Innocent In Death
The first #1 New York Times bestseller for J.D. Robb.
Pop quizzes were killers. like ambushing assassins they elicited fear and loathing in the prey, and a certain heady power in the hunter.
As Craig Foster prepared to take his lunch break and finish refining the quiz, he knew how his fifth-period U.S. history class would respond. Groans and gasps, winces of misery or panic. He understood completely. At twenty-six, he wasn’t so far removed from the student section of the classroom to have forgotten the pain or the anxiety.
He got out his insulated lunch sack. Being a creature of habit, he knew that his wife—and wasn’t it just mag being married—would have packed him a poultry pocket, an apple, some soy chips, and his favorite hot chocolate.
He never asked her to pack his lunch, or to make sure his socks were washed and folded in pairs and stacked in the right-hand side of his top drawer. But she said she liked doing things for him. The seven months they’d been married had been the best of his life. And it hadn’t sucked before that, either, he decided.
He had a job he loved, and was damn good at, he thought with a quick burst of pride. He and Lissette had a very decent apartment within reasonable walking distance of the school. His students were bright and interesting—and, bonus time, they liked him.
They’d grumble and sweat a bit over the pop quiz, but they’d do fine.
Before he got down to work, he shot his bride an e-mail.
Hey, Lissy! How about I pick up that soup you like, and the big salad on the way home from work tonight?
Miss you. Love every sweet inch of you!
You know who.
It made him smile thinking about how it would make her smile. Then he switched back to the quiz. He studied his comp screen as he poured out the first cup of hot chocolate and lifted the pocket bread filled with soy products masquerading as thinly sliced turkey.
There was so much to teach; so much to learn. The history of the country was rich and diversified and dramatic, full of tragedy, comedy, romance, heroism, cowardice. He wanted to pass all of it on to his students, to make them see how the country, and the world they lived in, had evolved into what they were in the early months of 2060.
He ate, added questions, deleted others. And he drank deep of his favorite chocolate as a soft snow fell outside the classroom window.
As the days of his own short history ticked minute by minute closer to their end.
Schools gave her the willies. It was a humbling thing for a tough-minded, kick-ass cop to admit, even to herself. But there it was. Lieutenant Eve Dallas, arguably New York City’s top murder cop, would rather have been stalking through an abandoned tenement in search of a psychotic chemi-head juiced on Zeus than striding down the pristine hallways of staunchly upper-middle-class Sarah Child Academy.
Despite the bright, primary colors along walls and floors, the sparkling glass of the windows, it was, for Eve, just another torture chamber.
Most of the doors along the maze were open, and the rooms beyond empty but for the desks, tables, counters, screens, boards.
Eve glanced over at Principal Arnette Mosebly, a sturdy, heading-¬toward-statuesque woman of about fifty. Her mixed-race heritage had given her skin the color of caramel cream and eyes of misty blue. Her hair was a glossy black worn in a ball of corkscrew curls. She wore a long black skirt with a short red jacket. The heels of her sensible shoes clicked and clacked on the floor as they walked along the second-floor corridor.
“Where are the kids?” Eve asked.
“I had them taken to the auditorium until their parents or guardians can pick them up. Most of the staff is there as well. I thought it best, and most respectful, to cancel afternoon classes.”
She paused a few feet away from where a uniformed cop stood in front of a closed door.
“Lieutenant, this is beyond tragic for us, and the children. Craig...” She pressed her lips together, looked away. “He was young and bright and enthusiastic. His whole life ahead of him, and—” She broke off, held up a hand as she struggled for composure. “I understand this sort of thing, I mean to say, having the police involved is routine in matters like this. But I hope you’ll be as discreet and efficient as it’s possible to be. And that it will be possible for us to wait to—to transport the body until after all the students have left the building.”
Now she straightened her shoulders. “I don’t know how that young man could have become so ill. Why would he have come in today if he was feeling unwell? His wife7mdash;he’s only been married a few months—I haven’t contacted her yet. I wasn’t sure—”
“You’re going to want to leave that to us. If you’ll give us a few moments.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“Record on, Peabody,” Eve said to her partner. She nodded to the guard who stepped to the side.
Eve opened the door, stood at the threshold. She was a tall, lanky woman with a choppy cap of brown hair, with brown eyes that were flat and dispassionate now as she scanned the scene. Her movements were easy as she took a can of Seal-It from her field kit, coated her hands, her boots.
In nearly a dozen years on the force, she’d seen a lot worse than the doomed history teacher sprawled on the floor in pools of his own vomit and shit.
Eve noted the time and place for the record. “MTs responded to the nine-one-one, arriving at fourteen-sixteen. Pronounced victim, identified as Foster, Craig, at fourteen-nineteen.”
“Lucky we drew a couple MTs on the call who knew better than to move the body,” Peabody commented. “Poor bastard.”
“Having lunch at his desk? Place like this probably runs to a staff lounge, cafeteria, whatever.” Remaining at the threshold, Eve cocked her head. “Knocked over a jumbo insulated bottle, the chair.”
“Looks more like a seizure than a struggle.” Peabody skirted the edge of the room, her airboots squishing slightly. She checked the windows. “Locked.” She angled so she could study the desk, the body from that side of the room.
While her body was as sturdy as Arnette Mosebly’s, Peabody’s build would never be statuesque. Her dark hair had grown past the nape of her neck and curved up at the ends in a flirty little flip Eve had yet to resign herself to.
“Working lunch,” Peabody noted. “Lesson plans or grading papers. Allergic reaction to something he ate, maybe.”
“Oh, yeah, I’d say.” Eve crossed to the body, hunkered down. She’d run prints, do the standard gauge for TOD, all the rest, but for a moment she simply studied the dead.
Spider legs of broken vessels ran through the whites of his eyes. There were traces of foam as well as vomit clinging to his lips. “Tried to crawl after it hit him,” she murmured. “Tried to crawl for the door. Get the formal ID, Peabody, verify TOD.”
Rising, Eve moved carefully around the puddles of what Craig’s body had voided, and picked up the insulated cup she saw, which had his name engraved in silver over black. Sniffed.
“You think somebody poisoned this guy?” Peabody asked.
“Hot chocolate. And something else.” Eve bagged the cup into evidence. “Color of the vomit, signs indicating seizure, extreme distress. Yeah, I’m thinking poison. ME will verify. We’ll need to get clearance to access his medicals from the next of kin. Work the scene. I’m going to talk to Mosebly again, and pull in the witnesses.”
Eve stepped out again. Arnette Mosebly paced the hallway with a PPC in her hand. “Principal Mosebly? I’m going to have to ask you not to contact anyone, speak with anyone just yet.”
“Oh...I7mdash;actually, I was just—” She turned the PPC around so Eve could see the miniscreen. “Word game. Something to occupy my mind for a bit. Lieutenant, I’m worried about Lissette. Craig’s wife. She needs to be told.”
“She will be. Right now I’d like to speak with you, in private. And I need to interview the students who found the body.”
“Rayleen Straffo and Melodie Branch. The officer who responded said they couldn’t leave the building, and had to be separated.” Her lips thinned now in obvious disapproval. “Those girls were traumatized, Lieutenant. They were hysterical, as one would expect under these kinds of circumstances. I have Rayleen with the grief counselor, and Melodie with our nurse practitioner. Their parents should be with them by now.”
“You notified their parents.”
“You have your procedure, Lieutenant. I have mine.” She gave one of those regal nods Eve imagined were required in Principal Training 101. “My first priority is the health and safety of my students. These girls are ten years old, and they walk into that.” She nodded toward the door. “God knows what damage it’s done to them, emotionally.”
“Craig Foster isn’t feeling so well himself.”
“I have to do what needs to be done to protect my students. My school—”
“Right now, it’s not your school. It’s my crime scene.”
“Crime scene?” Color drained from Arnette’s face. “What do you mean? What crime?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out. I want the witnesses brought in, one at a time. Your office is probably the best place for the interviews. One parent or guardian per child during the interview.”
“Very well, then. Come with me.”
“Officer?” Eve looked over her shoulder. “Tell Detective Peabody I’m going to the principal’s office.”
His mouth twitched, very slightly. “Yes, sir.”
It was a different kettle altogether, Eve discovered, when you were the honcho instead of the one in the hot seat. Not that she’d particularly been a discipline problem in her day, she remembered. Mostly, she’d tried to be invisible, just get by, just get through and get out of the whole educational prison the day it was legal to do so.
But she hadn’t always managed it. A smart mouth and a bad attitude had surfaced often enough to earn her a few trips down to that hot seat.
She was supposed to be grateful the state was providing her, a ward thereof, with an education, with a home, with enough food to sustain life. She was supposed to be grateful to have clothes on her back, even if someone else had worn them first. She was supposed to want to better herself, which had been tough when she hadn’t remembered, not clearly, where she’d come from in the first place.
What she remembered most were the smug-toned lectures, the disappointed frowns that didn’t quite hide the superiority.
And the endless, the terminal, the all-pervasive boredom.
Of course, it hadn’t been smart and spiffy private schools for her, with state-of-the-art educational equipment, sparkling clean classrooms, stylish uniforms, and a one-teacher-per-six-students ratio.
She’d be willing to bet her next paycheck that the Sarah Child Academy didn’t run to fist fights in the hallways, or homemade boomers in the lockers.
But today, at least, it ran to murder.
While she waited in Mosebly’s office with its homey touches of live plants and stylish teapots, she did a quick run on the victim.
Foster, Craig, age twenty-six. No criminal. Both parents still living, she noted, and still married to each other. They lived in New Jersey, where Craig himself had been born and raised. He’d attended Columbia on a partial scholarship, earned his teaching certificate, and was working on a master’s degree in history.
He’d married Bolviar, Lissette, in July of the previous year.
He looked fresh and eager in his ID photo, Eve mused. A handsome young man with a clear complexion the color of roasted chestnuts. Deep, dark eyes, and dark hair worn in what Eve thought they were calling a high-top. Shaved close on the sides and back, brushed high on the crown.
His shoes had been trendy, too, she recalled. Black and silver gels, with ankle wraps. Pricey. But his sports jacket had been dirt brown, worn at the cuffs. Decent wrist unit, which had struck her as a knockoff. And a shiny gold band on the third finger of his left hand.
She imagined, when Peabody completed the scene, there would be under fifty credits in Craig’s pockets.
She made a few quick notes.
Where did the hot chocolate come from?
Who had access to the insulated cup?
Time line. Last to see vic alive, first to find body.
Insurance policies, death benefits? Beneficiaries?
She glanced up as the door opened.
“Lieutenant?” Mosebly stepped in, one hand on the shoulder of a young girl with milky skin dotted with freckles that went with her carrot-red hair. The hair was long and brushed back into a sleek tail.
She looked slight and shaky in her navy blazer and spotless khakis.
“Melodie, this is Lieutenant Dallas, with the police. She needs to speak with you. Lieutenant Dallas, this is Melodie’s mother, Angela Miles-Branch.”
The kid had gotten the hair and skin from Mom, Eve noted. And Mom looked just as shaky.
“Lieutenant, I wonder if this could possibly wait until tomorrow. I’d prefer taking Melodie home now.” Angela had Melodie’s hand in a death grip. “My daughter isn’t feeling well. Understandably.”
“It’ll be easier all around if we do this now. It shouldn’t take long. Principal Mosebly, if you’ll excuse us.”
“I feel I should stay, as a representative of the school and as Melodie’s advocate.”
“A representative isn’t required at this time, and the minor child’s mother is present as her advocate. You’ll need to step out.”
There was an argument in Mosebly’s eyes, but she tightened her jaw, stepped out of the room.
“Why don’t you take a seat, Melodie?”
Two fat tears, one for each big blue eye, spilled out. “Yes, ma’am. Mom?”
“I’m going to be right here.” Keeping hands joined, Angela took the seat beside her daughter. “This has been terrible for her.”
“Understood. Melodie, I’m going to record this.”
With the nod came two more silent tears. At the moment, Eve wondered why the hell she hadn’t taken the scene and sicced Peabody on the kids. “Why don’t you just tell me what happened?”
“We went into Mr. Foster’s class—um, Rayleen and I. We knocked first, because the door was closed. But Mr. Foster doesn’t mind if you need to talk to him.”
“And you needed to talk to Mr. Foster.”
“About the project. Ray and I are project partners. We’re doing a multimedia report on the Bill of Rights. It’s due in three weeks, and it’s our big second-term project. It counts for twenty-five percent of our grade. We wanted him to see the outline. He doesn’t mind if you ask him questions before class, or after.”
“Okay. Where were you before you went to Mr. Foster’s classroom?”
“I had lunch period, and my study group. Ray and I got permission from Ms. Hallywell to leave study group a few minutes early to speak with Mr. Foster. I have the pass.”
She started to reach into her pocket.
“That’s okay. You went inside the classroom.”
“We started to. We were talking, and we opened the door. It smelled awful. That’s what I said, I said: ‘Holy jeez, it really stinks in here.’” Tears rained again. “I’m sorry I said that, but—”
“It’s okay. What happened then?”
“I saw him. I saw him on the floor, and there was like, oh, gosh, there was all this vomit and every¬thing. And Ray screamed. Or I did. I guess we both did. And we ran out and Mr. Dawson came running down the hall and asked us what was the matter. He told us to stay there and he went back. He went inside. I watched him go inside. And he came out really fast, with his hand like this.”
She clamped her free hand over her mouth. “He used his talkie, I think, to call Principal Mosebly. And then Ms. Mosebly came and called the nurse. And then the nurse, Nurse Brennan, came and took us to the infirmary. She stayed with us, until Mr. Kolfax came and he took Ray with him. I stayed with Nurse Brennan until my mom came.”
“Did you see anyone else go into Mr. Foster’s room, or leave it?”
“When you were walking from your study group to the classroom, did you see anyone?”
“Um. I’m sorry. Um. Mr. Bixley was coming out of the boys’ restroom, and we passed Mr. Dawson on the way. We showed him our pass. I think that was all, but I wasn’t paying attention.”
“How did you know Mr. Foster would be in his classroom?”
“Oh, he’s always in his classroom before fifth period on Mondays. He always has his lunch in there on Mondays. And the last fifteen minutes is when he allows students to come in and talk, if they really need to. Even before that he doesn’t mind if it’s important. He’s so nice. Mom.”
“I know, baby. Lieutenant, please.”
“Nearly done. Melodie, did either you or Rayleen touch Mr. Foster, or anything in the classroom?”
“Oh, no, no, ma’am. We just ran away. It was awful, and we ran away.”
“All right. Melodie, if you remember anything else, any little thing at all, I need you to tell me.”
The child rose. “Lieutenant Dallas? Ma’am?”
“Rayleen said, when we were in the infirmary, Rayleen said that they would have to take Mr. Foster away in a big bag. Do you? Do you have to?”
“Oh, Melodie.” Angela turned the child into her, held tight.
“We’re going to take care of Mr. Foster now,” Eve said. “It’s my job to take care of him, and I will. Talking to me helps me do my job, it helps me take care of him.”
“Really?” Melodie sniffled, sighed. “Thank you. I want to go home now. May I go home now?”
Eve met the girl’s drenched eyes, nodded, then shifted her gaze to the mother. “We’ll be in touch. I appreciate your cooperation.”
“This has been very hard on the girls. Very hard. Come on, sweetheart. We’re going home.”
Angela draped her arm around Melodie’s shoulders and walked her from the room. Eve pushed away from the desk, followed them to the doorway. Mosebly was already heading for the pair.
“Principal Mosebly? Question.”
“I’m just going to escort Mrs. Miles-Branch and Melodie out.”
“I’m sure they know the way. In your office.”
Eve didn’t bother to sit this time, but simply leaned back on the desk. Mosebly steamed in, fists knotted at her sides.
“Lieutenant Dallas, while I perfectly understand you have a job to do, I’m appalled by your dismissive and arrogant attitude.”
“Yeah, I get that. Was it Mr. Foster’s habit to bring his own lunch and beverage to work?”
“I...I believe it was. At least several days a week. We have a nutritionist-certified cafeteria, of course. And state-approved vending. But many members of the staff prefer to bring their own, at least occasionally.”
“He generally eat alone? At his desk?”
Mosebly rubbed her thumb and forefinger over her forehead. “As far as I know he took his lunch in his classroom two or three days a week. A teacher’s work encompasses more than can be done during school hours. There are lesson plans, grading, reading, lecture and lab prep¬ara¬tions. Craig, like most of the staff, was also pursuing his own further education, which requires study and writing, and so forth. He’d lunch at his desk so that he could work while he ate. He was dedicated.”
The anger seemed to drain out of her. “He was young and idealistic. He loved teaching, Lieutenant Dallas, and it showed.”
“Did he have any problems with anyone on staff?”
“I’m really not aware of any. He was a friendly, easygoing young man. I felt, both personally and professionally, that we were fortunate to have him on our faculty.”
“Dismiss anyone lately?”
“No. We have very little turnover here at Sarah Child. Craig was in his second year with us. He filled a hole left by one of our teachers who retired after fifty years of ser¬vice. Twenty-eight of those years were given right here, at Sarah Child.”
“How about you? How long have you been here?”
“Three, as principal. I have twenty-five years in education, and in administration.”
“When did you last see Mr. Foster?”
“I saw him briefly this morning.” As she spoke, Mosebly went to a small cold box, took out a bottle of water. “He’d come in early to use the fitness facilities, as he did routinely. All staff are permitted to use the machines, programs, the pool, and so on. Craig made use of the privilege nearly every morning.”
She sighed as she poured water into a short glass. “Would you like some, Lieutenant?”
“I had a swim myself this morning, and was just leaving the pool area when he came in. We said good morning. I complained about the traffic, and kept going. I was in a hurry. I heard him dive in,” she murmured, then took a slow sip of water. “I heard the splash as I opened the locker room door. Oh, God.”
“What time was that?”
“About seven-thirty. I had an eight o’clock phone conference, and I was running behind because I’d spent too long in the pool. I was annoyed with myself, and barely spoke to Craig.”
“Where’d he keep his lunch?”
“Why, in his classroom, I suppose. Possibly the lounge, but I don’t recall I’ve ever seen him put anything in or take anything out of the friggie or cupboard in there.”
“Would the classroom be locked?”
“No. The school is, naturally, secured, but individual classrooms aren’t locked. There’s no purpose, and the Sarah Child program is based on trust and responsibility.”
“All right. You can send for the second witness. Rayleen Straffo.”
Mosebly nodded, but there was nothing regal about it this time. “What about the other students? My staff?”
“We’re going to need to interview the staff before any leave the building. You can dismiss the students, but I’ll need your registration list.”
Alone, Eve pulled out her communicator to tag Peabody. “Status.”
“The body’s just being transported. The ME on the wagon concurs with your poisoning assessment, though he won’t commit until the vic’s on the slab. The sweepers are on scene. It looks as if the vic was working on his comp at TOD. Putting together a pop quiz for his next class.”
“There’s a motive,” Eve said dryly.
“I hated the pop quiz, and question its constitutionality. I did a quick check of the comp, and found the vic sent out an e-mail from that unit to an LFoster@Blackburnpub.com at twelve-oh-six today. No communication in or out prior to.”
“Wife’s name is Lissette. Content?”
“Just a sweetheart note, offering to pick up dinner on the way home from work. Recipient responded in the same tone, in the affirmative, at fourteen-forty-eight. Return post was not read.”
“Okay. I’m waiting for the second wit. I’ll send the principal back to you, have her set you up somewhere. Get started on interviewing the staff and let’s nail the time line in each case. I’ll take my share of them in here once I finish with the kid. Meanwhile, verify the wife’s residence and place of employment. We’ll notify after we leave here.”
“And the fun never ends.”
Eve clicked off as the door reopened, and again Mosebly entered with her hand on the shoulder of a young girl.
This one was blonde, with a cascade of curls held back from her face with a violet band. The band matched her eyes. They were puffy at the moment, red-rimmed, dominating a face of dewy skin with a slightly tipped-up nose. The mouth, rosy and bottom heavy, quivered.
She wore the same kind of uniform as Melodie, with the addition of a small gold star pinned to the lapel of the blazer.
“Rayleen, this is Lieutenant Dallas. Lieutenant, Rayleen is here with her father, Oliver Straffo. I’ll be just outside if I’m needed.”
“Have a seat, Rayleen.”
“Lieutenant.” Oliver kept his daughter’s hand in his. His voice resonated in the room, like a good actor’s in a theater. He was tall, gilded like his daughter. But his eyes were a cold steel-gray. She’d met them before. In court.
High-powered, high-dollar, high-profile defense attorney, she thought.
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