los Angeles, an LAPD homicide detective attached to the Hollywood division. Conflicted as I was about him and our at-best testy relationship, I answered his call and returned to Freedom and a lifestyle that grew disagreeable quickly.
My life was further complicated by his continued insistence that I be prepared to assist him in taking his own life whenever he deemed it advisable.
We had a great deal of unfinished business between us, but the encroaching ethical challenge was paramount in my mind. It took precedence over any presumed detente we might somehow manage to achieve.
When I arrived at the house, he was seated at the breakfast table in his bathrobe and slippers, a plate of uneaten scrambled eggs and sourdough toast growing cold in front of him. He looked up at me and muttered, “Murdered?”
“Murder? Someone was murdered?” my stepmother inquired as she bustled into the kitchen.
As usual, she regarded me warily, at once on her guard and, as always, ready to spring to the offense regarding any issue on which she and I might disagree. Which meant nearly everything.
“Did you offer Buddy some breakfast?” she asked my father, who mumbled some kind of unintelligible response.
She turned to me. “Buddy? Coffee? Eggs? Anything?”
“Thank you, Regina. I’m fine.”
“Burton’s not eating,” she proclaimed, ignoring the fact that my father was still in the room. “The doctor keeps telling him he needs to eat in order to keep up his strength. But does he listen? Not on your life, does he listen. Look at him. He looks anorexic. He refuses to eat.”
The Sheriff didn’t respond. I could detect the first spark of anger igniting in him.
“What’s this about a murder?” the Mayor asked, taking a seat across from my father.
“Henry Carson,” I said.
“Freedom High. Assistant principal. Stabbed to death.”
“Stabbed,” she said. “My God, how gruesome.”
“I wanted you both to know.” I hoped to appease the two birds with a single stone.
My father gazed at me through sorrowful eyes that begged compassion for his diminished faculties. His voice, once so forceful and commanding, had been reduced to a scratchy whisper. “Where?”
“In his office.”
“None yet. But I’m just starting. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“Does the press have the story?” Regina quizzed me. “Will I be asked for a comment?”
I inwardly smiled in wonder at how she always managed to make herself the center of any and every event. Her question was a rhetorical one. My guess was she had already determined in which order she would summon her makeup, hair, and sartorial team. Her public relations reps, also. “A murder won’t reflect well on Freedom.”
“I’m sure you’ll charm the press in your usual manner, Regina.”
“She’s got the fucking media in her back pocket,” the Sheriff rasped.
“Oh, Burton,” she yammered, “must you always be so profane?”
Which I took as my cue to get out of there.
“She wouldn’t talk with me,” Marsha Russo said. “Claims the doctor put her on some kind of sedative that made her gaga. They’d been married for less than a year. All she would say is she can’t imagine who would want to kill him. I told her we needed to speak with her.”
“She hung up.”
“Try again later.”
We were seated in my office at the Freedom Town Hall where the Sheriff’s Department was housed. Marsha had been joined by Johnny Kennerly and Sheriff’s Deputy Al Striar. All three were longtime department veterans, appointed by my father in his first term. Each wore a Sheriff’s uniform, smartly tailored and pressed.
I, on the other hand, wore my outfit of choice: jeans, an L.L. Bean light-blue work shirt, a brown Ralph Lauren corduroy jacket, and Filson work boots.
I rarely if ever wear a uniform—for reasons stemming back to the days when my old man was a street cop. He had purchased a boy’s size police uniform, a junior version of his own, and had decorated it with medals and awards. He frequently forced me to wear it.
He was forever dragging me to all kinds of police-sponsored events where I was shoved forward as a kind of gussied up Mini-Me version of himself, the uniformed scion of a steadfast police officer whose sights were already set on bigger things.
As I grew, my mother repeatedly tailored the uniform until finally there wasn’t enough fabric left to take out. The uniform became smaller and fit more tightly. Until the night I grabbed a pair of scissors and decimated the fucking thing. Which was the official end of my uniform-wearing.
I did manage to suffer through a uniform phase when I was an LAPD beat cop, but as soon as I made detective, it was over.
When I joined the San Remo County Sheriff’s Department, I defied convention and remained a plainclothes guy, thereby producing yet another bone of contention between my father and me.
“What do we know?” I asked Marsha.
“About Henry Carson?”
Marsha opened her laptop and read aloud. “Henry Carson. Born, 1987. Montclair, New Jersey. Graduated Montclair High School, 2004. Earned a degree in Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University, 2008. Stayed on for one more year of graduate work. Taught American History at Columbia High School, Maplewood, New Jersey, for eight years. Became the Assistant Principal at Freedom High last year, where he’s also on the coaching staffs of the baseball and swim teams.”
“Married Kimber Collins, Montclair, New Jersey, December 2017. No children. Both parents still living.”
Marsha looked up from her laptop. “Strangeness?”
“Julia Peterson,” Kennerly said. “Who, by the way, eagerly awaits her audience with you.”
“What do I need to know?”
“She’s a cool customer. Claims to have had a good working relationship with the deceased. When pressed, she made mention of the fact they did little or no socializing. She’s a no-nonsense type. Deadly serious.”
“My kind of person. Forensics?”
“Nothing yet,” Striar said. “I’m hoping for something by end of day.”
“Shall we, Marsha?”
“No time like the present.”
“So what are we waiting for?”
• • • • •
We were ushered into Julia Peterson’s office by her assistant, a nerdy-looking young man wearing an off-the-rack blue suit, the ill-fitting kind, likely part of a “buy one, get one free” promotion.
Ms. Peterson appeared to be in her mid-to-late thirties, a handsome woman, also in a blue suit, hers far better tailored than her assistant’s. Her shoulder-length brown hair was streaked with red. Her wide brown eyes were lined with black. She wore a light dusting of blush and muted pink lipstick. She exuded the faint scent of Chanel Chance. Hers was a turned-up nose that wrinkled when she smiled.
Marsha and I wrestled ourselves into the not-so-comfortable hardwood armchairs that fronted her desk.
Her office was located just inside the main entrance of the school. It was painted light beige, boasting a pair of wood-framed picture windows that faced the street. A small conference table occupied one side of the room, across from her oversized desk. A large bookcase filled the wall behind her along with two wooden filing cabinets.
A framed picture adorned the wall behind the conference table, a copy of Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks.
I stared at it for a while, then murmured, “His most memorable work.”
“Certainly his most popular,” Ms. Peterson said. “The students cotton to it right away. A number of them comment on its inherent sense of loneliness. They identify with the feeling of isolation the picture engenders. It’s an ice-breaker.”
She briefly flashed a kind of “Aren’t I erudite?” smile that lacked warmth.
“What can you tell us about Henry Carson?” Marsha asked.
Ms. Peterson shifted slightly in her upholstered armchair. “I was just now re-reading his performance reports. Everything points to his having done his job well. He’s been here for two semesters. No complaints have been registered.”
“And your personal connection with him?”
“Cordial. He was open and friendly. He seemed earnest and he performed his administrative duties successfully. From what I can glean, his extracurricular activities with the sports department also earned him kudos. The students seemed to like him. There’s nothing in any of the files that leads me to believe he was a problem case.”
“So, no apparent motives for his murder.”
“None that I could discern.”
“And you had no issues with him?”
“There was nothing out of line that came to your attention regarding his performance here?”
“As I said, he was a well-regarded professional. In my experience, he was always courteous and considerate. He had charm and a kind of charisma. Everyone seemed to like him. I know I certainly did.”
I stood. Marsha followed my lead.
“Thank you for your time, Ms. Peterson. We’ve just begun our investigation. It’s possible we’ll need to speak with you again.”
“I understand. I’ll be happy to assist in any way I can.”
On our way out, we nodded to Julia Peterson’s nerdy assistant, who flashed us a forlorn grin.
Once back at the station, we were joined by Al Striar.
“Forensics,” he said. “Inconclusive. Especially as they relate to the knife. It appears to have been wiped. Lots of trace evidence around the office, but nothing fresh. Nothing to suggest any kind of scuffle.”
“The killer was known to Mr. Carson. He or she gained easy access. I’m guessing the knife was a big surprise to him and that the killer acted swiftly and decisively before Carson had the chance or the inclination to defend himself. Killer knew the right place to plant the knife. Sliced the windpipe and ruptured the carotid artery. Death was pretty quick.”
I sat quietly for several moments imagining the horrific manner in which Henry Carson died, which gave me the shivers. Then I said to Marsha Russo, “Let’s ramp this thing up. Something’s not jiving here.”
“Somebody took this guy out. In his office. Someone known to him. Premeditated violence like that doesn’t just happen. Somebody had a serious grievance. Let’s find out what it was and who it affected deeply enough to warrant murder.”